Saturday, June 30, 2012

Interview with Martha Bennett Stiles

Everyone in the Midsouth region of Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators knows Martha Bennett Stiles, the children’s writer with the kind of long-lasting career most of us can only dream of having. Martha’s first novel, One Among the Indians, was published by Dial in 1962 and her latest, Sailing to Freedom, is out July 3 from Henry Holt. She’s published nine other children’s books in between, an adult novel Lonesome Road, and too many articles and stories to list here. She’s also an active member of the Midsouth SCBWI community, attending conferences and workshops and cheerleading and mentoring writers on the listserve. Plus, she’s just an incredibly sweet and generous person. Now, because I can’t help myself, I’m going to look like a fool by sharing my favorite Martha memory: There’s no way she would remember this, but at a workshop in Lexington Martha and I sat next to each other and at one point she turned to me and remarked that I looked like Julia Roberts. (Haha. Good one, Martha! Do I need to mention that she also has a great sense of humor?)

Jody: Martha, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your sitting down to “chat” with me today. Oh, and I just heard the news that you were too modest to share: Sailing to Freedom has been chosen by the Kentucky Department of Library and Archives to represent the state of Kentucky in the National Book Fest.

Martha: I am not modest, just self-conscious.

Jody: Fair enough. I guess I’ll start with the question that I ask all my writer guests: where do you get your ideas?

Martha: You are flatteringly kind to ask that question, given its implication that my ideas are worth getting. The best answer I've heard is, "If I knew, I'd go live there."

I got the idea of Sailing to Freedom from my father's account of a pie-stealing pet monkey on the battleship Delaware, 90 years ago.  Any fact you decide on leads to questions, and answering these successive questions writes your story.  Whose monkey is it specifically?  The 12 year-old cook’s helper?  Well, what’s a 12-year old doing aboard a coastal schooner? Is he perfectly welcome?  Why not?  and so on.

I got the idea of the kidnapping that’s at the heart of Lonesome Road from news accounts of the disappearance of Etan Patz.  I was living on a horse farm, so I put the victim on a horse farm and incorporated many of my own experiences.

One Among the Indians is the story of my first American grandsire, a cabin boy who for three years was swapped to Pocahontas’s father as a hostage. My mother told my older sister and me about him when we moved to Virginia so that, she later explained to me, we would feel at home in Virginia, entitled to be there. Unfortunately, my grandsire was named Thomas Savage, and hard as it is to believe, I already at 2 and 3 knew what a savage was and was cripplingly embarrassed by the news that I was descended from one.

Jody: I love how you’ve found a way to weave old family stories into your fiction. Sometimes beginning writers struggle with this--they have a true story to work with but can't quite develop it beyond something autobiographical. I know I used to stumble at this point, sticking too closely to the facts and not allowing the story to go where it wanted. Now I do a lot of free-writing, figuring the plot out as I go. What about you? Is that your method or do you see yourself as an outline-ahead type of writer?

Martha: The longer I write, the more I plan before I start writing. My plans are not inflexible, however. Sailing to Freedom was completed and accepted when, at the prodding of my blessedly remarkable Henry Holt editor, Noa Wheeler, I thought of having my cabin boy hero’s monkey scuttle up the pantry shelves and foul the villain’s clothing from above, inspiring said villain to disembark, to everyone’s huge relief.  As for my stalwart Canada-bound  hiker, Ogun, I hadn’t originally meant to say more about him than a sprinkling of insertions at varying intervals in my cabin boy’s saga, but as I wrote about him, he became my favorite character in the book, and his sentences became paragraphs-- became, sometimes, pages.

When I sold Lonesome Road, the story ended with the escape of the kidnapped boy. Gnomon Press's editors did me the favor of persuading me to add some pages showing how the boy adjusted to returning home.

