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Interview: January 12, 2001

Norma Howe, author of the clever and quirky Blue Avenger novels, candidly speaks with Teenreads.com's Audrey Marie Danielson about her character, David Schumacher, aka the Blue Avenger, and her writing. Find out the real life superhero who inspired Howe's blue boy, how she comes up with her witty ideas, what she likes to read in her spare time, and much more in this interview.

Teenreads: Where did you find the idea for your character, David Schumacher, aka the Blue Avenger?

NH: The idea for the character of David Schumacher came to me after I had decided to write a novel about free will. Somehow, I just kept having all these false starts. Finally, I realized that writing the book from an omniscient point of view might be the answer; I could know and comment on all things --- past, present, and future. I needed to begin with my protagonist's conception and proceed from there. He would be an unusually decent kid, quite intelligent, and an amateur cartoonist; and I could immediately launch right into the book's theme with his "decision" (or was it, really?) to change his name to that of the cartoon hero he himself created. Not surprisingly, the name-changing idea came from real life. One of my sons met a friend at college who had done just that. You'll find his assumed name --- Pureheart --- hidden in the dedication of THE ADVENTURES OF BLUE AVENGER.

Teenreads: THE ADVENTURES OF BLUE AVENGER is full of mystery, romance and intrigue. How do you keep coming up with ideas for Blue Avenger to prove himself heroic as he champions the underdog, seeks the truth and looks fearlessly at the unknown?

NH: "Coming up with ideas" is an interesting process. One thing just leads to another. (Actually, one thing usually leads to a lot of others.) Then it's time to pick and choose. I just keep asking "what if?" and see what bubbles up to the surface.

Teenreads: There's a lot of young adult fiction covering sensitive issues like rape, abuse, and psychological problems. As yours are the lighthearted, tongue in cheek, adventures of a superhero, how hard was it to write something so different?

NH: It was extremely easy. And boy, was it fun! I got a lot out of my system --- a lot of digs in there, ranging from small personal annoyances like stupid puns in newspaper headlines to the unconscionable rhetoric coming from The National Rifle Association.

Teenreads: The Shakespearean Sonnets are supposedly ciphers. There's even an Internet site on this subject. How involved did you get with this aspect of Shakespearean literature and what originally sparked your interest in the Shakespeare ciphers?

NH: Actually, I'm not all that interested in Shakespeare ciphers in the Sonnets, although Oxfordians like to point to line 7 in Sonnet 76: "That every word doth almost tell my name," where the words "every word" can be taken to refer to E. Ver, as Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, sometimes spelled his name. However, I think the most convincing arguments for Edward de Vere as Shakespeare can be found in areas other than ciphers or codes or anagrams.

Teenreads: How do you personally feel about the possibility of Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, being the true author of the works attributed to William Shakespeare?

NH: The evidence for Edward de Vere as Shakespeare keeps growing every day. During the past couple of years, my husband and I have attended study conferences and meetings of the Shakespeare Oxford Society and have seen firsthand the scholarship, sincerity and passion of these committed Oxfordians. Nowadays, one of the biggest stumbling blocks seems to be the dating of the plays. Stratfordians insist that some of the plays were written after de Vere's death in 1604. Oxfordian scholars are now taking up the challenge of showing that this is not necessarily the case. When the results are in, I believe there will be many new Oxfordians coming into the fold. But in answer to your question --- yes, I do believe that Edward de Vere is the true author of the works attributed to William Shakespeare.

Teenreads: There's talk about a TV series about Blue Avenger. Do you have any idea if this is still being considered and if so, when can we expect to see this on TV?

NH: Yes, and that's very exciting. The book has been optioned for a TV pilot and possible series to be aired on Nickelodeon. The last I heard was that they have secured a writer and the project is moving along on schedule. However, I don't know anything more than that.

Teenreads: You started your writing career by writing confession stories. When did you become interested in writing for children and young adults?

NH: When I wrote my first novel, GOD, THE UNIVERSE, AND HOT FUDGE SUNDAES (Houghton Mifflin, 1984 --- later seen on TV as a CBS Schoolbreak Special), I didn't think of it as a young adult novel. I just thought it was a regular main stream novel. So I guess I became interested in writing for young adults after my agent and publisher informed me that I was a YA novelist. I was already past middle age by then, married, with children, even though --- in my own mind --- I was (and still am) about thirteen, albeit a very smart thirteen-year-old.

Teenreads: How old were you when you decided you wanted to become a writer?

NH: I was old! While I was in college I happened to read Sherwood Anderson's WINESBURG, OHIO and that book made such an impression on me that I decided to try writing a short story of my own. I showed the manuscript to my English professor, and he suggested that I sign up for a creative writing class the following semester. Well, that turned out to be a disaster. Our first assignment, supposedly designed to "test our imaginations," was to write a story about a haunted house, complete with ghosts and otherworldly scary things. Well, I almost hate to admit this in these days when fantasy is king, but I am a realist, through and through. My creative writing class was all downhill from there. The teacher and I were just on different wavelengths. I gave up writing fiction until years later, when I started writing confession stories just for the fun of it while my children were little and underfoot. Over a dozen of them were published. It wasn't until the kids were grown that I decided I wanted to be a serious writer. For anyone who's interested, I go into all this in more detail on my website: http://www.normahowe.com

Teenreads: Which authors influenced you while you were growing up?

