Author Interview: Margaret Peterson Haddix on Found (The Missing: Book 1)

Margaret Peterson Haddix on Margaret Peterson Haddix: “I grew up on a farm near Washington Court House, Ohio. As a kid, I completely took it for granted that my brothers and sister and I had our own pony; that, if we went outside to play, we had hundreds of acres to roam around on; that, if something bad happened—-the hogs got out, the fields flooded—-my parents expected the whole family to pull together to deal with the problem.

“I think a lot of people I met my freshman year in college thought I was very strange, because they were all from suburbia, and I felt like I was coming from a completely different world. But, who knows? Maybe they would have thought I was strange anyway.

“I was also a big bookworm from an early age, and dreamed of becoming a writer, though I didn’t see it as a very practical or realistic goal. I ended up majoring in both creative writing and journalism in college (as well as history, just for fun) and kind of spent the whole four years wavering between the different types of writing. But I had summer jobs at newspapers three years in a row, so it seemed logical to follow that route after graduation.

“Before my first book came out, I worked as a newspaper copy editor in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and a newspaper reporter in Indianapolis, and then detoured into freelance writing and teaching writing at a community college. I also got married and had two kids.”

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

Even during the phase when I was more focused on journalism, I was also writing fiction and trying to get it published. I had a few small successes early on that made me think I had a chance: during college, I won an honorable mention in Seventeen‘s annual fiction contest; later on, I won a trip to Hawaii because of a short story I’d written. These things gave me hope, and I really needed that to get through the long dry spell that followed.

I left journalism when my husband got a job in a small town in Illinois where there wasn’t much job opportunity for me. I tried to look at this as a gift, as my chance to focus on fiction: I taught part-time and wrote Running Out of Time (Aladdin, 1997); Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey (Aladdin, 2004); and numerous short stories. And I spent two years collecting nothing but rejection letters for my fiction, before I finally got an agent, who then sold both books to Simon & Schuster.

Those two years didn’t exactly feel like a stumble: they felt like I’d lost my footing completely and was sprawled flat on the ground being trampled by… I don’t know–vicious wolves, maybe? Stampeding elephants? It’s hard to write about that phase of my life without sounding melodramatic.

To make matters worse, for much of that time, my husband and I had good reason to believe that we might never be able to have children, which we both very much wanted. So I felt stymied, all around. And yet, within a few years after that, we had a baby and a toddler, and my editor was asking me to write another book.

In that speeded-up time-lapse thing that memory does, it seems like I went from a drought to a deluge, almost instantly. But in real time, things didn’t change quite so fast.

What has surprised you most about being an author? Delighted you? What do you wish you could change?

I was somewhat surprised that writing fiction wasn’t pure, unadulterated joy every single moment. But I’ve been delighted at how often it does feel like that.

One thing I do miss from my journalism days is having co-workers. I have plenty of friends, relatives, etc., I can call or e-mail or meet with face-to-face, if I want a break from writing, but it’s not the same as having someone at the next desk over whom I can ask in the middle of a sentence, “What’s another word for ‘scintillate’?” The thesaurus function on my computer just isn’t as entertaining as co-workers would be. (Though it’s also not as disruptive and distracting–there are trade-offs.)

Congratulations on the launch of Found (The Missing: Book 1)(Simon & Schuster, April 2008)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this series?

The first spark of the idea came to me when I woke up on an airplane and couldn’t immediately remember where I was flying to or from. In those first moments, I’m not sure I even quite remembered who I was. (In my defense, I had flown across six time zones that day, and, in the last place I’d been, everyone had been speaking French.)

As I figured out exactly who and where I was, I had a flash of thinking that the sensation I’d just had might be interesting in a book. What if a kid or kids were similarly disoriented on a plane? What if the grown-ups around them didn’t know who the kids were either?

The thought didn’t go very far that day (please–I was doing well just to remember my name). But later, I thought, what if the mysterious kids on a plane weren’t just lost and disoriented, but very young—babies, even? And then I just had such a strong image in my head, of a plane full of babies. I just had to figure out how and why such a thing would happen.

What was the timeline between spark and initial publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I got the first inkling of the book in July 2006. I thought about it off and on the rest of the summer and into the fall, but I was doing final revisions of another book (Uprising (Simon & Schuster 2007)) and traveling a lot for author visits and then starting to write a completely different book (Palace of Mirrors (Simon & Schuster, fall 2008)). I thought it’d be a long time before I got around to the babies-on-the-plane idea.

Meanwhile, though, I’d been having sporadic conversations with my editor and agents about starting another series, since the Shadow Children series (Simon & Schuster, 1998-2006) had just ended. I’d already suggested a couple of possibilities that weren’t exactly taking the world by storm.

Rather defensively, I told one of my agents, “I do have another idea that could be good, but I haven’t figured everything out yet.” He urged me to write it up as a proposal and send it in.

