Hello Mixed-Up Filers!
Today, I am pleased to welcome to our site, Joy McCullough, author of A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which just came out this week from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
JR: Hi, Joy and thanks for joining us today!
First off, I really enjoyed A Field Guide to Getting Lost. For those who don’t know about the book, can you tell us a little bit about it and where the idea for this story came from?
JM: Sure! Field Guide is about Sutton and Luis, two kids whose parents start dating each other. They are very different from one another but they have in common that neither one of them likes to spend time outside. But then they go on a hike with their parents and end up getting lost…
The spark of the story actually came when I was wandering a park with my visiting father and we got lost. He made a joke about being lost in the park, and at first it sounded like a picture book to me. Eventually it morphed into the middle grade story it is now!
JR: That’s really funny, and some of the best stories come from personal experiences. Sutton and Luis are endearing characters, and the story switches back and forth between their points of view. There was also a lot of humor, but there were also some sad parts. How difficult was it to veer back and forth between characters and emotions?
JM: Writing dual perspective can be tricky, but honestly it came really naturally with this story. The balance of humor and pathos is also something done sort of by gut feeling. As I recall, the humor and action of the story came first, for the most part. Then later I layered in more of what was going on emotionally for the characters.
JR: This was your MG debut after having previously written, Blood Water Paint, a YA. Do you prefer one genre to another, and what appealed to you to write a Middle Grade this time?
JM: Blood Water Paint was indeed my debut novel, but it was the tenth novel I wrote. Of those nine previous unpublished novels, seven of them were middle grade. So I had written a great deal of middle grade before debuting with YA. I love YA, but middle grade feels like home. Moving forward, I am working on both middle grade and YA projects. If possible, I really recommend writing in multiple categories. For one thing, the publishing process can be quite slow, so having other things to work on when you’ve got a lull in one category is great. But also emotionally, my MG and YA projects require very different things from me and fuel me in very different ways, and it’s lovely to be able to move between the two.
JR: I know the feeling well of breaking through after several unpublished novels. Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey getting to this point?
JM: As mentioned above, my journey was long. I wrote and queried five manuscripts before I got my first agent. I had five books go on submission to editors before a book sold. My debut novel was the tenth book I wrote. People are usually either horrified or super encouraged to hear my story. I understand both reactions. It doesn’t take everyone that long. But I will say that as agonizing as it was, I am so grateful that I debuted when I did, with that specific book and team at that specific stage of my life. Things worked out how they were supposed to.
JR: I read on your website, https://joymccullough.com/ that you used to study playwriting in college. How has that helped you in your novel writing?
JM: I wrote plays for a long time before I started writing novels. Obviously dialogue comes easily to me. Also, an awareness of the rhythms and musicality of language. This serves me most of all in my novels in verse, but I think is important in all writing. And I brought to novel writing a fundamental understanding of plot and character development, though they unfold in different ways in plays and novels.
JR: I couldn’t agree more. Having that background definitely helps with dialogue. You met your husband atop a Guatemalan volcano? How did that come about?
JM: Ha, well I spent a year after college traveling in Latin America and spent the bulk of the time in Guatemala. At one point I was invited to climb a volcano with a group of other young adults. I am NOT an outdoorsy person (much like Sutton and Luis), but I was making a real effort to say yes to whatever opportunities came my way during that year. So I said yes. I was not equipped for this challenging climb—the summit of the Volcán de Agua is 12,340 feet above sea level and 5,550 feet above the trail head. I…did occasional step aerobics. My husband was in our group and came to my aid when it became clear (very early!) that I was going to need some serious help. He carried my pack and stayed at my side all the way up, through the night we spent in the crater, and all the way down.
JR: Okay, important question. On your site you also say that you love chocolate. What’s your favorite?
JM: I am partial to dark chocolate, and I love a pairing with orange. Theo Chocolates makes a dreamy chocolate orange bar.
JR: What’s your writing process like?
JM: It’s different with every project, but here are the things that are mostly consistent: I do some pre-writing work on character, mostly. I don’t outline a whole book, but I’ll often outline about the first 50 pages to get me going. Once I’ve drafted those, I’ll often outline the next chunk. I’m pretty good at letting first drafts be terrible and just getting them on the page so I have something to work with. Now that I write that out, I guess I do have a process! But I think it’s the revision process that sort of all over the place.
JR: What’s your favorite book from childhood?
JM: Oh I can never pick a single favorite. But these books all had a big impact in various ways: The Babysitters Club, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Ramona Quimby books.
JR: What’s your favorite movie?
JM: I definitely don’t have a favorite movie. I’m not one to re-watch movies, either, even when I’ve loved one, so I don’t know if movies I have loved in the past even hold up. Instead I’ll tell you a few TV shows of recent years that I have loved: The Good Place, One Day at a Time, Call the Midwife, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.
JR: Something people would be surprised to learn about you?
JM: I don’t know, I’m a pretty open book on social media.
JR: 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?
JM: During intermission of the first performance of my first play, my college playwriting professor asked me what I was working on next. Learning early to write the next thing was a valuable lesson. Through my long journey to publication, I always started writing the next project as soon as one was out in the query trenches or on submission to editors. That way I would have something new to submit sooner than later, but more importantly, I would put my heart into the new thing and care less about whatever was getting rejections. So I would pass that advice on to newer writers, and also to build your writing community. Not for the sake of connections in a ladder-climbing sense, but because building those relationships is how you survive this business. Yes, writing friends may give you valuable critiques, but they’ll also give you emotional support when you need it, celebrate with you, share perspective, etc.
JR: That’s great advice. What are you working on next?
JM: I’m answering these interview questions on a break from copyedits on my next MG novel! It’s called Across the Pond, about an American girl whose family moves into a Scottish castle. It’s coming from Atheneum in spring of 2021. I also have a spring 2021 YA novel coming from Dutton, but the title hasn’t been announced.
JR: I look forward to those! How can people follow you on social media?
JR: Thanks again to Joy McCullough and make sure you go out and get A Field Guide to Getting Lost!
JM: Thanks so much for having me!