Monday, August 3, 2009

The Voyage of Heather Vogel Frederick

At 1 pm on August 27th at A Children’s Place, author Heather Vogel Frederick will showcase the third book in her popular Mother Daughter Book Club series, Dear Pen Pal (Simon & Schuster, September, 2009). This entertaining series helps bring mothers and tween daughters together to read while surreptitiously educating them about classic fiction by women such as Louisa May Alcott, L.M. Montgomery, Jane Webster and Jane Austen. She is also the author of The Voyage of Patience Goodspeed series about an intrepid girl who learns to navigate a whaling ship, the award nominated Spy Mice series wherein tweens and mice engage in espionage, and two picture books coming to shelves near you in 2010.

I had the pleasure of meeting Heather at the May SCBWI Oregon conference, where she inspired me in her enlightening seminar Borrowed Fire: Getting to the Heart of Character. Offering humor and Hershey’s kisses as motivation, Heather pried me out of my shell and got me reading my work in front of a room full of seasoned writers. No small feat.

During last month’s heat wave, Heather joined me in my sweltering living room to discuss her work over iced tea. She generously shared insights about her journey as a writer. I was excited to note that her passion for libraries rivals my own. It seems we may be cut from the same roll of acid-free book jacket plastic! Our lovely chat covered everything from pink kitchens, whale oil and mean girls to what she would do if she were Empress of the World.

AB: You have written three series of middle grade novels. Did you always plan to write in installments?

HVF: No, I didn’t set out to do this, but growing up, I loved to know that there was a sequel by the same author with the same characters I cared about, waiting for me. Whether it was Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising or Nancy Drew.

AB: I understand that your editor approached you with an idea that led to your Mother Daughter Book Club series. Could you tell me a bit about its origins?

HVF: My editor called and said, “There are mother daughter book clubs around the country. I’m thinking that somebody should write a novel about one.” She knew I spent part of my childhood in Concord, Massachusetts where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women. When I sit down to write, the voice that comes out is about eleven or twelve and I’ve become very happy in this tween world I inhabit. Even though I’m drawing on my memories of being in middle school, the books seem to resonate with girls today. We have different fashions, drive different cars. But we’ve always had to deal with mean girls. In Little Women, Jenny Snow is a mean girl. In Anne of Green Gables, it’s Josie Pye. In my series, it’s Becca Chadwick. In the fourth installment, the girls will be reading Pride and Prejudice with the deliciously awful Caroline Bingley.

AB: In your third installment Dear Pen Pal which comes out in September, the book club reads Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy. What led you to choose these books for the girls to read?

HVF: I decided to keep consistent by selecting another book with a female main character, written by a female author. The minute I thought of Daddy-Long-Legs it was one of those “well of course!” moments. I actually wasn’t familiar with Webster’s other books, so it was a treat to discover and have an excuse to read those as well.

AB: You're currently writing the fourth installment in which the book club will read Jane Austen. You spent some of your childhood in England. How long did you live there?

HVF: A little over half a year. My dad was an elementary school principal. He got a grant from Harvard to study innovative curriculum. We lived in a tiny village outside of Leicester in a four hundred year old stone cottage with a thatched roof and a pink kitchen. It was the best place ever.

AB: Were there any books you were exposed to in England that you might not otherwise have come across?

HVF: Yes. Arthur Ransome’s fabulous Swallows and Amazons series about some kids up in The Lake district and their adventures with a sailboat. Also E. Nesbit- specifically The Railway Children.

AB: How old were you when you lived in England?

HVF: I was eleven, just like the girls at the start of The Mother Daughter Book Club series. I was such a romantic. Down the street were the ruins of the castle where Lady Jane Grey lived. There was a part of me that still believed in magic and thought that maybe there could really be something lurking out there in the ivy covered stone walls. In the fourth installment of The Mother Daughter Book Club, my character Emma and her family will live in England for a year- in my old house!

AB: Will you write about the pink kitchen?

HVF: Absolutely!

AB: I’m excited to read it already! In The Mother Daughter Book Club series, you write from the perspective of each of the four girls (Emma, Jess, Cassidy and Megan) in the book club. Could you tell me about your process of defining each character?

HVF: I started by rereading Little Women and that gave me the idea for four characters for the series. The March girls are very different. Jo is a tomboy; Amy is artistic, Meg is very conscious of social stratification, and Beth is a homebody. I thought that would be a good thing to echo. I try not to edit a first draft too much. You can strangle yourself if you try to get it perfect. Then in the revision process, I really tried to sharpen the different voices among the girls.

AB: You’ve wanted to be a writer since childhood. What particular influences led you on this path?

HVF: My family of bookworms. At a typical Vogel family gathering, we’d all be sitting on the sofa reading! My father read to me and my sisters every single night before bed. As soon as I could sign my name, I got a library card. I remember that shiver of excitement I’d always get entering a library, that distinct library smell, and the feeling that there was always something waiting for me there to take home and read and treasure. I devoured books growing up. When I was seven or eight, I had the ambition to read through everything in the children’s section, A-Z. I started on the first shelf. But that didn’t last long, because pretty soon I got into sports biographies- no, thank you! I’ve always lived within walking distance of a library.

