Author Interviews

Interview with Heidi Lang: Drawing from Personal Experience

Imagine packing up all of your belongings and living in a van. Do you think you could do it? Author Heidi Lang did. And she used her own experience as inspiration for her upcoming novel, Wrong Way Summer. After enjoying this read myself, I had the opportunity to interview her and learn more about how her own life (including her own #vanlife) helped shape this book.

Thank you for sharing Wrong Way Summer with me. Can you give a short summary about the book?

Claire used to love her dad’s fantastical stories, especially tales about her absent mom—who could have been off with the circus or stolen by the troll king, depending on the day. But now that she’s 12, Claire thinks she’s old enough to know the truth. When her dad sells the house and moves her and her brother into a converted van, she’s tired of the tall tales and refuses to pretend it’s all some grand adventure, despite how enthusiastically her little brother embraces this newest adventure. Claire is faced with a choice: Will she play along with the stories her dad is spinning for her little brother, or will she force her family to face reality once and for all? Equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking, Wrong Way Summer is a road-trip journey and coming-of-age story about one girl’s struggle to understand when a lie is really a lie and when it’s something more: hope.

A moving summer road-trip story for fans of Crenshaw and The Someday Birds.

What would you say was the spark for Wrong Way Summer? What came next? And what component organically fell into place later on?

There were a few sparks. For instance, I’ve always wanted to write a story about stories, something to explore my grandfather’s favorite motto. And then, of course, I fell in love with the idea of living in a van. But I’d say the real spark for this story actually happened before I ever heard of #vanlife. This spark hit me while I was listening to an episode of “This American Life,” where a woman recounted a childhood memory.

In this episode, the narrator talks about the day her parents gave her and her older sister painted metal tissue boxes for Christmas. At first she was devastated, until her older sister said the boxes had been painted by trained gorillas. And suddenly her gift went from being a terrible disappointment to becoming one of her prized possessions. Much later, the narrator found an old school report her sister had written where she’d talked about that gift. Only in that report, the sister said she’d made up the origin story of the tissue boxes because she knew her parents couldn’t afford gifts, and knew the boxes were something her dad’s friend had given as charity, and also knew what it had cost her parents to ask for that charity. And as she looked at her little sister’s tear-filled face, and looked up at her mom, and knew she was about to cry, too, this story about trained gorillas just spilled out of her. It saved the day, and everyone was happy. Except for this older sister, who went upstairs to her room and cried and cried. She wasn’t crying because of the gift, or even because of their financial situation. She was crying because she felt like, in that moment, she’d chosen to grow up before she was really ready for it.

That episode stuck with me. And I knew someday I wanted to write a story where a character is put in a similar position of “choosing” adulthood and all it entails in order to protect a younger sibling. But it took many years before I found the right way to tell that story.

You mention in your Author’s Note how you also lived the #vanlife. Did you know at the time that a story/book would form from your own Grand Adventure? If so, did you struggle at how to pursue it or was it obvious to you?

I actually became interested in #vanlife back in 2012, before I’d thought of writing Wrong Way Summer or even published my first book. My husband and I needed to get another vehicle for our dog walking business and started looking at Sprinter vans. From there, we discovered this whole world of people traveling, and even living full-time in their vans. I got caught up in watching youtube vidoes of DIY van conversions and reading blogs about boondocking, and when we bought our own Sprinter, we talked about converting it ourselves someday in the future.

But as we all know when it comes to social media, it only paints part of the picture. The romantic pictures I saw and the exciting posts I read were very different from what I began to notice right there in front of me: a lot of people living in their vehicles, just to get by. Most of them hadn’t chosen #vanlife for the fun of it. It was just the only way they could afford to stay in the area for school, or work, or family. And as rent in our area climbed higher, we realized there was a good possibility that if our landlord ever sold our place, we wouldn’t be able to find something affordable right away that would take our dogs. So the van went from exciting future travel vehicle to back-up home safety net.

When we sold our dog walking business in 2017 so I could try to write full-time, we decided the best way to afford that would be to actually try #vanlife living. So we moved in with my in-laws and began working on the van conversion. By that point, I did know I wanted to write a story about the experience, and I knew I wanted it to highlight both the good and bad of #vanlife living: the glamor and romanticism of being able to get away from it all and live a more free life on the road, as well as the desperation that often underlays that choice. The rest of the story formed pretty organically from my desire to show both of these aspects.

