Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Interview with Margaret Peterson Haddix

Several years ago, before I was first published, I went to a children's writers conference in New York City and was hanging out at the Saturday night cocktail party and feeling a little shy and out of place, when I noticed another writer standing off to the side, alone.

And then I noticed her nametag:

Margaret Peterson Haddix

I about fell over. Margaret Peterson Haddix is a giant in the children's book world, the author of dozens of best-selling and critically acclaimed books for children, an author of books I had read over the years and introduced my own children to, and also, it so happened, the author who was going to be the closing keynote speaker at the conference the next day.

Somehow I gathered up the nerve to walk up to her and introduce myself, using the very original "Hey, I think maybe we both live in Ohio?" line as my opener. Margaret could not have been lovelier, and we had a very nice conversation until other people began to murmur: "Isn't that Margaret Peterson Haddix standing over there?" and she was mobbed by admirers. The next day she gave a speech, that I still remember, about the power of children's stories in an ever changing world and received a standing ovation from a thousand aspiring writers.

Strange, happy plot twist: I am now in an author group with Margaret.

The end.

Okay, not the end. Because today, I've snagged the lovely MPH for an interview, using the "Hey, I think we are both in an author group together and why haven't I had you on my blog?" line.

And Margaret, lovely person that she is, said Let's do it!

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Jody: Hi, Margaret! First, let me say congratulations on the release of your new novel Children of Refuge, Book Two in the Children of Exile series. For readers (like me!) who haven't had the chance to pick the book up yet, will you give us a teaser?

Margaret: For the series as a whole, I usually just quote the first three sentences of the first book in the series, Children of Exile:

“We weren’t orphans, after all.
That was the first surprise.
The second was that we were going home.”

Children of Refuge, hmm. I haven’t actually done an elevator-style pitch for this anywhere. I guess it’d be:

“A twelve-year-old boy named Edwy disappears in the middle of the first book. In Children of Refuge, readers find out what happened to him.

And—what he makes happen, too.”

Jody: Ooh, I like this! I'm curious about the process behind this book... well, behind all of your books— from idea to drafting to revision. Is it the same process each time?

Margaret: Only in the sense that there’s an idea… and drafting… and revision for every book!

Probably the biggest variation has to do with how long I keep an idea lurking in the back of my brain before I start writing about it. With a few books, I’ve started writing almost immediately because I’ve felt like I can’t NOT write everything down as soon as possible. More often, the ideas are like toys I pull out and play with every now and then, and at some point—sometimes even a decade—

Jody: Wait. A decade?!

Margaret: Or even longer after that first burst of inspiration, and I realize I finally know how to write the thing, or at least how to start. The book I just finished writing (which will come out in 2019) probably set a record for me, because the initial idea came from a newspaper column I read almost thirty years ago. But until about a year ago I didn’t realize that that column was ever going to lead to a book; it was just about a topic that haunted me.

Jody: Isn't it weird how this happens? Where ideas come from... and which ones seem to stick with us. It's one of the coolest aspects of writing. And then comes the work!

What do you next—once that haunting idea snags your attention? Do you plan out the story? Or just sit down and write it by the seat of your pants?

Margaret: I like to think of myself as a hybrid combination of a planner and a pantser. I feel panicked if I don’t have at least some plan in place for where the book is going, but I tend to make up a lot as I go along.

Jody: And clearly, it's worked for you... Children of Refuge is your fortieth book! And speaking of this book, it is a dystopian adventure story for tweens, but I know that you've written for other age groups, both younger and older, and in other genres. Contemporary, fantasy, historical.

Is your approach to writing different when you are working on different kinds of stories for different audiences?

Margaret: It's not much different between YA and middle grades or even with early chapter books, which I’ve also done. (Though it’s been a while.) Certain ideas/topics just feel more appropriate for one or the other, and the age of the main character kind of naturally dictates how I tell the story. I tend to write older middle grades books and what is often viewed as younger YA, so usually I’m right on the boundary between the two. (And sometimes people refer to my MG as YA, and some of my early YA would definitely be categorized as MG now… I think the line is pretty blurry in general.)

Jody: Do you have a favorite age group to write for?

Margaret: I guess I like that general age span of 12-16, because kids change so much during that phase, and there’s so much room for growth and character development and eventfulness (and, sadly for them, misery as well.)

Jody: How about a favorite genre?

Margaret: I really like switching around between both age groups and genres. Lately I’ve mostly done middle grade science fiction, but my next book after Children of Refuge is a YA contemporary called Summer of Broken Things, and it was really fun to shift back into that mode for a while.

