Posts Tagged Author Interview

Interview with Tod Olson, Author of Into the Clouds + Book Giveaway

Sean McCollum: This is my first blog post for Mixed Up Files, and I couldn’t be happier to be here, as well as an appropriate amount of nervous. What a cool, helpful crew working together to keep creating this website. I’m a long-time writer for youth and educational publishers, and being part of MUF helps keep me current with young readers and the MG universe, even as I live the life of a digital nomad. (House-sitting in Edinburgh, Czech Republic, New York, Phoenix, and Ecuador in the last year—Have Internet, Will Travel.)

I’m also MOST pleased to introduce Tod Olson to MUF-world. Tod and I go back nearly 40 years, to a small liberal arts college—Lawrence University—in the belly of Wisconsin, before working together at Scholastic. So as I considered what my first post might be, an interview with my best bud (having been his Best Man) immediately came to mind. He also happens to be one of the foremost authors of narrative nonfiction working in children’s publishing—so bonus! Hey T, welcome to MUF.

Tod Olson: Thanks, Sean! Wish we were doing this in person, but I’ll settle.

SMc: I loved Into the Clouds and its nuts and pitons description of the first attempts to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world. How did you first learn about this chapter in mountain-climbing history and what attracted you to it?

TO: So, I really wanted to tell a climbing story, partly because the ethical questions are so primal: What’s your obligation to other humans when you barely have the resources to keep yourself alive? The 1953 expedition to K2 is legendary in climbing circles for the selfless—some would say suicidal—attempt to get a sick comrade home alive. But the story hadn’t yet found a wider audience. Plus, the contrast with the previous expedition to K2, which ended in disaster, raised interesting questions, not just about climbing but about life: What’s important about any endeavor—the summit or how you climb? The product or the process? Your achievement or the bonds you form along the way?

SMc: You and I have both done some expeditioning and climbed non-technical mountains. So why do people undertake such misery-causing forms of recreation?

TO: A lot of climbers talk about the mountains as a world apart from their workaday lives in New York or Peoria. It’s a place where the complications of civilized life are stripped away and your relationship with nature, with other people, with yourself, is somehow more basic, more pure. I think there’s also a mindfulness to climbing. The danger focuses the mind in the moment—the feel of the rock under the fingers; this foothold, then the next one. Besides, the burgers taste that much better when you get home.

SMc: Oh yeah, and the warm bed. Your writing is rich with sensory detail. How much of that is personal suffering and how much is imagination and empathy for your subjects? In other words, do you go out and risk your life as a way of doing primary research?

TO: Ha! Writing is the most exquisite form of suffering ever invented. Why would anyone feel the need to add to the misery? Actually, it does feel like an act of hubris to presume you can capture an experience you haven’t lived. But even if we tried to climb K2, our experience of the mountain wouldn’t match anyone else’s. We still need to find a way into the minds of the people we write about. I think of research as listening, whether I’m actually interviewing people or engaging with written sources.

In large part, I think I look for portals—observations, phrases, or anecdotes that suddenly admit me into the world of the other. For K2, for instance, one of the 1938 climbers talked about his reluctance to read mail from home on the rare occasions when it arrived at Base Camp. For some reason that made it real for me: Conditions on the mountain were so uncomfortable that in order to bear it, he had to block out the fact that some people in the world lived differently, even if it meant cutting himself off from the people he loved most.

SMc: How did you get interested in survival stories, like the four books of the Lost collection?

TO: When I was 11, I read Alive, the story of the Uruguayan rugby team that was stranded in the Andes by a plane crash and had to eat the bodies of friends and family to survive. I barely left my chair for two days, and I think I’ve been trying to recreate that immersive reading experience as a writer. I tell the Alive story on school visits, and it’s amazing how quickly the thought of eating your cousin can focus the attention of a couple hundred 6thgraders.

SMc: Why do you think young readers are so interested in such stories, whether fictional or not?

TO: Survival stories have an interesting history. Eighteenth-century Europeans were entranced by stories of people marooned with cannibals on remote islands. Robinson Crusoe was arguably the first novel in English, and it was a survival story. At that point, European settlers were spreading out around the globe, leaving everything familiar behind, colonizing places that felt alien to them. The stories were a way of working out their fears.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that survival stories do something similar for a kid anticipating her own entry into a complicated adult world. Besides, what is middle school but a three-year survival epic with really bad food?

SMc: I can still taste the liverwurst. In your mind, what distinguishes narrative nonfiction from fiction? And narrative nonfiction from history? What niche in our need for stories does narrative nonfiction fill?

