A DOCTOR, A LAWYER, AND A COLLEGE PROFESSOR…WALK INTO A MIDDLE GRADE DEBUT GROUP: A Conversation with Rajani LaRocca, Josh Levy, and Chris Baron

Josh: I’m so excited about this—for so many reasons, including the reality that this is a conversation the three of us are always having, in one way or another: Why and how three people from such different professional backgrounds now find themselves on this journey together. There’s so much I want to know and share about why and how Rajani and Chris find themselves here. But we should probably begin with the most important thing: Our books. Rajani, wanna start us off?

Rajani: MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM (out June 4, 2019) is a middle grade mashup of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and competitive baking shows in which eleven-year-old Mimi dreams of winning a celebrity chef-judged baking contest, meets a mysterious boy in the woods, and stirs up all sorts of trouble with her baking. Squabbling sisters, rhyming waitresses, and culinary saboteurs all play a role in the story. In the process of setting things right again, Mimi learns that in life as in baking, not everything can be sweet.

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Chris, what about your upcoming novel? Can you tell us what it’s about?

Chris: Sure, my novel in verse, ALL OF ME (out June 11, 2019), is about middle schooler Ari Rosensweig who just wants to look in the mirror and not see a fat kid. Teased, bullied, and an outsider for most of his life, Ari is a geek who loves cryptozoology and role-playing games. He navigates the confusing worlds of his mother, a self-absorbed artist, and his father, a con man who disappears just as Ari prepares for his already-late Bar Mitzvah.

After a brutal bullying incident before summer break, Ari decides he’s had enough. He’s got to lose the weight before high school starts. With the family in turmoil, Ari’s mother moves the two of them out of San Francisco to fix up and open an old gallery at the beach. With the help of a few unexpected friends, Ari starts his quest to reinvent himself no matter what it takes, and when he begins the perfect Diet Revolution, everything changes.

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Josh: Awesome. And as you both know, SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY (out March 5, 2019), is a middle grade sci-fi novel about a “public school spaceship” in the future that gets mysteriously attacked and catapulted across the galaxy. Aliens. Lasers. Spacey shenanigans. (The #MGBookVillage was kind enough to run my cover reveal here.)

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Now to the conversation at hand: Why do we write middle grade? I’m particularly interested in your thoughts, Chris, given how personal your story seems: How did you come to middle grade? And how did you come to this story? Then what about you, Rajani? How “close to home” does your story hit? 

Chris: Josh…it is really personal, and I think that is part of why I care so much about writing middle grade. Stories have always been a source of shelter and inspiration for me. I think I have been writing about this story since I started writing at all. Growing up for me was a combination of 1) a fairy-tale childhood growing up in an artist’s family in New York City and all kinds of other places, and 2) struggling with difficult family dynamics and the identity of being a Jewish kid, an overweight kid, constant diets, negative comments and teasing  from family and friends. Honestly—I thought I was really happy—but people kept telling me I wasn’t.

For ALL OF ME, I needed to tell the story of a kid, Ari, who is told that it is wrong to be who he is—that it’s all his fault somehow—and how he works through that in a difficult but positive way. I think so many middle grade kids relate and even connect to feeling like an outsider because of their weight or their religion, their family dynamics, you name it. There are so many rites of passage happening at this age, and I wanted to tell an honest story about how childhood magic, innocence, identity, family challenges, and religion all mix together and what comes out the other side.

One last thing about how I came to this story: My own family. Seeing my own children grow up—their daily wonders, joys, triumphs and tragedies—they really do inspire.

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Chris Baron’s Middle Grade debut, ALL OF ME, a novel in verse from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, is coming June 2019. He is a Professor of English at San Diego City College. Baron has published numerous poems and articles in magazines and journals around the country, performed on radio programs, and participated in many readings, lectures, and panels. He grew up in New York City, but he completed his MFA in Poetry in 1998 at SDSU. Baron’s first book of poetry, Under the Broom Tree, was released in 2012 on CityWorks Press as part of Lantern Tree: Four Books of Poems (which won the San Diego Book Award for best poetry anthology). He is represented by the amazing Rena Rossner, from the Deborah Harris Literary Agency.

Rajani: The spark for MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM came from one of my own childhood memories. My dad didn’t travel much for work, but when he did, he sometimes went away for a week or two. When he returned, I’d sometimes wonder what it would be like if the person who returned wasn’t really him, but an imposter who looked and spoke exactly like him (creepy, right?). I devised some “tests” to make sure it was my dad, and luckily, it always was. When I was brainstorming novel ideas, I wondered what it would be like if a girl noticed something odd about her dad…and she was right.

