Picture drawn by Maggie Stiefvater, 2009. Header made by S.F. Robertson, 2010.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Author Interview- Courtney Sheinmel

Today is World AIDS Day and, in honor of it, I'm interviewing Courtney Sheinmel, whose newest book Positively deals with a young girl who is HIV-positive. A portion of the proceeds for this book will go to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, an organization "dedicated to preventing pediatric HIV infection and eradicating pediatric AIDS through research, advocacy, and prevention and treatment programs." (taken from their website, linked below). You can find out more about World AIDS Day here and about the Pediatric AIDS Foundation here.

1) How did you get the idea for Positively?

When I was thirteen, I began volunteering for an organization called The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Over the years, I have spent a lot of time imagining what it must be like to grow up HIV-positive. That was the impetus for POSITIVELY: it is about a thirteen-year-old girl named Emerson (“Emmy” for short) who is infected with the virus that causes AIDS, and who loses her mother to the disease.

2) In both of your books, you’ve dealt with heavy issues such as artificial insemination and AIDS/HIV and the questions and problems that arise from dealing with them. Why did you decide to take on these issues for the middle-grade market? Is there any issue that you want to tackle in the future?

I never start out with the intention of writing an “issue” book. But, for me, writing a book takes about six months to a year, so I like to find characters and subjects that will hold my interest the whole way through, and make me want to get up in the morning and see what happens next.

With MY SO-CALLED FAMILY, I saw a segment on the Today Show about a bunch of women who had had children using the same donor, and who later connected on the real-life Donor Sibling Registry. They celebrate the fact that their kids are half-siblings, and spend holidays together. I started to wonder what it would be like for a teenager to discover half-siblings on her own, and the character Leah was born. POSITIVELY was more personal, because of my connection to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. I’ve known a number of kids and teens living with HIV and AIDS, and it seemed like an important story to tell. I hope it is authentic and does justice to the topic.

At this point, I don’t have any specific issues I want to tackle in the future – I’m just waiting for the next thing to get stuck in my head, so I can write a book to work through it.

3) In your Author’s Note at the back of Positively, you talk about knowing Elizabeth Glaser and the effect she had on you, as well as explaining that some of the proceeds from this book are going to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Tell us a little about your relationship with Elizabeth Glaser and why you decided to donate a portion of the proceeds from the book to this foundation.

In 1991, I read an article about Elizabeth in People Magazine (actually an excerpt from her then upcoming book, In the Absence of Angels). She was infected with HIV and had passed the virus onto her two children. Her daughter, Ariel, died at age seven, and Elizabeth and two of her closest friends founded the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, in efforts to save her then four-year-old son, Jake. It was one of the bravest, saddest, most hopeful stories I had ever read. There was an address at the end of the article, for readers who wanted to send donations to the Foundation, and I sent ten dollars from my babysitting money. And that became my monthly routine: sending ten dollar donations.

A year later, I met Elizabeth in person. I was attending a Foundation event and I went to introduce myself and shake her hand. She threw her arms around me. That summer, I volunteered in the Foundation’s LA office, answered the phones, faxed and Xeroxed things. Elizabeth was writing her speech for the Democratic Convention, and I have vivid memories of sitting across from her in the office, listening to her practice it. I thought she was the most amazing person I had ever met.

Elizabeth died in 1994, but I’ve stayed involved with her Foundation. You can’t really know me without knowing something about it. My friends and family have been recruited to stuff envelopes for mailings and volunteer at benefits. Elizabeth’s son Jake – the boy she started the Foundation to save – is now twenty-five, and a very dear friend of mine. I am thrilled to have a new way to give back to the cause.

For more information about the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, please visit: www.pedaids.org.

4) What are you working on now? Can you tell us anything about it?

My next book, SINCERELY, SOPHIE/SINCERELY, KATIE, will be published by Simon & Schuster on June 8, 2010 -- I think it’s fitting that the book is a Gemini, because there are two protagonists. Sophie Turner and Katie Franklin are cross-country pen pals who confide in each other when their home lives seem overwhelming.

And I’m in the middle of editing my 2011 book, YOU CAN’T EVEN MEASURE IT, which follows seventh grader Carly Wheeler, whose life is turned upside-down the day FBI agents come to her house to arrest her mother for a white-collar crime. I went to law school and practiced law for several years before becoming a full-time writer, and this book marks the first time I’ve worked any of my legal knowledge a piece of fiction!

5) What is your favorite Jelly Belly jelly bean flavor?

I have two favorites: the yellow lemon ones, and the red cherry ones.

6) In Positively, Emerson’s parents divorce while she’s just a child and acts out quite a bit because of it. Your parents divorced also when you were a child. Were some of Emerson’s feelings toward her parents’ divorce similar to your own?

I gave Emerson a personality much like my own. Once, when I was fighting with my mom and missing my dad (who lived across the country, in California), I threw a bouquet of flowers I had bought for my mom. When they landed on the floor, the stems snapped. I was so devastated by what I had done – I had ruined something beautiful. And I brought those feelings to some of the scenes in POSITIVELY. However, unlike Emerson, I haven’t lost a parent, so I think of her emotions and reactions as mine, but magnified.

7) What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Do you have any writing rituals that you have to do before sitting down in front of the computer?

Every morning, I wake up and turn on the Today Show. Then, sometime before nine o’clock, the TV is turned off and my computer is turned on. I don’t have any rituals besides sometimes listening to music.

With POSITIVELY, the singer Sheryl Crow was a big part of the writing process. There is a line in one of her songs that goes: “What is yours you’ll never lose, and what’s ahead may shine.” That pretty much summed up Emerson’s story to me, and I played the song, Diamond Road, over and over again. Though, whenever I was working on any particularly tough passages, I needed complete silence, so then the music was turned off, too.

8) What book(s) are you reading now, or are about to start?

I just finished an advance copy of SEA, the incredible debut novel by Heidi R.Kling – it’s about a teenager named Sienna who is mourning the death of her mother, and whose life is forever changed when she travels to the tsunami-devastated region of Indonesia. I started reading it, and could not put it down until I had finished the entire book.

And now I’m itching to read SKY IS EVERYWHERE, by Jandy Nelson. It comes out next year. I’ve heard a number of people raving about it already, so I’m hoping to get my hands on a copy before the publication date.


  1. Courtney's books sound interesting and thought provoking. I'll have to add them to my TBR list.

    Thanks for the great interview.

  2. great interview! thanks for Sea sweetness!