TO: I love thinking about the first part of that question, but we could talk about it for hours and still fall short of an answer. When you really look closely, I think it’s hard to draw a clear line. So much mediates our knowledge of the past—the limitations of memory, cultural gaps, lack of documentation. Narrative nonfiction authors make decisions on every page about the relationship between their sources and the words on the page.

That said, I think we absolutely need to draw a line, and for me it’s that everything needs to be documented. As for the importance of narrative, I don’t write books primarily to teach, but I do think we learn best through story. We understand people at a deeper level, we empathize, and we retain what we read. If you need evidence, try Say Nothing, which I just finished. It’s an amazing feat of storytelling that made me understand the Troubles in Northern Ireland for the first time.

SMc: Could you describe your research process for Into the Clouds? How much time did you spend researching versus writing?

TO: Hard to say because the research continued after I started writing, but maybe a year of researching and six months of writing. I reached out to the family members of all the climbers I wrote about, and that can take a while because you’re following leads that lead to other leads, etc.

It’s really all about primary sources, and the turning point for me was when I found Dee Molenaar’s diary. He was one of the climbers on the 1953 expedition, and he wrote with disarming honesty about his struggles with pride and fear and insecurity on the mountain. That kind of candor was unusual for the era, and it gave me that portal I needed to get inside their experience on K2.

SMc: Tell us about your writing journey up to this point. What literary mountains are you still wanting to climb as a writer?

TO: I’m done with survival stories for a while. As much as I love them, there’s a sameness to the story arc, and after a while you run out of synonyms for cold, hungry, and miserable. I’m trying to write a novel, which is a lot harder than writing nonfiction. At any given moment, there are hundreds of viable choices instead of dozens.

SMc: What is something people would be surprised to learn about you, besides you and your dad once being national tennis champs in father-son doubles?

TO: I hate being cold. (How are things in Ecuador?)

SMc: Living and writing at 8,000 feet … please … send … oxygen. Advice for writers wanting to try their hand at narrative nonfiction?

TO: Be faithful to your sources, but make the story your own. You’re not building a day-by-day, minute-by-minute chronicle of lived experience. You’re telling a story. As you research, pay attention to the pieces that quicken your pulse, raise a lump in your throat, make you think. Those are the peaks in your mountain range; write up to them, down from them, and around them.

SMc: What are you working on now?

TO: That novel, but we don’t need to talk about that. During quarantine I made a really cool (I think) on-line scavenger hunt for Into the Clouds: https://todolson.com/scavenger-hunt/into-the-clouds/. It’s on my website, and anyone who completes it gets a chance to win a book. If the novel doesn’t work, I’m going to be a scavenger hunt writer. Is that a thing?

It is now! Thanks, T, for taking the time to share your adventures—writing and otherwise—with us. The best way to follow Tod is through his website: https://todolson.com/.

And here’s another chance to win Tod’s Into the Clouds—via MUF, thank you Tod. (Sorry, only available for MUF readers in the United States and Canada.)

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New Middle Grade Animal Book Series by PJ Gardner, HORACE & BUNWINKLE! Special visitor, Agent Kari Sutherland!

Young readers love stories driven by animal main characters. There’s something relatable about animals and their humble relationship to nature and the humans around them.  And usually lots of humor. Like this next book I have to share with you!

Meet HORACE & BUNWINKLE!

HORACE & BUNWINKLE!The first in a young middle grade animal series in which an anxious Boston Terrier and an exuberant potbellied pig team up to solve crimes in their barnyard—from debut author PJ Gardner, with illustrations by David Mottram.

Perfect for fans of the Mercy Watson series, The Trouble with Chickens, and A Boy Called Bat.

Horace Homer Higgins III despises dirt. And the outdoors. And ducks. But when his person, Eleanor, moves to a farm called the Homestead, the anxious Boston Terrier is forced to adapt. As if that isn’t enough to strain his nerves, Ellie adopts a perpetually cheerful potbellied pig named Bunwinkle to be his baby sister.

Bunwinkle is delighted to be on the farm despite the stuffy demeanor of her new canine brother. She’s sure she’ll crack his shell eventually—no one can resist her cuteness for long—especially once they bond over watching a TV pet-tective show.

When the duo discovers that neighborhood animals have been disappearing, they decide to use their new detective skills to team up to solve this barnyard mystery. Is it a mountain lion? Or their suspiciously shot-loving veterinarians?