What is your connection with the dad’s storytelling? Are you a storyteller?

I would love to be a good storyteller! But I’m definitely much better at writing stories than I am at speaking them. However, I was fortunate to grow up around storytellers. My grandpep was actually the first person who ever told me, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” I guess it was something his older brother used to say all the time, too, and when I was a kid, I soaked it in as our family motto. Maybe that’s why I decided to become a fiction writer.

I enjoyed traveling with Claire, Patrick, and their dad. How did you choose the locations where they stopped?

That was definitely the hardest part of writing this book! There are so many cool places to see, I could have written about a hundred more pages, so narrowing it down was really tricky. I wanted to have a variety of experiences for the characters in my book, but I also needed them to stop at locations that would make sense for a family on a limited budget. In the end, I picked places that I’d been to that were meaningful to me, as well as places that I wanted to go to, so I could live vicariously through Claire and her family. I also ended up taking a solo train trip back and forth across the country before I started drafting Wrong Way Summer as a way to really get a feel for the changing landscape and see more areas than I might otherwise have had time to cover.

How much of Claire do you see in yourself?

Originally when I sat down to write Claire, I thought about one of my cousins, and what she was like at twelve years old. Her personality became the foundation of Claire, but as with every character I write, Claire also reflects different aspects of my own personality. For instance, I’m definitely a rule follower. Even if it’s a rule no one else is following, I feel anxious breaking it. And like Claire, I’m also trying to figure out that line between fact and fiction, and I’m very interested in the different ways a story can be used to hide or reveal the truth, and to inspire or manipulate other people. But one of the wonderful things about writing is how characters take on their own life, and I definitely feel that Claire evolved away from my cousin, and from me, to become someone all her own.

What ended up taking more time that you anticipated when researching/writing/revising?

Definitely planning Claire’s route and deciding on her family’s stops along the way. But part of that was because I was having a little too much fun researching and revisiting these places vicariously, so I took my time with it.

How can teachers use this book in their classrooms?

When I was young I basically assumed everyone’s lives were more or less just like mine. Just as I thought something was either true or false, right or wrong. I was very much a kid with well-defined edges. It was only as I slowly wandered into adulthood that I became aware of all those spaces in between, and how different everyone’s personal experiences can be. I think that it’s in middle school when kids start to become aware of those gray areas, and from there that they start to question the beliefs they always took for granted. To me, that’s the most important use of any book: the ability to open minds and make the reader ask questions. I’m hoping this book can do a little of that.

When does Wrong Way Summer come out?

This book will be out in the world on April 21st, 2020.

How can we learn more about you? 

Devi Pride Photography

I share a website with my sometime co-writer Kati Bartkowski at www.HeidiandKatibooks.com, or you can find me on Instagram and on twitter at the same handle, @hidlang.

 

Wow, so fascinating. And can you imagine how intriguing this book will be for kids? It is such a great example of using life to write a story.

And if you can’t wait for the release of her new book Wrong Way Summer, check out her other books, including Rules of the Ruff, which is also inspired by her life as a dog walker.

Dear Michael Northrop, An Author Interview and Giveaway

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgDoes Superman ever make mistakes? What was Wonder Woman’s eleventh birthday like? These are just a few of the questions that eager fans ask DC superheros in Michael Northrop’s Dear Justice League. At the Mixed-Up Files, we had some questions of our own for Mr. Northrop, and just like the Justice League, he was super to answer them.

MUF: Dear Justice League is your first graphic novel. Have you always wanted to write graphic novels?

MN: As a kid with dyslexia, I wasn’t much of a reader or a writer. Comic books were huge for me because I was hesitant about reading, and comic books were the first thing that I could read both for fun and socially. As each issue came out, I could read them and participate in the discussion. So, writing Dear Justice League was like coming full circle. There’s a visual storytelling to graphic novels that was already there for me because comics were so formative for me.

MUF: Wow, from a reluctant reader, to an author. You started out at Sports Illustrated Kids. What was that journey like?

