Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
When I finished reading Rosanne Parry’s fiction debut Heart of a Shepherd, I had a visitation of sorts. The above lines of Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day kept haunting me. Like Oliver, Parry challenges you to bear witness to nature and reflect on the spiritual. But unlike Oliver, Parry throws down the gauntlet to middle grade readers of fiction. In her slim, tightly woven prose, Parry succeeds in keeping our attention and challenging our thoughts, long after we put the book down. I don't make comparisons to the work of Mary Oliver lightly. I can’t recommend Heart of a Shepherd highly enough.
In Heart of a Shepherd, Brother, the youngest of five sons, must run the family ranch with his grandfather when his father’s reserve unit is called to active duty. This provides Brother with an opportunity to prove himself- to show his father and brothers he is capable, despite his own self-doubts. He and his grandfather withstand many challenges, and Brother ultimately gains insight into how he can best serve the spirit of the land, his family, and himself.
AB: Congratulations on the publication of your book, Heart of a Shepherd (Random House, 2009). I read it on a plane and tried in vain to hide my tears and puffy face from the person next to me. I was particularly struck by the realism in the story- Brother's family felt like my family, even though we've neither lived in
Eastern Oregon nor raised sheep. What led you to write this story?
RP: Thank you, I’m delighted that you enjoyed the book. I’m beginning to think that it should come with a little sticker that says, “Don’t read this book on a city bus!” I’ve actually gotten a few complaints on that score. It’s a real honor to have moved a reader, but I’m very sorry if you were embarrassed. If it makes you feel better, my editor refused to work my book in the office for exactly the same reason.
It’s sometimes hard to pin down one thing that inspires a story. I know plenty of ranchers and soldiers. That’s part of it. During the current war in
, I’ve seen small towns deploying their most valuable community members overseas. The impact of their service on their communities seemed worth the attention of a novel. Ultimately though, I had a character I loved, and I was willing to follow him where his story led. Iraq
AB: What led you to write for young readers in particular? What about children's fiction appeals to you?
RP: There are so many things to love about kid’s literature. You will not find more attentive or passionate readers anywhere. I love it that children’s books are not about the writer, but about the reader and the story each reader constructs from her own abilities and experiences. I love school visits and letters from child readers, and I find the community of children’s writers a very inspiring place to be.
AB: What was the timeline between kernel of an idea to publication?
RP: This story began as a poem I wrote about a boy and a grandpa playing chess at least 10 years ago. The poem became a short story that won a Kay Snow Award from Willamette Writers in 2003, the same year I met my editor Jim Thomas at the Oregon SCBWI fall retreat. Slowly, and with much pausing to work on other projects, the short story called The Chess Men became the first chapter of a whole novel. My editor made an offer on it in September of 2006 and it came out in January of 2009. The audio book came out the same month as the novel, and I also sold the movie option for Heart of a Shepherd in January of 2009. It seems long but I’m lucky to have had the luxury of time to get the story just the way I wanted it to be.
AB: I have read your informative Cynsations interview. Could you tell me when you started becoming involved with SCBWI? How helpful has being a partof this organization been for you?
RP: I’ve been involved with SCBWI-Oregon for more than ten years. I count myself very lucky to be in the company of generous mentors at our region’s conferences and retreats. I met my Random House editor at one of our retreats, but far more importantly, I met friends who have supported and advised me in all the stages of my career.
AB: In 2004, you were the recipient of the Oregon Literary Arts fellowship for Young Readers' Literature. How did you hear about the Oregon Literary Arts fellowship?
RP: I made it a habit in the “pre-published” phase of my career to enter at least 3 contests a year. I was chatting with one of my SCBWI friends about what new contests I could enter, and she suggested OLA. It’s an amazing organization and a testament to the strength of the reading culture in our state.
AB: How did you find your agent, Stephen Fraser? Was it difficult to find an agent?
RP: I didn’t start to look for an agent until I had four finished middle grade stories, about a dozen finished picture book manuscripts, some published newspaper articles and the Kay Snow Award. I was at the point where I was consistently getting not form rejections but notes that said, “Thanks, good writing, but this is not what we do here. Please send us something else”.
I asked my friend Brent Hartinger, who loves his agent Jennifer Di Chiara, if she was taking new clients. He said, “Yes, but her list is very full. My editor at Harper Collins is becoming an agent in Jennifer’s agency. He’s great. Try him.” So I queried Stephen according to the guidelines. He got back to me in just a few weeks offering representation. So it wasn’t hard, but I believe that’s because I’d already done the hard work of creating not just one saleable manuscript but a body of marketable work and enough knowledge of the industry to have reasonable expectations and be an active partner with my agent.
