The Kid Lit Frenzy Interview (published on 1/11/13)

Amy note: Kid Lit Frenzy is a wonderful blog for teachers, so within this interview is a writing assignment I've devised to help kids engage with history more intimately. Check it out! In addition, I confess that there are WAY too many books waiting to be read on my nightstand, but that I remain resolutely optimistic about my chances for reading ALL of them within, oh, a week or so. The practical side of me -- which knows this is NOT possible -- has suggested that we contact Gandalf (or at least snag Hermoine Granger's time-shifter thingy) to help me out.

Recently, there was an on-line discussion amongst a group of teachers identifying periods of history that seem to be ignored in children’s literature.  I have to admit that my knowledge of Wisconsin history and the “pigeoners” is limited and for me added to the excitement of reading ONE CAME HOME.  What motivated you to write a story set in 1870’s Wisconsin and particularly focused on the “pigeoners”?

Sounds like a great discussion -- wish I could have listened in! 

By the way, I get the sense that hardly anybody knows about the 1871 passenger pigeon nesting in Wisconsin – so there’s no shame there!  

For me, it was a happy convergence of interests that led to writing about the passenger pigeons, the pigeon hunters (the “pigeoners”) and Wisconsin’s passenger pigeon nesting of 1871. For instance, I love history; I love novels set in the Midwest; and I’m a birder. (Yes, I’m actually one of those folks up at dawn watching birds. My husband and I do the whole deal -- a pocket bulging with The Peterson Guide, binoculars in hand. We yell out to each other, saying phrases like “Yellow crown! Bandit mask! Red Rump!” It’s quite hilarious!) 

Anyway, you can imagine that a person like me might read a book on birds every once in awhile – and I do. So One Came Home began because I was reading A.W. Schorger’s history of the now-extinct passenger pigeons.

Now Schorger’s book is a scholarly work, published in the 1950s by the University of Wisconsin Press. Picking it up, I expected dry, fussy prose wrapped around a lot of charts. But I thought I’d find something to like because I like birds.  

It was a scholarly book – tables, charts, an endnote section as thick as the text -- but I was riveted. Here was this history that read like something straight out of science fiction. I mean, a billion birds the size of crows? Add to this that they flew at 60 mph and my imagination just stopped working. But wait, there was more: Sometimes passenger pigeon migrations darkened the sky for days. As these birds passed overhead, everyday folks were shooting at them from their windows and hitting twelve birds at one pop. These birds were so loud that as they passed you couldn’t hear a thing. Their dung dropped from the sky like sleet. This was weird, weird stuff!  

So I’m reading this – and reading bits of it out loud to my husband because I cannot believe it -- and I turn the page, and there, on the page, is a map of this huge passenger pigeon nesting in Wisconsin in 1871. (850 square miles?!?) It just floored me. I grew up in Wisconsin – this was my state – and I knew nothing of this. 

I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I started writing about it. And that was the real beginning of One Came Home

Yeah, I had a few story ideas knocking around in my head earlier, but I didn’t put much of it on paper until I happened to read about this, crazy, jaw-dropping, maybe-a-billion-birds, 1871 nesting. I knew then where this story was going to be set. It was going to set in my home state of Wisconsin, and I was going to put a small, fictional town right next to this monstrous nesting. I’d have this living, breathing, science-fiction-like (but historical) setting. How could I resist? 

I should add -- in case readers of this interview think that the book is all about passenger pigeons --  that One Came Home is a western with a mystery in it. (It also qualifies as historical fiction. Yeah, that’s a lot of genres, but I swear it’s the truth!) Anyway, the story is told in the voice of thirteen-year old Georgie Burkhardt who leaves home in order to find her sister. Everybody else says her sister is dead, and has good reason -- after all, there has been a funeral. But Georgie refuses to believe it and so sets off.    

Georgie Burkhardt is a wonderful character.  Was she based on anyone specific or did you just have fun creating her?

I’m glad you liked her – that’s good news! 

Let’s get this off the table first: There is a lot of me in Georgie. Deep down, I’m stubborn and sure I’m right. I know it’s silly, and half the time, it’s plain dumb, but there it is. I think I’m pretty good at hiding this though, so you shouldn’t worry about meeting me. 

Georgie is also derived from a character named Miss Illene Viola Wiggins who appeared in my novel, That Girl Lucy Moon. Miss Wiggins is a powerhouse. She’s a businesswoman and philanthropist in her late 60s who owns the town’s primary business. When I discovered I was still thinking about Miss Wiggins after that novel was published, I asked myself what she might have been like as a thirteen year old. From that question came the first versions of Georgie Burkhardt. 

