Author Interview: Helen Hemphill on Long Gone Daddy

Debut novelist Helen Hemphill grew up in (Bridgeport, then Wichita Falls) Texas and now lives with her family in Nashville and Austin. She is a graduate of the Vermont College M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Her first book is Long Gone Daddy (Front Street, 2006). Read Helen’s blog.

What inspired you to write for young readers?

Two unrelated things steered me into writing for young readers. Early on, I toyed with writing adult short fiction, but I found a lot of stories being published were pretty grim in terms of subject and tone. It was depressing.

I read a lot of Tony Earley and Pam Houston because I found humor and hope present in their work, even when the subject matter was difficult, and I tried to model that tone in my own writing.

At the same time, I was teaching sixth grade. Every day, kids would come in with funny, quirky perspectives that really grabbed me. There was just so much sheer optimism in them, even when the realities of their lives weren’t always so sunny.

Somewhere in there, I started writing short fiction for a younger audience and sort of found my groove. I write about difficult situations and relationships, but I also try to leave readers with something positive. There is hope for all of us.

Could you describe your path to publication? Any sprints and/or stumbles along the way?

I was doing a Harcourt post-graduate semester at Vermont College, working on two separate manuscripts. One had been my creative thesis for my MFA and was a somewhat finished manuscript and the other was a new novel–very green.

Just as a kind of networking opportunity, I attended the One-on-One Conference put on by Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature and met an agent who offered to take a look at my work. At the same time, a dear friend offered an introduction to another agent, and both were interested. The situation was a catalyst for my getting Stephen Roxburgh‘s attention. Front Street had rejected an earlier manuscript of mine, so it was all a little bit serendipitous. I sold my second novel, which became Long Gone Daddy, to Front Street right after the semester ended and did extensive revisions on the text—cutting 100 pages, reworking the chronology, revamping characters.

In the course of the semester, I ended up ditching the finished manuscript of my first novel for a total rewrite. Harcourt had a first right of refusal on that book. Jeannette Larson at Harcourt was very supportive and gracious to me, but ultimately passed on the story. Some weeks later, Stephen bought it with the awareness that the book needed more work–I think our revisions on Long Gone Daddy convinced him I could do what he wanted. That book, called Runaround, will be out with Front Street next year.

Rita Mae Brown says “Don’t hope more than you’re willing to work.” I have that quote on my screensaver.

Congratulations on the release of your debut novel, Long Gone Daddy (Front Street, 2006)! Could you tell us a bit about the story?

Long Gone Daddy is a road trip with dark comedy around every turn.

Grandfather’s will stipulates he must be buried in Las Vegas to get a chunk of money and a Cadillac, so 14-year-old Harlan Q is ready to make the trip from north Texas to Las Vegas in order to get away from Paps, his bible-thumping father. Paps and Harlan Q transport the ripening body of the grandfather in their station wagon, and along the way, pick up Warrior, a Zen-minded actor-in-training. The heart of the book is the relationship between the father and the son, and Warrior is both the foil to the father’s rigid beliefs and the confident who helps Harlan Q understand his father.

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

Actually, the novel is based on a true story. Late one night, some friends sat around swapping stories about adolescence, and someone began telling a wild tale about living in a funeral home the night his grandfather died.

His dad and uncle drove the body from Florida up the east coast in the back of the family station wagon rather than pay for the funeral home’s services. It was hilarious. When he finished, I asked him if I could use the idea, and Long Gone Daddy is dedicated to him. The book took three years from start to finish, but many times during the first draft, I felt I was just the typist because the story was so clear in my mind.

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

Some of the logistics were very specific. Would a casket fit into the back of a Chervolet station wagon? Was it legal for Paps and Harlan Q to just drive a dead body across country? Obviously, I did research like any other writer of historical fiction, contacting a funeral home director and a parts manager at a Chevrolet dealership, both of whom were great in tracking down details.

I also used original source newspapers. I went to the Dallas Public Library and made copies of newspaper microfilm, all from the first two weeks of August, 1972. I did the same thing in Las Vegas. Newspaper research really helped with context, and gave me some fun ideas. Elvis was opening at the Hilton, and Watergate was very much in the headlines, although no one seemed to understand its implications. Both of those details are referenced in the book.

I also did quite a lot of reading on the psychology of adolescent boys since I was writing across gender. The plot came pretty quickly to me, but the emotional depth of the book was harder. I wanted to explore father and son relationships as authentically as I could, so I had to reopen some of my old wounds about my own family. That was difficult.

The flap copy notes that you drove from Dallas to Las Vegas to research the novel; what can you tell us about that?

It was a blast of a trip. A girlfriend and I drove a convertible on the same route that Harlan, Warrior and Paps drive in the book, plus a lot of side trips. It was June, but it was already hot—113 degrees in Tuba City, Arizona.

It was also beautiful. We drove a stretch of countryside from Tucumcari, New Mexico to Las Vegas that was one of the most beautiful places on earth. My girlfriend did lots of the driving, so I took pictures and notes and met lots of wonderful people.

