Saturday, November 17, 2012

Author Spotlight & Giveaway: E.M. Kokie of Personal Effects

Today, WinterHaven has the pleasure of spotlighting E.M. Kokie of Personal Effects. She was gracious enough to answer our interview questions, and we have a review and giveaway of her book as well. Enjoy!
Personal Effects by E.M. Kokie
Publication Date: September 11, 2012
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Purchase: Amazon  |  Barnes & Noble

After his older brother dies in Iraq, Matt makes a discovery that rocks his beliefs about strength, bravery, and honor in this page-turning debut.

Ever since his brother, T.J., was killed in Iraq, Matt feels like he’s been sleepwalking through life — failing classes, getting into fights, and avoiding his dad’s lectures about following in his brother’s footsteps. T.J.’s gone, but Matt can’t shake the feeling that if only he could get his hands on his brother’s stuff from Iraq, he’d be able to make sense of his death. But as Matt searches for answers about T.J.’s death, he faces a shocking revelation about T.J.’s life that suggests he may not have known T.J. as well as he thought. What he learns challenges him to stand up to his father, honor his brother’s memory, and take charge of his own life. With compassion, humor, and a compelling narrative voice, E. M. Kokie explores grief, social mores, and self-discovery in a provocative first novel.
My Thoughts
Matt Foster has been struggling to recover from the death of his older brother who was killed in the Iraq war. There’s so much surrounding this tragedy that he can’t seem to comprehend, and living with a father that’s extremely distant and fierce, Matt struggles to make sense of it all. Then one day when a Casualty Assistance Officer delivers his brother’s personal effects, Matt discovers through his brother’s pictures and belongings that there was a part of his brother’s life he never really knew. Leaving everything behind, Matt sets out on a journey of discovery ultimately giving him the opportunity to grieve and somewhat heal from his loss.

“Embrace the suck…”

That’s Matt Foster's family motto. Right off the bat, I can’t help but want to hug the guy for having to live by such a harsh reality. Then as I learned more about this character and his struggles, my need to provide a gentle hug turned to a fierce embrace. There’s something about male POVs that clearly have a resounding affect on my emotional psyche and it doesn’t help when the character in question is so dame likeable and feels so truly real that I’m left with a sense of hoping and longing that his life takes a turn for the better. See that says something there… we’re talking about a fictional character and I’m left feeling like I met someone in real life and journeyed with them. If that’s not powerful, then I don’t know what is.

This sense of realism I feel can only be attributed to Kokie’s brilliant ability to be so descript and powerful with her writing that she’s able to blur the lines between the here and now and takes complete control of my imagination. I definitely immersed myself in this novel and when I was there in the moment, I felt every emotion, every hurt, every hope she conveyed through her main character Matt.

E.M. Kokie deserves some serious attention. Yes, I’m stating that as a clear and definite fact. This author truly hit a home run with her book Personal Effects. To say she spared no expense with her heartbreaking but never hopeless tale of grief, friendship and tolerance is a huge understatement. What’s even more impressive is that Personal Effects is her debut novel. I love that! A rookie author with a strong debut! ~claps enthusiastically~ I’ll be keeping my eye out for more of Kokie’s stories. She got herself a new fan.

5 Snowflakes
Author Interview
Congratulations on your debut novel Personal Effects! What a great way hit the YA Contemporary scene with such a powerful story. So can you share with us how long this writing project was in the works for you? What was your publishing experience like?
After years of letting fear of failure keep me from finishing any of the original story ideas I wanted to write, I made a pact with myself to write a novel. It didn't have to be good, and I didn't have to do anything with it, but I had to finish it. I joined SCBWI for support and information, and I joined a critique group to help work on my craft while I was writing and to add some pressure to write regularly so I could submit when it was my turn.

I wrote the first draft in about ten months. I then spent another five months or so researching, revising, getting critique from other writers and trusted readers, and then revising some more. In late 2008, I started querying agents. I queried slowly, a few agents at a time, and I did at least one more revision in between query rounds. In the fall of 2009 I felt my manuscript and my query were both working (getting interest from agents, with nice rejections) and I decided to query in larger batches. I ended up signing with one of the agents I queried in that first large batch of queries in August or September 2009, Chris Richman of Upstart Crow Literary. He and I did some more revision together between the fall of 2009 and the spring of 2010. In late spring 2010 he pitched the manuscript to editors and we accepted an offer from Candlewick Press mid-summer 2010.

Working with Candlewick has been an amazing experience. Every single person I have worked with -- starting with my amazing editor Andrea Tompa, and continuing with the copy editor and copy chief, the cover and interior designers, the marketing and sales staff, and the publicists I have worked with -- everyone has been professional, skilled, and wonderfully enthusiastic about their work and Personal Effects. It has been a pleasure working with them all. I could not have asked for more support or guidance or excitement from my publisher.

I’ve read very few novels that revolve around the effects war has on the soldiers' families, so I’m curious, what inspired you to write Personal Effects?
I didn't actually set out to write about the effects of war or a soldier's family. I was doing some free-writing exercises, sitting down and writing whatever came to mind, looking for a novel-length story idea to run with. In one of those sessions I wrote parts of what is now chapter two of Personal Effects.

