Posts Tagged #authorinterview

An Interview with Author Heather Mateus Sappenfield

It’s great to have Heather Mateus Sappenfield at Mixed-Up Files, talking about her newest book – a middle grade – titled THE RIVER BETWEEN HEARTS.

 

THE RIVER BETWEEN HEARTS


On an ordinary Monday, Rill Kruse left for third grade with a dad, but when she came home, he’d been stolen. By a river. One year and thirteen days later—on the first morning of summer vacation—Rill still insists he’s on his way back home.

When Rill’s cat, Clifford, leads her to the family tree fort on the mountainside, she discovers a stowaway, Perla, who appears to be on the run. As Rill considers the events that led Perla to this moment, she embarks on an adventure that tests her understanding of the world and forms a friendship that defies boundaries. The lessons Rill learns nudge her—and all those she loves—toward healing.

Following in the footsteps of literary icons such as Kate DiCamillo with a spirited main character, a memorable adventure, and a heartfelt exploration of contemporary issues, “The River Between Hearts” is a middle grade novel bound to connect with readers of all ages.

 

What’s the inspiration behind this story?

In the mid-nineties, I taught high school language arts. Students who were new to America would turn up in my classes. Some of them were undocumented, yet I’d become a teacher to help anyone with a desire to learn. These students were a marvel to me because, despite knowing little, if any, English, and despite knowing few of the basics of daily life within the school, they managed to get by. Often admirably. Often while also working one or even two jobs after school.

Some mornings I’d walk through the school’s front doors to discover a group of them gathered in the lobby, crying and comforting each other because a family member, or maybe a few, had been rounded up for deportation the day or night before. I tried to imagine how that must feel: being left behind in a foreign country with no documentation and no family. Later, these students would be in my class, trying to concentrate, learn, and continue on. Their courage amazed me. When I started writing novels, I knew this was a story I would someday explore.

 

What does compassion mean to you?

This novel is a map of Rill’s journey to understanding compassion—how it feels, how to express it, how giving it to someone else can be a gateway to one’s own healing. Her teacher, Mr. Rainey, defines compassion as “a feeling of worry or pity for the suffering or misfortune of someone else.” The word pity, in its pure form, means sympathetic sorrow for one who is suffering, distressed, or unhappy. It can, however, carry the extra meaning of looking down on the thing you feel sorry for, and part of Rill’s journey is growing from seeing Perla as a “thing” to someone who is her equal and, ultimately, her friend. For me, that’s true compassion. I believe moments when we meet people who differ from us—in nationality, in ethnicity, in spiritual belief, in social strata—define us, and they have the potential to be among the most beautiful experiences available to us as human beings.

 

Who is this story for? Why explore immigration through a middle grade lens, rather than YA or adult?

When I state that this novel is “A read for all ages. A read for our times,” I’m being honest. It’s written through an almost-eleven-year-old’s eyes because Perla’s predicament is happening to kids—here in the Vail Valley, throughout Colorado, across our nation, and around the globe. I hope this novel illustrates the costs of apathy or indifference and, through Rill stumbling along and making mistakes, guides young readers toward compassion.

There’s an interesting dynamic that occurs when someone older reads a middle grade novel. Perhaps because these books are written and marketed for “children,” more mature readers tend to open the first page less guarded, and thus they’re unconsciously more susceptible to its messages. Middle grade novels are rarely simple, though. Young readers have agile minds, hungry to define their world, so these books are filled with depth and theme, irony and wit. Crafted to be easier to decode, there’s less filtering, so all this good stuff travels straight to the heart. I firmly believe every adult should read at least one middle grade book a year. It’s good for the soul.

 

From a craft perspective, how do you approach writing about difficult topics for younger ages?

Crafting middle grade stories is much harder for me than writing adult, or even YA, books. I relish a succulently worded description or turn of phrase, but for kids, I must do this so deftly that it’s seamless, with little or no overt artifice. There’s no nostalgia or looking back; I must be fully with the protagonist, viewing the world in that moment through their eyes. The rule “show don’t tell” is vitally important, especially when writing about difficult topics. So my characters move, via action and thought, toward figuring things out. Making mistakes is important. And they often don’t understand what motivates them, so the reader treks with them toward discovery.

 

What’s next for you on your literary journey?

Answer coming soon…waiting on exciting news!

