New Voice: Nicole Maggi on Winter Falls (Twin Willows Trilogy)

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Nicole Maggi is the first-time author of Winter Falls (Twin Willows Trilogy) (Medallion Press, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Sixteen-year-old Alessia Jacobs is dying to get out of her small town of Twin Willows, Maine. 

Things start looking up when a new family comes to town—but when she falls for Jonah, their mysterious son, her life turns upside down.


Weird visions of transforming into an otherworldly falcon are just the beginning. Soon she learns she’s part of the Benandanti, an ancient cult of warriors with the unique power to separate their souls from their bodies and take on the forms of magnificent animals.


Alessia never would’ve suspected it, but her boring town is the site of an epic struggle between the Benandanti and the Malandanti to control powerful magic in the surrounding forest.


As Alessia is drawn into the Benandanti’s mission, her relationship with Jonah intensifies. When her two worlds collide, Alessia’s forced to weigh choices a sixteen-year-old should never have to make.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2014, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

Way back in the fall of 1999, I got an image in my head of a woman walking through snow. I followed her around for quite some time, and after a few months I realized I had a book, and that I wanted to finish it and try to get it published.

That book took me six years to finish. It was an epic historical novel, a female Huck Finn, five hundred pages long and full of my blood, sweat and tears.

 In 2005, I submitted it to an agent that I’d met through a conference. She called me three days later to offer me representation. She was my dream agent, so of course I jumped on the offer.

Wow, I thought. If getting an agent is this easy (she was the only one I queried), selling the book will be a breeze. Right? Wrong.

That book crossed the desk of probably every publisher in New York and was rejected by all of them. After several months on submission, my agent gently suggested we should pull it and I should write something else.

I was devastated. I had pinned all my hopes on this book.

Reeling from the rejection, I picked up a copy of The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (2002) and embarked on Julia Cameron‘s 12-week recovery program for ailing creatives.

At the end of it, I was stronger and ready to write something new. That something was another historical, this time set in 1830s Nantucket.

Then in 2007, my agent and I were at the Historical Novel Society Conference and every editor we pitched it to said the same thing, that American historical fiction is a tough sell. My agent and I had a heart-to-heart, during which she said, “You’re so ready to be published. Why give yourself another hurtle? Write about Europe.”

So I went back to the drawing board and starting trawling Wikipedia for ideas. One day I was on the sight for European witch hunts and saw a little footnote about something called the Benandanti. I clicked on it and as I read the page, my heart started to pound. This was it. My next idea.

So I started writing a YA set in 16th century Italy, about a girl who is a Benandante, a warrior who can separate her soul from her body and transform into a magnificent falcon. Then, several months into writing it, I got stuck. I had the whole thing plotted out, I knew exactly where I needed to go, and yet every time I sat down to write I just stared and stared at the blank page.

One night, after many weeks of this torture, I was having a conversation with my husband about it and I blurted out, “Maybe it doesn’t need to be set in the 16th century!”

Well.

A favorite writing spot — Romancing the Bean in Burbank, CA.

For someone who identified themselves as a historical novelist, who was a member of The Historical Novel Society and had attended their conferences, who loved history and all things old and ancient, this was a radical idea. But I decided I had nothing to lose.

So I started writing the book set in the here and now. Four months later, I had a complete draft.
I wrote the whole thing without a road map, and had a lot of revision to do on the back end.

After about a year, I sent the manuscript to my agent. It took her a long time to get back to me. So long, in fact, that I was already counting on her telling me she hated it and making up lists of new agents to query. But she finally responded, had some minor notes which I implemented, and in the spring of 2010 we sent it out to five publishers.

Two days later, we had a bite. A big bite.

A Big Five publisher was interested. I was actually at a funeral and when I got back to the house there were phone calls and emails waiting for me. I got on the phone with my agent. The publisher wanted a huge amount of edits, major changes, and they wanted me to do a new synopsis and first three chapters on spec. I did it. Six weeks later, I had a three-book deal.

And then things got really crazy.

Writers are readers!

For the next year, I was kept in an endless loop of revisions. I turned in three drafts. Then my editor left. I was assigned to a new editor. For six months she told me everything was fine, that she would get me notes “soon” (notes I never got), that all was well.

Until November 11, 2011, when she called my agent and cancelled my three-book contract.

I got that call at eight o’clock in the morning. I was feeding my one-year-old daughter. She got fussy and I had to hang up with my agent to deal with her. I called my husband, who was on his way to work, to turn around and come home.

When he walked through the door, I collapsed into his arms and cried for several minutes. Then I straightened, told him to take our daughter to daycare, and did the only thing I knew how to do at that moment. I went to yoga.

In class that morning, I thought, if I can hold this crazy ridiculous pose, I can survive this.

My agent put the book back out on submission. Meanwhile, I curled into myself, grieving the dream that had been shattered. Rejection after rejection rolled in, all saying the same thing: they loved the book, but the market for shapeshifting paranormal YA had changed and they weren’t doing it anymore. In the 18 months that the Big Five had kept me under contract, the genre had fallen out of style (which was the real reason, I believe, for the cancellation).

Then one night, I pulled the old copy of The Artist’s Way off my shelf. Once again, I embarked on that 12-week journey to heal. I had lost complete faith in myself and the Universe, and I needed to restore so I could write again. Several weeks in, I had a new idea for a book. I signed up for Laura Baker’s Fearless Writer course and started to plot the book out. As I began to get really excited about this new idea, I got the Call from Irene. We’d resold the book to Medallion Press.

The offer from Medallion was much smaller, but I didn’t care. It wasn’t lost on me that the book sold only after I started to get excited about another idea. I had to put that positive energy out into the world in order to receive any back. And Medallion, though a small press, has treated me a million times better than the Big Five did along every step of the way.

While my agent hammered out the details of the deal, she sent me an email. It was now June 2012, and the earliest available slot for publication on Medallion’s schedule was December 2014.

I’ll never forget where I was when I got that email. I was in a movie theatre with a dear friend, waiting for the lights to go down, and I checked my phone. I read the email to my friend and we burst out laughing. We laughed and laughed and laughed. I’d been waiting to be published since 1999; what was two more years? It was so ridiculous that there was nothing to do but laugh.

After that, I realized what a gift those two years were. I had a contracted book, but I didn’t have to do anything with it for a long time. That allowed me the time to go back to that other book I’d started writing and focus on it without distractions. That book was a joy to write. Through The Artist’s Way, my faith in myself as a writer had been restored, and I wrote that book just for the pure love of writing. I finished it relatively quickly and we sold it two months later in a two-book deal to SourceBooks Fire. That book, The Forgetting, will be released on February 3rd, 2015.

On the same day that SourceBooks sent my agent the deal memo, Medallion sent over contracts for the second and third books in my trilogy (we’d only sold them the first book in the initial deal). In less than two years, I went from having a cancelled contract to having five contracted books.

I know that this is not the end of a long road; rather, it is the beginning of another long and twisting road. I’m sure there will be many bumps and hurtles and, hopefully, celebrations along the way. The thing I’ve learned is that no matter what happens, I can survive it. At the end of the day, it’s the writing that matters, and no one can take that away from me.

As a paranormal writer, what first attracted you to that literary tradition? Have you been a long-time paranormal reader? Did a particular book or books inspire you?

