By Gayleen Rabakukk, photo above Cameron Kelly Rosenblum, flanked by her Writers House co-agents Bri Johnston and Allie Levick and foreign rights agents Aless Birch and Cecilia de la Campa.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
So my character, Elaine, ends up writing a book-within-the-book…and she hits a point where she’s really struggling and says to her friend, Javier, “But so, the hard part is the place itself. Like, you know that part of sci-fi/fantasy where you have to describe the world you’re seeing in your head?” And he’s like, “Narrative?” And she’s like, “Yes!” Well, that’s the part that’s really hard for me, too.
I had gotten what I think is a pretty great idea for a sci-fi novel and I did a whole NaNoWriMo on it…but then when I sat down to write it…Yeah. No. Clunky. I have a very good imagination for sci-fi type stuff. But the thing that I’m most natural at writing is character’s voices. Mostly contemporary voices. So, when I was trying to write the sci-fi, it was not awesome.
Then some time later—I can’t remember exactly how long—I was hanging out with my nine-month-old son (he’s seven now, so chew on that…) in the way that you do with a baby which is he was crawling around his room and I was sitting on the floor listening to an audio book of John Irving’s novel, A Widow for One Year (Ballantine Books, 1999).
The main characters in that book are all writers, and we get to see both their creative process as well as snippets from what they’re working on. And also, the way that life influences art and vice versa. I was like, Dude, that’s it…I’ll have my character write the sci-fi novel and that way I can just cannibalize all the work I’d already done without having to actually write the whole thing…
Of course, I didn’t yet know why she was writing the book she was writing. But then one day I was in the bathroom and I heard Elaine speaking to me. She hit me with this whole opening monologue about dropping out of school because of climate change (to be clear, this was in 2014…) and the aftermath of that choice. I didn’t yet know much about her, but I sure was interested in her and her sassy voice, her anger, her fear, and her moms….
As an unagented author, how did you identify your editor and connect the manuscript with the publishing house? And what advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?
I have a podcast called Out of Curiosity with kt mather that I started after my novel had gotten rejected by so many agents and editors that I needed to redirect my creative energy. Well, before I hit upon the podcast idea, I first tried to write a more “marketable” debut novel. Many of the rejections that I’d received for my book went something like—Wow! I like this! It’s way too weird to sell as a debut…maybe write something a little more normal first.
My idea of “normal” ended up being a little sex-trafficking caper that takes place on a boarding school campus. Under different circumstances, I might have pursued that idea, it is a good idea, but all the previous rejections really had me down and if you want to do the one thing to really drive yourself into the dirt after you’ve been hit super hard emotionally—research sex trafficking.
And so I gave up.
So then I thought, Okay, well, if you’re not going to publish this book and you are definitely going to go crazy if you don’t use this creative energy that’s building up in you like a geyser, what are you gonna do?
And for possibly the first time in my life, I decided to take stock of my interests and let those guide me rather than digging into my good old Puritan roots and forcing myself to keep working on something that wasn’t working. I ended up with a podcast and a permaculturalist.
The podcast is just me talking with people I already know (or in Chris Tebbetts’ case, people I meet and then immediately invite to be on the show) about how we know each other, what they do that’s cool, and a deep dive into a book or novel. It scratched my itch for good conversation—there is almost nothing I like more than a connecting with people though an authentic chat.
In episode 36 of the podcast, I talk with author Chris Tebbetts. Somehow, we got around to our definition of success, which for each of us is something like—movement in a direction that feels meaningful, as opposed to—getting exactly what I expect and want.
And it turns out we both think the key to that kind of success is giving up. And by that we mean surrendering control—not quitting. Because you can’t quit—you have to stay purposefully engaged and in relationship to the thing you love. But you have to stop trying to control it.
So how does a permaculturalist fit into this story? Oh, first, what’s a permaculturalist? Super roughly speaking, she’s someone who designs gardens and/or farms to be “sustainable and self-sufficient.” Basically, I needed someone to help me design a garden/food forest to replace our half-acre yard—and then I needed her to teach me how to plant and care for it…I was at our local café one day and literally just said out loud, “I need a permaculturalist.” The manager of the shop was like, Kelsey the baker’s best friend does that. And so I met Rachel Grigorian (episode 9) who became my permaculturalist.
One day we were working in the garden and chatting and I told her that I had a novel that I’d been shopping around, but that it was too weird to publish. She was like, I have a friend who’s a publisher of books that are too weird to publish. I said, “Does she do Young Adult?” And she said, “I don’t know, I’ll ask her.” Nine months later, I had a book contract with whisk(e)y tit books.
Thanks to the pandemic, I had to cancel the last of the launch events I spent months acquiring…and while I had that day of feeling hopeless, I’ve rebounded much more quickly than I have in the past to remembering to give up, but not quit. Stop thinking I need to or even can control anything other than following my interests and seeing what happens—where it will lead.
So that’s what I would also tell beginning writers—build your skill set and then let your interests guide you. Keep saying out loud what you’re doing and what you want (a permaculturalist! a publisher for weird books!) but let things come to you through your engagement with the people and things that interest you.
As an MFA in Writing student/graduate, how did that experience impact your literary journey?
I graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults back in 2007 (Cynthia was one of my advisors!) and like most VCFAers, I will say it’s the best thing that ever happened to my writing life. For two reasons.