Only one thing seems certain: if they don’t figure it out soon, one of them might be next!

 

*Special Surprise For Readers About HORACE & BUNWINKLE*

After you share in our chat with Author PJ and Agent Kari, make sure to enter the giveaway at the bottom for your chance to WIN a copy of HORACE & BUNWINKLE Signed by Author PJ Gardner!

Chat with Author and Agent

Welcome PJ & Kari! These two characters are simply adorable! I knew the moment I met them that our MUF family just had to invite you both for a visit.

Let me start with you, PJ:

Have you always wanted to write animal characters or did Horace and Bunwinkle start out as human characters? Or maybe something else?

Animals have so much personality. They’re as individual and quirky as any human. So, it’s always seemed natural to me that they have their own stories. And I was raised on those stories. The first books I remember reading were Little Bear and Frog and Toad. Charlotte’s Web had a huge impact on me, too. I have the clearest memories of sitting in Mrs. Hill’s third grade classroom with my book on my desk, as she read to us. Oh my gosh, I can still remember sobbing like mad at the end.

Charlotte’s Web . . . yes, me too!🕸️🐷🕸️

Horace and Bunwinkle were always animals, but their names were originally Quincy and Queenie. My youngest son who was about seven at the time, got really into Rocky and Bullwinkle and Claymation movies. One day he wanted to watch Wallace and Gromit, but he couldn’t remember their names. He asked me to put on Horace and Bunwinkle. Changing the names inspired me to actually write the story.

Middle grade readers love mysteries, following the clues and oh, the suspense! What makes this mystery unique?

The mystery is unique because the investigators are unique. A stuffy, rule abiding Boston Terrier and a precocious, freewheeling piglet make for unusual detectives. But they are real detectives. (They call themselves pet-tectives, by the way.) They use real investigative methods, often to humorous effect, and the stakes are real.

Love pet-tectives!💚

Let me turn to Kari for a moment. Before I ask you about PJ’s work, I’m sure readers would like to know what you look for first in a submission.

The first thing that will draw me to a query is the voice. Is it compelling and engaging? Plot is something that can be reworked, but voice is integral to capturing me as a reader and agent.

I think I know the answer now, but I still have to ask – what drew you to request P.J.’s work?

See above. 😊 P.J.’s voice leapt off the page and pulled me in. The first thing she queried me with was a very serious YA, so the tone was completely different from Horace & Bunwinkle, which wasn’t something I saw until we were already working together. It was a project she’d set aside, then sent to me when we were talking about middle grade ideas. Everything PJ sends me is infused with its own, distinctive, voice and Horace & Bunwinkle actually has two– Horace, the anxious, proper Boston Terrier, and Bunwinkle, the confident, cheerful pot-bellied pig. I love them both!

I’m sure readers are going to agree with you.

PJ: Horace and Bunwinkle is the first in this book series. Did you intend on writing a series?

In my mind Horace & Bunwinkle was always a series. I had five or six ideas for future stories with these characters when we went on submission. In fact, Book 2 is has gone to copy edits, and I’ve started working on the outline for Book 3.

This is exciting! Congratulations on completing book 2.

Horace and Bunwinkle has been offered as a comparison to series, The Trouble with Chickens, and A Boy Called Bat. Is there a book from your childhood that reminds you of H&B, a book or character(s) that was dear to your heart?

The comparison I’ve always thought of is There’s a similar quirkiness and humor, plus a fun mystery. And I love that both break the “dumb dog” stereotype. I’m so excited it’s being made into a graphic novel!

Kari: From your agent’s eye, how is this animal story different from others?

It combines a lot of appealing elements including a hilarious cast of critters with unique personas, a bucolic setting, and a fun mystery, but at its heart it is about two individuals learning to love each other despite their flaws and working together to crack the case. I think the dynamic between Horace and Bunwinkle really makes this stand out!

PJ: Humor is a great draw for MG readers. Would you give an example (maybe even a brief description of a scene) of how you used humor in this book?

I’m a huge fan of quirky characters and the humor that comes from their interactions. I do this a lot in Horace & Bunwinkle. Take Smith and Jones, two very old horses who live on the Homestead. Smith is extremely hard of hearing and Jones is a conspiracy theorist. He believes ghosts are stealing the animals. Later, he realizes it’s really aliens. They’re witnesses to several of the pet-nappings but getting good information out of them is a humorous mess.

Why will readers like Horace and Bunwinkle as characters?

Even though Horace and Bunwinkle are animals they’re totally relatable. They’re weird and silly, they get grumpy and anxious. Specifically, I think they’ll like that Horace has a gruff exterior, but a kind heart, that he changes over the course of the book. And Bunwinkle is pure fun, excited about everything, and full of life.

What do you hope readers take with them once they’ve finished the book?

I hope that readers see themselves in the characters. I hope they feel inspired to be curious, but also take care of their community. That probably seems silly from a lighthearted mystery in animal point of view, but Horace and Bunwinkle also deal with real things like adoption, moving, and anxiety.

Fun Tidbits For PJ

You’re walking into a library. Which section do you go to first and why? I would go to either the mystery or the manga sections. I adore a twisty-turny tale of suspense, especially if there’s a supernatural element. I was introduced to manga a few years ago and really got into it. I’m partial to shojo.

Favorite writing snack or drink? Cinnamon bears and/or Nearly Naked popcorn.

Time to write? I have 3 kids and 2 dogs, I write when I get the chance.

Book? The Life of Pi.

You’re stuck in a dream and the only way to escape is to write your way out. What would be your first sentence? Wake myself from a dream sentence: The spiders are coming.

I am right behind you!

Questions About Writing📝

PJ: For our writing readers, would you briefly share your writing process.

Have a great idea. Brainstorm endlessly. Talk myself out of writing. Get 700 more great ideas. Watch K-Dramas. Ride a guilt wave. Organize thoughts. Start writing. Force myself to write through the “This is garbage” phase. Eat a dozen bags of Cinnamon Bears. Finish a draft. Let it sit. Watch more K-Dramas. Organize thoughts again. Force myself to edit.

Kari: Are you an editorial agent? How did you and P.J. work together on this project?

Yes, I’m definitely an editorial agent (having worked as an editor for many years, I can’t help it!). The main things we focused on before submitting it were bringing the mystery forward in the arc, spinning out more suspects/clues along the way, and fine tuning of the emotional arcs for each character. I’d point out questions I had or places it was bumpy and PJ worked her magic.

And lastly, Kari . . . Mind sharing some advice for our reading writers out there.

Write the story that comes from your heart—don’t write to a trend. Read across a wide range of genres and tastes as that helps you study character, plot, pacing, and language style. Remember that nobody’s first draft is perfect and even if you have to set aside a project (or two), they were all steps along your journey as you hone your craft and were important even if nobody else ever reads them.

Thank you for sharing Horace & Bunwinkle with us! All the best to you both. We can’t wait to see more of Horace and Bunwinkle in the future.

About The Author

When PJ Gardner was a little girl growing up in Colorado she dreamt of being an actress or a dental hygienist or even Mrs. John Travolta. It Author PJ Switzerdidn’t occur to her that she could be a writer until she was a grown up. Now her debut middle grade novel, Horace & Bunwinkle, is being published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins, and she’s thrilled.

PJ lives in the scorching heat of the Arizona desert with her husband, sons, and Boston Terriers, Rosie and Rocky. She doesn’t own a pig because her husband says she’s not allowed to. INSTAGRAM | FACEBOOK | TWITTER | WEBSITE

About The Agent

Agent Kari SutherlandKari Sutherland joined the Bradford Literary Agency in 2017 after a decade of experience in publishing from the editorial side. Previously a Senior Editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, she has worked with bestselling and critically acclaimed authors on projects such as the #1 New York Times bestselling Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard and the #1 New York Times bestselling Pretty Little Liars series by Sara Shepard. With her editorial insight and experience with the entire publishing process, Kari is passionate about helping to polish each manuscript and equip her clients for success. Find out more about her at www.bradfordlit.com or follow her on Twitter: @KariSutherland.

Love Animal Tales? Check out a STEM collection we’ve gathered HERE!

ENTER THE GIVEAWAY!

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Teachers, You Inspire Us

On this Labor Day Holiday, it only seems appropriate to give a huge shout out thank you to all the teachers. You INSPIRE US!

According to the Department of Labor:

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

While many workers fulfill that particular requirement, teachers do that every day by inspiring their students. Teachers aren’t just the ones who work in the classroom, but also are paraprofessionals,  coaches, librarians, and yes, even parents. Everyone who works with students has the ability to have a positive affect on them. Sometimes you see it right away, and sometimes it doesn’t happen for many years. Regardless, some teaching moments and teachers in particular stay with us our whole lives.

That happened to me. I truly believe that I would probably not be a science author if I hadn’t had some amazing teachers in my life.