I commenced writing The Star in the Forest immediately after completing a YA set in World War II Germany, in which I had tried to be fair to everyone. 'Now,' I told my husband, 'I am going to write a book which has a villain, and nobody likes him because he IS a villain, and nobody tries to understand him, they just don't like him because he is bad.  And I am going to split his skull.' Well, it's a long book with several major characters, and I intended to wind things up for each of them.  But as my villain dropped, I felt such relief and satisfaction that I didn’t write another word.  I just sent the manuscript off. I expected my editor to ask me to wrap things up more explicitly for the other characters than I had done, but to my pleased surprise, the manuscript was published just like that.

Jody: I love hearing background info about a book I’ve just read. The character Ogun in Sailing to Freedom was a favorite of mine too. I should mention to my faithful blog readers that if you’ve got an 8 to 12 year old boy reader in your life, definitely check out this book. It’s a nail-biting adventure of a boy on a sailing ship. The time period, pre-Civil War, comes alive, and there’s lots of Martha’s good humor on display (which you can probably guess from her description of the boy’s pet monkey above). And some real heart wrenching moments too—in the interludes of Ogun, the runaway slave.

Okay, switching topics here, but what kind of work schedule do you have every day?

Martha: My writing schedule has changed with my life.  As a professor's wife, I would go to my desk as soon as my husband left for work, and not rise till I noticed I was hungry, usually around two.  Then I would be a good wife the rest of the day.  Not being cramped for time, I could embark on projects that called for lots of research, like One Among the Indians, which is set in 17th  century England and Virginia.

After my husband left the University of Michigan chemistry department for our Kentucky horse farm, I did my writing before breakfast.  Horse barn breakfasts being served around dawn, the cook leaves her office for her kitchen before dawn. There’s a limit to how much I am willing to suffer sleep-wise for my art, so to compensate for less desk time, I switched from historical to contemporary subjects. Sarah the Dragon Lady, Kate of Still Waters, Lonesome Road, Island Magic, are all contemporary, calling for no trips off the farm to a library.

Five years ago we sold our farm and I am back to writing more than any other activity. I don't JUST write; I try to preserve my health and observe the decencies, but mainly I sit at my desk or trudge to the library. For the first time in my life I live within walking distance of a public library, and a perfectly glorious library system Lexington, Kentucky has. The book Henry Holt is publishing for me, Sailing to Freedom, is about the Underground Railroad during Fugitive Slave Law times.  Every paragraph seemed to call for me to consult another book, and the library could not have been more helpful.

Jody: I like that—“observe the decencies.” And you’re making me pine for the days I lived in Lexington and was able to take advantage of those libraries. (But I should give a shout out here, to my local library in Upper Arlington, Ohio. I didn’t use it for research but I did write an entire novel sitting in one of its comfy chairs by the windows. For accuracy purposes—said novel was the sixth novel I’ve written and the first to snag a book deal.) So I must ask you: How many books did you write before you got your first book deal?

Martha: My first novel was so bad, only three people saw it: two English professors and a good friend. Two of those three readers were so obviously embarrassed by how bad it was that I never showed it to anyone else; not even my husband, and certainly not to my agent. It is somewhere in my basement and I have got to find and burn it before I die.

Jody: You just made me snort coffee out of my nose. Hold on while I clean up and then run upstairs to my office to find (and burn) my own painful first stab at a novel. Okay, I’m back. Continue…

Martha: My second novel, The Strange House at Newburyport, went to an elderly editor who promptly retired. Her assistant took maternity leave. The replacement editor went on her honeymoon. So far as I know, no one at that house ever read a page of The Strange House at Newburyport. My agent asked for it back and sent my third book, One Among the Indians, to a different house.  Once the latter published One Among the Indians, she sent them Strange House, which they bought, a trifle suspiciously, I thought. I felt better when it became a Parents' Magazine Bookclub Selection, a Parker River Researchers paperback, a Kentucky Talking Book, and, like One Among the Indians, was translated into German. (For the hometown of Sailing to Freedom’s hero, I turned to Newburyport again, smiling to think how much work this would save me.  I already had visited Newburyport; I already knew its history and how it lay and what books would tell me what I might not remember.  I forgot that for most of my new book, my Newburyporter hero is at sea.)

