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.


  1. This is a lovely interview. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Great interview,Jody! Gotta love Martha. I have several of her books and plan to buy Sailing to Freedom.

  3. I loved reading this interview! Thank you, Martha, and thank you, Jody. I'm very privileged to be in a local critique group with Martha and can confirm your comment, Jody, about Martha's generosity in cheerleading and mentoring other writers, but not just on the listserv--in person, as well. I'm looking forward to attending Martha's author presentation at Morris Book Shop here in Lexington next Saturday, the 7th, at 11 am and getting my own copy of her wonderful book.

  4. Great interview--the two of you are a perfect team! Can't wait to buy Sailing to Freedom and having Martha autograph it for me.