Please welcome the lovely Sarah Sullivan to The Mixed Up Files. Her debut middle grade novel, “All That’s Missing”, will be on shelves in October. Publisher’s Weekly praises it this way: “In a novel laced with mystery and a hint of the supernatural, picture book author Sullivan (Passing the Music Down) creates a strong small-town atmosphere through Edgewater’s citizens, young and old. A quietly affecting coming-of-age story about finding family and confronting change.” Woot, Sarah!
Sarah’s here today to talk about her work and what it was like to make the move to middle grade. As a bonus, she’s offering a free Skype visit with one lucky class or group.
From Indiebound: Arlo’s grandfather travels in time. Not literally — he just mixes up the past with the present. Arlo holds on as best he can, fixing himself cornflakes for dinner and paying back the owner of the corner store for the sausages Poppo eats without remembering to pay. But how long before someone finds out that Arlo is taking care of the grandfather he lives with instead of the other way around? When Poppo lands in the hospital and a social worker comes to take charge, Arlo’s fear of foster care sends him alone across three hundred miles. Armed with a name and a town, Arlo finds his only other family member — the grandmother he doesn’t remember ever meeting.
MUF: Good morning, dear Sarah! Readers are always curious about where ideas come from. Can you tell us a little bit about how that worked for your novel?
SS: All That’s Missing started with an image of a boy arriving at his grandmother’s house. All I knew about the two of them was that they had never spent any time together and that the boy’s grandmother harbored some resentment against his mother. I also knew that the boy had lost his father while he was still a toddler and that he had never known much about his father’s side of the family.
I figured out pretty quickly that I was writing a story about the meaning of family. Is your family comprised solely of the people to whom you are related by blood or does it extend beyond those circles to a greater community which supports you? What happens if your primary caretaker is suddenly unable to care for you? What would you do? How would you survive? These were the questions I was thinking about as I wrote the book.
MUF: Did you always know how it would end?
SS: Yes, I had a basic understanding of how the book would end, but I had no idea how I would get there.
MUF: One thing I love about the book is that, though there’s a diverse cast of characters, ethnicity or race is never the main focus. We can relate to everyone’s experience.
SS: It was really important to me to reflect the world as I see it. We are a culturally diverse nation and literature should reflect that. At the same time, I felt it was important for the adults in the story to reflect the experiences that would have been a part of their lives. Earlier generations had different experiences when it comes to issues of race and it was important to remain true to that part of history as well.
MUF: An independent bookstore figures prominently in the narrative. How did that come about?
SS: The bookstore in All That’s Missing is my homage to independent booksellers everywhere. The independent bookstore in my own town is called Taylor Books and it’s the cultural hub of our community. It includes not only a bookstore, but also an art gallery, a café, a performance space, and a pottery studio in the basement where classes are conducted. The owner lives upstairs in an apartment with a lovely roof garden. Our bookstore is the place where local artists show new work, where musicians play in the café on Saturday nights, where friends gather over coffee to share news and where local writers have signings. If my protagonist was going to forge new friendships, I figured the best place to start was in a bookstore.
MUF: Your first four books (which I loved) were picture books. Why the change to middle grade?
SS: Middle grade fiction is my passion. I’ve loved it since I was a member of the target audience. It took me a very long time to finally find the story I was meant to tell.
MUF: It feels as if All That’s Missing is a story you were meant to tell.
SS: When I was about the age of my protagonist I suddenly went through an unexpected process of re-discovering who my family was and confronting change. It happened when I discovered a telegram hidden in my mother’s jewelry box.
The telegram was addressed to someone with a strange last name and it began with the words, “[w]e regret to inform you that your husband has died. . .” I couldn’t understand why my mother had a telegram from the U.S. Army telling a person I had never heard of that her husband was dead.
When I asked, my mother told me she had been married before to a man with that last name and that he was my brother’s biological father, though my own father had adopted my brother after my parents got married. Suddenly, I felt like the ground had opened underneath my feet. A very basic fact about my life that I had taken for granted turned out not to be true. What else was untrue? What could I depend on? Though I had a relatively safe and protected childhood, (particularly by modern-day standards), I have no doubt that part of the reason for writing All That’s Missing was because I am still trying to figure out things related to the discovery of that telegram in the jewelry box.
My writing teacher Jane Resh Thomas always advises students to “write what haunts you.” I began writing this story when I was working with her and it is no great surprise that I seized upon the topic of family and secrets.
MUF: That’s fascinating. And good writing advice for all of us, no matter our subject or genre. Can you describe your writing process? Any rituals?
SS: I never outline because part of the process for me is discovering the story. I have a general idea about how the story will end, but I don’t know what the path will be.
Writing the first draft is an excruciating process. Occasionally, the voice of a character will come in my head and those are good days, but they don’t come often enough. I enjoy revision much more than writing the first draft.
Do I have any rituals? Coffee. I need coffee in the morning. Dark roast. Black. No sugar or cream. And I like to carry a notebook with me everywhere so I can jot down ideas. It’s terrible, but when you are deeply immersed in writing a book, the story is always with you and part of your brain is constantly working at solving problems.
MUF: Thanks so much, Sarah, and warmest congrats on the new book. Readers, here’s one more interesting Sarah tidbit: She’s a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Graduates of this stellar program have been National Book Award Finalists, New York Times bestsellers, and recipient of Coretta Scott King Awards and Newbery Honors. The faculty includes terrific MG authors Kathi Appelt, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Uma Krishnaswami.
You can learn more about Sarah and her work at www.sarahsullivanbooks.com
To be eligible to win your class or group a Skype visit with Sarah, please leave a comment below. The visit can be arranged at a mutually agreeable time during the next school year. The winner will be announced on September 26.