Favorite Read

I’ve been reading paranormal and fantasy ever since I can remember. When I was in middle school, I pulled The Song of the Lioness books by Tamora Pierce (Random House) off the library shelf and reread them over and over. In fact, I don’t think any other kid at my school ever got to read them because I had them checked out so often.

 Finally, my stepmother took pity on me and actually called the publisher (they were out of print at the time) and got me a full set of first-edition hardcovers. Those books sit on a shelf in my office reserved for Very Special Books.

I also loved all the magicky Lois Duncan books like Down A Dark Hall and A Gift of Magic (both from Little, Brown), and the Jane Yolen Pit Dragon Chronicles (Harcourt). In later years, I loved historical fiction (still do!) and so when I started writing, I naturally gravitated toward historical fiction. But when I realized that Winter Falls needed to be contemporary, and I started writing in a paranormal YA voice, it was like coming home. “Of course,” I thought. “This is your voice!”

I remember attending a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books a few years ago where one of the authors said that he had started writing his book and realized some ways in that what he wanted in the book were monsters. He was writing literary fiction, so he tried to make the monsters metaphorical and imaginary. Then he realized, “No. I want real monsters.”

Favorite Read
Favorite Read

That’s kind of how I am. I like my books with a side of weird. I love that quote, “Why by normal when you can be paranormal?”

I love magic and ghosts and the mystical. I think maybe it’s because I believe this world is full of magic and mystery that no matter how much logic we apply, we just can’t explain.

Winter Falls is based on the real 16th century cult of the Benandanti. They were investigated for over 100 years by the Roman Inquisition and all the transcripts from those trials still exist. It is so cool, reading the testimony of these people who claim – who believe with all their heart – that they could separate their souls from their bodies and that their souls took on the forms of animals.

And you know what? I believe they could, too. Every myth has its root in truth.

I’m working on a book right now that is a straight thriller, no paranormal. It’s actually kind of hard for me. But don’t worry – I’m sure I’ll manage to sneak something weird into it.

New Voices Interview: Trisha Leaver & Lindsay Currie on Creed

By Karen Rock
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

From the promotional copy of Creed by Trisha Leaver and Lindsay Currie (Flux, 2014):

Three of us went in. 
Three of us came out. 
None even a shadow of who they once were.



When their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, Dee, her boyfriend Luke, and Luke’s brother Mike, seek help in the nearby town of Purity Springs. 

But as they walk the vacant streets, the teens make some disturbing discoveries. 

The seemingly deserted homes each contain a sinister book with violent instructions on disciplining children. The graveyard is full of unmarked crosses. Worst of all, there’s no way to contact the outside world. 

When Purity Springs’ inhabitants suddenly appear, Dee, Luke, and Mike find themselves at the mercy of Elijah Hawkins, the town’s charismatic leader who has his own plans for the three of them. 

Their only hope for survival is Elijah’s enigmatic son, Joseph. And his game may be just as deadly as his father’s . . .

In less than thirty words, tell us about Creed.

Lindsay: Creed is a psychological horror about three teens in upstate New York who find themselves at the mercy of a deadly cult, and their struggle to survive.

The setting of Creed is unusual. Would you tell us about it and what’s behind its inspiration? Are there any real life places that you might compare it to?

Trisha: Creed…or at least the start of it was a nightmare for me. I was on route to a concert with my sister and two of my childhood friends. We hit a deer and totaled our car, forcing us off the road.

Needing help, we wondered into a nearby town only to find it empty, emergency sirens blaring in the background. People had been there…recently. The car doors were open, there was food cooking on the stove, there was even a fire smoldering in the fireplace. It was like the townsfolk had just upped and vanished. What I could see were shadows, the outlines of people dancing behind the buildings. But I couldn’t get them to interact with me, couldn’t get them to even acknowledge my presence.

That’s when I woke up, heart pounding and irritated that my subconscious had left me suspended in a dream with no clue who or what was after me.

So in essence…Creed was my way of finishing that nightmare.

Lindsay: The inspiration came from a very vivid nightmare that Trisha had. Of course she immediately called me and freaked me out which led us both to think the same thing: We have to write this story.

I grew up in the Midwest, so Purity Springs looks like about three dozen small farming communities I grew up around. You know the look – flat land, roads that stretch for miles surrounded by fields of corn or soy. Yeah, that’s Purity Springs to me.

Describe your research for this book.

Lindsay (black jacket over white print) & Trisha (in red) at their book launch.

Trisha: Ah…the Internet is both an informative and invasive space, one that provided us with the foundation we needed to create the characters in Creed.

Creed is essentially a cult book, so we had to do a fair amount of research into not only the hierarchical structure of different cults but the mentalities of their leaders and followers.

We poured over interviews with individuals who had left cults, public documents surrounding investigations into their abusive practices, and their child-rearing believes. The research was both fascinating and heart-breaking.

Lindsay: We did a great deal of research into cult mentalities for Creed. For one, to create a convincing group of people we had to figure out the leader, Elijah and how he would operate. In addition, one of our characters – Joseph – grew up inside the cult, which makes his headspace a little trickier to get into without a lot of digging around.

Which character in Creed intrigued you the most and why?

Trisha: Dee. Hands down, Dee. I am not a plotter, but I do create rather detailed character maps. Before I even put pen to paper, I map out the emotional stage of my main character— their past, their present, even their future dreams come into play.

When I choose my main character, I am purposefully picking the character who will struggle the most…who has the most to lose in that setting.

Dee is a foster kid with a history of abuse both in and out of the system. She has trust issues, has an entire history she refuses to speak of never mind relive.

Forcing her into this cult, connecting her abusive past to the current practices of the town, forcing her to place her trust in a stranger…all that goes against every instinct…every lesson life has taught her. That’s what makes her character so fascinating to me; the constant internal struggle that has her questioning her every decision.

Lindsay: For me, Joseph hands-down. Joseph is one of those characters who exists in the gray spaces between good and bad. Like the Doctor in Frankenstein (1818). He might do some unsavory things, but it’s tricky to label him one way or the other because his motives complicate things. He’s a product of his circumstances, and that isn’t a simple thing to toss into one category or another.

Creed is receiving rave reviews with a just a few polarized opinions about the religious aspects in the books. What role does religion play in the novel?

Trisha: I think by default, Creed is going to rub some people the wrong way. I mean it is nearly impossible to write a book about a cult without delving into the religious foundation of their existence. That said, I don’t think religion is at the heart of the story.

When I set out to co-author Creed, I was more interested in exploring the darkness that surrounds us every day, the evil that lurks within a chosen few and their dark past and tortured existences. The cult setting was truly just the avenue I used to explore the darker side of humanity.

Lindsay: Religion in the novel is always an interesting question because Creed truly isn’t intended to be a commentary on any particular religion or even organized religion in general. It plays a role because these cults do exist and have existed in different parts of the world for years and that’s what makes it so scary. If you take the religion out, it’s really just about what happens when a person in a position of power begins to believe they are omnipotent and abuses it.


Do you think a world like Purity Springs exists or could exist? Why? Are there aspects of our society that lend itself to the events in this book?

