I’m thrilled to interview Fred Koehler and Sarah McGuire—both of them had a middle grade novel released this month. Sarah’s is a fairy tale retelling called The Flight of Swans. Fred wrote and illustrated Garbage Island (The Nearly Always Perilous Adventures of Archibald Shrew).
Sarah McGuire and Fred Koehler were once both awkward teenagers who mostly grew out of it. Each draws on their unfortunate adolescence to write stories for young readers. They met at a writers conference and decided to get married. In common they share: love of travel and adventure, dogs over cats, and sci-fi movies. They most often disagree about Oxford commas, whether or not Florida has hills, and who gets the fuzzy blanket.
Huge congrats to both of you! Can you tell us how you met and how you celebrated two book launches in one month?
Sarah: We met three years ago at one of Lorin Oberweger’s fabulous BONI workshops. Fred lived in Florida. I lived in Virginia. And we met in Hood River, OR. The manuscripts that we were working on then both sold– and they released October 1st and October 9th.
Fred: We celebrated in pretty low-key fashion. Dinner out with a little live music. We’ll have a proper celebration with our local community this weekend. A book signing, writing workshops, and other fun shenanigans.
It’s amazing that you met at a writing workshop! How did each of you come up with the ideas for your middle grade novels—and were there any bumps along the way?
Sarah: I’d known for a while that I wanted to write a retelling of “Six Swans.” In fact, I had a really thin first draft by the time we met at BONI. And while I adored the story I was telling and the characters I’d discovered, most of the novel felt like one big bump. The original tale gave me a mute heroine, a six-year timeline, and not too much action other than the relentless suffering of the heroine. So there was lots of work to do!
Fred: As a lifelong fisherman and outdoorsman, I spend a lot of time on Florida’s coast and I pay attention to stories about water quality and pollution. When I learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, my first reaction was disbelief. But the more I researched it the more I could visualize how it formed, and I also decided it would be an intriguing backdrop to an animal adventure.
After writing and illustrating so many wonderful picture books, how did you decide to write an illustrated middle grade novel and how did it compare to writing and illustrating a picture book? Can you share a bit of your process, Fred?
Fred: I started with novels, always wanting to write long form fiction. Problem: my stuff was terrible. Picture books became a great learning tool for storytelling, because this format allows 500 words or less to tell a complete, compelling narrative. That word-count limitation permits you to fail fast and try again. Through the process of making picture books, my writerly brain eventually caught up with my artist brain, and I knew that I had the missing pieces to return to novels.
I like to see each chapter or scene as an independent story, the kind you’d pull your friends together and say “Guys you won’t believe what just happened.” Anytime a passage doesn’t grab me with that sort of excitement, I know it’s missing something. Then I’ll go back in and make something explode or someone almost die horribly and the scene improves. 🙂
We’d love to hear some tips for writing a great fairy tale retelling, Sarah.
For me, the key to a great retelling is figuring out what you love and what you want to change. Both let you tap into your deepest emotions about that story– and that, in turn, fuels your retelling.
In “Six Swans” (retold as The Flight of Swans) I loved that a girl did the saving. That was so huge to me when I first read it as a child. I loved how all the siblings looked after each other. I also became fascinated by stinging nettles! On the other hand, I didn’t like that the heroine’s main role to was to suffer in silence. I wanted her to push back. And I really didn’t like how her husband just steps aside at the end when her enemies want to burn her at the stake. Knowing what I didn’t like let me “fix” it. I was able to write a heroine who had agency, not just endurance. And I made sure that she ended up with guy who would appreciate such an amazing heroine.
What do each of you love about your spouse’s novel? What surprised you the most?
Sarah: This is an awesome question! I love the adventure in Garbage Island–the near misses, and the moments when you wonder whether the characters will make it. And I also love how the characters surprised me. Fred is definitely an explosions and mayhem sort of guy, but his characters also have heart and depth and … how can you not love that?
Fred: Anytime I can see the story someone is telling, I know it’s going to be a good one. Sarah paints a world of words that I want to live in. Without any visual art, she inspires the imagination to create gorgeous landscapes filled with intricate detail, characters whose faces I can see in my head, and dynamic lighting that matches the magical mood of her story.
Both of your responses made me smile! I can hear the excitement and appreciation you have for each other’s work.
Can you share a writing exercise?
Fred: Stealing Jon Maberry’s “What’s the Story?” game. It’s brilliant, it works for every genre, and it goes like this: Walk around until you see two things that don’t belong together. A cat in a pizza box. A flip flop on a rooftop. A businessman on a swing set. Then ask yourself, “what’s the story?” By the time your imagination creates a dozen scenarios that could have gotten those two mismatched items together, you’ll have one or two really fun beginnings.
Sarah: I always hear and write dialog first. I can’t help it. I don’t delve much into the physical surroundings or body language until I’m revising. So when I hit dialog-heavy portions of my book, I’ll ask myself what the speaker is holding, touching, or looking at. (This is a variation on advice that Hannah Barnaby once gave me.) What’s in her pocket? What does he hope someone won’t find in his satchel? What’s the one gift she wishes she’d never received? These objects don’t always show up in the story, but they’re a great way to help me understand and develop my characters.
Thank you so much! These are fantastic writing exercises that I’m sure writers and teachers will love to use. I’ll definitely play “What’s the Story” to help me come up with a bunch of future book ideas during Storystorm in January. And I also hear and write dialogue first and can’t wait to delve deeper using Sarah’s suggestions.
What are you working on now?
Fred: The sequel to Garbage Island is due, um, yesterday and I’m about 80% finished. I’m calling it The Sailing City. It’s got the same loveable, flawed, adventurous characters with even more mayhem, misguided inventions, and deadly peril.
Sarah: I’m working on a YA retelling of a Russian fairy tale, “Finist the Bright Falcon,” where a princess in iron shoes and an eagle huntress embark on a quest to save an enchanted prince.
Those both sound wonderful! I hope we’ll have the chance to read them soon.
Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know?
Fred: A positive Goodreads or amazon review is always super-helpful and encouraging.
Sarah: I’ll be offering free Skype visits to classes and book clubs- look for information on my website.
Thank you both for this wonderful interview and your generous giveaway. The way you two met and have middle grade novels coming out the same month feels magical, and I can’t wait for our readers to learn more about you and your awesome books.
Enter the Rafflecopter widget below for a chance to win signed copies of The Flight of Swans and Garbage Island (The Nearly Always Perilous Adventures of Archibald Shrew). One lucky person will win both books on Thursday, November 1. Good luck!
*This giveaway is only available in the United States.
The Flight of Swans
Princess Andaryn’s six older brothers have always been her protectors–until her father takes a new Queen, a frightening, mysterious woman who enchants the men in the royal family. When Ryn’s attempt to break the enchantment fails, she makes a bitter bargain: the Queen will spare her brothers’ lives if Ryn remains silent for six years.
Ryn thinks she freed her brothers, but she never thought the Queen would turn her brothers into swans. She never thought she’d have to discover the secret to undoing the Queen’s spell while eluding the Otherworldly forces that hunt her. And she never thought she’d have to do it alone, without speaking a single word.
As months as years go by, Ryn learns there is more to courage than speech . . . and that she is stronger than the Queen could have ever imagined.
Mr. Popli, the mouse mayor of Garbage Island, is always at odds with Archibald Shrew, a brilliant but reckless inventor. When Garbage Island, their home in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, splits apart, they are trapped together in Mr. Popli’s houseboat, desperate to find their way back home. At first, they only argue, but when they face a perilous thunderstorm and a series of predators, they begin to work together and recognize – in themselves and in each other – strengths they didn’t know they had.