Today we sit down for a chat with middle grade, young adult, and new adult author Betty May. Learn more about Betty and her books at bettymayauthor.com.
When did you realize you wanted to write novels?
Like most writers, I was an avid reader as a kid (when I could sit still long enough). I wrote many short stories—some kind of weird. As a theatrical director I wrote many one-act plays for my Kids’ and Teens’ theater groups. It wasn’t a giant step to move on to novels.
How long did it take you to realize your dream of publication?
After more query letters than I care to count, I finally decided to take things into my own hands. In 2014 I self-published a New Adult nonfiction piece, FACES, based on my experiences working with a group of lifers in a state prison. A year later I published Changing Corners. Last year Payback came out.
Are you traditionally published, indie published, or a hybrid author?
Where do you write?
On my bed, hunched over my computer—probably the worst thing possible for posture.
Is silence golden, or do you need music to write by? What kind?
I have to have some background noise – whether it’s TV or music—classical, pop, jazz and Broadway. Love rock ‘n roll and disco—especially the Bee Gees. Total silence freaks me out.
How much of your plots and characters are drawn from real life? From your life in particular?
Bobbie, the protagonist in Payback and co-star of Changing Corners, is based on me, but she is the girl I wish I had been. I wish I had been more aware of racial injustice, but I didn’t have a Phillis to teach me. Many of the scenes in both books came out of my life, but Payback is semi-autobiographical—based on a traumatic incident in my life. I’d have to say it is a bit cathartic.
I explain the reason for writing Changing Corners in the beginning of the book—perhaps a mea culpa: 1950s teenagers are often called the “do-nothing” generation. Consumed by their cars, poodle skirts and dance parties, they appear to be an unconcerned lot. However, their seemingly nonchalant, selfish lives had more to do with lack of awareness than lack of caring. Many, when confronted with the truth about racial inequality, became activists in civil rights issues—sometimes with tragic results.
Now, in the 21st century, the struggle continues.
Describe your process for naming your character?
I’m glad you asked this question. I had a lot of fun naming the characters in Changing Corners. They are all based on either real historical figures or people who were important in my life.
For example, Phillis, an aspiring writer, is named for Phillis Wheatly (1753-1784), the first African American poet to be published in the United States. Her surname, Simpson, is for my best friend’s mother, who lived to be 102.
Leonard Marshall (Phillis’s love interest) is named for Thurgood Marshall. Frank Miller (Bobbie’s love interest) is named for Glenn Miller and Jimmy Miller.
Camille Simmons, the teenage villain, is named for Kamelia, a women’s offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan founded in 1923. Her surname is for William Joseph Simmons (1880-1945), Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan 1915-1922.
Bobbie is just Bobbie. I chose an androgynous name because she could be any teenager, male or female, fighting against an evil.
Real settings or fictional towns?
I needed a big high school so I chose mine. The town is fictional but resembles any small town in 1950s New York.
What’s the quirkiest quirk one of your characters has?
Bobbie can’t sit still. She never shuts up. And she’s always getting into trouble.
What’s your quirkiest quirk?
As a kid, I could never sit still. I talked too much. And I was always getting into trouble. I still can’t sit still for long—a problem when I taught in a Quaker high school where sitting is the favorite indoor sport.
If you could have written any book (one that someone else has already written,) which one would it be? Why?
I love historical fiction. My favorite historical novel is Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Well-developed characters, great story lines, impeccable research. Now reading the prequel: The Evening and the Morning.
For kid lit it would be The Secret Garden because as a child I related to the protagonist’s loneliness. Also high on my list is any book written by Richard Peck. His whimsical stories and fascinating characters speak to me.
Everyone at some point wishes for a do-over. What’s yours?
I wish I had been more patient with my kids. On the other hand, all five of them have grown into incredible people. They all graduated from college, and they all have successful, happy lives. So my husband and I must have done something right.
What’s your biggest pet peeve?
I have three passions in my life: bullying, racism, and social justice. I turn into a raging maniac when I see bullying, a screaming banshee when I hear about racism, and a radical activist when I witness injustice. I have addressed these passions in my books: FACES (social justice); Payback (bullying); and Changing Corners(racism).
