Today, on the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors we welcome Michelle Jabès Corpora, who is a writer, editor, community organizer and martial artist. In addition to working in the publishing industry for fifteen years as an editor, she has ghostwritten five novels in a long-running middle grade mystery series. She is the author of The Dust Bowl (Penguin Workshop) and The Fog of War: Martha Gellhorn at the D-Day Landings(Pushkin Press).
Congratulations on publishing two middle grade novels in one year. Today, we’re going to discuss The Dust Bowl, which is the inaugural book in the middle grade series, American Horse Tales. Congratulations to you Michelle!
I’m so excited to talk with you about your love of writing historical fiction for middle grade readers. I love that you’ve been able to jump from the editing side to the authoring side.
You have so many visceral details about what it was like to live in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. In fact, the dust and the setting become like a character in the book. Can you talk a little bit about your research process?
I love that you said that the setting became “like a character in the book” – that perfectly describes how I felt about it too! Some might see the research process as the “boring part” of the writing process, but it’s actually what made me fall in love with historical fiction. Not only is it fun to do, but it really enriched me as a person in a way that stayed with me long after I finished writing the book. In preparation for Dust Bowl, I watched Ken Burns’ documentary about the event itself, as well as his (14 hour?) documentary about the Roosevelts, which really helped set the stage for the eras that led to and followed the Dust Bowl. Watching the footage of the dust storms, listening to interviews with people who lived through it, and learning about the historical context about the time really helped not only create the setting, but also the plot itself and what my characters would have been going through. I also read The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, which was essential in writing Ginny’s voice in the dialect of the time. I collected digital photographs from the era, and did exhaustive internet research as well, to make sure I had every detail right—from the kind of food Ginny would have eaten, down to the type of radio they’d have in their farmhouse. To me, it was essential to have the setting come alive, so that young readers would really get a visceral understanding of what it is was to live through this remarkable time in our history.
Your main character Ginny loves her horse Thimble and would do anything to keep Pa from selling him. I could really feel Ginny’s affection for her horse. What is your relationship to horses and how did you go about creating Thimble as a character?
As a child, I wasn’t really a “horse girl” myself, but I was definitely a huge animal lover. I volunteered at a wildlife rescue during college, and my first job out of college was as a veterinary technician. My goal with Thimble was to make him a character in a realistic—non magical—way. I wanted to try and recreate the relationship we have with our animal companions, where we talk to them, see their reactions and their expressions, and imagine what they might be saying to us if they could talk. To me, Thimble was kind of like an extension of Ginny’s personality, a bit like her subconscious mind. When she was excited about adventure, she imagined his own excitement to join her on that adventure. But when she tried to push away the doubts about what she was doing, she imagined that Thimble, her partner and protector, seemed to confirm those doubts with his worried glances. I think there’s a reason that people seem to “look like their pets” – when we become close to an animal, we create an emotional bond with them unlike any other. I did my best to recreate that bond between Ginny and Thimble.
Ginny is a bit of a trickster in some respects and very determined. Was she hard to write? How much were you like Ginny as a child?
Ginny was fun to write—and definitely not like me! I was a shy, very rule-abiding kid. But I had daring friends who helped pull me out of my shell, so maybe my friends helped to inform Ginny’s character. I think what really helped solidify the character in my mind was the essential struggle between Ginny and Pa. Both father and daughter were willing to do anything to protect the things that defined their family—but they disagreed on the right way to go about doing that. I envisioned Ginny and Pa as reflections of the same character, who ultimately find a way to see that they’re both right, and that they’re both wrong. I think it’s a situation that many of us as children and as parents have experienced with our loved ones, which is why the story felt so meaningful to me. I love Ginny for her courage, for her wit, and for her ability to change her mind, or admit fault. In some ways, that’s the biggest test of courage a person can face.
I enjoyed Silvio as a character. He’s another very determined character. What do you like best about him?
I loved Silvio’s easygoing manner, his humor, and his charm. Silvio was the light in a fairly dark story, and I appreciate him for that. Even though he had experienced terrible personal tragedy, Silvio kept his eyes on the horizon, dreaming about his future, and throwing himself into the unknown in order to take care of his family. I love his breezy heroism. I felt like Silvio is the kind of friend everyone wants—someone who will make you a sandwich on a bad day and make you laugh, but who also isn’t afraid to stand up and tell you when you’re being ridiculous!
Before you became an author, you had extensive experience as an editor (Greenwillow, Working Partners, a major book packager). How did being on the other side of the fence inform your work as a writer? What did you learn that you were able to carry into your work?
There is absolutely no way I would be the writer I am today without my years as an editor. Being an editor taught me to be ruthless, not romantic, with words, and never to let myself get too emotionally involved in my own skills. My career taught me that writing is something I do, not something I am, and that distinction removed a lot of the insecurities I suffered from in my early years. I learned never to wait for “the muse” to strike, because although there will be moments of inspiration and epiphanies and all those lovely things, at the end of the day writing is work. No matter what, you must sit down and do it. It doesn’t matter if it is the best thing ever written, it doesn’t matter if reading it will change someone’s life. Because surely, those things will never be true if you never write at all! What I have found is that by treating my work in this way, it frees my mind of personal judgment and allows me to just let it flow. Early in my career, writing a single page felt like pulling teeth. I agonized over every word! Now, I can write ten pages in an afternoon, no problem. I completely attribute this to the experiences of my career, which not only taught me the essential structure and form of story, but also forced me to write regularly.
How did you discover that writing historical fiction was your jam? Was it a major aha moment?
Honestly, I feel like almost everything is my jam! Back in high school, a teacher once said to me that I was a “Jack of all Trades,” because there were so many things I loved to do. I really think I’ve continued that throughout my life and my fiction. I even have a chameleon on my website as my personal mascot! I started my writing career with mysteries, then wrote historical, and now I’m starting to work on two horror novels. I think the a-ha! moment came during the writing of Dust Bowl and Fog of War, when I sat back and realized I didn’t need to label myself as this kind of writer or that kind. I write fiction for young people, and I write all kinds. I just love stories, and I love trying new things. Making that personal discovery and embracing that truth really expanded my vision for my career as an author.
Why do you write middle grade fiction?
The ages of 7-12 are a magical time in life. It’s this moment in our childhood where we become fully realized human beings, where we begin to find ourselves and to develop beliefs about life and our moral code. Because of that, writing for this age group is a huge and important responsibility that I take very seriously. When I write a story for middle grade readers, I ask myself what this story is teaching them about being human. My greatest book memories are of authors whose novels I read when I was a middle grade reader myself: Madeline L’Engle, Susan Cooper, James Howe, Louis Sachar, John Bellairs. If a book I wrote had that kind of impact on even one child, I think that would be a job well done.
Anything else you’d like us to know about the Dust Bowl as well as the American Horse Tales series?
I just finished my first school visit with Dust Bowl, and I was amazed at how interested the kids were in history. Right now, as all of us go through such a difficult time in our own history, I think it’s more important than ever to encourage kids to learn about the past, and to teach them in ways that really touch them and demonstrate commonalities between their lives and their ancestors’.
I encourage everyone to check out the other books in the series, which are all written by amazing writers. Horse lovers everywhere will love them! Thanks so much for the opportunity to chat on the blog!
Thanks so much for joining us here at the Mixed-Up Files!
Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She’s also a contributor to the Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House). And her nonfiction picture book, If You Were a Princess: True Stories of Brave Leaders From Around the World is a look at historical and current princesses from many diverse lands who have made their mark (Simon & Schuster, August 2022). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University. In the summer, she teaches in the graduate program in children’s literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy.