Thursday, August 9, 2012

Interview with Patsi Trollinger

Today I am thrilled to chat with Thrill in the ’Ville author Patsi Trollinger. Like all of the writers who’ve agreed to let me pick their brains lately, Patsi is an active member of  SCBWI/midsouth region. (Yes. I know I’m pretty much a Rah Rah cheerleader for this group, but that is only because it has helped me so much. If you have any desire whatsoever to write or illustrate children’s books, please consider joining SCBWI.)

Anyway, I’m glad Patsi agreed to this interview because it put her new middle grade book Thrill in the ’Ville on my radar. I’m hesitant to say that I may not have picked it up otherwise—one, because I am so absorbed in reading novels for young adults, and two, because it has “boy book” written all over it, and I confess that this genre typically doesn’t draw me in. But your book, Patsi, did. It’s got a fresh, smart, funny, and yes, boyish tone to it that made me wish my son was younger and I could read it aloud to him (sigh), or that I was still teaching 4th and 5th grade students, for the same reason. Teachers, take note: the book poses thought-provoking ideas about the political process and democracy without veering into dreaded, dry textbook territory. But I can also see a kid picking it up for fun.

A quick pitch—All sixth grader Doug wants to do this summer is play soccer; unfortunately for him, the local college is gearing up to host the upcoming Presidential debates. Now on top of trying to find a place to practice (the media’s camping out on the soccer field) and working hard to win the coveted goalie position against the class bully, Doug finds himself caught up in the drama of a political campaign.

Patsi, I heard that you were working in media relations at Centre College in Danville Kentucky in 2000 when they hosted the Vice Presidential debates, so I have the feeling that experience gave you the idea for Doug’s adventures. Where did you get the ideas for your other stories?

Patsi: For a nonfiction project, the idea usually takes root when I stumble upon a fact that involves a contradiction or paradox. Whether I encounter the fact in a newspaper clipping, a footnote, or a lecture (all of these have happened), I don’t get excited unless it includes “the thing that doesn’t fit” (to borrow a phrase from Darwin). In the case of Isaac Murphy, the subject of my first published book, Perfect Timing, my interest began with one contradiction: He should’ve been famous for being the first jockey to win three Kentucky Derbies, but by the early 1990s, he had been mostly forgotten. I learned that from a tiny news story and later uncovered many other paradoxes in his life, including the fact that he was born a slave yet became America’s first sports super-star. That’s what made his story amazing.

For a fiction project, the initial idea almost always appears to me as a mental image reminiscent of a movie scene. Sometimes I will see real people interacting in a way that grabs me and stays in mind until I begin to conjure up a story for them. At other times, I actually start from the perspective of being torn away from creativity because I feel overwhelmed by thoughts and worries about something big in my life. This was the case during the difficult year I watched my mother decline in health at the same time one of my closest friends was dying of breast cancer. My friend was articulate, deeply spiritual, and witty. As I drove her to doctor’s appointments where she was likely to hear dire statements about her prognosis, she told me stories that made me laugh. Sometimes we laughed and cried at the same time. For months, I thought obsessively about the fine line that sometimes separates laughter and tears. Eventually, I got one of those ‘movie scenes’ in my head, and it did not feature my friend but most certainly provided a visual metaphor for things she’d taught me. That scene eventually (and painfully) led to my nearly finished manuscript, Make Me Laugh, about a sixth-grade class clown who has to figure out how she can grow up, face adult kinds of sadness, and still be a very funny girl.

I suppose it’s fair to say, that whether I’m writing nonfiction or fiction, I am interested in paradoxes, contradictions, and opposites.

Jody: It’s interesting that you’ve mentioned working on books while dealing with the stresses of daily life and relationships. I’ve been thinking about this issue too as my first child heads off to college in less than three weeks (gulp). I guess if there’s a silver lining in a difficult situation, it’s that we can find a way to work through anxiety/grief/pain in our writing. Which is not to say that we are writing memoirs…

Something I always wonder about other writers is how they take that kernel of an idea to the next level: a first draft. Do you outline? Or are you a make-stuff-up-as-you-go kind of writer?

Patsi: It’s taken me a long time to figure out that I strongly believe in both methods. At the time I first began writing for children, I was coming off a career in public relations and news, which required me to constantly write stories determined by the needs of other people or organizations. It was wonderful work, but after leaving it behind, I had this urge to experiment with a million ideas. I would get an idea, write an entire middle grade novel, submit it three places, and then shelve it after three rejections. My stack of unpublished work became fairly deep. I don’t ever want to neglect or destroy that raw way of thinking and imagining that amounts to my ‘idea factory.’ But now, when something new and shiny pops into my head, I make copious notes and put them a binder. And when a certain number of pages accumulate in regard to one of those shiny, new ideas, I see if I have enough to write a manuscript from start to finish – with or without an outline to guide me. But when I reach the stage of serious revision, I definitely use an outline or detailed synopsis. I have adopted methods learned at SCBWI plotting workshops with author Linda Sue Park and editor Cheryl Klein. Compared to my free-form approach to imagining and writing, each of them seemed almost militaristic in their methods. That turned out to provide a perfect balance for my initially unstructured away of approaching a story.

Jody: You’re so right that outlining has got to come into play at some point. And how lucky you were to study under some of the best in our field. A good friend of mine just returned from a Cheryl Klein workshop and after hearing only snippets of what went on, I was kicking myself for not signing up for it too. One thing I definitely did not know when I began writing 15+ years ago was how much work goes into writing a book. Also how much self-discipline I’ve had to cultivate. If I don’t set goals and create a schedule for myself, I’m lost. What’s your take on that?

