1) What was the inspiration for Operation Redwood and how did the story evolve and change as you wrote it?
One of the inspirations for Operation Redwood was a Herb Kohl essay I read about his desire for more children’s books where the characters work together to achieve some kind of justice. And, of course, the story of the battle over the Headwaters Forest in California during the 1990s – the last major stand of ancient redwoods on private land – was a fascinating story of greed and protest and divisions within a community. I thought it suggested a great adventure story that would tap into kids’ real interest in the environment (and in justice). The basic plot of the story -- the adventures and misadventures of Julian and his friends as they plot to save a grove of redwoods -- did not change substantially during the editorial process. Most of the revisions concerned the back story. The original draft of the story was more focused on Julian’s relationship with his mother. My editor, Susan Van Metre, was concerned that this distracted from the central adventure and this relationship plays a smaller role in the final book.
2) While the story focuses on a particular environmental issue -- saving the redwood trees in California -- the relationships that develop stand out as much as what the kids end up accomplishing. Or perhaps it's better to say that the relationships facilitate and support what the kids end up doing. Can you comment on the importance of those relationships, especially for the protagonist, Julian Carter-Li, and how both his commitment to saving the trees and the relationships lead to Julian's development?
Relationships are really central to Operation Redwood. Julian is very different from the other three main characters in the book – Danny, his best friend, Robin, the girl who lives in the redwoods, and her friend, Ariel, but I think his friendships with them teach him a lot and push him to take some risks during the book. He is not a natural activist; he learns to love the redwoods from Robin, and stands up for them, in part, to connect himself to her family and her world. Julian also develops a loving, though somewhat complicated, relationship with Robin’s parents, one in which he has to deal with issues of trust and betrayal and responsibility.
3) I anticipate that readers of your book will be inspired to look for ways in which they can get involved in environmental issues and political causes. Do you have suggestions for how young people can learn more about areas of need and ways to find something that speaks to them and to get involved.
My website, www.operationredwood.com, has links to a number of environmental sites. In particular, the California Academy of Science puts out a brochure on ways to reduce your environmental impact at http://www.calacademy.org/sustainable_fu
4) Your novel and your work as an environmental lawyer indicate your commitment to environmental issues and to showing that people can make a difference in saving the environment. Can you tell us some stories from when you were a kid and these interests were developing? Something from the days when you spent summers "running barefoot in the forest"? Did you have an experience like that of Julian and his friends?
I was a city/suburbs kid but my mother worked in the summers at a day camp in what was then quite rural Maryland, near Poolesville. So my sister and I spent every summer there – swimming, kayaking, art, horseback riding. I remember the distress we felt at the thought of going back to school and having to wear shoes. We were always envious of the kids whose family ran the camp who got to live there all year -- their feet were so tough they could run on gravel! As a young child, we spent hours playing in the tiny creek in the woods behind our subdivision. It seemed huge to me then, but it was probably only a small strip of woods between developments. The more remote places we occasionally visited– the beaches of North Carolina, the Chesapeake Bay, rural West Virginia – always meant a lot to me. When I moved to California, I had the chance to do more camping and backpacking and see whole new landscapes, like the redwoods.
I never really had an experience like Julian and his friends, but there is a real ranch in Mendocino County that I visited with my own kids. It was a beautiful place and was one of the inspirations for Huckleberry Ranch – Robin’s home in the redwoods.
5) What was Operation Redwood’s path to publication?
I was lucky to have a friend who connected me with my agent Kate Schafer Testerman. (She was then at Janklow & Nesbit and now has her own agency, kt literary.) Susan Van Metre, at Amulet Books, was one of the first editors who was interested in the manuscript, and she eventually acquired it. After about two years of revisions, Operation Redwood will be out this month!
6) What is your writing process like? I'd love to know how an idea in your head evolves into a written piece that you feel ready to show to other people.
I didn’t show anybody Operation Redwood until it was finished. I would write a chapter, then go back and revise it, then start on the next chapter. When I wasn’t writing, I was often plotting the next chapter in my head. When the manuscript was done, I read it aloud to my kids and made a few more revisions.
7) Which writers/books have been most influential and important for you? And, what are you currently reading?
That’s so hard to answer! I read all the classic children’s books and then, when I was a little older, many of the classics of great literature – Tolstoy and Nabokov were favorites. All of that is inside somewhere (I hope). My kids loved listening to the beautiful, lyrical prose of E.B. White and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read a lot of non-fiction in my twenties and thirties, a lot of environmental history. I recently read Gilead and Home by Marilynne Robinson, and I love her writing
7) Do you have advice for aspiring writers?
I probably ended up writing the book I wanted to read aloud to my children. I heard Isabel Allende speak about writing once, and she said, “Be clear.” I kept that in mind while I was writing.
8) What's next? Are there new projects in the works?
I’m working on another children’s novel set in San Francisco.
I look forward to reading S. Terrell French’s next novel, and I encourage everyone to look for Operation Redwood at a local bookstore! Do know that it’s printed on recycled paper!