I’m so happy to be interviewing the delightful Kim Ventrella, today. Kim is an SCBWI Oklahoma region member I’m just getting to know, and I’ve been dying to ask her some in-depth questions. Like what’s behind her extensive skeleton collection? How much does her dog, Hera, actually help her writing process? And more importantly, what inspired her highly anticipated debut novel, SKELETON TREE, which comes out this month?
Let’s find out.
Kim lives in Oklahoma City with her faithful furry companion, Hera. She moonlights as a children’s librarian when she’s not writing books, fighting crime, or killing houseplants. (I’m beginning to think her bio has been padded. That houseplants thing is a little far-fetched, if you ask me.)
She has been know to actually seek out places where skeletons dwell. To even pose for pictures with them, and dress them up in fancy hats and wigs. Some might call that weird, I call that amazing! How else would we get such an awesome-looking book?
Before the interview, let’s take a closer look at Kim’s book:
Twelve-year-old Stanly knows the bone growing in his yard is a little weird, but that’s okay, because now he’ll have the perfect photo to submit to the Young Discoverer’s Competition. With such a unique find, he’s sure to win the grand prize.
But, oddly, the bone doesn’t appear in any photos. Even stranger, it seems to be growing into a full skeleton…one that only children can see.
There’s just one person who doesn’t find any of this weird–Stanly’s little sister. Mischievous Miren adopts the skeleton as a friend, and soon, the two become inseparable playmates.
When Miren starts to grow sick, Stanly suspects that the skeleton is responsible and does everything in his power to drive the creature away. However, Miren is desperate not to lose her friend, forcing Stanly to question everything he’s ever believed about life, love, and the mysterious forces that connect us. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)
Valerie Lawson: Your debut novel, SKELETON TREE, has such an intriguing premise, what sparked the idea for this story?
Kim Ventrella: I wondered what would happen if a boy discovered a finger bone growing in his backyard. The story evolved from there, becoming much more than I had anticipated.
VL: What a great beginning. I can’t wait to read where the story goes from there!
I absolutely love the book trailer for THE SKELETON TREE, what can you tell us about it? (You can view the book trailer below.)
KV: Artist Jerry Bennett and Filmmaker Zac Davis did an amazing job putting together the trailer. I had gone to see their award-winning short film, Even in Death, and after that I knew they would be perfect for the job. It captures just the right mix of wonder, spookiness and whimsy.
VL: You seem more than fascinated (dare we say obsessed?) with skeletons – I love following your hashtag #skeletonspotting, by the way – where did this deep interest in skeletons come from?
KV: I don’t know if it’s a deep interest (ha!), but I have always been fascinated with the macabre. Scary stories are a great way to confront monsters in a safe environment. Readers can learn from the character’s journey that it’s possible to overcome those spooky skeletons we all have in our closets.
VL: So true! Better to tackle them in the pages of fiction than in real life. (Checks closet for skeletons.)
Your story tackles the difficult subject of death, one not many adults are comfortable dealing with. Talk about why you thought it important to address this issue in a children’s book.
KV: My grandfather passed away suddenly not long before I started Skeleton Tree. I didn’t initially intend for it to be a book about death, but that was just how the story unfolded. It became a sort of canvas on which I could put forward my own vision of how Death could look, if we chose to experience it through a different lens.
I wanted to create a Death full of meaning, beauty, friendship and understanding. I strongly believe that books are one of the best ways for children to make sense of the world around them, to experience tough topics in a safe space, and that includes dealing with death.
VL: How beautiful. That’s quite an homage to your grandfather, too. I just love that.
What were some of your biggest fears as a kid? Were you ever afraid of the dark, of anything under your bed or in your closet?
KV: I was very scared of ghosts in particular when I was a child, which is perhaps why I embraced the macabre. I used to have night terrors, night paralysis and visual disturbances (i.e. I very vividly ‘saw’ ghosts on several occasions as a child).
For me, reading scary stories has always been the equivalent of performing a big Riddikulus spell on those creepy real-life monsters. Seeing others triumph over evil, whether it’s watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer or reading Roald Dahl, gives me confidence that I can also defeat the big baddies out there.
VL: Wow! Very in touch with your spooky side, even as a kid. Destined to write this genre! I love that seeing others conquer their fears in books gave you courage, too. Books are so powerful!
You discussed in a post recently that you like to begin writing a story by thinking about its emotional catharsis and working back from there. That’s almost like starting at the ending and working your way back to the beginning. I love this idea. Can you expand on this?
KV: My writing style has changed and continues to change a ton. I always used to write completely organically, with no plotting ahead of time, like with Skeleton Tree. Now that I have to send off proposals for stories before I start writing (for the most part), I’ve started thinking more strategically.
In the end, the important aspect of a story for me is what emotional impact readers will feel after they turn the last page. Has the book changed the way they see the world? Has the character’s journey taught them something about themselves?
Starting with that in mind can speed up the process, but it’s not always possible, because sometimes you can reach a more powerful conclusion if your destination is unplanned.
VL: Excellent advice, to focus on the emotional impact.
Your dog Hera features prominently in your Instagram posts, how does she factor into your writing process? (I have heard tale that you like to write in her dog bed.)
KV: Yes, I wrote Skeleton Tree sitting in a dog bed, while Hera sat on the couch behind me looking over my shoulder. I now have an office chair, ha!, but my dog is still a big help. I even mention her in the acknowledgements of my book. She’s sweet, silly and scared of everything, but most of all she’s the perfect co-writer.
VL: Who were your childhood heroes/role models?
KV: I don’t know about role models, but I was obsessed with Billy the Kid, Al Capone and Charlie Chaplin. I also loved Agatha Christie’s famous detective, Hercule Poirot, and his sidekick, Hastings. The Addams Family was another huge favorite, as were Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl.
VL: What a wonderfully eclectic collection! I’m also a huge Agatha Christie fan! I read so many of her books when I was a kid.
What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?
KV: I love The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan. It’s a sad, happy, heartfelt story about a poet who lives in a cabin in the woods with his dog. It’s practically my life story.
VL: Beautiful cover. Thanks for recommending it. 🙂
And thank you so much for joining us, today, Kim! It’s been such a pleasure talking with you and getting to know you better!
And now for your viewing pleasure…
The official book trailer for Skeleton Tree!
Local talents Jerry Bennett and Zac Davis created this trailer for Kim. They both worked on the award-winning short film, Even in Death. Jerry is an amazing comic book artist and illustrator who’s done work for companies like Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Topps. Zac Davis is a filmmaker and program director for Invisible Layers productions, a pre-employment program for young adults on the autism spectrum with an interest in film, video production, or animation.
Enjoy the trailer!
Don’t forget to pre-order Kim’s book SKELETON TREE! It releases on September 26th!
I’m so excited to be talking with her, today, about her latest book in the series.
Tracey grew up with a love of Grimm’s fairy tales and has wanted to write since she was three years old. She was inspired to write for kids after reading Rosa Guy’s “The Friends”.
She worked as an elementary teacher before entering the world of publishing in the education market. She later moved into editing nonfiction books for kids. Now, as well as being an amazing author of books for kids, she is also a freelance editor for publishers and individual clients.
