Tag Archives: interview

Fav books, the writing life, and my literary masterpiece, Anatomy of a Bruise

I was happy to be featured on the Lerner Books blog today! Lerner is the publisher of my current nonfiction, Sneaker Century: A History of Athletic Shoes as well as The Way Back from Broken (coming October 2015). You can view the post here or read on below.
What was your favorite book you read growing up?
Hands down, it was The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis. I’ve probably read it thirty times. Oh, how I love Reepicheep! Close on the heels of this book comes My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. I always wanted my own Frightful.
What are some of your favorite childrens/young adult books that youve read recently? 
Okay for Now  by Gary Schmidt, El Deafo by Cece Bell, Rollergirl by Victoria Jamieson, Nation by Terry Pratchett, and Ill Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson.
Who are your favorite contemporary fellow authors?
I can’t believe you are making me choose! That is a very cruel thing to do to a reader!
Right now I’m still gushing over Gary Schmidt. I admire the subtle ways he allows his characters to reveal deep emotional truths. A. S. King does this too. The writing of both Jandy Nelson and Laini Taylor has a pell-mell, technicolor intensity that I love. Nancy Farmer is a bomb story-teller, and she can do anything from survival stories in Africa to Vikings to alternate reality drug dealers.
Why did you start writing?
Before I was a writer, I was an evolutionary biologist. These might seem like really different jobs, but at the core, they are the same. I’m an observer. I want to understand how the world works and what makes people tick. Doing science and writing books are both ways to do this.
What are the hardest/easiest parts of writing for you?
The hardest part is when I let myself get emotionally invested in all the parts of the writing business that are out of my control: reviews, book sales, contracts, awards, etc. The easiest part is committing myself whole-heartedly to the story. That is what matters most.
How do you gather ideas for your books?
Ideas are easy. They are everywhere for the gathering. The trick is getting enough ideas to glom together into a book. Anything that interests me gets added to a list in my GTD software (The Hit List) called “Book Ideas.” Right now it has 28 entries including horse genetics, bronc-rider George Fletcher, and something called The Doom Dimension. For the current book, several of these ideas developed a magnetic attraction and BOOM! Suddenly there was enough bubbling out of the explosion to make a whole novel.
Do you have a writing routine?
As soon as my kids get on the bus, I’m at my desk. I take 15 minutes or so to glance at my email and check in on Twitter (@amberjkeyser) then I open Scrivener and get to work. When drafting, I try to hit 1,000 words before I take a break. When revising I try to work for at least three hours. Break time usually means a walk in the forest with our new puppy, Gilda. After lunch, I buckle down for another two hours.
How do you deal with self-doubt or writing blocks?
When the writing gets tough and I’m agonizing over every word, I have to ask myself what kind of “stuck” am I experiencing. Am I struggling because my batteries are depleted and I need to take care of myself? Or is it hard because writing is painful and I need to keep trying? When it is the former, I go for a run in the forest. Otherwise, I stay at my desk and remind myself that even if what I write isn’t great, I will fix it in revision.
Sneaker Century and The Way Back from Broken are really different books. How do you manage to write both nonfiction and fiction?
For me, writing any book requires the same things: free-flowing nonlinear creativity, deep research into the core elements of the story, detailed to-do lists on how to execute the plan for the book, and disciplined, grind-it-out time in front of the computer. They may occur in different proportions, but the ingredients are always the consistent. No matter the book, I have the same tasks: find the right structure to tell the story, create a voice that makes you want to read on, and bring the world to life with details you can sink your teeth into.
Do your kids influence your writing? If so, how?
Sometimes I write about very difficult subjects. You might assume that I would steer away from the edge for fear of what my children will think, but the opposite is true. They need me to be brave, incisive, and above all, deeply honest.
Tell us something we don’t know about you!
My very first book, penned in 2nd or 3rd grade, was called Anatomy of a Bruise. I remember one particular illustration that I was very proud of. It depicted the inevitable consequences of an apple falling off a table and smacking the ground. Another showed a time lapse series of a bruise healing from purple to greenish-yellow to gone. Also, I crocheted the cover with orange and turquoise yarn. Clearly, I was a yarn bomber way ahead of my time!