To answer you succinctly, I wrote only one novel-length book in vain, but don’t ask about picture books, the delight of my soul.  Countless written, three published.

Jody: I won't go there with the picture books, but with your other works, how many rejections did you receive along the way?

Martha: For short stories, I received countless rejections and published only fifteen, before deciding just to concentrate on books.  Had I been an English rather than chemistry major, I might have tried longer.  When I got rejections with a few comforting words and the initials RA, for instance, I had no idea that the latter stood for Roger Angell and indicated that it might be worth my while to keep sending stories to the New Yorker. Bobby Ann Mason persevered; I was clueless.

I fared much better with articles. A fair number were rejected here and there before finding homes, but mostly I knew where to send them in the first place.  I see now that I had published forty-three articles before the constraints of being a farm wife made me less mobile, more prey to can’t-ignore interruptions; made article writing less easy.  And so concentrated on books.

Jody: Hmm, “only fifteen” shorts stories, you say. We should all publish so few! And what a bummer about your quitting early with the New Yorker. Sometimes, though, I think it’s okay to be a clueless in this business. In any event it got you focused on your novels, which seems to have worked out in your favor. I don’t think many beginning writers realize how much effort goes into submitting. There’s a lot of research involved in figuring out where to send and what the guidelines are of each place. Never mind collecting and cataloguing the inevitable rejections. So much of what we do has very little to do with actual writing, and lately there’s another element to a writer’s day: marketing and using social media. What are some of the things you do to promote your books?

Martha: I have a website,, which makes it easy for anybody to get in touch with me who so desires. I enjoy school and library visits.  I still drive, but not, as when young, just anywhere. From my Lexington home, Maysville, for instance, is no problem; Nashville, I go annually, but only if someone else will transport me in return for my buying the gas.  I don’t mind any distance at all, so long as somebody else is at the wheel or in the cockpit.

Jody: Okay final question, I promise, I’ve been wondering about your thoughts in general about author self-promotion. I’m coming into this late in the game, but I know that the expectations for authors doing more of their own marketing work have changed over the years. As someone who has been in this game for a very long time, would you like to share your thoughts about that?

Martha: I am unequal to the task.

Jody: I think you are too modest, Martha. So I won’t let you have the final word. Congratulations on the sale of your latest book Sailing to Freedom and for all of the accolades it’s already received. It’s a wonderful story that will likely be read by many children for years to come.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Dispatches from a Borderline Troglodyte (Or, How I Accidentally Discovered the Comment Feature on Word)

Let me start by saying I am not the most technologically inclined person in the world. Cue: guffaw of laughter from my computer programming son in the next room. He thinks I’m a dinosaur, still tapping out texts on an old cell phone (the kind not connected to the internet; the kind where you have to count numbers to make letters). Also, I use paper maps. In my defense, the lady on my GPS has led me wrong on more than one occasion. I’m driving along on a perfectly good highway and she’s saying stuff like: "Return to road immediately." Sometimes I sense there’s an undercurrent of exasperation in that polite robotic voice.

There was more than an undercurrent the other day when I spent an hour talking to an IT guy about glitches in my internet connection. Dealing with internet connections is always my husband’s responsibility (see: anything related to cars, things that have motors, things attached to wires or pipes, things that require a tool to fix, etc.) But sweet resourceful hubby was out of town on business and so it fell to me to figure out what was wrong. (Son’s knowledge about computers falls more in the theoretical/programming capacity. Also, he’s so evolved he doesn’t talk on the phone.)