My husband had an imaginary friend when he was little. He spoke to him, played with him, read stories with him—everything. I started wondering about imaginary friends, and what might happen if someone “imaginary” turned out to be quite real. Given my love for Shakespeare in general and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in particular, the next step wasn’t that big.

And, like Chris, so much of this story was inspired by my own children, about being a young person in a world filled with “experts” (some of whom are related to you), of dreaming big dreams but not knowing whether you have the talent or the brains or the grit to make it. And my children, like Mimi, have sometimes surprised themselves with their own brilliance, and with their big hearts and hours of work and refusal to give up even when all seems lost. I hope MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM speaks to kids (and adults) who have set lofty goals for themselves and wonder whether they can ever achieve them. Because the payoff is sweeter when the struggle has been hard.

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Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area with her wonderful family and impossibly cute dog. When she’s not writing middle grade novels or picture books, she practices medicine and bakes way too many sweet treats. MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM is her first novel. You can find her online at www.rajanilarocca.com and on Twitter and Instagram @rajanilarocca.

Josh: First, you are both amazing. You know I think that already (we’re friends IRL, after all). But I can’t say it enough.

In a sense, mine is a lot less personal than either of your stories. I don’t conceive of SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY as much of a reflection of my own life. If I had any guiding light in writing it, it was: Make this fun. Make this the kind of thing you would have wanted to read when you were younger (and still do).

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t “personal.” I wrote a book that middle school Josh would have wanted to read. He knew well that feeling of being a lonely kid, huddled up with a story that took me far away. I found escape in all sorts of fantasy/sci-fi as a kid. I consumed every Star Wars novel they gave me and loved every page. And I’m overjoyed at the possibility that SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY might bring a few kids some of the same comfort and enjoyment.

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Joshua S. Levy was born and raised in Florida. After teaching middle school (yes, including seventh grade) for a little while, he went to law school. He lives with his wife and daughter in New Jersey, where he practices as a lawyer. Unfortunately, outer space doesn’t come up in court nearly as often as he’d like. Seventh Grade vs. the Galaxy is his first novel. You can find him online at http://www.joshuasimonlevy.com/ and on Twitter @JoshuaSLevy.

Frankly, this whole endeavor is a bit of an escape for me. Like you, I have a professional life that is separate from publishing. There are links between my “writing life” and my “lawyer life,” sure, but they’re not always obvious. And I’d love to know more about the connections in your lives. How is your “doctor life” (Rajani) and your “professor life” (Chris) threaded into your writing life?

Rajani: I wrote a piece for MGBookVillage about the parallels between writing and “doctoring.”

Put aside the years of training, the long hours, the many frustrations, and the need for support in both professions (although honestly, writing involves MUCH more rejection). Ultimately, both writing and the practice of medicine are about people— wonderful, horrible, pathetic, amazing people in all their imperfect glory. Both medicine and writing involve listening to others’ stories, and writing our own. For me, medicine and writing inform and amplify each other. And when one gets to be too much, I get to delve into the other, and it feels like a treat.

Chris: I have the privilege of working at San Diego City College, an urban, extremely diverse, Community College where I teach Creative Writing and direct the writing center. There are many connections between my job and my writing life—especially writing and publishing poetry. In many ways, it was my students who got me to the point of writing ALL OF ME. Every semester, I find my mostly working class students, veterans, transfer-minded students really drawn into narratives that connected and related to their lives, providing escape, but also giving new language to the more difficult aspects of life. Students always tell me they wished they had read books in High School and MIddle School that dealt with more serious issues head on. Every chance I get I try to connect them with books, graphic novels, poems, any story that might speak to them. Working with my students over the years has given me the courage to explore deeper issues in my own work. Not long ago, wrote what I considered to be a “risky” poem called “Heavy Water,” about an overweight boy feeling awkward and alone at the beach while other kids seemed so carefree. I got asked to read it a spoken word event.  It was after the reading, when so many of them shared with me that they wanted to hear a story about a character dealing with these issues, that I had one of the first sparks for ALL OF ME!

So Josh, to be fair, and no complaints, and the work is hard. There is a lot of grading, committees, and the introvert in me struggles sometimes, but my job gives a lot of flexibility and room for creativity. But what about your profession as a lawyer? We have talked about the fact that you do A LOT of writing, but what connections do you make between your legal writing and your creative writing? And if nothing else, how do you find the time?