Tracey’s debut novel, ANGEL’S GRACE, a YA contemporary novel, was named one of the 100 best books for reading and sharing by the NYC librarians.
Her first Middle Grade novel, THE JUMBIES, was a Junior Library Guild Selection, a New York Public Libraries Staff Pick, one of Brightly’s Best Kids Books of 2015, a We Need Diverse Books “Must Read,” and named to Bank Street’s Best Books of 2016.
Tracey is a contributor to the outstanding blog The Brown Bookshelf that pushes awareness of the myriad of African American voices writing and illustrating for young readers. The American Library Association selected The Brown Bookshelf as a Great Website for Kids.
Before the interview, let’s learn more about Tracey’s latest book:
The sequel to the highly praised novel The Jumbies takes Corinne and her friends on another spine-tingling adventure under the sea.
Corinne LaMer defeated the wicked jumbie Severine months ago, but things haven’t exactly gone back to normal in her Caribbean island home. Everyone knows Corinne is half-jumbie, and many of her neighbors treat her with mistrust. When local children begin to go missing, snatched from the beach and vanishing into wells, suspicious eyes turn to Corinne.
To rescue the missing children and clear her own name, Corinne goes deep into the ocean to find Mama D’Leau, the dangerous jumbie who rules the sea. But Mama D’Leau’s help comes with a price. Corinne and her friends Dru, Bouki, and Malik must travel with mermaids across the ocean to the shores of Ghana to fetch a powerful object for Mama D’Leau. The only thing more perilous than Corinne’s adventures across the sea is the foe that waits for her back home.
With its action-packed storytelling, diverse characters, and inventive twists on Caribbean and West African mythology and fairy tales, Rise of the Jumbies will appeal to readers of A Snicker of Magic, A Tale Dark and Grimm, and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.
This book has already garnered rave reviews:
Kirkus starred review
“A stirring and mystical tale sure to keep readers thinking past the final page.”
“Young readers are probably familiar with Greek myths, thanks to Rick Riordan, and other enduring European classics, so this series with twists on Caribbean (particularly Haitian and Trinidadian) and West African tales is a welcome change.”
School Library Journal starred review
“The novelty of the fantasy elements, the complex characters, and the superb world-building combine in a tale well worth reading, both as a sequel and a stand-alone . . . A stellar recommendation for fans of edgy fantasy such as Aaron Starmer’s ‘The Riverman Trilogy’ or Adam Gidwitz’s ‘A Tale Dark and Grimm’ series, and, of course, fans of the first book.”
I’m so excited to read this book! The first one was so wonderful, and looking at these reviews, I have high hopes for this next one.
Valerie Lawson: I absolutely fell in love with THE JUMBIES, your first middle grade novel. From the fantastic cast of characters to that lush, vibrant setting, you make the Caribbean come alive. What made you want to tell this story?
Tracey Baptiste: I’d always wanted this story as a kid. I grew up on Grimm’s fairy tales, and wanted to see a jumbie story in an actual book, but there weren’t any.
I also wanted my children to know about jumbies. They knew a little, but got really interested when I started telling them about what I was writing. It was wonderful to pass on that bit of culture to them because they were so receptive.
VL: So wonderful that you’re passing on these stories.
I love the gorgeous mermaids on the cover for your next story, RISE OF THE JUMBIES. Does this give some hints about what’s in store for Corinne and her friends, what more can you tell us?
TB: Yes! The mermaids were actually the creatures that were the most compelling for me in this story because they lay out a very complicated statement that I wanted to make about enslaved people, forced assimilation, and losing/finding one’s culture.
It’s a difficult thing to try to discuss with children, so the mermaids were very helpful in bearing that out in the story. This is really separate from Corinne’s story. In the main story arc, the mermaids are there to transport Corinne and her friends on a quest.
VL: You spooked us into not wanting to go alone into the woods in your first book, looks like your next book might do the same for the ocean. Is this Jaws with a twist for kids?
TB: In the first one, most of the scary stuff happens on land, and in this one most of the scary stuff happens in the sea, but the fear factor comes almost entirely from jumbies. A shark appears, but only very briefly.
VL: Ha! Those jumbies are indeed more frightening than a shark!
You pull no punches when putting your characters through difficult situations and having them face scary creatures, what’s the scariest nightmare you ever had as a kid?
TB: I had a recurring nightmare where I was running down a dark hallway with someone following me, but I was moving molasses-slow so I knew I would be caught. I always woke up before that happened, though.
VL: Yikes! I always hate when I can’t move fast enough in dreams. Good thing you woke up in time.
THE JUMBIES series is a departure from your debut YA novel and your non-fiction writing, talk about the creative process for bringing these books to life. How was it different from your previous writing?
TB: My first novel, ANGEL’S GRACE, was really an exercise in seeing if I could finish an entire novel. I had tried and abandoned novels before, but I was determined to finish this one. Making it a mystery was a bit of a trick, because mysteries have a structure built in. You have to get to the “what/who/how” that closes the story.
Writing nonfiction is very different because it’s a matter of stringing together the available information into something that has appeal, but that doesn’t have bias. It’s like putting together a puzzle where you have to actively go out, find, and verify each of the pieces.
VL: Writing the second novel in a series is always a challenge, how was the process different/more difficult than the first? Did you write the first book as a series in mind?
TB: I had an idea for a second book when I wrote the first one, but it wasn’t bought as a series, so I didn’t give a lot of thought to what would come next. Then when they asked for a sequel, I struggled to make things fit, maintain the continuity of the story, and still up the ante. It was very, very difficult.
I tooled around with THE JUMBIES for about 9 years before I finally sold it, and I had 9 months to write RISE. Even coming up with the title was rough. It came down to the day before the sequel was announced, and we were still going back and forth on possible titles.
VL: I think good titles are so difficult. That really came down to the wire!
Corinne and her friends have many memorable, and scary, adventures while battling the Jumbies, what’s the most memorable adventure from your childhood?
TB: The dad of one of my best friends was a captain of the MV Tobago, a ferry that went between Trinidad and Tobago, and one week he took us on board and we got to have some adventures in Tobago where we were pretty much by ourselves for a week. (Her dad was nearby, but we had a wide rein.) We were 14 and there were…some shenanigans…
VL: Hmm…sounds like a story’s in there somewhere. 🙂
What’s been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?
TB: I loved THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON by Kelly Barnhill, which rightly won the Newbery. It’s a modern classic fairy tale (my favorite) but also delves into the idea of people who create and maintain their own power through lies.
I was also very excited about TWO NAOMIS by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick, which is a sweet story in two voices about girls who are dealing with their parents dating each other, and being thrust into each other’s lives.
VL: I absolutely adore the cover of THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON! I put that on my must-read list just for that. I will definitely add TWO NAOMIS to that list, too.
What would your dream assignment be? What would you most like to write about?
TB: I have so many things floating around in my brain. I’d by happy if people would just allow me to keep writing and they would read it. But I’m most excited to write books that have a heavy science base. I quite like science and math, and I think it would be fun to come up with a story that gets geeky kids (like me when I was a kid) excited.
VL: Geeky is right up my alley! Sounds fun!
Tell us what’s coming up next for you? What are you currently working on?
