I'm thrilled to be a stop on Tracy Barrett's The Stepsister's Tale Blog Tour (See below to enter the giveaway).
Full disclosure: Tracy and I met at an SCBWI regional conference a few years ago (okay, it was like, 10 years ago) and ever since, she's been supportive and generous with her advice and time and friendship.
This month Tracy's hit a very cool milestone: her 20th published book. I read it over the weekend and loved it. Not a surprise. I've enjoyed every book of Tracy's that I've read, and this one's already racked up a couple of starred reviews--from Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly. Page one and I knew I was in the hands of a master storyteller.
I'm always curious about how books come together--and I do want to hear the story behind Stepsister, but since I have Tracy on the line, I'm going to keep her for a while and pick her brain about her other books too, and what it's like to have the kind of career that most of us can only dream about...
Jody: Tracy, let's start with a summary of The Stepsister's Tale.
Tracy: My usual shorthand description of The Stepsister’s Tale is “Cinderella from the point of view of one of her stepsisters” but that’s not really accurate. Instead, it’s the story of a girl who’s struggling desperately to keep her family going despite a dead father and a mother who has checked out of reality. Her life is further complicated when her mother unexpectedly marries a man with a beautiful and spoiled daughter who whines that she’s made to do all the work when in reality she’s just being asked to pull her own weight.
Jody: It IS so much more than a retelling of Cinderella. The world-building, particularly, was what drew me in. And poor Jane (the MC)! The reader feels acutely what she does. I suspect that this wasn't an easy book to write.
Tracy: It took me a long, long time to write. I think that from the time I started it to the time when I signed the publishing contract was seven years! I don’t mean that I wrote all day, every day for seven years, of course—I’d write for a while and hit a snag and put it away for a few months, and then take it out and delete a lot of it and write some more and hit another snag. Finally, with help from my agent, Lara Perkins, I managed to whip it into shape and get it submitted to Annie Stone, my editor at Harlequin Teen, who gave me excellent editorial notes to bring it to a publishable state.
Jody: Why do you think it took so long?
Tracy: Several reasons. First, it was hard to keep Jane in the center—Cinderella, as I could have predicted, kept trying to steal the show and I kept having to wrench the tale away from her. But the toughest challenge came near the end of the story. If Cinderella isn’t the main character and if she doesn’t behave in a way that makes her deserve to live happily ever after, why does she get to marry the handsome prince? This was a problem that took me a long time to break through. The answer (don’t worry—no spoilers!) came to me, as many answers to this kind of problem tend to do, as I was falling asleep. When I woke up, I wrote the ending.
Jody: I love that--that it took sleep to come up with the answer. This is the magical part of writing. Of course, there was also the seven years of thinking and rewriting that you alluded to. When I first started writing, I'd give up when I hit snags like that. If I couldn't figure it out, I'd quit on the project. But you seem to take the struggle as part of the process. Maybe that comes from seeing so many books through from beginning to end--from idea to revision to publication.
And about all of those books...(see the end of this post for the complete list) You've written for elementary, middle grade and young adults. You've got non-fiction and fiction. You've got different genres represented. Mystery. History. Fantasy. Do you see a common denominator--besides the obvious one--that YOU wrote them?!
Tracy: It’s hard to trace a thread through both my fiction and my nonfiction, although I think you could say that history is a big player in all of them. For my novels, I’ve realized recently that most of them tell us more about a character—usually a secondary character—either from history or from a well-known literary work.
Anna of Byzantium is an imagined re-creation of the life of a Byzantine princess who’s well known to historians but not to the general public; King of Ithaka tells part of Homer’s Odyssey from the point of view of Telemachos (Odysseus’ teenage son), and Dark of the Moon is the tale of the minotaur as told by the minotaur’s sister, Ariadne, and his killer, Theseus.
Of course I hope that my readers enjoy these books for their own sake, but I also hope that by reading my novels, they’ll see another layer to the familiar works that inspired me.
Jody: Do you have a favorite?
Tracy: My favorite is always the book I’m working on, so Fairest (to be released in 2015) would have to be the answer to this one.