I wrote the proposal for Found the same way a kid would write a book report for a book he never actually read. I used vague words. I fudged details. I fully expected to be caught and exposed as a fraud, turned into one of those embarrassing publishing stories people tell for years.

Instead, everyone was delighted.

My editor and agent began talking about contracts and publication dates. And I just sat there thinking, “What have I done? How am I ever going to carry this off?”

My family came to my rescue. That night at dinner we were talking about my new series (which I was thinking of as, “random thought about babies on a plane that everyone thinks I’m going to be able to turn into a book. No–several books! Arghh!”)

This was unusual, because I don’t usually talk about what I’m working on until it’s in fairly final form. And this was a long, long way from final form. But my husband and kids were cheering me up because they kept making hilarious suggestions about what I could do with my idea.

My son suggested a recurring character named Chippy the Annoying Rodent. (I didn’t take that suggestion, but I did name one of the human characters “Chip” in his honor.)

My daughter, who’d just finished doing a research paper about Watergate, suggested a secret source named Strep Throat, who’d break the whole story to the media. And then my daughter had another suggestion–The Suggestion. It was the Holy Grail of suggestions, the idea that made me think, “Oh, wow, this can really work! That’s perfect! It all fits!”

I can’t say exactly what The Suggestion was, because it gives away too much about the book, but it helped a lot.

It was mid-December 2006 when I agreed to write Found. Simon & Schuster really wanted to be able to have the book on the spring 2008 list, rather than spring 2009, so I stopped in the middle of Palace of Mirrors, threw myself into Found, wrote furiously and obsessively for a couple months, and had a draft of the manuscript to my editor by mid-March 2007.

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

Once my daughter helped me out, my biggest challenge was just the timing, since I’d agreed to such a tight deadline. That constant sense of urgency probably helped Found, since the kids in the book needed to be stressed out and anxious, too. But lots of other things I should have been taking care of outside the book fell through the cracks for a while.

Also, since I was dealing with a type of science fiction that lots of other writers have written, I agonized about how to be original without completely disregarding certain standard conventions (not to mention, accepted scientific thought). I read a couple of research books that tied my brain in knots, and I consulted with my younger brother, who’s read a much greater range of science fiction than I have. And I decided that, right or wrong, I had some very strong opinions about how I wanted to set up my fictional world.

Another challenge I had early on was with one of my characters, Katherine, who originally wasn’t supposed to be a very major part of the book. But it was like she kept standing there at my elbow, needling me: “Hey, you really need me in this scene, too. You don’t think Jonah and Chip can handle this by themselves, do you? I’m going in, whether you want me to or not.” Eventually I stopped fighting her and realized she was right: I did need her a lot more than I’d thought.

Could you update us on your earlier books, highlighting as you see fit?

There are 21 of them–I feel a little like a grandmother with lots of grandkids trying to restrain herself from pulling out the whole wallet full of pictures. One thing that makes it hard to talk about my books collectively, in any cohesive manner, is that they range from early chapter books to middle grade fiction up through YAs–and they cover a range of types of books as well.

My second-newest-book, Uprising (Simon & Schuster 2007) was a foray into straight historical fiction, which was a little different for me. That book is set in the early 1900s, and deals with a few events that changed history, including the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the first major American strike that mainly involved females. I found all the research fascinating, but it was challenging putting everything together.

As far as news about the other books goes, several of my earliest books (Running Out of Time (1995); Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey (1996); Leaving Fishers, (1997); Just Ella (1999); and Turnabout (2000), all with Simon & Schuster) have now been re-issued with new paperback covers.

Dexter the Tough (Simon & Schuster 2007), my most recent book for younger kids, is coming out in paperback in July.

And Among the Hidden (Simon & Schuster, 1998) has been optioned to be a TV series, although the writers’ strike put that notion on hold for a while.

What did the Shadow Children series (Simon & Schuster, 1998-2006) teach you about writing a series?

That I couldn’t even pretend to be J.K. Rowling. Among other issues, there’s no way I could ever figure out the last line of a seven-book series before I wrote the first book. (Assuming that that story about her writing process is true, I’m in awe.)

I found that, even though my books were closely linked, I could never step back enough to get the giant, overall perspective until the very end. I had to do my plotting on a book-by-book basis, with bursts of panic in between books when I wasn’t sure I would be able to make the leap from one to the next. This time around, with The Missing, I’m using a similar technique, but I’m not quite so panicked about it.

How has your writing grown since the early days of your career?

I’d like to think I’ve become a better writer over the years, but I’m not sure if that’s true or not. It’s a little hard for me to judge.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

In college, I really needed someone to tell me, “Stop spending so much time wondering whether you’re a journalist or a fiction writer. It’s all writing! You’re a writer! Just write!”

After that, I would have appreciated hearing my future self tell me, “It’s all going to work out. You’ll have your books published. Everything will be fine. Don’t get so upset.”