AB: Has that been intentional?

HVF: When my husband and I were looking for houses, the first thing I would do was check out the library. A well-supported library told me a lot about the town.

AB: Any other influences?

In college I took a course on children’s literature. Marjorie Hamlin, the librarian who taught the class at Principia College, changed the course of my life. She was amazing and remains a dear friend to this day. She reintroduced me to books I had read when I was young, and introduced me to new writers. I remember sitting outside one day on the grass reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising thinking this was what I wanted to do.

AB: When did you first start writing?

HVF: I wrote my first novel when I was 12 at summer camp and my first novel as an adult after college when I lived in Cologne, Germany on a Fulbright scholarship. I like to joke that I was their distribution requirement. Everyone else with a Fulbright was from the Ivy Leagues and I was this little squirt from a college that no one had ever heard of in the Midwest. It was really wonderful. I still have good friends from that year.

I was kind of homesick off and on so just like at summer camp, I took refuge in writing. I wrote a tween middle grade novel. I came back to the U.S. and sent it to Houghton Mifflin. Of course, I got a rejection letter. But at that point, there was no SCBWI and I was too young and naïve to know there was a difference between a good rejection and a bad rejection. All I saw was, “Your book isn’t right for our lists.” I paid no attention to the next paragraph that went on to praise the things they liked about it and they asked if I had anything else!

AB: Do you still have that letter?

HVF: Yes, and it breaks my heart to some degree, but that was what propelled me into journalism because I had to find a way -- other than my dream of writing fiction -- to earn a living. I started off as a copy kid and worked my way up the ranks. And that was the best thing that could have happened then. It taught me wonderful skills. It matured me and ripened me for when I sat down to write again after twenty years.

AB: Can you tell me about your career as a journalist?

HF : I began at The Christian Science Monitor. I did various features writing jobs for them, was the assistant living page editor, and became the children's book review editor. I did that for about five years. After the kids were born and I was home, I started reviewing for Publisher’s Weekly. I would get various assignments interviewing an author, or writing big roundup pieces about things like trends in garden books. I worked there for 15 years and was a contributing editor by the end. I consider Publisher’s Weekly my graduate school because I read thousands of books working for them. And it was a delight. I saw what worked, and what didn’t.

AB: Let’s talk about your inspirations for your other two book series. Neil Gaiman wrote on his blog, “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it.”

HVF: Exactly. Most of us carry little notebooks with us, because ideas come at very strange times. Mine often come in church or in the shower. Once I burnt a pot of soup when I went to write something down, but I had to or I’d never remember it!

AB: The Voyage of Patience Goodspeed was your first published book. What was your kernel of inspiration for the Patience Goodspeed series?

HVF: Pure serendipity. I was researching my genealogy and discovered that there was a branch of my family who were whalers living on Nantucket Island. An ancestor of mine ran away from the family farm and went to sea when he was fifteen. I had been force fed Moby Dick in high school and hated it, but I started reading general books about life at sea in the whaling industry and was fascinated. These voyages would last two to three years at a time in order to fill the hold with enough oil. That’s a long time to be away from the family. If you had a game wife, you took her and the kids and raised them at sea. There was a whole society of whaling families at sea.

AB: Why did you decide that the main character Patience would be a girl?

HVF: The main character was originally a boy, but then I found out that there were many girls at sea, many bright women who were bored out of their minds because there was nothing there for them to do, so they learned to navigate. That gave me the idea for the character of Patience.

AB: I assume you were somewhat connected to the publishing world at that point, having worked for Publisher’s Weekly. Was it easy to find a publisher?

HVF: You’d think so, but no. Reviewing books is a separate thing from the world of publishing. It’s like standing outside a bakery. You don’t know how the pies are made at the back of the shop. I had connections with writers, which was lovely, but not with publishers or editors- the back of the shop.

I got a grant from Oregon Literary Arts, and I just can’t sing their praises enough. It’s such a boost for a writer to submit something and have somebody say, “We’ll give you money so you can finish it.” The day I wrote the novel's last sentence, I burst into tears from that sense of completion and the fact that I knew in my bones I’d written something good.

But then what to do with it? A friend suggested I send it to her editor, Kevin Lewis at Simon & Schuster. I did, and he called me back a short time later and said, “Your writing is wonderful. I love your characters; however, nothing happens in the first hundred pages.” I had left out the plot! He very generously gave me a lesson in plot over the phone and poured out his ideas of what we could do. I polished the manuscript up, sent it off, and they bought it.

AB: Let’s talk about your second series. Spy Mice: Goldwhiskers has been nominated for the 2010 Massachusetts Children’s Book Award. Congratulations! It’s the third title in your Spy Mice series. Can you tell us about the evolution of Spy Mice?

HVF: The initial idea was sparked by a newspaper story I read about building The Spy Museum in Washington, DC. I thought instantly of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and had a goose bump moment: why not set a story in The Spy Museum? I have learned over the years to pay attention to those goose bump moments. Because when something really resonates with me, chances are it will with readers as well. I clipped out the article and saved it. I didn’t add the mouse element until years later when I finally sat down to write the story.

