Interview with Pamela Ehrenberg, Author of Tillmon County Fire

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.

About rhapsodyinbooks

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14 Responses to Interview with Pamela Ehrenberg, Author of Tillmon County Fire

  1. bookgazing says:

    Thanks for running this interview, you’re the best! I was looking at how amny commenst there were on your interview with Lynn Miller-Lachman and was so happy to see people turn out to enage with her.

    Pamela I really like the idea of adults enabling kids to meet people who have different perspectives on life. What kind of situations do you have in mind, or have you seen some adults create meetings between different people along the way?

  2. Pingback: West Of Mars — Win A Book! » Blog Archive » Guest Author: Pamela Ehrenberg

  3. Awesome interview, ladies! I’m dropping in to let you guys know I’ve got this posted at Win a Book for you. Thanks for the e-mail about it!

  4. Nymeth says:

    Excellent interview. I loved reading Pamela Ehrenberg’s thoughts about the parallel between racism in the 1970’s and homophobia now. Not that racism isn’t alive and well today, of course. But it has become socially unacceptable to admit it overtly in most contexts, whereas people still go around proclaiming their homophobia loudly and proudly and defending it as morally righteous.

  5. Michelle says:

    Great interview! I’m just in the midst of reading Tillmon County Fire for the NerdsHeartYa competition and have already linked back to your interview 🙂

    Having met and chatted with Temple Grandin in my former life – I love how Pamela draws parallels to Dr. Grandin’s work and “fitting in” – very fitting….

    I’m so looking forward to finishing the book now.

  6. Jenners says:

    Fantastic interview (as always). And I love the photo! I particularly related to her advice to her 5-year-old … I’ve been going through that with my son .. that everyone is different and that is OK.

  7. Margot says:

    There is something special about knowing an author’s background that adds so much to a book. After your introduction to Pamela, I have to read this book.

    I like that she simply listens to the voice inside her when she writes her stories. She’s not thinking about whether the story is going to sell or who might like it. She definitely needs a bigger audience for her books. Excellent interview. I really liked your questions.

  8. Doret says:

    I love this interview and when I get the chance I will read Tillmon County Fire. And I will make sure to tell people about it.

  9. Staci says:

    This one sounds like an excellent read. Can not wait for your review of it and I’ll be sure to read it this summer!

  10. Marie says:

    Nice! 🙂 What a fun interview. 🙂

  11. Runner Sami says:

    Sounds like a heavy-hitting book – I’ll have to get a copy for myself. Great interview too! Knowing the authors intentions does add another dimension to a book for sure. Have a great week!

  12. stacybuckeye says:

    What a wonderful interview! Makes me want to read this book – and the Gaines one you already convinced me I should.

  13. Thanks so much for having me, and thanks to all of you for commenting! (Sorry to be a day late on this post…our babysitter didn’t realize this was the week of the Nerds Heart YA tournament when she chose this week for her vacation.) : ) In any case, I really enjoyed getting to know Jill during our email chats, and I’m awed by and grateful for all of the comments.

    Bookgazing, in response to your question about adults creating situations for kids to meet others with different perspectives: the clearest examples in my mind are the programs I saw as an AmeriCorps member with the Garrett County (MD) Health Dept. In one of these programs, kids who wouldn’t talk to each other at school–college-bound kids, soon-to-be teen parents, others–came together to put on plays with health messages for younger kids, community groups, etc. I’d love to be involved in something similar here in DC: for the past few years, since my first book, Ethan, Suspended, came out, I’ve been trying to think how I might bring together kids from the two different Washington, DCs (east and west of the Anacostia River) to use the book as a springboard for discussion…but I haven’t made much progress yet. Open to thoughts, of course!

    Many thanks again to you all…regardless of what happens in the tournament, you have completely made my week!

  14. Pingback: Funny How Things Change by Melissa Wyatt vs. Tillmon County Fire by Pamela Ehrenberg « Pineapples & Pyjamas – Young Adult Materials

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