Sunday, June 8
Reading in the Creative Youth Tent: 3-3:30pm
Come say hi!
So, funny story. A few weeks ago my friend Sarah Tomp, whose upcoming YA novel My Best Everything I can’t wait to read, wrote to ask if she could tag me in the Writing Process Blog Tour. It sounded fun, but I was feeling pretty swamped that week, so I thanked her and declined. A day or two later, another local writer friend, Marcie Wessels, asked me the same question, and again I said I appreciated the nod but would have to pass. Well, about a week after that, my pal Edith Hope Fine issued the same invitation! And that very same day, my friend Tanita Davis did one better—she went ahead and tagged me. 🙂
Well, okay, I can take a hint! And what do you know, a holiday weekend rolled around just in time for me to participate. So first: a big thank-you to all four of these generous friends, so eager to share the bloggity fun with me. Do click through on the links above to read their very interesting answers and find out more about their books. (Edith decided to sit out the hop herself, but you guys—I got a sneak preview of her new picture book, Sleepytime Me, illustrated by Christopher Denise, and it is a swooner. This year’s favorite bedtime reading, mark my words. It launches tomorrow! And I happen to know she’s got a companion workbook coming for her excellent Greek and Latin roots book, CryptoMania!, and it’s top-notch. Homeschoolers and teachers, you’re going to love it.)
Okay, so here are the questions, which I actually feel pretty shy about answering. I hardly ever talk about my process.
• What are you working on?
Generally, multiple things at once. The Main Project, always, and then two or three other works-in-various-stages-of-progress, and a scrawly list of ideas. Right now, the Main Project is the book I’ve been laboring over (very much in the childbirth-metaphor sense of the word) for a very. long. time: a historical fiction YA I’m writing for Knopf. It’s a project very close to my heart (involving a good bit of my own family history) and is probably the most challenging book I’ve written yet, in terms of research and subject matter. And I’ll want to talk lots more about it before too long.
So that’s the front-burner book. Then there are the things I work on when that one is being obstreperous: I’m playing with a new Inch and Roly idea, now that Sunny Day Scare has packed its knapsack and gone off into the world to seek its fortune. (They grow up so fast!) And there’s a fantasy novel I play with when historical fiction is besting my brain.
And! And! Very very slowly, very very occasionally, I add a little to a memoir of sorts I’m writing (or thinking of writing, is probably more accurate) about our years in Astoria, New York, when Jane was going through chemotherapy. I have a lot of stories piled up from those days.
• How does your work differ from others in its genre?
That is a really good, and really hard, question. I feel like in a way it’s a question best answered by readers, not by me about my own work. I like to work with characters who are grappling with ethical dilemmas—Louisa struggling to find a way to clear her father’s name without revealing Angus’s secret and therefore exposing him to probably dangerous public scrutiny (The Prairie Thief); Martha wrecking her dustgown and getting away with it, but fessing up after an internal struggle (Little House in the Highlands). Kids trying to sort out right and wrong when the lines seem fuzzier to them than adults give the impression they are. I think in terms of my style itself, I may work differently (but who knows?) in that I’m hearing the work read aloud as I write—probably in part because read-alouds are such an enormous part of my life. I mean, I’m reading aloud all morning long; I’ve spent nearly nineteen years this way, days full of the written word spoken. I think that gets into your fingers, as a writer: the cadence and lilt of a good read-aloud, the distinct character voices, the aural underscoring the visual images created by the text. I think, too, my having studied as a poet comes into play here. I entered my MFA program as a poet and emerged as a writer of prose fiction, but you can’t get poetry out of your blood.
• Why do you write what you do?
I put this question to Scott, adding lamely that I write the stories I’m burning to write. “I don’t know how to nail it down more accurately than that.” He chuckled. He knows me better than I know myself. “Well, first,” he said, “there’s the pioneer thing—” and he’s right; he doesn’t mean just Pioneers of the American West, though certainly that period is a lifelong fascination of mine and my original concept for Prairie Thief jumped right out of Edwardian England, where I’d envisioned it taking place, and emigrated happily to the Colorado prairie, circa 1880. Scott, who knows what ideas are crammed into my mental Possibilities drawer, was speaking also of my love of all kinds of frontier stories—the Pern books, the Darkover novels, any kind of pushing forward to unknown terrain and making terms with it.
“But also,” he continued, “there’s your fascination with miscommunication and injustice. The injustice that arises when someone has been misunderstood. You’re always wanting to set that straight, in your work and in real life.”
As soon as he said it, I could see it: this thread woven through so much of my work. It’s the central conflict of Prairie Thief, of course: a man falsely accused, his daughter intent on clearing his name. And other misunderstandings nested inside that larger one. But also: there’s Martha’s first governess, who doesn’t like her and misreads all her errors as deliberate. I had to bring in Miss Crow, didn’t I, to understand her. 🙂 Over and over in those books, there are miscommunications between family members that lead to conflict. Scott pointed out that Sunny Day Scare, too, plays with this theme: Inch and friends are interpreting a horror in the grass in different ways, and Roly simply has to figure out what the scary thing really is. Even Hanna’s Christmas, my little commercial tie-in from long ago, has Hanna’s parents incorrectly blaming her for all the acts of mischief around the house. This is kind of revelatory, actually, and you can bet I’m going to be pondering it further.
