Erin Fitzgerald is a community arts enthusiast and writer of stories, songs, and snapshots. Her creative work has been included in various journals, compilations, and anthologies. Her first book for young readers, Smart Butt: Scenes from a Bold-Faced Life (starring Earlene), was published in 2014 by MotesBooks. Erin is passionate about the power that can be found by exploring one’s own voice. She facilitates workshops and small group sessions in various community settings, encouraging others to explore their own strengths through creative expression. She lives in Louisville, KY with her brilliant children, who inspire her every day. You can listen to Erin’s Accents Radio interview with Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, here!
Tell us some about Smart Butt: Scenes from a Bold-Faced Life (Starring Earlene).
This book could be described as a short novel – because of the intended audience (kids in grades 4-6) – but is more the length of a novella. I say its intended audience is “middle grade” readers, but of course the hope is that it appeals to a wider audience as well. I have gotten positive feedback from adult readers, so I take that as a good sign. Earlene is the main character, and she is just turning 12 years old. She lives with her Mom, her Aunt Nettie, and her younger brother Arlo. She also bonds with a homeless (by choice) neighborhood dog named Tripod, who steals her heart. Earlene is dealing with some tough stuff within her family, as do many kids out there. Her mother is in recovery, her dad is in jail, and she has had a lot of responsibility for a child her age. The book is written in Earlene’s voice, and the focus of the book is hard to nail down. It fluctuates between her complex relationships with family members, to situations with Tripod, to navigating the social dynamics of her neighborhood and school. It is written in very short chapters – a series of snapshots, really – but there is also a thread or story arc that connects the pieces. That story arc focuses largely on the dynamic with her mom, and her relationship with Tripod.
When was the moment you knew you needed to write this book?
I knew I wanted to write from this voice in 2011, not long after taking a Writing for Children class with George Ella Lyon at Hindman Writers’ Workshop. Some variation of Earlene’s voice emerged during that week, and in the following months she showed up more and more in my life and in my writing. Eventually, she demanded a book. What choice did I have, at that point?
What was the most difficult scene to write?
There is a chapter called “Resting Place” which is followed by a chapter called “Close to Home,” and I think those were the two most difficult parts to write. The first is more of a single scene, and the second involves a quick progression of scenes, but both are near the end and include a lot of stuff in a short amount of space. A lot of ponderings there, and the culmination of various themes and storylines, so it was pretty intense to tackle.
Which character was the most challenging to pin down?
That’s hard to say. Earlene’s arch-nemesis at school, Penny Wellington, was pretty challenging to pin down. Not so much writing her scenes, but getting inside her head and examining the reasons why she may have done certain things the way she did. And it was a tricky balance to explore that without wrapping things up too neatly, or revealing more than ought to be revealed about her motives. As I was in the revision process, I realized I needed to further explore her character after the initial draft, and include some (but not all) of that exploration in the final draft, so that was a challenge.
Where can we buy your book?
Smart Butt is available at Carmichael’s Bookstore (Louisville, KY), The Morris Book Shop (Lexington, KY), and on Amazon.
Schools, libraries, and regular wholesale customers may order from Ingram, or directly from MotesBooks at: order@MotesBooks.com
Anything else you’d like the readers to know?
The book was published by MotesBooks in the summer of 2014. No readings scheduled right now, but I am currently working with a couple of local actors to develop a short play adaptation of Smart Butt, to be performed for school and community groups. I am both intimidated by and excited about that project.
Do you have a favorite conference to attend? What is it?
I really enjoy the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival at Lincoln Memorial University (LMU) in the summer. I especially enjoy the Cumberland Gap Writers Studio, which takes place the week after the festival. The festival is a jam-packed weekend of classes, short sessions, readings, lectures, and presentations of all kinds. There are also great music gatherings in the evenings, which I love. The weekend is inspiring, but honestly a bit overwhelming by the third day, if you’re an introvert. Once the festival ends and most people leave, a smaller group stays back for a mostly unstructured week of writing in the same setting, with some sharing of work in the evenings. It is the ideal scenario, really. Get inspired by a flurry of literary sessions, and then afterward just take time to breathe and write. I am excited to revisit that element this year.
Do you work with a writing group? How’d you guys meet?
