Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Janis Joplin and Ann Angel

JANIS JOPLIN: RISE UP SINGING by Ann Angel, won the 2011 YALSA Nonfiction Award. “From the cover art and the interior design to the compelling personal narrative, this is a pearl [!] of a book,” said YALSA Nonfiction Award Chair Don Latham.

I was delighted about the award, since I know Ann from Vermont College days and Joplin’s music long before that. (Just the other day I was shopping at Trader Joe’s and Joplin's “A Piece of My Heart” began playing, stopping me in my tracks in the olive oil and pasta aisle) However, I must admit, I was surprised by the award. Not because it’s not a superb book, but considering the ruckus “scrotum” caused a few years ago, how would the public respond to a plentitude of sex, drugs, and rock & roll? To Janis Joplin as YA role model? I asked Ann…..

Why Janis Joplin?

I loved her unique style and powerful, powerful voice. She just blew me away the first time I heard her and, somehow, her story has always broken my heart even as it encouraged me to be an individual. Her independence gave me the courage to be independent and her uniqueness gave me the courage to be me. When I listen to her, the experience is actually visceral in the way I fall into her blues.

What does she offer to young adults today?

I think she's a flawed hero who continues to serve as a role model for teens who are looking for their own talents, unique style, and independence. She also serves as a cautionary tale because of her death.

How did the book come to be?

I've wanted to write Janis's biography for as long as I can remember. At first, I thought she'd be a good chapter in a book about women in rock and roll. But then Susan Van Metre, my editor for Such a Pretty Face, and I were talking and I told her I'd always wanted to write about Janis. She also loved Janis. I wrote a proposal and it was accepted. I had no idea how I was going to obtain new interviews because I'd heard that most family and friends were pretty untrusting of writers who wanted to analyze Janis.

Whom did you interview about her? How close to her – family, friends – did you get?

It took quite awhile, but I managed an off-the-record interview with Laura Joplin [her sister] who said the book was a good idea but didn't want to be included in formal interviews. From there I interviewed photographers who had met Janis, Janis's old bandmates, and her road manager. Much of my interviewing was with guitarist and friend Sam Andrew, and with Janis's good friend and publicist Myra Friedman. Myra herself had written Buried Alive, which chronicles Janis's stardom and struggle with drugs. Myra and I continued to talk with one another in Sunday afternoon telephone conversations long after the interviews were done. She died this past October and I miss hearing from her. She had so many more stories to tell.

How did you decide how much to include?

I was limited to 100 pages by my contract, so that limited me a bit. My editor told me to be honest and thorough, while keeping in mind this is an introduction to Janis for most YA readers. She and I both agreed that I would include the drugs and sex and alcohol and, if it became too heavy-handed, it would be dealt with in editing. I don't think much, if anything, was removed in that way.

Tell me about the photo research.

The pictures took almost two years to research and select. I would contact photographers whose work I had seen, and they would email me with all of their Janis photos. I'd select a few that represented Janis at different periods of her life. The web was an invaluable tool here. Toward the end, I had to fill in periods of time when few photos were taken, or that were only recorded by family who had promised childhood photos, but a change in the estate's management made them too slow in coming. I spent long hours trying to fill those in. Sam Andrew helped a lot with photos he owned. But I also found some of the strongest photos though the Port Arthur Library, the Museum of the Gulf Coast, and the Smithsonian collections.

Did you have input to the book design?

I was fortunate in that Susan, my wonderful editor, asked me what I hoped to see. As I recall, I told her I wanted a book with large images that were woven throughout the book, pages large enough so that the book could be set down and remain open to the photo pages. At one point, I mentioned that I would like to see a collage effect. I'm not sure if that influenced the amazing designer Maria Middleton, or if she came up with the psychedelic collage effect on her own. But I just love it. When I first saw the page designs, I had trouble setting them down and actually found myself petting the pages.

What sort of response have you gotten from young people, teachers, librarians?

High school teachers and librarians who work with teens get it that flawed heroes are important to the teen experience. Janis can do for teens now what she did for many of us back when we listened to her the first time. In my award acceptance speech, I said that I believe Janis has a necessary place in young adult nonfiction. "Who better to show teens that theirs are not the only messy and imperfect lives?" Who better, then, to show hypercritical teens that, despite their own flaws, "they can rise up and become the heroes in their own stories." From the responses I'm getting, almost all extremely positive, teachers, librarians and young people recognize that value.

What was your reaction to winning the YALSA award?

It felt like I was walking with diamonds on the soles of my shoes for at least a month. I still can't believe it! But then I think about Janis. I used to dream about her and she loved the idea of a do-over in my dreams. I think her energy and voice -- both of which have survived over all these years --made this award possible. I'm so grateful to her influence even from the grave. And I'm so grateful to the entire editorial team that loved this book enough to give it their very best.

PS. Ann will answer comments and questions from you on the Comments page.

Breaking News from Ann: "I just learned yesterday that Janis Joplin won the 2010 Council for Wisconsin Writers Kingery/Derleth Book-length Nonfiction Award. As a YA crossover book, I'm pleased that the book was in competition with adult nonfiction, showing that it truly bridges generations. The book is also a CCBC Choices 2011 book in Biography and Autobiography.


April Pulley Sayre said...

Can't wait to read your book, Ann. Gretchen, thanks for shining the light on it. Hooray for fearless nonfiction!

ashirwaad-holiday-apts-goa said...

Janis was indeed unique. Where can I get this book?