Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Mindy McGinnis' Debut Novel: NOT A DROP TO DRINK

Today I'm delighted to welcome Mindy McGinnis, who has written a dramatic story: "a survival tale set in a world with very little fresh water." A fabulous concept and I fear all too possible. Here's Mindy:

Congratulations on the publication of your novel, NOT A DROP TO DRINK. As a student of science, I'm fascinated by your topic, and think you may be prescient. Can you tell us a bit about the story and what inspired it?

Unfortunately, I think I might be too! A lot of people have asked me about the inspiration for the book, and the truth is that it came from a dream. But the scary truth behind it is that the dream occurred after I watched a documentary called BLUEGOLD, which is about the very real possibility of a freshwater shortage.

How long have you been writing for children/teens? Have you written other books or is this your first effort?

I actually began by writing for adults, and I wrote three books that weren't publishable. Serendipity landed me in a job as a YA librarian, after which I realized that I was surrounded by my audience and immersed in the market -- -why not write YA?

Can you describe your path to the publication of NOT A DROP TO DRINK? 

It was a ten year path, but mostly because I was starting in the wrong place. I landed my agent, Adriann Ranta, only after I realized I needed to do research and that just having talent wasn't the key. Even after having an agent, I was on submission for six months. Patience is key, in everything.

Do you have any advice for beginning writers?

Do your homework. Don't be afraid of the business side. You need to know what you're doing before you jump into this crazy game.

Can you tell us something about your personal life – inspirations, plans for the future, goals, etc.?

I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a writer, but I also knew better than to hang a shingle on it. So I found a day job that I knew I could be happy in first. I think that's key to being a happy person, regardless of whether you land the pie-in-the-sky writer gig.

Do you have any new writing ventures underway?

I recently signed another two book deal with Katerine Tegen books for two YA books to be released in 2015 and 2016.

Do you have a website where readers can learn more about NOT A DROP TO DRINK? 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


I am a lucky person. Lucky, lucky, lucky. First, I have the honor and privilege of calling Kathi Appelt my mentor and my friend. Second, I've had the pleasure of reading her latest book THE TRUE BLUE SCOUTS OF SUGAR MAN SWAMP, which is one of the sweetest, funniest, most delightful reads I've had in many a year. Third, I've been able to snag her to appear here.

I've known Kathi for many years, ever since my husband and I landed in Texas for what turned into a 17 year stay. Kathi was instrumental in nurturing my nascent passion for writing, and then twisted my arm until I went to Vermont College of Fine Arts. Now I'm thrilled to host her here in the very week that TRUE BLUE SCOUTS has been accorded the honor of being on the National Book Award longlist in Young People's Literature - which to anyone who has had the experience of reading this charming novel comes as no surprise.

And if you are a student of literature, Kathi's answer to the second question is a fabulous and thoughtful essay.

Here's my sweet friend Kathi:

Right from page one of TRUE BLUE SCOUTS I’m convinced that I’m in the depths of an original “tall tale.” How did tall tales influence this story?

I think that tall tales as a genre are deeply rooted in regions.  I’ve also always been fascinated by the stories surrounding Big Foot.  He’s an icon of the American south, particularly those areas that are swampy and hard to navigate.  So called photos of him always make him look like he’s made up of bits and pieces of the swamp with his mossy coat and huge feet and hands.  So, it made sense to me to build a story around a creature who might actually arise from the landscape itself.

I know you feel strongly that there is an American mythology to be tapped/written – could you please explain what you mean?

Well, I love literature that has an element of magic to it, and of course fantasy by its very nature deals with some aspect of the magical.    But when we think of fantasy as a genre, we immediately think of what I call the “European Model.”  That is, a fantasy that is based upon a monarchical governing structure. There’s usually a “chosen one” at the heart of these tales, chosen not only because of lineage, but also because of some magical power, a power that has to be harnessed or granted or learned.  The notion that a monarch is magical comes directly from the notion that they are direct descendants of God.  It’s that whole Divine Right of Kings thing—it hardly gets more magical than that.  And so, in a lot of modern fantasy, the basic structure begins with the notion that a chosen one will rise to power and become the leader of his or her people, as ordained by a higher power.  (That’s generic, for sure, and overly broad, but it’s useful as a way to understand the basic underpinnings of fantasy as we think of it).
An American fantasy doesn’t have that underlying structure.  In a democracy, we don’t have leaders who are pre-ordained.  Instead we the people choose our leaders.  So, the notion that a person can, via some magical power, become the ruler or leader of his or her people doesn’t work in a democracy.  Thus, when American writers turn to fantasy, it often has a distinctly European flavor.  Or at least I think it does. Americans still love princes and princesses.  We really do love the notion of a chosen one.  How great would it be, after all, if God chose our governmental leaders,  or if the president rose to power because he harnessed the magic of a sword and conquered the opposing forces?  Democracy is so messy in comparison. 

