Lisa Doan is the author of The Berenson Schemes. The first book of the series – Jack the Castaway was released on April 1, 2014. She received a master’s degree in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Visit her here.
NAW- Tell us about your book,The Berenson Schemes.How did you get the idea for it?What is it about? It’s going to be a series, right?
The Berenson Schemes is a middle-grade humor/adventure series – book 1 is “Jack the Castaway,” book 2 is “Jack and the Wildlife,” and book 3 is “Jack at the Helm.” The premise is a very responsible young man (Jack) saddled with completely irresponsible, globe-trotting parents who keep losing him in foreign countries. First, they lose him on a deserted Caribbean island and he has to learn how to survive, then they lose him on the Masai Mara of Kenya and he ends up homesteading in an acacia tree, and last they lose him in the wilds of Nepal and he has to white water raft to rescue himself. I got the idea for the series when I read an article about “helicopter parents,” and I thought what about a helicopter kid with very un-helicoptery parents? As with most humor, there’s a serious side to that. I think we’re in the middle of a bizarrely unbalanced situation these days where some kids have little to no supervision and guidance and some kids have WAY too much. I wrote these books for the kid who has Blackhawk parents who circle him like he needs to be rescued from every danger. It disturbs me that a kid who is micro-managed never learns to evaluate risk. Growing up is the time to define for yourself which risks are worth taking, and that can only be done by taking some. Failure is essential. In the books, it initially appears that Jack’s parents have it all wrong and he has it all right. After all, nobody ever complains about the overly careful kid – it’s the ones that set themselves on fire for a YouTube video that you have to worry about. But, Jack doesn’t really have it all figured out. Going through childhood in a bubble-wrapped world where every danger is removed from your path leads to an inability to cope with the normal ups and downs of life. As Jack faces a whale shark, a violent honey badger, an ornery elephant, crocodiles, a bear and white water rapids, he learns how to manage risk for himself. There is no one way to do it, because different people have different tolerances, and the only way to assess what works for you is to try things out!
NAW- Tell us about Jack’s character. How did you develop the character?
Jack was loosely based on someone I know. This person has always been more mature and responsible than his years. I tried to capture the tone of him in Jack, particularly a very amusing indignant outrage that surfaces when adults don’t measure up to his expectations. Which is often.
NAW- Will Jack continue to have more adventures in future? How many books in the series have you planned?
There are three books in the series. Jack the Castaway was released April 1, 2014. Jack and the Wildlife will be released on September 1st and Jack at the Helm will be released winter 15.
NAW- What made you decide to write for children? How difficult (or easy) is it to write for children?
I never actually decided, it just turned out that it’s what I wrote. I suspect authors can’t generally pick and choose, they just write what they write. It took me quite a while to figure it out though. I had this idea that a writer should be writing what they like to read, and I like to read Victorian literature. So, where was that going to go? Then a few years ago, I was living in the Caribbean and running a small (very small) restaurant. I always tried to think up a project to entertain myself through the tourist slow seasons. (One year I taught myself how to write a patent. In case I ever invented anything. Another year I built my own lampshades – no, I do not know why!) That particular year, I thought it would be fun to write a story for my niece and nephew. It WAS fun! It was also an awful mess, but thankfully I did not know that at the time so I just kept going. Had I known how long it would take, and how many practice novels I would write, before getting published, I would probably still be sitting in front of my very small Caribbean restaurant building lampshades.
NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?
I work as an Aging and Disability Resource Center Coordinator for three counties in the state of Pennsylvania. It’s a great job – I get to work on projects that are meaningful and make a positive impact on people’s lives. I am well-travelled; I spent a year backpacking across Africa and Asia, and spent eight years living in the Caribbean. I was fortunate to do the majority of my traveling when I did, there were no cell phones or internet. It was a time when you could still disappear into the world, which is a profoundly freeing experience. There is something about knowing that nobody in the entire world knows where you are that is really wonderful. (Until you get sick or in trouble with customs somewhere, in which case it transforms into horrifying.) I also like to learn something new on a regular basis – whether it’s HTML code or how to use herbal remedies. The internet is a goldmine for that. If you fish around, it is amazing how many little universes are out there for every conceivable interest.
NAW- Who are your favourite writers?
Charles Dickens is my number one. I really appreciate his humor; it feels effortless and springs from characterization. Sue Townsend, a British writer, has a hilarious children’s book series called “The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole 13 3/4s” Also, “The Secret Garden” and “The Little Princess” were favorites of mine when I was younger.
NAW- How do you write, planning the complete plot beforehand or do you let the book take its course? Take us through your writing process.
Well, I would like to say I plot everything ahead of time. That seems to be most the sensible route to take. But I tried it and never ended up writing that book. Outlines seem to leach the enthusiasm in some way. So I just write it. The reason that is not a very sensible approach (for me, anyway) is because when I am done writing it, I have to re-write it. Somehow, I can never see how it’s supposed to really look until I have written something and know it’s not supposed to look like that! As for ideas, they almost always come the same way – a vague premise and a title. Once I am done with a first draft, I go through it and write each action and meaningful element in the margins. This clarifies what exactly is going on in terms of plot arc and character arc. I usually find I have way too much going on, which is the result of not planning ahead. But that’s okay, I’ve resigned myself to knowing that I have to write that book, before I can write the book I meant to write in the first place. It is easy enough to copy the file and chop it to pieces, then if I find I don’t like my chopping, start over with another copy. I also find that this is a good time to find the connections your subconscious put in there for you – they always help strengthen the through line. This leads me to the conclusion that my subconscious is smarter than I am, but there’s nothing I can do about that!