Give me a sailor and let me run away to sea

This is the thing about writing…  I get to fall in love over and over again.   And not just over shiny story ideas.  I know writers gush about that a lot, but I tend to make an idea prove itself to me before I commit.

(Run with that, Dr. Freud.)

No, I fall in love with the deep substance of the story and–especially with nonfiction–the subjects.

Last week, I spent three days in Astoria, Oregon, doing research for a new book project on the pilots who work the Columbia River bar.

I interviewed two pilots, toured the boat basin and climbed aboard both of the pilot transport boats (Chinook and Columbia), and checked out their shiny new helicopter at the airport.  And, in a completely unexpected turn, one of the pilots offered to let me ride along as they transferred a pilot to an inbound bulk carrier ship.

AMAZING!!!

The two bar pilots I interviewed held me rapt.  I could have listened to them talk for hours.  And if you had been there and heard the way they talked about the sea and the ships and the life of a sailor, you would’ve fallen in love too.  And if you had been on Chinook, zooming across the most dangerous river to ocean crossing in the world, you would have lusted for the power of her engines, the grace of her handling, and the perfection of her lines.

You would fall in love too.

 

Great interview with Michaela MacColl, author of PROMISE THE NIGHT @michaelamaccoll

I am thrilled to welcome Michaela MacColl to my blog!  Her book PROMISE THE NIGHT tells the story of young Beryl Markham, who grew up to be a record-breaking aviatrix, an adventurer, a nonconformist, and a writer.  

Read an excerpt here.

Below you’ll find the conversation we shared about her lovely book.

***

My other blog, VivaScriva.com, focuses on critique and the writing process so let’s start there.  Do you have a critique group?  What role did critique play in PROMISE THE NIGHT?

I have a lovely critique group. We’ve met weekly for six or seven years now. Most of us are published, but we didn’t start out that way. I have to admit that my group saved the world from a very bad biography of Beryl Markham.

When I first decided to write about her, I found that the only kids’ biographies were very dated. Aha! I thought. (And I can’t believe I even said this) How hard can it be to write a biography? Apparently it is really hard. I couldn’t get away from the fictionalized story I wanted to tell. Finally my group metaphorically shook me and said “Just write a novel!” They were right and so supportive.

When I’m writing nonfiction, I find that the book falls into place when I discover the right format for the story.  In PROMISE THE NIGHT, you alternate eleven-year-old Beryl’s narrative with grown-up Beryl’s flight across the Atlantic.  How did you decide on this structure?

One of my greatest challenges was how to write a story about Beryl the child, when Beryl the adult is the one who did something famous (she was the first to cross the Atlantic East to West solo).  At first I wrote the flight as an epilogue, but it felt too tacked on. I had to find a way to show how Beryl’s adventures as a child enabled her to break flying records as an adult. It was complicated because I wanted to relate each adult vignette to a childhood chapter – but after many outlines and a ridiculous number of post-its, I came up with a structure that worked.

I loved Beryl Markham’s own book WEST WITH THE NIGHT.  How did her writing influence yours?

On the one hand, it’s a gift to have her own words in front of me. I learned so much about her personality from the way she described her childhood. On the other hand, it’s pretty daunting since the memoir is so good.  Ultimately, I tried to channel her spare prose into mine. I ruthlessly trimmed (and then my editor got started) until I told the story in as few words as possible. Beryl wouldn’t have wasted words, neither should I!

Of course this was such a departure from my first book, Prisoners in the Palace about Princess Victoria. There the language is ornate, layered and thick.

You had to deal with some tough (and very adult) topics—male circumcision, the Captain’s relationship with Emma, his concerns over Beryl’s interactions with Kibii and Mehru.  Some might have said it couldn’t be done in a middle grade novel, yet you pulled it off.  Can you tell us how you found your way in this area?

I’m pretty squeamish, so I didn’t want to make people squirm. I’m also the parent of two teenage daughters and it’s important to me that kids can read my books without feeling too uncomfortable. Ultimately the answer to dealing with these issues was to plant my narration firmly in Beryl’s point of view. She’s not shocked so why should the reader be?

Beryl Markham chafed against the rigid social and gender roles of her time.  How do you think she would have responded to the opportunity and freedoms girls have today?

