Author Interview: S. A. Bodeen on The Compound

S. A. Bodeen on S. A. Bodeen: “S.A. Bodeen is the author of several acclaimed picture books, and a winner of the Ezra Jack Keats Award. A native of Wisconsin and former Peace Corps volunteer, she most recently lived in the Pacific Northwest where she wrote The Compound and taught creative writing.”

How would you describe yourself as a teenager?

Sheltered. I went to a small school with 49 kids in my grade, most of whom I had known since kindergarten. Nothing ever changed. I was very into sports, was in band, drama, and choir, and only did enough schoolwork to keep myself in A’s and B’s. I loved to read, thrived on Stephen King and John Saul novels which I had to sneak into the house.

Could you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer?

I kind of lucked into it. My first few picture books were totally written on my own, the only instruction was from books I found at the local library.

What helped you the most?

Getting my MFA was very helpful, but I learned so much about the actual writing process while working on this novel. It was hands-on, trial-by-fire writing you can’t learn in a classroom.

What might you do differently, given the opportunity?

Definitely go to conferences. I’m amazed the connections people make there and the wonderful workshops and lectures. Now I run workshops and give lectures myself, but I still love to hear the other authors and I learn so much.

What is it about young people as fictional heroes and/or as an audience that especially appeals to you?

That time of life, to me, was so formative. I had no clue who I was or wanted to be at that age, and my persona shifted with the wind. I loved reading about people my age who knew what they wanted or their personal journey to discover that. And I’ve never grown out of that.

My husband says I’m stuck in high school. I don’t agree, but I still love to read YA.

Could you tell us about your path to publication?

I just decided to do it one day, so I wrote my first story, Elizabeti’s Doll, illustrated by Christy Hale, which was based on my Peace Corps experience. I was very naïve and sent it to three huge publishers in NYC.

Crazily enough, I got a personal letter within three weeks. The editor suggested a few things, and I revised and sent it back to her. I never heard back, and after waiting a year, I sent it to three more places. Lee & Low called two months later with an offer.

Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

Definitely some slow times, where I went a year or two with no sales. Also long stretches where I didn’t even write. One of which led up to me writing this novel. I had sent my agent a few novels, then spent a year, when people asked what I was working on, saying “Oh, I’m just waiting for my agent to get back to me with revision notes.” And I began to believe it myself. I didn’t write at all for over a year.

Then, August 2005, he sent them all back to me in a box, told me in a nice way that that they were unsellable, and that he would be there when I did have something sellable.

For three months I pouted, then told myself “Either you are a writer or you aren’t.”

It was do or die. So I signed up for National Novel Writing Month that Nov. 1.

Could you please update us on your recent back-list and/or current titles, highlighting as you see fit?

Forthcoming in 2009 from Little, Brown for Young Readers: a picture book: A Small Brown Dog with a Wet Pink Nose. Also, a second novel from Feiwel & Friends.

How have you grown as a writer over time?

I’ve gotten better at it, but I still have a long way to go. I’ve learned, somewhat, how to develop the characters.

What do you see as your strengths?

I have a wild imagination and get some pretty cool ideas. And usually I tend to write a decent ending.

In what areas do you feel as though you must still push yourself?

Voice and pacing, some days I feel like I’ll never have a handle on those. (As I’m sure my agent would concur!)

Congratulations on the release of your debut novel, The Compound (Feiwel & Friends, May 2008)(excerpt)! Could you tell us a bit about it?

For the past six years, fifteen-year-old Eli has been living in an underground compound with his family after a nuclear attack. And it goes downhill from there…

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Some dinosaur show my husband was watching on the Discovery Channel. Not to give it away, but there was a dinosaur with this odd habit of raising offspring and I wondered “what if a human did that?”

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

I was three days into National Novel Writing Month 2005 when I went upstairs and saw the dinosaur show. Lightning struck, and I switched to this story.

By Nov. 30, I had a draft. I worked on it until January, when I sent it to my agent. He gave it to a reader, and I revised again, based on her comments, then sent it back to my agent in March.

He sent me back a laundry list. Plot is implausible, setting doesn’t work, etc. etc. So, I threw away 240 pages of the 250 page manuscript, kept my premise and most of the characters, and started over, my agent’s checklist in my hand the whole time. (My family can attest I was fairly ornery that week)

By early May, I had a good draft and sent it to him again. (Yes, I should be the Poster Girl for revision) One more quick set of revisions, and he deemed it ready to be sent out.

First week of July, Feiwel & Friends took it in a pre-empt. (I thanked my agent profusely for sticking with me, and he told me that he knew I had a great idea and that eventually I would find the story.)

Then the real work started. My editor and I revised for a solid nine months. There were times when I was like “There, it’s done.” And my editor would say “Just one more little thing…”

And it would be some huge thing, like “We really don’t know the father that well.” And I’m thinking to myself “Well, I certainly don’t know him, who can I call that knows him?” But then I’d sit down and get to know the father better…

My editor was so great. Thank heavens she wasn’t one of those who wrote large missives covering the whole book, or I would have been paralyzed. Instead, she wrote questions on every page of the manuscript, so I could deal with just one page at a time. Even up to about two weeks before the ARC’s went to print, we were still tinkering. She emailed and said that the epilogue needed something.

