I recently had the chance to read Avenging the Owl—a new middle-grade novel by Melissa Hart. I also had a chance to interview Melissa and get the inside scoop on her book. Now, you can get the inside scoop, too. Read on . . .
T. P.: Thanks for giving me an opportunity to chat with you about your new middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl. I’m sure that your own volunteer work at a raptor center and your brother with Down syndrome must have both been major sources of inspiration for the story you created. This made me wonder: Where did your overall idea for Avenging the Owl come from?
MELISSA: You’re absolutely right; I drew upon my eight years of volunteering at a raptor rehabilitation center for the setting details in Avenging the Owl, and my brother is the inspiration for Eric in the novel. But the idea came from a high school boy with whom I volunteered at the raptor center one summer. He’d left his mandatory school community service until the last minute, and the only venue left was the raptor center. Problem was, he hated birds. My husband and I worked an evening shift with him every week, and I got to watch him go from sullen and resentful to gradually intrigued by the injured and orphaned raptors. Eventually, he grew so enamored of them that he came back the following summer to volunteer. He’s the boy I had in mind when I crafted Solo Hahn’s character. Later, I took a good look at Han Solo in Star Wars and used his narrative trajectory (from apathetic mercenary to committed helper), as well. Solo starts out caring only about surfing and material possessions, and then gets to know fellow raptor center volunteers Lucas and Leah and begins to take joy in helping those in need.
T. P.: What a cool inspiration for your story! I always enjoy getting a glimpse into how much real-life experiences sometimes shape a fictional narrative. I also like how you modeled Solo Hahn’s character arc after that of Han Solo in Star Wars. I must confess: That similarity slipped right past me as I read Avenging the Owl, but I certainly see it in retrospect!
Now you’ve got me wondering: What was the timeline for creating your story? What was the journey like from your initial experience with the reluctant high school volunteer . . . to your “Ah, ha! I’ve got myself a story!” moment . . . to when you began outlining or drafting . . . to your final draft that was ready for submission?
MELISSA: It took me about a year and a half to write Avenging the Owl–multiple drafts. I’d written two YA novels (currently mildewing in a desk drawer) before I started work on the middle-grade novel, so I knew about narrative arc and structure and all that. For Avenging, I got a 12-foot piece of butcher paper, divided it into several sections, and then taped it around my office walls. I used different colored markers to jot down key plot points and character conflicts and motivations for each chapter, so that I could easily see a graphic representation of the novel as it took shape. (I really love pre-writing visuals like highlighter pens and multicolored cluster diagrams, etc. Sometimes I even sketch images of my characters, though I can’t draw at all.)
A friend of mine who was a literary agent at the time suggested Solo’s obsession with B-movies and the insertion of screenplay scenes. And my editor at Sky Pony Press, Julie Matysik, had really good suggestions for keeping Solo’s character consistent in the final drafts. He got pretty lusty for Leah in a previous draft (as did Eric), and I toned it down a little for middle-grade readers.
Glad you saw the Star Wars/Han Solo parallel, by the way–read it again, and you’ll catch all sorts of cool Star Wars parallels and references!
T. P.: Although the similar Solo Hahn-Han Solo character arcs slipped past me, I did manage to catch at least some of the Star Wars references you slipped into your story! (Lucas and Leah come to mind. . . .) Now if only you could have inserted a Pacific Northwest-based Big Foot-Wookiee comparison. . . . 🙂
Anyway, focus I must. . . .
I love your use of butcher paper to create a visual plot outline as part of your prewriting process. I’m very much a visual-kind-of-guy (I wield a minimum of 4 colors of highlighters when adding things to my calendar), so I know my brain would appreciate the big-picture overview your prewriting approach must provide.
Once you finish prewriting and complete your initial draft, what’s your favorite aspect of the revision process? How about your least favorite?
MELISSA: I love revision so much more than writing the first draft. With the first draft, I’m pretty angsty and neurotic, and I drink way too much coffee and eat way too many cookies. But the second draft feels like a big lump of clay that I can trim or add to as needed. My favorite part of revising a novel involves adding humor. I love looking at every paragraph and gauging where it might be funnier, and what would make it funnier. Sometimes, I’ll draw upon real life for the humor. For example, there’s a scene in Avenging the Owl in which my character who has Down syndrome karate kicks someone who’s called him a “retard.” That’s art imitating life–my younger brother actually did this to a kid once, for exactly the same reason.
My least favorite part of revision is cutting word length. I didn’t have to do that with Avenging, but I frequently have to cut my essays down for magazines and newspapers. It’s excruciating to have to cut 500-1000 words from a piece I really love, but if I believe in the mission of a particular magazine or newspaper and want my work to appear in its pages, I’ll do it.
T. P.: I loved the scene with Eric’s rather unexpected karate kick! Not only was it a blast of humor, but it made me cheer for Eric all the more. It’s pretty cool how you were able to draw on a real-life experience for that scene.
Now let’s go to the flipside of real-life inspiration. What are one or two events or scenes in your story that you really like but that sprang completely from your imagination?
MELISSA: Most of Avenging the Owl came from my imagination–I love to “imaginate,” as my nine-year-old daughter says.
Two of my favorite scenes take place at the top of the butte, where Solo and Eric end up after some pretty eventful hikes. I took as the inspiration a butte (a solo mountain) in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, but the scenes are pure fiction. In the first butte scene, I love how being surrounded by nature affects Solo. It calms him down in the midst of his angst and jolts him into another reality–one in which he feels grounded and peaceful and optimistic. He really gets how magical the natural world is, and he’s able to let go of a lot of anxiety about his parents and his living situation for an hour and focus on weird insects and plants and birds. Plus, as Solo discovers, hiking up a butte is always a good excuse to eat cookies.
In that second scene, near the end of the book, he and Eric flee to the butte as a refuge. And then (no spoilers here!) someone dear to him discovers the tranquility of the place, as well, which starts them on the path to healing a really difficult relationship. I hike almost every weekend with my husband and daughter; we’re the best versions of ourselves when we’re surrounded by trees and rivers and mountains. I hope these “imaginated” scenes will inspire readers to get outside!
T. P.: Well, Melissa, I’ve never hiked up a butte, but I do love cookies. So . . . let’s use that as a springboard for one final question: If you were all alone on top of a butte, working on your next novel, what kind of cookies would you be eating?
MELISSA: Well, I really adore these flourless chocolate cookies that our local bakery, Crumb Together, sells. But for a hike, I’d want homemade oatmeal chocolate chip. I’d probably sneak some whole wheat flour in there, too, but the chocolate is essential.
T. P.: Okay, Melissa, you’ve officially made me hungry. . . . But I must stay strong and finish this post. Otherwise, people won’t get the opportunity to win a copy of your book! So . . . I’ll leave it at this: I enjoyed Avenging the Owl, and I also enjoyed getting a glimpse into what led you to write the story in the first place. Thanks for sharing with the Mixed-Up Files!
Want a chance to win a copy of Avenging the Owl by Melissa Hart? Entry is easy! Just comment below by leaving an answer to one simple question:
What kind of cookie would you take along for eating at the top of a butte?
The lucky winner will be selected on Friday, 6/24/16.
Along with Avenging the Owl, Melissa Hart is also the author of her memoir, Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family, and her YA memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood. Along with writing books, she teaches Literature for Laurel Springs, a distance-learning high school based in Ojai, California. To learn even more about Melissa and her writing, visit her website at www.melissahart.com.