TB: I’m working on another nonfiction book that uncovers some parts of history that have been absent in our culture and in our educational offerings. (I’m still at heart, a teacher, so I can’t help thinking about what kids are doing in the classroom.)
There’s not much I can say about it now because I’ve only just begun researching, and the fun of researching is you never know what’s going to turn up.
VL: We will definitely keep an eye out for your future projects.
Thank you so much for joining us, today, Tracey. It’s been such a pleasure talking with you!
And remember, you can pre-order Tracey’s new book RISE OF THE JUMBIES. It releases on September 19th!
I have the pleasure of knowing Gwendolyn Hooks as part of our close-knit tribe of SCBWI Oklahoma members. She works tirelessly to perfect her craft until her work shines, and she has such a beautiful soul. All of which comes through in her writing. I just love her.
The road to publication for her latest book, TINY STITCHES: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas, was a long one. Some of us who have witnessed the progress of this journey are so thrilled to see this beautiful story finally come to light.
One lucky reader will win a signed copy! So stay tuned!
She was born in Savannah, Georgia. Her father was in the Air Force, so Gwen and her family moved a lot when she was a child. Her first stop in every new city was the local library where she got her new library card. Gwen now lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, with her husband and their three children.
Gwendolyn blogs on The Brown Bookshelf to push awareness of the myriad of African American voices writing and illustrating for young readers. The American Library Association selected The Brown Bookshelf as a Great Website for Kids.
Before the interview, let’s learn more about Gwen’s latest book:
Vivien Thomas’s greatest dream was to attend college to study medicine. But after the stock market crashed in 1929, Vivien lost all his savings. Then he heard about a job opening at the Vanderbilt University medical school under the supervision of Dr. Alfred Blalock. Vivien knew that the all-white school would never admit him as a student, but he hoped working there meant he was getting closer to his dream.
As Dr. Blalock’s research assistant, Vivien learned surgical techniques. In 1943, Vivien was asked to help Dr. Helen Taussig find a cure for children with a specific heart defect. After months of experimenting, Vivien developed a procedure that was used for the first successful open-heart surgery on a child. Afterward, Dr. Blalock and Dr. Taussig announced their innovative new surgical technique, the Blalock-Taussig shunt. Vivien’s name did not appear in the report.
Overcoming racism and resistance from his colleagues, Vivien ushered in a new era of medicine—children’s heart surgery. This book is the compelling story of this incredible pioneer in medicine.
This book has already garnered rave reviews:
Booklist STAR review
“It is the work Thomas achieved, however, in spite of these enormous challenges, that will pique reader interest as they learn about his design of tiny operating tools and his role guiding surgeons through neonatal operations. Bootman’s lifelike watercolor illustrations beautifully and vividly evoke the carpentry shop, research labs, and the auditorium where, years later, Thomas was finally honored for his work and appointed to the faculty at Johns Hopkins.”
“. . . a rousing tribute to a man unjustly forgotten.”
I can’t wait to read this book! And the illustrations are just gorgeous.
Valerie Lawson: What inspired you to tell the story of Vivien Thomas?
Gwendolyn Hooks: Thank goodness I have generous and talented writer friends and Anna Myers fits into that category. She called one night and in an explosive voice she said, “I just watched a movie about the man who saved my grandson’s life!”
Whaaat? Was all I could sputter.
The movie, Something the Lord Made, was the story of Vivien Thomas. Anna ended the conversation with, “You need to write a children’s book about him.” I watched the movie, too—several times. I kept thinking, why didn’t I know about him. There are probably plenty of kids who don’t know his story. After a lot of encouragement from Anna, I took on the project and I am so glad she called me that night!
VL: What a gift! And maybe a pretty big challenge. Good thing she knew you were up for it.
Tell us about the creative process of bringing this story to life. How was it different from your previous books.
GH: The creative process was extremely demanding for me. The beautiful phrases in my head did not magically appear on my computer screen. I have a stack of drafts about two feet high. I read other biographies and marveled at how the writing seemed so effortless. I worried what an illustrator would say after reading my manuscript. “Seriously. You expect me to illustrate this?” I doubted every step I took. But I did not give up. I kept reading picture book biographies and read everything I could find about how to write them.
When I write early readers, I always feel I can do it. I can visualize the whole book in my mind. With Tiny Stitches, it was a long time before I could see it. Before I could feel it. But I kept trying. I wanted to succeed. I couldn’t let Anna down. Or myself.
I don’t know what Colin Bootman thought when he first read my manuscript, but I’m so glad he accepted the project. I was excited when my editor told me he would be the illustrator. He’s very talented and his books are gorgeous. Colin won a Coretta Scott King Honor award, so he’s got talent! I think he really brought my words to life.
VL: You didn’t give up. Exactly. And we’re so glad you kept trying. What a beautiful book!
What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing this book?
GH: It took six years from idea to publication. During that time, I learned that I have a patience-gene and a determination-gene. I would finish it and find an agent and an editor who believed in it as much as I did. I had the encouragement of my family, friends, and critique partners.
And I had Vivien Thomas. A few years ago, I traveled to Baltimore and had a chance to see Vivien’s portrait that hangs directly across from Dr. Blalock’s in Johns Hopkins Hospital. I felt his energy. I felt his passion. He urged me to tell his story. And I did.
VL: Ooooh! How inspiring! (That gave me chills.)
You’ve also written a series of Early Readers, the Pet Club series, did you ever have a clubhouse or a secret place of your own when you were a kid?
GH: In 3rd grade, my friends and I attempted to build a fort during recess. The school was next to a wooded area and every day, we added branches and anything else we could find. I don’t think we ever finished it. But one day, I took off my jacket so I could work better. Well, I forgot to put it back on and didn’t remember it until I got on the bus. I was a nervous wreck riding home. I knew my mother’s first words would be, “Where is your jacket?”
Somehow, I got to my bedroom and out the house the next morning before she had time to think about it. I jumped off the bus, ran to our fort, and found my jacket. I never forgot my jacket again. I never built or half-built a fort again either.
VL: Kids always sweat their parents’ reactions, don’t they? My leg could be broken from jumping out of a tree, but I’d be more worried about, “Did I rip my new pants? Mom’s gonna kill me!” I wish I could’ve seen that fort. Sounded pretty cool.
What was the most embarrassing thing you experienced?
GH: I still remember it like it was yesterday. I had to present a math lesson in one of my college education classes. I practiced it until it was perfect. But when I stood in front of the class with all those eyes staring at me, I blanked out. It was as if my brain had disappeared. Evaporated. Vanished. Finally, the instructor suggested I present at our next class. I slunk back to my seat. I have never forgotten that.
VL: Wow. That is truly awful. I think I’ve had nightmares of that happening.
What was the most memorable adventure you had with your family?
GH: My two sisters who are also my best friends and I had a fantastic time on our trip to Belgium. One sister is adamant about luggage. We were restricted to one carry-on bag and she sent instructions on how to pack. No waiting for luggage. No crying over lost bags. Plus you must be able to handle your bag without help. Apparently, my other sister forgot that part. When we arrived in Brussels, we took a train to the car rental agency. The forgetful sister couldn’t get her luggage situated and we had to stay on the train until the next stop. So we decided to walk to the rental agency instead of waiting for another train.