Here is my story:

 

I have always loved science! It captured my attention and imagination from a very young age. Luckily, I had parents who encouraged my love of science. Oh, and we also had a creek in our backyard. I spent many wonderful days exploring that creek, knee-deep in water, mud, and yes, sometimes frogs.

At the age of 9, I decided that I wanted to become a pediatrician. I didn’t really know how to do that until I stepped into my 7th grade science class and met a woman that would change my life. Her name was Susan Roth. And to this day (over 40 years later) I still remember my first day in that class. She had a full skeleton model in her classroom. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

 

And then there was Mrs. Roth, herself, a very outgoing, happy, encouraging teacher who was EXCITED about science. And most of all made science EXCITING for us!  She used the textbook only as a guide, but instead we focused on the most amazing experiments in her classroom. She encouraged me to study the creek water, really look at it. I did reports with my classmates on the microscopic creatures that we found in it. We mapped the entire creek throughout our little town. We studied its levels, how it moved, and discussed erosion affects from the floods we had occasionally.

We also worked with that skeleton, of course, studying all of the parts of the human body, the systems, and I  could even name all 206 bones!

The best part about Mrs. Roth was that she always encouraged everyone. This was in the 1970’s and it was unusual to have a female science teacher where I lived. Yet she fit in so well. I remembered one day telling her that I wanted to be a pediatrician and she didn’t laugh. She didn’t stop to say, um, that is a difficult road. Instead, she said, “Awesome! I know you’ll be great. You can do anything.”  Those words stuck with me.

In fact, about ten years later when I was nervous about applying to the U.S. Naval Academy, where I would eventually go to college, I remembered Mrs. Roth’s words. They gave me the courage to apply, get in, and pick chemistry as my major. After all, that was the degree you’d need to go to medical school back then.

Being a chemistry major is not easy.

Those of you that have taken even 1 chemistry class in college can probably agree. When you add the requirements of 2 years of math classes, 3 years of engineering classes, plus all of the naval ship classes, it’s a lot. I got bogged down in all of that work, and my grades were about middle of the road. My dream of becoming a doctor was slipping away.

And then I had another teacher, Dr. Joseph Lomax, he was my chemistry teacher at USNA. He knew how hard I worked in the class and that my grades didn’t always reflect the amount of effort I was putting in. He took the time to talk to me and to listen to my dreams about becoming a doctor. Having had it for almost 12 years, it was a tough dream to give up. He didn’t shrug it off, instead, he told me how I could take my gifts and use them in a different way.

He told me that  I had a gift for explaining difficult things in a way that students could understand. That I could take complex science and engineering ideas and turn them into easily understandable concepts. It was something not everyone could do, and that I’d make a wonderful teacher some day. He was right.

Those words Dr. Lomax said to me carried me a long way. In fact, you might say that they helped me to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. At only 24 years of age, I could never have envisioned– all these many years later– that I would end up here, writing STEM books for children.

But when I look back, it makes total sense. I feel like I spent my whole life moving in this direction. Taking complex and unique STEM topics and turning them into exciting books for kids which, hopefully, will inspire them to love science and STEM as much as I do. I am very lucky to have a job I love. And I do it in the name of my teachers.

I’ve dedicated two of my books to my teachers. For Mrs. Roth, I dedicated my Dr. E’s Super Stellar Solar System book

 

“To Susan Roth, my 7th grade science teacher, who opened my eyes to the amazing intrigue and adventure that the world of science has to offer. She is my true Science Super Hero.”

 

 

 

 

And to Dr. Lomax, I dedicate my new chemistry book, ” Thank you for believing in me and helping me to see how my gifts in STEM can be used to inspire others as yours have done for me.”

 

 

 

 

In fact, all of the amazing things I’ve been able to do as a STEM author can be traced back to their encouraging words. I wouldn’t be there without them. (And my AWESOME family, too, of course).

     

 

I realize that this year is particularly difficult for all who are teaching. Unusual circumstances have changed the way things normally work.  And yet, I know you are all doing your best to continue to make those personal connections. Students won’t forget that.  When they reach a time in their life when they need a voice to tell them, “You can do it”, it just might be that of a special teacher who believed in them.

HUGS to all of the amazing teachers out there and THANK YOU for what you do for us. We appreciate it!

Enjoy your holiday. You deserve it.

 

And in honor of my two amazing science teachers, I am offering a giveaway of these two books as a pack.

 

I’ll pick 3 winners. To be entered, leave a comment below about a teacher who inspired YOU. OR if you are a teacher, let us know about the kids YOU inspire every day. 😀