For a long time it was the first chapter of the story. I had this scene with this amazingly angry kid, sitting in an office after a fight, waiting for his father. He was reliving and almost relishing the fight, but what he had done was also starting to sink in. He was so viscerally angry, and vulnerable, and he seemed so real. I wanted to know why he was so angry. I kept writing to find out, and to get to know him. I was actually surprised when I realized he was grieving the loss of his brother.

Once I was about five or six chapters in, and the story was starting to take shape, then I had to start making some plotting decisions. But by then I knew T. J. was dead, and how he had died. Then it became extremely important to me to make sure I got the details of the story right, including the details surrounding the notification of his family and the great efforts that are made to treat surviving family members with compassion and respect. I had to do massive amounts of research in order to get these discrete but important details right -- it became a matter of honor for me.

I have to say Matt Foster was the perfect narrator for this story. Male POV's tend to be one of my favorite voices. What made you decide to structure your novel through Matt's voice?
As I said above, I didn't make a conscious decision to write this story from his point of view. But once I had written that first scene, his voice and his character were so clear and compelling. I felt like I knew him. It was his story to tell. I found some male early readers who I trusted to be brutal in their critique and worked hard in the revision phase to make sure he read as "male" to readers, but while I was writing those early drafts Matt just seemed real and organic to me.

There's so much that happens in Personal Effects that pulls at the reader’s emotional strings. I can tell you, that when a particular "personal effect" was delivered to one of the characters in the later chapters I was on the verge of tears! It was such an emotional moment. So share with us, what was the hardest scene for you to write in this novel?
Oh, wow. So many scenes I struggled to get "right." Some scenes didn't work, and whole story subplots were cut in favor of others. But the scene I struggled with the most was the last scene. I struggled to find the right ending, one that was satisfying and allowed the reader closure and a compelling emotional resolution, but without any possible bow on top. I struggle with endings because I don't really think of the story as done. The book is done. The momentary glimpse into the character's world is done. But it's sort of like the camera pans away and the credits roll, the movie's over, but the characters and their world continue somewhere else. I love that sense as a reader that I've been allowed to eavesdrop, to catch this brief look into this world, this character's life, but that it was just a moment. It's tough to balance a satisfying ending without a clear finality. I hope I struck a satisfying balance.

Lastly, are there any future writing projects in the works that you can share with your fans? What’s next?
I had a hard time writing after Personal Effects was done. I struggled to find a new voice, new characters, and somewhere in there I forgot what it was like to first draft. I forgot the experimental, not-always-right feeling of writing a new and unknown story. I kept getting intimidated and frustrated, like the first draft should be better than a first draft can be. And it was difficult not to imagine my editor and agent looking over my shoulders as I struggled to put words (often the wrong words) on the page. I'd forgotten that it took me several drafts to really understand Matt completely, to figure out the best plotting and pacing for his story. But eventually I broke through on a new character and a new world and the story started to flow again. I can't say much yet, since it's not finished and still in the drafting stage, but it is another contemporary realistic YA novel, this time from the POV of a female character.

Thank you so much for chatting with us Ms. Kokie. We enjoyed having you here at WinterHaven!
Thank you for having me!
Author Bio
E. M. Kokie has always loved the way a good book could sweep her away, but she was a lazy student and never thought she could actually be a writer. So in between the usual tortures of high school, she made up stories, but kept them in her head. Now she shares her stories—specifically, novels about teens on the cusp of life-changing moments, exploring issues of identity and self-determination. Her
debut novel Personal Effects was published by Candlewick Press in September 2012.
Follow this author
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Courtesy of Candlewick Press, WinterHaven is giving away a copy of Personal Effects by E.M. Kokie to one WinterHaven follower. Just fill out the rafflecopter and share with us a thoughtful comment about this interview or why you'd like to read this book. Goodluck!
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  1. Great interview! Thanks for the awesome giveaway!

  2. This book sounds amazing, thank you for the international giveaway!

  3. I just finished a book with a military theme, If I Lie. This sounds like another fine read- thanks for the chance to win!

  4. This book seems awesome and I would love to read it! :) Thanks for the giveaway.

  5. This book sounds so good. This sounds like a book like you said you are in the story with the characters. You want to scream and yell at the book. You get really sad or happy with this book. This is the type of book I truly enjoy. Some books I feel like I'm just reading another book, then others I feel like I'm in the book. I feel like when there is someone acting like a ass to the main character I want to call then and tell them to piss off. I have to read this book. This review and interview was the one that really made me want to read this book.

    Thank you for such a great review,interview and giveaway

  6. reading this now . good luck 2 all

  7. This sounds like a great book, I would love to read it!

  8. Its sounds like a really good book. I would really want to read it

  9. I always like to read about life changing experience in books. You can identify with the characters, that's is the beauty in it! I would to read this one. Thanks for the chance!
    GFC: Gisele Alvarado (There's no extra box on the form)

  10. Can I just say what a relief to find someone who actually knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift.