Author Interview: Suzanne Morgan Williams on Bull Rider

Suzanne Morgan Williams on Suzanne Morgan Williams:

“I’m the author of ten nonfiction books for kids aged ten to fourteen. My first novel, Bull Rider (McElderry, 2009), is for the same age group.

“Bull Rider is a Junior Library Guild Selection for 2009 and was chosen to represent Nevada in the Pavilion of the States at the National Book Festival in Washington D.C. in September 2008. (The Nevada librarians displayed ARCs since Bull Rider was published in 2009.)

“I’m a Nevada Author in Residence and have received various grants supporting my writing, research, and community curriculum/events work from both the Nevada Arts Council and the Sierra Arts Foundation.

“In the course of my research, I’ve chatted about UFOs in Rachel, Nevada outside Area 51, been stranded (briefly) on the sea ice on Hudson Bay, dodged a bull’s horns while standing above a bucking chute at a local bull ring, and gambled in a wigwam near Rainy Lake, Ontario. Writing has taken me to places physically, emotionally, and creatively that I could never have imagined.”

From Suzanne’s site: “Bull Rider is an upper middle grade novel (ages ten to fourteen) about how one boy and his family deal with the loss and grief brought on by war. Fourteen year old Cam O’Mara is a ranch kid from the sage brush country of central Nevada. He is a skateboarder, not a champion bull rider like his brother Ben, but when Ben joins the Marines and is seriously injured in Iraq, Cam turns to his family traditions and in particular bull riding to overcome his grief and to give his brother hope for a new life.”

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I think I’ve always been a storyteller, but when I was a kid I used to draw pictures and tell myself stories to go with them. I was the one always begging my grandparents to tell me another story about when they were kids–and I remember those. As a teen, I wrote down stuff that bothered me–journal style–and then tore up the papers. That felt good.

But it was when our oldest daughter was about twelve and brought home a stack of middle grade books to read (and I read them too when she was asleep) that I thought “I want to do that.” I started writing seriously.

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

I guess I’m more tortoise than hare when it comes to writing kids’ books. My first publication was an article, “Bird Break in Hong Kong,” in Bird Talk magazine in 1994.

Shortly after that, I submitted a picture book to Pacific View Press, a new small press in Berkeley that specialized in books about China. Since my manuscript was about a Chinese immigrant girl in San Francisco, I decided to send it to people who would know the subject best.

It was a scary decision–but they contacted me about publishing it. That was my first children’s submission. I figured this market was mine! (Okay, don’t choke – I learned.) Well, they are a small press and they decided they didn’t want to tackle fiction–so they asked if I would submit a proposal for a nonfiction book on Chinese inventions. Of course I knew nothing about Chinese inventions, but I told them I’d learn.

Four years later, they published my first book, Made in China, Ideas and Inventions from Ancient China (Pacific View Press, 1997). I read more than fifty books on Chinese history and Chinese inventions, on ceramics and feng shui. I met with tai qi masters and traditional Chinese medical doctors. I took classes in Chinese. I loved the process and discovered I was obsessive about research. I’ve had one project or another with Pacific View ever since.

In the meantime, I kept writing fiction–both picture books and novels–but as I got more nonfiction contracts, I spent less time on my fiction. I’ve written eleven nonfiction books, and they’ve involved lots of on-site, library, and person to person research.

Still I kept writing fiction. Often it was related to what I’d learned in the nonfiction. In 2004, I was talking with an editor, telling her stories I’d learned from writing Nevada (Sea to Shining Sea the Second Series, Children’s Press, 2003), and from Indian and Inuit people while working on other nonfiction projects. She’d seen my writing and she asked me to submit chapters and an outline for a series set in Nevada. Something very Nevadan. We decided on cowboys, rodeo, and finally bull riders. She didn’t buy that series, but it was the beginning of my novel, Bull Rider.

In terms of craft, what was the single best decision you made during your apprenticeship as a writer?

It was giving myself permission to stop making money by publishing nonfiction and to take the time to really focus on fiction writing. That’s what I did from 2004 until now.

Could you briefly update us on your back list titles, highlighting as you see fit?

My first book was Made in China. Also with Pacific View Press are Pinatas and Smiling Skeletons, Celebrating Mexican Festivals, co-authored by Zoe Harris (Pacific View Press, 1999) and upcoming, China’s Daughters which includes biographies of seventeen Chinese women from Fu Hao, who was a queen in the Shang Dynasty (about 4,000 years ago), to Kang Keqing, who participated in the Long March during World War II.

I wrote Kentucky and Nevada for the Sea to Shining Sea Second Series, Children’s Press, 2001, 2003. And then came, The Inuit (Franklin Watts, 2003) a book of my heart. I have traveled to the Canadian Arctic four times, first to research The Inuit, and then to follow up with the friends I made there. That book marked a change for me both personally and professionally.

Between 2001 and 2003 I worked on a series about Indian Tribes for Heinemann Libraries. I wrote The Tlingit, The Chinook, The Powhatan, The Ojibwe, and The Cherokee (Heinemann Libraries, 2003). I worked with Native people on all of these projects. From them I learned to listen. To wait. To accept information that was not always comfortable. I made friends.