So, the challenge, to me at least, is to figure out what a distinctly American fantasy would look like if you stripped it of the notion of kings and queens.  I do think that tall tales are good examples—they tap into the idea of America being bigger and better than everyone else, and they’re largely designed to have, at their heart, a character who arises from a “regular” family—one who is not necessarily high-born or well-bred.   They reflect, in many ways, the American dream:  that anyone can achieve great things by being themselves and working hard. 
Mostly, I think that American fantasy goes deeper than that, or it has the potential of going deeper in that it comes from the peculiarities of regions.   I want to encourage writers of fantasy to find the magic in their locales.  Unlike fantasy that is largely based upon the Divine Right of Kings, American fantasy comes out of the landscape, out of the flora and fauna and the sensibilities of a particular place.  It also comes directly out of the people who live there, and have lived there. 
It’s to tap into the ancient stories that the region has offered up, too.  In this regard, Native American stories should be acknowledged as part of the literary tradition of a place and time.   Just as modern Eurocentric fantasy owes an incredible debt to the Arthurian legends, so does American fantasy owe a debt to Native American tales, many of which form the basis for tall tales—especially trickster tales.  The challenge is to discover them, to acknowledge them, and to weave them into the fabric of  tales to come.  I’m no expert on Native American literature(s), but what I do know about it tells me that it arose from the experience of living close to the natural world, that the elements themselves offered up forms of magic that were incorporated into distinct stories.   So the task for the modern American fantasist is to look at the ancient stories of his or her setting, to at least try to see the magic in the local landscape that has been recognized for centuries, and to go from there. 
Likewise, legends and tales that have been imported to our country offer up distinct possibilities for a deeply American form of magic.  If you think of the stories of Toni Morrison and Virginia Hamilton, for example, they tap into the vein of tradition that came from Africa via slave ships, and then blend those tales with the politics and landscape of their time, merging them into contemporary tales that illuminate more fully what it is to be not only African American, but fully American. 
In The Underneath, I studied every story I could find about hummingbirds.  It’s surprising how many folk tales and legends I found about such a tiny bird.  I tried to understand where the magic arose and tapped into that vein.  Does it have to do with the bird’s quickness, her tiny size, her shape?  What is it about the hummingbird that defies science and offers up the possibility of magic? 

When I was writing Scouts, I kept asking, what would a creature who rose right up out of the swamp look like?  What would he care about?  What would matter to him?  What experiences might he have had through the course of history?  Just as a Djinn might rise up out of the dust of the Arabian desert, or a selkie might show up on the Isle of Man, maybe a swamp man might rise up out of the east Texas canebrake. 

You plant some wonderful seeds in the narrative. I’m thinking especially of the threat, “I’ll need a boatload of cash,” and the saying, “when pigs fly.” (And how literally Chap takes these – so kid-friendly!) How much of this comes to you organically and how much comes with revision?

I would say that one percent comes organically and ninety-nine comes from revision.

And a related question: are you a pantser or a plotter?

I think I start out as a pantser, but once I get my characters established, I turn into an avid plotter.  I confess to being a believer in outlines.  Oh yes, I do believe in outlines.

And yet another related question: I love the asides that are little information grabs – DeSotos, hogs – and that tie so many things together. Did this story unfold in a linear way? Did you know from the beginning you’d be weaving these pieces through the story?

A lot of those little asides were happy accidents.  For example, I had already decided that I would use a DeSoto for the car, largely because of the hood ornament.  I also knew that I would have a rampaging batch of hogs—my Bonnie and Clyde figures—but when I sat down to do a little research on hogs, I almost fell on the floor when I discovered that the first feral hogs came to this continent on boats under the command of, yep, DeSoto.  I had a lot of happy accidents like that.  It’s one of the joys of writing.

THE UNDERNEATH and KEEPER are gorgeous stories with serious tone – both made me cry like a baby. TRUE BLUE SCOUTS made me cry, too, but in an entirely different way, with tears of laughter. What was it like to “write something funny” for a change? 

By now you know that it was Cynthia Leitich Smith who encouraged me to write something funny.  At first, I didn’t really understand why she would send me a note telling me that.  But it arrived at the end of a very difficult year for me, and as a friend, she sensed that I needed to take myself and my whole life a little less seriously.  That is a good friend, who has the wherewithal to tell you something you may not be ready to hear.  So, I’ll be forever grateful to Cyn for her honesty. 

