Hello Mixed-Up Filers!
Today, I am pleased to welcome to our site, Anne Bustard, author of Blue Skies, which came out March 17th from S&S Books for Young Readers!
JR: Hi, Anne and thanks for joining us today!
AB: Thanks for having me! It’s a special treat to be on this blog!
JR: First off, I was fortunate enough to read an advanced copy, and loved it. I felt both, happy, and so, so sad. For those who don’t know about the book, can you tell us a little bit about the book and the idea for this story came from?
AB: I’m quite touched by your compliment. Thank you ever so much!
Blue Skies is a story about 5th grader Glory Bea Bennett, who has never given up hope that her daddy will return from WWII. So when the Merci Train boxcar from France is scheduled to stop in her small Texas town, she’s certain that Daddy will come too.
The idea for this book came by serendipity. I discovered the existence of the Merci Train during a summer teacher workshop over fifteen years ago, and I knew in an instant that I wanted to write a story about this magnanimous display of gratitude. The Merci Train was a French grassroots effort that thanked the U.S. for all we did for them before and after the war. So in 1949, they sent 49 boxcars filled with gifts to the U.S., one boxcar for each state, and one that was divided between Washington D.C. and the Territory of Hawaii.
JR: The book has some humorous parts as well. How difficult is it to summon humor when you’re writing some pretty emotional scenes?
AB: What a great question! Writing humorous scenes and conversations within this story was a welcome and necessary relief for me, and I hope for readers as well. The Gladiola Gazette columns were, dare I say, the easiest. I imagine that’s because they were written in Penny Pfluger’s voice, rather than Glory Bea’s. I was thrilled when my wonderful editor suggested I add more.
JR: I think your editor was right! You write a lot of historical fiction, which I love. What about that genre appeals to you?
AB: I like to think of myself as a lifetime learner and research is one of my happy places. Reading and writing historical fiction allows me remarkable access to the past, much of which is new to me. Not only do I gain insights into a particular time, I often have an aha! about my own past, as well as the now. Hopefully, readers do too.
JR: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey getting to this point?
AB: I had the desire to write l-o-n-g before I ever attempted to tell a story. About a year after I finally took the plunge, I realized I needed help. Since I love school, I took a class with Kathi Appelt. When it concluded, she recommended that we form a critique group. So we did. That was over twenty years ago and I’ve been in a group almost every year since.
SCBWI, Highlights, Rice Continuing Education, VCFA, and the amazing Austin writing community have all played a major role in my writing development, success, and life. I owe them all enormous gratitude.
The earliest “polished” draft of Blue Skies is dated March 3, 2003. Back then it was a picture book. Several drafts later, an editor showed interest and wondered if it could be a middle grade. I loved that idea. At VCFA in 2009 and 2010, I completed a draft of the “train” novel. I sent it to several agents, all of who passed. In 2017, I reread it, saw ways to improve it, and dug in again. With the help of my critique group and agent, it was revised many more times. My agent found a fabulous editor and then we worked and reworked it together.
JR: I read a lot of fascinating things on your website, https://annebustard.com/, such as that you grew up in Hawaii, and now live in Texas. I love both places, and have also lived in many different areas. How do you think that living in a variety of places has helped your writing?
AB: Guess what? I’ve moved! After decades in Texas, I reconnected with my college sweetheart and we married. Now I live in Canada, and travel back to Texas often.
You’ve asked a terrific question and I’m not sure I know the answer.
Did living in each new environment increase my curiosity, heighten my senses, or powers of observation? Maybe. I am certain that each move presented an opportunity to grow. Perhaps that has helped my awareness of the need for my characters to grow and change.
JR: Congrats on the move and the marriage! But have to ask, can you still hula well?
AB: Haha! I don’t know about well, but I did dance at my wedding reception a year and a half ago.
JR: This is perhaps the MOST important question of this interview. I read that you used to own your own bookstore. How awesome was that?
AB: I loved the bookstore! It was a children’s-only store and we had the best staff and customers in the world! Opening up boxes of books, hand-selling them, interacting with other booksellers, and meeting authors and illustrators was the best!
JR: What’s your writing process like?
AB: I am not a plotter, though I do have a feeling about how I want the story to end. I dive into a first draft with joy. Somehow I’m able to turn off my critical brain because it’s a first try. I know that revisions, oh so many revisions, will follow.
I generally write in order, but at some point I leap ahead and write the last scene. After that draft, I do extensive journaling in order to delve into the characters and their motivations. Then the rewriting begins and I share the first chapters with my critique group. Eventually they’ll see a whole draft or two.
Often I’ll seek more outside readers before sending it to my agent. She’s editorial, yay! so we work on it until she thinks it’s ready to send out. (Note: everything I’ve sent her has not made the cut.) I research a lot up front, and continue in a lighter vein after the first draft through the last.
JR: I also have to have the last scene in mind before I write anything. What’s your favorite book from childhood?
AB: I have several, but I’ll mention two because I can’t decide: The Secret Garden and My Side of the Mountain.
JR: What’s your favorite movie?
AB: When Harry Met Sally. Besides the main storyline, the vignettes of older couples talking melt my heart every time.
JR: I watch When Harry Met Sally at least once a year! Something people would be surprised to learn about you?
AB: My superpower is hanging pictures on walls without measuring.
JR: A superpower that every little kid dreams about! 🙂 What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received and is there any advice you can give to writers looking to break in?
AB: The first lecture of my first semester at VCFA, Louise Hawes spoke about character desire. She asked us to wonder: What does your protagonist want? The answer, she said, should drive our stories. This question guides and grounds my work.
As for advice to writers looking to break in: never give up, it’s okay for a manuscript to rest for years, and a reminder that you only need one yes (from an agent or an editor)!
JR: What are you working on next?
AB: I’m writing a middle grade story inspired by an unconventional (and historical) public event in Texas.
JR: How can people follow you on social media?
JR: Thanks so much for stopping by and chatting and the best of luck with Blue Skies!
AB: Thank you, mahalo, and merci beaucoup, for this interview!
JR: Thanks again to Anne Bustard and make sure you go out and get Blue Skies!