Reason one, I learned a ton about craft through working with the amazingly talented and generous faculty and student-body. But let’s be real, I was also living and working at a boarding school, so I didn’t get as much as I could’ve gotten if I wasn’t living at my job…However, what’s so fantastic about the VCFA model is that it’s not just about learning as much craft as you can while you’re there—it’s about learning how to learn.
One of the main components of the VCFA curriculum is writing critical essays every month. The goal of those essays is typically to research and “solve” some craft issue. Let’s say you’re just starting out and you’re like, I cannot figure out how to get my character from Point A to Point B without showing them opening all the doors, driving in the car, opening more doors, making pleasantries, etc…You’d read a bunch of books and look at the variety of different ways that other writers do that.
As a writer, I hope I’m always working at the edge of my story-telling ability and therefore always coming up against craft problems. What’s was so great about my MFA program is that it gave me a process by which to answer those questions of craft.
The second reason VCFA is the best thing that ever happened to me is the community. That should actually be the first thing, but I like to close in order of importance. I cannot emphasize enough the camaraderie and generosity of the people who gravitate to the children’s program at VCFA.
Obviously appearing in this blog is a great example—Cynthia was my advisor, but even if she hadn’t been, I would’ve felt comfortable reaching out to her as a member of the VCFA community.
I’ve also had alumnx read my work, help me write queries, introduce me to their agents, appear on my podcast, write reviews for me, recommend my book, give me tips on every single aspect of writing and publishing, and on and on. It’s an unbelievable gift. Also, they’re all huge book-nerds who make the kinds of jokes and references only huge book-nerds can make and that is important. It’s tough out here for a book-nerd .
Cameron Kelly Rosenblum
Content warning: self-harm and suicide.
Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?
I wanted to be an author from the time I understood what that meant. My fourth grade teacher read my first story to the class, and when everyone laughed at the right moments it sealed the deal.
I took every writing class I could from high school through college, and had some very encouraging professors. But, once done with my formal education, I had no idea how to go about getting published.
A friend in the business advised me to join SCBWI. I don’t think I would ever have made it to publication without joining this group of intrepid, supportive, creative people. My close writing friends understand the journey, which, let’s be honest, can be a bit nutty! We cheer each other on, support each other in the tough times, and push each other to get better.
Through SCBWI retreats and conferences, I steeped myself in the nuts and bolts of querying and researching agents and editors.
With my friend Julie Kingsley, I founded two northern New England summer retreats for SCBWI, which were fabulous!
I spent almost ten years writing middle grade. I loved it, but something wasn’t working. When I started writing in my seventeen-year-old protagonist Reid’s voice for The Stepping Off Place (Quill Tree/HarperCollins, 2020), it felt like I’d come home. The middle grade work I did was all part of my learning process, though, so I can’t truly regret it; I’m glad I’d learned so much by the time I started The Stepping Off Place.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
In middle school, my best friend was hilarious, independent, athletic, and extremely confident. We were inseparable through early high school, and though we never discussed it, I always assumed the sidekick role. It was the natural order of us. In tenth grade, her family moved west. The immediacy of our friendship faded over the years, but we kept in touch well into adulthood. Then, a few years ago, a letter I wrote to her went unanswered. When I followed up, I learned she had taken her own life.
Even after the shock wore off, my sense of loss was immense. It lasted months and brought me to tears at strange moments. I couldn’t help but wonder why this death was harder for me than any other I’d experienced. The circumstances were horribly sad, of course, but practically speaking we hadn’t been close for half our lives.
In time, I realized that our years apart didn’t matter; what mattered was that our friendship spanned the transition from childhood to young adulthood. While we formed our own self-concepts, we were close enough to leak into each other. She is part of what makes me me— the part I like the most, by the way.
Writing The Stepping Off Place allowed me to build a monument to my best friend from growing up, and to flat out celebrate our young, irreverent selves.
How does your work as a librarian influence your work as a writer and vice-versa?
I am and always have been fascinated by story, which explains why I love writing and being a librarian.
When I choose read aloud books for my K-4 students, I’m looking for stories that captivate and push thinking. Whether fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry, I want to find a narrative line that will draw in kids and encourage them to interact with the ideas or characters. When books achieve this, the author’s use of language is usually integral to the book’s success. There’s a cadence and rhythm to great picture book writing that transcends the genre. Great picture book writing is just great writing.
I’ve read so many wonderful books over and over, it’s free graduate work for my writing ear! So, the librarian in me looks for all these things because I’m constantly driven to inspire and nurture young readers.
Meanwhile, the writer in me is doing a little market research. I’m getting a feel for what makes some books hit their target better than others. In that way, I’m inspired and influenced by picture book creators every day. Their ability to strip down a story to sometimes as little as a few hundred words is brilliant and often under-appreciated by the reading public at large.
K.T. Mather grew up in Alaska with a respect for two things—nature and the power of a good story. She was a high school English teacher and soccer coach for years and misses being around teenagers’ humor and authenticity.
She lives in Vermont with her family, where she writes, hosts the podcast “Out of Curiosity with kt mather,” serves in local office, and is busy converting her lawn into an edible forest and pollinator garden.
Cameron Kelly Rosenblum grew up in Connecticut. She studied English literature at Kenyon College and earned a master’s in education at Lesley University. Her time as a teacher and children’s librarian inspired her to write for young people.
The Stepping Off Place is her debut novel. Cameron lives near Portland, Maine, with her husband, son, daughter, two dogs, and a cat.
Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College and serves as assistant regional advisor for Austin SCBWI. She’s worked with Cynthia Leitich Smith as Cynsations intern since 2016.