Trisha: Absolutely….if not the town, than the people. There is a line in the book that I think answers this question perfectly:

“My father told me not to be fooled, that the devil had two faces —one charming and meant to draw you in, the other full of sinful pride.” 

The seemingly innocuous people who we pass every day and never give them a second glance, the sweet neighbor next door who is living a double life…it is those people I tied to capture in Creed.

Lindsay: Ah, I might have accidentally answered this a little in the question above. But I’ll take this answer a slightly different route.

Yes, I see aspects of our society that lend themselves to the events in Creed. Every time you hear something terrible in the news about an authority figure – someone people trust and follow – it changes my perception of them and their private life whether I want it to or not.

This makes me think of Creed. Elijah Hawkins positions himself as taking care of others and protecting them, but once you begin peeling back his layers the truth is revealed and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen something like this in real life.

Describe a place, person or event that terrified you as a child.

Trisha: “Carol Anne, go into the light.”

Yeah…so I still might have a slight aversion to closets.

Who am I kidding? I still can’t sleep with the closet door open.

Lindsay: Gladly. I was always terrified by my grandmother’s basement. It was one of those places that just reeked of scary things – it smelled like dirt, was dark twenty-four hours a day and had one of those giant coal-burning furnaces stuffed in the back of it. I always had the unsettling sensation that something bad happened in there…even as a small child.

What draws you to YA horror fiction?

Trisha: I was deathly afraid of the dark when I was a kid. I used to check under the bed every night and refused to sleep without the hall light. My older brother used to tease me, say it wasn’t the monsters under the bed that I should be worried about, rather the ones lurking in the closet.

We were stupid, bickering kids back then, but years later, with a lifetime of experiences behind me, I finally got what he meant. There are no paranormal creatures in my manuscripts. No fangs, no claws, no mist as I like to say. It’s not because I don’t love a good fanged monster, but because I believe the darkness that surrounds us every day is scarier.

Lindsay: Well, the easy answer is that I love to be scared!

Well, let me add a caveat to that…I love what I call “safe fear”. So, the fear you feel in the movie theater, or curled up on your couch, or in bed reading a scary book. That fear is fun and exhilarating and nothing like real fear if you actually perceive yourself to be in danger. That’s why I like YA horror fiction.

When writing YA horror fiction, are there any lines you won’t cross with this genre?

Trisha: Hmm…I don’t think there is a thread or plot point I would avoid exploring so long as it is true to the character and his/her struggle. I don’t add things for shock factor, but I am not one to pull my punches either

Lindsay: Any lines we won’t cross. Hmmm.

Well, Trisha and I would probably be hard-pressed to kill any animals in our books. We’re both big animal lovers. But everyone and everything else is fair game.

Tell us about your journey in writing this book. How is writing as a team different than writing solo?

Trisha: Writing is a lonely process. You spend days, months, sometimes years in your own head, dreaming up characters that nobody but you can hear.

Co-authoring takes some of the isolation away. There is another person who is as intimately connected to the characters as you, who hears their voices and knows their plight.

I wouldn’t say my “solo” writing process is different – I’m still drawing out character maps, still fleshing out back-stories and constantly trying to find ways to inflict more pain on my characters — but it is definitely a more secluded process. Equally fulfilling, just quieter.

Lindsay: And as for writing as a team – it’s very different, but works amazingly well for us. Trisha and I have very similar writing styles and tastes and therefore it’s an adventure to team up on a book. Is it challenging sometimes? Sure. But overall, it’s a phenomenal experience and hey – two sets of eyes is better than one!

What essential things have you learned about writing in the last year? What have you learned from each other?

Trisha: I have learned that plotting is a necessary evil. When I wrote Creed and The Secrets We Keep (FSG, 2015), I was a total panster. I had solid start and a general idea of where I wanted the book to end, but everything in the middle…the wide open space.

Now that I am writing proposals for option books, I learned to make friends with dreaded outline. I don’t like it – outlining scenes and chapters doesn’t jibe with my writing process – but I understand its necessity and plow my way through it.

As for what Lindsay has taught me…she taught me to let go. I’m the kind of person who will revise a book to death, obsessing over it. Without her, I’m not sure I’d ever let a manuscript leave my computer. I’d still be sitting her staring at a dozen finished projects, tweaking perfectly fine sentences. In a way, she gives me the confidence to hit the “send” button.

Lindsay: I’ve learned better dialogue from Trisha for sure. She’s really a master at authentic and effortless dialogue and that’s something I’ve always had to work on.

And essential things I’ve learned about writing…I’d have to say I’ve learned to write the book I want to write. Creed wasn’t the easy book to write because it’s a challenging sell. It pushes the limits of YA fiction with some of it’s themes and for that reason, I think if Trisha and I had backed down and written something a little “safer” our path might have been simpler. But I think writing the book we wanted to write and writing it our way is ultimately what made it a good book.

Can you tell us about any upcoming novels, together or separately?

Trisha: On the solo front – My YA contemporary, The Secrets We Keep, drops April 28 with FSG.

On the co-authored front, Sweet Madness, a YA Historical Horror about the Lizzie Borden murders, drops August of 2015 with Merit Press. Hardwired, a stand-alone YA thriller that navigates that blurry line between nature and nurture, drops fall of 2015 with Flux.

Cynsational Notes

Trisha Leaver graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in social work. She lives on Cape Cod with her husband, three kids and one rather irreverent black lab. She is a member of  SCBWI, the Horror Writers Association, and the YA Scream Queens. Find her at Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Lindsay Currie graduated from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois; with an English Literature degree. She is a member of SCBWI, the Horror Writers Association and a contributor to the YA Scream Queens. Find her at Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

More on Karen Rock

Karen Rock is
an award-winning YA and adult contemporary author. She holds a master’s
degree in English and worked as an ELA instructor before becoming a
full-time author. With her co-author, Joanne Rock, she’s penned the Camp Boyfriend series with Spencer Hill Press under the pseudonym J.K. Rock. She also writes contemporary romance for Harlequin Enterprises.

When
she’s not writing, Karen loves scouring estate sales for vintage books,
cooking her grandmother’s family recipes and hiking. She lives in the
Adirondack Mountain region with her husband, daughter, and two Cavalier
King cocker spaniels who have yet to understand the concept of “fetch”
though they know a lot about love.

Check out her website, her co-author website, her Facebook page, and follow her on Twitter @karenrock5. Then check out Camp Boyfriend.

New Voice: Matt Phelan on Druthers

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Matt Phelan is the first-time author of Druthers (Candlewick, 2014). From the promotional copy:

With warmth and humor, award-winning author-illustrator Matt Phelan follows a child as she leads her daddy on some rainy-day flights of fancy.


It’s raining and raining and raining, and Penelope is bored. “What would you do if you had your druthers?” asks her daddy. 

Well, if Penelope had her druthers, she’d go to the zoo. Or be a cowgirl. Or a pirate captain who sails to the island of dinosaurs, or flies away on a rocket to the moon. 

If Penelope had her druthers, she’d go off on amazing adventures — but then again, being stuck inside may not be so bad if your daddy is along for the ride!

Note: Druthers is Matt’s first picture book as the author and illustrator.

As a picture book writer, how did you learn your craft? What were your natural strengths? Greatest challenges?

The best thing you can do to learn the craft is to read as many picture books as you can. Try to identify what works and what doesn’t.