Patsi: The work I did in news and public relations was relentless and required me to work every day from around 8am until 6pm. Since becoming self-employed, I have tried to mimic that discipline. On a day that works according to plan, I get up at 5:30am to go walking, have breakfast, and start writing around 8. I try to write without interruption until around 1:30. Break for lunch, and then continue writing or – if my creative juices are shot – I work on record-keeping, promotion, research, and other tasks that use a different part of the brain. I have decided that life is too short to eat bad food, so I usually stop around 5 to throw together a home-cooked meal devoted to fresh vegetables, olive oil, and to the degree my husband can stand it, garlic. On any given night, the headcount at the table varies from two to four people.

To maintain discipline, I wear ‘silencer’ headphones to avoid the phone until after 1:30 each day. (Family and friends have been warned.) And I don’t allow myself to think about sneaking outside into my garden unless it’s Saturday morning or a weekday evening after dinner.

Because I do write relentlessly, I have come to accept the fact that each day won’t feel equally productive and the true measure of outcomes may take a while. So sometimes, when my husband asks, “Did things go well today?” I laugh and say, “I don’t know. Ask me again in five years.”

Jody: I like that and may steal it, if you don’t mind. Although I must say my husband typically does not have to ask how my day went. When he gets home from work, if he finds me still in my pajamas and notices nothing’s cooking for dinner, he’s learned to tiptoe away and fire up the grill or call for pizza. I like that you’ve set a time for yourself to shut down for the day. I know I’ve got to work on that…

How do you balance your writing time with your other obligations?

Patsi: Nowadays, I try very hard to protect that block of hours (8:30am-1:30pm) for writing, and I figure out ways to get household/family errands done on Saturday or during the late afternoon. Of course, if I am doing a school visit or have a book-related event, things change, and that feels fine. But during the past decade, I’ve had weeks, months, and years when I could not figure out whether I had a ‘right’ to set aside writing time when so many family members and friends needed end-of-life care, followed by other weeks and years devoted to cleaning out the home where my parents lived together for 60 years. Looking back, I understand that there was no thought process or ‘plan’ that could have solved my dilemma.

Jody: That's true. Some things can’t be scheduled. And sometimes you have to take a break. (see my last blog post!)

Okay, totally different topic, but a question I ask all of my writer guests: How many books did you write before you got your first book deal? (Full disclosure—my first soon-to-be-published novel happens to be the 6th one I wrote.)

Patsi: In my crazy delight at having a chance to make up stories after years of writing news, I began by working on three or four manuscripts at a time. Technically, I had three finished manuscripts by the time I got my first book deal (2003). But really, that book, Perfect Timing, was the first book that I seriously submitted. In some ways, that makes me sound fortunate, but in another way, I think I got a warped notion that building a career in the field was going to be easy. When I began to face a string of rejections that seemed endless, I lost my way. It took a while to develop a more solid, reasonable perspective on the business.

Jody: That reminds me of another thing I didn’t know 15+ years ago: how to deal with rejections. I’ve gotten so many that I lost count. Are you one of those writers who keeps track of every rejection?

Patsi: For that first book, Perfect Timing, I did: 31 rejection letters in the mailbox before I got one from Viking that said Maybe, which turned into Yes after another 18 months of revising. Now I keep detailed records of correspondence for tax purposes and to track relationships with various publishing houses, but I don’t tabulate my rejections. Now I focus only on rejection letters that convey information useful to my future.

Jody: Sounds like a good plan. Okay, Patsi, last question, I promise. You and I both know how much self-promotion writers are expected to do these days. What kinds of things do you do to promote yourself and your books?

Patsi: From the very beginning, I’ve had a website that makes it easy for educators, booksellers, and editors to learn a bit about my life, my books, and what I can bring to a school visit or writing workshop. More recently, I’ve add a personal Facebook page and an author page I have an old-fashioned preference for personal communication – and I don’t want to inflict frivolous information on people who connect with me – so I still am working on my ‘philosophy’ and underlying plan for using these communication tools. I’m intrigued by the discipline required for Twitter’s brevity, but my account is so lazy that it qualifies as a couch potato in cyberspace. Perhaps I should lie awake at night worrying about Pinterest, YouTube, and LinkedIn, but I’d rather lie awake and worry about plot and pacing!

Jody: Believe me, I hear you. Thanks, Patsi for chatting with me today!


  1. What a special treat, Patsi and Jody! Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed hearing about how you get your ideas for your books, Patsi, and about your writing process. And I empathize with the demands of caring for loved ones at the end of life and figuring out how our writing fits in with that bittersweet journey.

  2. 10 or more years ago I attended, for the lst & next-to-last time,a writers meeting at the house of JerrieOughton-of-blessed-memory (she left Lexington
    , alas). I heard an out-of-town woman read 1 chapter of a work-in-progress. Somse high schoolers had made a time machine, on display at a local store. Jokingly, they step into it and to everyone's dismay, it lfts off. Years passed before I again met the author, Patsi Trollinger, and I've never heard another syllable of or about the story. Surely it's a tribute to Patsi's craft that I vividly remember that chapter after so many years. And I feel sure that reaers of 'THRILL IN THE VILLE will remember THAT story equally long. Martha Bennett Stiles