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Monday, May 10, 2010

INTERVIEW: Jacqueline Houtman

Aurora is pleased to welcome Jacqueline Houtman who spent much of her life learning to be a scientist (27, if you count kindergarten). The best part of all that school is that some people, especially her parents, call her Dr. Houtman. In the rare moments she did not spend in the lab, she did theater to feed the rest of her brain. Then she came to her senses and started over as a freelance science writer, writing for audiences from middle school to medical school. She most enjoys writing “sciency fiction” for kids, where real science is integral to the story.

"My science training has definitely had a positive effect on my writing," she told me.

Her debut novel, The Reinvention of Edison Thomas, was released recently by Front Street.

Science geek Eddy Thomas can invent useful devices to do anything, except solve his bully problem. Eddy Thomas can read a college physics book, but he can’t read the emotions on the faces of his classmates at Drayton Middle School. He can spend hours tinkering with an invention, but he can’t stand more than a few minutes in a noisy crowd, like the crowd at the science fair, which Eddy fails to win. When the local school crossing guard is laid off, Eddy is haunted by thoughts of the potentially disastrous consequences and invents a traffic-calming device, using parts he has scavenged from discarded machines. Eddy also discovers new friends, who appreciate his abilities and respect his unique view of the world. By trusting his real friends, Eddy uses his talents to help others and rethinks his purely mechanical definition of success.

Jacqueline told me if she hadn't started writing, she would probably still be working in science.

"You write grants, they get rejected, and then you write some more. A lot like writing books, actually, except with biohazards," she said.

She does most of her writing at a coffee shop around the corner from her home.
"I even got 'the call' there," she shared. "I spend so much time there that I’ve been known to get phone calls there. Not on my cell, on the coffee house landline."

Jacqueline confessed she does all her writing on computer, mainly because if she wrote it in longhand, she wouldn’t be able to read it. She does, however, prefer to do her editing on paper.

"Are you working on anything now?" I asked.

"Yes, I'm answering a lot of questions! I'm also working on another sciency middle grade novel. With rockets."

Her husband is a great help when it comes to checking Jacqueline's writing for scientific accuracy.

"He's been very supportive, in so many ways," she told me. "He serves as a technical advisor. I'm trained in biology, but my husband is very knowledgeable in chemistry and physics and electronics, subjects that my characters know more about than I do."

So far, Jacqueline said she doesn't have much in the way of fan stories, but she's had a few cases of people telling her that reading EDDY has increased their empathy or understanding for people on the autism spectrum or opened long-suppressed conversations on the subject.

One question she wishes an interviewer would ask her is "Why are the words autism and Asperger’s syndrome not used anywhere in your book?"

"I wrote EDDY from the point of view of a boy on the autism spectrum, and people who are familiar with the spectrum recognize Eddy’s autism, or more specifically, Asperger’s syndrome. I didn’t want readers to label Eddy before they got to know him as a character. Labels separate us. Autism is only one part of what makes Eddy who he is; it is not the only part."

"What challenges do you think the youth of today face that you didn’t?" I wondered.

"Kids today are so plugged in. They have instant access to every form of entertainment or information. In a way, that’s great, but I think it presents a lot of challenges, too. Lack of exposure to the nature. Short attention spans. More avenues for bullying and exploitation. Repetitive motion disorders."

When Jacqueline's not keeping her butt in her chair writing, she shakes it at a Zumba class.

"Active hobbies are a necessity in this profession," she explained. "That’s why I have a Wii. Crossword puzzles help keep my mind flexible, too."

Jacqueline and her husband don't have any pets, because she has allergies and her husband grew up on a farm where animals didn't belong in the house. If she could have an ideal pet, though, it would be one that didn't poop.

Finally, I asked, "As an adult, how do you keep your finger on the pulse of today's kids?"

"I sit on them and grab their wrists so I can feel the radial artery. Sometimes they complain about that technique. I also eavesdrop."

Jacqueline will be at the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books June 18-19 and would love to have any of our readers who are in the area to stop by and say hello.

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