Jody: I'm looking forward to that one. I think one of my favorite novels of yours is the YA contemporary Leaving Fishers, about a girl who gets caught up in a cult. There was something so heartbreaking and real about it. I could feel the girl's struggle--what drew her into the group in the first place and how difficult it was for her to extricate herself from it.

This is a much earlier book of yours. I just looked it up. It was released in 1997, so you've been doing this, writing and publishing, for very a long time. Has your writing process changed over the years?

Margaret: In the beginning, I certainly thought that writing would get easier with every book. I thought I would finally feel like I knew what I was doing. But every book is an individual; every book is its own “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” to take Winston Churchill’s brilliant quote totally out of context. (I guess I’m saying every book is like Russia?) Maybe what’s changed most is that I’m a little calmer than I used to be about feeling it’s going to be possible to figure out my writing conundrums; I don’t jump to melodramatic despair quite so quickly.

Along about my fifteenth book I can remember thinking, “Wow—I’ve now written about just about everything I’m capable of writing about; I’ve explored every situation I’m capable of exploring. Maybe I’m done.” And then a collection of really bizarre, unexpected things happened to me in my personal life, and I thought, “No, I’ve still got lots of material to work with. Whether I want it or not.” I think I’m more aware now how many sides there are to any story. That makes writing more complicated, not easier!

Jody: This makes sense and now I am wondering if you have a similar sense of how publishing has changed over the years. Is that gotten more complicated too?

Margaret: It’s changed massively, mainly because of the internet and social media. That’s good and bad. Authors can have a lot more interaction with readers, and they can have a lot more impact on their own careers beyond just trying to write the best book possible. And readers have more access.

Jody: But this isn't always a good thing.

Margaret: Well, it can all be a little overwhelming, and I wonder if there are great books that aren’t being written because the potential writer is too busy trying to, say, build a Twitter following. Some books just require a lot of quiet thinking time, and writers—like everyone else—have more distractions than they used to.

Jody: Is anything the same in your opinion?

Margaret: The publishing world then and now was/is full of smart, talented, interesting people who really care about books and the kids who read them, and that’s all wonderful.

Jody: And it's what makes this writing community we are a part of so wonderful too. Pinching myself here because who knew I'd be one day chatting with you about these kinds of things! So, what's up next for you? Book 41, 42, 43...

Margaret: The next book I have coming out is the YA I mentioned, Summer of Broken Things, which pubs April 10, 2018. Considering that I broke my wrist this summer, soon after I turned in the final version of SOBT, I’m tempted to say that sometimes I throw myself into my books a little too passionately. Or maybe I should be more careful about titles, if they’re going to become self-fulfilling prophecies!

Jody: Oh, yikes!

Margaret: Yikes is right. After that, Children of Jubilee, which is the final book in the Children of Exile trilogy, comes out November 2, 2018.

And what I am working on now is a brand new trilogy, Outliers, which I’m really excited about. The first book in that series is due out in early 2019.

Jody: Before I let you go Margaret, are you ready for the On the Verge Lightning Round?

Margaret: Yes!

J: What are the books on your nightstand?

MPH: My TBR pile isn’t on a nightstand, but it includes our mutual friend Erin McCahan’s The Lake Effect (which I wanted to read on vacation this summer, but that didn’t work out, so now the book will be my way of holding onto the summer in the fall), Emery Lord’s When We Collided, Cory Ann Haydu’s The Someday Suitcase, and Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys (which someone mysteriously sent me, and I have barely tiptoed into, but love so far.) Another book I’m excited to read, but don’t have yet because it came out the same day as Children of Refuge, is You Bring the Distant Near, by Mitali Perkins.

J: Name one of your non-writing-related hobbies.

MPH: Is walking a hobby? I love walking around places I’ve never been before. I could make it sound a little more exotic and call it “travel and hiking,” but it’s really just walking. And often I’m thinking about writing as I walk. I’m not sure I have any hobbies that don’t become writing-related in one way or another.

J: What's the most embarrassing thing that happened to you in high school?

MPH: Everything that happened to me in high school was embarrassing.

J: What's your best advice for a beginning writer?

MPH: Give yourself permission to be really bad at it for a while. Just write and have fun with it and look at how much you’re improving, not how far you have to go.

Jody: Thanks, Margaret! And now dear readers, if you'd like to find out more about Margaret Peterson Haddix and her forty published books, check out the information below!

