Interview for The OWL for YA (1/7/13)

Amy note: This is the interview in which I admit I didn't actually mind school lunch in middle school and to this day, still have a hankering for tater tots. Ah yes, the secrets DO come out!

For One Came Home what part/character/event are you most excited/proud about?

I love Georgie’s voice. It’s first person so you can really hear her speak, and she’s actually speaking to the reader, telling you her story. Once I got her voice down, I liked her way of directly addressing her readers a lot.

One Came Home is set in 1871 – can you talk about what that was like?  Why that time?  What research, if any, did you do?

1871 became the setting because I was reading The Passenger Pigeon by a historian named A. W. Schorger. While reading, I came upon a passage about a nesting that Mr. Schorger said was probably the last great passenger pigeon nesting. Now this was no ordinary nesting -- the nesting was estimated to have covered 850 square miles (over half the size of Rhode Island). Because of the size, Schorger made an educated guess that nearly every passenger pigeon in North America may have taken part in this nesting. How many birds is that? Thousands? Or a million or more birds? Unfortunately, no one knows.

But imagine living next door to this nesting. When those birds flew they could block out the sun. All day, there would be the noise from the nesting, along with a pungent smell. When they flew overhead (which they did in great flocks at least two times a day) there would be a sort of “sleet” that fell. (People in 1871 called this “pigeon lime.”) Add to this, the fact that hunters (called “pigeoners”) followed passenger pigeons wherever they went, and now, you’ve got two invasions happening in short order: birds and then thousands of pigeon hunters.

And all of this happened in my home state of Wisconsin and I didn’t know a thing about it! How was this possible? So I did what I do in cases like these: I started writing about a small, fictional town that neighbored the nesting.

Research? I did a lot – most of which did not make it in the book, but that’s the way it often goes (so I’ve heard).

Tell about your writing process.  How long did it take you to write One Came Home from idea to finish?  Please tell about revision if you can! My students just did NaNoWriMo, so they are very curious about revision.

The book took about three years to write. Another year (or so) after it sold, as I worked through edits suggested by my editor, Alison Wortche at Knopf.  

I do rewrite a lot. My best writing comes out of the rewriting process. I don’t keep track of how many drafts I do, but I’ll guess that it’s not uncommon for me to have over twenty drafts of a book – and I mean, literally re-workings from beginning to end. It’s a long process for me. When I am working on a book length work, I work (or try to work) about four hours a day.

Revision – for me – is doing anything I need to do to get the story better. I’ll try anything too. I’ve been known to cut 60 pages down to 12 so I can have a tighter plot arc in say, the first chapter. Sometimes I make an outline from a finished piece of writing to see, in the outline’s shortened form, what I’ve written. Then I’ll re-arrange and re-write. I’ve been known to cover doors with Post-Its. (This didn’t work well for me – but I sure looked productive.) I’ve tossed out ten pages and kept a line that somehow speaks to me. I’ve also tossed a lot of backstory too.

The first draft is wonderful because you have a glimpse of the story you’re going to tell and it’s so nice to be done with the blank white page. So the first draft is worthy of celebration, but for me, the first draft is only a glimpse of the final book because revision is the source of almost all of my writing.     

When you were in middle school kind of student were you?  Did you write then? Did anything from this time show up in One Came Home?

If you read my first novel, That Girl Lucy Moon, you’ll get a sense of who I was as a middle school student. Lucy feels injustice acutely. There’s also a lot of me in Georgie Burkhardt – she’s fierce, strong, determined and she gets things done. I wasn’t as brave as either Lucy or Georgie, but they do represent the person I wished I was at the time.    

Otherwise, I’d describe myself as a middle of the road student who occasionally took on the odd project. One of these projects was a newspaper called “The Birch Bark Press,” which contained all sorts of middle school news – so I guess yes, I did write in middle school. But I didn’t consider the newspaper “writing” per se, I thought of myself as an entrepreneur starting up a newspaper business. (It fell apart in a matter of months, but I did try it.)

And because it's the owl my standard question always is: WHOOO do you admire when it comes to writing? OR WHOOO do you like to read or really enjoyed in HS or middle school?

You’ve got so many great writers writing for people in middle school – it’s impossible to name everyone I admire, but I will say that Polly Horvath is one my all-time favorites.  

The Fun Questions! (based on what middle school students do!)

Do you chew gum?

Not a lot. This is because I forget I’m chewing and then hours later, my jaw cramps up. But my family has a favorite chewing gum – Big Red cinnamon gum. Growing up, my mom chewed it by the handfuls, so it was always around. When I think “gum,” I think “cinnamon.”

Do you text?

Yes but I’m new at it. I joined the rest of the world and I got my first cell phone two years ago. (Sort of proud of that. Can you tell?)

Was school lunch just as yucky then as it is now?

Actually, I didn’t mind it. But I remember choosing when I ate school lunch (mostly I ate bagged lunches). My favorite school lunch? Hamburger and tater tots. Who knows what made up the meat in those burgers, but I still get cravings for tater tots. That’s from school lunch. Thanks lunch ladies!