Can you identify one research technique that you use that a classroom teacher may be able to adopt as a writing exercise with students?

Well, I love primary historical documents (and by that I mean documents that were written by someone from a particular time period). For instance, in One Came Home, I quote from a period book, Captain Randolph B. Marcy’s The Prairie Traveler. 

So I’d suggest doing a writing exercise that begins with a primary document.  Say you have an old photograph of several people – you can ask the students to put themselves into that photograph and imagine that world. Ask the students to write quickly about the relationships between the people. Ask them to write about what they imagine the people are thinking. Ask them to imagine what these people do ‘for fun.’ (Maybe one of them doesn’t look like they have any fun at all. Why not? Write about it!) Tell them to imagine the sounds these people hear, the things they can feel, what they’re looking at – remind them to use all their senses. Ask them to pick a person and make a list of the important objects in that person’s life. Tell them to jot down any questions they’d like to ask these people.  

The students won’t get everything ‘right,’ but misinterpretations can be the start of a good conversation, or the beginning of a research project. Personally, I like learning history this way. I’m not great at dates, names and places, but if I’ve seen a photograph, or read a letter, the rest of the history sticks. 

One thing I am always curious about is the writing habits and writing space of authors?  Some work in their home or a writing space, and others in coffee shops.  Some like music playing in the background and others have special snacks or beverages.  Tell us a little bit about your writing space and habits.

It helps if I write regularly. That’s the biggest thing for me – to write regularly. If I don’t do it regularly I lose the threads of my plot. So I try to write four hours a day consistently. I take one day off a week.     

I have an office, and my own desk. I’ve got a door I can shut. But I’ve worked in lots of crazy places, and have strategies for each. I’ll say this: I love owning a laptop.

As for practices: When it’s an early draft, I can listen to music. But later, when I’m working at the sentence level, I need silence because I need to be able to hear the rhythm of the words. I also do a lot of reading out loud to hear the voice of the book. 

At the end of my process, reading out loud is the only thing I trust to make sure the words are hitting their marks. I’ve found that when I read in my head (which goes much, much faster and is therefore tempting) I’ll add words, rhythms, beats that aren’t there. When the editor and I are sending a manuscript back and forth, I often go hoarse from reading out loud.   

What book would you identify as being the book(s) that turned you into a reader or inspired you to become a writer?

William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It was required reading in high school, and I just got it in a sort of primal way. The voices were so specific and regional. In addition, I had never before considered that a narrator in a book might be unreliable. Wow. It blew me away. 

If you could spend the day with your favorite character (from any book – doesn’t have to be one of your own characters), who would it be and what would you do for the day?

I would love it if Tolkien’s Gandalf would drop by to set me off on an adventure. Would you let him know I’m interested, please?  

What is the question that you most frequently get asked by children who write to you?

 ‘Are you going to write another book about Lucy Moon?’ Man, that is such a compliment!     

If we were to get a peek at your “To-be-read” pile, what titles would be see in the stack of books?

I love this question! Last year, I was curious about how many books actually passed through my hands, so I kept track on Goodreads. You can go see it! I summed up my reading here: http://amytimberlake.com/blog/12/1/2012/amys-2012-book-list-new-years-resolution.   

Current list? 

• Right now, I’ve got a bunch of cookbooks waiting to be read and tried. I want to learn to make artisan bread, my own mustard, and maybe ferment something. (Cider? More mead? Haven’t decided.)

• I’m reading a lot of Thomas Merton. Going to read The Seven Storey Mountain -- finally! 

• I need to finish Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’m at his fourth meal, so nearly there. 

• I’m reading a mystery that I picked up because the cover was so beautiful: Kevin McCafferty’s The Royal Wulff Murders. I’m a sucker for covers, but this one doesn’t disappoint – it’s good so far! 

• I will be doing some reading for a Kindling Words conference I’m going to in January, so add William Alexander, Natalie Babbitt, and John Green to the list. 

• And I’m going to read Elizabeth Fama’s Monstrous Beauty. She’s a friend of min and I can’t wait to read it because I heard early excerpts. Yay!  

Okay, that’s a startlingly large list for “what’s next.” Clearly this is an eyes-bigger-than-stomach situation. Does your list get this big? 

Hey, as long as we’re bringing Gandalf into my life (see earlier question) maybe he can arrange for more time to read . . . What do you think?   

Thanks for this interview! This was fun!