AB: Sally Wern Comport illustrated the US editions and Adam Stower for the UK publications. How might this affect how your work is received?

HVF: For me, it’s fascinating how Sally and Adam have such different visions of my story. As for affecting my work, if I were Empress of the World, I would make sure all middle grade fiction had illustrations in it!

AB: Speaking of illustrations, you’ve got two picture books coming out next year.

HVF: Babyberry Pie (Harcourt, 2010) and Hide and Squeak (Simon & Schuster, 2010) are bedtime books, both written in rhyme. Babyberry Pie likens the bathtime-and-getting-ready-for-bed ritual to making a pie- popping a “babyberry” into a pie crust (under the bedcovers), etc. Hide and Squeak recounts the evasion tactics of a little one who doesn’t want to go to bed. In this case, the little one is a mouse who leads his daddy on a wild chase through the house before finally getting caught.

AB: I understand that Amy Schwartz is illustrating Babyberry Pie and C.F. Payne is illustrating Hide and Squeak. I love their work.

HVF: I scored big with both of them! I can’t wait to see their final results, because with picture books, I do not have a preconceived notion of what they should look like. I’m not an artistic soul. I can’t even draw stick figures.

AB: Is your picture book creative process different from your novel writing?

HVF: Picture books are a mystery to me. Mem Fox once wrote, “Writing a picture book is like writing War and Peace in haiku,” which is true. The initial ideas for mine come to me almost complete, like a gift left on my doorstep in a nice little basket. Then it’s up to me to wrestle them into the bath and clean them up a bit.

AB: Is there a book that you feel you’re most proud of writing?

HVF: That’s like asking parents who is their favorite child, but to some degree, I’d say the first one I wrote: The Voyage of Patience Goodspeed. Just getting to the end was such a sense of accomplishment. But I’ve really enjoyed writing each book.

AB: What are you reading these days?

HVF: I’ve usually got a couple of biographies going. Right now, I’ve got one about P.L. Travers who wrote Mary Poppins, and one about P.G. Wodehouse; one of my favorite authors. And right now, I’m mired in stacks of books about Jane Austen, which is no hardship for me. I really like the research process. No matter what book I’m writing, I manage to find a research angle.

I’ve also read some recent middle grade fiction: Roseanne Perry’s Heart of a Shepherd. I loved that book. I highly recommend it. To add another MG rave to the mix, I read Richard Peck’s The River Between Us over the weekend (-yes, I know, I was supposed to be working on my own book, but I got distracted, what can I say?) He is truly an amazing writer. Can I be him when I grow up?

AB: An implicit part of being a children’s writer is touring schools and libraries and talking with other readers. Is that a part of your job that you enjoy?

HVF: Very much so. I love doing school visits. There’s a real energy that comes from talking to kids. What I never could have foreseen is that I’m now frequently asked to talk with mother daughter book clubs across the country by using Skype, but locally sometimes in person. At the age of eleven or twelve, readers are right on the cusp of adulthood. There’s sweet innocence combined with wit and savvy. Maybe it fills my need for a daughter, since I’ve got two boys!

AB: What do your sons think of your writing- are they supportive?

HVF: Yes! When my older son read the first Patience book he said, “Mom, that last part was so exciting, I forgot you wrote it.” That was the best compliment ever.

AB: Do you find yourself giving advice to young burgeoning writers?

HVF: I love responding to fan mail and email. I tell them to read. That’s the most important tip at that age, because they’re little sponges capable of soaking up beautiful language. I share the trick about keeping a notebook handy, and to not put too much pressure on themselves. They just should be having fun with it. I suggest that they find a writing partner to have someone to read things to.

AB: Heather, thank you so much for talking with me today. I have one last question: what advice do you wish someone would have offered you when you set out on your writing journey?

HVF: Just relax- you’re going to get there. Keep on course, your eye on the horizon, enjoy your life now. Enjoy time with your family. I think sometimes writers have a tendency to think all will be great once they get published, but it isn’t the Holy Grail. Real life is more important. Writing is a gift that I have to give. But life is bigger than just art.


Anonymous said...

I very much enjoyed this interview!

Kim Kasch said...

Great interview - love the pink kitchen. And with a name like Patience - who wouldn't like this character?

Thanks for the info.

Rosanne Parry said...

Great interview!

Arthur Ransom's Swallows and Amazons is my husbands favorite read aloud series. Those books and The Wizard of Earthsea are the reason he got a little sailboat. I discovered this year that Ransom also collected Russian folk and fairy tales--fascinating.

Can't wait to read Dear Pen Pal!

BJW said...

Another great interview Amy, though I am a little jealous about the iced tea. ; )

Loved hearing her description of being outside the bakery, but not knowing what was going on in the kitchen.

Reading so many books to review must be an amazing master's course in writing. What an incredible story!

Very cool.

-karen ann. said...

amy, this is the first of your writing that i've read, and it's very good. what a great interview. i now have more books to add to my library list. thanks for introducing me to fabulous writer.

Anonymous said...

i love this series
and can't wait to read Pies and Prejudice