• How does your writing process work?
Ahh, a nuts-and-bolts question. Now I’m in my element. The way I work is married to time. When Jane was a baby and I was first starting out, I had to hurry and write during her naps, sometimes actually wearing her in the sling, though it was hard to type that way. After Rose was born and Scott left his job at DC Comics to stay home and write, I worked longer shifts, a couple of hours at a time. I had very tight deadlines in those deadlines, staggeringly tight as I look back, and had to work with furious efficiency in the spaces available to me. I probably work best that way.
Later still, after Beanie came along, Scott and I settled into a rhythm. My writing time was from 3-6 every day. So again, mega-focus required to stay on task. I started this blog as a way to help me do that: after a day with the kids, spending 20 minutes writing about them helped me transition from mom to writer, and then I could work on the book at hand.
We had a rough year after Wonderboy was born, but that same schedule allowed me to work. It was after Rilla came along that things changed dramatically: Scott took an editing job out here in San Diego, we moved, he was away long hours, I wrote on Saturdays. That’s why The Prairie Thief took so long: years of Saturday afternoons. In 2011, he came back home to freelance (hurrah!) and now I get the whole afternoon and evening to work—meaning both my fiction and my editorial gig at Damn Interesting.
I can’t stand writing by hand. I have complaining wrists. With the current novel, I began working in Scrivener and fell in love—it keeps all my notes, fragments, timelines, character sketches, and primary source material organized and accessible much more handily than any paper system I could contrive. I mean, I really think I’d be lost without it.
I’m a slow writer in that I self-edit ruthlessly, never having managed to do the sort of pour-it-out first drafts that the writing instruction books urge upon you. Dear Anne Lamott, I’ve tried, but I just can’t pull it off. And it’s too bad, because I always write way more than actually belongs in a book. I’ll labor over huge chunks of manuscript, polishing at the word-level, and then wind up ripping them out, a stitch at a time (agony) to hide in a file somewhere. If I were to gather up all my Martha fragments, I’d probably have enough for a whole nother book. (Sorry, it’s not in the cards.)
Every day, I dread starting. After I’ve made myself enter the cave, hours pass in a blink, like Narnia time.
I think I probably love the research stage best of all. I’m happiest with all my papers and books spread around me on the bed, and some old newspaper enlarged on my screen. An orchard robbery in 1817; the constable arrested “a man named Peter Twist and two well-dressed women.” What’s the story there? No one can tell me, so I’ll have to make it up.
Now I’m supposed to tag some writer friends. Laurel Snyder (The Longest Night, Bigger than a Breadbox, Seven Stories Up) and Jennifer Ziegler (Sass and Serendipity, How Not to Be Popular, and the hot-off-the-presses Revenge of the Flower Girls—how’s that for a great title?? both said yes, so look for their replies in a week or so. I’m also tagging Chris Barton (Shark Vs. Train, The Day-Glo Brothers, Can I See Your ID?) and my dear friend Anne Marie Pace (Vampirina Ballerina, Vampirina Ballerina Hosts a Sleepover, A Teacher for Bear), in case they’d like to play along. But no pressure, guys! (See paragraph 1, above.)
And Sarah, Marcie, Edith, Tanita: thanks for tagging me. I had fun!
• Over at Waltzing Matilda, Charlotte shares the details of the Prairie Thief book club meeting she hosted. She is tremendously creative and I so enjoyed seeing the activities and treats she came up with to go along with the book. She had the fun idea of having me record a video greeting for the kids.
• Kort, whose blog is quietly wonderful and gives me a little burst of happiness whenever it pops up in my reader, wrote a sweet note about Julie Bogart and me. Julie‘s one of my favorite people on the internet, too, so I was delighted to be in her company.
• Last Saturday, one of my books made an appearance at the Virginia Discovery Museum: children were invited to “join Kelly Sulick, principal flute of the Charlottesville & University Symphony Orchestra, and Kate Tamarkin, CUSO’s music director, for a musical reading of Fox and Crow are Not Friends.” Now that’s a performance I wish I could have seen! Especially since there was an “instrument petting zoo” afterward. 🙂
I have been pretty low-profile about my work this past year, after a busy 2012 when I had three books launch in the same month. I do occasional local events but don’t undertake a lot of travel, not nearly as much as most of my kidlit author friends. I’m always reading (with pleasure) about the conferences they attend, the bookstore appearances, the school visits all over the country; and I enjoy their travels vicariously but know that I couldn’t maintain that kind of pace myself, not without giving up the learning-time with my kids that I treasure so much. (Not to mention without seriously impeding Scott’s ability to do his own work.) So while I do have several events planned for this summer, and a giveaway in the works for next week, I’ve been feeling a bit guilty about not having lined up a full slate of events to usher Inch and Roly and the Sunny Day Scare into the world. I’m fond of the childbirth metaphor for book publishing, but it falls apart the moment the book is ‘born’ into the world (generally about a year after delivery)—because by then, the moment of its appearance in the wide world, I’m already about fourteen months pregnant with the next one. So it is with this newest book-baby—actually in this case I’m about forty months along with the next one, who promises to be a twelve-pounder. (It’s possible the metaphor is getting away from me here.) At any rate, the point of all this musing is that in a season when I can’t do a lot of traveling to help my books meet new readers, it is deeply gratifying to see them land in the hands of kids who enjoy them.
