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Interview with Deborah Kerbel

What were you trying to accomplish when you started writing Mackenzie, Lost and Found? What do you feel you’ve accomplished with the finished product?
When I first sat down to write this book, my goal was to explore the notion of what would happen to a typical Canadian teenager who was taken out of her comfort zone and dropped into a completely foreign environment. But as I got further along in the writing process, other themes emerged that begged to be addressed. Themes like interfaith relationships, the Arab-Israeli conflict, coping with loss, and cultural division in society. In the end, I feel like Mackenzie, Lost and Found offers a glimpse into a part of world that not many North American teenagers are familiar with. And I think it’s a romantic, exciting book that will leave readers thinking, asking questions, and remembering the importance of considering both sides to every story.

Why did you choose to write about Israel, particularly the religious-social tensions that exist there?
The idea of setting a book in Jerusalem came from a good friend of mine whose family had moved from Canada to Israel when she was a teenager. One day over lunch, she was explaining to me how that experience changed her life. It was one of those great ‘light-bulb moments’. I’d never before heard of a YA novel that was set in the Middle East and I knew right away that the concept was going to be the foundation of my next book. Authors, as you probably know, are always looking for new and original subjects to write about. And once I placed my characters in this conflicted setting, I couldn’t help but address the religious and social tensions of the region. Yes, the issues were challenging ones to tackle – but I’ve always loved a good challenge.

What sort of research did you have to do?
My friend Simone (the one who moved to Israel as a teenager) was my main source of information. She was really helpful! We went through her old photo albums and I grilled her for details –everything from enrolling in Ulpan, to sneaking into the hotel pools, to the smell of the markets in the souk. She was a fabulous resource.

But nothing can replace real-life experience. When I was in the final stages of writing the book, I was offered an opportunity to accompany my husband on a business trip to Israel. Of course, I jumped at that chance! Being there gave me the ability to really infuse my story with personal accounts of the country and its people.

What was the most difficult scene for you to write?
The scene that was the hardest to get right was the climactic end scene in Nasir’s apartment. I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, so all I will say is that I had to re-write this part many times trying to strike the perfect balance between the characters and lead the reader towards certain assumptions, without being too obvious about it.

Describe the development of your characters, especially Mackenzie and Nasir. Did you have a specific vision of them before the story came, or did they gradually evolve with the story?
Mackenzie was pretty much all there from the beginning. I had a very clear picture of who she was going into the writing process. Nasir, however, was definitely a character that evolved over time. I always knew he had to be conflicted between his father’s plans for him and his own personal hopes and aspirations – but the nuances of his character weren’t there originally. He was tricky for me to write, because I had no idea what the motivations and desires of an Arab teenage boy might be. After doing a lot of research into Arab-Israeli culture, a better picture of Nasir began to form in my head and he emerged in the story as a sensitive, caring, dreamer-type of kid.

Which of your characters can you relate to most and why?
I’d have to say, Mackenzie. There are always some subtle traces of me in every female main character I write about. So, Mackenzie and I do have a few things in common. Like her, I was pretty naive as a teenager. Also like her, I usually go out of my way to avoid confrontations. Also, neither of us can ever get a suntan.

What’s the most interesting or surprising thing you learned while writing this novel?
I love the great little facts that I learned while researching this part of the world. Like how all the buildings in Jerusalem must, by law, be built out of one particular kind of stone. And how the entire country of Israel is about the same size as the state of New Jersey.

What can I say? I’m a trivia nerd, so small details like this appeal to me.

On the writing side, I learned a great ‘character’ insight from an author friend of mine who read the first draft of Mackenzie, Lost and Found. She taught me that there should be no such thing as a purely ‘evil’ character in a book – that even the worst of characters must have a good side.

What is the most rewarding part about being a YA author?
Connecting with kids! Writing about teens and speaking with them about my books really helps keep me in touch with that exciting stage of life when everything moves at high speed...when emotions are felt so intensely and experiences are fresh and new. And because I work from home, I get to stay connected to the two most important kids in my life – my 6 year old son and my 3 year daughter. Nothing beats it!

If there was one thing you could change about Mackenzie, Lost and Found, what would it be?
Ha! Definitely the typo that everyone keeps pointing out to me. In the editing stage, I switched Nasir’s voice around from 3rd person to 1st person...and finally back to 3rd person. And one little word got lost in the shuffle.

What are you working on next?
For my next YA, Girl on the Other Side, I used alternating narratives to tell the story of two opposite teenage girls whose lives come crashing together through a series of strange events. I’m really excited about this book – so far, the feedback has been awesome. Watch for it to be coming out in November, 2009.

Also, I just finished up another YA manuscript that I’m calling Bye-Bye, Evil Eye which is kind of a paranomalish mystery, comedy, romance about the Evil Eye...very different from anything else I’ve ever written.

So currently I’m in between manuscripts...taking a much-needed creative break. Phew!


Don't forget to visit Deborah online at: http://www.deborahkerbel.com/

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