Hello Mixed-Up Filers!
Due to overwhelming popular demand, we are pleased to welcome back one of my friends, and a fellow member of the Spooky Middle Grade Authors, Kim Ventrella, whose book, The Secret Life of Sam, coincidentally came out just last week from Harper Collins!
JR: Hi, Kim and thanks for joining us today!
KV: Thanks so much, Jonathan! I’m thrilled to be back!
JR: To start with, what can you tell us about The Secret Life of Sam, and where the idea for the story came from?
KV: After Sam’s dad dies in a car accident, he’s shuttled off to the dusty town of Holler, Oklahoma to live with a long-lost aunt. He misses everything about his old life—fishing in the swamps, drinking warm cans of Orange Crush and, especially, listening to Pa weave his famous tall tales.
He hates Holler with its empty fields and dead grass, until he discovers a mysterious tree—a portal through which Sam can revisit his old life for a few minutes a day and be with Pa once more.
Sam’s visits to the bayou become stranger and stranger. Pa’s old stories unfold around him in beautiful but sinister detail, and Pa is not quite himself. Still, Sam is desperate to find a way for them to stay together—until he learns the bittersweet lesson that sometimes loving someone means having to say goodbye.
This story evolved over many, many versions, but it draws on a lot of my past experiences. I’ve lived in both Louisiana and Oklahoma, so it was fun to weave in those two locations with the addition of a little magic.
JR: Learn something new each time we speak. Not sure I knew you’d lived in Louisiana. Last time that you were here, we spoke about combining humor and heart. The Secret Life of Sam tackles some heavy topics. How much does that affect you personally when writing?
KV: Sam is about so many things: new friendships, reconciling with family, losing someone you love, addiction and, ultimately, finding hope in the midst of grief. I want readers to journey along with Sam as he grapples with his grief, to experience the highs and lows, and to come away with their own new understanding. That means that I, as the author, have to go on that journey as well. Books can be a beautiful, safe way for readers to confront difficult topics and form their own opinions about the world, and the same goes for authors. Even though I am confronting the issues in a different, perhaps more direct way, there’s still a certain level of safety that comes from confronting issues through art. I see this book encouraging readers to be more understanding, to focus on friendships and, of course, to look at the world in a more magical way—and I get to experience that too as the creator.
JR: This book takes place in Oklahoma, where you live. What is it about that area that lent itself to a good setting for this book?
KV: There are many small, dusty, off-the-beaten path towns in Oklahoma, and there’s a certain magic that comes with isolation, a sense of being frozen in time. I’ve never lived in a small town—I grew up in Oklahoma City—but I’ve certainly visited those places that are so remote, so forgotten, that it’s easy to imagine them teeming with hidden wells of magic.
JR: So many places there look so wonderfully eerie. Speaking of eerie, you always have such great spooky props, and Halloween is right around the corner. Last time you were here, we discussed how you used to work in a scare house. What is it that you love about Halloween, and what’s the best costume you ever wore outside of the scare house?
KV: Hahaha, I have forever loved the aesthetics of Halloween, from the almost palpable silence of an old cemetery to the pure kitsch of trick-or-treating in the late 1980’s. Halloween is all about lifting the veil between the mundane world and the supernatural. As you also know about me, Jonathan, I’m a huge skeptic about all things supernatural, but Halloween allows me to conjure up the feeling that maybe, with enough candles and kitsch, wondrous things might still be possible.
And my best costume? Hmm, probably the one I’m wearing right now to hide my true vampiric form…wait…I shouldn’t have said that 😉
JR: Somehow, I always knew. Secret Life of Sam has a lot of themes of family. Did you grow up with a family that also loved spooky stories?
KV: I didn’t, but I always loved spooky stories anyway. When I was little, I’d try to fall asleep just like Wednesday Addams in the black-and-white TV show, i.e. with my hands crossed over my chest like a dead body. My hands would never stay like that though, and it made me super sad.
JR: I can so picture you doing that! And by the way, love the Addams Family. What was your favorite scary movie?
