Author Interview: Helen Hemphill on The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones

Learn about Helen Hemphill.

We last spoke in June 2006 about the release of Long Gone Daddy (Front Street, 2006)! Could you update us on your writing life since?

It’s been fast and furious! Last year, Runaround (Boyds Mills Press, 2007) was published for middle school readers, and Booklist named it one of the Top Ten Romance Books for Youth.

With two novels published in two years, I’ve been really busy writing, teaching, and learning the book business. There are so many gracious, generous people in children’s publishing, and I feel lucky to be part of the industry.

Congratulations on the early success of The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones (Front Street, 2008)! Could you tell us a little about the story?

Inspired by the African-American cowboy Nat Love, the novel is about fourteen-year-old Prometheus Jones as he and his cousin Omer take off on a cattle drive from Dodge City to Deadwood.

The book is a high adventure story, obviously written with boy readers in mind, but girls have loved the book as well.

How was Nat Love your inspiration for the story?

Three years ago I read Nat Love¹s autobiography, published in 1907. His voice is big bravado. Nat Love is the best at roping and riding and shooting and reading brands. I loved him!

But there were several nonfiction books out about Nat Love already, so I used his voice as my inspiration. Prometheus is very sure of himself and his abilities, but he thinks he’s lucky.

For him, luck is outside himself and can give or take his talent and confidence. One of the themes of the book is that Prometheus learns luck is made by his own grit, determination, and attitude.

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

The book took about 18 months of research. I actually drove the route of the cattle drive (in a car, not a wagon!), visited Deadwood, and tried to envision for myself what the landscape of 1876 might have looked like.

I also keep notes as to the specific distances and modes of travel in the story so that I could get the timing right–a cattle drive did well to cover 15 miles in a day.

The book was written in about a year, so total it was about three years from idea to publication.

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

The obvious challenges were writing across race and time. I wanted very much to draw Prometheus’s character as an authentic African-American boy, so research was critical.

I kept a vocabulary journal as I read both cowboy and slave narratives from the period. I researched black cowboys and the African American migration west, and I discussed dialect with my writers groups in both Austin and Nashville to get feedback along the way.

Ultimately, I focused on the fact that this story was the story of one boy, not a wide depiction of African Americans after the Civil War, so that was helpful.

Also, the very fact that it was historical fiction helped. I didn’t have to write a boy with modern-day problems.

The issue of writing across time came down to depicting all the various groups–the cowboys of various ethnic backgrounds, the settlers, and the Indians in the story with historical authenticity, given modern-day sensibilities. That was sometimes a balancing act and was one of the most difficult aspects of the book.

What advice do you have for those writing historical fiction?

Get your research right, but don’t expect to use every detail. Only about 5-10% of the material should be included in the book. For any piece of fiction, it’s the story that matters most. Let the history serve the story.

How about for those writing cross-culturally?

Be sensitive. Be open. Do your research, and be intentional about what you are writing. It helps to show your manuscript to someone from that cultural or ethnic background to get feedback. Be willing to revise and cut the manuscript if things aren’t working.

When we last spoke you were a debut novelist. Now, you have a couple of years as a published author behind you. What have you learned in that time–about publishing, about craft, about your writing life?

I guess I’ve learned it’s always about the manuscript. No matter what happens in terms of the business, a good story will always find its way to an audience.

So I work hard to keep getting better at my craft. While I do a number of things to promote my books and love talking to readers, I try not to let that be the focus of my work life.

I’m a writer, so I get my joy from the writing.

So far, as a reader, what are your favorite children’s-YA books of 2008 and why?

I loved volume two of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: The Kingdom on the Waves (Candlewick 2008) by M. T. Anderson (Candlewick, 2008).

It’s a rich, full story with many layers about notions of freedom. It’s not an easy-reading novel because the language is so authentic to the 18th century, but that’s one of the many things that makes the book terrific. I can’t stop thinking about it.

I also just read Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games (Scholastic Press, 2008). It’s a thrill ride of a story!

What can your readers look forward to next?

I’m finishing up a book titled William Shakezpeare & the Tragedy Rap Tour. Written within a concert structure, it’s a hip hop poetry book that explores the themes of three Shakespearean tragedies: “Romeo & Juliet,” “Hamlet” and “Macbeth.” I also have a new YA novel in the works.