MN: I chose the most perilous of paths. I became an English major, and jot just English, but poetry. Poetry is also great for dyslexia or struggling readers because it’s something that is read and written slowly and carefully. I became the poetry editor for the literary magazine in college. My editor recommended me for a job with the sports section at World Almanac, which is how I got into journalism and Sports Illustrated Kids, which really helped me to develop the middle-grade/YA voice.

MUF: Was there anything from your time at Sports Illustrated Kids that informed or inspired Dear Justice League?

MN: The interaction with the athletes, and how they responded to questions from young fans as opposed to questions from me. There was just a direct connection between the kids and these larger than life figures.

Michael Northrop is the New York Times bestselling author of Scholastic’s new multi-platform series, TombQuest. His first young adult novel, Gentlemen, earned him a Publishers Weekly Flying Start citation, and his second, Trapped, was an Indie Next List selection. His first middle-grade novel, Plunked, was named one of the best children’s books of the year by the New York Public Library and was selected for NPR’s Backseat Book Club. He is originally from Salisbury, Connecticut, a small town in the foothills of the Berkshire mountains, where he mastered the arts of BB gun shooting, tree climbing, and field goal kicking with only moderate injuries. After graduating from NYU, he worked at Sports Illustrated Kids magazine for 12 years, the last five of those as baseball editor.

MUF: Since you mentioned that comics helped you overcome your dyslexia, is that something that you thought about while writing Dear Justice League? Helping struggling readers build their skills?

MN: I did write with readers like myself in mind. I wanted to write for a lot of different levels, and to make Dear Justice League as accessible as possible. That’s why the story is broken up into a different chapter for each hero. It gives the reader more ways into the book. So, if someone only wanted to read about Wonder Woman, they could read that chapter, and get into the story that way. It’s also why I chose to start the story with Superman. He’s one of the biggest stars, and that chapter is also wordless with a lot of physical comedy. It’s like the first rung on the ladder, making it easy for reluctant readers to get into.

MUF: Speaking of heroes, who are your favorite heroes? Who were your favorite heroes growing up?

MN: Growing up, it was teams that really captivated me, particularly the Legion of Superheroes. The comics had a kind of soap opera feel to them, but in space. They had a dazzling array of heroes, like Lightning Lad, whose power I loved, and Mon-el, who felt like my own personal Superman because he had all the powers of Superman but not as many people knew of him. But what I really loved about the teams was the variety.

MUF: Now, I feel like I need to read some Legion of Superheroes. But if you had to choose one hero. All-time favorite?

MN: Superman. He made a huge impression on me. He’s the perfect superhero in that he’s not perfect. He’s a complicated character with great stories about doing what’s right and being responsible with power.

MUF: How did you come up with the questions that your young fans ask their favorite superheroes?

MN: The fun part was the mix. Finding a mix of serious and funny questions that would get into who the hero really was and bring out those relatable human qualities.

MUF: Hawkgirl was one of my favorite chapters because it was just funny and caught me completely off-guard.

MN: Hawkgirl was a choice. I mean, I had to include the founding members of the Justice League, like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, but I got to choose some of the other members, and Hawkgirl brings a young teen kind of energy to the group, and she really carries the through line of the story. She was a super fun character and super fun to write.

MUF: Speaking of fun characters, the Flash is a pretty fun character, and he’s the only hero in Dear Justice League that deals with bullies. Did you always want bullies to be in the story? And why is he the hero that you chose to address bullying?

MN: I knew that bullying was a topic that I wanted to deal with because it’s something that a lot of kids deal with, and initially, I had a really serious bullying situation in the story, but I didn’t want it to be heavy-handed. So, I gave the most serious topic to the most free-spirited character.

MUF: Last question. I’m sure that you have a lot of young readers writing to you, much like the fans do in Dear Justice League. Do you have any advice for young readers and writers out there?

MN: For young readers, there are so many kinds of stories. There are no wrong answers. For me, comics came first. Then, it was rule books for Dungeons and Dragons, which led to fantasy novels because I felt like I was already inside the story. Any kind of storytelling is valid. Find the stories that work for you. For writers, it’s similar. Everyone has their own way of doing things. There’s really no wrong answer. The only thing that’s really important is to finish something because it’s in revision that you learn how to become a better storyteller.

