Thanks for having me! Big fan of the Mixed-Up Files!…and all things mixed up.
I can say that I knew you when, as we hosted you at Claire’s Day way back in 2006! I am so excited for the release of your latest, Molly and the Machine a heart-warming novel for middle-grade readers.
Ha, yes, it’s been a minute! But that festival is such a great memory for me. I recall a moment stepping out of a tent, and seeing some kids skipping along in these fantastic, colorful costumes, one holding balloons, and another blowing bubbles, and I thought: wow, this is really magical…books are magical.
Tell us a little bit about your journey as a writer…
Oh man, as I look back to way back when, it really does feel like a journey now, ha! For 25 years, I was lucky enough to make my living as a creative writer in the ad business—as many do—while writing some picture books on the side. It was lots of fun, and helped hone my craft, but a few years ago, I felt like time was growing short, and decided to make the side gig the main one. Shortly after that, I had a serendipitous coffee with an amazing writer friend, Bryan Hurt, who put me in touch with Elizabeth Rudnick, another amazing person, who eventually became my agent. Prior to that, I’d already been shopping my manuscript for “Molly and the Machine,” but Liz helped me beat it up, expand it, and make it much better. Revising was a very long process, because I’m a slow writer. But after that, things moved fast, and we sold it in an exclusive first look over a weekend, which I can now appreciate is pretty crazy.
When did you start writing Molly And The Machine?
The kernel for Molly and the Machine actually began as a sketch, a little more than ten years ago—told you I was slow! I like to draw as well as write, so that’s sometimes how I initially capture an idea. (I have that sketch framed in my office now.) I grew up watching old monster movies, like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and was always terrified of being eaten by some giant creature like the cyclops. So I channeled that fear into a story about a giant robot who swallows children.
The young protagonist is Molly McQuirter, an eleven-year-old girl who is navigating the grief from her parent’s broken marriage, her dad’s broken heart, all the while dealing with an annoying young brother. Molly is inventive, creating Rube Goldberg-like chain reaction machines, and she escapes her reality by taking off on her bicycle, Pink Lightning. How did the character of Molly come to you?
What a great description. Isn’t Molly great? Like all characters, I suppose she’s an amalgamation of many people I know—my Mom, my daughters, maybe even a little of myself. I’m the oldest of four, and I think there’s always this feeling of responsibility that comes with having younger sibs. But I was really attracted to the idea of taking some of the traditional gender norms in literature, like “knight rescues damsel,” and flipping them. So, among other things, this is a story about a girl who sets out on a quest to rescue her brother. Girl saves boy.
At the heart of the story is love. Which relationship in the novel was your favorite?
I’m so thrilled that comes through—even between all the explosions and mishaps. Most of all, I love the dynamic between Molly and her beloved “Gruncle” Clovis, because for me its representative of the kinds of bargains we all strike among those we love to meet people where they are in life, and accept the gifts they’re able to offer, even when it falls short of a “model relationship,” whatever that might be. That’s life—being stuck in a room filled with weird, wonderful, incredibly flawed people, and figuring out how to love them.
Grunkle is quite a character and brought to mind Hagrid from Harry Potter. Would you say the same?
That hadn’t occurred to me! Unlike some younger debut authors, I only experienced Harry Potter as a parent, so while I love that universe, it doesn’t occupy quite the same space in my heart and mind that it does for, say, my oldest son, Dalton, who remains a huge fan to this day. But now that you mention it, I can see the similarities! Both Hagrid and Gruncle are very well-intentioned, but sort of bumbling their way through everything, aren’t they? Oh, and of course, they both have these monster motorcycles with sidecars! (Gruncle’s “Blue Thunder” is a refurbished bike from World War II—with some James-Bond-like gadgets—like Molly’s “Pink Lightning.”) And although Gruncle is far from half-giant stature, he does have a very big personality!
The setting, the Hocking Hills area of Ohio is a character in itself. Why did you choose to use this location for the background?
Yeah, those hills to play a big role in the story. Ohio is filled with all kinds of little tucked-away treasures like this. Aside from it being one of my favorite getaways, I chose Hocking Hills because I love exotic locales. This might sound strange to someone born and bred in Ohio, but for a Californian transplant like myself, the landscape here is so lush and green, it feels like another world. And that’s just the feeling I wanted to convey. (The woods also made the perfect hiding spot for a ten-story-tall robot.)
The novel is set in the 1980s, a time before many of the conveniences and distractions young readers have today. Offer a bit about your experiences in growing up during this time frame and how that transferred into your novel.
My generation was much more feral. We were pre-cellphone, pre-internet, pre-GPS. Who knows, maybe less of us survived intact, but the ones who did have good stories to tell! The environment that young people grow up in today can present a different set of challenges. It’s what drew me to the idea of an enormous robot that swallows children. On one level, the robot can be seen as a metaphor for all the ways technology envelopes us—and has the power to make us feel more connected, or more isolated. And navigating that can be really complicated. So, I hope this story invites more conversation and reflection on that.
What do you hope young readers take away from Molly And The Machine?
I hope readers come away with the sense that are real adventures out there to be had—and sometimes the outcomes might depend on how they apply their own wits and grit.
I understand you are already working on a sequel to Molly’s first story. Can you share a bit about this new adventure?
Absolutely! Right now, I’m deep into revisions on “Molly and the Mutants,” the next book in the series. I don’t want to give too much away, but I’ll share that the resolution at the end of book one inadvertently winds up causing the problem that arises in book two… and that problem takes the shape of some very large—and very hungry—amphibious creatures that require even more ingenuity on Molly’s part to save everyone in Far Flung Falls from becoming something’s lunch. (As you can see, I’m tapping into my fear of being eaten again.)
Thank you, Erik, for your time and for offering insights into your writing journey, and the creation of Molly and the Machine.
Oh, it’s my pleasure, Julie! Love chatting books!
The publisher, Simon & Schuster has graciously offered a complimentary copy for a giveaway, to one lucky winner. To enter, click here…