 

About Heather:

HEATHER MATEUS SAPPENFIELD loves adventures, especially in the Rocky Mountain landscape that’s been her lifelong home. As part of women’s teams, she’s won 24-hour mountain bike races and road bicycling’s Race Across America—San Diego, California to Atlantic City, New Jersey. She’s also competed in the Mountain Bike World Championships; ski instructed for Vail Resorts, and loves backcountry ski touring. Her toughest adventures, though, arise in the writing of stories. She is the author of two contemporary YA novels, “The View from Who I Was” and “Life at the Speed of Us,” a Colorado Book Awards Finalist. Her story collection, “Lyrics for Rock Stars,” released as winner of the V Press LC Compilation Book Prize, was nominated for the MPIBA’s Reading the West Awards, was a silver medalist for the IBPA’s Ben Franklin Awards, and was featured on Colorado Public Radio. Her most recent book, “The River Between Hearts,” runner-up for the Kraken Prize, is a middle grade novel about friendship and healing. For more information, visit https://heathermateussappenfield.com/

You can find her on Social Media at:

Facebook: @heathermateussappenfield

Twitter: @alpineheather

Instagram: @heathermateussappenfield

 

THE RIVER BETWEEN HEARTS is out now.

You can find a copy at your favorite Independent Bookstore or library.

 

 

A Serendipitious Interview and Giveaway

Code Name: Serendipity CoverI recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Amber Smith’s middle grade debut Code Name: Serendipity about a misunderstood girl  named Sadie who discovers that she can hear the thoughts of a stray dog that she finds in the forest behind her house. In her quest to rescue the dog, Sadie finds that Dewey, the dog, can hear her thoughts as well, and a friendship forms between them. Soon, through her rescue efforts, Sadie is making more unlikely friends. This is a book to hand to anyone who loves animals and who has ever felt misunderstood. So, when an opportunity to interview the author arrived, I jumped at the chance. Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Amber.

MUF: Tell us about Code Name: Serendipity?

A: Code Name: Serendipity tells the story of eleven-year-old Sadie, a lonely misfit whose life seems to be going all wrong lately — she can’t get along with her older brother, her best friend moved away, and it seems no one understands her. That is until she meets a stray dog and realizes that they have a very special connection: They can communicate telepathically. Sadie sets out on a mission to rescue the dog, but in the process, she might just rescue herself too.

MUF: You’ve written several great young adult novels, and Code Name: Serendipity is your first MG? How was the experience different?

A: In terms of process and structure, it wasn’t too different to switch from writing YA to MG. But I found that it took me quite a while to find Sadie’s voice. As I was drafting, I struggled to balance her youth and maturity in a natural way, one that was so different from the older characters I have been writing for years now. Once I found it, though, the pieces of the puzzle just started falling into place!

MUF: Your bio says that Code Name: Serendipity was inspired by your own experiences rescuing animals. Are there any particular animals that inspired Dewey? Are there any stories from your time rescuing animals that particularly inspired this story?

A: Definitely! My wife and I are both huge animal lovers – we currently have seven rescues (two dogs and five cats). There are little pieces of each of these sweet furbabies threaded throughout the story, but the one who really inspired it was a third dog, Darwin. I rescued him from a shelter when he was still a puppy and he was with me his whole life, up until he was a senior, and eventually passed. I always refer to him as my “soul dog” because we had such a close bond that at times, it really did feel as if we knew what each other were thinking. Not quite telepathy, like Sadie and Dewey, but pretty close! So, I started writing this book in memory of him, and how much joy and love he broughtDarwin, the inspiration for Dewey in Code Name: Serendipity into my life.

MUF: Not gonna lie, I really wish that I had Sadie’s power not only with my own cats but also the cat that I TNR’d. (Trapped, Neutered, Released) Have there ever been animal rescue experiences where you wished that you had Sadie’s power?

A: First, I love that you participate in a TNR program!

This is how we have ended up with the majority of our rescue cats. Former members of feral colonies, who, when brought in for spay/neutering, were found to have health issues that prevented them from being re-released back into their feral colonies. These kitties can have such weird and sometimes aggressive behavioral issues that prevent them from being (or staying) adopted — after all, they’ve never been a part of a household or family. So, my wife and I have become known as the “crazy cat ladies” the shelters call to take the cats who have run out of options. I have definitely wished I could telepathically communicate with some of these cats (we have five of them currently) to explain what it means to transition from feral-to-house cat. They get it eventually, but it would be so much easier if we could just talk it out!

MUF: Code Name: Serendipity deals with some weighty issues with Sadie’s grandfather’s illness, her LD, and also what could happen to Dewey if she’s not rescued from the shelter. How do you approach writing about these topics for MG. Is it different from how you’d approach writing them for YA, and how so?

A: My YA novels have all dealt with some pretty heavy, hard-hitting topics that sometimes get into dark places, and while I definitely wanted to touch on serious real-world topics in Code Name, I was very conscious of not wanting any of Sadie’s problems and challenges to ever feel insurmountable. One of the ways I tried to achieve this was to show her finding tools, help, and allies along the way – so there was always a light at the end of every tunnel.

Amber Smith with DarwinMUF: Why does Gramps call Sadie Sassafras?

A: Gramps has a lot of what Sadie refers to as “Grampsisms” – or his own unique made-up expressions – old-timey sayings, but with a twist! When I was brainstorming nicknames he might have for Sadie, I kept thinking he’d probably want to express his admiration for Sadie’s spirited (or, some might say, sassy) nature. I thought at first, he could call her “Sassy,” but I wanted it to be something a bit more endearing and special, so in true Gramps style, Sassy became “Sassafras.”

MUF: Your descriptions of food in this story are awesome. I ended up buying a box of Uncrustables because I was craving PBJ after this. Were there any foods that you wrote, that you were hungry for after describing them?

A: Yes, I ate many a late-night PBJ sandwich while writing this book – and I still don’t know whether it was my snack that inspired the recurring PBJs in the book or the book that made me crave the recurring sandwiches. Also, Sadie has a penchant for French toast and big weekend breakfasts with her family, which is something I always looked forward to as a kid!

MUF: Sadie’s very gifted with art. I loved the scene where she’s drawing out the word problem. Do you draw? Or do origami like Macy? (Fun side note, I tried to learn origami in Japanese class in college because we did this whole Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes thing, and I literally made one sad, pathetic paper crane because like Sadie, I cannot figure it out.)

A: I actually do have a background in visual art – I went to college for Painting and grad school for Art History, so I love to incorporate creative and artistic themes in my books. I honestly don’t practice art too much these days, but it will always hold a special place in my heart as my first creative love. (Side note: I probably logged at least 100 hours of YouTube tutorials on origami while writing this book because I wanted to get the descriptions of Macy’s creations just right!)

MUF: Also, in a similar vein, throughout the story, we see Sadie working on her graphic novel. Are you a fan of graphic novels? If so, what are your favorites?

A: When I was a kid, I wanted to be an illustrator, but my wife is the true graphic novel aficionado in the family, so I borrowed that interest of hers for Sadie.

MUF: What are your favorite books?

A: I have too many to name (and the list is always growing), but on the middle-grade side I love anything by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Holly Goldberg Sloan, and Kate DiCamillo – Because of Winn-Dixie has been a long-time favorite of mine, and definitely inspired Code Name!

MUF: What are you working on now?

A: I am in the beginning stages of a new middle-grade novel that I’m super excited about (all I can say right now is that it involves another special animal – this time, a cat).

How can readers find you online?

A: I love connecting with readers! You can find me online at www.AmberSmithAuthor.com, @ambersmithauthor on Instagram and Facebook, or @ASmithAuthor on Twitter.

Thanks for having me on From the Mixed-Up Files!

Code Name: Serendipity is out now, and here at Mixed-Up Files, we’re giving away a copy to one lucky reader.

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Why Writing Kid Constantine Was No Mystery for Ryan North

Mystery of the Meanest Teacher Cover

Mystery of the Meanest Teacher CoverRyan North, whose credits include an award-winning runs of Adventure Time, Jughead, and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl recently wrote a middle grade graphic novel featuring John Constantine, one of my favorite DC Comics characters, and I got the opportunity to sit down and talk with him about it.

MUF: I’m Mimi. I write for From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors, a blog for people who love middle-grade books (parents, teachers, librarians, kids, writers, etc.). It’s an honor to be able to interview you. (My husband is also a fan. He’s the one who introduced me to Dinosaur Comics).  And congratulations on the Eisner nomination this year.

Ryan North: Aw thank you, Mimi!  That’s very kind.  I’m excited about it!  And say hi to your husband for me. 🙂

 

MUF: So, tell us about The Mystery of the Meanest Teacher?

Ryan North: The Mystery of the Meanest Teacher is a middle-grade graphic novel about a younger version of Constantine – Johnny Constantine, but he prefers you call him “Kid”.  Kid Constantine has to escape from the UK to the United States after one of his capers involving ghosts and demons goes wrong. When he arrives at his new boarding school in America, he discovers his spells don’t work as well as they used to, so he’s left scrambling, faking it till he makes it – but luckily he soon discovers he’s not the only magical kid there.  And he’s going to need all the help he can get when one of his new teachers seems to have it out for him personally, and might be a real-life witch…

It’s a stand-alone graphic novel, so you can read it knowing nothing of the character (or even DC Comics!) but if you do, there’s some fun little secrets you might pick up on.

