15 Questions & Answers with Author Shelley Pearsall
Today we welcome Shelley Pearsall, author of Trouble Don’t Last, winner of the 2003 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, Crooked River, All Shook Up and the just-released Jump Into the Sky. Shelley answers our questions about what inspires her writing, what she likes to read and what she’s currently working on.
What book made the strongest impression on you as a child?
THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS by Katherine Paterson. I’d never read a book with an “unlikable” main character before – or one that tackled issues such as prejudice, mental disability, etc. in such a straightforward way. As a young reader, I remember being shocked that the story didn’t have the typical “happy ending” either. I’ve admired Paterson’s fearlessness as a writer ever since.
What is one thing about you that would surprise your readers?
Despite having written a book about army paratroopers who “jump into the sky,” I would never consider trying to parachute or sky-dive — I’m afraid of heights and not very brave.
Do you use social media? If yes, how do you feel about the role social media plays in your writing life?
No, I don’t use social media and prefer to be “unplugged” in general. I think you discover a lot more stories that way. And trip on fewer curbs.
What has your favorite event experience been so far?
Getting flash-mobbed at Hart Middle School in Michigan last spring. The entire 6th grade suddenly stood up at the end of my presentation and did a choreographed Elvis dance routine in honor of my Elvis book, ALL SHOOK UP. I was speechless (and grateful they didn’t make me dance, too!)
What was your favorite genre to read as a teenager?
Historical fiction, mysteries, and gothic romances by Victoria Holt.
What inspired you to write JUMP INTO THE SKY? And what inspired your earlier books ?
The novel began over lunch. A number of years ago, I had the chance to meet and have lunch with one of the Tuskegee Airmen – heroic black pilots in World War II. During lunch, the pilot mentioned how there was a little-known unit of black paratroopers called the 555th who took part in a secret mission involving Japanese balloon bombs in World War II. I was really intrigued by the story. As I uncovered more details, I became fascinated by the mission, the men, and by the prejudice the paratroopers faced as they tried to serve their country. I decided to tell the story of the mission – and of life in wartime for a black teenager – through the first-person voice of a thirteen year old boy named Levi Battle whose father is one of the soldiers.
What surprised you most in your research for JUMP INTO THE SKY? The true story behind the title is fascinating and the research must have included a treasure trove of little-known historical details.
I think the biggest surprise – and honor – was ultimately having the chance to interview the first African-American man in U.S. history selected as a paratrooper. That’s something I’ll never forget. I had no idea the Japanese launched a balloon bomb attack on the United States at the end of the war either – or that paratroopers were secretly sent west to protect U.S. forests and citizens. I also didn’t know you could land parachutes in trees (which the 555th learned to do). Even the tiniest details were a surprise: like the fact that Wrigley’s chewing gum was reserved for soldiers during the war – and that paratroopers carried Charms candy in their rations.
Do you plan to continue writing for young people, or do you think you might write for adults down the road?
I really love writing for young people (no offense to adults) and will probably stick with the audience I know best.
What is one piece of advice you would like to give to aspiring authors?
Write what you want to write – not what you think others want you to write. Be fearless in your choices as a writer.
Do you ever experience writer’s block?
Yes, every book has its struggles. While I was writing JUMP INTO THE SKY, I lost my biggest hero—my dad—to cancer and trying to get back to writing after that loss was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It ended up taking me four years to finish the novel, but I know my dad wouldn’t have wanted me to quit. It has been tough not to be able to share the publication of this novel with him, though.
What was your favorite chapter, or part, to write and why?
Loved writing Chapter 23 “The World as a Colored Person” because it shows Levi and Cal’s stubborn refusal to be defined or defeated by the prejudice around them – something I saw time and again in the stories of the paratroopers. I also loved writing Chapter 30 “Seeing Underwater” because of the imagery and the emotion as Levi learns to trust his father and himself for the first time.
Which character speaks the loudest, to you?
Definitely Levi, the main character. I really enjoy his sayings & observations about life and the world around him. Things like: “nobody would fry a chicken’s eyeball over Hitler being dead,” “the steps looked like a spit mosaic,” “maybe love was keeping your mouth shut.” I didn’t always know what was going to come out of Levi’s mouth – sometimes his words took me totally by surprise.
Do any of them clamor to be heard over the others?
I think Jim Crow, MawMaw Sands, Cal, and Willajean Delaney are key voices in the story and in Levi’s understanding of his world.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I’m working in a different genre from historical fiction. I’m working on a novel with some art and romance in it.
Is there anything that you would like to say to your readers and fans?
When I was a young writer, I never dreamed of having readers and fans – I only wanted my books on a library shelf in my local library. So it has been a wonderful surprise to get letters, e-mails, notes, and messages from readers across the country. You inspire me and keep me going!
Many Thanks to Shelley Pearsall for joining us today on Random Acts of Reading.
Please share your thoughts in our comments section.