Josh: Great questions, Chris. I’ll work backwards: First, time. I tend to assume that all of us “day job” writers (as well as all writers, generally) are playing a zero sum game. It’s not that “something’s gotta give.” It’s that at any given moment, something is always giving. Priorities compete with one another. What helps me keep perspective are the positive implications for which I’m so grateful: That I have a good job. That I have a wonderful family. That I’m publishing a novel!

And yeah, while my legal writing and my creative writing efforts are very different, I’m also grateful that I get to spend so much of my time doing something I really, genuinely enjoy, no matter the context: Writing. Working out puzzles of language and argumentation. “Is that the right word?” “Does an em-dash belong here?” “Does this aside serve the narrative?” These are questions I get to ask myself in both worlds.

And you, Rajani? HOW DO YOU DO IT?! How do you balance the demands of your job and the pull of writing—and everything required to facilitate the success of both?

Rajani: Well, I could ask you both the same, right?

I think the real answer is…we all make choices every day about how we want to spend our time, and our priorities show through. For me, family comes first, but my children are older now and although they don’t need me less, they need less of my time, if that makes sense. They’ve got their own goals and projects, and they spend most of their time working on those. But I still treasure our meals together, and spend time planning trips or taking walks with them and just soaking up their presence. I also get more time alone with my husband, who is my biggest support in every part of my life. I also happen to love taking care of my patients, and even on the worst day at work, I feel like I have at least helped a few people.

But with writing…it’s not really a choice anymore for me. Characters and situations keep popping up in my head, and their voices can be really annoying if I don’t write them down! I can definitely get out of rhythm if I don’t work on a particular project (particularly a novel) for a while, but once I go through the exercise of “making” myself work on it, a little bit each day, I eventually get back in the groove.

All of this to say: How do I do it all? I don’t. I struggle and muddle through everything, just like everyone else. I show up and put in the work and try to enjoy the good times, and put my head down and deal with the difficult times. And through it all, I try to hold on to the incredible fact that in the end, I am writing things that will be read and enjoyed by children. Who wouldn’t be inspired by that?

Writing Like a Doctor, Doctoring Like a Writer

When I tell people I write stories for young people, they are inevitably pleased, but also sometimes surprised and bemused. Really, they ask. Why?

Part of the reaction to my writing life comes from the fact that I’m a practicing internal medicine doctor. I have the honor of being a primary care physician, which sometimes feels like being everybody’s mom. I take care of everything from stomachaches to headaches to heartaches, and I love it. I love medicine, I love my colleagues, I love my students, and I especially love my patients.

But I’m also a writer. I write because I have to. I can’t stop. I write because books have always been essential to me, my best friends. And I write for kids because the books I read as a child helped shape who I am today in significant ways. Plus, I might still have the mind of a 12-year-old.

To me, medicine and writing have a lot in common. And I’m not just talking about the long list of famous writers who happened to be doctors – Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Carlos Williams, Michael Crichton, Abraham Verghese – the list goes on and on.

I’m talking about the similarities in process between medicine and writing. They involve flexing many of the same muscles…uh, brain cells.

The Years of Training Sequence

Think of your favorite hero movies. The best ones have a thrilling montage of the hero training to prepare for the big battle: Rocky punching frozen sides of beef and running stairs in Philly; Daniel-San painting fences and waxing surfaces and practicing crane technique; Katniss honing her archery skills and trying to learn to relate to other humans.

Medicine has a particularly long and not particularly glamorous Years of Training sequence. Four years of college followed by four years of medical school in which students essentially learn a new language and enough science to make their heads explode, all while trying to perfect taking a great medical history, performing an excellent physical exam, generating the proper differential diagnoses, and still relating to other humans. That earns the MD. But after that comes the grueling residency (yes, the root is the word resident, since they essentially live in the hospital) that lasts a minimum of three years but can extend to five or more, followed by fellowships for those who decide to subspecialize. Oh, and lots and lots of tests! It’s a very long road, not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for those who don’t love medicine with every fiber of their being.

Writing has a Years of Training sequence, too. Great writers are made, not born, and it takes years and years of practice to hone one’s skills. Unlike medicine, this doesn’t necessarily require formal education – MFAs are great, but you don’t need one to write well, and you don’t need a license to write either. But good writing doesn’t just happen overnight, and it’s a myth that some people just “have it” and spit out best-selling, award-winning novels without working hard. Writers put in hours and hours perfecting the craft by reading, writing about reading, reading about writing, talking, reflecting, and just plain writing. We take classes, participate in critique groups, attend webinars, conferences, workshops, writing retreats … and we write. And write, and write.