I am connected with a group in Louisville called Women Who Write, and I joined a few years ago to meet other writers in the area. I also have had the good fortune of getting to spend some time retreating with some writers from Women Writing for a Change. Truthfully, though, I find myself connecting with people all over the regional writing community in different ways, and that has been a wonderful experience. I have been coordinating a weekly flash fiction email group for about 5 years now, and that has been fun. There are so many ways to connect with other people through writing. You just have to find them, or if you don’t find them, create them.
Favorite writing utensil?
Ball-point pen. Plain old ball-point pen. I love a pencil too, but tend to write with pen most of the time.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a second book about Earlene, which takes place during the summer between the end of 5th grade and the start of 6th grade (middle school). I hope to have a draft of that completed by the end of this year. I am also working on another project – a YA storyline – though mostly still getting to know the characters at this point.
What book do you wish you had written?
Hard to say. Maybe Blubber by Judy Blume. Or In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak. But really neither, of course, because then I would not have grown up with them, and that would be unfortunate.
What authors are inspirational to you?
Lynda Barry, Maira Kalman, Toni Morrison, Anne Shelby, George Ella Lyon, Sandra Cisneros, Jacqueline Woodson, Judy Blume, Roald Dahl, Al Perkins, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak. To name a few. All for different reasons, obviously. I like strong voices, and people who are not afraid to be quirky or unconventional in their writing style. I like reading books that deliver the unexpected.
Do you have any scars?
No visible scars, really. I have never scarred worth a darn. My skin tends to heal over like nothing ever happened. It’s strangely maddening. I would like to see the scars stick around, and feel them, and remember. Sometimes I look at an area where a scar used to be, and wonder if there was ever one there at all – if anything ever really happened, or if it was just a dream.
What’s in your pockets right now?
Keys, wallet, phone, guitar pick, pen. Ask me tomorrow, I’ll tell you the same thing. Unless I am in my pajamas. Then it’s just a pen.
If someone made a movie about your life who would play you?
Stockard Channing. I hope.
Read an excerpt from Smart Butt below!
Tripod and I were never what you would call “fast friends.” It took us a while. We both had our reasons, I guess.
I can tell you my reason—or one of them, anyway. When I was real little, a big dog jumped up on me and it scratched up my face. I kind of freaked. From then on, all dogs looked different to me. They went from looking brownish-gray to looking bright red. (Not their actual fur, but the feeling of them. Kind of like how some days feel yellow and other days feel blue. That kind of different.)
I don’t know what Tripod’s reason was, but I’ll bet it has something to do with that leg that doesn’t work. There’s no way to know for sure, because he has had that limp since I first saw him. He has also always had that look—the one that says, “I don’t know you. Why should I trust you?”
I have never been afraid of Tripod. He is the first dog I can say that about. He has never moved fast in my direction, or growled, or acted mean. He just runs away if you look at him. I never understood that, but it never scared me, either. And the weirdest thing of all is that he never
seemed red to me, or even brownish-gray. From the first time I saw him, the only feeling I had was cool green.
Before we even moved into this house, it was Tripod’s territory. In fact, Mom stepped right into that territory (if you know what I mean) the first time we came to meet the landlord.
She was so mad we almost didn’t stay to see the place. Once we were living here, he was always either in our yard or across the street watching the house. I tried to coax him in. I left a trail of dog treats up to the door, but he wouldn’t go past the driveway. He just wasn’t going to be my
dog, and that was that. Mr. Carson said he wasn’t anybody’s dog and never had been. Said that’s how he’d been since the first day he showed up on Woodrow Street, years before we moved in. That should have made me feel better, but it didn’t. I trusted Tripod right away, and I needed for him to trust me back.
Aunt Nettie said not to do anything that scared him, and he would come around. Trouble was, everything scared him. I started leaving food and water out back for him, near the spot where he hung out most often. I didn’t make a fuss about it—didn’t even look him in the eye. I just left it, and walked away. At first he would run, if he happened to be back there when I brought it out for him. I started shaking the food in the bowl as I came back there, to let him know I was coming. That seemed to help. He still moved away from me, but not as fast. After a while he stopped going so far. Now he just steps back a few feet and waits. He even looks at me when I set the stuff down. I look at him too, but only for a few seconds. I don’t want to ruin it. It’s been 6 months now and he still won’t come too close, but he trusts me a little. I can just tell. Those few seconds each day when we both look—I can see it in his eyes.