Students get the backstory
By JILL WILSON
Published May 14, 2007
Students in Susan Houser's sixth-grade language arts class at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg have been following the serialized novel El Lector and doing their own research projects on the history of Ybor City. From designing clothes from that era for Bella and her grandfather to creating architectural models of notable buildings in cigar box dioramas to examining the art of cigar rolling, these students have become experts on Ybor's rich history.
Experts know where to find the best information when studying a particular topic - the source. In this case, that source is author William Durbin, who was happy to answer questions from the Marshall students.
Samantha Miker: Why did you want to write a book about lectors and how did you get the idea?
Durbin: Back in 1999 I listened to a program on National Public Radio called Lost and Found Sound, and they did a story on the cigar factory lectores which was called, "Cigar Stories." Ybor City sounded like such a special place that I started researching the time and the people. My editor agreed that it would be a perfect subject for a book. And luckily, I was invited to visit some schools in Pinellas County, which really helped me understand what South Florida is like.
Clayton Richardson: Have you ever seen a lector?
Durbin: No. Only in a film version. Lectores haven't been around in Florida since the 1930s.
Johnny Swain: Why did you choose to write historical fiction for young people?
Durbin: I was looking for a good action adventure idea for a young adult novel and my son suggested writing about the French Canadian voyageurs - men who paddled canoes from Montreal to Minnesota 200 years ago - and I found some exciting stories that became my first book, The Broken Blade. It's still my best seller.
Eva Johnson: Is there going to be a movie based on El Lector?
Durbin: A producer named Jane Startz has the option to do a film, but as yet, nothing has happened. She did say that Penelope Cruz and Jennifer Lopez have both read the book.
Albert Clipper: Have you ever rolled a cigar?
Durbin: No. But I've seen the cigar rolling demonstration at the Ybor City Museum.
Kara Holzerland: How long did it take you to write El Lector?
Durbin: The rough draft took me about a year. Then my editor at Random House and I sent it back and forth for another year. I'm usually working on three books at the same time, and while I'm doing my research and writing, I also do a lot of traveling, speaking at schools and conferences.
Shalia Roland: Was it hard for you to write from a girl's point of view and did most girls like the book?
Durbin: It was very hard for me to write from a girl's viewpoint. Without the help of my wife and my editor, Wendy Lamb, I couldn't have done it. Most girls like the book a lot. In fact, it was just named to the American Library Association's Amelia Bloomer List, which recognizes books that have strong female characters.
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Some students wondered what would be the topic of Durbin's next book and if he would be interested in writing one set in recent history. Lindsey Lacasse suggests a story set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Jason Wannamaker thinks a story during the early days of NASA would be a winner.
Durbin: Thanks for the story ideas, Jason and Lindsey. I do have a new book coming out next February titled The Winter War, and it deals with Russia's invasion of Finland in 1939. It's told from the viewpoint of a young messenger boy on the front lines. War was very hard to write about, but a number of Winter War veterans shared their stories with me and really helped me make the book true to life.