Debut Author Elisabeth Dahl Dramatizes Baltimore Private School Life

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RPCS Alum Elisabeth Dahl’s first novel, Genie Wishes (ABRAMS/Amulet), which was released Tuesday, tells the story of fifth grader Genie Haddock Kunkle, whose name, she herself acknowledges, sounds like “some weird instrument you’d only see in music class.” Targeting readers ages 8-12, the readable book tracks a year of both difficult and charming change for class blogger Genie and her private school peers. I read the graceful novel in two absorbed sittings, laughed, fought a lump in my throat, and forgot my grownup status for several welcome stretches.

Top-dog reviewers agree with me. Publishers Weekly calls Genie Wishes an “upbeat slice-of-life novel.” “Girls should identify and mothers should approve of this gentle tale of growing up,” says Kirkus Reviews.

Dahl attended Calvert School as a faculty kid until sixth grade – her single mother taught there – then switched to Roland Park Country School, where she received a Samuel Ready Scholarship. She graduated from Johns Hopkins and later lived in California and D.C. before returning to Baltimore with her husband and son in 2003.

Hopkins Country Day, the school Genie attends, feels like a creative (and compassionate) composite of Baltimore’s more progressive private schools, including those that Dahl attended. And Genie herself reminds me a bit of her creator in other ways: the quick wit, quiet humor, and writerly focus.

I talked to Dahl about her writing process, her drawings featured in the book, her use of Baltimore as backdrop, what she’s working on now, and whether she’s still similar in important ways to one Genie Kunkle.

 

When did you begin the novel and what was your process like?

I began this book in February of 2009, when my son was in fourth grade. I reasoned that if I was ever going to write for a younger audience, this was the time — when I was steeped in the world of Legos, chicken fingers, and hamster erasers. I’d written some fiction at Hopkins (undergrad) and Georgetown (grad school) and continued to write some during my freelance editing and writing years, but this was my first attempt at a book-length manuscript. The character, voice, and accompanying drawings came easily, and I wrote the first draft quickly during a quiet winter period. But it needed help. As my first agent once put it, “It was art.” What she meant was, it wasn’t exactly weighed down by plot, and it might be tough to sell to editors. I had to work on that. And to that end, I did a significant amount of revision with both my agent and my editor.

Tell me about the lovely illustrations. How long have you been drawing? How’d you start? How did your drawing brain affect the writing process?

I’ve always loved books with illustrations. I’m drawn in particular to the simplest of line drawings, like the ones in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, or those that are slipped in coyly within columns of The New Yorker. Though my primary training isn’t in art, I thought the drawings would provide another dimension to the main character. They were part of the book from the very first hour and helped keep me going through to the last.

Growing up, I spent many, many hours with my grandmother’s sister, Nancy Kirk, who worked as a graphic artist at the Maryland Academy of Sciences. When I was little, her office was at the Pratt’s Central Branch. And while she was a better artist than I’ll ever be, she taught me a lot about color and composition and proportion and capturing small details that expressed larger truths. I have three of her original posters on my office wall today.

Dahl's office, where she writes and draws.
Dahl’s office, where she writes and draws.

There’s much carefully rendered, literary prose in this novel – for instance, antagonist Blair’s BIG introduction: “She had long white-blond hair, shoes with little heels, and a hot-pink tote bag that said “BOYZZZZ!” There is poetry of character: I think of Uncle Mike’s amazingly novel inventions and widower Dad’s comforting and realistic courtship… And I’d like to ask you about the process of writing for young adults. How did you navigate these waters so well? Were you at all careful not to put off adult readers by chance?

Thanks so much for your kind words about the prose. I wanted to make this novel as literary as possible without exceeding the bounds of how a fifth-grade girl would likely express herself. For instance, there’s a point near the end of the book where Genie’s thinking about the passage of time as she’s experiencing it, and the prose gets more elevated, to express the more abstract thinking she’s doing.

It’s interesting that you mention adult readers — it’s true, I was thinking of adults as well as children as I wrote. I think that writers sometimes get too cute when writing in the voice of a younger person, so that they end up creating a caricature of a child’s voice rather than an actual child’s voice. I think that’s what makes adult readers cringe about children’s literature sometimes.

I love all of the references to Baltimore life, most thinly veiled in clever new names. Maryland Art College or MAC, where Genie’s dad teaches, is so MICA. Tween Life reminds me of Girls’ Life. But Fallsway Pool might be my favorite reinvention because I like the fact that Genie wants a friend who goes there more than a friend with a country club pass. Without giving away too much, what insight can you give us into your characterization of Baltimore, both journalistic and invented?

You’re right, this book isn’t set in Narnia or Middle Earth — this is very much set in one part of modern-day Baltimore. But yes, there’s thin veiling everywhere; I wanted to convey the essential truths of places (row houses, neighborhoods, private schools [in composite], swim clubs, coffee shops, and the city generally) while retaining the freedom to make things up for the sake of the story. I think the only Baltimore locale that I dropped in straight was the Walters Art Museum.

Genie is a fantastic narrator. Years of writing school taught me that our narrators often mirror ourselves in many ways! How does yours?

I’m glad you like her! Genie has some of the same experiences and observations that I had as a fifth grader, but her responses are more measured than mine. She’s really very relaxed and philosophical about the changes that are happening in her class. In that way, she’s more like my son (who’s now 13) than she is like me.

What draws you to your native city, as an artist, a mom, a citizen of the world?

I lived in California (Berkeley/Oakland) from 1992 to 1994, and then again from 1997 to 2003. From 1994 to 1997, I lived in DC. Living outside of Baltimore for so long was excellent and essential, but I also enjoy being back. I like the scale of Baltimore for everyday life with a child. I think it’s a Goldilocks city — not too big and not too little, but just right. And while it’s close to bigger cultural hubs like New York, it’s far more affordable, a fact that enhances its appeal to people of all artistic bents.

I know that you have one novel for adults in advanced process. How does the act of inventing a story for a grown-up audience differ from the process of writing for kids?

I do write faster when writing for kids; it’s a little less laborious. But the essential work doesn’t change that much. Whatever the project, creating a first draft is like blowing up a balloon with your mouth. You start with a limp, rubbery idea, then gradually breathe life into it. The process can make you lightheaded. And sometimes (or often) you lose your grip and the whole thing flutters off, whistling wildly as it zigzags back to earth.

What are you working on now?

The adult novel revisions you refer to are very much on my mind (and desk), as is a second children’s novel (with more line drawings). More generally, I’m learning to negotiate the world of self-promotion — a necessity for the modern-day author. It’s a somewhat awkward process, but I’m fortunate to be confronting it at all.

 

Elisabeth Dahl grew up in the Oakenshawe neighborhood of Baltimore and attended Calvert School and Roland Park Country School. She went on to study literature and writing at Johns Hopkins (B.A., Phi Beta Kappa) and Georgetown (M.A., Writing Center Associate Fellowship). Her first book–Genie Wishes, a children’s novel with line drawings–was released by Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS, on April 2, 2013. Her shorter pieces have appeared at NPR.org, at TheRumpus.net, in the Little Patuxent Review, and here at BaltimoreFishbowl.com. In addition to writing, Elisabeth works as a freelance copyeditor. She now lives with her family just north of the city limits, in Idlewylde. Visit her website.

Dahl will be interviewed on WYPR’s The Signal tomorrow evening at 7. 

Her book launch party this Saturday at 4 p.m. at the Children’s Bookstore in Roland Park is open to the public. 



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