NH: Except for unforgettable encounters with Alcott's LITTLE WOMEN, and dog and horse stories (Eric Knight's LASSIE COMES HOME and Anna Sewell's BLACK BEAUTY), I really didn't read much fiction until I got to high school. Then, as now, I favored nonfiction and realistic novels, such as Steinbeck's GRAPES OF WRATH and James T. Farrell's STUDS LONIGAN, as well as works by Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, and good old William Makepeace Thackeray. Another book that had a tremendous influence on me while I was growing up was "ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT by Erich Maria Remarque.

Teenreads: Do you read books by young-adult writers? Who are your favorites?

NH: Hardly ever. In fact, I rarely feel the need or desire to read any fiction at all, and this is especially true when I'm working on a book. I don't know how to explain this. Maybe it's caused by a hidden anxiety of possibly being influenced by other writers. In a recent article in The New York Times, Susan Sontag remarked that she thought this type of anxiety was a "vain and shallow worry." I thought that was an interesting comment, but it didn't hurt my feelings any. I tried to read "Harry Potter" to see what all the excitement was about, but I had to really hurry through it because after a few pages I had a terrific urge to grab a red pencil and edit out all the magic. My all-time favorite YA novel remains AN AMERICAN GIRL by Patricia Dizenzo, published in 1971. I also loved Kurt Vonnegut's SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE which is more of a crossover book rather than strictly YA. The same goes for Mark Twain's LETTERS FROM THE EARTH.

Teenreads: What are you reading now?

NH: The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal (just the human interest articles, not the financial news) to start with. Newspapers have a little bit of everything. You want humor? The New York Times Magazine recently published this correction: "A recipe on Oct. 29 for juniper-flavored gravlax misstated the amount of kosher salt. It is one-half cup, not four cups. The corrected recipe appears below." (Whoops!) My ambition is to someday read an entire Sunday edition of The New York Times. Maybe when I finish the book I'm presently working on, I'll take a week off and do just that. Also, when I have time, I look at The Skeptical Inquirer, Harper's, and weekly news magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and USNews and World Report. Sometimes, just for the heck of it, I pick up The National Enquirer or The Globe to see what mischief they're up to. And then there are travel guide books. I love those. Oh, yes, I'm also reading a couple of nonfiction books: "SLEEPING WITH EXTRA-TERRESTRIALS by Wendy Kaminer, THE DREAMS OUR STUFF IS MADE OF by Thomas M. Disch, and SIR WALTER RALEIGH AND THE QUEST FOR EL DORADO by Marc Aronson.

Teenreads: What is a typical writing day like for you?

NH: I don't have typical writing days. I'm not what you'd call a committed, full time writer --- which, I suspect, might be a bit frustrating for my editor. I won't even sit down at the computer unless I'm sure I'll have three or four hours of uninterrupted time. And finding big chunks of time like that is hard. There is always something. My husband and I go out for coffee every morning, and then there is our walk. There's email to write and thrift stores to visit to see if they have any advertising ashtrays --- which we collect --- and sometimes we baby-sit grandchildren. And then, of course, we have to go out and buy an avocado. As the late Art Hoppe observed, that can use up half-a-day right there! A couple of times a week, when I start to feel guilty, I'll wait until all is quiet, usually about nine or ten at night, and write until I nod off around one-thirty or two in the morning.

Teenreads: Did you use your experiences during your extensive traveling in Europe and other countries as material for your novels?

NH: Yes, both consciously and subconsciously. I got the idea for SHOOT FOR THE MOON from viewing statues of dead popes in Rome. They are usually shown giving a blessing, with their right hands raised and their fingers extended. They appear to be holding invisible yo-yos. SHOOT FOR THE MOON is about a girl who wins a trip to Italy in a yo-yo contest. I love to write about Venice. A good deal of the action in BLUE AVENGER CRACKS THE CODE is set there. Also, our interactions with Europeans, together with the little incidents that happen on our travels, always show up in my novels in some form or other.

Teenreads: How do you keep your writing fresh and up-to-date?

NH: Thanks for the compliment! I read The New York Times, and I eavesdrop a lot.

Teenreads: What advice would you have for an aspiring young author?

NH: First of all, I'd remind them that everyone is different. What works for me may not work for them. Now that the parameters are set, I'll start my ranting: Don't sit around reading fiction all the time. Read the newspaper. Get a hobby. Go out and live. Get a job. Save your money and travel around as soon as you can. Go to Europe first. Go to Italy. But don't go just to fool around. Stay at inexpensive places and use public transportation. See the churches, see the museums, visit the famous sites, walk around, talk to the people. Then go to England. Spread out from there. Back home, don't think you have to join a "writer's group" and get "feedback." Lots of times that's just an excuse to socialize. Don't go around asking everybody to read your stuff. Of course they're going to say it's great, just to get you off their back. (Unless they have an agenda. Then they'll say it's lousy.) Don't go around talking about what you're going to write. That gets old fast. When you finally do get down to work, write from the inside out, not the outside in. That is, get out of your body and immerse yourself right in those scenes with your characters --- something like what the best actors do --- even if it makes you crazy. When you think your manuscript is ready, and if you want to get published, start sending it around. Never give up. Oh, and yes --- you may want to follow my husband's advice: If you use a computer, always save your work at the end of each writing session. And never set your coffee cup too close to the keyboard.

Teenreads: Are you currently working on a new book --- perhaps another Avenger tale? If so, can you tell us a little about it?

NH: Yes, I am. No, I really can't. But thank you for asking.