Author Interview: Melanie Chrismer on Phoebe Clappsaddle and the Tumbleweed Gang

Phoebe Clappsaddle and the Tumbleweed Gang by Melanie Chrismer, illustrated by Virginia Marsh Roeder (Pelican, 2004). From the catalog copy: “Young Phoebe is raised as a Southwestern belle, which made her a genteel gal who was also a great rider and roper. One day she enters the territory rodeo to compete against the ill-mannered Tumbleweed Gang and their reign as champions is over. Clifford, Elmo, and Eustace Tumbleweed decide to get rid of sissified Phoebe Clappsaddle once and for all. But Phoebe fouls their devilish plot and teaches the boys some manners, too. Then, for a time, the desert blooms in the territory again.

“Melanie Chrismer is a fifth-generation native Houstonian who lived her elementary years in New England. She is a former newspaper stringer, who worked in libraries, schools, and bookstores while developing her writing career. Melanie, her husband, daughter, son, and schnauzer live in northwest Houston.”

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

When I started writing for children, I was doing it in my (for lack of better words) “spare time.” But I was still holding down a part-time job and trying to be super mom for my elementary and middle school aged children. So I would go on field trips and volunteer for the school librarians and teachers. Little did I know that I was immersing myself in “just what the doctor ordered.” I was getting the “what kids really want baptismal.”

Along this school bus and cafeteria lunch journey I began to remember what I was doing at that same age and what I liked to read–tall tales! My inspirations were the Paul Bunyons, the Pecos Bills, and Slew-foot Sues of literature. Okay, so what kind of crazy person could I create to entertain, amaze and giggle-fy?… Well just what my grandmothers wanted me to be–a sweet southern belle and a proud, brave Texan. A-ha!–a southwestern belle.

One of my grandmothers was a dainty 4-foot, 10-inch sweetie who wore a Sunday ladies’ suit, pill box hat, and white gloves to the Weingartens grocery store, and drank tea with her pinkies up.

The other was a strong armed, strong willed, former nurse and missionary, and most important to her, the granddaughter of one of Houston’s first mayors, H.D. Taylor. If you combine these two unique women you have the epitome of a southwestern belle.

The story began to stir in my head set in the most desolate yet wonderful part of Texas I could imagine; beautiful and powerful Big Bend. The more steps I took to writing this story the more I knew the main character would be the kind of gal who is unique and didn’t really mind that she is different. She thought of herself as fortunate to have southern manners AND western skills. She might make people laugh but they just don’t see that she is special; the product of two cultures and someone who loved the new combination. So, she needed a name that said it all.

And then there it was. I had the name all along. When I was small my dainty grandmother used to tell us we should never complain about our names. That at least we were not named like one of our ancestors–Phoebe Clappsaddle. The whole family would laugh and agree that no matter what our name was, it wasn’t as bad as that.

Eureka! A perfect name and it honors a muchly maligned ancestor, bringing her to celebrity status. With the publishing of Phoebe Clappsaddle and the Tumbleweed Gang, Phoebe Clappsaddle for Sheriff, and Phoebe Clappsaddle Has a Tumbleweed Christmas, I found that there are plenty of Clappsaddle cousins out there. In fact the continued research and communications with these newly met relatives reveals that there were at least two people in the branches of our family tree, with the name Phoebe Clappsaddle. One was born around 1854 and the other closer to 1825. So again, family and fun continue to be my inspiration, and of course, “what’s in a name”–sometimes treasure!

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I started the idea of Phoebe Clappsaddle and the Tumbleweed Gang on November 20, 1991 (I keep a journal, and start almost every story in long hand.) It sat in my journal with little editing for several years. Then in 1995 I decided it needed to be polished and seen by editors.

I had it critiqued at conferences and sent it to about four different houses but aside from a few nice compliments–no takers.

Then I met my agent. She took it on, took me on, and the manuscript sold within a year. It took eight years to sell but I truly think it was another case of right time, right place, right editor, right manuscript. Phoebe Clappsaddle and the Tumbleweed Gang (Pelican, 2002).

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

Bringing Phoebe to life and then making it a series were really the challenges of anyone educated in a science field who suddenly decides that they should have been a children’s writer. This book was my first published book so it was a longer start while I “scientifically” analyzed my writing and submitting (with an occasional snarfing of a full bag of Cheetos after a particularly non-informative rejection letter).

I had to re-educate myself to the protocols and professional methods of the children’s literature field. I stubbed my toe along this path, many times, but learned something from each bruise and scrape. And the people I met on this way are some of the dearest friends I have ever known.

Not every children’s author or illustrator is willing to give of themselves and share their knowledge, but many are. Mary Dodson Wade gets full credit for opening my eyes to this. For when I was still trying to be “super mom” and the elementary school PTO’s Author Day coordinator, I met Mary, and discussed my aspirations with her. She didn’t hesitate a blink. She whipped out a flyer for the SCBWI and told me about the next local conference and instructed me–in no uncertain terms–that I should get myself to that conference. Boy, was she right, and I love her for it. Within a few years I was not only published but working on more books, getting more contracts, and meeting the playmates I never met when I was young.

Now at twelve books (and two in the pipeline), the challenges are still there but are now the familiar ones–stay focused, follow professional methods, and write, write, write.

Cynsational Links

Martha Stewart? No, Paul Meisel! from Don Tate’s blog. Brief interview with the illustrator who worked with the “winning” team on a recent episode of “The Apprentice.”

Michelle Meadows: official site from the author of The Way The Storm Stops, illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger (Henry Holt, 2003) and Pilot Pups (Simon & Schuster, TBA).

Religion is the new (YA) black by Donna Freitas, Religion BookLine, from Publisher’s Weekly.