Kathie: Welcome to Fast Forward Friday, Cliff! Your upcoming MG debut, An Occasionally Happy Family, is set for release on May 18th from HMH Books for Young Readers. I recently had the chance to read it, and found it a delightful mix of funny and heartwarming moments as Theo deals with his family during their first vacation without his mom. Can you tell us about it please?
Cliff: Thank you for having me, Kathie, and for your kind words about the book! AN OCCASIONALLY HAPPY FAMILY is the story of two siblings, Theo and Laura, dragged into the Texas desert by their nature-loving Dad for a surprise vacation. It’s their first family vacation since their mother’s passing, and the family has not fully faced the loss. Over the course of their seven day vacation, the family struggles through a series of calamities which could bring them together or lead them to drift further apart.
Kathie: What was it about the idea for this story that compelled you to write it?
Cliff: I’m a middle-school English teacher, and started teaching at a school that ran its own version of Donalyn Miller’s 40 Books a Year student-reading challenge. I read along with students, listened to what books they liked and didn’t, and began noticing a real gap between what many students enjoy reading (short, funny books) and what I/their parents often encourage them to read (weighter, literary books that tackle serious issues). I am trying to bridge that divide with a book that is short, snappy and (hopefully) can be read as purely funny OR as a serious exploration of the early loss of a parent.
Many aspects of the book are also drawn from personal experience. I lost both parents as a child and wanted to write a book that communicated how I felt. For me, there wasn’t a neat divide between Before and After, or even expressions of grief in a consciously aware way, as is often depicted. It was much messier. So I wanted to show someone who thought he had everything under control but who is letting his grief out in these small ways that he doesn’t even realize and is aching to just let it all out.
Kathie: I loved the cast of colorful characters that really brings this story to life. Which character was the easiest for you to write, and which was the most challenging?
Cliff: Thank you! Theo was definitely the easiest for me to write. I more or less wrote in my voice with some of the maturity of older age sanded off. It was not that difficult to write like a 13 year old boy.
The character of Leonard, a recently-divorced amateur birdwatcher, was the most difficult for me because he kept changing throughout drafts from being 100% annoying in every line (too annoying for early readers) to becoming more rounded (hopefully). For those interested, he is largely based on Jonathan Franzen and his many birder interviews available on Youtube.
Kathie: There are so many moments in this story that are hilarious, such as the family that they meet out hiking and their encounter with a bear, and yet at the heart of the story is Theo’s struggle to adjust to the changes in his family. How do you balance the use of humor with an emotionally difficult subject?
Cliff: Humor is how I have always dealt with difficult emotions, for better or worse, and it’s become somewhat second-nature for me to wrap heaviness inside of jokes. But to answer this more directly, I treat each chapter as an individual unit during editing and focus on fine-tuning for what is funny, and what I’m trying to communicate. For many rounds of editing, I am just trying to click the funny level up and get in as many jokes as possible. In the final stages of editing, I focus more on how each character would truthfully respond in a given scene and the structure of the story as a whole. Inevitably I take out some jokes in that process. From there, I rely on my wonderful editor, Amy Cloud, to tell me what still needs work.
Kathie: You did an excellent job making this story feel so relatable even though I didn’t deal with the loss of a parent as a child. What are some of the aspects of it that you hope will appeal to young readers?
Cliff: I’m very happy to hear this. I didn’t necessarily set out to write a book about the loss of a parent. The original goal was to write a book that middle grade readers would enjoy, and the details of the mother just sort of showed up as I started drafting. That said, once I decided it was going to be a larger part of the book, I tried to be as realistic as possible and bring readers into the experience. Some of the descriptions are based on direct memories. But to get to the question — I hope readers will take what they want from the book. There is a lot of info about Big Bend National Park and the history of Texas, observations on older sisters, bumbling fathers, overzealous young influencers, French nudists, bear attacks. I hope readers can find something in that list to hook them AND walk away with a new or renewed appreciation that expressing even the most difficult emotions can be really healing.
Kathie: What’s one question that I haven’t asked you, but that our readers might enjoy knowing about you or your debut?
Cliff: Readers may enjoy knowing that I secretly tested out the funniness of this book in my classroom. I like to write new pieces along with students and showcase what I write as the work of “Example Kid.” While teaching dialogue, I included a few pages from the book as a warm-up reading to see if it got laughs.
Kathie: Do you have another writing project on which you’re working right now?
Cliff: While staying inside from March to August 2020, I wrote 500 words a day of a light sci-fi story. It’s in very ragged shape and may never exist outside of my laptop, but it kept me busy when I needed it. I’ve put that aside for now and am currently working on another contemporary middle-grade book set on a French farm. Like the current book, it’s mostly a comedy but also mixes in some darker elements.
Kathie: Where can our readers go to find out more about you?
Cliff: Readers can find out more about me on https://www.cliffburke.com/ or follow me on Instagram. AN OCCASIONALLY HAPPY FAMILY is out on May 18th, and all the pre-order links are available on the HMH website.
If readers want a signed copy, they can order from my favorite local independent bookstore, Kepler’s Books.
Kathie: It was wonderful to have a chance to chat with you today, Cliff. Best of luck with your book’s release.
Cliff: Thank you so much, Kathie, for this interview and all you do to boost the Middle Grade Book community!
Cliff Burke grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. He’s worked as a house painter, a parking lot attendant, and a sign-twirling dancing banana, but most recently as a reading and writing teacher in China, Hong Kong, and Texas. Currently, he teaches writing and humanities at a middle school in the Bay Area. An Occasionally Happy Family is his first novel