What inspired the idea for your book?
When I was thirty-five I was a senior at Antioch University while pregnant with my son, Atticus. In my last quarter, I had a wonderful professor who taught a literature course on Mark Twain. His classes were a refuge from the world, and I couldn’t wait for Tuesday and Thursday nights. It was June, and cold in Los Angeles due to a weather phenomenon in California known as the marine layer, or coastal fog. In Mark Twain’s own words, “The coldest winter of my life was the summer I spent in San Francisco.” Bundled in a coat, I rushed to class.
During this time, a pair of mockingbirds mated and built a nest in my torulosa pine tree off the upper deck, which was completely charming, until the chicks hatched, and their loud chirping attracted the neighborhood serial killers: the crows. Only one chick survived, and I found him one night returning home from class, hidden in the shrubs, too young to fly, but plenty strong to survive. I named him Wynne, and although we spent only one night together before he went to a bird rescue center, I grew rather attached to the little fellow, and cried when he moved to his new home. When I found out I was pregnant with a son, the book came to me, and I had a place to put Wynne and all the ideas of things that I wanted to share with my child, including Mark Twain.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in writing this book?
Honestly, it was the joy of working with my brilliant illustrator Elaina Scott, who now works for Marvel. She gave life to these characters that had only existed in my mind, and she made them even more wonderful than I had imagined them. Our collaboration brought this book to life for the children, and having her heartfelt illustrations makes it that much more meaningful. We worked together on the discovery process of the characters, and I sent her images, and also storyboards for the chapters. That process turned me from writer into director, and gave an underlying purpose to sharing the book that hadn’t been there until Elaina. It was a pure pleasure.
If you were friends with a character in this book, what kinds of things would you do together?
Well, I’ve always wanted to fly. I surf, which is a close feeling, I’d imagine. I have more than a little Peter Pan in my heart. I’d love to find Wynne and his family in the Willem Woods, and fly together in the summer breeze, and watch the sunrise and moonset over the world. It’s quiet in the sky for the birds, and peaceful and soothing. I don’t understand the people who would choose invisibility as the superpower over flying, honestly. When I die, look for me in the birds.
What comes first for you — the plot or the characters?
I always start with a concept and a title. Then I move into a discovery draft that always surprises me with what characters appear and what their problems are. After the discovery draft is complete, I outline the story. Then I go back on a killing spree and delete all chapters, characters and scenes that don’t work. From there, it’s usually years of re-writes. I work like a 3D printer, back and forth, back and forth, layering ever deeper for the final result. Unfortunately for me as the writer in that process, I usually feel for ages like I’m going nowhere, and I’ll never complete anything. I do complete a lot, though, just over time.
What do you look for in a story as a reader?
I really need to be pulled in, not feel like I’m pushing through the writing. Though I studied literature in university, I read for pleasure now, as pure escape. I don’t want to analyze as I read. Mostly, I read memoirs now. Several of my favorites are H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald, and also Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming.
How do you avoid or defeat writer’s block?
On days I have good energy, I create. On days I feel exhausted, I edit. I always complete 3 pages a day. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s over 1000 pages a year. You have to think long game as a writer. I think writer’s block is either a failure of nerve or a failure of imagination. Mostly, if you write out of habit without waiting for inspiration, you stand a much better chance of avoiding blocks altogether. I think it’s important to have more than one WIP underway, so if you feel stuck on one you can lane change to the other.
What is the first book that you remember reading?
As a child, I came to reading a little slowly. I struggled and was in the “yellow” reading group, meaning, the kids who were the slowest. I remember a lot of concern about this from the adults around me. Yet, when I got into the 3rd grade, which is the age group for my novel Mockingbird in Mark Twain’s Hat, something in me must have matured because I fell in love with reading, and stopped stumbling on the words enough to fall into the stories. So one of the first books I read on my own was The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis. I devoured the entire series of the Chronicles of Narnia, and I remember sobbing in bed the night I finished book 7, because I would miss Aslan so much. I felt as if a friend had died. The next day, I was inconsolable. I couldn’t even look at the books, and returned them all to the library in a paper sack, I felt so devastated. It’s only now at the age of 45 that I’m reading them to my son. I think I loved those characters as if they were real people, and I loved the world of Narnia far more than my own life. When you feel the need to escape the world around you, especially as a child, you’re destined to be a writer- either a novelist or a screenwriter.
Aside from writing or reading, what are your hobbies or interests?
I’m an avid surfer, and one of my life goals is to surf travel. Every morning I check the surf cams, and open up the World Surf League app to see what contests are on, or what surfers are rising in the ranks. I find it calming to watch the surfers ride the waves, and surfing itself is the silver bullet for my anxiety. I practiced yoga for years without ever achieving the bliss and peace I feel after getting out of the water after some fantastic waves. It’s liberating, and I think writers need somewhere to go physically that delivers a completely different experience on a completely different mind channel. Plus the aesthetics of surfing are unparalleled. The waves shift like liquid silver mountains, and the sounds of the surf and the seabirds, with the occasional appearances of curious seals or playful dolphins is an absolute spiritual experience. You just feel transported to another world, where there is challenge certainly, but also beauty. The sea is unifying. The water brings you home, to yourself, to the Mother Ocean, to heal whatever has been broken in your life or in your heart. It lets you start over, even in the middle of the story. I’ve been drawn to the sea since I was a child, and only now am I understanding the fulfillment of that relationship, and why it matters to us as people to be near the water. It’s healing.
