Sheila M. Averbuch is a former journalist who’s interviewed billionaires, hackers and would-be Mars colonists. She holds a 2019 New Writers Award from the Scottish Book Trust and lives with her family near Edinburgh. The middle-grade thriller Friend Me (Scholastic Press New York) is her first novel.
Photo Credit: Rob McDougall
Shelia can be found here:
My Kidlit News newsletter comes out a few times a year and includes great recommended middle grade reads. Find that at http://bit.ly/SMAsignup
Or, find me online
Tell me what inspired you to write your (debut) novel?
My son, then thirteen, scoffed at my suggestion to phone his friend to say happy birthday: he’d just text him, he said. I realised it’d be feasible for a young person to have a completely online friendship, never speaking or meeting. That, plus a horrible family experience with bullying, set my brain-wheels moving on the story that became my debut FRIEND ME: it’s about a bullied girl whose bully has a mysterious accident, and she starts to worry that her new best friend, who she only knows online, might be involved.
What came first the characters or the world?
The characters: I saw Roisin sitting alone at lunch; the most popular girl in school deciding to befriend her; and a third girl getting jealous as she watches this unfold.
How hard was it to get your first (debut) book published?
It was horrendously difficult to get published: I got 122 rejections across six manuscripts, all for middle grade. I’ll never forget the email from my agent in May 2019: “I’m thrilled to say that we have an offer from Emily Seife at Scholastic (US).” Jennifer Laughran, my superb agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, has been a stalwart support throughout.
How long did it take to write?
I wrote the first draft of FRIEND ME in seven months and by the ten-month mark had revised it enough for submission to publishers. My revision process is based on the workbook NOVEL METAMORPHOSIS by Darcy Pattison.
Do you have a writing playlist? If so do you want to share it?
No…I listen to river sounds via YouTube.
How many publishers turned you down?
I got 122 rejections across the six manuscripts I wrote; for FRIEND ME alone we got more than a dozen rejections. Getting published involves luck, and it’s a battle, but it’s one you can win. For me, key tools were joining SCBWI, studying plotting (mainly PLOT & STRUCTURE by James Scott Bell and SCREENPLAY by Syd Field) and revision, and researching agents via PUBLISHERS MARKETPLACE – watch for their occasional sales where for $15 you can spend a month searching their vast database of deals, agents and which editors have acquired what.
What kind of reactions have you had to your book?
Thank goodness the pro reviews were all positive (Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Horn Book), and School Library Journal gave the FRIEND ME audiobook a starred review. I watch Goodreads but not too closely: I’m most tuned into what booksellers and librarians say on there, and I find it easy to ignore bad reviews that aren’t from those types of reader.
What’s the favourite reaction you’ve had to your book?
The most gratifying reactions are from young readers: one so enjoyed the story of FRIEND ME that she read the whole book aloud to her mom.
What can you tell us about your next book?
It’s another techno thriller for middle grade. This time it’s about a shy 12-year-old who dreams of changing the world with technology, but whose life gets turned upside down when her family wins a jackpot of tech and cash from a generous billionaire.
Do you take notice of online reviews?
I enlisted my best writing buddy to look at Goodreads for me at first, but once I realised that most readers, including professional reviewers, enjoyed FRIEND ME I stopped worrying about the odd negative comment. With more than 100 written reviews on Goodreads, the book is holding steady at 3.9 stars out of 5. Please drop me a review there if you do read FRIEND ME at http://bit.ly/SMAgrfm — many US libraries pull in Goodreads reviews to show patrons.
Would you ever consider writing outside your current genre?
What did you do before (or still do) you became a writer?
I’m a technology journalist by training, now a tech copywriter, and divide my day between the two kinds of writing. I sit at different desks and use different computers for each, and whenever possible, I write my fiction outside.
Which author(s) inspire you?
Hilary Mantel, Jason Reynolds, Louise Erdrich, Frances Hardinge, Jonathan Stroud, Kelly Yang, Jandy Nelson.
Which genres do you read yourself?
I love contemporary realistic middle grade and YA but secretly dream of writing historical fiction
What is your biggest motivator?
The thought of writing a book that keeps a young reader glued to the pages is my greatest motivator.
What will always distract you?
How much (if any) say do you have in your book covers?
Scholastic Press New York were brilliant with the FRIEND ME cover and I trusted them to come up with the concept that would work, especially because so many of their sales are direct to reader via their book fairs. The design team agreed to change the body language of one character on the cover as it wasn’t in keeping with the story. Shout out to my editor Emily Seife; the art was created by Mike Heath and the design is by Elizabeth B. Parisi and Yaffa Jaskoll.
Were you a big reader as a child?
Yes, and I was probably the only 11 year old in Massachusetts in the 1980s reading all of Enid Blyton and The Chalet School; we bought them in Ireland on our regular trips there to see my father’s family.
What were your favourite childhood books?
STUART LITTLE, ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, THE FIVE FIND-OUTERS, THE CHALET SCHOOL.
Do you have a favourite bookshop? If so, which?
Portobello Bookshop in Edinburgh is my go-to: fantastic children’s section and super helpful staff.
What books can you not resist buying?
I’ll buy anything by Frances Hardinge or Jonathan Stroud
Do you have any rituals when writing?
I mustn’t sit at the desk where I do my day-job copywriting. I need my Pomodoro timer, and when it’s on, I won’t move away from the keyboard for anything (except screaming).
How many books are in your own physical TBR pile?
About five, all middle grade and YA.
What is your current or latest read?
I’m re-reading Frances Hardinge’s UNRAVELLER. The first read was for fun, and the second is to examine her stitching: plot clues, character introductions, scene setting and other craft details.
Any books that you’re looking forward to in the next 12 months?
I’m waiting for Torrey Maldonado’s next middle grade, out in January 2023: he also works as a schoolteacher and his middle grade voice is flawless.
Any plans or projects in the near future you can tell us about?
I’m counting the days till I go to Moniack Mhor in the Scottish Highlands in Feb 2023, where I do a yearly retreat. For me there’s no better place to think sustained thoughts, over days and nights, about my work in progress.
Any events in the near future?
I’ll probably volunteer again to offer some free school visits as part of World Read Aloud Day in February 2023, organised by Kate Messner. As well as doing a reading from FRIEND ME, the themes in the book allow me to do a cool show-and-tell with students, where they can vote on whether new robotics technology that I show them is cool or creepy.
And finally, what inspired you to write the genre you do?
I believe that, if I’m good with words, the single best thing I can do with that is write stories for young readers. Turn a young person into a reader and it can change their life. As an ex tech journalist, I finally realised, I have something unique to say about how tech is impacting childhood, and I think that (plus good luck) is what finally got me published.