I am thrilled to welcome Pamela Ehrenberg and Tracy López to discuss their new middle-grade novel, DETOUR AHEAD (PJ Publishing, 2022). Pamela is a lovely, longtime friend. I have interviewed her about several of her wonderful books over the years. This time, I have the pleasure of also interviewing a new friend – Pamela’s coauthor, Tracy!
DETOUR AHEAD follows the changes and personal challenges of two Washington, D.C. middle schoolers who become friends after meeting on the bus: Gilah, who is preparing for her Bat Mitzvah, and Guillermo, a Salvadoran-American poet. In addition to an engaging plot and relatable characters with distinct voices, readers will enjoy the novel’s unique structure. Gilah’s sections are written in prose and Guillermo’s are written in verse, making for an enlightening, engaging, and introspective read. I am excited to learn more about the story, Pamela and Tracy’s collaborative writing process, and more.
How did you create the idea for the unlikely friendship between Gilah and Guillermo in DETOUR AHEAD?
Pamela: So I guess the idea for their friendship kind of found me one morning on the H4 bus: our bus passed too close to a cyclist, and our autistic teenage neighbor (who was sitting across the aisle from me and had seen the incident out the window on his side of the bus) persisted in getting the bus driver’s attention to make sure we stopped and checked that the cyclist was OK. That bit of heroism, on an otherwise ordinary commute to school and work, really left an impression on me as something that more people should know about.
Tracy: As for the friendship being unlikely, this is something Pamela and I actually discussed while writing backcopy for the book, because that’s a word people gravitate to when there’s a book about friendship. Usually books about friendship feature two very different people coming together because it wouldn’t be very interesting otherwise, but I got to thinking about the use of the word “unlikely” and I actually don’t think it’s accurate. If I create a list of my real life friends and our differences, I think people might look at it on paper and say “Wow, how did you two become friends?” My friends come from so many different backgrounds and have such diverse interests, and I met many of them in serendipitous ways. I don’t think I’m unique in that. I think most people would discover the same thing about their own friendships. I’d actually love to hear from readers on this. I’d love to receive emails about their friends and how they met. I bet we’d get to read some really interesting stories!
What do you think connects your two protagonists? What do they have in common that makes their relationship work?
Tracy: Sometimes it’s not about what you have in common. Sometimes the differences are what actually make the friendship work. What’s better? A peanut butter and peanut butter sandwich, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?
Pamela: I love that analogy so much! To take it a step further (maybe I’m just getting hungry as it gets close to lunchtime!), I’d say that what connects Gilah and Guillermo is their kind humanity, their trustworthiness, and their genuineness as human beings (even if they are fictional!). Just like peanut butter and jelly are each delicious, spreadable, and hold together well between two halves of a bagel or rolled up in a tortilla!
How did your collaboration work as coauthors? Did you plot together or write as you go, back and forth in response to each other? Or something in between?
Tracy: It was a mix of everything. Some was plotted out, but most of it wasn’t. Sometimes something that happened in a Gilah chapter would inspire something that happened in a Guillermo chapter, and vice versa. Pamela is especially great at recognizing opportunities to add another layer to themes and threads that are already there. We used email and Google Docs a lot, then eventually put together a Word doc we passed back and forth.
Pamela: We are both introverts, so even before the pandemic, it worked really well for us to work asynchronously using technology…it will be interesting to see if a post-pandemic universe opens more pathways for introvert-friendly collaborations! Tracy is an absolute genius at keeping us organized and on track at every stage of this process–it was like stepping right back to our co-writing when I went to answer the questions for the interview and saw that Tracy had already organized a Google Doc where we could work on our answers!
What do you hope young readers come away with from DETOUR AHEAD?
Tracy: I hope they can take comfort knowing that like Gilah and Guillermo, everyone faces detours in life, and sometimes those detours turn out to be even better than the route you had planned.
Pamela: I agree! And I think also some thoughts about how to find, and how to be, a good friend: it has been so invaluable to me as an adult and as an author to find people like the two of you who can be their genuine selves through all interactions–it can be tough sometimes (for kids and at any age!) in situations when friendship feels more like a status accomplishment. We all need each other in so many different ways to get through life’s detours!
In DETOUR AHEAD, Gilah enjoys break dancing. Can you share a bit about this? How did you come up with this idea?
Pamela: You know, I wish I could remember! I actually started working on Gilah’s character in 2015, and Tracy and I started working together on the novel in 2016. For me, the process always feels more like getting to know a character rather than coming up with ideas–once something “sticks” as part of who that character is, it kind of just is, and my job as the author is to keep getting to know them better while also trying to use words (an imperfect tool!!!) as best as I can to help readers get to know them too.
Guillermo is a poet, and his sections are written in verse. How did using this form help you access the character?
Tracy: What I both loved and found challenging about writing Guillermo’s chapters in verse was that I needed to focus each poem on one aspect of what he was feeling and doing to move the plot forward. You don’t want the reader to feel they aren’t getting the full picture of what’s going on with Guillermo compared to what’s going on with Gilah –who has her chapters written in prose– yet you have to be prudent with your word choice. That balance helped me tap into Guillermo’s heart and mind. If a poem felt weak, I knew I needed to distill it further. And Guillermo’s love for go-go music and riding his bicycle provided plenty of inspiration for rhythm.
Thank you, Tracy and Pamela!
PAMELA EHRENBERG is the author of two previous novels for young readers (Ethan, Suspended and Tillmon County Fire) as well as two picture books: Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas and Planting Parsley. Pamela works at the National Association for the Education of Young Children and lives with her daughter and son near the National Zoo in Washington, DC. She is happy to connect with readers via her website at www.pamelaehrenberg.com.
TRACY LÓPEZ is a novelist and poet born and raised in Maryland just outside Washington, DC. She now lives in the beautiful mountain state of West Virginia with her husband, sons, and a silly hound dog. Detour Ahead, co-authored with Pamela Ehrenberg, is her first children’s book. You can find her online at tracylopezbooks.com.