What is your author spirit animal?
I have 3 pets. I have 2 Siamese cats, who are brother and sister, Ozzy and Lovely. We refer to them as “ The Unikitty”. They’re often on my lap while I work. Then there is my dog, Kosmo, who is always at my feet while I’m working. They transmit so much love and joy, that I feel it gets into the work. This book, Mockingbird in Mark Twain’s Hat, is full of talking animals for a reason! I love animals with all my heart. I feel they are our teachers. They suffer like we do. They know love like we do.
One of the lessons I hoped to share in this book is to not judge others by their outsides- the color of their fur or feathers- but by who they are on the inside. Some of Wynne’s most treasured friends are animals that he is warned about befriending by his traditional upbringing. While as adults, we understand this is a work about not being racist or sexist, it’s also about being kind to animals. Human beings are animals, too. When we remember that, we feel connected to nature again.
Mark Twain was an author who spent a lot of time in nature, his very name, which is a pen name, means “12 feet deep”. “Mark Twain!” is what the riverboat pilots on the Mississippi river shouted to say that the water was deep enough to pass through, and they knew the river with all its turns, even in the dark. You can be friends with a river, friends with the sea or a mountain. You can certainly be friends with animals, and in many cases, they are better human beings than we are.
If you had your own talk show, what would the topic be and who would be your first guest(s)?
I actually do have a talk show. I created the Entertainment Business Wisdom podcast with my co-host Sylvia Franklin. I’m also a screenwriter, and I founded the Entertainment Business League. I worked in the industry as a development exec (buyer for a major production company) and also I worked for late comedian Garry Shandling. I’ve had some major guests like Mike Medavoy (founder of Orion), Juliet Landau (actress and daughter of Martin Landau), Debbie Liebling (executive producer and discoverer of South Park), as well as screenwriters Noah Evslin (NCIS, Hawaii-5.0) and Linda Burstyn, who is both a screenwriter (NCIS among other shows) and also writes speeches for the Clintons and many actors. The podcast will be released on iTunes in early July! I’m really excited about it. I love nothing more than talking with creative professionals about their careers.
What does it mean to you to be called an author?
I always wanted to write books. Now I’m working on screenplays as well. I hope it just means I get to write and publish books all my life! I have a YA novel completed, and I’m starting on a new one later this year.
My writing is like a third lung; I need it to live. Writing is something I need to do, not a luxury. The art moves me, and I listen, and inscribe. I’ve already been wonderfully successful, but I think more success would simply mean more time to write, and an opportunity to travel and learn more about other cultures so I can write from a more informed perspective. My first novel Written in the Ashes, is about the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria, Egypt, and the life and terrible murder of the first female mathematician/scientist, Hypatia. Visiting the ancient world of Egypt was enthralling, and I haven’t been yet in real life, in the present day anyway. As a writer, you have to be immersed. The work needs time. And the work needs readers, and writers need friends and board games to stay sane.
Third graders everywhere are going to love this book. It is an epic adventure filled with perils and triumphs. Wynne, a young mockingbird who has literary aspirations falls from his nest only to be stolen by the mean neighborhood cat. He is rescued by a school girl who starts him on a grand adventure to find his way home, that will take him from the small patch of woods he was born in to New Orleans and beyond on the great Mississippi river in the time of Mark Twain, the bird’s hero, and show him a path to achieve his dreams.
Wynne is an extraordinary character, whose resilience and out of the box thinking will keep kids on the edge of their seats waiting to see what happens next. He makes friends and few enemies. He gets a bit of help along the way and he passes it forward in the best spirit of friendship and cooperation.
Not only does the author capture the voice and presence of Mark Twain beautifully in this fun story, but I felt transported back to other epic third grade reads such as Trumpet of the Swan, Black Beauty, and a Little Princess. Silent reading that year was just the best and I often feel the innocence and whimsy of those old books is missing in today’s KidLit.
In addition to belonging in every class library, this would be a wonderful addition to any literary unit on Mark Twain and in fact, my eleventh grader who was working on Mark Twain character analysis really enjoyed having the book included despite it being written for a younger audience. That younger crowd I think would especially enjoy this book in a rug time setting.
I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.
Mockingbird in Mark Twain’s Hat
by Kaia Alexander
Publisher: Waterside Press, Oct, 2020
Category: Children’s illustrated chapter book
Available in Print and ebook, 138 pages
Mockingbird in Mark Twain’s Hat, is an adventure story full of animals that talk. Wynne is a precocious mockingbird born in the rural south in the late 1800s. His whole family are singers, but at four days old, he wants to be a novelist just like his hero, Mark Twain.
When crows attack his nest, he’s swept away on an epic adventure along the Mississippi River. Wynne learns to read and write, makes new friends in surprising places, and is mentored by Mark Twain himself. Full of delightful quotes from Mark Twain, this novel for children ages 8-12 shines with important lessons of character, perseverance, love, and the importance of friendship.
Kaia Alexander is an award-winning novelist, filmmaker, and writing coach, as well as founder of the Entertainment Business League, who can be found surfing her native California coastline.
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