An Interview with the Author of The Cupcake Queen

Heather Hepler, author of The Cupcake Queen, was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about her new young adult novel, which I enjoyed reading not only for its storyline, but for the incredible writing craft it contains.  This is the kind of book that should be placed in students’ (ages 10-15) hands during independent reading time and then utilized to teach craft, by using it as a mentor text, during Writing Workshop.

Here are a few excerpts fromThe Cupcake Queen, which I feel illustrates some of strong crafting elements, like internal thinking, dialogue, and show not tell, from this book (reprinted in this forum with permission from the Penguin Group):

“Tell me everything,” Gram says, and I cringe.  It’s enough that my mother thinks I’m a screwup.  Not Gram, too.  My mother does tell her everything.  She doesn’t even leave out Charity’s parting comment, which I didn’t think she had heard.  And when she finishes, they’re quiet.  I hold my breath and wait, wondering what Gram will say.  Wanting to know and not wanting to at the same time.  And then I hear Gram laughing.  She starts out and gets louder and louder until I can hear her gasping, and I know tears are rolling down her cheeks.  It feels awful, hearing her laugh at me (pg. 25).

Sunday morning Gram gets me up early to pick blueberries.  I mean early — like dark-thirty.  She wants to make enough jam to last the winter.  Even though it’s before dawn, Mom is already gone…  (pg. 121)

He walks over to the steps leading up to the porch.  “Here,” he says, taking my hand.  “Watch the third step.  It’s rotted through.”  We sit on the top step, watching the water.  Sam hops over the broken step and sits in front of me, his tail making soft brushing sounds on the wood.  He puts his head in my lap, leaning his weight against me.  The wind whips through the dunes, pushing at us.  Despite Sam’s warmth on my lap, I shiver.  “Cold?” Marcus asks.  I shrug, but end up shivering again.  “I can walk you home,” he says.  I shake my head.  No amount of weather is going to move me from this step.  Marcus slides closer until I can feel his leg against mine.  He puts his hand behind me on the steps and leans toward me, so he almost, but not quite, has his arm around me.  “Better?” he asks.  I can feel his warm breath on the side of my neck.  I just nod, feeling my face flush.  We sit like that for so long that Sam starts snoring softly against my leg (pgs. 136 – 137).

And now, here’s the Q&A with Heather:

STACEY:  How did you develop the characters for this book?  Are there any particular things you did that helped you figure out who each of them would become?

HEATHER:  I always create a character first when I start thinking about a book. At the risk of sounding like I’ve gone ‘round the bend (as they say where I live in Texas), it’s less that I come up with a character and more like she or he finds me. I was on a run one morning and suddenly there Penny was in my head, talking to me about her life, her hopes, her fears, her dreams. It was as if I had to write about her at that point; like I owed it to her. Secondary characters, like Tally and Marcus and Blake all grew out of that. Tally is Penny’s inspiration and her safe place to land. Blake is the humorous, yet at times wise companion. Marcus begins as a crush, but becomes much more than that as the book progresses. Each one of them influences the other in important ways. They help each other heal from the past, enjoy the present, and find hope in the future.

STACEY:  Charity and her group of friends reminded me of the uber-popular clique in “Mean Girls.”  Was the movie “Mean Girls” an inspiration or did you draw your inspiration for Charity and her entourage from someplace else?

HEATHER:  Laughing… I watched Mean Girls for the first time after I wrote this book. I actually drew my inspiration from my own life and conversations I’ve had with many girls and women. It’s not talked about much, but the experience of being bullied to some degree seems universal. Girl bullying seems quieter than when boys bully one another, but it is just as (or more) devastating. I’ve met amazing, smart, accomplished, confident women who are still traumatized to some degree by the comments or actions of someone they went to middle school with. Now I get letters from young girls who tell me that they have their own Charity’s in their lives. Those letters just break my heart. When I wrote this, I wanted to be careful to give the proper weight to Penny’s pain. I also wanted to make sure that I didn’t paste some happy-happy ending on the story where Charity and she ended up being friends at the end. I’m sure that happens sometimes, but I think it’s pretty rare.

STACEY:  Miss Beans is something of a heroine to Penny in this book.  How were you able to have Miss Beans help Penny without making her seem like a pushy teacher?

HEATHER:  That’s so tricky. My main goal with Miss Beans was to simply make Penny see that she was a safe place to go for help if she needed it. It’s sometimes difficult to know when to intervene and when to simply be there for encouragement and support. If things had escalated further in the book, I would have had to have Miss Beans step in.

STACEY:  Did you know the outcome, with regard to Penny’s living situation, before you started writing or were you on the journey with her?

HEATHER:  I knew her parents weren’t going to reconcile, so I knew there would be a choice there for Penny. I also wanted it to be a real choice, so I had to make Penny engage with her new life in a significant way. I wasn’t sure which way she was going to go at the end though, so that was a surprise for me.

STACEY:  The Cupcake Queen is written in such an authentic teenage voice.  How did you able to create such realistic dialogue between the characters in addition to providing us with insights into the insecurities of the characters in such a genuine way?

HEATHER:  Oh man… the truth is I still feel like I’m somewhere between 13 and 17 on the inside. Sometimes I look around my life a little surprised that I’m the grown-up now. The other part is that I have a heart for young people. It is so hard to be a teenager. I remember how hard it was for me. Just when you think you’ve gotten your feet under you, everything changes. You are trying to figure out who you are and who you want to be and at the same time trying to make it seem like you have it all together. And that’s all while you’re trying to pass all your classes; get a driver’s license; get the guy or girl you’re crushing on to notice you; deal with family dramas; deal with friendship dramas; make sure you don’t have food stuck in your braces; and make enough money to help pay for college.

I love talking with teens and getting emails and letters from them. I truly feel honored when a young person trusts me enough to open up to me.

A review copy of The Cupcake Queen was provided by the Penguin Group.