So I was just loopy from it all, sent in a revision of the Epilogue with an element that I really kind of meant as a joke, thinking it was just so dumb. She emailed back and said “Perfect!”

The entire revision process was like taking an intensive novel-writing course. I learned so much that I can apply to future projects.

The book is riveting! Without giving too much away, how did you frame the psychology of your main characters?

I owe a lot to my editor. One of my favorite quotes about revision (and I am probably mangling it): “Revision is not about correction; it is about discovery.” My editor would ask questions that totally caused me to go way deeper than I ever thought I could. Somehow, she brought things out of me that needed to be brought out, but I never could have done on my own. My characters changed a lot once the two of us started working on them.

Do you do a lot of pre-writing?

Absolutely none. This was NaNoWriMo, and I just jumped into it, no clue where I was headed.

The novel stands out as an example of a story with both a strong internal and external arc. Do you outline first?

I should, but I don’t.

Do you just begin writing and see where it goes? Or, put another way, are you a plotter or a plunger and why?

Totally a plunger, probably because I’m totally disorganized and doing an outline would be the death of me , I fear. I don’t deal well with the big picture, totally stresses me out, and just telling myself “Hey, you just have to get through 1000 words today” is much easier than an insurmountable “Hey, you eventually have to write this whole book.” It’s the same way I clean house, one room at a time, trying to deny that the entire house is involved.

It seems that a common challenge among writers is fighting their instinct to protect your characters. After all, the bigger the obstacle,the stronger the conflict and, often, the protagonist’s growth. Did you ever have to push yourself to push the characters?

We actually had to eliminate some of the stuff I threw at my main character! I guess I was pretty brutal to the poor guy.

How did you deal with these dynamics?

I think he had to have a lot to deal with or he wouldn’t have grown as a character. And the dude seriously needed to grow. All the decisions helped him do that, I think.

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

Be persistent and develop a thick skin ASAP.

What advice do you have for YA novelists?

Absolutely none. I have so much to learn myself that I’m in no position to offer coherent advice. I still feel totally young and dumb about the genre.

How about those writing suspense?

I did learn this. Suspense is not the ticking bomb in the corner. Suspense is what makes the reader want to keep turning the page.

You write for different age levels. Do you have many inner children?

Yes, some are all goodness and light, while some are a tad more demented.

What are the creative and professional pros and cons?

Sometimes I think it’s easy to get caught up in being an author and forget to be a writer. I’ve been there and don’t plan to ever go there again. They are two different animals, I think, and I’m trying to focus on being a writer. You’re only as good as your next book…

You are well published in the picture book! How did you make the jump to novel writing?

It’s funny, people are like, “Oh, you wrote your first novel!” and I’m like, “This is my ninth novel, it’s just the first one I’ve gotten right.” I’ve been writing novels since 1997, the year I sold my first picture book. So it’s something I’ve been attempting for a while.


For me, it’s all about the ideas. Some, like a rock for a doll, are picture-book ideas. Some, like a dystopian underground world, are not. And when I get an idea, I have to run with it, whatever genre that may be. Some of my ideas are successful. Others, not so much.

What was the biggest challenge?

Getting The Compound past my agent. He’s very astute, and I knew the day he started submitting that it was just a matter of time before it would sell.

The greatest delight or opportunity?

Absolutely has to be when my editor acquired it. She was also my very first editor, the one that picked Elizabeti’s Doll out of the slush pile back in 1997, so doing this novel with her has been a dream come true. Together, I think we’ve created a fabulous read.

Do you like to speak to groups? What sorts of programs do you offer?

I do school visits, programs at conferences, etc. I like to stress my personal 3 R’s: Reading, Writing, and Revision. My most recent was a guest author stint at the international school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. And now I have a new keynote about this entire YA journey.

How can planners get in touch with you and/or find out more?

My website, or email me through it.

As a reader, so far what is your favorite YA novel of 2008?

I’m in a rural area with a small library and am on the wait list for a lot of 2008 YAs, but, sad to say, haven’t actually had a chance to read one with a 2008 copyright yet.

I recently caught up on some from last year, a couple I really liked were Zen and The Art of Faking It [by Jordan Sonnenblick (Scholastic, 2007)] and Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles (Candlewick, 2007)(author interview). I was totally enthralled by Life as We Knew It [by Susan Beth Pfeffer (Harcourt, 2006)], so I’m really looking forward to the companion book, The Dead and the Gone (Harcourt, 2008), this year. [Read a Cynsations interview with Susan.]

What do you do when you’re not in the book world?

I spend a lot of time in the bleachers, watching my kids at sporting events. This spring I’m coaching 8th grade volleyball, a true test of patience. I read a lot, but I’m also a TV junkie on certain days. I’m addicted to “Lost.” I also Netflix way way too much.

What can your fans look forward to next?

A second novel from Feiwel & Friends.