Read them Out Loud. If you have a kid on your lap all the better, but it isn’t necessary.

But do read them out loud anyway. It will help you understand the rhythm and page turn.

Having illustrated ten picture books before writing my own, I had a unique opportunity to study the craft of writing a picture book. I learned so much from the great writers I’ve collaborated with over the years.

My greatest strength I suppose is that, as an illustrator, I know intuitively when I can let the pictures tell the story. The great challenge is to also work in the words so they do what they need to do to make the book a success. It’s a delicate balance and I’m honestly not sure if it is easier doing both parts or not.

As an author-illustrator, you come to children’s books with a double barrel of talent. Could you describe your apprenticeship in each area, and how well (or not) your inner writer and artist play together? What advice do you have for other interested in succeeding on this front?

I think my inner artist and inner writer get along swimmingly. I tend to see my stories first as images, but I write before I really start drawing.

In the case of my graphic novels, that medium allows me to tell much of my story through the images. But before I drew those images, I had written a detailed manuscript describing everything you see. I always write first for my graphic novels. I write in images and then the illustrator side makes those images.

Although I drew my whole life, I worked professionally as a copywriter and screenwriter before my first illustration job. I then concentrated on being an illustrator for five or six years.

During that time I was also playing around with the stories that would become The Storm in the Barn (Candlewick, 2009) and Druthers, so I think I always knew I would eventually write books as well as illustrate them.

As far as advice for author/illustrators, I would say that you must always remember that a picture book (or graphic novel for that matter) is a combination of words and images. You might have a wordless book, but there will still be a Story that you can tell with words. Find the balance, pay attention to the rhythm, and throw yourself into it.

Also (and this goes for anyone), don’t chase trends. If the book you want to write is a “quiet” book, don’t be discouraged because people say the market only wants “edgy” books.

Nobody in publishing knows what they want until they see it, really. You have to write or draw the book that you feel deep in your heart, gut, and soul. It’s the only chance for it to be good.

Outside Matt’s Studio
Inside Matt’s Studio

New Voice: Miriam Busch on Lion, Lion

Miriam and Lucy

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Miriam Busch is the first-time author of
Lion, Lion, illustrated by Larry Day (Balzer & Bray, 2014). From the promotional copy:

A little boy is looking for Lion.


Lion is looking for lunch.


And so our story begins. But look closely . . . in this tale, nothing is quite as it seems!


Children will delight in this classic picture book with a mischievous twist.

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

In 2008, shortly after we met, Larry Day asked me to build a story around a character he had drawn: Rusty, a rotund, red-haired boy-king kicking at a puddle.

I wasn’t sure I could do that – after all, this wasn’t my character. (And I was working on a novel. FYI, I’m always working on a novel.) But I tried.

Larry drew. I revised. Larry redrew. There were lions. And chases. The lion Larry had named Philbert was my favorite character– but I was unsure about Rusty himself.

Still, we sent it out. After a couple of rejections, I revised again. Still, something felt off. We revised over and over. Finally, we thought it was ready. Editors unanimously disagreed with us.

At this point, we had been re-re-re-revising for about four years. I did not understand Rusty’s character. I had no idea how to write a picture book. (To be fair, I didn’t know how to write that novel, either.) Rusty’s “story” was still thin — just a beautifully drawn running gag. I felt awful, I especially missed Philbert, but we scrapped it.

A couple of months later, Larry and I met for breakfast at a diner. I guess enough time had gone by, or the “giving up” had released the pressure. (Or maybe it was the coffee?)

Read sample!

I doodled on a napkin. What if: Philbert stayed? And we set it on Lake Naivasha, Kenya, where I had once heard Luo children sing in the middle of this beautiful land where rogue hippos could chase you up a tree? The kid’s from there, too, right? And what if he’s not a king, but just this clever boy who knows how to outsmart a Philbert?

In my (still-working-on-it) novel, characters speak at cross-purposes and misunderstand each other, sometimes deliberately. Characters speak at cross-purposes all the time. Why not in a picture book?

Why not have the word “lion” have two meanings?

We borrowed the first three lines from Rusty and boom: Lion, Lion rushed onto that napkin.

Within a week, Larry had a dummy ready to go. This time, it felt totally right.

We submitted it. One editor loved it, but had just purchased something similar. Another editor loved it, but Acquisitions said no.

Before Alessandra Balzer made an offer, she asked if we were willing to try an urban setting and different animals. We were four-and-a-half years in. By that time, we weren’t worried about changes. As long as the main character and the heart of the story remained, why not?

We played with what “urban” meant: Nairobi? Bilbao? Caracas? And finally settled on a Providence RI/ Brooklyn, NY/ Istanbul-behind-Topkapi-Palace feel.

Miriam and Larry at a school visit

We cycled through a whole lot of different animals, and with each change came research: fantasy or not, the animals’ foods still must be correct. And the lion still needs to be aggravated in a way that best serves the story.

The biggest change (and the one I was most resistant to) involved simplifying a particularly dear-to-me emotional throughline. I tried what Alessandra suggested through gritted teeth.

I wrote and rewrote. I was alternately angry and despairing. I wrote terrible versions. Alessandra was patient. I tried again. I honestly don’t know how many revisions we went through, but I do remember the “Yay! Done!” email.

Pretty spectacular, but unreal—I’m still half-waiting for the call to tell me to rework it. Lion, Lion, this picture book with ninety-seven words, took six years.

My advice on revision? None of this is new, and all of it’s worked for me: Listen to your little voice that says something isn’t working. When readers you respect suggest a change, try it, even if your jaw aches from gritting your teeth. Put the manuscript away for as long as you can, so you can re-see it. Take a walk. If a part or a character or a storyline isn’t serving the story, take it out, even if it’s the finest writing ever. Be willing to scrap everything but the heartbeat. Rebuild from there. Play.

As a picture book writer, you have succeeded in a particularly tough market. What advice do you have for others, hoping to do the same?

Honestly? I know it’s been said before, but read read read.

Linda Sue Park gave this lecture where she said (I’m paraphrasing): if you want to write novels, read a hundred novels before you start. If you want to write picture books, read a thousand picture books.

You read and you read and you read, and you get a sense of rhythm, of pacing. Read to absorb the craft. Notice.

Notice how the visuals tell a part of the story you cannot, how the main character manages the problem, how the author trusts the reader to fill in the blanks with imagination and inference.

The thing is, so much in this business is serendipity – and there are books I love so much which don’t get the popular attention I think they deserve – and we have no control over this.

Miriam and Larry

Jane Resh Thomas says (and again, I’m paraphrasing), “Do your work. It’s absolutely the only thing over which you have any control.”

Do your work. Quell your impatience.

Be willing to revise a million times.

Consider, really consider, every criticism. Give yourself time.

Don’t be so enamored with your own words that you lose sight of the heartbeat of the story.

Know your characters deeply and well.

Also, full disclosure: Falling in love with your illustrator isn’t the worst thing that can happen.

Larry and I married while he was finishing the final art for the book.

New Voices: Kirsten Lopresti on Bright Coin Moon

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Kirsten Lopresti
is the first-time author of Bright Coin Moon (Sky Pony Press, 2014)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Seventeen-year-old Lindsey Allen is an A-student who has her heart set on becoming an astronomer. But first she must break away from her mother, an eccentric failed beauty queen who has set up a phony psychic reading shop in their Oregon garage.