On a lighter note, I don’t like unnecessary adverbs, and I hate it when people say nauseous instead of nauseated.
You’re stranded on a deserted island. What are your three must-haves?
Knife. Source of water. Pens/paper. Maybe some sunscreen.
What was the worst job you’ve ever held?
Without a doubt, high school substitute teacher. All the worst parts of teaching and none of the good ones. You don’t get to know the kids. You don’t get to see them grow. You don’t know if you’re teaching them anything. And you are often treated like dirt by the students and as a nonentity by the teachers. (The question I was asked every day: “Who are you today?”)
What’s the best book you’ve ever read?
The Secret Garden
Ocean or mountains?
Definitely mountains. Fortunately, my husband also loved the mountains. Mixed marriages (mountains vs. beach) don’t work.
City girl/guy or country girl/guy?
As much as I enjoy mountains, I love the hustle and bustle of a city. If I had a million dollars, I would rent a hotel suite for six months in New York City, go to every Broadway show, and walk the streets enjoying the people, the sirens and the honking taxis.
What’s on the horizon for you?
Have no idea. Just enjoying my family and friends. Continue freelance directing. Maybe write another book. I’m working on an adult mystery-romance but, so far, it’s just garbage. Fun writing, though—a big change from MG and YA. I can expand the vocabulary, use naughty words and people can have—you know—s-e-x. Only problem is, I don’t know how to write sex scenes. Have about seventy pages so far with little notes tucked into the pages: “Insert sex scene here.”
Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself and/or your books?
As much as I enjoy writing, my first love has always been and will always be theater. I’ve worked in all facets of the theatrical world: cast, chorus, crew, director, ticket taker, janitor… I had my own theater for ten years and I still freelance in community theater.
One of the most exciting things in my life is the time I spent producing and directing productions with ninety street children in a squatters’ settlement in Guatemala. I spent seven summers there from 1993-2000. I met the strongest, bravest women I have ever met in my life. The children were beautiful and talented and more than eager to participate in a song-and-dance show even though they weren’t quite sure what it was. They enchanted every audience they had in their community, in mountain villages, in churches and synagogues, in schools, at the Concha Acustica (Guatemala City’s version of the Hollywood Bowl) and at the National Palace. They were featured on Guatemalan National Television. My first year was difficult because my Spanish vocabulary consisted of eight words: hóla, sombrero, burrito, taco and ¿Dónde está el baño? But we had a wonderful time and I learned as I went along.
Another opportunity arose after my theater closed. I work with a group of lifers at a women’s state prison. They wanted help writing a play that would warn young adults about the dangers of bad choices. The women were amazing, and a number of at-risk kids turned their lives around because of their words. As an additional honor, I was asked to direct the play with professional actors for presentation at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. My New Adult nonfiction book, FACES Imprisoned Women and Their Struggle with the Criminal Justice System, tells the women’s stories and my experience with them.
I have been more than lucky with my personal life: Forty-three years with the love of my life and five incredible kids.
Eleven-almost-twelve-year-old Bobbie is a bright, inquisitive, cute annoying pest who never sits still and can’t shut up. She is thrilled to be at a week-long Long Island summer camp. There she meets her roommates: three ultra-sophisticated teenagers who are not at all happy about sharing their room with this creature who bounces around like some kind of zany pixie. Their hostility accelerates from ridicule to merciless bullying and near tragedy.
She makes a good friend, Rose, and the two girls talk about their feelings and ideas. Rose is fighting her own battle: her parents fight constantly and are getting divorced. One of their many discussions involves racism, and Bobbie tells Rose about Phillis, an African American girl who was Bobbie’s best friend when the two were five years old.
The bullying continues until the only friend Bobbie has is a Hoover vacuum cleaner. How can Bobbie fight back when the girls turn the entire camp against her? Even Rose, upset about the hostility among the girls, turns her back when the roommates spread vicious lies about Bobbie.
How can Bobbie regain her spirit when she feels beaten down and lost?