 

MUF: I’ve gotta admit, Constantine is one of my favorite DC characters, but he’s not exactly kid-friendly, why did you choose Constantine for this project?

Ryan North: Right?  He’s basically the last DC character you’d ever expect to be in a middle grade graphic novel.  I was working with DC on another project that got bogged down unfortunately, and when they said “Hey, what about Kid Constantine?” I laughed at the idea – always a good sign!  And I quickly realized that he actually transforms into a 13-year-old version of himself very easily.  That idea of trying to cover for what you don’t know, trying to act like you’re super cool and in control even though you have no idea what’s going on – it’s something that I think feels pretty universal to most of us, and to both Adult and Kid Constantine.  So there weren’t actually a lot of changes I had to make!  The adult version has a lot of bad habits that we altered (instead of smoking, Kid has a lollipop sticking out of his mouth at the start of the book) but beyond that there really wasn’t a lot to change, to adapt for younger readers.  So I loved that the idea sounded so wild, and really wanted to see if we could pull it off.

 

MUF: You do a great job of capturing Constantine’s wit in a way that’s accessible for kids. Was writing young Johnny difficult?

Ryan North: No, it was actually pretty familiar!  Like I mentioned before, Constantine goes through some pretty relatable stuff, so all I had to do was remember what it felt like being the new kid, being somewhere where I don’t know anyone, and I could tap into that pretty easily for Constantine.  And while some of the fun is seeing him cover for what he doesn’t know, he’s also a really clever guy, and it’s always fun to write clever characters.  They get in the best zingers.

It’s funny – if you look at the Wikipedia article for John Constantine, there’s a section called “In real life“, where several (several!) of the authors who have written Constantine claim to have met him in real life.  I kept my eye out for any young kids in a trenchcoat while I was writing – it would’ve been way easier to write the book if I could just ask Kid Constantine what he’d say and do in particular situations! – but unfortunately I never spotted him. So far, anyway…

 

MUF: I love that you included Etrigan as a “young” demon and that his rhyming is forced. It’s such a cool nod to his lore. What other Easter eggs can eagle-eyed fans catch?Etrigan- A character in The Mystery of the Meanest Teacher

Ryan North: Haha, thank you!  Etrigan was the hardest character to write because he speaks in rhymes.  It would always slow me down when I got to him, until I finally started writing placeholder dialogue for him: it had what I wanted him to say, but didn’t rhyme, and then I got to go back and spend an afternoon composing poetry that said what I needed it to say.

Beyond the lollipop visual reference I mentioned earlier, there’s also elements in what Constantine and his new friend Anna wear that references the costumes they wear as adults.  The artist of the book, Derek Charm, told me that the challenge in designing the characters was that we wanted them to look like their adult versions, but still look credible as kids: their outfits had to be something a 13-year-old would wear.  Constantine wants to look cool all the time, so it’s no surprise to me that he’d have a t-shirt printed with a design that makes it looks like he’s wearing a tie.  I wanted a shirt like that when I was a kid.  Still do, really!

 

MUF:  Also, was it hard coming up with all of those rhymes and/or was it difficult to make them sound stilted?

Ryan North: Hah – well, the secret is that it’s never hard to make a rhyme sound stilted, so that was good at least!  As hard as Young Etrigan was to write, Adult Etrigan would be even harder, because there he’s got his rhymes down pat.  I tried to use iambic pentameter for his rhymes at the start until I realized Etrigan is speaking a second language here, and he’s definitely not as good at it as his adult version is, so that became a bit less precise in his speech.  But honestly, I just went for walks and tried to think of different ways to say what he wanted to say until I came up with one that worked!  I like to think out loud when doing character voice writing, so my Secret Writing Technique is to wear a headset with a mic on it when I’m walking.  That way, passers-by think I’m a very important businessperson on a very important call and not a random guy trying to make a demon in his head have better rhymes.

Kid Constantine in The Mystery of the Meanest TeacherMUF: In the book, Constantine and Anna have a few tricks up their sleeve, what do you wish that you had a magic spell for?

Ryan North: Kid Constantine mentions at one point having an anti-blushing spell, and for most of my life before 20 I would’ve loved to have that power.  But these days I’d love a spell that would let me learn faster.  Every time I try something new there’s such a gulf between what you want and what you can accomplish, and yes it just takes practice, but that means you make a lot of just okay cookies before you unlock the really good stuff.  So that’s a shortcut I’d gladly take, thanks magic!