Lindsey is biding time until she graduates high school, reading tarot cards for the neighbors in her mother’s shop and recording the phases of the moon in her Moon Sign notebook. Her life changes when her mother, Debbie, decides they should move to California to become Hollywood psychics to the stars. 

As they pull out of the driveway, Lindsey looks up at the silver morning moon. It’s a bright coin moon, which means only one thing: what you leave behind today will rise up tomorrow.


When mother and daughter arrive in Los Angeles with new identities, they move into a leaky, run-down building and spend their nights stalking restaurants and movie premieres to catch that one celebrity they hope will be their ticket. 

When it seems they will never make it in LA, Lindsey is assigned a new mentor through her school. Joan is a lonely, wealthy widow who can’t get past the death of her husband, Saul. Debbie is convinced they’ve hit the jackpot, and plans for a future séance commence.

As Lindsey grows closer to Joan, guilt over the scam consumes her, and she must make the ultimate decision. But can she really betray her mother?

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

I prefer to write in the morning. If I have to, I can write at almost any time, provided I have enough caffeine, but it’s harder for me to get started and I’m much more likely to get distracted by other things. I think it’s true that you can train yourself to work best at certain times. I’m used to writing in the morning now, but when my daughters were babies, I used to write in the afternoon while they napped, and that worked well, too.

I have a small office in my home where I generally write. I’m always changing it around, so it’s been several colors, the latest of which is a dull, medium blue. I have two large bookshelves inside it, a reclining chair, and an old craftsman style desk that I bought off someone on Craigslist, after he told me it brought him good luck.

I also have one of those see-through bird feeders on the window. I like to stare at it when I’m stuck or procrastinating and see who shows up. There’s a woodpecker that frequents the feeder, and a bunch of bright yellow finches.

Once in a while, a squirrel will dive bomb it from the roof, and that’s always amusing to see.

Sometimes, if it’s a nice day, I’ll take my laptop outside and sit out on the screened porch. We have a bunch of big, old trees in the back yard, so it’s cool and shaded even in the summer.

We also have a pet rabbit who lives out there. He’ll hop around my feet while I work or jump up on the chair beside me to see what I’m doing. At one point, he hopped into my novel. One of the characters in Bright Coin Moon, a rich widow named Joan, also owns a rabbit.

Could you tell us about your writing community-your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional and/or professional support?

I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve always had a good amount of support for my writing. My husband was very helpful the entire time I was writing Bright Coin Moon, and my parents always encouraged me to pursue my interests growing up.

I’ve also been a member of a writing group for several years. The group is made up of some of my fellow graduates of the George Mason University MFA program, and we meet pretty much every month.

We exchange work, and we attend events together, and we celebrate each other’s successes by going out for drinks or dinner. There are four of us who have been with the group since the start, and others who have moved in and out.

In the beginning, we were pretty formal. We made a schedule, and when your date came up, you had to come up with something to turn in, but as time went on, we loosened up. If someone has something to share, that person can certainly bring it in, but if not, the meeting will still go on. We’ll talk about books we’ve read or whatever trouble we’re facing with our manuscripts, or just about writing in general. If there is an event like Fall for the Book, which is a week-long festival put on by our Alma Mater, we will revolve around that for awhile, e-mailing each other and meeting up here and there on campus for various events.

I’ve found that the group is invaluable. Not just for feedback, but also to chat with about writing. Other writers just get you in a way that other people don’t. If you tell a normal, sane person you are down one day because several magazines rejected a story you wrote, the sane person might say, “You know, my cousin might know someone who can get you an office job.”

But another writer will say, “I’m going through that right now, too,” or she’ll tell you to try a new ending or something like that. Of course, I’m lucky that I still live fairly close to the school I attended, so I have this opportunity to stay in touch that I might not have had.

If you are looking for a critique group and are a YA or children’s writer, I highly recommend joining SCBWI. They have local chapters with events where you can meet other writers, and there are always sign-up sheets going around at meetings to help you find a group.

Guest Interview: Lindsey Lane on A Heap of Talking with Edward Carey

Edward in Edward Gorey‘s coat; photo by Allison Devers

By Lindsey Lane
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I am sitting at Sweetish Hill Bakery & Cafe, waiting to interview Edward Carey, author of the forthcoming middle grade/YA novel Heap House, Iremonger Book One.

If I’d read his bio before the interview, I might be a little bit intimidated.

Not only is Carey the author of two adult novels, Observatory Mansions and Alva and Irva: the Twins Who Saved a City, which have been translated into thirteen different languages, and both of which he illustrated, he is also a playwright with a long list of credits in England, Romania, Lithuania and Malaysia.

He has lived all over the world and currently makes his home in Austin with his wife Elizabeth McCracken and their two children and occasionally teaches creative writing and fairy tales at the Michener Center and the English Department at the University of Texas at Austin.

Gulp…Instead, I’m happily oblivious when Edward Carey bursts through the door of Sweetish Hill, hair blown back, red faced. I wonder if he’s driven here on a motorcycle.

Edward Carey: Parking. There’s no parking. I couldn’t find any parking. I had to run a great distance. I’m so sorry I’m late.

I assure him that six minutes past a meeting time in a town with too much traffic and not enough places to put cars is not late. In fact, my mother would argue, five minutes of lateness builds the anticipation of meeting someone. Particularly someone whose book I really loved.

Heap House is brilliant, original, inventive and unlike any book I’d ever read. The writing is smart and funny. The premise is ancient and fresh.

While Edward orders tea, I’ll share a brief description of the book:


Clod is an Iremonger. He lives in the Heaps, a vast sea of lost and discarded items collected from all over London.

At the centre is Heap House, a living maze of staircases and scurrying rats. Clod has an illness. He can hear the objects whispering. His birth object, a universal bath plug, says ‘James Henry’, A storm is brewing over Heap House.

When Clod meets Lucy Pennant, a girl newly arrived from the city, everything changes. The secrets that bind Heap House together begin to unravel to reveal a dark truth that threatens to destroy Clod’s world.

Already, it has received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews.

L2: Can you give me a one sentence description on Heap House?

EC: It’s a coming of age love story set in the rubbish heaps of Victorian London.

L2: So how did you come to write Heap House?

EC: I love Dickens. I love illustrations. I love kids books. I love Robert Louis Stevenson. I love books with a sense of adventure.

L2: Okay. But why Heap House? What was the inspiration?

Edward in China; photo by Hugh Ferrer

EC: Well, there was this museum outside Bejing. I can’t remember the name of it. And when I went in there, they had rooms full of things.

One room full of mirrors. One room full of keys, one full of doorhandles. One room was full of bathtubs.

And it seemed to me all these objects put together were somehow communicating with each other.

L2: Really?

EC: Well, that’s what it seemed like to me. A 14th century tub talking to 19th century tub. They were going on and on.

L2: And that visit led to a book about objects that talked?

EC: It started me thinking about it. In Victorian England, during the height of Britain’s Empire, there was also an horrendous amount of poverty and neglect, and poor people were just crushed under the weight of industry. There were massive amounts of poor people and children were left at orphanages with one object from their families.

