Book Review and Author Interview: Shifty by Lynn E. Hazen

Fifteen-year-old Soli, a.k.a. Shifty, is a little confused. He has lived in foster homes almost all his life and has even spent some time in juvenile hall. He's always getting into trouble. He can't even go out to buy a burrito without getting into trouble. Soli doesn't know who his parents are. He doesn't even know what his race is. Is he Latino... ? Half Latino and half... ? Part black and part white... ?

Okay, so Soli is more than a little confused.

But his current foster home seems promising. There's Martha, his patient, caring, and understanding handicapped foster mother. There's Sissy, his sweet little foster sister. And there's Chance, a foster baby unfortunately born addicted to drugs. So they're a strange and unlikely bunch. But maybe, just maybe, Soli has finally found a family and a real home.

Shifty by Lynn E. Hazen (Tricycle Press, 2008) is a young adult novel with a slow pace, but I think that even the most impatient of teen readers won't abandon the book. They will keep reading because of its authentically portrayed characters and San Francisco setting. Author Lynn E. Hazen makes readers CARE about Soli, Martha, Sissy, Chance, and all of their ups and downs.

Today, I am happy to present an interview with Lynn E. Hazen.

Welcome to Into the Wardrobe, Lynn! What inspired you to write Shifty? What's "the story behind the story"?

The words “shifty” and “shiftless” were bouncing around in my mind about the same time I began to imagine an underage teenager driving a car (without a license). He was arguing with a young girl about something—I didn’t know exactly what. So I wrote the story to find out who the characters were and what their story might be. It takes place in San Francisco, my hometown, so the city as setting was also a strong pull into the story for me. I was a little nervous at first, writing a young adult novel, but it’s filled with humor, heart and hope--and I really like how the characters and story turned out.

I really like the characters and story, too. Shifty is truly filled with heart. :o) What was your creative process when writing Shifty?

I was in the MFA program at Vermont College when I quickly captured the first ten pages. My mentor that semester was the wonderful Alison McGhee. I had to send more pages every month so I wrote like crazy. It was like jumping off a very high cliff--kind of scary. But Alison kept demanding more pages (in a nice way) so I kept writing. It was an intense creative process. I had the first draft in about six months. Then I spent a long time revising.

How long did it take you to revise Shifty?

I began capturing the first draft while in Vermont College's MFA program in January 2003. I had a very rough draft by the end of that semester in July 2003. I revised off and on and Shifty won the Houghton Mifflin Scholarship at Vermont College. The story became my creative thesis when I graduated with my MFA in 2004. Still, I revised more with responses from my critique group, and a bit with my agent. In 2007 Shifty sold to Tricycle Press, (now part of Knopf/Random House) and I revised again with my editor, Abigail Samoun. Shifty was published in Fall 2008. So that took 5+ years. It has since been published in Australia and the UK, and was chosen as a Smithsonian Notable, a VOYA Top Shelf Fiction for Middle School Readers (Voice of Youth Advocates), and as a CCBC Choice (Cooperative Children's Books Center).

Soli and all the other characters in the novel (not just the main characters) seem so real. Did you draw from any real-life people, situations, or events for the novel?

One summer in college I worked in a camp for children and youth in foster care. Those youth really touched my heart, but Soli and Sissy are not based on any individual people I know. To read more about some ideas that came together for this novel, please see

What is your definition of "a bad writing day"?

A bad writing day? Hmm, I'm not sure there is a bad writing day. Many days are challenging, yes, frustrating sometimes, but even if I am not capturing the number of words or pages I'd like, even if I feel my progress is too slow during any given day or week or month, if I have a story in mind, I'm still thinking about my characters and imagining what they might do next. I'm also living my life; observing and interacting with children, youth and adults, friends and family; gathering and processing my own unique human experience. So even if I am not writing at all, my thoughts and feelings about everyday life might lead to some spark of creativity to explore on a "good" writing day. It's all connected, and of course, even on really good writing days, when my characters and scenes come alive and I am happy to have created them, I know I will be revising again soon.

Did you experience any “bad writing days” while writing Shifty? How did you deal with those days? What motivated you to keep going?

Ug, lots of challenging writing days, always. The deadlines of monthly packets due at Vermont College was very helpful. I had no choice but to keep writing. Getting feedback from my wonderful mentor, Alison McGhee, and later, my great critique group was also helpful.

What do you want teen readers to take away from Shifty?

I want them to remember Shifty, Sissy, Chance & Martha, to believe they are real for a while. I want them to remember Shifty as a good story, funny and full of heart, and maybe, just maybe, I hope readers might think, feel, and behave differently after they’ve read the story. If that happens or how it might happen would be unique I think to each reader. What each reader brings to the story would affect what he or she takes away from the book once they’ve read it.

What is your favorite response to Shifty from a teen reader?

Some teens have told me it is their favorite book ever. For an author, it does not get much better than that.

What kind of teen reader were you? What were your favorite books? Who were your favorite authors?

I read a huge variety of books in high school. I was all over the place. I had a great English teacher in high school who took a friend and me to Moe’s Books in Berkeley to choose used paperbacks—I remember just staring at the books from floor to ceiling and thinking, Wow!! It was a mind-opening experience. I remember reading Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and his short story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House.

What is your strongest memory from when you were Soli's age?

Good question. Hmm, when I was 15 1/2, in high school, I remember taking drivers ed and drivers training. I was afraid to go on the freeway. Learning to drive was a strong memory--I was both excited and fearful about it. Oh, and gas was only about 29 cents a gallon. I remember paying for my own gas with babysitting money! Hanging out with my friends was fun, going hiking and backpacking, wondering what my future held--and feeling sort of “in between” my childhood and whatever was coming next.

In Shifty, Soli seems also really concerned about driving and getting a driver's license!

What young adult book are you reading now?

I’m listening to Going Bovine on Audio CD while I try to straighten up my office full of creative clutter.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a middle grade novel, Swamped. I'm really excited about it, and I'm revising.

If you were to visit the Philippines, would you a) visit white sand beaches and underground caves, go sailing, go snorkeling and scuba diving, etc.; or b) check out the natural wonders above ground, like the Taal Volcano, the Banaue Rice Terraces, and the Chocolate Hills. Why?

I love snorkeling, but I’d be very interested in seeing natural wonders above ground too.

If I had you as my guide, I’d like to go wherever YOU think is interesting, especially if it’s not a typical tourist place. I like meeting real people and families, going where they go, trying local food. I’d love to see some schools and meet some teens in the Philippines, too. I guess I’m not a typical tourist, am I?

Thanks so much, Tarie, for inviting me Into the Wardrobe!

Thank you, Lynn!!

Readers, Shifty is now available in paperback. Below is the paperback cover.

[My copy of Shifty was provided by the publisher.]