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Writers @ Work: An interview with Liza Wiemer Writing

August 25, 2020

Note from Rochelle

Dear writers,

I would like to publish more interviews with writers this fall. If you’re a writer who’s bringing out a book, who’s landed an agent, or who has a unique attitude towards writing, send me an email. I will schedule you for a post!

A note about the links. If you are interested in any of the books mentioned in the newsletter, you can buy them in my special bookstore at bookshop.org. I make a tiny percentage of the profit to spend on – what else – more books!

Today I am very happy to welcome Liza Wiemer to the blog to talk about her brand new book. The assignment. If you were wondering where to find a story idea that is a hot topic, you have to read this post!

Enjoy!

Rochelle

Liza Wiemer

Hello Liza. Welcome to the blog. Can you tell us about your new book? The assignment and how did you come up with the story idea?

Thank you for having me Rochelle! I like your blog. It’s an incredible resource, and your writer interviews are fantastic.

The assignment

The assignment was inspired by real events. But first a brief description:

In the style of the classic The wave Inspired by a real-life high school assignment, this engaging novel explores discrimination and anti-Semitism and reveals their dangerous effects.

On April 4, 2017, I visited Oswego, New York to sign a book for my first young adult novel at River’s End Bookstore. Hello? Before the event, I stopped at a local grocery store but couldn’t get out of my car because of a downpour. So I scrolled through Facebook. That’s when I saw the terrible headline “Homework? Students in New York discuss the extermination of Jews. “The article described how two teenagers, Archer Shurtliff and Jordan April, refused to do an anti-Semitic assignment that required students to discuss the merits of the final solution. To my shock, this took place in Oswego! How was it possible that I ended up in a city where people were supporting a mission for the Holocaust?

I was horrified.

I decided to ask the bookseller to help me get in touch with the teenagers – I wanted to let them know I thought they were brave. Four steps into the bookstore, there was Jordan, one of the teenagers in the article! It turned out that she was working there. Later that evening we had a three-way call with Archer.

You can find a more detailed explanation of how this novel was made on my website: The story behind the task

Can you share your background as an educator and how it helped you write this book? What advice do you have for other educators who yearn to write?

My passion for teaching started with my grandma. She was a kindergarten teacher and I saw how much she loved it. I have childhood memories of going to school with her and spending time with her and her students. She radiated joy and I saw how much her students loved her and how much she loved her. It opened my eyes to see her in a role other than the best grandma in the world. She was also creative and unconventional for the time. Grandma made a piece of George Washington that reminds me of today’s Hamilton casting.

Grandma was also for women’s rights, didn’t indulge in old-fashioned gender roles – my grandpa did the dishes every night, vacuumed – not the activities most men did in the 1960s, 1970s, etc. My grandfather was also a nurse and babysat my children until he died at the age of eighty-eight. Why is this so important to me as a teacher and writer? They were strong role models. If my grandparents were still alive today, they’d be happy that I chose Logan, a gender-neutral name for my female lead. Without a doubt, my grandparents’ attitudes had an impact on my teaching and what kind of educator I wanted to be.

I found it quite a challenge to write to Mr. Bartley, the beloved instructor in charge. I’ve read in the news about a lot of racist or anti-Semitic assignments and often the teacher comes across as a hateful, horrible person. But we know that the vast majority of people are complex. I wanted to show this complexity and these nuances. I hope readers will experience a number of emotions towards him. That was important to me because, as an educator, I was both angry and personable.

Mr. Bartley is 100% my imagination, and before I even put a word down for this novel, I spent a lot of time pondering these questions: Why would a teacher give such an assignment? What are the deeper reasons? What kind of person is he? How do the students feel about him? What is his role in school? The community? How is his relationship with the headmaster? His wife? Other teachers? What does he value? What are its shortcomings? Why should he be stubborn?


At the beginning of your career you wrote spiritual non-fiction books. You have also written other non-fiction books. Can you talk about how you transitioned to fiction writing and publishing? Any tips for readers who want to do the same?

As an educator, writing seemed like a natural evolution for young adults. At first, the shift wasn’t that easy. I had to learn a lot because the writing styles are completely different. But I’ll say that my non-fiction background was helpful because I was used to interviewing people for information. I used this skill to interview my characters. If you delve deep into your characters’ history, thoughts, emotions, relationships, likes, dislikes, etc. by interviewing them as if they were real people, you will be amazed at what can be revealed. I think it’s our job as writers to know absolutely everything about our characters. It’s different from real life. There is no way we can know everything about ourselves, family members, neighbors, friends. But in fiction, through the interview process, we can create the roundest and most fascinating people because it is all part of our imagination.

This has been a challenging year for many people. How did you manage to stay sane and composed and write forward?

I admit I haven’t written much, but it has less to do with Covid and more to do with finding the story I want to write next. I was revising a picture book that needed an update twenty-two years ago, so I’m excited about it. It’s a story that never left me so it just proves that you can dust off and polish up the old!

We had our son and daughter-in-law with us until recently. I appreciated every moment of it. How often do you spend so much time with your grown children? For me it was an incredible gift.

What are you reading?

I just read again ash by Marissa Meyer and it’s amazing how relevant it is for today. The characters are in the middle of a pandemic so it was interesting to compare real life to Marissa’s imaginative world. I am currently reading James McBrides Deacon King Kong.

Liza WiemerAbout the author. Liza Wiemer is an award-winning educator with over twenty years of teaching experience. Your second youth novel, The assignmentwill be published by Delacorte Press on August 25, 2020. The assignment is also released in Russia, Poland, Italy and South Korea. Hello?, her first contemporary YA novel, was named Goodread’s Best Young Adult Novel of the Month. In addition, Liza has published two adult non-fiction books and published several short stories in the New York Times’ bestselling Small Miracles series. She has published articles in various newspapers and magazines. Liza is a UW-Madison graduate and lives with her husband in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has two married sons.

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