There’s a place in London called the Foundling Hospital (now it’s a museum) and sometimes when the mother anonymously left her baby there in the night, she’d leave a small object behind with it, a thimble say or a button or the metal label from a gin bottle, and this would be all that was afterwards to give any hint of where the child came from.

Can you imagine? Your mother is so poor she can’t keep you and she leaves you at an orphanage with one object. What tremendous power these singular objects have.

L2: Ahh, I’m beginning to see the heft and history of the objects in Heap House and their relation to people. But at Heap House you have massive heaps of things and rubbish not just the characters’ birth objects.

EC: Right. That’s what we spend our whole lives doing. Consuming and spending and acquiring and what happens when we don’t look after those things? We throw them away.

And what happens when we die? Those objects, those precious things get orphaned and thrown into the rubbish.

Terribly sad, really.

copyright Edward Carey

L2: How did Clod start coming into focus amongst all the objects?

EC: I started drawing this odd, ill-faced child who looked slightly miserable and I wondered, Hmm, what do you have to say for yourself?

L2: Do you draw a lot?

EC: All the time. But not all of them become characters. Clod did, because he looked so concerned about something. I gave him a bathplug for his object. It worked symbolically because a plug keeps things in or lets them out.

L2: And Lucy? Her object?

EC: I gave her a box of matches. Her name comes from Lucifer. When she comes into the house, she turns things up side down. Almost like a burning, a purifying or a transformation. So…matches.

L2:What would you like your birth object to be?

EC: I think a pencil sharpener would be quite nice.

Edward and I digress and talk about a few of the characters’ objects for a while. He tells me the Grandmother in Heap House gets quite nasty. She’s the one who chooses peoples birth objects and some of them aren’t very nice. Like one poor fellow gets a noose. Not a bright future for that character.

If you would like to have a birth object, you can go to Edward’s website (scroll to bottom) and you will be assigned one. Mine is named Joseph Cecil Tennant and appears to be a little stool.

I try to wheedle the details out of him about Book Two and Three.

EC: Book Two’s done. It will be out next October. I haven’t worked out Book Three. I’ve got tons of stuff but it’s not filled in. I like not entirely knowing what’s going to happen so I have the freedom to surprise myself.

L2: That’s what I loved about your writing. It surprises. Like this description:

Bornobby washed with some sort of scented soap so you could always smell him coming, but always there was an undersmell with him, as if a ghost of a fish was following him about, swimming in his air.

It’s the kind of writing that give other writers permission to write more boldly, more inventively.

EC: Thank you.

copyright Edward Carey

L2: What writers give you permission to draw outside the lines, so to speak?

EC: Angela Carter. Leonora Carrington. Carson McCullers. Shirley Jackson. Patrick Ness. Neil Gaiman. That’s why I love to teach fairytales. Grimm, Hoffman, Andersen these are really dark stories. They are our original stories, Grimms’ tales are a primal source of fiction, which over time have often been sanitized. Originally there wasn’t a stepmother in Hansel and Gretel. It was the mother who sent the kids into the woods because there wasn’t enough food. I love those stories. There are always woods you can’t go into.

If you go into the darkness, what will happen? Death? Or Love?

I also love the Secret Garden, Rudyard Kipling, and J.M Barrie’s original Peter Pan. It has the greatest opening lines in children’s literature: “All children, save one, grow up.”

Or perhaps this first line:

“It really all began, all the terrible business that followed, on the day that my Aunt Rosamud’s door handle went missing.” –Beginning the narrative of Clod Iremonger

copyright Edward Carey

Cynsational Notes

Photo of Lindsey by Sam Bond Photography.

Adapted from Lindsey’s website bio:

Lindsey graduated from Hampshire College with a BA in Theatre Arts-Playwriting and moved to Austin where she started writing plays like the award winning “The Miracle of Washing Dishes.”

Later, she worked at The Austin Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman where she interviewed death row inmates, cops and wayward millionaires.

When she wasn’t writing, she trained as a boxer and promoted the first
all-women’s boxing event to raise money for the Austin Rape Crisis
Center.

In 2003, Clarion published her picture book Snuggle Mountain, named Best Children’s Book of 2004 by Bank Street College of Education. Later, PicPocket Books published Snuggle Mountain as an app.

Lindsey received an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2010. Her debut YA novel Evidence of Things Not Seen was released by FSG in September.

Event Report: Lindsey Lane & Evidence of Things Not Seen from Cynsations.

New Voice: Tracy Holczer on The Secret Hum of a Daisy

Teacher’s Guide & Excerpt

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Tracy Holczer is the first-time author of The Secret Hum of a Daisy (Putnam, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Twelve-year-old Grace and her mother have always been their own family, traveling from place to place like gypsies. But Grace wants to finally have a home all their own. She thinks she’s found it with Mrs. Greene and her daughter Lacey, so when her mother says it’s time to move on again, Grace summons the courage to tell her mother how she really feels. 

She’ll always regret that her last words to her were angry ones.


Now faced with making a home with a grandmother she’s never met, and according to her mother, didn’t want her in the first place, Grace is desperate to get back to Mrs. Greene and Lacey. 

A mysterious treasure hunt, just like the ones her mother used to send her on, may must be the key. It all begins with a crane. And Grace is sure it’s her mother showing her the way home.
 

Was there one writing workshop or conference that led to an “ah-ha!” moment in your craft? What happened, and how did it help you?

Back in 2003, when I’d been writing for about a year, I applied for a scholarship to Chautauqua, a workshop given by the Highlights Foundation.

I tried not to giggle too hysterically as I filled out the paperwork, thinking, “Who the heck do you think you are? You can’t go anywhere for a week! Besides, scholarships are for writers. Not wannabes with three young children to care for.”

“Pfft,” said the Rational Voice, and I sent it in.

When Kent Brown called to let me know I’d have a tuition scholarship, I immediately burst into tears and accepted with no idea how I’d cover room and board. We’d just started a new business and moved into a house and every penny was allocated to something much more important than my writing hobby.

My husband was the first person to suggest that maybe it wasn’t a hobby. When my family stepped in to cover the rest of the cost, expressing the same sentiment, I burst into tears all over again.

So, in the summer of 2004, I left behind a ten, seven and two-year-old to study craft and meet the rock stars of the kid lit world. For heaven’s sake, I sat right next to Jerry Spinelli for dinner one night. And talked to him as though he were a normal person. I’m sure I didn’t drool too terribly.

But what changed everything (aside from Sharon Creech just stopping by because she was in the neighborhood) was having Patti Gauch as my manuscript advisor. I started to get the idea that I’d lucked out when I began noticing people following her around in little clumps.

When you meet her, you really want to do this, too, because all that comes out of her mouth are these snippets of brilliance you immediately want to wear on a T-shirt.

Then, it was just Patti and me for our meeting. She told me to dig deep. To take the images as far as they would go. She told me to make sure there was a surprise on every page. A unique turn a phrase, a special image, a new way of looking at something. She told me to ignore my “homogenized self” and to embrace the part of me that was different.

She made me feel as though all my weirdness, everything I’d ever tried to hide from everyone, was the very thing I needed to cherish and put down on paper.