 

MUF: And similarly, if you were able to sneak into an otherworldly candy shop, what would be your go-to snack?

My favourite food is ice cream, so if I could find a ghost who’s spent their entire afterlife perfecting the art and craft of ice cream production, unlocking levels of flavour and delight that simply aren’t reachable or teachable within a standard-issue human lifetime… I would be there in a heartbeat.

MUF: I read in your bio that you studied Computer Science. How do you go from Computer Science major to creating award-winning graphic novels?

Ryan North: I always kinda did both at the same time!  I started my webcomic, Dinosaur Comics, in 2003, when I was in undergrad. (It’s still running today – you can read it at qwantz.com!)  Then I kept up the comic through grad school (I studied computational linguistics) and then when I graduated I faced a choice: keep doing comics, or get a real job.  And it was really easy to keep doing comics, because all I had to do was fail to get a real job!  Super easy.  So since then I’ve used my CS knowledge to develop different services that help comic creators, and get to live the best of both worlds.  It’s an unusual career path but it’s one that I recommend!  All of us have lots of interests and I don’t think you should have to pigeonhole yourself so early in your life – do different things!  If you can, do different things simultaneously! 

MUF: What were your favorite books and/or comics as a kid? Who were your influences?

Ryan North: The earliest book I can remember loving is The Monster At The End of This Book

The Monster at the End of this Book Cover

by Jon Stone and Michael Smollin. If you haven’t read it, it’s a great Little Golden Book where the fourth wall doesn’t exist, and Grover is afraid because he knows there’s a monster at the end of the book.  He does all he can to stop you from turning the pages of the book – building walls that you smash through with your mighty page-turning strength, and so on, until you reach the end, and he finds out the monster… is him, loveable ol’ Grover!  And then he’s really embarrassed.  It just blew my mind that books could do that, that you could have this object in your hands that was physically like all the other books but told a story in a different way.  I still love that, and lots of my projects involve playing with the potential of the form like that.  That’s actually one of the things I love about comics: it’s still a young medium and there’s still discoveries about the basic form being made.  You can do things in comics that haven’t been done before, and I think that’s really incredible!

 

MUF: What advice do you have for someone wanting to write comics or videogames or basically just be like you?

Ryan North: The greatest advice I have for someone looking to do writing is to start doing it, keep doing it, and put that work online.  This has two benefits: it makes your commitment public, so now you have to keep writing to keep that commitment up (this is why a webcomic works so well: if you say you’re going to every day, you’ve got to do it!) and of course the more you write the better you get at it, even if you’re not trying to improve.  There’s no way you can spend a few years writing a comic and not get better at writing comics, it’s just how our brains work.  The other thing putting your work online can get you is an audience: people who like your work and want to support it.  This helps you in a bunch of ways, but one of the first things it does is make you realize you’re not alone and people are interested in hearing what you have to say.  For an early writer, that was really big for me.  It made me feel like there was a purpose to it, that it wasn’t just me talking to myself!  And of course, when your work is online people can see it and maybe, on day, say “hey, I really like the writing that person did, I wonder if I could hire them to write for me?” and that’s literally how I went from writing a webcomic for free to being paid to write comics for other people too.

Ryan North Comic Books

 

MUF: What would fans be surprised to find out about you?

Ryan North: I’m really tall, but also, taller than you think even if you think I’m really tall.  I’m that tall.  Other than that I don’t think I have that many secrets!  Unless of course this is a ruse to get people off the trail of my many startling secrets!

 

MUF: What are you working on now?

Ryan North: I’m working on a few unannounced projects I can’t really talk about, but I will say that Derek Charm and I have been trying to do more books together for a while and hopefully some of those will bear fruit soon!  I’m also working on something that’s sort of a spiritual successor to my first nonfiction book, which was called “How To Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveller”.  (That book has also found a lot of middle-grade readers: turns out we’re all kinda interested in seeing if we can rebuild civilization from scratch if we ever get sent back in time!)

MUF: How can people follow you on social media?

Ryan North and Noam Chompsy

 

Ryan North: I’m not really active anywhere but Twitter, where I’m @ryanqnorth !  I’m also @qwantz on Instagram, where I sometimes post pictures of my dog, Noam Chompsky.

MUF: And, that’s all I’ve got. Thank you for your time, and the opportunity to interview you.

Ryan North: Thanks Mimi!  These were really thoughtful questions – I appreciate it!

 

The Mystery of the Meanest Teacher is out now! And I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone who is interested in spooky, mysterious adventure comics with smart, sarcastic heroes, as well as anyone who is a fan of the grown-up Constantine comics.