On the last day, the last turn before we were in the rental car parking lot, we wrecked the convertible in Las Vegas. Fortunately, no one was hurt. But it was like something out of a novel…

You did such a powerful job with the varied father-son relationships in the novel. Did this focus evolve in the writing, or was it something that you wanted to explore going in? What about it called to you?

As I said, I did a lot of research on male adolescence, plus I have a son and stepson of my own. I used my own relationship with my father as a jumping off point for the story, but I would say most of the focus evolved as I began going deeper with the emotional aspects of the characters. I think we all have some unfinished business with our parents, and that helped me, but I wrote a lot of the story as Jane Resh Thomas says, “behind my back.” I didn’t know really where I was going at the time, I only knew I had to go there.

I’m fascinated with religion, faith, the quest for answers–all of which is touched upon in this book as Harlan Q tangles with Paps (a hard-driving preacher), Paps rails against the “sins” of his own father, and a stranger named Warren/Warrior appears on the scene with gentle questions. What does this novel say about these forces within us and our society? Or perhaps I should say, what does it ask?

I wrote the book more concerned about the issue of doubt than that of faith.

As human beings in a post modern world, I think we all struggle with doubt at one point or another in some form or another. How we struggle may be very different. Warrior gives in to doubt, without dismissing his own spirituality. Paps can’t leave room for doubt, yet his “sure” vision is often incorrect. Harlan Q is all over the road. We are all searching for the right answer, the meaning of life, the theory of everything, but it’s in the doubt that we move forward. There’s the irony: it’s the doubt that pushes us to discern what we really think. I would hope that the book would encourage readers to be a bit more skeptical and to be more tolerant of one another’s questioning.

Your publisher is Front Street, a small, high-quality literary trade publisher. For those less familiar with the house, could you tell us about it and your experiences as one of its authors?

Front Street had been in business about ten years under the guidance and ownership of Stephen Roxburgh when it merged with Boyds Mills Press about two years ago.

Now Front Street is the young adult imprint of Boyds Mills and is part of a bigger organization, but there is the same focus on quality and literary merit that has always been part of its reputation. When I signed my first contract, I went to Honesdale to do my own due diligence–I wanted to know the organization behind Stephen. I was impressed with the commitment to children’s literature from everyone at Boyds Mills, and I think the two companies have tremendous strengths that complement one another. As an author, I feel very fortunate to work with Stephen as my editor, but I also feel really lucky to have the whole team at both Front Street and Boyds Mills behind me.

You’re a graduate of the Vermont College M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Could you describe your experience as a student? Looking back, what did you gain as a writer?

It was hard work. There was a component of the program that required extensive reading, research, and scholarly writing, in addition to the creative writing packets each month. I also came to the program wanting more depth in my knowledge of children’s literature so I worked hard on that as well, reading everything I could. Maybe I could have done less, but I was so ready to do it all. I didn’t get much sleep the week before a packet was due.

As a writer, I was transformed. I don’t even know if I can accurately describe the metamorphosis because it wasn’t overnight or immediate. I just started seeing things differently. I started reading like a writer. I paid attention in a different way. And I began to have confidence and courage that I could write–that was huge!

What would you tell other writers considering an M.F.A. program? What should they consider?

I would never hesitate to say go for it, but I would suggest that a writer consider his or her own goals carefully. Are you willing to spend the money and the time to learn to write as an end in itself? Learning the craft and networking with a writing community are really what make an M.F.A. program worth doing. Publishing is icing on the cake.

In raving about your writing this week, I said, “Think: Kimberly Willis Holt-meets-Joan Bauer.” That was the closest I could come without just handing over the book so your own unique talent could shine through (and I wasn’t done with it yet!). How would you describe your style?

First off, let me say that I’m thrilled with the comparisons. I don’t know that I can describe my style just yet. I can say I use humor as a way to express myself. I have deep feelings about the fragile nature of families in our complex world, and I enjoy a good story, with heroes and villains and surprises along the way. Does all that combine to make a style? Maybe…we’ll see.

As a reader, what are your favorite recent children’s and YA books? Your favorite authors?

Texas writer Kathi Appelt (author interview) because she does it all so well—from picture books to memoir to young adult fiction. I love Deb Wiles‘s Southern voice and humor, but then even her emails make me laugh. As for recent YA books, I’m reading Markus Zusak‘s The Book Thief (Knopf, 2006) (excerpt), like everyone else on the planet, and I enjoyed Ronald Kidd’s Monkey Town: The Summer of the Scopes Trial (Simon & Schuster, 2006)(excerpt) very much. No surprise ending, but Kidd does a seamless job of weaving history into the text. I also loved Jan Cheripko‘s Sun Moon Stars Rain (Front Street, 2005). The writing is spare with beautiful imagery.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I iron really well–it’s my mother’s fault. I also play golf, although not so well. I hang out with my husband and children, read, knit, and I like to cook and have people over to the house. I make a really nice pear tart.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I have a novel out next year with Front Street called Runaround. It takes place in Falls of Rough, Kentucky in 1964 and is a story of romance magazines and sister sibling rivalry. I’m also drafting a wild-west story and having too much fun with that.

Cynsational Notes

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