It wasn’t as close as we thought and we were not happy with sister #2. As the luggage obsessed sister was signing the rental papers, she realized she had not specified automatic transmission when she reserved the car and there weren’t any available. There was a little eye-rolling from the luggage challenged sister because the luggage obsessed sister is the only one who could drive a stick shift. I’m the middle sister and peace maker so I volunteered to serve as navigator. Which turned out okay except for a few instances of driving in circles multiple times in circle intersections. It was hard to stop gawking and look at street signs.
We toured buildings that were centuries old. We ate chocolate and more chocolate. Then we took side trips to Bruges and Antwerp. Bruges was a fairy tale city with live chickens for sale in the market square. At a restaurant, I ordered a ham dish that appeared in front of me as a huge ham hock in a soup bowl. It was delicious! In Antwerp we visited the diamond center. I was blinded with all the glitter. Then it was time to drive back to Brussels and fly home. I loved that trip!
VL: That certainly was memorable! How fantastic!
What’s been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?
GH: I can’t just pick one.
I met Christina Gonzalez at the Nevada Reading Week conference in Reno. She gave me a copy of her The Red Umbrella, so of course I had to read it. It’s a great book set in Cuba. I love reading about other cultures and countries.
Recently, I read Thunder Boy by Sherman Alexie and illustrated by Yuyi Morales. It’s a beautiful picture book with a fun, but powerful message about the importance of a name.
The other day, I complained to a friend that I wanted to do a better job with setting. She suggested I read The Chicken Chasing Queen of Lamar County written by Janice N. Harrington and illustrated by Shelley Jackson. Janice does a fabulous job of showing setting through her language. I will probably read it 10 more times before I return it to the library.
I read two adult nonfiction books over the last year that I really enjoyed for different reasons.
The Superhuman Mind: Free the Genius in Your Brain by Berit Brogaard and Kristian Marlow. Who doesn’t want to free their genius!
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. Not only was it an epic story, the book was epic at 622 pages! But I love history and I learned so much about the migration of African Americans from the deep south to the north and west. I also liked Wilkerson’s narrative nonfiction style.
To-Be-Read: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. She feels that exceptional achievement is a result of passion and persistence and not genius or talent. That means I can achieve something exceptional because I’m passionate about books and writing and I can be persistent when I set my mind on it.
VL: Ha! You’re so like me! I can never pick just one book EVER! And my nightstand has about ten books covering it right now. Thanks for some excellent reading suggestions.
What would your dream assignment be? What would you most like to write about?
GH: I’d love to have an all-expense paid assignment with a six-figure advance that required traveling to another country for research. One of my favorite television shows is Mysteries at the Museum. One Saturday, while eating breakfast, I watched an episode about Sir William Henry Perkins. He was an English chemist who accidently discovered a purple dye in 1856. Up until that time only royalty and the rich could afford purple clothes. Soon all the ladies were strutting around town in purple frocks. And since I love purple, it only makes sense for me to visit England and work on that project.
VL: Now that’s an excellent dream assignment! And of course you’ll need a co-writer to help you…carry your luggage. I’m volunteering now.
Tell us what’s coming up next for you. What are you currently working on?
GH: I wrote two early readers for Lee & Low’s Confetti Kids series. Block Party and Music Time are scheduled for 2017. Pearson Educational UK is publishing a chapter book next year. And I’m writing another early reader that I can’t talk about yet-top secret. I will say, it’s something I’ve always been interested in, but I see a challenge ahead making it young-kid-friendly.
VL: How exciting! And I love top secret projects. We know you’ll be up for the challenge 🙂
Thank you so much for sharing your time with us, Gwen. Always a pleasure.
**As an added bonus for those in the local area, Gwen will be hosting a book release party on June 9th, in Oklahoma City. The event will be from 6-9pm at the Chi Gallery.
Please come! It will be a fun event!
Gwen is giving away a SIGNED COPY of her new book TINY STITCHES to one lucky reader of this blog!
L.S. Mooney is the second TGNA alumni member I’m interviewing here on the blog. (Jenny Adams Perinovic was the first – and one day, I shall have them all!) I first met L.S. Mooney while working together on the TGNA group blog, The Great Noveling Adventure. I’ve enjoyed being a part of that group so much! We’ve all grown in our writing and been through so much together, and we continue to support each other through our creative journeys. Such a fantastic group of ladies!
L.S. is a binge reader, ballet dancer, and crazy cat lover. And she sometimes writes contemporary YA about quirky girls, the friends who love them, and the boys they don’t really need. She is a big fan of roadtrips and exploring new places, but she is a Midwest girl at heart and an enthusiastic alumna of The Ohio State University.
She is also the Social Media Manager for the Bookish Group Press, an indie publishing collective dedicated to producing Young Adult and New Adult books of all genres. Through this entity, she has her first novel, THOROUGHLY MODERN MIRELLA.
First, let’s learn a little bit about her debut novel:
In a small town like Paradise, everyone has a role.
High school senior Mirella Danville is a proud “theatre nerd.” That is, until she makes a scene at the Halloween party she shouldn’t have even gone to, flirts with the football captain, and reunites with an old friend who ditched her for the popular crew.
It’s a dream come true when Mirella lands the lead in the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, and it should put her firmly back in her usual role. Instead, it only fuels her desire to change up her boring existence so that her first kiss won’t be onstage with a gorilla-handed junior. The line between Mirella and her character blurs as she dives head first into a world of fruity flavored cigarillos, sweet and sour schnapps, and college boys.
But when her antics–and the expectations of her hot college boyfriend–start to cause drama off the stage, Mirella questions her decision to be more “Millie” than “Mirella.” With her friendships, family, and performance on the verge of crumbling, Mirella has to get back into character…or risk losing herself.
Valerie Lawson: Tell us about the inspiration for this story.
L.S. Mooney: Thoroughly Modern Millie was my senior show in high school and it was an incredibly fun show to be a part of. Now, before you run off thinking Mirella’s story is mine, I assure you I was not Millie even if my experience in the show was the first spark. Except, it really wasn’t. Not really. I started writing this book 7 years later after choreographing my first high school show and full of pride for my wonderful students.
VL: Ah! I have fond memories from my teen theatre life, too! Great source of inspiration.
I love the title of you book – the play on words and the plot summary all add up to the promise of a really fun read. What else can you tell us about this story?
LSM: Ah! I’m blushing!
I have such a hard time knowing what to say about this story without it feeling like it’s a spoiler. But fundamentally, TMM is about friendship, boys, small town life, and musicals. There is also definitely a vintage Firebird involved. Just saying.
VL: I love how you injected your love of theatre into your book. Tell us more about your background working in theatre and how it influenced Mirella’s story.
LSM: I’ve been in a lot of shows and worked on even more. And it has really shaped me as a person. My ideas of hard work, commitment, fairness, dealing with disappointment, and staying humble, etc. They all come from my experiences in the arts (both theatre & ballet). And some of my BEST memories also come from those long hours spent in the auditoriums, studios, dressing rooms, and everywhere in between.
My book is dedicated to my musical families, past and present, and I sincerely mean that. I was a weird kid in high school – still am actually – and my high school musical helped me find my family and realize weird was fabulous. However, it was coming back as an adult to the program I had been a student participant in that really made me want to write this story. I had the incredible experience of working as choreographer on 14 elementary school musicals then stage manager & choreographer on three high school shows with phenomenal groups of students that have forever changed my life.