I feel sorry for the IT guy who ended up with my service call. Sample of our conversation:
Me: This doesn’t work! I need it to work!
Guy: Ma’am, (in clipped polite accent) is the modem connected to your router?
Me: What’s a router? What’s a modem?
Guy: (After a fifteen minute explanation/description) Now, ma’am, find the wire that’s connected from the modem to the router and—
Me: What wire?! There are like five wires!
Guy: Ma’am…

I’ll spare you the rest of this, but I spent a good hour on the floor, tracing multiple dusty wires with my fingers while whining to this guy who kept his cool for the most part, although I sometimes wondered if he wished he could climb through the phone and smack me upside the head.

The real issue was the email I was trying to retrieve, the one from my editor, so I could see what she thought of the first set of revisions I did for her. Backstory for those just joining me on my long road to publication journey: after fifteen years and ten book manuscripts, I signed my first contract for a young adult novel. Now I’m knee deep in a second round of revisions with an editor. Side note about editor: I love her and am so thrilled to be working with her, but there is a tiny splinter of fear that she thinks I’m a flake.

Why? Because I came dangerously close to blowing off hours of work she did on my book.

What happened was several weeks ago, she sent me a file with her copy edits and notes on areas in my book that still needed “tweaking,” as she called it. Love that word, by the way. Much better than saying “complete overhaul.” I was very proud of myself when I downloaded the file and saw a bunch of little red copy edit marks. I may be a borderline Troglodyte, but I’m hip to the “Track Changes” feature on Word. But I didn’t see any notes. Instead I saw all these numbered yellow highlighted areas (105 to be exact).

Hmm. Well, those were obviously areas that needed work. I could do that. Bad timing though for getting started on it. My son was graduating from high school and we had a house full of guests plus a dog. I couldn’t study this file and instead had to be content with reading bits and pieces of the printed off manuscript whenever I had a stray moment. This was good, I told myself. I’d have time to digest, to ponder, to work out little plot holes. And I did figure out how I wanted to deal with most of these, except in a few nagging places. Why had the editor highlighted this particular sentence? What did she mean by highlighting that one? Maybe it was my job to divine her intentions?

But wait. What about the notes she promised me?

That was the question that woke me up in a cold sweat one night. Mind racing, I booted up my computer and pulled up the file. Surely, she’d given me more—dashes of notes in the margins? Something in color that hadn’t printed off because we don’t have a color printer?! I scrolled through the pages quickly, but there was nothing. Just all those yellow highlights....

It was sheerly by accident that my cursor hovered over one of these and a cute little bubble popped up.

A note.

Really, a whole paragraph written by this lovely, earnest editor. OMG. Every darn one of those highlighted areas had a comment attached (105, if you remember) of the editor’s suggestions, questions, things for me to consider, work on, etc. One hundred five comments that I had not read.


In case you're wondering, it all turned out to be okay. The majority of the things she’d pointed out were things I’d already figured out myself after multiple readings. And the few places where I’d struggled to understand what she wanted me to do—well, those bubbles popped up with nothing but little smiley faces.

Did I tell you how much I love this lady?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

"Reviews Are Not for Authors" and Other Bits of Wisdom from the Cool Chicks on the Dark DaysTour

It hit me when I had to park three blocks away from the bookstore that this was no ordinary writer book signing. The place, the awesome independent children's bookstore Cover to Cover, probably doesn't have more than fifteen parking spaces and every darn one of them was taken when I pulled up (naively) ten minutes early. I'm not good at counting people in crowds, but I'd have to guess that at least a hundred people were there--ranging from middle schoolers and moms to older teens and college types. The big draw, I realized at once, was Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent series. (I must confess here that I have not read the books yet, but I promise they’re on my short list.) The buzz is that this dystopian series will satisfy readers of the Hunger Games. Other fun trivia, the second book Insurgent is out, and Roth is working on the third, which she's jokingly calling Detergent. Her fans love this and LOVE her. The kids around me gushed about Roth like she was a rock star, and when she emerged from the back room, they cheered and giggled and swooned.