Tracy: I pretty much write all my novels in the same way. I almost always have the first chapter—or at least the first page—written in my head before I put anything on “paper” (I write on my computer). All my novels, whether historical or not, involve some research, so I start with general research and gather every interesting or potentially useful fact that I can. I do that until I feel so stuffed with information that I’m going to burst and then I start writing.
Once the story is underway my research gets much more focused—or at least it starts off that way. I might realize I need to know what kind of door locks they had in the Middle Ages, for example, and before I know it an hour has gone by and I know not only about locks but about keys and hinges, and whether doors opened inward or outward, and what the doors were made of, and how they forged the iron for the keys, and all sorts of fascinating details that I’ll never use!
Jody: Do you outline ahead of time?
Tracy: The only time I do is when I write nonfiction and also when I wrote a mystery series (The Sherlock Files). I have a general idea of where things are going but if I know too much, the thrill of discovery is gone and the actual writing feels like homework.
Jody: I noticed that you've worked with several publishing houses. What's your experience been like with different editors?
Tracy: I’ve been fortunate. With one exception (who is no longer in publishing) my editors have been smart, interesting, hardworking people who make my prose sound more like me. I’ve also had terrific copy editors. One was so good that I thanked her in the acknowledgments, which I don’t think is the usual thing! She copy edited King of Ithaka and I know she re-read the Odyssey in preparation, plus she had to have had a dictionary of ancient Greek in front of her as she worked. She caught some awfully subtle things. Better her than a reader!
Jody: That's actually my motto. Copy editors are brilliant people. I thanked mine too. Among other things, she helpfully pointed out that I'd used the word "clench" over 30 times in my book Thin Space.
Okay, now to a subject near and dear to my heart: marketing and promotion. Your first book was published in 1993 and I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the business has changed since then for authors.
Tracy: Yes. Promotion has changed a lot and the internet is responsible for much of that change. You know how they say that with the increased ease of doing household chores, we actually spend more time at them than when everything was done by hand—you have a washing machine, so you wash your clothes more often, etc.? I think it’s the same with the internet and promotion. It used to be so difficult and expensive that authors weren’t expected to do much of it.
Now that everyone can hop on-line and make a bookmark or send a mass email or put out an e-newsletter, it’s expected that we’ll do it. This isn’t in my skill set, nor is it in the skill set of most authors, but we have to suck it up and blow our own horn as much as we can.
Jody: Do you have any advice as far as what works/what doesn't? Did any of your books have an unexpected breakout success?
Tracy: I think the success of Anna of Byzantium, my first novel, was unexpected. Its sales (almost 200,000 to date) are largely due to its being required reading in a lot of schools.
Jody: No help from social media back in 1999--
Tracy: No! But now... I’m trying an experiment and have hired an outside publicist for The Stepsister’s Tale, even though Harlequin is doing a more thorough job of publicity than any other publisher I’ve had. I don’t know how I’ll quantify if it made a difference, but I’ll report back after a year if you like!
Jody: I'm going to hold you to that. Thanks so much, Tracy, and congratulations on the publication of your 20th book!
Here's a complete list of Tracy's books to dig into after you read her latest The Stepsister's Tale:
Nat Turner and the Slave Revolt, The Millbrook Press, 1993
Harpers Ferry: The Story of John Brown’s Raid, The Millbrook Press, 1993
Growing Up in Colonial America, The Millbrook Press, 1995
Virginia, in series Celebrate the States, Benchmark Books, Marshall Cavendish, 1997
Tennessee, in series Celebrate the States, Benchmark Books, Marshall Cavendish, 1998
Kidding Around Nashville, John Muir Publications, 1998
Kentucky, in series Celebrate the States, Benchmark Books, Marshall Cavendish, 1999
Anna of Byzantium, Delacorte Press, 1999; paperback Laurel Leaf Books, 2000 (YA)
The Trail of Tears: An American Tragedy, Perfection Learning Corporation, 2000
Cold in Summer, Henry Holt Books, 2003 (MG/YA)
The Ancient Greek World, in series The World in Ancient Times, Oxford University Press, 2004 (with Jennifer Roberts)
The Ancient Chinese World, in series The World in Ancient Times, Oxford University Press, 2005 (with Terry Kleeman)
On Etruscan Time, Henry Holt Books, 2005 (MG/YA)
The 100-Year-Old Secret, Book 1 in The Sherlock Files, Henry Holt Books, 2008; paperback Square Fish, 2010 (MG)
The Beast of Blackslope, Book 2 in The Sherlock Files, Henry Holt Books, 2009; paperback Square Fish, 2011 (MG)
The Case that Time Forgot, Book 3 in The Sherlock Files, Henry Holt Books, 2010 (MG)
The Missing Heir, Book 4 in The Sherlock Files, Henry Holt Books, 2011, paperback Square Fish, 2012 (MG)
King of Ithaka, Henry Holt Books, 2010, paperback Square Fish, 2014 (YA)
Dark of the Moon, Harcourt Children’s Books, 2011, paperback Graphia, 2012 (YA)
The Stepsister’s Tale, Harlequin Teen, 2014 (YA)
Fairest, Harlequin Teen, 2015 (contracted) (YA)
About The Stepsister’s Tale:
Buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound
What really happened after the clock struck midnight?
Jane Montjoy is tired of being a lady. She's tired of pretending to live up to the standards of her mother's noble family-especially now that the family's wealth is gone and their stately mansion has fallen to ruin. It's hard enough that she must tend to the animals and find a way to feed her mother and her little sister each day. Jane's burden only gets worse after her mother returns from a trip to town with a new stepfather and stepsister in tow. Despite the family's struggle to prepare for the long winter ahead, Jane's stepfather remains determined to give his beautiful but spoiled child her every desire.
When her stepfather suddenly dies, leaving nothing but debts and a bereaved daughter behind, it seems to Jane that her family is destined for eternal unhappiness. But a mysterious boy from the woods and an invitation to a royal ball are certain to change her fate...
From the handsome prince to the evil stepsister, nothing is quite as it seems in Tracy Barrett's stunning retelling of the classic Cinderella tale.
About Tracy Barrett
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She holds a Bachelor's Degree with honors in Classics-Archaeology from Brown University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Medieval Italian Literature from the University of California, Berkeley. Her scholarly interests in the ancient and medieval worlds overlap in her fiction and nonfiction works.
A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study medieval women writers led to the writing of her award-winning young-adult novel, Anna of Byzantium (Delacorte). Her most recent publications are King of Ithaka, a young-adult novel based on Homer's Odyssey; and the fourth book in The Sherlock Files, The Missing Heir (both Henry Holt) and Harcourt's young-adult retelling of the myth of the Minotaur, Dark of the Moon.
From 1999 to 2009 Tracy Barrett was the Regional Advisor for the Midsouth (Tennessee and Kentucky) with the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. She is now SCBWI's Regional Advisor Coordinator.
Tracy has taught courses on writing for children and on children's literature at various institutions and frequently makes presentations to groups of students, librarians, teachers, and others.
For an example of Tracy's presentations at writers' conferences, please see this article from Clarksville Online.
She recently resigned from Vanderbilt University, where she taught Italian, Women's Studies, English, and Humanities.
Monday, June 9th - Fiktshun (Character Interview)
Tuesday, June 10th - Harlequin Blog
Wednesday, June 11th - Xpresso Reads (Guest Post)
Friday June 13th - About To Read (Guest Post)
Monday, June 16th - The Irish Banana (Author Interview)
Tuesday, June 17th - On the Verge
Wednesday, June 18th - Refracted Light Reviews (Guest Post)
Friday June 20th - The Book Cellar (Guest Post)
Each tour stop is offering up a copy of THE STEPSISTER’S TALE as well as some very fun Cinderella-themed swag, and one winner will receive a fantastic Grand Prize Package including the following HarlequinTEEN titles: 2 copies of THE STEPSISTER’S TALE as well as copies of THE QUEEN’S CHOICE, DROWNED, WITCHSTRUCK and OCEANBORN. Giveaway is open to US/Canada.
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