Dear Linda Urban: You know I’ve been a huge fan of your work even before your first published novel, having fallen in love with a picture book manuscript you read way back when at the Haystack Writers Conference. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve studied Crooked Kind of Perfect or Hound Dog True to learn something more about character development. And then there was your incredible kindness and protectiveness of me at the NCTE conference when I learned my father had taken a turn for the worse; you helped me hold it together until I got on that plane home. And now, you’ve managed to keep me up far too late into the night reading your latest, Almost There and Almost Not (Atheneum) because I couldn’t stop until I found out that someone– anyone!– would see the eleven in Callie. Since I have been a terrible correspondent with you, you wouldn’t know that I adore writing letters and cards and reading a book in which the main character comes to appreciate that very thing was as sweet as a chocolate milkshake. Your forever friend, Kirby Larson

Linda Urban

Dear Kirby,

Thank you for inviting me to be a part of Friend Friday.  Did you know that it is an extraordinarily generous act to share your blog home with me?  It is.  And I appreciate it.

Sincerely,
Linda Urban

Dear Kirby,

I have just revisited a few of the other Friend Friday posts you’ve had and been impressed with how smart and thoughtful writers like Varian Johnson and Barbara O’Connor and Deborah Heiligman have been and how eloquently they talk about craft aspects of their work.  It would be good if I did the same, huh? 

Sincerely,
Linda Urban

Dear Kirby,

In my new book, Almost There and Almost Not (Atheneum Books for Young Readers), California Poppy is handed an old etiquette guide Proper Letters for Proper Ladies and instructed to write a “bread and butter” thank you letter to a relative to whom she feels no gratitude at all.  It does not go well. 
Is this letter going well?  It feels a little stuffy to me.  Maybe I should try again.

Your friend,

Linda

Dear Kirby,

Remember how I said I should try again?  That’s one of the things I like about putting letters in my novels.  Letters let readers see how our characters try to understand themselves, and how they hope to be understood. When we read a letter in a novel, we are watching a character construct a version of themselves that they want someone else to believe in.  Letters can demonstrate what the character feels to be important, what they most want to say . . . and what they most need to hide.  

California, for example, tries to hide how scared and alone she feels. She’s been dumped at one relative’s house and then another and she misses her dad terribly.  She’s currently at her Aunt Monica’s where the ghost of that etiquette book writer keeps looking over her shoulder and bossing her around.  (Thankfully, there’s a sweet ghost dog in the backyard who brings California bits and pieces of someone else’s letters (that part’s kind of a mystery at first) . . .)  

Sometimes, the act of writing a letter to someone else teaches us something about ourselves.  California, over the course of the book, writes several letters to an aunt who never responds.  Eventually, she gives up on the aunt, but she finds something of value in the writing and keeps at it, eventually addressing her work to an imaginary aunt, one who cares about her thoughts and feelings, one who might want her to feel safe and loved.  It’s the first time she’s acknowledged that she needs such things.  The first time she’s felt she might even deserve them.  And through her letters, we readers get to watch her find the words to say so.

Your friend,
Linda

Dear Kirby,

One more thing . . . I want you to know that when I started drafting California’s story I didn’t intend for those letters to demonstrate California’s growth as a character, or for those letters to be the actual mechanism of that change.  Thing is, when I write I rarely know where my stories will go. When I write, I discover the story.  Writing is how I figure out what matters to the character, which a lot of the time also ends up as a way of figuring out what matters to me.

Your grateful friend, 

Linda

Almost There and Almost Not by Linda Urban


Linda Urban is the author of many award-winning, well-loved books for kids, including A Crooked Kind of Perfect, Road Trip with Max and his Mom, and Mouse was Mad.  She teaches writing for children and young adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  She has a small collection of etiquette books she probably ought to read more closely. To learn more visit her website.