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Pitch Wars Team Interview with Shawn Barnes and his mentor, Karen Fortunati

Wednesday, 7 September 2016  |  Posted by Brenda Drake

PW Interviews

Our mentors are editing, our mentees are revising, and we hope you’re making progress on your own manuscript! While we’re all working toward the Agent Showcase on November 3rd-9th, we hope you’ll take a moment during your writing breaks and get to know our 2016 Pitch Wars Teams.

And now, we have …


Shawn Barnes

Shawn Barnes – Mentee

Twitter | Website


Karen Fortunati – Mentor

Twitter | Website


Why did you choose Karen Fortunati?

Shawn: Karen’s forthcoming debut, THE WEIGHT OF ZERO, about a teen struggling with bipolar disorder, resonates with me. I’m part of the support network for a family member with bipolar disorder. I hoped she would be attracted to a story that focuses primarily on inner conflict (she was). We share an interest in history and our spouses are medical health professionals. I also appreciate that we’re, um, old vintage seasoned generationally compatible.

Why did you choose CHILDREN OF THE DUST?

Karen: It was a trifecta of compelling story, voice and spectacular writing that did it for me. Shawn has created a main character, seventeen-year-old Matt Hayes, who I instantly connected with. That first chapter reeled me right in with Matt lovingly caring for his adopted, Vietnamese, severely handicapped sister, a complete love named Mae. The unique hook of the story to me is that Matt’s conflict doesn’t have a clear-cut solution. Matt struggles over the natural need for independence versus duty to his family – the money he provides, the physical help his mother needs as she battles rheumatoid arthritis and the childcare required by his four younger siblings. All of these responsibilities are amplified by an urgency to do right and avoid the sins of his father who abandoned the family four years earlier. As I read, I debated over what the right course was. I felt like I was learning right alongside Matt as to what the best decision was.

The other aspect I loved was that the story shines a spotlight on a little publicized aspect of the Vietnam War – the unwanted children fathered by American soldiers, the “children of the dust.” Matt’s family has adopted three of these children and that historical fact brilliantly parallels Matt’s family situation. Shawn weaves these themes effortlessly into the story.

Summarize your book in three words:

Shawn: Honor, courage, compassion

Summarize CHILDREN OF THE DUST in three words.

Karen: Longing, responsibility, hope

Tell us about yourself. What makes you and CHILDREN OF THE DUST unique?

Shawn: I’m a husband, father, and stepfather. I’m a grandfather of two little ones, struggling to learn how to tell them “no.” I live outside the metro area of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I raise egg laying chicken and weeds (That’s weeds, NOT weed). I’ve taught 10th grade U.S. History for 22 years. I love it and am humbled by the responsibility (it also provides a goldmine of material). The MS, set in 1983, has a good mix of what Tim O’Brien called “story-truth” and “happening-truth.” It explores an aspect of the Vietnam War somewhat untouched in fiction–the adoption by American families of unwanted and often damaged Vietnamese children fathered by U.S. soldiers. The South Vietnamese called them, “children of the dust.”

Tell us about yourself. Something we might not already know.

Karen: This was my first time mentoring in Pitch Wars and I was stunned at the quality of writing! It was so much harder a task than I ever imagined. I honestly feel like I could have worked with 98 percent of them but I requested about seven full manuscripts and further agonized over the selection. Each one had tremendous voice and great hooks. Ultimately, I went with Shawn’s because I loved CHILDREN OF THE DUST and felt like I had a pretty solid idea for revision. Bottom line: this PW competition is fierce. After going through this, I felt a little better because four or five years ago, I competed with my middle grade manuscript and didn’t get chosen.

Check out Karen Fortunati’s upcoming book . . .

WeightofZero_front cover new12.indd

Releasing from Random House/Delacorte on Oct. 11, 2016

Seventeen-year-old Catherine Pulaski knows Zero is coming for her. Zero, the devastating depression born of Catherine’s bipolar disease, has almost triumphed once, propelling Catherine to her first suicide attempt. With Zero only temporarily restrained by the latest med du jour, time is running out. In an old ballet shoebox, Catherine stockpiles medications, preparing to take her own life before Zero can inflict its own living death on her again.

But Zero’s return is delayed due to unexpected and meaningful relationships that lessen Catherine’s sense of isolation. These relationships along with the care of a gifted psychiatrist alter Catherine’s perception of her diagnosis as a death sentence. This is a story of loss and grief and hope and how the many shapes of love – maternal, romantic and platonic – impact a young woman’s struggle with mental illness.







Thank you for supporting our Pitch Wars Teams! And remember, there’s a #PitMad Twitter pitch party on September 8th.



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