Which leads me to another similarity between medicine and writing: the learning never ends. I’m required by my state medical board to devote a certain number of hours to Continuing Medical Education (CME) in order to stay up to date with the latest advances. Trust me, you don’t want your doctor to still be practicing medicine like it’s 1958 or 1998…or even 2008. Similarly, even the most accomplished writers I know are constantly pushing themselves to improve their craft every single day. Each book we write is written differently, and requires different skills. The learning really never ends. And that’s a good thing!

Which brings me to…

Science vs. Art

Everyone knows that medicine is a science. It’s also an art.

You can read all the books, take all the exams, and complete the training, but there’s nothing that teaches like experience. The best doctors listen as much as they talk, and take into account a patient’s body language and tone to elicit both what the patient is worried about, and what they care about – their values. This, more than anything, is what helps a doctor guide a patient through a difficult decision. Now that I’ve been practicing medicine for over 20 years, I find myself listening more, panicking less, and understanding my patients better than I ever could as a younger doctor.

Meanwhile, everyone knows that writing is an art. But it’s also a science.

There are plenty of ways to find inspiration, and sometimes writing is just about putting something (anything!) down on a page, but I love it when I devise or discover a strategy for getting my writing unstuck. This is not to say that writing is ever cookie-cutter, or one-size-fits-all…it never is. But to me, having a structure is extremely helpful. Classes and workshops and books have taught me practical approaches to developing an outline, deepening a character arc, or revising a scene. In the world of plotters vs. pantsers, I fall squarely on the plotter side…but it’s impossible for me to cut out pantsing entirely, and sometimes it’s absolutely essential! Often when I sit down to write a chapter, something surprising happens, and things go in a completely different direction than I’d planned. In any case, focusing on the structure and the science of storytelling can be a huge help when staring down a blank page. And sometimes, when I’ve worked on a piece forever and I can’t tell up from down, it’s helpful (and even fun!) to just focus on the nitty-gritty aspects of writing — like line editing!

And when things get tough, in medicine and in writing…

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

Practicing medicine can be high pressure, perplexing, and emotionally exhausting. Sustaining a life in medicine would be impossible without my colleagues – everyone from other doctors to nurses, nurse practitioners, medical assistants, and administrative folks. Not to mention the security guards, technicians, translators…without the whole team, we wouldn’t be able to take great care of our patients. And when I’m confused or excited, upset or elated, I can go to any of them with my questions/concerns/thrilling news, and they help. They always do.

Built into our system of medical education is a brilliant way of paying it forward: as a faculty member at a teaching hospital and medical school, I have the privilege of helping to teach and train the next generation of doctors, who go on to teach and train the ones who follow them.

And at the heart of it all is our sacred duty: to care for our fellow human beings, to advise them as honestly as we can, and to tend to them when they need us.

I never thought I’d ever meet a group of people as brilliant, hard-working, mission-driven, and generous as the medical community I’ve been fortunate to be part of.

And then I met writers.

I’ve met writers in person and online, in my hometown and across the country. They are published, pre-published, and almost published, women and men, young and old, newbies and mentors. And in them I’ve found another group of brilliant, hard-working, mission-driven, generous colleagues. We read each other’s work and cheerlead each other and serve as confidantes and counselors and promoters in the best possible way. Writers are constantly learning from fellow writers, and they pay it forward all the time.

And at the heart of it all is our sacred duty: to care about our fellow human beings, to tell our stories as honestly as we can, and to tend to each other when we need it.

Because people are at the heart of both medicine and writing. Beautiful, infuriating, wonderful, awful, glorious, ever-changing, transcendent people. People who make terrible choices. People who are braver than we can fathom. People who face impossible odds and keep trying. I’m so very lucky to care for real people who tell me their stories, and have these experiences inform the stories I spin in my mind. And fictional people, in the books I read and the books I write, inform how I take care of my patients. They make me a better doctor, and a better human being.

Stories matter. They always have. They always will.

So that’s what I try to do: write like a doctor, and doctor like a writer. Keep my chin up during the never-ending Years of Training. Keep my team close, and let them help me. Use science and art in my writing and my doctoring. And keep my heart open to all kinds of people with all kinds of stories. To listen to theirs, and tell them mine.

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Rajani LaRocca writes (middle grade and picture books), doctors (adults), and bakes (as much as possible) in eastern Massachusetts. Her home team includes her superhero husband, two brilliant kids, and the world’s handsomest dog. You can learn more about her at www.rajanilarocca.com and on Twitter @rajanilarocca.