MUF: Thanks, Michael! This was a lot of fun.

Dear Justice League is out now, and one lucky reader will win a Dear Justice League prize pack, enter here! A winner will be chosen randomly on August 15th.

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Interview & DEMYSTIFYING VOICE Course Giveaway with Darcy Pattison

I’d like to welcome Darcy Pattison to the Mixed-Up Files! I’ve heard author friends rave about Darcy’s workshops for years and am thrilled to interview her.

Thank you so much for giving one lucky winner access to your online course: DEMYSTIFYING VOICE. Can you share a few voice tips with everyone?

I started seriously studying voice when an editor told a friend that her story was good, but the voice just wasn’t quite right. And, the editor said, you can’t teach voice. It’s either there, or it’s not.

Well, that was a challenge. Game on!

Turns out, that editor was wrong. You can teach voice.

As writers, we have three things available to us. In any piece of writing, there are words, sentences and passages (or longer sections of the work). By focusing on each in turn, you can learn a lot about controlling voice.

For example, words can be long or short, smooth or abrupt. They carry both a dictionary meaning (denotation) and emotional meaning (connotations). Words have different origins, which bring shades of meaning. The sound of a word is important in many contexts, so I encourage the study of phonics.

Words alone can and do bring meaning and joy to writing. They help create voice.

To emphasize the importance of words, I often ask students to write a piece following these rules:

  • You can only use one syllable words.
  • No sentence can be longer than 10 words.

 

You might think that would be an easy reader with very little emotional content. But it can be powerful and poetic if you let it.

 

Wow! I love that exercise. Thanks for sharing—it’s a fantastic tool for authors and students.

What takes a book from good to I-must-read-it great?

People read to connect, to find out how others think and live. Besides a great voice, a great novel has to provide an insight into the common humanity. We can laugh or cry through a novel and yet still not feel connected. Great writers give us relatable characters who tug at our heartstrings. My new book, The Falconer, sinks you into the character of an orphaned young woman who must leave her home to find a new life. Her only companion is a magnificent gyrfalcon that she’s trained to hunt for her. The challenge was to give her an emotional life that would connect with today’s readers. She battles against a negative mother and hopes to make a difference for the Heartland’s future. Readers empathize with her struggles for identity and meaning.

 

I’ve heard raves about your Shrunken Manuscript technique. What makes it so successful?

When I teach, I have two goals: to clarify information so it becomes actionable and to make things visual. We are people of the word. And yet, a novel is so long that we can’t keep in mind everything over the course of 50,000+ words. We need an easy visual way to SEE the structure of a novel.

The Shrunken Manuscript asks you to shrink your story to about 30 pages by making everything single spaced, removing chapter breaks, and reducing the font to 8 pt or less. Then, you decide on your 5-6 strongest chapters. On the Shrunken Manuscript, use colorful markers to put a big X on those chapters. Lay out the 30 pages on the floor in three rows of ten pages. Suddenly, you can SEE the story’s structure.

Here are some things you might see:

  • The opening is flat. The first strong chapter doesn’t occur for a long time.
  • You have a sagging middle. The strong chapters are close to the beginning or the end, with nothing in the middle.
  • You didn’t write an ending. The last few chapters have no strong chapters.

In fact, there are many more things you can SEE about your novel’s structure with the Shrunken Manuscript technique. I did a webinar for Highlights Foundation on the Shrunken Manuscript and you can see it free on Youtube.

 

What a unique way to view the strengths and weaknesses of an entire novel. Thank you for sharing your Shrunken Manuscript technique—and your Highlights Foundation video.

 

How do you create a rich, believable fantasy world?

World building is a detailed, messy project. In my new book, The Falconer, it began with a deep dive into falconry. The largest falcon, the gyrfalcon, lives in the north country (think Canada). I was enthralled with the noble bird and decided to include it, which meant my setting needed to start in the north. Britt, the main character, is the granddaughter of Winchal Eldras, the main character of The Wayfinder, the first Heartland book. I had to go into the back story and figure out how Win wound up in the north country and why he stayed there. I also had to extend my mental map of the Heartland itself. This time, I drew a map (which made it into the book) and set about populating the world.