There are pieces of those lessons, those families, and those experiences throughout Mirella’s story.
VL: That’s fantastic! The theatre is definitely a welcoming place for the weird (aka TALENTED and CREATIVE) to find a home, and to flourish.
Who were your heroes/role models growing up? What drew you to them?
LSM: This is going to sound weird, but we’ve established that I am weird. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was absolutely my role model. I loved that she was kickass and feminine. That she could slay in her halter top and boots and was still stronger than Riley in more ways than one. That she could go on a date and save the world in one night. I realize as I’m typing this that it explains A LOT about my allergy to free time and severe penchant for over-committing myself. I watched Buffy slay hell hounds and still make it to prom, why can’t I stage manage a show, perform in one myself, and write a book all while in grad school?
VL: I love Buffy. She kicks ass. And I heard Stephen Chbosky (of PERKS OF A BEING A WALLFLOWER fame) say at a conference once that he learned a lot about the page turn from watching Buffy. Excellent endorsement right there.
Who was your childhood best friend?
LSM: I am so fortunate to say that I met my childhood best friend Megan in dance class when we were five. We were in the musical together in junior high and high school and, although we now live several states apart, she is still one of my best friends. And she flew nearly 1000 miles for my book launch party.
My other best friend, Ashley, and I met freshman year of high school. She was never a huge fan of the time I spent at the musical but we were doubles partners on the tennis team, and there were definitely a few lesbian rumors. Though our lives are in very different places, we are still incredibly. She helps me be my most me.
VL: What’s the worst job you ever had while going to high school?
LSM: In high school I worked the dunk tank at my town festival (I lived in a town a lot like Paradise) for three summers. It was …intense. I wasn’t properly dry for four days, we recited Shakespeare to annoy people, and literally everyone I knew threw balls at me.
But actually, it wasn’t that horrible; it’s hilarious looking back on. Way worse was the summer in college that I spent making phone calls to alumni asking for donations. That was pure torture.
VL: Ugh! That would be way worse. Drown me, please.
You took on the daunting process of self-publishing for the book. Tell us about that decision and why it was right for you, for this project. Did you have that goal in mind when you started out or did this evolve throughout your writing process?
LSM: I definitely did not originally think I wanted to self-publish. We all have that big book deal dream, right? So I did a few pitch contests on Twitter and did two small rounds of querying. However, after watching Jenny Adams Perinovic rock the socks off self-publishing with her debut, I realized I didn’t even want to sell this book anymore because it was too close to my heart to let anyone else control it.
So, yes it was an evolution, but a short one. And after release I’m still positive it was the right choice for me but I couldn’t have made that choice without Jenny and Sarah at Bookish Group Press. They are literally the best.
VL: They do put out some beautiful work! If you’re going to self-publish, I say, do it right and get a great team behind you. That seems to make all the difference.
What surprised you most about the process of writing this first book and publishing it yourself? What wisdom would you impart to fellow writers thinking about going through the same thing?
LSM: Oh, geez. I’m not an expert, and I asked Jenny Adams Perinovic SO MANY QUESTIONS about everything. But I think my best advice would be to find a community, find critique partners, find people who love your characters as much as you do.
I horded my writing for a long time and realized that you can’t get any better if you’re the only one reading it. Also, I recommend following you gut. Whatever that means to you!
VL: Excellent advice! My critique group is my creative lifeline. They keep me going when I want to give up, and they know how to push me farther than I thought possible. I’m a much better writer because of them.
What has been your favorite book to read over the past year?
LSM: I am incapable of choosing just one. I read too many phenomenal books this year. I will say that Jenny Bravo’s THESE ARE THE MOMENTS ripped my heart apart in the best way and Sarah Rees Brennan’s conclusion of THE LYNBURN LEGACY was perfection. Also SIMON VS THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA and FIRST FROST by Sarah Addison Allen.
VL: LOVED loved loved SIMON VS THE HOMO SAPIENS! And thanks for some more interesting titles to look into.
What’s next for you? What are you currently working on?
LSM: Technically I’m currently writing my Masters thesis but I’m pretty sure that isn’t what you meant…
Fiction wise, I’m not doing a ton but I’ve got a bunch of things started. I’ve got a NA retelling of the ballet Giselle that I’m kind of obsessed with but it’s incredibly hard to write so it’s slow. I’m also tentatively drafting a companion novel to TMM set 7 years later. It might never see the light of day, but it’s fun to play with my teenage characters as 25 year-olds!
VL: All sounds intriguing – and the thesis is a fairly big deal! Can’t wait to read more from you! Thanks so much for stopping by and speaking with us, L.S. It’s been a pleasure! Good luck with your book!
Jodell will be discussing the topic of pacing in picture books. The title of her talk is Pacing Picture Books (& Beyond) to WOW. “Attendees will walk away with oodles of editing options and a renewed excitement for just how fun crafting a story can be.”
Jodell wrote her critical thesis on pacing picture books and earned her MFA in Writing for Children & YA from Hamline University, 2009 and started agenting a few years later, and most recently launched Kidlit College. She hosts workshops and presents on pacing with Writer’s Digest. At Kidlit College, she brings in editors and agents to present and offers participants direct critiques. The webinars span from picture books (fiction and nonfiction) to MG/YA.
She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) and is passionate about helping writers pace their stories well because it allows writers the opportunity to enhance emotional resonance, tension, and find exciting ways to improve story arc with jumps and twists and pauses and stops that garnish editorial attention and help them get published.
Valerie Lawson: Jodell, thank you for doing this interview. It’s a pleasure to speak with you, today.
Your agency is considered a boutique literary agency. Can you tell us more about what that means and why an author or illustrator would benefit from choosing it?
Jodell Sadler: My focus has been on craft, and, particularly, Pacing Picture Books (& Beyond) to WOW. I’ve taught and shared this material in libraries with young learners, in middle school classes, and from secondary education to graduate classes in picture books and publishing. I come from a marketing/design background where deadlines were tight and I juggled multiple projects a week. I’ve worked with thousands of writers and students and have been sharing my pacing study since 2008.
As I started the agency, I wasn’t in a position to move, and really wanted to stay where I lived, so I also taught full time as an AP/Dual Credit English teacher as well. Like writers, agents are not much different in that we do whatever it takes to achieve our goals. I started KidLit College for this same reason. I wanted to give back, celebrate editors and agents, and help them share their expertise, while also providing a great option for writers and illustrators looking for an agent or who would benefit from an editor’s webinar and critique.
VL: You come with a lot of teaching experience. That is excellent. We should all keep learning our craft.
What makes you stop reading a query?
JS: Writers really do need to know that if they submit out a solid query and simply follows submission guidelines, that’s half the battle. So often I receive submissions for projects I do not take on, and they are addressed in a generic fashion: Dear Sir, Dear Agent, etc, and I no longer read these.
The ideal submission is one that focuses on the manuscript. It’s short and direct and gives me a glimpse at the author’s personality. Like most agents, I look for a short query that shares that connection and answered the question: why me? A pitch for that top-quality manuscript that’s been through a number of editors and has received favorable feedback from a critique group. And the ideal bio is simple and focused and screams you are serious about your writing and actively participating in conferences.
