Middle-grade author and MUF blogger Hillary Homzie celebrates the publication of her latest MG novel, APPLE PIE PROMISES (Sky Pony Press, October 2). Here, she chats with fellow MUF blogger Melissa Roske about the writing and researching process, haunted houses, and strawberry-rhubarb pie.
1. Your latest MG, APPLE PIE PROMISES, is about Lily, a seventh grader who is sent to live with her father, stepmother, and half-sister while her mother is on an academic fellowship in Morocco. Where did you get the idea for the premise, and what kind of research did you do?
After I finished Pumpkin Spice Secrets, which was the first book in Sky Pony’s Swirl line, I discussed with my editor the possibility of writing about a seventh grader who must live with her new stepfamily after her mom earns a fellowship abroad. Immediately, I thought of having the mother travel to Morocco. My father’s family is from North Africa, and I knew it would be a wonderful opportunity for me to explore that part of the world. I scoured travel blogs and articles about Morocco. I asked friends who were going or had just come back from a trip there. I became an inveterate armchair traveler, falling in love with the sights and sounds of the country. I had so much fun having Lily’s mom write dispatches from Rabat, the gorgeous capital city, sitting along the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the river Bou Regreg. Oh, I really want to go! Of course, the main action takes place in the States, in Tacoma, Washington, but Lily (and the reader) will definitely learn a bit about Morocco, and especially Rabat.
I also spent time researching Tacoma. I’ve been to Tacoma and have spent time in the general Seattle area, which I love. However, I haven’t lived there, so I watched vlogs of Tacoma residents, as well as immersed myself in reading about the city through books and blogs. And yes, I fell in love all over again with the Northwest. I set my middle-grade novel Queen of Likes (Simon and Schuster/Aladdin MIX, 2016) in Portland, another quirky, cool, beautiful Northwestern city. Also, I found myself researching haunted houses. Not real ones, but the kind that students and the PTA assemble for school fairs. I’ve put together a few haunted houses in my day, but it was fun to read about different themes out there. In Apple Pie Promises, Lily works on a haunted house for the fall festival with her stepsister, as well as her crush. Let me tell you, I spent quite a few Google searches investigating zombie makeup and funny sayings and names on gravestones. You know, like Ben Better and Ann M. T. Grave. I love research assignments that make me giggle like a madwoman.
2. Baking is a huge part of this book, as Lily is an avid baker. She even Skypes with her mom while she’s baking. Are you a keen baker? If so, what is your favorite dessert to bake, and why?
True confession. I’m not a baker, but I love pies (strawberry rhubarb and tart apple pies are my favorite), so I had to read about pie baking, watch videos and cajole a friend who is actually a gifted baker to tutor me (it was so terrible. I was forced to sample pies. Ah, such cruel hard work). The hardest part is undoubtedly the crust, and my friend taught me a few tricks, which I attempted to repeat. My son filmed my tutorials and I plan to post some of it online (even the fails) to help non-bakers like me get over their baking phobia.
3. Pranks weigh heavily in APPLE PIE PROMISES. What is the silliest/craziest prank you’ve ever pulled?
I’ve done quite a few pranks, from kidnapping stuffed animals to tying strings to closet doors, but probably the silliest happened in college. I was living in the French House (La Maison Française, at University of Virgina), and a friend purchased une crotte—basically, a piece of brown plastic that looked remarkably like a turd. We’d drop it on the bathroom floor and then wait to hear a piercing cry, and cursing in French. It gave a whole new meaning to “Pardon my French.”
4. Do you have a specific writing routine? If so, can you tell us about it?
Well, my writing routine first involves non-writing. Getting up. Feeding the dog. Feeding the child. Packing the child’s lunch. Walking for about 40 minutes up and down a steep hill with my husband, who is disciplined about these things. This is lucky for me, because I’m lazy and would much rather stay in bed and read. Then I check email and see what’s going on with the news (which can be dangerous since there’s a lot going on, so if I’m strategic I don’t do this, but I’m not often strategic). But somewhere around 10:00 a.m., I do start writing. And then take a break around lunchtime. Then write some more. Of course, not every day is writing. But I feel much better about my life if I can get a couple of hours in or more. Oh, and I do take social media breaks and scan to see what’s going on with my writing friends. In truth, I’m most productive when I’m on a tight deadline, and I’ve had some crazy deadlines. When a deadline looms large, I don’t even need to use Freedom (which shuts off my internet access) in order to make my goals.
In a strange way, when life interrupts due to family obligations and other responsibilities, it only makes me hungrier to write when I do finally sit in front of my computer. And often literally hungry. I confess to liking snacks when I write. I’m trying to switch to drinking more tea though.
5. What advice would you give to aspiring writers? And how about to aspiring bakers?
Finish what you write. I can’t tell you how often I’ve gotten bogged down by the first three chapters—obsessively rewriting them. I would say just write on through to the end, and only after you’ve finally gotten your armature in place, then spend time fine-tuning. After all, you might have to throw away your opening—perhaps starting later or earlier. Also, be careful of overcomplicating things. I’m famous for over-plotting, and then having to scale it back to spend more time on characterization. For aspiring bakers, don’t be afraid to throw away your too buttery pie dough. It’s no different than for writers—throw away your darlings, if it will make a better book (or pie!).
HILLARY HOMZIE is the author of the upcoming Ellie May chapter-book series (Charlesbridge), as well as contemporary middle grade novels, including Apple Pie Promises and Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony Press), and Queen of Likes, The Hot List and Things Are Gonna Get Ugly (Simon & Schuster/M!X). She is also the author of the humorous chapter book series, Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin). Hillary lives in California with her family, and teaches at the children’s writing MFA program at Hollins University. You can find out more about Hillary her website and follow her on Twitter.