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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Interview with author of Tiny Infinities, J.H. Diehl

I really enjoyed reading TINY INFINITIES by J.H. Diehl. Today I am delighted to introduce you to her and her book. J.H. Diehl spent a dozen years as a summer swim team mom and more years cheering from the pool deck at high school swim meets. TINY INFINTIES (Chronicle, May 2018), is her debut MG novel about a swimmer. It is a Fall 2018 Junior Library Guild Selection. J.H. has an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and her short fiction received a Maryland Individual Artist Award and a Michener-Copernicus Fellowship. 

One of the driving forces in your main character Alice is her love of swimming. Why did you decide to make her a swimmer? Did you swim competitively when you were Alice’s age?
The idea for TINY INFINITIES came from a picture of a fantastical firefly that my daughter drew in third grade. The moment I saw it, an image entered my head of an older girl standing by a younger girl in the dark, with their hands cupped around glowing fireflies. The younger girl was saying the word ‘bugfire’ – the first word she’d spoken in years. When I unspooled a story from this scene, I knew it had to take place during the summer, because the season for fireflies is summer. 

I wanted the older girl - my main character, whom I named Alice - to have a summer activity and a place to go outside her home. I wanted her also to be passionate about a goal besides her goal to reunite her family. My kids swam on a summer team for more than a decade. I knew a summer swim team would be perfect for Alice. So you could say I came to swimming in a roundabout way. That is, I didn’t set out at first to write about a competitive swimmer. But as soon as I started, swimming, as you say, quickly became a driving force in the book. Alice’s team, her practice schedule, and the sport itself soon became vital and organic to the story. The Cherrywood Sharks’ competition schedule provided a framework on which to hang a number of important plot twists. The pool became the setting for a number of important scenes. And for me, Alice’s story became one that is partly about how a sport can help a kid through tough times.

I didn’t grow up swimming competitively – but I did marry into a swimming family. In fact, I’m the only person in two generations who did not swim competitively at some point. However, my dozen years as a summer swim team parent provided plenty of inspiration. And I had lots of in-house expertise to consult, whenever I needed it.

Some of the many things I love about summer swim teams are – I’m guessing – translatable to many other sports. There are opportunities to experience success and failure. There is almost always a way to find something positive in your own personal swim times. Likewise, there is almost always somebody who’s faster than you are, unless you are Katie Ledecky – who in fact grew up swimming in the summer league that I used as a model in this book.

Like my character Alice, you are part of team, and competing against other swimmers, but really you’re competing against yourself, and trying to improve. Swim team also gives kids great opportunities to build physical and emotional strength, and leadership skills. And there are opportunities for friendships with peers that kids might not have gravitated to otherwise. This is true for Alice, who makes friends with a new member of the team, Harriet, who’s just moved to town and happens to be the same age. It’s thanks to their swim team that these two unlikely friends forge a bond that, in the end, helps each one, in very different ways, to do some growing up.

I really liked Alice’s swim coach, Coach B. She was so supportive and she seemed to know Alice better than most of the adults in her life. Did you model her on anyone?
In the universe of most middle grade novels, the main character has parents or another adult relative who provides a safe, secure haven for a young person who’s out in the world facing a challenge. In TINY INFINITIES, I was interested in characterizing a version of what it’s like to grow up without that emotional safe haven. A few secondary adult characters are – to an extent – supports for Alice, and Coach B (for Bowling) is one of them. She isn’t modeled on any one person. For me, she represents all those wise teachers and mentors you hope each child’s life will intersect with. People who aren’t related, but who can see a lot of what’s going on with a young person – and whose job it is to motivate and encourage. I borrowed Coach B’s name from a beloved former music teacher at a local elementary school, and her love of corny puns echoes my late dad (I’ve been told I inherited this corny streak…).

The title of your book is Tiny Infinites. Can you tell us more about that idea and how it became part of the book? 
The title comes from a conversation between Alice and Harriet early in the story. They’re in the pool snack bar, after swim practice one afternoon, when Harriet talks about her birthday, which is Pi Day, and the number pi. She marvels that the difference between an infinite number like pi, and the number it gets rounded off to in many math problems – 3.14 – is so tiny: “Shouldn’t there be a huge difference between infinity and any number that has a definite end? Isn’t it interesting that the real difference between an infinite number like pi and a finite one like three point one four turns out to be a very tiny decimal? An infinitesimal decimal, to be as exact as possible about that inexactness?”

Then she and Alice discuss whether or not there’s a big difference between hot and cold – or is that a teeny tiny infinity, too? Alice translates this idea to her family, and wonders about “the point at which my parents had gone from loving each other to not loving – was that a teeny tiny change, too? What had made the difference between them deciding we could all be a family of five, and my dad living someplace else?” 

Also, as Alice’s summer unfolds, she spends a lot of time parsing the difference between lying to the adults in her life and not lying. Especially when she attempts to prove that she really was telling the truth when she heard a word spoken by her four-year-old neighbor, whom everybody else believes to be mute.

Part of Alice’s growing up in the book has to do with deciding where boundaries lie; and in knowing when she has to draw them in herself.

What was your journey to publication? 
Before TINY INFINITIES, I published two picture books and wrote leveled readers for educational publishers; I’ve also published fiction for grown-up audiences in journals and magazines and worked as a newspaper reporter. The journey for Tiny Infinitieswas long and windy, because I had other projects along the way. But, ultimately, it’s been an extremely satisfying one, in large part due to Chronicle Books, a great home for me and this novel, and my wonderful editor there, Taylor Norman. 

Do you have any advice for someone writing a sporty girl book?
Focus on your character(s) specific experiences of the sport, or sports, in your book; find a way to make the sport itself organic to both the action and themes of your story. In other words, try to integrate the sport – how it’s played, its rules, regulations, necessary equipment – with the plot’s twists and turns, your character’s goals, the themes you’re exploring and the questions the book raises. However, even if you’re writing from inside the sport, with expert knowledge, find ways to characterize it that a reader unfamiliar with the sport can relate to. Creative similes and descriptive verbs can help. Be careful to strike a balance between creating believability - through the use of idioms and terminology specific to that sport - with the need to reach out to readers who aren’t familiar it. This can help you to connect the specifics of the action to the more universal conflicts and themes of your story. 

Want to know more about J.H. Diehl? You visit her website: https://www.jhdiehl.com/, follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @jhdiehl and on Facebook at @jhdiehlbooks.

And don’t forget to check out TINY INFINITIES

From Indiebound: When Alice's dad moves out, leaving her with her troubled mother, she does the only thing that feels right: she retreats to her family's old Renaissance tent in the backyard, determined to live there until her dad comes home. In an attempt to keep at least one part of her summer from changing, Alice focuses on her quest to swim freestyle fast enough to get on her swim team's record board. But summers contain multitudes, and soon Alice meets an odd new friend, Harriet, whose obsession with the school's science fair is equal only to her conviction that Alice's best stroke is backstroke, not freestyle. Most unexpected of all is an unusual babysitting charge, Piper, who is mute--until Alice hears her speak. A funny and honest middle-grade novel, this sharply observed depiction of family, friendship, and Alice's determination to prove herself--as a babysitter, as a friend, as a daughter, as a person--rings loud and true.