Saturday, June 12, 2010

Writer-Writer Chit Chat with Cheryl Renee Herbsman

Ever want to know how writers you admire do their thing? I've been collecting interviews on craft with newly published YA authors and posting them here. This series is entitled Writer-Writer Chit Chat. Here is my conversation with Cheryl Renee Herbsman, author of the young adult novel Breathing.

Breathing is entering the world in paperback this month. Hurray! What has this first year of publication been like? I know Breathing was nominated for a couple of different honors. Can you tell us about them?

Yes, thank you! Breathing has just hit stores in paperback, another exciting milestone. This first year has been a whirlwind. The ups and downs can really spin a person around. It’s been a good learning experience in so many ways, not the least of which have been learning to thicken my skin and to really savor the up moments. I feel very fortunate that Breathing received some really fabulous industry reviews. VOYA (Voices of Youth Advocates) gave it a starred review. They are the only review journal to rate books based both on literary quality and teen appeal. And they gave Breathing a perfect score on both counts, giving it their prestigious Perfect 10. Only eighteen books out of the thousands reviewed in 2009 received the Perfect 10, so it felt like quite an honor (not to mention it was pretty cool being on a list with JK Rowling J.) Breathing also made the Bank Street College List of Best Books, was a finalist for the Northern California Independent Booksellers’ Teen Book of the Year, and was recently nominated for the 2011 Texas Tayshas High School Reading List.

Wow! So exciting! Breathing has had a busy year. Savannah is such a likeable, relatable girl. How did she come to be? Did her voice, her personality, or her situation evolve first in your imagination? Is she like someone you remember or knew?

Savannah came into existence during a writing exercise at my writing group. That night a woman came to the group who’d never been there before. She had a very thick Carolinian accent. I grew up in North Carolina, but hadn’t been back in a while, and something about hearing this woman’s accent fed my soul like a hot bowl of soup on a cold winter’s night. Savannah came to life. And once she opened her mouth, she really never stopped. I had no idea what her story would be about. But that was okay, because she did, and mostly I just took dictation. Interestingly, the Carolinian woman never did come back to the writing group. I’m so glad she showed up that one night!

The setting for Breathing is gorgeous. What are your thoughts about setting in novels. Does is ever seem like an overlooked fictional element. What would you tell writers who want to make their setting as vivid?

Thank you. I love the setting in Breathing. It’s a place of my childhood, although it is partly real and partly fictional. I do think setting can be overlooked at times, which is a shame, because I think it can add a lot of richness to a story. At the same time, I think it’s crucial that the setting come through as part of the action, not in long descriptive chunks. The way I bring setting into a novel is to try to immerse myself in the character, use my senses to take in what the character might be experiencing. So in a given scene I might ask myself, what is she hearing, smelling, seeing, etc. The more vividly you can imagine it, the more vividly you can convey it. When we do this, we bring the readers into the story that much more. Then, hopefully, they’re not just reading the story from outside of it, but are actually immersed and sensing it themselves.

The act of breathing has such resonance in Savannah's story. How much research did you have to do into asthma. Can you describe how the metaphoric properties of breathing emerged when you were first drafting?

In the early drafts of the book, the precognitive visions Savannah has played a much larger role than they do in the final draft. When I was writing them, I thought they would be more believable if they occurred when Savannah was in some kind of altered state of consciousness. So I came up with the idea that she would have asthma, and the lack of oxygen would cause this other part of her brain to become alert. As the visions got downplayed in later drafts, I found that the asthma had become an integral part of the character and the story. So the asthma stayed. As for the research, my husband is a pediatrician and has done some special work on asthma. Also, when I was in college, I worked in Child Life at the medical center, where I interacted with kids facing all kinds of illnesses, asthma and other breathing difficulties among them. My husband and my daughter both have mild forms of asthma. So I had a fair bit of knowledge and experience going in. But still, I researched both online and in person to make sure I understood what it actually feels like to struggle with one’s breath and to experience some of the hospital procedures Savannah goes through.

Jackson Channing is an interesting romantic hero--very real in so many ways. What are your thoughts about him as he relates to the prince charming ideal? Has he swooped in to save Savannah from her troubles? (Answer this one only if you think it won't give too much away about the ending.)

That’s an interesting question. I think of Jackson as a good guy. I believe in good guys. For me, I guess, Prince Charming isn’t the hero who swoops in and slays the dragon for you. He’s the guy who swoops in and believes in you. He’s the guy who maybe hands the princess the sword and calls out encouragement from the sidelines.

I LOVE that description because it pins Jackson's appeal down exactly. What is next for you as an author? Are you working on a new book? Can we get a sneak peek?

I have a manuscript out on submission now. It’s a story that has really captured my heart. And I hope to be able to share it soon!

Oooh, I'm intrigued. Here is my last question. Has the publisher changed your very beautiful cover for the paperback version? Where can we find out more about you and Breathing?

The cover art has remained the same, which I’m very happy about it. They’ve added some lovely pull-quotes from reviews and a nice tagline on the front cover: “Can Your First Love Become The Love of Your Life?” Sweet, isn’t it?

If you’d like to see me read from Breathing (yes, in a Southern accent!) or read the first chapter yourself, stop by my website. It’s at Hop over to the Books page. There’s also a fun romance quiz and lots of other cool stuff. From there you can also find links to my blog, facebook, twitter, etc.

Thank you so much for this lovely interview!

Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk to you and learn a bit more about your fabulous first novel.


  1. Happy paperback b-day. I loved Breathing. Savannah was the spittin' image of my N. Carolina niece.

  2. I love hearing the story behind the story.

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