I’ve wondered about that. Thoroughbred racing and flying were inherently exciting and a natural destination for a risk-seeker no matter how inappropriate they were for a girl to do. But I think if she were alive today, she would be taking even greater risks. Ultimately though, Beryl didn’t think of herself as a girl breaking gender barriers, she was just doing what she wanted to do.  The first page in Promise the Night is a quotation from Beryl where she says she wants to fly the Atlantic not as a society girl but as pilot. No gender specified.

I’ve always been fascinated by the heros of the Golden Age of Exploration like Beryl Markham, Ernest Shackleton and Edmund Hillary.  What do you think drove them to take such risks in their quests to be first?

They say that thoroughbred stallions are bred to win.  They run fast to achieve dominance over their peers (so to speak). I think the explorers and the pioneers are all trying to win the acclaim of the other explorers and pioneers. But there is also a financial consideration. The person who breaks the record is the one who gets the sponsorship deals, the speaking engagements, even the movie gig.

Are there any new frontiers for girls today?

The first thing that comes to mind is President of the United States… And if that’s the last frontier, then girls are doing well!

True confessions—my daughter is named Beryl and my son is Shackleton.  Do you think I’m crazy?

Yes!  (I had to talk my husband out of naming our first daughter Cassandra. Can you imagine a more ill-omened name?)

What is the most interesting thing that you learned about Beryl Markham but couldn’t include in the book—and why couldn’t you?

Beryl’s childhood is full of instances when she challenges the societal norms and does purely as she likes.  When she continued to do this as an adult, the stakes get higher. The most fascinating thing I found out about Beryl involved her love life. She married Lord Markham in her late 20’s, but at the same time, she also had a very public affair with the Duke of Gloucester (the brother of the Prince of Wales) when he visited Africa on safari. Her husband got fed up and threatened to name the Duke in the divorce. Needless to say Buckingham Palace had a strong opinion about this; Markham was told in no uncertain terms to involve the Duke.  He replied that he wasn’t going to support her. So until the day she died, Beryl received a pension from Buckingham Palace.  It’s a great story, right? So inappropriate for middle grade!

PROMISE THE NIGHT focuses on a narrow window of Beryl Markham’s extraordinary life.  Were you ready to let go?

I wouldn’t mind going back and writing about her life as a racehorse trainer. I grew up on the Black Stallion novels and I would love to write about racing. Otherwise, on to the next novel!

 

 

Lions and leopards and airplanes, oh my! Must read: PROMISE THE NIGHT

In a few days, I get the distinct pleasure of interviewing Michaela MacColl, author of PROMISE THE NIGHT (Chronicle Books).  This middle-grade, historical fiction tells the story of Beryl Markham–adventurer, pilot, race-horse trainer and non-conformist. She’s a dazzlingly unique character made all the more fascinating by the fact that she was a real person!

Here’s a bit of the beginning:

Later, when it was all over, she wondered what would have happened if she had remembered to tie down the burlap door. If she had not been so careless, would the danger have passed her by?

Her only warning was a patch of lighter night by the door. The leopard must have slunk in, crawling soundlessly on his stomach the way cats do. Ears flat to his head. Spotted fur standing up on his back. Eyes fixed on his prey. Waiting. Waiting. . .

Buller’s anguished yelp filled the hut. When she heard the deep yowl, she knew it was a cat, probably a leopard. Beryl huddled beneath the safety of the mosquito netting, afraid the cat would finish off Buller and then go after her.

“Buller! Be careful, boy!” Beryl screamed at the top of her voice. She waved the knife in the dark. She couldn’t see what was happening, but she could hear Buller’s low growl. She imagined that the leopard was poised to spring onto her bed.

“Daddy!” she cried. She ripped off the blanket and snapped it toward the battling animals. Even if she had the courage, Beryl knew she shouldn’t join the fight on the floor; she was just as likely to hurt Buller as help him.

Beryl could make out the leopard’s shadow, spotted even in the dimness. It sprang onto Buller’s back and sank its sharp teeth in the loose skin at the back of his neck.

“DADDY!”

Beryl heard what sounded like Buller’s back cracking as he tried to shake off the cat. Before she could scream again, the leopard had dragged her best friend in the world out of her hut. Buller’s cries ended as suddenly as they began.

You can read the entire first chapter here.  And don’t forget to check back on the 20th for the interview!