AB: I understand that you work in a critique group. What and/or who has been most helpful to you in developing your craft?
RP: What I love most about my critique group is the variety of response. One member has a gift for copy editing. She has, with considerable patience, taught me much of what I know about the more complex elements of grammatical construction. She is also a genius at picking out the inconsistencies and errors in logic. I love that about her, and I depend on it. Another member is great at helping me sort out things like narrative distance and consistency in point of view. Yet another is great about telling me when I’ve hit the emotional nail on the head and where I’ve missed the mark. Perhaps most important of all, they are there year in and year out, expecting a new chapter from me every two weeks. It’s very motivating. Our group has changed membership over the years, but I can’t imagine how I’d get an initial manuscript into editor-ready shape without the help of other writers.
AB: I've read your website and know a bit about what you liked to read when you were younger. I've also checked out your "Goodreads" page. But I'm wondering: are you able to read much current middle grade fiction? If so, what are some middle grade books published in the last 5-10 years that you've enjoyed? What makes you like it/them so much?
RP: I wish I read more. My goal is to set aside at least one week and maybe two a year just for the purpose of keeping current in my field. I also try to keep up with what my children are reading both for fun and in their English classes.
What have I read lately? I just finished Marcello in the Real World last week and found it one of the most absorbing books I’ve read in a while. I’m a big fan of Megan Whelen Turner’s books, The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia. I have enjoyed all of the books in my debut authors group the Class of 2K9. One title in particular that stands out is the middle grade novel When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton. I could never settle on a favorite but those are what spring to mind today.
AB: How about current picture books?
RP: I also need to go on a picture book reading binge this week. Two that I’ve read recently are Deb Lund’s Dinosailors and Deborah Hopkinson’s Apples to
. I think the Olivia books by Ian Falconer are both visually interesting and great characterization. I’ve been a fan of folk and fairy tales all my life so The Paper Dragon by Marguerite W. Davol, illustrated by Robert Sabuda, and St. George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman are long time favorites. Oregon
AB: Daddy's Home (Candy Cane Press, 2009) is a lovely picture book in rhyme that you wrote which came out last spring. How are writing picture books different from writing middle grade novels?
RP: I have loved poetry all my life, and I do think that picture books have more in common with poetry than with novels. It’s good for my writing to switch between novels and picture books. The novels remind me to make the picture book have a satisfying arc no matter how short it is, and the picture books remind me of the importance of reading my work out loud.
AB: What advice would you offer a writer (like me) who is just starting out?
RP: Two things spring to mind. The first is probably advice you’ve heard before. Read. I would add to that: read current books. Read at least a dozen books in your genre every year. Think about what you are reading. When you find a book you love, pick it apart and figure out what makes the story work. Spend a little time with books you hate as well, particularly if it’s a best selling book that you loathe. Think about why you have the reaction you do and what other readers are seeing that appeals to them.
The other advice is to develop a body of work. Finish at least 3 or 4 novels or a dozen picture books. Learn all you can about the craft of writing from these first books. Work with a critique group or partner. Figure out the kind of story you like best and practice the work habits you’ll need to sustain a career in publishing.
AB: What can your fans look forward to next? Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming novel that takes place during the cold war?
RP: My next novel will be Second Fiddle, and it will come out in the spring of 2011. It's an adventure story about three girl musicians living in
just as the Berlin Wall has come down. They rescue a Soviet soldier from death at the hands of his own officers and help him escape from Germany East Berlin to . It's a complete change of pace from the first book, but still a thoughtful coming of age story about trust, friendship, and a girl who loves music finding her own voice. Paris
AB: Do you ever do public readings or speaking engagements?
RP: Yes! I just returned from a wonderful weekend in
leading the Fishtrap Children’s Literature Workshop. I was very impressed with the enthusiasm of the Fishtrap staff, the quality of the participants and the brilliance of my teaching partner, author and story teller Meg Lippert. This is an event that happens every fall. Enterprise Oregon
I’ll be making my first appearance at Wordstock on Sunday October 11th. I’ll be sharing the stage at my reading with Karen Cushman! How cool is that? I can’t wait to meet her. I’ll also be teaching a writing workshop called "Character and the Seven Deadly Sins." It’s a fun one. I’d love to see some friendly faces there, so stop by if you can. My reading is at on Sunday and my workshop is at .
I’ll also start scheduling my school visits and Skype visits. It’s my goal to visit 20 schools in the next school year. I’ve done two already in Wallowa and
. I have Skype visits lined up in Enterprise, Oregon and Chicago . If you have a school that’s interested in an author visit, let me know. Interacting with readers is becoming my favorite part of the job! Wisconsin
AB: Thanks so much, Rosanne!