I had to sit on the floor behind a pole so I didn't actually get to see her at first (or the other authors along for the ride) but their voices all sounded cool. Sally Oddi, the owner of Cover to Cover, introduced the group--Roth, Bethany Griffin (Masque of the Red Death), Elizabeth Norris (Unraveling) and Aprilynne Pike (Destined--the fourth book in the Wings series)--then set the ground rules: twenty minutes of questions before we’d form orderly lines to get our books signed. The first questions were mostly for Roth--"Veronica! What's your biggest fear?" But then things settled down and we got into some interesting stuff:

Someone from the audience brought up a controversy on Goodreads. Apparently some writers are responding to negative reviews on that site. I wish I could've seen from behind the pole because I have no idea which author said what. I think it was Aprilynne Pike, though, who pointed out that book reviews really aren’t meant for authors. By the time a book’s out; it’s out, and there isn’t anything a writer can do to change it. Reviews, she said, are for readers. The others agreed, saying they tried to avoid reading reviews but couldn’t always help it, especially these days with social media. One of them laughed and said that there are readers online who tweet bad reviews directly to her. Maybe they don’t realize that she’s an actual person sitting at home in her pajamas reading this thing. But they all agreed that it was not cool to attack a reviewer and sometimes there was stuff they could learn from a negative review, that could at least help them with the next book they’re working on.

Then there was the mention of the controversial article in the New York Times recently that disparaged adults who read children’s fiction. I hate to even bring this up. One, because it ticks me the hell off when people attack an entire genre of literature—particularly one that I love so much—and two, because I think it just gives attention to a troll. Last year it was the article in the WSJ that painted all YA fiction as deliberately lurid. The ladies on the Dark Days tour waded in after the audience had finally quieted down (Yes, these rabid YA fans were ticked off too, offended that some blowhard would dare knock the books they love.) YA literature is popular right now, was one of the author’s responses. (again, could not see WHO since I was stuck behind a pole!) which makes it a fun target. But why not be happy people are reading more? Why attack books you haven’t read? Here here! (I get the feeling that certain critics are deliberately being provocative, trying to hit a nerve to throw a spotlight on themselves, and if we all ignore them, maybe they’ll go away.)

There were questions about the writing process. Two of the writers, Elizabeth Norris? and Bethany Griffin? (pole in the way!) have day jobs and fit writing time in at night. Veronica writes in spurts, working long days for weeks at a time, then taking as many weeks off after. Aprilynne has four kids and writes when they’re at school. She got a laugh when she mentioned that her only two goals every day were to write a certain number of pages and to run five miles. Cleaning and other stuff, including taking a shower, might not ever happen.

What do they do to combat writers’ block? One turns away from the blaring blank computer screen and writes by hand. Another (Veronica?) tries to figure out what’s really at the core of it—too much pressure, fear of failure—and address that first. And another said she doesn’t believe in writer’s block and because of that it can’t hurt her. Which prompted one of them to quip, “I want to live in your world.”

When the lines formed for the signings, I finally crawled out from behind my pole and managed to see these ladies. Oh, they were all very cool and hip and young-looking! Most of the audience squeezed into Veronica’s line. We sweated it out in a store not really built for over a hundred people, but everyone was polite and patient, and I was happy to see that most of those fans had bought at least one book by the other authors. Those writers were gracious and a little bowled over, I think, by the reception.

"What do you think of this?" Sally Oddi said to me at one point, clearly gratified herself by the mob of YA book lovers crammed into her store.

“It’s awesome,” I told her. “And it’s nice to see your place can handle a large crowd.” I nudged her then and we both laughed. We’ve been chatting for a couple years about my struggles getting published and now about my book sale, and Sally (because she's amazing and sweet and kind) offered to host my book launch party (Sept, 2013, mark your calendar). Can’t imagine I’ll have anything like the crowd for the Dark Days Tour. But hey. I’ll boost Sally’s sales with invites to all my family and friends. And now that I know Cover to Cover’s got the capacity (and plenty of parking on nearby streets) I’ll beg my bunco group to come too.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Lamentation on a Child's Graduation

Lately I’ve been suffering from a major case of Nostalgia-itis.

