November 17, 2011

Author Interview: Catherine Austen

I'm very excited today to welcome Catherine Austen author of both a middle grade and a young adult  book! 
I'm always in awe of authors who can write both.  It just shows how broad their creativity is.  

Catherine is the author of the MG book 26 Tips for Surviving 6th Grade

Becky Lennox wrote the book on getting through grade six, but these aren't the kinds of tips that come from school books or teachers... 
Forget social studies, math, and science - this hilarious new novel is about surviving some of the real problems tween girls face in the sixth grade: jealous friends, first crushes, embarrassing parents, and annoying older brothers. 
This honest and heartwarming novel follows 11-year-old Becky Lennox through the course of the school year, as she survives one challenge after another - feeling left out, lovestruck, lonely, and loony, but learning a little something each time.

And the YA Dystopic novel All Good Children

Quick-witted, prank-pulling graffiti artist Maxwell Connors is more observant than the average New Middletown teenager. And he doesn't like what he sees. New Middletown's children are becoming frighteningly obedient, and their parents and teachers couldn't be happier. As Max and his friend Dallas watch their classmates transform into model citizens, Max wonders if their only hope of freedom lies in the unknown world beyond New Middletown's walls, where creativity might be a gift instead of a liability. 
For those who like their dystopias with a rich character sauce and a side of humour.
Don't they both sound fantastic??? 
And with that - Welcome Catherine Austen!

The Serious Questions!

 For these two books - what part/character/event are you most excited/proud about?

In both my new books, I am most proud of my main characters. In All Good Children, it’s Max, a smart-aleck teenager who is pushed into heroism. In 26 Tips for Surviving Grade 6, it’s Becky, a funny self-absorbed 11-year-old who makes a lot of mistakes but learns from them. Sort of.

Tell about your writing process. How long did it take you to write your current book from idea to finish? Please tell about revision is you can!

I let ideas sit in files for years, then one day I wake up knowing it’s time to write that book.

I sometimes draft methodically, working every day at a moderate pace. But other times I draft all day long, barely bathing or eating for several weeks running. That is absolutely the best time (for me, not so much for my family)

I spend at least as long revising as drafting. It’s hard to see where the original book is, actually, by the time I’m done. After major revisions – which are difficult and depressing - there is polishing line by line – which is beautiful, like the icing on the cake.

All Good Children took about 5 months of drafting, 5 months of revising and polishing, then a couple more months revising based on my editor’s advice. So a good year’s worth of work (two if you count the idea/outline stage).

I began 26 Tips for Surviving Grade 6 over 8 years ago as a short story. It went through many forms and revisions before publication, including repeated rewrites of the ending based on my editor’s advice.

Is either story and/or characters based on anything/anyone in your real life?

26 Tips for Surviving Grade 6 has many small bits of my life in it. Embarrassing bits. I’m not telling which bits. All I’ll say is that I did go to the circus with a boy in grade 6 and I can still picture the acrobat.

How much say did you have in the cover of this book? What is the process for creating the cover (my students are always curious about this!)

I had no say at all. From my end, the process was opening up an email with the cover in it, as created by my publisher’s designers. Fortunately, I have liked all my covers. It would be so disappointing to get a cover I disliked.  

 When you were in middle school kind of student were you? Did you write then?

I was good at heart, I truly believe, but I had a misguided sense of justice. Like at one point I embarked on a not-entirely-legal plan to start my own library. And there were some altercations with teachers making what I felt were unjust requests of my time. On the upside, I was hard-working and academically inclined (my apologies to the 7th grade teacher who received my 64-page report on Hawaii). I probably wrote stories back then, but I didn’t keep any. (That’s probably for the best.)

And because it's the owl my standard question always is: WHOOO do you admire when it comes to writing?

I admire writers who make me laugh, like Daniel Pinkwater and Barbara Park, and writers who make me cry, like Robert Cormier and Virginia Euwer Wolff. My all-time fave might be Roddy Doyle, who does both.

The Fun Questions! (based on what 7th graders do!)

Do you chew gum? Yes or No If yes favorite kind?

Yes, I chew any brand of peppermint (NOT spearmint, which is gross) or some brands of bubblegum (NOT Hubba Bubba and NOT grape or strawberry flavors)

Did you pass notes in school? Ever get caught? 

I don’t remember ever getting caught. The key is to fake a stretch and maintain eye contact with the teacher while dropping the note. If you are an A-student and you have an honest face, no one will ever suspect you. 

Do you text? 


 Was school lunch just as yucky then as it is now?! 

Up to grade 8, it was much much worse. I’m talking day after day of bologna or tuna fish. Mondays were okay because I’d get roast beef left over from Sunday’s dinner. There was no such thing as Schneider’s Lunchables or snack-sized Pringles in my day. (But then again, there was always PB&J – I never heard of a peanut allergy when I was young.) 

High school lunches were WAY better than they are now because there was a cafeteria and absolutely no one in the world was concerned about our nutritional intake (because we were all skinny and active and ate home-cooked suppers), so I ordered French fries with gravy (AND ketchup) every single lunch. It was AWESOME. 

French fries are no longer served in high schools where I live – honestly, it’s French fry fascism up here in Canada. There is still cardboard pizza and soggy lasagne, but the one item that cafeterias make better than you can make at home - fries and gravy – are banned. This is particularly sad because I live in Quebec, where fries are served with gravy AND cheese curds in a delicious ultra-fatty nutrition-free dish called poutine. You can’t get that at the high school. You have to go to the chip truck next door. 

I can't imagine having no french fries for a school lunch!!! And the idea of not texting is forgien to most of my students! 

Thanks so much Catherine! I hope you all check out 26 Tips and All Good Children!


  1. Great interview. Catherine, both your books sound great. I love your writing process. I wish I could draft as quickly as you do.

  2. Thanks, Natalie. This was such a fun interview to do! I know I am lucky to have those intense drafting periods, but I end up with a HUGE mess to revise. (Worth it. Totally.)

  3. I draft like that too. But I'm still learning how to take a draft like that and revise it!

  4. Nothing left but the crying once that explosive draft is done.

  5. Great interview! Yes on Barbara Park...funny funny. And Roddy Doyle, too.

  6. Thanks, Deb. When I first read Roddy Doyle (The Snapper, The Woman who Walked into Doors), I didn't believe he was a man because his women characters are so real. And his children's books are hilarious - my son and I cracked up over The Giggler Treatment.

    Glad you liked the interview. Thanks to Jill for hosting me.