She was kind enough to answer several questions I had for her. But first if you don't know what Keeper is about, here's the summary:
To ten-year-old Keeper, this moon is her chance to fix all that has gone wrong...and so much has gone wrong. But she knows who can make things right again: Meggie Marie, her mermaid mother who swam away when Keeper was just three. A blue moon calls the mermaids to gather at the sandbar, and that's exactly where she is headed -- in a small boat, in the middle of the night, with only her dog, BD (Best Dog), and a seagull named Captain.
I will always chalk up that early-morning phone call from Rose Trevino, the chairman of the committee, as one of the highlights of my entire life. I remember answering the phone and seeing “Denver Convention Center” on the caller ID and feeling my knees soften. There was a sofa right next to me, but I was afraid I’d miss it and all I could do was just sit down on the floor and hope like everything that I didn’t shake to pieces before I even said “hello.”
I remember the entire committee getting on speakerphone on the other end and calling out, “Congratulations!” and I could barely even speak. I said something like, “I feel like a princess.” And I did. I felt that way, even though I was sitting on the floor in my studio, in my jammies, and wondering if I would ever be able to stand up again. After I hung the phone up, I had to sit there on the floor for a moment before I could get my knees to cooperate.
All those years of working, of reading, of teaching writing, of talking to kids, seemed to crystallize in that one single minute. And I felt overwhelmingly lucky and grateful too.
I wish it, a similar phone call, for all of my author friends, to have that one shining moment (okay, I borrowed that from the NCAA, but I think it’s apt). It was an amazing moment.
And I have to add that getting the call for the National Book Awards felt the same way—like there was glitter in the air.
Did it affect my writing? I don’t know. When I got both of those calls, I was well into Keeper, with a looming deadline hanging over me, so I didn’t have much time to think about it honestly. But I will say that the experience of it made me keenly aware of the responsibility that all of us who write for kids have, to do our very best. My agent, Holly McGhee, has a motto: “The world owes you nothing. You owe the world your best work.”
I think this particularly applies to children. They deserve our best work. I have that motto taped up on my desk to remind me about what it is I’m supposed to be doing.
Q. Why do you write for middle grade kids as opposed to other ages?
It’s funny that so many people think that The Underneath was my first book. The truth is that it was my first novel, but not my first book. I actually do write for other ages, from babies (Hushabye, Baby Blue; Bubba and Beau; Brand New Baby Blues) to young adults (Poems from Homeroom; My Father’s Summers; Kissing Tennessee).
I can’t say that I have a preference for middle graders over any of the others, but what I can say about middle graders is that they may be the most generous of all readers. They’re more likely to stick with a story. They’re not highly critical. And they’re more open to a wide variety of genres. I don’t have scientific evidence to support those claims, only my experience of years of reading to kids.
It also seems like those middle graders are really invested in read-alouds. I love it when a teacher reads one of my books out loud to a class full of kids. No one seems to enjoy that activity more than those middle graders. I’m just saying.
Q. Keeper (as well as The Underneath) are such unique stories - where do they come from? What was the starting point of the idea through to the end?
Both Keeper and The Underneath originally arose from incidents in my own life. With all of my books, regardless of whether they’re a rhyming picture book, or a young adult novel, I find “touchstones” in my own history that have some heat to them. With The Underneath, it was a couple of things. One was an experience years ago when my family was camping in deep East Texas and my older son, eight at the time, rescued a little kitten that had been abandoned in the park where we were staying. He turned the baby cat over to the park ranger who assured him that he would find a good home for the little guy. But before Jacob (my son) turned the cat over, he held onto him all day long. I have a photograph of Jacob holding onto that baby cat, and it sat on my desk for years.
So, I kept thinking about that kitten in the woods. And then I recalled a dog that my family had when I was growing up, a rather large hound-type dog that my mother found at the shelter. One day, a small calico cat wandered into our garage and started eating out of the dog’s food bowl. It seemed like a bad idea on the part of the cat, but instead the dog, whose name was Sam, took to the little cat and they became good friends. A month later the calico cat had a batch of kittens and Sam became the hound-dog papa, just like my character Ranger.
Between my son and the dog and the calico cat, I found I had something to say about who makes up a family.
Eventually, the character I had created based upon my son was taken out, and the story was turned over completely to the animals. My hope is that I can find a way to return to that boy someday. We’ll see.
With Keeper, I think the same issue of who makes up a family is still at the root of the story, but in this case it began with my experience of growing up along the Texas coast. My grandmother lived on Galveston Island and so I spent a lot of time there. She also had a dog—BD. And one stormy night a seagull blew into her kitchen window. She rescued it, brought it into the house, bandaged its damaged wing, and soon enough the dog and the gull became buddies.
So, like the other dog with the calico cat, this story was based upon a true incident. Such good dogs, yes?
I also had a deep desire to write about mermaids. I think that anyone who has lived along the seashore has considered mermaids here and there. It’s impossible to stand in the water and not ponder the mysteries of the sea. And of course, over the years, a whole variety of sea creatures have shown up in stories and legends. One of the most interesting parts of my research about mermaids was to discover that basically every culture, even desert cultures, have merfolk of some sort in their mythos. Find a body of water, even a tiny oasis, and it’s highly likely you’ll find a merperson. In fact, one of the very first incidences ever recorded of a mermaid was in the Nile in ancient Egypt.
Each book required draft after draft after draft. I counted up the drafts for The Underneath and stopped at 30. Same thing with Keeper. So I am a dogged reviser. But it seems to me that writing a novel is sometimes like peeling an onion. Each go around reveals something else, and more often than not, it’s something that comes directly from my life.
It took me a while to realize, for example, that I had named Ranger after that park ranger who assured my son that the little kitten he had rescued would be all right. Likewise, it took me some time to figure out that Signe in Keeper was related to my own teen mom.
And this is what writing a story offers up, I think, the wonder of mixing life with a little magic. It’s what makes it all worthwhile.
LOVED to hear all that she had to say!
Be sure to stop by GreenBeanTeenQueen for the next leg of the tour!
Now if you would like a copy of Keeper, I have an extra copy up for grabs!
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