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How did you come up with the idea for this book? 
We all face loss in our lives, some earlier than others. I know both from my own experiences with my mother’s death, and from the many children, teens and adults I’ve had the honor of working with, that grief is really hard.  People are afraid of grief—afraid of talking about it, afraid of feeling it. This fear leaves many people feeling alone, and the people surrounding them often feel at a loss about how to help.  Rather than writing a “how-to” book, I wanted to write a fictional story that would invite readers into the intense world of a grieving teen, whether the reader has had a significant loss him or herself or might know someone who has or will eventually. I knew it was important to have both darkness and light in the story, so I had Corinna share her humorous and uplifting experiences, too.

Is Corinna based on a real person?
Corinna is a mix of many people, real and imagined. When I was writing, I would get into her head, hear her voice and her conversations, and touch things as though I was her, so that I could describe her experiences in a vivid first-person way. I even made a quilt like Corinna did, so that I could feel what it was like to cut up fabric that belonged to my mother.

How much of this book is about your own life?
I definitely bring some of my own experiences as a child and adult to those of my characters.  A writer can’t help but view a character’s experiences through some of her own lenses. I also draw on the many years of listening to other people’s stories that I was privileged to hear as a social worker. Both personal and professional experiences shaped my beliefs in the power and gift of listening as well as the benefits of talking about the hard stuff.

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How did your mom’s death influence you?
I learned how hard it is to have a parent die, and I learned that I could not only survive, but I could help others going through grief, as a counselor, a friend, and now as a writer.

Over time, I was able to see how my mother is still very much a part of my life. That’s why I don’t like to use the expression, “she is no longer with us.”   

My interest in teaching listening skills to medical students also comes in part from my experiences during my mother’s illness.

Is this your first book?
Yes and no. My first “book” was “Cherry and The Ice Cream Cone,” written when I was in fourth grade. I had big plans to write a series of mysteries starring Cherry, hoping it would be the next Nancy Drew series. Cherry’s first adventure never made it past the hand-written version. My next book was a booklet called "Missing Money", which I wrote while working at Common Cause before heading to graduate school in social work. "Missing Money" was all about the form of government spending called tax expenditures. Writing fiction is a lot more fun for me, and getting my first novel published by Scholastic is a dream come true.

What does the title, IF ONLY, mean?
If Only her mom was diagnosed sooner, If Only there were better treatments, If Only it wasn’t HER mom, If Only Corinna could see her mom again…you get the picture.

What suggestions do you have for writers?
Read a lot. Carry a notebook with you so that you can write down ideas as they occur to you. Ideas are everywhere! Use your powers of observation. Having a snippet of a scene you observed can help get you started when you sit down to write, and the possibilities are endless. Notice and jot down the odd details, physical appearance, setting, dialog, and body language you observe. Don’t forget smell and sounds and your emotional reactions to them. I also found it extremely helpful to have readers react to drafts every once in a while. You don’t have to agree with all of their suggestions, but their comments can trigger new ideas.  Resist the temptation to protect your protagonist. When you allow your characters to make mistakes, the stories get a lot more interesting.

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What’s the right way to grieve?
There is neither a “right way” nor a “right” timetable. Everyone has to find their own way, just as everyone has their own unique relationship with the deceased person. It takes time, and it helps to have someone “walk beside you” along that path, to be there when you need someone to listen or just convey that they are there for you if you need them. 

One thing that helps is sharing memories with people who knew your loved one or with a friend who is a good listener. Although they mean well, some friends and family might cut off the discussion out of their own discomfort or their wish to protect the griever from his or her painful feelings. 

Creating a ritual to honor the person who died can also be helpful. It can be super simple, like lighting a candle, or more elaborate. It’s important to give room to your grief.  At times, denial and compartmentalization are helpful. It’s OK to take a break from grieving, to have fun with your friends, to laugh. It’s also OK to grieve in private, even when others may question why you aren’t crying publicly.

Is it common for families not to talk about a serious diagnosis?
Yes. People often try to protect each other by avoiding difficult subjects, and death tends to be a super hard subject in our culture. Sometimes, everyone is so busy protecting the other person that they lose the opportunity to support each other and feel close at the time they most need it. 

Corinna’s family not only missed the chance to talk about her mom’s cancer and dying, but they were also weighed down by some secrets. It wasn’t the information contained in the secrets that made Corinna and her mom angry and hurt; it was that she wasn’t told the truth and she felt betrayed. Family secrets are really powerful and often cause a lot of pain.

How do you know what a kid is going through?
Over the past twenty five years, I have listened to many, many children and adults of all ages who have had a parent, sibling, or other close family member die. My own mother died from cancer when I was twenty-five. Even with all that combined experience, I still can’t truly know what it’s like for someone else. Each person’s experience is different.   

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How were you able to write the Japan scenes?
I lived in Tokyo for two years as an adult and have visited Kyoto twice. I drew on many of my own experiences trying to navigate in such a foreign culture and learning to admire many things Japanese. I got lost a ton of times because either there were no street signs or I couldn’t read the few signs that were posted in Japanese. And yes, I did press the wrong button on a multi-buttoned toilet! I hope our hosts have forgiven me.

What are you working on now?
A young-adult novel filled with adventure, family secrets, and a seventeen-year-old girl who is trying to figure out who she is.

What are your favorite children’s and YA books?
Some of my recent favorites are:
Dairy Queen
Looking for Alaska
The Hunger Games
The Book Thief
All the Harry Potter books
Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Some of my favorites from my childhood are:
Catcher in the Rye
Charlie and Chocolate Factory
Charlotte’s Web
From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
The Diary of Anne Frank
Of Mice and Men
The Outsiders

One of the fun things about being a parent is that I got to read a lot of good books that I might have missed, including; Call of the Wild, The Great Gilly Hopkins, Maniac McGee, Frindle, Julie of the Wolves, Hatchet, Sign of the Beaver, Walk Two Moons.

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