VL: Short, direct, and with a glimpse of personality. Got it.
What hooks you when reading a manuscript? What doesn’t?
JS: Voice, direction, great pacing, and freshness: This gets the attention of most agents.
Some manuscripts I read, I love but cannot take on because I rep something similar, and there are manuscripts I love but I just feel I cannot sell well. I also steer clear of holiday books and much prefer the true story and narrative nonfiction book: PB or older.
VL: What manuscripts are on your wishlist?
JS: Nonfiction, narrative nonfiction picture books as well as author-illustrators top my wishlist right now. I am closed to submissions except through conferences and events like this one.
VL: Yes, conference attendees will be permitted to submit to our speakers, SO EVERYONE SHOULD COME TO THE CONFERENCE!!!
Besides being an agent, you also teach webinars about writing. Tell us more about this.
JS: I teach. I teach. And I teach. I’ve been teaching since I completed my MFA in 2008, and I actually taught full time in order to jump into agenting, to even be able to afford that time to grow the agency. KidLit College is really a dream community I thought about creating back in 2010 when I started my doctoral studies.
I really wanted to make a difference, make connections, and create that way to share craft learning fun with other writers and industry professionals. We all have so much to share. I invite everyone to join us on our closed Facebook page and visit our KidLit College website and just see what we have going on, including a writing retreat and cruise!
VL: Sounds like a wonderful resource.
Speaking of teaching, I was fascinated by a discussion you had about the difference between using rhyme versus poetry in picture books, could you address this?
JS: A quality rhyming picture book is one is 100% committed to quality rhymes. It often focuses on end rhymes and shares poetic forms in creative ways, but for me, poetry is a huge gift to picture book writing, and it’s one of the 20 tools I talk about in my Pacing Picture Books to WOW class.
Poetry lifts our writing through the power of enjambment, prosody, page turns, poetic devices, and it shifts the language to this contagious level. There’s nothing like that quality picture book that provides that beautiful poetic or comedic pause that suspends the emotion and lifts a piece to this loftier universal level. Nothing like it. When we write, we must write to mind, heart, and ear, and poetry is a big part of that. I will be discussing this more in my presentation and here’s a little overview of what I will share.
VL: Write to heart, mind, and ear. I love that. I think we could all learn to be better writers by studying more poetry.
Tell us what happens after an author or illustrator signs with you. What’s the next step?
JS: It differs and depends on a number of factors, but the first thing we do is meet online to really determine focus, discuss manuscripts, and plan next steps. The clients I work best with are those driven to move their work out into the world, who are actively participating at conferences, and constantly providing me with updates and new work. That’s just such a gift.
Recent sales include Brunhilda’s Backwards Dayby Shawna J.C. Tenney (Sky Pony Press, 2017) Mr. McGinty’s Monarchs (Sleeping Bear Press, 2016) by Linda Vander Heyden, Snow Beast Want Play and Untitled (Roaring Brook Press, 2017) as well as the Friday BarnesMG illustration series project (Roaring Brook Press, 2016) by Phil Gosier, a picture book/board book (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Macmillan) by Ann Whitford Paul, as well as 5 NF MG projects, including my own (Rowman & Littlefield) and Medical Mavens (Chicago Review Press) by Susan Latta.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, today, Jodell. I look forward to hearing your talk at our conference!
Sara will be discussing the topic of humor in writing. “Humor draws in and hooks readers, and it keeps them engaged!” In her talk, she will discuss different types of humor and how you can apply them to your own manuscripts.
In her work as Executive Editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, Sara focuses on fiction and nonfiction in the picture book, middle grade, and young adult categories.
Previously she was an Editor at Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Sara has worked with New York Times bestselling author Abbi Glines, National Book Award finalist Deb Caletti, Jennifer Echols, Julie Cross, Aaron Karo, and Martina Boone, among others. She also received her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern University. You can sometimes find Sara eating takeout and reading on the couch. You can always find her online at www.sarasargent.wordpress.com and on Twitter and Instagram @Sara_Sargent. Sara lives in Brooklyn.
Valerie Lawson: Sara, thank you so much for doing this interview. It’s a pleasure to speak with you, today.
What makes a story an evergreen? What gives it staying power?
Sara Sargent: I’ve always wanted to edit books for the same reason I want to read them: for escapism. I love getting lost in a story, getting wrapped up in characters and their struggles. So, to me, a story with emotional heft and amazing characters will be perennial. It’s important to allow the reader to see the human experience reflected back at them from the pages of your book, to let them get entangled in the emotions and the drama.
We’ve all had that experience where a book “doesn’t hold up,” where we re-read a novel we loved as kids and are no longer sure what we loved about it. Sometimes we grow up or move on or mature, and a story doesn’t have the staying power it used to. But, to me, all that matters is whether we connected with it emotionally at one point in time. For a book to be successful, it needs to find its mark and connect. Regardless of whether that happens when we’re 5 or 50, and whether it remains true always.
VL: Emotional connection with amazing characters – yes, that describes all my favorite stories. I must say, the idea of connections changing as we age is very intriguing. Our life experiences change, why shouldn’t our experience of a story change?
What hooks you when you’re reading a manuscript? What doesn’t?
SS: I like to tell writers that, no matter what genre they’re writing, they are all mystery writers. Because you have to think like a mystery writer to plot an interesting book. For me, that advice comes from a personal place of loving twists and turns and surprises. What hooks me—and keeps me reading—is not knowing what’s coming next, whether that’s in the actual plot or for character development or with a romance.
VL: Fascinating idea! I love a good mystery.
You’ve mentioned that lack of character development is one major reason you might reject a project. What are some others?
SS: Weak world-building, especially in fantasy, is a tough sell for me. I am happy to edit fantasy projects and work with authors to improve their world-building and to help them transfer the wonderful images in their heads to the page. But, if the logic of the world doesn’t hang together, and there are strange twists or turns that feel aimless—I am likely to pass.
Also, when it comes to realistic contemporary novels, I love evergreen tropes that resonate time and time again. But I do not like stories that feel too similar to others I’ve read or edited. With the realistic genre, I need fresh and new and different for me to want to buy it.
VL: With your focus on social media and digital platforms, what can you tell authors and illustrators about the importance of online time?
SS: Pick one platform—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Tumblr, blogging—and really commit to it. There is no point in spreading yourself thin and trying to be active on every social network known to humankind. Develop an authentic and genuine presence for one profile, and then focus your energy there. Getting people to connect strongly with you in one space is amazing, even if it feels limited. That’s how you start building your brand.
VL: NOT spreading yourself thin? I’m so on board. It’s so easy to overdo it and leave no time for real writing.
We often hear the advice to research before you submit your work, what’s the most important thing writers and illustrators need to know before they submit to you?
SS: It’s important to know what an editor likes, and it’s important to know what she’s acquired. But what’s even better is to recognize what she likes and what she’s acquired, and get to the next level of thinking. Which is to say: send me something with the essence of what I love and have already edited, but with a new twist or take—that’s the best way to go.
Sending me a manuscript and saying “I’m sending this to you because you acquired a book just like it, so I know you will love it!” is not the way to go. Show me that you recognize why your book is a fit for me, because you know I love the genre but also because I’ve never acquired anything like it before.