One writing exercise I do with kids uses maps. The key is to name everything you put on the map. Is there a river? What’s its name? For me, naming generates images and ideas about the setting.

For individual scenes, sensory details are crucial to bringing a story to life. Things that you see, hear, smell, taste and touch (temperature & texture) create a fabric that’s believable and enticing for the reader. Choosing the right details to quickly evoke a mood is a skill to cultivate.

Worldbuilding in this case started with the needs of the story and character. But then everything had to tie together seamlessly to create a milieu in which the story would shine. The setting should enrich and uphold the story, but not come forward and take over.

 

How has publishing changed through the years and what do you think might be coming in the future?

I’ve been traditionally published with Harcourt, Harpercollins and Penguin, but I’m now happily self-published with my company, Mims House. This is only possible because of print-on-demand (POD) technologies and ebooks. Technology has put publishing within reach technically and financially for any writer who chooses. It’s an alternate path for a passionate author with creative business ideas. The explosive growth of audiobooks will be another frontier for enterprising storytellers.

As mobile-first users and voice-activated technologies take over in the next decade, it’s easy to predict that ebooks will dominate adult fiction and nonfiction. It’s harder to predict what will happen with children’s books. Many parents and kids still prefer print books. But apps like EPIC! point the way toward a wider acceptance of digital stories for kids. EPIC! has removed the barriers of cumbersome log-ins, added a gaming element and presents books in a smooth and easy experience. They’ve solved the technical and user-experience side of children’s digital books. It’s going to be interesting to see if digital books for kids spreads and how fast it will spread. Personally, I think it will always be a mixed experience for kids with some print books and some digital.

 

My favorite way to read is a physical book—but digital books can be helpful, especially when traveling. And if you ever have an unexpected wait, there’s always something wonderful to read.

 

Is there anything else you’d like to share, Darcy?

I’m more excited about storytelling than ever before. The channels for finding and connecting with readers has exploded because of technology. The next wave of technology will be artificial intelligence, mobile-first and voice-activated solutions. But humans will always need story that connects them to the world and to other humans. Our job is to adapt to the changing environment and yet keep our priorities straight. We connect people with themselves through well-told and emotionally moving stories. Storytellers—from the bards of old to the digitally adept today—will never be outdated.

 

Thank you for stopping by the Mixed-Up Files and sharing so many helpful writing tips—and how you believe that emotionally moving stories and storytellers will never be outdated. It’s also wonderful to know that voice can be taught!

 

Darcy has generously donated her online course: DEMYSTIFYING VOICE to one lucky winner. Enter using the Rafflecopter widget below.

Editors buy novels with a distinctive voice. It’s the single most important thing they are looking for. That means you need to understand voice and be able to control the voice of your writing. In this 30-minute lecture with PowerPoint, Darcy breaks voice into practical craft issues. Lots of examples make the concepts concrete rather than fuzzy. You’ll have solid ideas on where to start working on your own voice and will be a step closer to telling a powerful story.

 

The winner will be posted on August 1. Good luck, everyone!

Storyteller, writing teacher, Queen of Revisions, and founder of Mims House, Darcy Pattison has been published in ten languages. Her books, published with Harcourt, Philomel/Penguin, Harpercollins, Arbordale, and Mims House have received recognition for excellence with starred reviews in Kirkus, BCCB and PW. Four nonfiction nature books have been honored as National Science Teachers Association Outstanding Science Trade books: Desert Baths (2013), Abayomi, the Brazilian Puma (2015), Nefertiti the Spidernaut (2017), Clang! Ernst Chladni’s Sound Experiments (2019).

The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman (Harcourt) received an Irma Simonton Black and James H. Black Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature Honor Book award and has been published in a Houghton Mifflin textbook.  The Nantucket Sea Monster: A Fake News Story is a Junior Library Guild selection and a 2018 National Council of Teacher’s of English Notable Children’s Book in Language Arts. Pollen: Darwin’s 130 Year Prediction is a 2019 Junior Library Guild selection. Darcy is the 2007 recipient of the Arkansas Governor’s Arts Award for Individual Artist for her work in children’s literature.

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Find out more about Darcy on her blog, Facebook, Twitter, and you can browse her online video courses here.