Then she talked about character being the heart of the story. After failing miserably at any sort of plotting, this was a new and breath-taking perspective. Maybe I could write a story by following the character, rather that expecting the character to follow a story. It changed everything.

It still took me six long years to write The Secret Hum of a Daisy, but Patti Gauch, and the Highlights Foundation, helped put me on the right path.

Lisa blogs at Smack Dab in the Mid^dle: A Middle Grade Authors’ Blog.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

Grace came by magic. During that sleep/waking time when everything is half-real, half-imagined. She stood on the front porch of an old farmhouse wearing Mary Janes.

“They’re the only decent ones I’ve got,” she’d said, and rocked back and forth from heel to toe.

Photo of Tracy by Lisa Williams Photography

I knew her mom had just died. I knew she had to live with a grandmother she’d never met, one she was afraid of. I didn’t know what else was in store for Grace, but I knew it would be a magical experience for me. And it was.

Samantha, however, the twelve-year-old in my new book, is not coming magically. She is a tough nut to crack.

What I’m doing to coax her out is more writing exercises with her running the show. She’s writing Haiku and journal entries (even though she would never do either).

I’m asking her to tell me secrets and what she yearns for. Sometimes I put myself in the shoes of her best friend, Milo, and have him ask her questions that she might actually answer.

What I’m learning, this time around, is that I have to listen even harder to my instincts. And that some characters express themselves in different ways. Just like real people.

Interestingly, in this case, it wasn’t until I did a character biography on her dad that I saw Sam more deeply. She hasn’t been as easy as Grace, but we have come to an understanding. She’ll be in bookstores in summer, 2016.

New Voice: Christine Kohler on No Surrender Soldier

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Christine Kohler is the first-time author of No Surrender Soldier (Merit Press, 2014). From the promotional copy:

A young man, an old soldier, and a terrible injustice. Should the punishment be death?



Growing up on Guam in 1972, fifteen-year-old Kiko is beset by worries: He’s never kissed a girl, and he thinks it’s possible he never will. The popular guys get all the attention, but the worst part is that Kiko has serious problems at home. His older brother is missing in Vietnam; his grandfather is losing it to dementia; he just learned that his mother was raped in World War II by a Japanese soldier. 

It all comes together when he discovers an old man, a Japanese soldier, hiding in the jungle behind his house. It’s not the same man who raped his mother, but, in his rage, Kiko cares only about protecting his family and avenging his mom – no matter what it takes. 

And so, a shy, peaceable boy begins to plan a murder. But how far will Kiko go to prove to himself that he’s a man ? 

Based on a historical incident, No Surrender Soldier is the story of a boy grappling with ancient questions of courage and manhood before he can move on.

What inspired you to choose the particular point of view–first, second, third, omniscient (or some alternating combination) featured in your novel? What considerations came into play? Did you try the story from a different point of view at some point? If so, what made you change your mind?

point of view revision

Originally I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with this idea; I only had a premise—a 15-year-old Chamorro boy discovers his mother was raped during WWII by a Japanese soldier; what he doesn’t know is that there is a Japanese soldier who has been hiding in the jungle behind the boy’s house for 28 years since the liberation of Guam during WWII.

So I wrote the Chamorro family’s chapters in third person omniscient. That way I could fully flesh out the characters of entire family—Kiko, tatan (grandfather), tata (father), nana (mother), and Bobo (dog).

From the very first draft, the story was in alternating point of view (POV) chapters between Kiko and the WWII Japanese soldier, Isamu Seto. But there was no prologue nor framing until much later.

From the first draft, Seto’s chapters were in third person limited omniscient with a close psychic distance. That never changed.

All that changed regarding Seto’s chapters is that they increased, and in deeper revisions, I had to keep making his routines bump up against Kiko’s so there was a constant cause and effect, action and reaction, actions and consequences. The plot and subplot run like two railroad tracks that keep intersecting until the big collision (climax).

Once I had the family fleshed out and knew where they were and what they were all doing and how they would all react to each other and situations, then I needed to peel it all apart and put the focus on only Kiko, since he is the main character and it’s his story.

point of view notes

To convert Kiko’s chapters to limited omniscient I highlighted each character and his or her actions, dialogue, internal monologue (most IM should have been Kiko’s only) with different colored highlighters.

Then anything that did not adhere to Kiko’s plot problems or was from Kiko’s POV got axed. I kept his chapters in third person.

I didn’t count how many revisions I wrote, so let’s just say that eventually I took the plunge and wrote Kiko’s chapters in first person.

This was a difficult decision, not because I didn’t know it might make the story more compelling, but because I was so afraid of not being able to write an authentic 15-year-old Chamorro boy’s voice. There is no fudging in first person. And I write narrative in a character’s voice, too, just not as heavy in dialect. (Writing pidgin English is an entirely different writing craft topic.)

I would never have attempted either of these character voices had I not lived on Pacific-Asian islands, including Japan and Guam, for a decade. But in the end, I was glad I settled on third person for the Japanese soldier and first person for the Chamorro teen because I believe it is what added to making their chapters so distinctly different.

Christine’s office

As a historical fiction writer, what drew you first–character, concept, or historical period? In whichever case, how did you go about building your world and integrating it into the story? What were the special challenges? Where did you turn for inspiration or support?

Christine with Abby

No Surrender Soldier is historical fiction set on Guam during the Vietnam war era, specifically 1972. It also involves a WWII topic, the occupation of Guam by the Japanese. And I needed to research my Japanese character’s pre-WWII life in Japan. So I researched three time periods and two Pacific island locations.

Although I had lived on both of these islands, I did not live in the specific locales of my characters’ settings nor during these early of dates.
What drew me first to this topic and premise was my curiosity about why the Japanese soldier hid in the jungle for 28 years, suffering such extreme deprivation. What I couldn’t shake from working and living in Asia-Pacific was the atrocities done to the occupied people during WWII. So I guess you could say it was seeing human suffering on both sides of battling nations that drew me to combine these two situations/concepts.

There was never a question in my mind as to when the story would take place—1972, the year in which the real No Surrender Soldier, Shoichi Yokoi, was captured. Of course the Vietnam War was still in action, though winding down. But it reinforced the war theme since my story deals with the after-effects of war and how it affects families for generations.

Christine’s research

At the time I started writing No Surrender Soldier I had lived on the U.S. mainland for a decade. I had recently left my job as a copy editor at the San Antonio Express-News to write full-time and specialize in children’s literature. So it was more challenging to get the research materials I wanted.

When I had lived on Guam I had the foresight to buy the Guam history book in high schools, although I didn’t know at the time I would write a novel. I read this history book cover to cover.

Then I read every book I could borrow from the library (not many) or purchase on-line. But more importantly, I wanted to read all the newspaper accounts—U.S. and Japanese—about Yokoi. I contacted my Gannett publisher, Lee Webber, and he had the archivist Carmelita Blas copy and mail me copies of Pacific Daily News articles. Dirk Ballendorf, then director of the Micronesian Area Research Center (MARC) at the University of Guam, also had an archivist Lourdes Nededog send me copies of everything in the files about Yokoi, which included foreign press clippings.

To purchase a compilation of Japanese journalists’ articles translated into English, I had to go on-line to an antique book dealer in Canada. I also read Yokoi’s autobiography, which was mostly about his life after he returned to Japan so it wasn’t as helpful.