VL: Excellent advice. Well said.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, today, Sara. They have been very enlightening. I look forward to hearing your talk at our conference!
Learn more about Sara and read her Acquisitions Wish List here.
Follow Sara on Twitter here. Follow Sara on Instagram here.
**Sara does not accept unsolicited manuscripts, however conference attendees will be permitted to submit to her for a limited time.
This is an excellent reason to come see her speak at our conference in Oklahoma City on April 16th!
For more details on our 2016 SCBWI OK Spring Conference or to register online,CLICK HERE.
Today I may have to cut down on the caffeine intake because I’m already buzzing enough with excitement over my two guests. Jennifer Mathieu and Julie Murphy both had extraordinary debut novels that made quite a splash in the world of contemporary YA fiction. (I seriously raced through them in record time. Loved loved LOVED!!!) And now, they are putting all of their fabulous talent together to host a workshop this February for Madcap Retreats. (Yes, THAT Madcap Retreats. The brainchild of Natalie C. Parker.)
One lucky reader will win $100 off this workshop! Stay tuned to enter!
Jennifer Mathieu is an English teacher, writer, wife, and mom who writes books for and about young adults. Her favorite things include chocolate, pepperoni pizza, and the super hilarious 1980s sitcom The Golden Girls. She can basically quote every episode. Jennifer lives in Texas with her husband, son, one rescue dog, one fat cat, and another cat that is even fatter than the fat cat.
When it comes to what she reads, she loves realistic young adult fiction (obviously), creative nonfiction, super scandalous tell-all memoirs, and anything that hooks her attention on the first page. She is the author of THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE (2014) and DEVOTED (2015). Her debut novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE, won the 2015 Children’s Choice Book Awards’ Teen Choice Debut Author Award.
Julie Murphy is a potty-mouthed Southern belle who was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, but found her home in Fort Worth, Texas. She’s never seen Star Wars, but has yet to meet a made for TV movie she didn’t love. When she’s not writing, Julie can be found cruising Costco for free samples, watching Sister Act 2, stalking drag queens on instagram, obsessing over the logistics of Mars One, and forever searching for the perfect slice of cheese pizza. She lives with her bearded husband, two vicious cats, and one pomeranian that can pass as a bear cub.
Her debut novel, SIDE EFFECT MAY VARY (2014) was a NYT Bestseller. Her second young adult novel, DUMPLIN’ (Sept 2015), received glowing reviews including two stars from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, and in less than a month after its release, hit #1 on the NYT best seller list for YA Hardcovers. The film rights for DUMPLIN’ have been optioned by Disney.
Valerie Lawson: You both have written stunning debut novels, which received much critical acclaim. Tell us about life as a debut author. What was the most surprising experience? What lessons did you learn?
Jennifer Mathieu: To be honest, I’m still surprised that I wrote a book and it got published. It took me seven years to publish my first novel. My first two manuscripts got very close but never sold. So I spent my debut year sort of in a haze that THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE was not only getting published but was getting a very warm reception.
I’ve learned to approach this writing career with enormous gratitude. It’s my childhood dream come true. It’s so easy to get sucked into the worry cycle or the gossip of the industry. But the bottom line is that once my debut novel hit the shelves, I became a published author. Nothing can ever happen that can take that away from me.
Julie Murphy: First, thank you! I am that horrible type of person who believes they can handle anything no matter how many times and how many people have warned them that the road ahead is difficult. There were so many incredible highs, but there were also so many lows that I never believed I’d actually experience or thought I was more emotionally equipped to deal with. I’ve learned that no matter how sane you are, planning a wedding or large family function can turn you into a special kind of crazy. That’s how the debut year is. You’ll be yourself, yes, but it may not be a version of yourself you’ve ever met.
The good news is: you are not alone. You will make fast friends with fellow debuts, because no one else can relate to you like they can. I would have to say the friendships were the most surprising experience and I’d go through it all over again to for these women if I had to. I poured so much of myself into SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY that I felt like I had nothing left to give and that this was my one and only chance, because I would never be able to recreate this magic. But that’s not true. My second book just came out and I love it just as much. I’m working on my third and am contracted for a fourth. There will always be more books. Sometimes publishing them won’t be so easy, but you will write another book.
VL: Gratitiude, yes. And realizing you’re not alone sounds especially important. I love how supportive this writing community can be.
How was the process of writing different for you when you wrote your second novel?
Jennifer: I will say writing my second novel, DEVOTED, was very difficult for me. I really had that classic experience you hear about where your debut is warmly received and you feel total paralysis with the second book. I ended up completely throwing out the first draft of DEVOTED and rewriting it from scratch. I was incredibly late on every deadline which is so not me. I cried multiple times.
Fortunately, my amazing editor at Roaring Brook, Kate Jacobs, talked me through it and in the end, I’m so enormously proud of my second book. I stretched myself as a writer and I’ve had multiple readers tell me that they can see my growth as a writer in DEVOTED. That makes me feel so good.
Julie: I was totally blind when I wrote my debut. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong or what I was doing right. Because of my huge ego, I assumed that if it didn’t feel off, it must all be perfect. DUMPLIN’ was an eyes wide open experience.
I knew my flaws. I knew the mistakes I’d made in my first book. For me, that knowledge was almost crippling. I knew what a published book looked and felt like and nothing about those early drafts matched those expectations. I had to learn to forgive myself of those mistakes and explore the narrative.
VL: Throwing out an entire draft? How terrifying!
Learning to forgive your mistakes and explore the narrative – love that.
You are co-hosting an intriguing Madcap Retreat this February entitled “More Than a Beach Read”, how did you come to be a part of this project?
Jennifer: Well the lovely Julie Murphy approached me and told me about Natalie’s plan to create Madcap Retreats. I immediately wanted to be involved. I think there’s so much to be gained from working intimately on your art with other artists in a concentrated period of time. I’m a huge fan of Julie’s work and Natalie’s work, and I knew I just wanted to be a part of anything they were involved with.
Julie: Natalie Parker is my partner in crime in many ways and when she floated the idea by me, I said I’d think about it. When she said it would be on the beach, I couldn’t say no. I knew I wanted to do something voice and critique intensive, and I knew that would be a lot to carry on my own. When we began to discuss bringing another author on, Jennifer was my first and most obvious choice. I have so many writer friends that I love and respect, but our styles and approaches really click. We both love contemporary and have the same type of values when it comes to storytelling. Let the record show: if I dropped dead tomorrow, I would have faith in Jennifer to finish my work in progress.
VL: That is a stunning compliment, Julie! (Please don’t drop dead.) That does speak well to how you must compliment each other.
What can you tell us about the workshop? What special programming do you have in mind?
Jennifer: Julie and I have been working on the agenda and we are looking forward to having roundtable workshop-style critique sessions as well as one on one time with each writer. We’re also planning on bringing in guest authors to tackle different topics. Julie and I really aim to focus on voice and building your writer voice. Some say that voice can’t be taught. While I do believe most writers have an innate ability to craft some sort of voice, I believe there are techniques and strategies you can use to strengthen your ability to make your work really come alive.