KV: As a kid? Probably Beetlejuice, The Addams Family movie with Anjelica Huston as Morticia or Rocky Horror (which is not really horror or kid-appropriate, but I was totally in love with Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter).
JR: Who wasn’t? You’re a prolific writer and finish your first drafts very quickly. Which part of the writing process do you have the least and most trouble with?
KV: I have the most trouble staying in love with the manuscript long enough to finish it. I am notorious for throwing stuff out and starting from scratch, so my challenge is to find a way to stick with something even if I’m not in a good mental place with it. My favorite part is about two-thirds of the way in when I’m committed and everything starts clicking, that period of flow when the only real question is how fast can I get the story out of my head and onto paper.
JR: You have several books out now, which of your characters would you say is most like you, and why?
KV: In terms of voice, June from HELLO, FUTURE ME. That’s my only first-person narrative, and I can definitely hear myself when I listen to the audiobook. But in a way, I am all of my POV characters, or at least parts of them. The situations are different, but the way we think and approach situations is largely the same.
JR: You’ve traveled a lot. Which place in your experiences has influenced you the most, writing-wise?
KV: I suppose it depends on the story. Oddly enough, rather than writing aspirational settings, I tend to go back to those crumbling neighborhoods where people are one paycheck away from total disaster. In my books, I like to add a magical luster to settings I remember as more dreary and oppressive. That’s part of writing, not only bringing in cool, imaginative places, but also giving our memories new life.
JR: How important would you say it is for writers to have a support system?
KV: I’ve got you, Jonathan! What else do I need? Kidding aside, it’s super important to have a network of other writers you trust, so you can vent, spitball ideas, ask questions, compare notes. This can be a daunting business, so it helps to have people on your side who understand the process.
JR: You were right with the first part, I don’t think you needed to expand upon it. A lot of Secret Life of Sam deals with questions of afterlife and revisiting times in your life. If you could revisit one era from your life, when would you choose, and why?
KV: Nope, wouldn’t even go there. Yes, I could do EVERYTHING so much better knowing what I know now, but I don’t think it works that way. You can’t go back. Life is a growth process, and I’m happy with where I am, even if it took me forever to get here.
JR: That is deeply profound. You have written many spooky books. What scares YOU?
KV: Well, I still occasionally have sleep paralysis. Basically I wake up unable to move, but I can see a shadowy figure looming over me. It’s definitely a terrifying sensation. Last time I managed to jerk out of bed and attack the figure, only to discover it was a dress I had hanging on my closet door. So…yeah…
JR: That is scary, but I’m glad you defeated the dress! Last time you were here, I asked you to describe why I was your favorite of all the other Spooky MG Authors, which seemed to ruffle some feathers back at Spooky MG Headquarters, so I won’t ask that again. Instead, let me ask you, if Spooky MG were like Survivor, who would be voted off first?
KV: Oh, I’m pretty sure there won’t be any voting with the Spooky Crew. Possibly a marathon round of campfire stories, the least terrifying tale loses?
JR: But, that’s not what you told me when we spoke earlier, you said . . . oh, got it. Anyway, thanks again to Kim Ventrella, and make sure you go out and get a copy of The Secret Life of Sam
KV: Thanks so much, Jonathan!!! I’ll be back next week to discuss my book…oh wait, just kidding!
KIM VENTRELLA is the author of THE SECRET LIFE OF SAM (HarperCollins), as well as HELLO, FUTURE ME, BONE HOLLOW and SKELETON TREE (Scholastic Press). Her works explore difficult topics with big doses of humor, whimsy and hope. Kim has held a variety of interesting jobs, including children’s librarian, scare actor, Peace Corps volunteer, French instructor and overnight staff person at a women’s shelter, but her favorite job title is author. She lives in Oklahoma City with her dog and co-writer, Hera. Find out more at https://kimventrella.com/ or follow Kim on Twitter and Instagram.
To purchase signed copies of THE SECRET LIFE OF SAM, you can visit: Best of Books
That’s all for now, Mixed-Up Filers.
Until next time . . .