But if I’d known then that everything was going to work out, I’m not sure that I would have tried so hard. Even now, I’m highly motivated by fear of failure. Maybe I need that.

How about advice for speculative fiction writers in general?

I think the key to writing speculative fiction is that you have to have the courage of your convictions–or, in this case, the courage of your speculations.

If you’re going to write about what it’s like, say, for a girl to find out that she’s the clone of her dead sister, or that a teenager has her parents’ memories implanted in her brain, or that two old ladies can un-age back to their teenage selves, or whatever your speculation is, then you have to first convince yourself that it’s not only possible–it’s true. It happened. No reader is ever going to believe you if you don’t believe yourself.

But, really, that’s true of any fiction. The willing suspension of disbelief has to begin with the author. To write fiction you have to believe fervently that there’s a deep truth embedded in your story, even though you know–because you’re not completely insane–that you’re making the whole thing up.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

Mostly not very well.

In the early years, when my kids were small, I did very, very little in the way of presentations and author visits and book signings and other promotions, because I didn’t feel that I could be away from home very often. This gave me something of a reprieve, because then I could focus on writing the next book, rather than constantly wondering, “Should I be writing something new right now or should I be out promoting the book that just came out?” (Instead, my dilemmas were more along the lines of, “I was up all night with my baby–can I manage to stay awake to write during my kids’ nap time, or should I take a nap myself?”)

Now that my kids are older, I have started traveling more to promote my books, and I enjoy both the travel and the chance to meet new people. But I still feel torn about finding the right balance.

There are other things I’ve neglected that I can’t blame on my kids. It’s embarrassing how many times over the past decade or so I’ve said, “I’ll put together a website after I finish writing this book.” And then I’d finish that book, and feel compelled to start immediately on a new one, instead of working on the website. It finally got too humiliating to constantly tell people, “No, I don’t have a website,” so I am launching one this spring, to coincide with the release of Found. It’s

Do you have a critique group? If not, who are your early readers?

For a long time I was jealous of other writers who would talk about how closely they worked with their critique groups. But for so many years, when my kids were little, I felt like I had time enough to write or I had time enough to talk with other writers about writing–I just couldn’t do both. So I chose the writing.

About a year ago, one of my friends invited me to join a writing group, and I’ve greatly enjoyed it from a social angle–it’s somewhat reminiscent of having co-workers. But it seems to be a little late for me to change my writing habits and build in that extra time to get feedback.

Since my kids are now within the target ages for many of my books, sometimes I’ve consulted with them, or sometimes with other relatives or friends who have a reason to be knowledgeable about or interested in that particular book.

But typically my editor and/or agent are the first to see my work. I’ve been lucky enough to work with the same editor on every one of my books—David Gale, at Simon & Schuster–and my agent, Tracey Adams (agent interview), has represented me for about a decade now. So they’ve undoubtedly seen some of the worst writing I’m capable of, and have somehow managed to forgive me for it.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

It seems like a huge chunk of my time is spent driving my kids around, but my daughter assures me that that will all change when she gets her license at the end of the year. She also promises to run to the grocery for me, return library books, and take her younger brother wherever he needs to go. So then I’ll have loads of time on my hands–to be spent worrying about her, out on the roads among all those other careless drivers…

Okay. Enough of the mom angst.

A lot of my time is taken up with family-related and kid-related activities. I used to volunteer quite a bit at my kids’ schools, but that’s tapered off as my kids have gotten older.

My husband and I teach fifth-grade Sunday school at our church, which is always entertaining and often educational (for us, anyway). I serve on the board of a group that tries to prevent people from becoming homeless, and sometimes do volunteer work at a homeless shelter or tutoring kids.

I can be a little bit of an exercise junkie: I swim laps a couple of times a week, and try to walk every day. I like to hike and bicycle, too, but don’t usually do much of that except on vacations.

I enjoy traveling a lot, and do quite a bit of it with family and friends.

And, of course, I still love to read.

What can your fans look forward to next?

After Found, the next book I have coming out is a companion book to Just Ella (Simon & Schuster, 1999) called The Palace of Mirrors. (This is the one that Found interrupted.)

I stop short of calling it a sequel because, although Ella plays an important role in the book, she’s not the main character, and it’s very much another girl’s tale. Plus, it sounds really pathetic if I say it took me nine years to get around to writing a sequel. But nine years between companion books–that doesn’t seem so bad.

After that, the second Missing book, Sent, will come out next spring. And right now I’m working on the book that will probably come out in fall 2009. I’m playing around with a couple different possible titles—at the moment, the leading contenders are “Claim to Fame” and “Has Been.”

One thought on “Author Interview: Margaret Peterson Haddix on Found (The Missing: Book 1)

  1. I need to dress up like you for school so I was wondering what you would wear cause I have no idea?its for a project for doing a report on you

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