Imagine packing up all of your belongings and living in a van. Do you think you could do it? Author Heidi Lang did. And she used her own experience as inspiration for her upcoming novel, Wrong Way Summer. After enjoying this read myself, I had the opportunity to interview her and learn more about how her own life (including her own #vanlife) helped shape this book.
Thank you for sharing Wrong Way Summer with me. Can you give a short summary about the book?
Claire used to love her dad’s fantastical stories, especially tales about her absent mom—who could have been off with the circus or stolen by the troll king, depending on the day. But now that she’s 12, Claire thinks she’s old enough to know the truth. When her dad sells the house and moves her and her brother into a converted van, she’s tired of the tall tales and refuses to pretend it’s all some grand adventure, despite how enthusiastically her little brother embraces this newest adventure. Claire is faced with a choice: Will she play along with the stories her dad is spinning for her little brother, or will she force her family to face reality once and for all? Equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking, Wrong Way Summer is a road-trip journey and coming-of-age story about one girl’s struggle to understand when a lie is really a lie and when it’s something more: hope.
A moving summer road-trip story for fans of Crenshaw and The Someday Birds.
What would you say was the spark for Wrong Way Summer? What came next? And what component organically fell into place later on?
There were a few sparks. For instance, I’ve always wanted to write a story about stories, something to explore my grandfather’s favorite motto. And then, of course, I fell in love with the idea of living in a van. But I’d say the real spark for this story actually happened before I ever heard of #vanlife. This spark hit me while I was listening to an episode of “This American Life,” where a woman recounted a childhood memory.
In this episode, the narrator talks about the day her parents gave her and her older sister painted metal tissue boxes for Christmas. At first she was devastated, until her older sister said the boxes had been painted by trained gorillas. And suddenly her gift went from being a terrible disappointment to becoming one of her prized possessions. Much later, the narrator found an old school report her sister had written where she’d talked about that gift. Only in that report, the sister said she’d made up the origin story of the tissue boxes because she knew her parents couldn’t afford gifts, and knew the boxes were something her dad’s friend had given as charity, and also knew what it had cost her parents to ask for that charity. And as she looked at her little sister’s tear-filled face, and looked up at her mom, and knew she was about to cry, too, this story about trained gorillas just spilled out of her. It saved the day, and everyone was happy. Except for this older sister, who went upstairs to her room and cried and cried. She wasn’t crying because of the gift, or even because of their financial situation. She was crying because she felt like, in that moment, she’d chosen to grow up before she was really ready for it.
That episode stuck with me. And I knew someday I wanted to write a story where a character is put in a similar position of “choosing” adulthood and all it entails in order to protect a younger sibling. But it took many years before I found the right way to tell that story.
You mention in your Author’s Note how you also lived the #vanlife. Did you know at the time that a story/book would form from your own Grand Adventure? If so, did you struggle at how to pursue it or was it obvious to you?
I actually became interested in #vanlife back in 2012, before I’d thought of writing Wrong Way Summer or even published my first book. My husband and I needed to get another vehicle for our dog walking business and started looking at Sprinter vans. From there, we discovered this whole world of people traveling, and even living full-time in their vans. I got caught up in watching youtube vidoes of DIY van conversions and reading blogs about boondocking, and when we bought our own Sprinter, we talked about converting it ourselves someday in the future.
But as we all know when it comes to social media, it only paints part of the picture. The romantic pictures I saw and the exciting posts I read were very different from what I began to notice right there in front of me: a lot of people living in their vehicles, just to get by. Most of them hadn’t chosen #vanlife for the fun of it. It was just the only way they could afford to stay in the area for school, or work, or family. And as rent in our area climbed higher, we realized there was a good possibility that if our landlord ever sold our place, we wouldn’t be able to find something affordable right away that would take our dogs. So the van went from exciting future travel vehicle to back-up home safety net.
When we sold our dog walking business in 2017 so I could try to write full-time, we decided the best way to afford that would be to actually try #vanlife living. So we moved in with my in-laws and began working on the van conversion. By that point, I did know I wanted to write a story about the experience, and I knew I wanted it to highlight both the good and bad of #vanlife living: the glamor and romanticism of being able to get away from it all and live a more free life on the road, as well as the desperation that often underlays that choice. The rest of the story formed pretty organically from my desire to show both of these aspects.
What is your connection with the dad’s storytelling? Are you a storyteller?
I would love to be a good storyteller! But I’m definitely much better at writing stories than I am at speaking them. However, I was fortunate to grow up around storytellers. My grandpep was actually the first person who ever told me, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” I guess it was something his older brother used to say all the time, too, and when I was a kid, I soaked it in as our family motto. Maybe that’s why I decided to become a fiction writer.
I enjoyed traveling with Claire, Patrick, and their dad. How did you choose the locations where they stopped?
That was definitely the hardest part of writing this book! There are so many cool places to see, I could have written about a hundred more pages, so narrowing it down was really tricky. I wanted to have a variety of experiences for the characters in my book, but I also needed them to stop at locations that would make sense for a family on a limited budget. In the end, I picked places that I’d been to that were meaningful to me, as well as places that I wanted to go to, so I could live vicariously through Claire and her family. I also ended up taking a solo train trip back and forth across the country before I started drafting Wrong Way Summer as a way to really get a feel for the changing landscape and see more areas than I might otherwise have had time to cover.
How much of Claire do you see in yourself?
Originally when I sat down to write Claire, I thought about one of my cousins, and what she was like at twelve years old. Her personality became the foundation of Claire, but as with every character I write, Claire also reflects different aspects of my own personality. For instance, I’m definitely a rule follower. Even if it’s a rule no one else is following, I feel anxious breaking it. And like Claire, I’m also trying to figure out that line between fact and fiction, and I’m very interested in the different ways a story can be used to hide or reveal the truth, and to inspire or manipulate other people. But one of the wonderful things about writing is how characters take on their own life, and I definitely feel that Claire evolved away from my cousin, and from me, to become someone all her own.
What ended up taking more time that you anticipated when researching/writing/revising?
Definitely planning Claire’s route and deciding on her family’s stops along the way. But part of that was because I was having a little too much fun researching and revisiting these places vicariously, so I took my time with it.
How can teachers use this book in their classrooms?
When I was young I basically assumed everyone’s lives were more or less just like mine. Just as I thought something was either true or false, right or wrong. I was very much a kid with well-defined edges. It was only as I slowly wandered into adulthood that I became aware of all those spaces in between, and how different everyone’s personal experiences can be. I think that it’s in middle school when kids start to become aware of those gray areas, and from there that they start to question the beliefs they always took for granted. To me, that’s the most important use of any book: the ability to open minds and make the reader ask questions. I’m hoping this book can do a little of that.
When does Wrong Way Summer come out?
This book will be out in the world on April 21st, 2020.
How can we learn more about you?
I share a website with my sometime co-writer Kati Bartkowski at www.HeidiandKatibooks.com, or you can find me on Instagram and on twitter at the same handle, @hidlang.
Wow, so fascinating. And can you imagine how intriguing this book will be for kids? It is such a great example of using life to write a story.
And if you can’t wait for the release of her new book Wrong Way Summer, check out her other books, including Rules of the Ruff, which is also inspired by her life as a dog walker.