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Margaret Peterson Haddix grew up on a farm near Washington Court House, Ohio. She graduated from Miami University (of Ohio) with degrees in English/journalism, English/creative writing and history. Before her first book was published, she worked as a newspaper copy editor in Fort Wayne, Indiana; a newspaper reporter in Indianapolis; and a community college instructor and freelance writer in Danville, Illinois.

She has since written more than 40 books for kids and teens, including Running Out of Time; Double Identity; Uprising; The Always War; the Shadow Children series; the Missing series; the Children of Exile series; the Under Their Skin duology; and The Palace Chronicles. She also wrote Into the Gauntlet, the tenth book in the 39 Clues series.  Her books have been honored with New York Times bestseller status, the International Reading Association’s Children’s Book Award; American Library Association Best Book and Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers notations; and numerous state reader’s choice awards. They have also been translated into more than twenty different languages.

Haddix and her husband, Doug, now live in Columbus, Ohio. They are the parents of two grown kids.

Visit Margaret's website Haddixbooks.com



Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Moments of Serendipitous Flower Arranging

Last weekend I went to a wedding.

I haven't been to a wedding in a while. There was a point a long time ago when I was just out of college that all of my friends were getting married, one after another, and my new husband and I attended what seemed like a bazillion ceremonies and partied at the various receptions, snarfing down the free hors d'oeuvres and clinking our champagne glasses and laughing on the dance floor as we did the Electric Slide with our friends' goofy middle-aged parents. 

This particular wedding was a new milestone for my husband and me because it wasn't our friends getting married, it was our friends' son, a boy-- 

okay, a man-- we've known since he was four years old when he played with our son at preschool. Our son-- also, apparently, a man now-- was one of the groomsmen. 

He flew cross country with his girlfriend to attend the wedding, and our daughter and her boyfriend flew in from out of state, and my husband and I drove in from our neck of the woods, and for a too brief, two-day period, our family was all together, celebrating the wedding of this boy, now man, we've known forever, and his new lovely bride, and our dear friends,

partying at the reception and snarfing down hors d'oeuvres and clinking our champagne glasses and laughing on the dance floor as we did the Electric Slide with

(gulp)

each other.

This could make me tear up if I think about it too much. How time moves faster and faster. How only yesterday I was picking up my son from pre-school while his baby sister toddled around my legs and I struck up a conversation with another young mom, also waiting with a little girl toddling around her legs. The two little boys playing on the floor with Legoes somehow morphed into the two men standing side by side on a church altar. The little girls tearing every single outfit of the closet to play dress-up, now the young women gracefully walking in insanely high heels and laughing as they leapt for the thrown bouquet. 

But I didn't think about any of this last weekend.

I was there, days early, to help my friend prepare for the wedding. I told her that I would do whatever was needed and what was needed was setting up tables for a rehearsal dinner and making a grooms cake shaped like a sailboat and buying plants at Lowes and baking garlic bread.

It also meant assisting her sister, a professional florist, as she created elaborate flower arrangements and corsages and boutonnieres.

I have never made an elaborate flower arrangement or a corsage or a boutonniere in my life. I don't even know the names of most flowers. I stood pretty much in awe the entire time as the sister florist built these creations, trying to be of help but most likely getting in her way. She would ask for a Something Something kind of a flower and I would tell her I had no idea what that kind of flower was and she'd point it out and I'd laugh and say, "Oh! the one that looks like a Horton Hears a Who flower?" And she'd look at me like I was a weirdo.

But later, when the clock was ticking down and there were still many more corsages to assemble, she'd call out, "Hand me a couple of those Horton Hears a Who flowers" and I'd get right to it. 

There is a task in the Artist's Way -- (Yes, I am reading the Artist's Way again because the joy of writing has once more slipped away and I am depleted and my creativity is sapped, probably due to the hellish political landscape we're all living in that has made writing feel pointless) but anyway, 

the task is to list, without thinking about it, five imaginary lives--five alternate reality choices for yourself if you could go back and start everything over. 

I wrote without thinking: Florist. 

The next task was to do something related to that Imaginary Life, and I chuckled to myself, because when in the world would I have the opportunity to be a florist? 

Several days later surrounded by flowers that I didn't know the names of, in service to a friend who was about to watch her only son marry, as I searched for greenery and poked stems in foam and pressed a spray of baby's breath against a white rose and pierced it with a pin, I remembered. 

The next moment the arranged flowers were on the altar, the boutonnieres on the groom's tux, on my son's tux...

Another moment and the ceremony was over, the hors d'oeuvres were eaten, the Electric Slide notes faded, the wedding guests departed, the flowers

already a memory.