My baby boy – (at least he still seems like a baby boy to me--when I close my eyes I picture him, grinning, his head tilted, his pudgy little pink-cheeked face. Sometimes even now, I can see glimpses of that version of his younger self superimposed on the tall, very thin, professorial and serious-looking eighteen year old young man he’s grown into) –so this boy is about to graduate from high school. And the chapter of my life as Mother of a Little Boy is drawing to a close.

(Pardon me for a moment while I get out my hankie.)

The symptoms of Nostalgia-itis, if you’re not familiar, are out-of-control weeping in the grocery store while you peruse sappy graduation cards, bouts of bursting into tears walking out of college bookstores, and lurchy waves of deja-vu as you obsessively comb through old photo albums and saved school papers.

I’ve had brushes with this nostalgia condition before.

When I dropped him off at his kindergarten classroom and hovered in the doorway and watched him settle into playing at the block table, already absorbed and happy and not noticing or caring that I was still there, and so slunk away and went to sob in my car.

The morning he took the bus to the big middle school on the opposite side of town. I had worked it out with him earlier—at his request—that I’d be there waiting, just in case he needed me. I parked a safe distance behind the bus, then crept into the middle school. My son and I locked eyes as he sauntered by with his classmates and he gave me a look that clearly said for God’s sake get out of here before anyone sees you. (I like to think that he was relieved I had come anyway.)

The summer after seventh grade he attended a summer program at Davidson College for three weeks. My husband and I got him settled in his dorm and both of us were having these weird flashes of the future—what it would be like to drop him off at college for real. There was the choosing of the closet and the making up of the bed and the awkward meeting of the roommate’s parents (as they glanced around and took in the fact that we’d snagged the better bed and the bigger closet). Later, the program administrators held a session for parents only. My husband and I shifted uncomfortably in the large room quietly mocking the anal, helicopter parents who asked questions about the cafeteria food and the laundry facilities. I gaped at those people and on the way home (as an alternative to crying about leaving our son six hours away for the longest time apart from us ever) I asked my husband what had been tormenting me:

"Did you see those people—those parents? They looked like they could be OUR parents. They were so… middle-aged-looking."

And my husband, God love him, smirked and said, "Jody, what do you think WE look like?"

Gulp. I guess I hadn’t thought of it that way exactly. Which brings me to my point about the true, underlying core of nostalgia-itis. I don’t think it’s merely about watching your beloved child grow up and reach milestones and eventually, inevitably, leave your home (and you) to go out into the world. I think it’s about your growing, nauseating realization that your own life is winding down and slipping away.

To rub this point in further I present to you Donald Hall’s classic poem on the very subject:

My son, my executioner
I take you in my arms
Quiet and small and just astir
and whom my body warms

Sweet death, small son, 
our instrument of immortality,
your cries and hunger document
our bodily decay.

We twenty two and twenty five,
who seemed to live forever,
observe enduring life in you
and start to die together.

Yeah. So that’s a cheery thought, huh?

At my son’s pre-school graduation, I already felt his little life zooming by. I sat in the audience with my daughter, then a toddler, on my lap, and blinked back tears. What finally put me over the edge was the dumb song the graduating kids sang, or rather screamed (for some reason four-year-olds tend to yell instead of sing.) The verses were from The Little Mermaid and the part that killed me was my beaming boy sing/shouting:

Up where they walk, up where they run
Up where they stay all day in the sun
Wanderin' free - wish I could be
Part of your world

It makes me cry now. And I will be crying later this weekend when I watch my beautiful boy cross the stage and take his diploma. You may be happy to know that I will have a fresh hankie on hand. Also, I'll be doing my best to freeze the moment, to live in the Now, to cherish the ceremony--and our final summer ahead.

Because I suspect that may be the only cure for Nostalgia-itis.