Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Rona Arato

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Rona Arato

What's worse than being dragged away from New York to spend the entire summer working at a hotel in the mountains? How about finding out that there's a headless horseman haunting the area? The hero of Rona Arato's Ice Cream Town, 11-year-old Sammy, returns this year in Sammy and the Headless Horseman (Fitzhenry & Whiteside). As the titular horseman wrecks havoc, Sammy sets out to crack the mystery with his new friends. A rollicking piece of historical fiction for young readers (the book is set in the early 1920s), Sammy and the Headless Horseman is what readers have come to expect from Arato — a fun, smart story with an unforgettable protagonist.

Rona speaks with us today as part of our Lucky Seven series, where we talk to writers about their most recent books and how they came to be. Rona tells us about what the "borscht belt" is, tackling mystery for the first time ever, and her definition of a great book.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.

Rona Arato:

My mother's family owned a small hotel in the Catskill mountains where I spent my first five summers. I've always wanted to set a story there. My new book is Sammy and the Headless Horseman. Sammy is the protagonist from Ice Cream Town. He was always getting into trouble in his Lower East Side neighbourhood. So I put him into the Pine Grove Hotel, added a headless horseman and, voila, I had the makings of a summer adventure and a mystery.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

RA:

I didn't know the question when I started. All of my books have a human rights component. When I decided to add the Hermit and make him a former slave, I had a partial theme. But the core of the book is the history of the "borscht belt" — how a group of farmhouses and bungalows provided new immigrants with something they had never dreamed possible — an affordable family vacation.

OB:

Did this project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

RA:

It changed a lot. For one thing, it became a mystery. I've never written one before and was amazed at how difficult they are to write. All the pieces must fit and keep the reader guessing and interested. My editor, Cheryl Chen, helped a lot. We had fun assembling the puzzle.

OB:

What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

RA:

When I started writing I wrote everything in longhand and then typed it. When I switched to a computer, I found that I can use a keyboard faster than I can write, so now everything is composed on the computer. To work I need my computer, a comfortable ergonomic chair, a big desk with lots of room for papers and notes. I do a great deal of research for everything I write. The story may be made up but the setting and details are the real deal.

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

RA:

The best way to cope is to walk away. Taking a break helps clear the cobwebs. Walks, a swim, chatting with friends are all good. I belong to a writers' group — five kids' lit writers and we help each other. I'll run ideas by them and they do the same with me. A kid asked me at a recent school visit what I do when I get writers' block. Without thinking, I answered "Chocolate." I guess that's as good a stimulant as I can get.

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

RA:

A great book is one that touches you heart and stimulates your mind. Growing up my favourites were Little Women and Heidi. Since then I've read too many to count. I love books that teach me about places I've never been. Historical novels, that are well researched are a wonderful way to learn about events and people in different times and places. But most of all, I like a good story — one that keeps me turning pages and not wanting it to end.

OB:

What are you working on now?

RA:

I've just finished A Ship to Nowhere: On Board the Exodus, which is about Holocaust survivors trying to find a home. My previous book was The Last Train: a Holocaust Story, about my late husband Paul's experiences during the Holocaust. When I do school presentations, I stress the need for tolerance and urge students to respect each other's differences. I'm not sure what I'll write next, but whatever it is, there will be an element of human rights in it. But I also want to have fun. In Sammy and the Headless Horseman, Sammy entertains the guests at the hotel and learns that he loves doing it. I'd like to see him in vaudeville and maybe send him to Hollywood. I haven't figured that out yet, but I'll let Sammy tell me what he wants to do.

Rona Arato was born in New York and raised in Los Angeles. She is the award-winning author of several books, including Fossils Clues to Ancient Life, The Last Train, and Ice Cream Town. Rona lives in Toronto.

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