Christine’s blog

A funny side note regarding research: I’ve never lived on a farm, so when I wanted to write a pig-slaughtering chapter I checked out from the San Antonio library a book on how to slaughter pigs.

My husband used to spend his summers as a child on a farm and he said if anyone checked my library history they would show up at my door in the city and wonder what I’m up to.

Now that No Surrender Soldier is out, it’s being sold on-line at a sited called “Home Butchering Books”. No lie! Look it up!

I also contacted via internet Raymond Baza, a musician and composer, to ask questions about Chamorro music since it is as integral to the fiesta as food.

I had no problem building my world—place, culture, customs, food, etc. What was challenging for me was to know what to cut and what to keep in revision. I had to cut a tremendous amount of background and description so it wouldn’t sacrifice the natural storytelling.

New Voice: David Zeltser on Lug, Dawn Of The Ice Age

Curriculum Resources

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

David Zeltser is the first-time author of Lug, Dawn Of The Ice Age: How One Small Boy Saved Our Big, Dumb Species (Egmont, 2014). From the promotional copy:

In Lug’s Stone Age clan, a caveboy becomes a caveman by catching a jungle llama and riding it against the rival Boar Rider clan in the Big Game. 

The thing is, Lug has a forbidden, secret art cave and would rather paint than smash skulls. Because Lug is different, his clan’s Big Man is out to get him, he’s got a pair of bullies on his case—oh, and the Ice Age is coming.


When Lug is banished from the clan for failing to catch a jungle llama, he’s forced to team up with Stony, a silent Neanderthal with a very expressive unibrow, and Echo (a Boar Rider girl!). 

In a world experiencing some serious global cooling, these misfits must protect their feuding clans from the impending freeze and a particularly unpleasant pride of migrating saber-toothed tigers. 

It’s no help that the elders are cavemen who can’t seem to get the concept of climate change through their thick skulls.


Could you tell us the story of “the call” or “the email” when you found out that your book had sold? How did you react? How did you celebrate?

On Friday, December 7, 2012, I got an international call. It was my agent, Catherine Drayton, in Sydney, Australia. She told me that Lug: Dawn of the Ice Age and a sequel was going to be published. I started sobbing–which felt strange, embarrassing, joyful and cathartic all at once.

My daughter was two at the time, so I remember feeling especially happy that she might read the books one day. After the call–thinking I was all cried out–I called my wife. I immediately started bawling. Then I called my parents . . . you get the idea.

We celebrated by going out for dinner. I have no idea where or what we ate, but I’m sure there was dessert involved and that it tasted especially sweet that night.

One of the best memories I do have–my mother-in-law emailed me to say: “Congratulations! Don’t let it go to your head.”

She’s from Scotland.

As a comedic writer, how do you decide what’s funny?

I have a giant stuffed iguana named Pedro next to my computer. I’ve noticed that whenever I write something funny, Pedro winks at me and whispers “Bueno.”

What advice do you have for those interested in either writing comedies or books with a substantial amount of humor in them?

I wouldn’t advise setting out to write in any particular genre or style. I think the key thing is to find a story and characters you love, and then to try various approaches and see what reads best.

Deborah Halverson

Lug started out in third person but–on the advice of the wonderful Deborah Halverson–ended up in first person. It was just more fun to read that way.

More importantly, I would make sure you love the process of creating stories more than anything else. If it’s not your true calling, do the thing you love more.

Be completely honest with yourself–are you doing this more for the love of storytelling, or to ‘become an author’ one day? Are you genuinely enjoying what you’re writing? If the answer is ‘kinda,’ chances are that’s how other people will feel too.

Finally, find writer/reader friends and show them your stories. Listen, learn, and rewrite. Put your story away for a while and look at it again fresh. Then, rinse and repeat. Since you usually only have one shot with a manuscript, only go out to agents after you’ve gone through this process a few times.

Having said all that, I think the funniest books aren’t too focused on the funny. They’re compelling stories with interesting characters who happen to be in comic situations. We’re not going to laugh much if we don’t care about the characters or the story.

Personally, my favorite kind of humor is situational. I like building scenes so that the humor comes from what’s happening to the characters, rather than from the author commenting on what’s happening.

If that’s not enough unwanted advice, I recommend The Complete Guide to the Care and Training of the Writer in Your Life.

Cynsational Notes

David Zeltser emigrated from the Soviet Union as a child, graduated from Harvard, and has worked with all kinds of wild animals, including rhinos, owls, sharks, and ad executives. He has a forthcoming picture book, Ninja Baby, with Caldecott Honor illustrator Diane Goode (Chronicle Books). David lives with his wife and daughter in Santa Cruz, California. He performs improv comedy and loves meeting readers of all ages. His second book about Lug is scheduled to publish in Fall 2015. Follow David on Twitter: @davidzeltser

Guest Post: Simon Nicholson on An Alternative History & Investigator of Mystery

Excerpt, educator’s guide & more information!

By Simon Nicholson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I was reading books about Houdini. It seemed to me one of the most exciting things about him was that, as well as being the world’s most famous illusionist, he also devoted much of his life to doing battle against “magic”.

Enraged at the thought of ordinary people being exploited, he worked ceaselessly to expose fake séances, false mediums, Spiritualist hoaxes.

With his stunts and de-bunking activities, the great Houdini sought to prove that man was master of his own fate, that no “magic” could be more powerful than what ordinary men or women could achieve with their own skills, muscles and wits.

An extraordinary quest—particularly for his times. I started wondering what could have made Houdini so driven in this way. Something in his childhood perhaps?

An idea for a series of books for middle grade readers took shape; in which a young Harry Houdini, boy investigator, would be faced with supposedly magical mysteries, and would use his emerging escapological skills to unmask the truth.

I started work on an alternative history: a series of events that didn’t happen, but which, just possibly, might have done. I knew that the real Houdini’s boyhood had been a relatively peaceful one in Appleton, Wisconsin; but I asked myself whether that could have been a “cover-up”, a carefully devised tale to conceal a far more thrilling reality?

So I placed my Harry on the Manhattan streets in 1886, shining shoes; I introduced him to two young friends, Billie and Arthur. Together, this trio find themselves getting swept up in a series of frightening mysteries; an elderly magician kidnapped by unknowable forces; the mayor of New Orleans falling victim to a daemonic curse. People are terrified, rumours of magic abound; but young Harry uses his skills to expose the truth…

And to outwit the danger that results. Generally, people create rumours of magic for sinister purposes, and the villains in my books would be no different.

More on Simon Nicholson!

The real Houdini made powerful enemies through his determination to expose falsehood; that would be true of my boy investigator too. His enemies would try to silence him by the most deadly means possible, leading him to develop those unbelievable powers of escape.

Over and over again, he would escape to tell the tale; he and his friends would travel the world to defeat mystery. And at the end, I decided, there would be neat scene in which Harry would decide to invent his “cover story”, a convincing tale of how he grew up peacefully in Wisconsin, USA…

So: Young Houdini, investigator of mystery.

Cynsational Notes

Simon Nicholson is the author of The Magician’s Fire, the first book in his Young Houdini series. Young Houdini: The Magician’s Fire is published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky in the U.S. and by OUP in the U.K. and rest of the world.