Today we are lucky to have an interview with acclaimed author Caroline Starr Rose, whose newest book, Blue Birds, comes out in March. Blue Birds is a story of forbidden friendship told against the backdrop of England’s first settlement in the Americas — Roanoke, the colony that failed. It is a novel in verse told by Alis, a twelve-year-old English settler, and Kimi, a Roanoke girl. The author is offering a special gift to those who pre-order this beautiful book by January 19th. See below for more information.
Caroline Starr Rose was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start Author for her debut novel, May B., which was an ALA-ALSC Notable Children’s Book and received two starred reviews. She spent her childhood in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and New Mexico, camping by the Red Sea in one and eating red chile in the other. She has taught social studies and English and worked to instill in her students a passion for books, an enthusiasm for experimenting with words, and a curiosity about the past. She lives in New Mexico. Visit her at carolinestarrrose.com.
You have wonderful writing resources on your website, and are so encouraging of other writers. Can you tell us about your own path to publication?
Thank you! I’m happy to hear it. My own path to publication was a long and winding one. I started writing seriously the summer of 1998. I was teaching at the time. My husband was in seminary, and we didn’t yet have children. A whole, empty summer stretched before me. It felt like it was time to get serious about the writing I’d dreamed about forever.
Just a few weeks before school ended I’d shown my students a video about Roald Dahl. He talked about his everyday commitment to sit with his work for two hours, whether he had something to say or not. He also stopped mid-scene so it would be easier to get to work the next day. These two things felt doable, so I dug in.
That summer left me with a horrible first draft — a middle-grade novel about the Oregon Trail. It also set me up for a pattern I followed for years: drafting in the summer, revising and mailing out queries during the school year.
Truly, I spent years trying to figure things out on my own, largely stumbling around in the dark. I didn’t join SCBWI until 2004 (though years later I found I’d written notes to myself about looking into it). I knew no one else trying to get published. This was the era before blogs. At times it was pretty lonely.
May B. (2012), my first published novel, was actually novel number 4. The publication process was not smooth sailing (you can read about it here, on my blog: http://carolinestarrrose.com/plowing-planting-hoping-dreaming/), but everything worked out beautifully in the end. The journey has been challenging, but a blessing in a lot of respects.
What writers influenced you?
Katherine Patterson. Laura Ingalls Wilder. L.M. Montgomery. Lloyd Alexander. Beverly Clearly. Gary Paulsen. Norton Juster.
Do you have a favorite quote on writing?
My friend J. Anderson Coats shared this with me (she’d heard it from author Elizabeth Bear): “Learn to write this book.” This little phrase has been so liberating. I tend to be a rule follower; if I read about a way I’m “supposed” to write, I’ll feel guilty if it doesn’t work for me. I find each book needs to find its own way. I don’t ever approach the process the same way twice. Realizing my round-about, inefficient approach can be what’s best for this particular book at this particular time has been really, really validating.
What inspired you to write Blue Birds?
In 2008 I was teaching fifth-grade social studies. We’d gotten to those textbook paragraphs about Roanoke. Reading about the Lost Colony along with my students, I remembered the fascination I’d felt the first time I’d encountered the story: 117 missing people. The word CROATOAN the only clue left behind. I knew I wanted to dig deeper.
As stories often do, the characters circled back to my own experiences, namely my time as a young girl returning to the US after living in Saudi Arabia and later coming home after being an exchange student. In many ways I was a stranger in a strange land. I wanted to really examine those feelings — the fascination, the difference, the distance with what was once familiar, even — in my characters Alis and Kimi.
Tell us about the cover and how it came to be.
When my editor told me Penguin’s art director had Italian twin sisters Anna and Elena Balbusso in mind [to do the cover], I raced over to their website (http://www.balbusso.com/) and was absolutely blown away. I wasn’t sure how they would depict the girls and worried only Alis might make it to the cover (Kimi only wears a skirt — not exactly something you see on your average mid-grade novel!). Thankfully, they understood the story belonged to both girls and wanted to show their equality and unity in the way they were portrayed.
The Balbussos asked if I wanted a color theme. I chose coral and blue, to reflect the coloring of the eastern bluebird. You’ll notice the bird the girls are holding isn’t colored. It’s a wooden representation of the bluebird. The wooden bird and the eastern bluebird become symbols of their friendship. So really, there are three bluebirds on the cover — the carving, Kimi, and Alis.
May B. was inspired by the American frontier and the Little House books. Blue Birds is also historical fiction, about the first English settlers in Roanoke. How do you find inspiration to create these real and relatable characters who live in times very different from ours?
Thank you so much for saying they are real and relatable. Without this, historical fiction isn’t accessible, I think. I always start with the era and immerse myself in reading. But I then come back to feelings. They are what unite us over the ages. Though experiences, responsibilities, and life expectations are so very different now than at other times, our emotional responses are largely the same: fear, sadness, curiosity, loneliness. If I can draw on these things, I can truly meet my characters…and then share them with readers.
Do you travel to research?
I haven’t yet, but I want to! I’m hoping this is the summer it will happen. Up to this point, my “travel” has largely consisted of YouTube videos on repeat.
Tell us a bit about your writing process. Are you an outliner? Do you use notecards or a writing program like Scrivener?
I keep a journal for each book, full of notes, questions, and sketchy ideas that become my starting place. I best fit the “ploster / pantster” definition — someone who knows a few key turning points and has a pretty good sense of character and setting before digging in. Honestly, drafting is angst-inducing. The something from nothing phase is really hard for me.
Scrivener and I aren’t friends. I really tried and wanted to love it, but it didn’t work for me.
Do you have any writing rituals or superstitions?
Blue Birds was really, really hard for me on many levels. So I started wearing pearls. 🙂 Everyday. With jeans. With sweats. With dressy clothes. It didn’t matter. I just wanted to feel some sort of connection with Alis and Kimi. I’m not sure if it worked, but they felt close and I felt close to the story, even when I wasn’t working on it.
Do you hear from readers much? What kinds of things do they say that are rewarding or surprising?
I love hearing from readers! Just the fact they’ve taken time to contact me is meaningful. And to hear people have connected with my characters is especially dear. Probably the most rewarding interactions I’ve had have been with dyslexic readers who have found courage and dignity in May’s story. These letters bring me to tears.
This post is part of a week-long celebration in honor of the book Blue Birds. Author Caroline Starr Rose is giving away a downloadable PDF of this beautiful Blue Birds quote (created by Annie Barnett of Be Small Studios) for anyone who pre-orders the book from January 12-19. Simply click through to order from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books A Million, IndieBound, or Powell’s, then email a copy of your receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org by Monday, January 19. PDFs will be sent out January 20. To see why Rose picked this quote from the book, see her blog post here.
Katharine Manning is a writer and mom of three. She reviews middle grade books at www.kidbooklist.com. You can follow her on twitter @SuperKate.