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

Well, remember that hare analogy? Editor #1 and I originally talked about creating a series for young readers–maybe second grade–in May 2004. Bull Rider was published in February of 2009.

What happened in between was I wrote the first book in the series, and there was a lot of interest, but ultimately they didn’t buy it. I got that rejection note in June 2005.

I set Bull Rider aside to lick my wounds and figure out how I would make it a bigger book–big enough to stand on its own–and a book for older readers. The manuscript just kind of annoyed me for about eight months.

Then my friend, Ellen Hopkins, who is also part of my critique circle, started bugging me about it. We all need friends like that. She met a photographer from the PBR–professional bull riders–on one of her promotional trips. She came home and told me she’d arranged for me to interview some pro-bull riders when the PBR was in Reno. That was the turning point for Bull Rider.

I interviewed three pro-bull riders, two photographers who travel the circuit, got a behind the scenes tour of the chutes and tack room, and watched them unload the bulls–including one named Ugly. I was hooked and I left with my character–a new Cam O’Mara, who was older and more human–with more flaws–and one who was a little afraid of the bulls.

So from February to September 2006 I wrote the new manuscript. It was YA. I got an agent. Then I revised it to middle grade, and it sold in July of 2007. Two revisions later and the final manuscript was accepted in December 2007.

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

Well, by now you know I love research and I can immerse myself, perhaps drown myself in it, particularly when I’m stuck writing. The trick is to stop researching when I find the new spark that I need to continue writing.

I also needed to learn when research was important and facts were necessary and when I could depend on the book being fiction–there were lots of things about it I could just make up!

One thing I couldn’t make up was the information about bull riding, ranching, and Ben’s war injuries. Researching the bull riding was fun. I’m a rodeo fan and besides going to the PBR, I visited a local bull ring and watched some guys get on a bull for the first time.

I was able to connect with some ranchers, and there used to be a small cattle operation across the street from where I live. So far so good.

But psychologically, the biggest challenge for me was when I accepted the fact that Bull Rider needed to be about the two brothers’ relationship and that meant bringing brain injured, amputee Ben front and center. I was scared to learn about Traumatic Brain Injury, and I felt like it was intrusive to interview TBI victims–especially after all they’d already been through. I ended up interviewing the people who care for war injured.

I couldn’t have written Bull Rider without my experiences with Native people–learning to listen and to process very difficult information. I didn’t hear what I expected.

I learned that most injured soldiers want to return to their units. I learned that TBI can be invisible and still create life-altering changes in its victims’ thought processes. I developed a deep respect for the men and women who’ve given so much in the line of duty. I began to understand how people hold up in war time.

Talk about writing a book changing the author! I am so honored to share Bull Rider with readers. I believe we owe these veterans not only our respect, but continued quality care, perhaps for many years.

How did you approach the transition from writing nonfiction to writing the novel?

I had always been writing fiction of some sort so I just kept doing that. I did stop looking for nonfiction contracts, and I turned down some local, commission work to make time to work on the novel. Being a nonfiction writer made me more comfortable with tracking down the information I needed to ground Bull Rider and made it seem necessary to include real, convincing details in the text. I love blending fact and fiction and hope it creates a story that readers feel is true.

Do you have a vision for your career as an author or take it book-to-book or both? How does that come together in your mind?

Yes, I have a vision, and it’s mainly about writing novels. I love action, boy novels. I don’t know why. The novels I want to write have some purpose other than to just entertain–although that’s certainly important.

I am working on a novel based on my arctic experiences and also one with a girl protagonist just to switch things up. But since I don’t have the power to make everything happen as I envision, the answer to your question is I’m taking it book by book. I still don’t know what happens next…

How do you balance your writing against the pressures of being an author (contracts, promotion, etc.)?

Right now I’m not taking nearly as much time to write as I need. I have to start getting up at 5 a.m. or something. I’m doing a lot of promotion for Bull Rider on my own, I’m a member of the Class of 2K9, and I’m co-regional advisor for Nevada SCBWI so there’s always something going on.

And I have that life outside of writing, too–you know, the one with grocery shopping, appointments, plumbers. I know we have to make choices, and soon I have to make the choice to write more. Period.

In times when things are less hectic, I can strike a balance by writing new stuff when I’m inspired, editing old work when I’m not so hot creatively, and doing business chores when my brain is totally fried. If I’m feeling manic–that’s when I make promotional calls–“Would you like to do an event about Bull Rider? It’ll be great!”

Do you work with a critique group, a partner, or exclusively with your editor? Why does that work for you?

I have belonged to wonderful critique groups in the past, and I’m blessed to know a lot of terrific writers. Right now, I’m pretty certain of the type of feedback that I want at any stage of my writing and so I usually ask one or two trusted writer friends for that.

Emma Dryden edited Bull Rider, and she is also a resource as I develop my new projects, as is my agent, Stephen Barbara.

Since Bull Rider is my first novel, this is the first time I’ve had access to all three–critique partners, editor, and agent–I consider myself very lucky.