When I was about ten years old, I stole a roll of ribbon from a fabric store. The roll had maybe two feet left on it and for some reason I can’t explain now, I had to have it. That night I felt so guilty, and I confessed my transgression to my mother in tears. Knowing she couldn’t punish me more than I was punishing myself, she scolded me briefly and sent me to bed.
So my question in reading The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower was whether I could relate to and believe in a character who could plan to steal $9,000. As it turns out, I could and I did.
When Bernetta is framed for a crime at her exclusive private school, she isn’t expelled, but loses her scholarship and loses the “best friend” who set her up. Bernetta is grounded for the summer and faces the scary thought of attending the local public school. The only solution that she can see is to come up with the tuition and go back to the only school she’s ever known. So when a boy comes into her life with a chance to turn her quick magician hands into easy money, she decides to give it a try. But the life of a con artist isn’t simple, and trust is hard to come by.
The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower would be great for a book club because there is so much left open for discussion in the character and the plot. But don’t take my word for it let’s talk to the author, Lisa Graff. (And then we’ll find out how you can win a FREE AUTOGRAPHED BOOK.)
When did you start pulling together the concepts for The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower?
I guess it all started back in 2004, during my first year in graduate school (at the New School, where I studied Writing for Children). I had this crazy idea to see if I could write a con artist novel for kids, and everything sort of came out of that. At first I thought my protagonist would be a boy, because the main characters in these sorts of capers always seem to be boys, but I was having trouble coming up with a character who could do all these awful things namely, steal $9,000 from innocent bystanders and still somehow come off as sympathetic. But when I stumbled upon the idea that the protagonist should be a girl, that’s when it really came together. From there I created my unlikely con artist a frizzy-haired girl named Bernetta who liked to chew on the pages of her books as she read them. That’s all I really knew about her. That, and the fact that for some reason she needed to pull together $9,000. So then my job was to figure out her back story why did she need the money? How did she come up with her con artist plan? And what made her so good at thievery, if she’d never attempted it before? Thus was born Bernetta’s loss of her private school scholarship, the mysteriously adorable Gabe with his incredible knowledge of movies, and Bernetta’s background in magic.
Where did you get your ideas for the unusual aspects of the character a magician’s assistant? A con artist? A prime number counter?
I’d been mulling over the idea of putting a professional magician into one of my novels for a long time. But then I realized how perfect it would be for Bernetta’s father to be a magician, because by performing as his assistant Bernetta could develop the necessary sleight-of-hand skills that would later serve her as a con artist. Plus, it gave her a stepping stone into the world of the con man after all, what is being a magician, if not tricking people for money? It was an interesting relationship to explore.
The con artist idea itself arose out of my infatuation with con artist movies. I guess I just wanted to try my hand at telling a story in that genre. Bernetta’s awesome math skills came out of the realization that magic and mathematics often go hand in hand so many people who are passionate about one are also fascinated with the other. And I gave her the particular quirk of counting by prime numbers when she’s stressed as a sort of mini-nod to my little brother Robert (who is now 12 and a bit of a numbers genius himself).
Whose books do you read to keep your creative juices flowing?
I feel that I have a very fluid voice as an author, by which I mean that I don’t always write in the same style. This can be a lot of fun, because it allows me to experiment with different genres and voices, and I don’t feel like I’m tied down, always telling the same sorts of stories. But it can also be a bit cumbersome, in that it can feel like I’m reinventing the wheel when I begin a new book. So I like to read books that are similar in style to the ones I’m trying to write. For my first book, The Thing About Georgie, I read novels by authors who wrote that sort of classic “school story” middle-grade, like Louis Sachar and Andrew Clements. When I was working on Bernetta I read more of the twisty-turny sorts of books, like The Westing Game. And for the book I’m working on now, which has a rather nostalgic, down-homey type feel, I’ve been reading books like A Corner of the Universe and Because of Winn-Dixie.
And lately I’ve been trying to read more books for grown-ups, just for fun. I recently finished Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which was absolutely amazing (even if it did take me six months to plow through it).
Why did you feel the need to write this book, especially given that you’re making the protagonist a con artist?
I don’t think I realized when I set out how challenging it was going to be to write a book about a child con artist. Part of the joy of watching heist movies, I think, is getting the chance to root for the bad guy. We don’t watch Ocean’s Eleven and think, “Now, seriously, George Clooney, do you really need to steal all those millions? Mightn’t there be a better way to solve your problems?” and then get all worried about the guy and just wish he’d stop his criminal ways and go get some counseling already. No. We just let it go and have fun with it. But when it’s a kid doing all that bad stuff, we do worry and rightfully so. No twelve-year-old should be out and about stealing thousands of dollars (neither should George Clooney, but we’ll let that slide). So my challenge was to find a character who you could watch do these terrible deeds and understand that she wasn’t maybe doing the wisest thing, but you’d want to stick around long enough to see what happens anyway. And hopefully you’d have a lot of fun along the way.
How does this book reflect your own life experiences?
Well, aside from that $9,000 I scammed off the... oh no, wait, my parole officer told me I wasn’t supposed to mention that...
Honestly? I’ve never so much as stolen a pack of gum. I am a straight-up, boring-as-a-blank-piece-of-paper, Goody Two Shoes. I didn’t go to private school, my father is not a professional magician (I think my dad knows, like, one card trick), and I’ve certainly never been framed by my ex-best friend. (That I know of. Hmmmm...) The only thing in the book that resembles any aspect of my life at all is Colin, Bernetta’s six-year-old brother, who is based almost entirely on my little brother David. David was six when I began writing the book, and he is as goofy and hilarious as they come. And he did, in fact, use to run around with oven mitts on his hands shouting “Give me two!” It was rather adorable.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently finishing up revisions for my third novel, which I would gladly tell you the title of, except for the fact that it yet doesn’t have one. (Anyone want to name my novel? At this point I’ll take anything that sounds good; it doesn’t have to make sense at all. Ferrets Come Home is sounding pretty appealing, actually...) The book is about a girl who has become a bit of a hypochondriac after her older brother dies. It’s a fairly weighty theme but it is, I think, really a very funny one too.
For those of you who’d like to read more, Lisa visited Miss Erin yesterday, and tomorrow she’s dropping in at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
And if you’d like a free, autographed copy of The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower, be one of the first three people to email HarperCollins (at Jill.Santopolo@harpercollins.com) today. Mention the interview at MotherReader, and don’t forget to include your address. If you don’t win that way, then head over to Lisa’s Blog for a super fun prize that includes a copy of the book. You just have to share your own shady story and my ribbon-stealing tale is off-limits.