And it was exactly what I needed to do. 

I have to say that I’m a believer in writing what you have to write.  That’s not always an easy thing to do.  Sometimes it’s painful; sometimes it’s egoistic; often it’s downright stupid.  But often, it’s what your soul requires.  Cyn is intuitive, and she could see what I couldn’t.  I hope that I can be that person for my friends in return.

Is there a recipe for sugar pie, and if so can I have it?

You’ll have to ask Chap or his mother.  But if you can talk them out of it, you have to eat it with a cup of Community Coffee.

Anything else you would like to share?

Only a big thank you for inviting me to sit down with you! 

Kathi Appelt is the author of the Newbery Honor-winning, National Book Award finalist, PEN USA Literary Award-winning, and bestselling The Underneath as well as the highly acclaimed novels Keeper and The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, and many picture books. She is a member of the faculty at Vermont College’s Master of Fine Arts program. She has two grown children and lives in Texas with her husband. For more information, visit her website at

And if I ever find the recipe for sugar pie, I'll share with my devoted readers. Oh, and with Chef Armend Latifi, too.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Rosanne Parry's WRITTEN IN STONE, Plus a Gatsby Party in Portland!

This coming Saturday I'll have the privilege of sitting on a panel with four other authors: Cat Winter (IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS), Susan Hill Long (WHISTLE IN THE DARK), Teri Brown (BORN OF ILLUSION), and my good friend Rosanne Parry (WRITTEN IN STONE). What do these excellent novels have in common with SIRENS? All our books are set in the 1920s. I'm truly looking forward to this event, and if you live in the Portland area, won't you stop by? We'll be at A Children's Place at 2PM, Saturday, September 14.

In anticipation, I've invited Rosanne to the blog today to talk about her novel and the writing life, and I think you'll agree that she is one smart and interesting lady, in addition to being a fabulous author.

Congratulations on the publication of your third novel, Written in Stone. Please give us a brief synopsis.

Pearl had always dreamed of hunting whales, just like her father. Of taking to the sea in their eight-man canoe, standing in the prow with a harpoon, and waiting for the whale to lift his barnacle-speckled head as it offers his life for the tribe.

But now that can never be. Pearl’s father was lost on the last hunt, and the whales hide from the great steam-powered ships carrying harpoon cannons which harvest not one but dozens of whales from the ocean. Pearl’s people, the Makah, struggle to survive as Pearl searches for ways to preserve their stories and skills.

As someone who has written about a very different cultural expression of the 1920’s, I’m curious to know why you chose that era as your time period.

When I decided to write about the tribes of the Olympic Peninsula I initially thought I’d write about the resumption of whale hunting which occurred in 1999. But as I learned more about the history of whaling and what the resumption of the hunt really meant to the Makah it occurred to me that the more interesting story was that they voluntarily gave up whaling in the early 1920s in response to a catastrophic drop in the whale population due to industrial whaling. How do you survive economically, culturally, spiritually, and socially when something that has been at the core of your identity so abruptly disappears? That’s a question that intrigues me, and cultural survival is an issue that I think will resonate with many people beyond the tribes in the story.

Beyond that I think the twenties are fascinating in terms of the shift from rural to urban living that occurred at this time and the changing role of women in the workplace and the fallout from the devastation of the First World War and subsequent influenza epidemic. Written in Stone touches briefly on all three of those issues. I chose 1923 specifically because Native Americans were not granted citizenship in the United States and the right to vote until 1924 long after thousands of them fought and died for their country in World War I. Everyone thinks of the Twenties in terms of women’s suffrage but there were many groups besides women who were still struggling to gain the right to vote for many years after the famous 19th amendment.

What kind of research did you do in order to capture the Makah culture of that period?

I was very fortunate to have the help and support of some of the women I taught with while I lived on the Quinault Reservation. They were great about answering my questions and giving me access to unpublished doctoral research about the tribe. I’ve been to the Makah Cultural Research Center many times and heard the chairman of the Makah Whaling commission speak about the role of whaling in his tribe’s history and their hopes for a whaling future.

Although I read quite a bit and there are many interesting books on the subject of Native American history, my favorite part of research is meeting people and hearing their stories. I love listening to an artist talk about carving in the workshop as the chips of cedar are flying. I loved to see the looks in my students faces as they were doing their traditional dances or watch the grandmother who came in to teach my student’s basket making. She brought in armfuls of sweet grass and raffia. With fewer than three sentences of instruction, but much encouragement to gather close and watch her hands, and a lively running conversation about the merits of various professional wrestlers, she had my students deeply engrossed in a craft in which they had just a few moments before loudly professed their lack of interest. Being fresh out of college myself I have to say her teaching technique was a revelation to me. And I’ll never forget how proud my students were of the baskets they eventually finished.

