I am very happy to present an interview with Pamela Ehrenberg, who is the author of Tillmon County Fire. I can’t tell you how much fun it has been getting to know Pam in preparation for this interview. I hope you will enjoy getting to know her as much as I have!
RIB: Can you give us a brief synopsis of the book?
PE: Sure. It’s about a couple of kids in a small, Appalachian town who set fire to a classmate’s house in an anti-gay hate crime. It’s told from the point of view of various people involved in the event.
RIB: You said on your website that the setting for this book was inspired by the community in which you completed a year of national service through AmeriCorps in 1996-1997. I have a couple questions about that. How would you compare the diversity between the community there and say, Pikesville, where you grew up? [Note: Pikesville is a Baltimore suburb.]
PE: Interesting question! Both are places that, on the surface, look like there’s not much diversity. At the time I went there, Pikesville High School was listed in some national magazine as being the highest percent Jewish of any public high school in the country–I think something like 97%. On the Jewish holidays, the few non-Jewish kids were allowed to stay home because their parents knew that no schoolwork would be happening. Then many of the kids met up to hang out at the mall. Western Maryland also doesn’t look very diverse on the surface–but early in my AmeriCorps year I participated in a diversity training program where we learned how to look below the surface: who grew up in a large family or a small one; who had ties to other countries; who grew up with “enough, not enough, or more than enough.” So now I can see those types of diversity when I think about Pikesville too, though I wasn’t so aware of them when I lived there.
RIB: Did you see any differences between the tolerance of diversity between the kids there and the kids in Pikesville or in D.C.?
PE: I think there’s a tendency for kids everywhere to gravitate toward people they perceive as being like themselves–whether demographically or because of things like how they do in school or whether they want to join the establishment or thumb their nose at it. I think where adults can help is in shifting the perceptions, giving kids a chance to talk with people who they wouldn’t ordinarily see as being similar to themselves, and finding a chance to discover common ground. The places I’ve been where kids have more of those opportunities, there seems to be a greater tolerance for diversity. When parents and schools reinforce those divisions, kids seem less likely to cross those boundaries on their own.
RIB: Why did you decide to write books for teens rather than for adults? Do you have any plans to switch to adult novels?
PE: Somehow when I write down the voices in my head, they come out sounding like adolescents. I don’t know what that says about me, but it seems to work OK for teen novels. A friend of my dad’s came to my last book-signing specifically to tell me that I should switch to adult books because I could make more money there. But otherwise I haven’t given a lot of thought to it. I’m floating around one idea for a historical fiction novel that might work better for adults, but we’ll have to see.
RIB: Your own kids are very young. What kind of research did you do for this book to help you get into the teen mindset?
PE: I guess this means I’m old, if I’m now closer to my kids’ teenage years than my own! I’m actually not sure I’ve ever left the “teen mindset,” but my research into contemporary teens came from working with teens in AmeriCorps and then while I was teaching.
RIB: Why did you decide to write about the problems of being gay in a straight world?
The format for Tillmon County Fire was inspired by the Ernest Gaines novel A Gathering of Old Men. The power of this format in the Ernest Gaines book seemed to come from there being a huge, emotionally charged event all of these characters had a role in. I liked the idea of exploring a community event from multiple points of view, and there seemed to be some parallels between homophobia in 2010 as compared with racism in the 1970s. Not perfect parallels, obviously–and I’m not implying anything about the existence of a “post-racial America.” Just commenting that the format of the Gaines book led me to wonder how a similar format might work to tell a story that’s partly about homophobia. As has been my pattern, I’ve known the characters and setting (and in this case also the format) first–with the plot kind of uncovering itself a bit later.
RIB: One of the recurring themes in your books seems to be the dilemma of not fitting in. What has made you gravitate toward this theme? What advice do you have for kids in this situation?
PE: Anyone I graduated high school with would find this question very funny, because of I never seemed to fit in. I once read a fascinating article by Temple Grandin, the world-renowned veterinary scientist with autism, called “An Anthropologist on Mars,” about her efforts to study and learn the rules for social interactions. I could definitely relate. As far as advice: I recently found myself explaining to my just-turned-five-year-old that probably everyone in her class feels in one way or another like they’re “different” from the rest of the group. I don’t know if she quite believed me, but maybe if I tell her often enough over the next 10 years, she’ll at least consider that some of the popular kids at her someday-high school don’t necessarily feel like they’ve got their lives all together either.
RIB: Finally, with your interest in service, do you see your books as part of the “tikkun olam” orientation of your life? Would you elaborate on that? [Note: Tikkun olam is a Hebrew phrase that means “repairing the world” in the sense of helping to bring about social justice, peace, and joy in the world.]
PE: I’m flattered that my life comes across as having a “tikkun olam” orientation, as part of a quest to build a better world. I’d love if my books can somehow be part of that–though I find I can’t think about that aspect much while actually writing. Otherwise, I’d be writing “about” something rather than actually writing something, and the characters would be pawns rather than people. I see my job as just telling the best story I can–but if doing that gets people to think about things differently or change how they do something in their world, then I’m thrilled beyond what anyone can guess.