From left to right: Suzanne Santillan, me, Edith Hope Fine, Joy Raab, Virginia Loh Hagen, and Lori Mitchell at last week’s Greater San Diego Reading Association Authors’ Fair, held at Pacific Beach Elementary School. Photo shared by Lori Mitchell on Facebook. (Thanks, Lori!)
It was a pretty incredible day. I had sessions with two classes and then a booksigning. Both classes have been reading The Prairie Thief aloud, and it just so happened that the 5th-grade class was up to the Big Reveal chapter near the end of the book. I’ve never gotten to read this to a group of kids before! I usually read a section near the beginning, so as not to give away any of the book’s surprises, and when the class told me where they were in the book and asked me to read the next chapter, I was over the moon. Their reactions at the moment of the reveal were delightful and immensely gratifying. They jumped and and cried out in surprise. It was exactly the sort of reaction I hoped for when I wrote the book. What a treat for me to get to experience that moment with them! And then we had a nice long Q&A and they asked fantastic questions, really thoughtful stuff. Love love love.
The second class, a 4/5, blew me away with the papers they had written about Prairie Thief! And what timing, coming right after our conversation last week about how authors feel about critical approaches to their work. These kids did some serious analysis and I was very impressed by the quality of their writing. They, too, had a million questions for me about craft (seriously—they are studying it) and reading and lots of things.
Huge thanks to all the folks who helped put the fair together. A splendid day all around.
I’m so looking forward to participating in this event tomorrow, March 14! I’ll be visiting with 4th and 5th graders at Pacific Beach Elementary in the Greater San Diego Reading Association’s 41st Annual Authors Fair, along with Patty Hall, Edith Hope Fine, Virginia Loh-Hagan, Lori Mitchell, Joy Raab, Suzanne Santillan and storyteller Marilyn McPhee. Can’t wait!
No, it’s not back in print—as I wrote that subject title I suddenly realized I might be setting some of you up for disappointment. But I hope you’ll find this almost as good a surprise. This time of year, I get a lot of email from readers looking for copies of Hanna’s Christmas, which has been out of print for, I don’t know, a decade at least. Sometimes the letters sound pretty frustrated: as the holidays approach, used copies of the book jump to astronomical rates in the resale market. I don’t have any available for sale myself—I didn’t even hold on to enough copies for my own children. (I didn’t have quite as many kids when I wrote the book.)
But a couple of days ago, I got a lovely email from a teacher who said her class really wanted to hear the story, and would I consider reading it aloud in a video. Would you believe that has never occurred to me? It was a great idea, and that’s what I’ve done. I made a short video intro below and then comes a second video with the reading of the book. I hope you’ll enjoy it!
(Direct link here.)
Look for a cameo from two (not) best friends!
(Direct link to YouTube if the video doesn’t display on your screen.)
San Diego folks: I’m doing a booksigning and reading at the Hazard Center Barnes & Noble today at 2:30, right after the St. Didacus School choir concert. Come say hi!
She passed by the SCBWI booth at the San Diego Central Library grand opening celebration where I was signing books, and I dashed down the street after her, hollering “Miss Rumphius! Miss Rumphius!” like a loon. Because I was Just That Excited to see her, lupines and all! She’s my role model, after all.
(Instead of lupines, I plant milkweed.)
The library celebration was marvelous. I never actually made it into the new building for the sneak peek! The line was four blocks long when I arrived for booth duty at noon. But I had a wonderful time visiting with Edith Hope Fine, Cindy Jensen-Elliott, and my other fellow local children’s authors at the SCBWI booth and chatting with our friends at Yellow Book Road on one side of our table and the very nice Mysterious Galaxy folks on the other—along with author Mary Pearson, whom it’s about time I met in person after all this time being Facebook friends, and YA author Kiersten White, whom I know from Twitter, and whose new book sounds very much up Rose’s alley. (Human daughter of ancient Egyptian gods: you have her at hello.)
(Isn’t that the most gorgeous cover?)
The street fair covered many blocks and was one of the best I’ve ever been to. San Diego Mini Maker Faire was there—I’m counting the days to the December event (December 7th, Del Mar Fairgrounds; spread the word!)—and lots of other interesting artisans and entertainers.
Not Miss Rumphius.
The Maker Faire booth. I finally got to see a 3D printer in action! It made that orange comb right before onlookers’ eyes. At least, I think it did. I wasn’t there for that part.
I’ll have to make another pilgrimage downtown soon (with the kids, this time) to see the inside of the beautiful new library that was thirty years in the making.