You write very deep and character-driven novels. Can you share techniques that you use to capture your characters? What about the character of Pearl, in particular?

I’m a great collector of writing tips and techniques and I love to try different things. For Pearl the key to getting at the heart of that girl was not so much a particular technique but a willingness to spill great quantities of ink in getting to know her. I finished the first draft of this story when my oldest girl was in the third grade. That girl graduated from college this year! In many ways Written in Stone is the book that made me a writer. I’ve written more drafts of this one than any other. It was in third person initially.  I wrote several drafts in blank verse. I tried giving Pearl a more direct and contemporary voice, and an even more formalized storyteller’s voice than she has now. I think there is much to be gained, from rewriting a story many times from many different angles.

The heart of the matter, for me, came down to voice. I think Sherman Alexie does a great job of capturing a contemporary Native American voice. I think Graham Salisbury does excellent work with contemporary Hawaiian turn of phrase. When trying to write as I heard my Quinault and Makah neighbors speak, I couldn’t quite get the sound of the voice right. I was maybe 90% there but just as a violin a little bit out of tune is worse than one that’s miles out of key, I wasn’t willing to settle for almost right. So I gave the story a contemporary frame of a grandmother sharing her recollections with her granddaughter. This allowed me to use a slightly more formal tone and a storyteller’s turn of phrase, which suits my present talents better.

So that’s not very helpful in terms of concrete technique. How about this: if you love a story, don’t give up until you’re satisfied with it. :)
How do you find the ideas for your stories – which are quite varied? 

I was just talking to some students about this. Although my stories are quite different from each other, one thing they have in common is the coming-of-age theme. The thing that’s so exciting and also terrifying about being young is that the whole world is possible and its up to you to make choices that in the end will narrow your life considerably. So how do you know what your talents are and what you ought to do with your life because of those talents? That’s a great question to think about and I hope for families and students and teachers to talk about as they read the books.

I also think one of the great pleasures of fiction is that it takes you to someplace new and different every time. Heart of a Shepherd is set on a contemporary cattle and sheep ranch in Eastern Oregon one of the most starkly beautiful and empty places in the world. Second Fiddle is set in Berlin and Paris in 1990. I lived in Germany at that time, the fascinating and unsettled year when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union, the lifelong enemy of the Unites States, disappeared completely. It was a fascinating time to live abroad and great fun to revisit two of the most interesting and artistically vibrant capitols of Europe. Written in Stone is set in the only temperate rainforest in North America.  The Quinaults maintain the only stretch of wilderness beach on the west coast. Yes, it rains about 15 feet a year, but the Twilight books got this setting entirely wrong. It’s not dark or depressing on the Olympic Peninsula. After the morning mists roll away there are as many clear days as cloudy and there is nothing to compare with the abundance of the rainforest. I’ve got some pictures from the Olympic Peninsula over at my Pinterest page. Take a look for yourself.

What are you working on now?

I am so excited about my newest project. It’s a series for younger readers and it has magic in it, both of which are new ground for me. The first book is called Jamie and the Dark. It’s a friendship story about a boy who makes friends with the Dark—a kid much like Jamie, but only a foot tall, who lives in the closet and has pockets full of stories. It has been such fun to write something funny and light-hearted that has a really interesting story-within-the-story element.

I also wrote a graphic novel script for the book, which was a fascinating process. I love thinking about a story in new ways and it was fun to think about the pacing of the story in a much more visual way.
I don’t have a publication date for Jamie and the Dark quite yet but I hope to have that all worked out sometime this fall.
Where can readers find out more about you and your books?

My website  is the place to go for information about author visits and lots more goodies like a recipe for each book. I’m also on Goodreads and you can follow me on Twitter @RosanneParry.

If you are lucky enough to live in Portland Oregon, I’ll be at A Children’s Place bookstore with Janet and 3 other MG and YA authors who also have books out this year set in the 1920s. We are going to have a Great Gatsby party and lots of lively conversation about historical fiction. That event will be Saturday September 14th at 2pm. I hope to see you there.

My other project for the fall is Wordstock, Portland’s book festival. I’ll be doing a writer’s workshop on Saturday October 5th at 3pm. My reading and book signing will follow that at 5:30pm, and I’ll be moderating a panel discussion on creating multicultural characters Sunday October 6th at 5pm. All the events are at the Oregon Convention Center.

Thanks Janet for sharing your blog space with me. I’m so looking forward to spending some time with you next month.

So am I!!