Julie: We actually just finished the whole agenda! Jennifer did a great job answering this one, so I’ll just add that the attendees will spend their morning with us really focusing on voice and in the afternoons while Jennifer and I (yes, we’re both reading each attendee’s submission), and supporting faculty members will help paint a broader picture by discussing critique, revision, and plot. In the evenings we’ll also be doing casual but themed panels to discuss our dealings in publishing and the business aspect of all of this.
VL: That’s a wealth of knowledge crammed into five days. And so much focus on voice! Wonderful. I know several authors who’d jump at this opportunity.
You both come from different occupational backgrounds – one an English teacher and one working with teens in public libraries – where you have worked intimately with young people. What has this experience added to your writing?
Jennifer: For me, the teaching feeds the writing. I mean, I basically get paid to do my research. I’m surrounded by the rhythm of adolescence on a daily basis, and it’s so energizing and inspiring. I hear snippets of teenage conversation all around me at all times. On a daily basis I’m reminded of the heartbreak and excitement associated with being a teenager. Of course, my plots are fictional, but my students certainly help me create what I hope are realistic characters.
Julie: Like Jennifer, working with teens hugely impacted my writing. I think it’s easy for young adult writers to romanticize the lives of teens, but seeing them every day, you are reminded of their limitations. The same limitations you most likely experienced as a teen, too. On the other hand, I was constantly reminded of how each generation is defying the boundaries set by those before them. I really miss working with my teens!
VL: Being surrounded by your inspiration. Excellent!
Your workshop focuses on enhancing character and voice in manuscripts. What can you tell us about your writing process that helps you bring these two elements to the forefront in your own work?
Jennifer: For me, the characters become real in my mind. I think about them all the time. I miss them when I’m done with the book and still think about them after the book comes out. For me, I believe crafting a character you almost believe actually exists out there is key to writing a memorable novel.
For the first time ever I struggled with that when writing DEVOTED. I was writing a story about a young woman in a very insular and conservative religious sect. I’d done all this research on the sect and was just information dumping throughout the entire book, but the truth is, I didn’t know my main character Rachel at all. My editor was like, “Who is she really?” and I realized I didn’t know.
That was such a terrifying experience because in my first novel (and in subsequent novels) my characters came into my mind fully-formed. I spent a full weekend fixating on Rachel, doing all these exercises like imagining what she kept in the drawer of her nightstand. Finally, she started to come alive for me and the book became much easier to write. I really do believe it all begins with character.
Julie: Voice and character are huge for me, and yet they never come first in my writing process. I never start with a detailed plot, but I always have the pitch and premise and from there is how my voice and character evolve. I usually like to hammer out setting as well since it’s such a huge contributing factor. I like dissecting the situation and deciding what type of person might exist inside the premise and setting.
But when it comes to actual writing, I can’t start anything in earnest until I have a fully formed character. That character and your voice are sort of like a lantern in a dark tunnel, especially in contemporary. You will get lost–and sometimes it’s even helpful to get a little lost–but as long as you’ve got that lantern, you will eventually find your way.
VL: Oh, that’s good!
So if you don’t know your character inside and out, maybe spend some time getting to know them better. Your story will thank you.
Tell us a little about your teen years growing up. What was the most embarrassing thing you experienced? What was the most memorable adventure you had with your friends?
Jennifer: Freud would have a field day with me. I hated high school so much and looking back I can see I was actually fairly depressed throughout my high school years. And here I am teaching high school and writing books for and about high school students. It must be some form of catharsis. There is no one singular embarrassing incident. I was embarrassed constantly, and most of it was over silly stuff I’m sure no one noticed. I ran with a very good girl crowd. I would say my most memorable adventure would be staying up all night at a sleepover and eating too much raw cookie dough. Honestly, that’s as crazy as it got for me.
Maybe the most embarrassing thing for me happened after some girlfriends and I went to see that movie The Bodyguard starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner. They were all so moved by the film they were sobbing hysterically as they walked out of the movie theater and everyone was staring at us and I wanted to die. And all I could remember thinking was, “That was one of the stupidest movies I have ever seen.” I loved old black and white movies from the 50s and 60s like The Bad Seed and The Last Picture Show. I thought there was something wrong with me. I just hadn’t found my tribe yet, but eventually in college, I did.
Julie: Those were some wild years. I was a horrible student. You know those videos of cats knocking things off tables? That was me and rules. I carried myself with this false but impenetrable confidence, so even if embarrassing things happened, I played them off as jokes no matter how mortified I really was, so I can’t think of anything in particular.
But I really did have great friends who on very rare occasions I was even vulnerable with. We always went on great mini roadtrips or had ridiculous parties or even went to some amazing concerts, but what I remember most is just hanging out at home with my closest friends, rolling around on the floor laughing and creating inside jokes. We were all theater kids though, so we were constantly performing and cracking jokes.
VL: Ha! Fantastic stories.(I’m really partial to The Bodyguard one. I can so relate to feeling like that!)
What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?
Jennifer: Well I adored Julie Murphy’s DUMPLIN’ of course! I remember her reading a few pages from it at a retreat she and I went on over a year ago now, and I was so excited for the book and I loved it even more than I thought I would.
There’s another book I want to mention that I had the opportunity to blurb. I read an advance copy this year, but it won’t be out until March 2016. It’s called SAVE ME, KURT COBAIN and it’s by Jenny Manzer. She and I share the same wonderful agent, Kerry Sparks. I loved this book so very much. It’s fresh and nostalgic all the same time. Gorgeous, lyrical writing and a plot that kept me guessing until the very end. I think she’s going to be a voice to watch.
Julie: Sadly, this has been such a dry reading year for me. I’ve bought so many books, but time hasn’t allowed for me to start most of them. (Here’s looking at you, DEVOTED!) However, I am listening to the audio of SIMON VS THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA and the voice is incredible! Simon is someone I would have been friends with in high school and that makes for an authentic reading experience if you ask me.
VL: More fab books to add to the TBR collection. Nice.
What can you tell us about what you are currently working on?
Jennifer: I have my third book coming out with Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan on September 20, 2016 and I am having the most infuriating time coming up with a title. But I can tell you it’s told in dual POV and it’s about two teenagers, Ethan and Caroline, and how their lives are linked by a tragic crime. It’s about healing from trauma and finding a soul-saving friendship in the most unexpected place.
(Update: Julie has a title! Her 3rd book has been christened AFTERWARD, and it comes out 9/2016.)
Julie: Sort of. Kind of. Maybe. Ha! I’m working on my third novel, which is currently titled RAMONA DROWNING. It’s about a too tall lesbian who lives in a trailer park with her well-meaning dad and pregnant sister. All is sort of okay until Ramona realizes she’s falling for a friend, who happens to be a boy. It’s a story about sisters and friendship and sexuality and the labels we assign to ourselves. I’m still drafting, so I’m sure it will end up being about more things. My publisher is referring to it is a YA Chasing Amy, which seems like a fair assessment.
VL: Ohh! Both sound exciting! Can’t wait to read more from you ladies!
Thank you both for sharing with us, today. It has been an honor and a great pleasure having you here on the blog.
To entice you further to try out Madcap Retreats, we are giving away $100 off the cost of Jennifer & Julie’s upcoming workshop, “More Than A Beach Read“!