Shawn Stout takes a break from her popular Penelope Crumb series to introduce young readers to Frankie Baum in her engaging new middle grade novel A Tiny Piece of Sky. It is 1939 in Hagerstown, Maryland, and Frankie Baum, the youngest of three sisters, is wondering if her German-born father really is a spy. Newbery Honor and National Book Award-winner, Kathi Appelt raves about this captivating coming-of-age story, “At turns hilarious, at turns heartbreaking, Shawn Stout’s story shows us the damage that a whisper campaign can do to a family and a community, and at the same time shows us, each of us, a way to find our hearts.”
Between the Covers: What was the inspiration behind A Tiny Piece of Sky?
Shawn Stout: A Tiny Piece of Sky was inspired by the lives of my grandparents, Albert and Mildred Beck, and their three daughters, in the 1930s. My grandfather, the son of German parents, was a restaurant owner and businessman in Hagerstown, Maryland, and amidst the post-WWI anti-German hysteria, he was falsely accused of being a Nazi spy. Following those accusations, there was an organized boycott of his restaurant, which sent him and my grandmother into a financial crisis and contributed to my grandfather’s early death.
I grew up listening to my mother’s stories about her family’s restaurant, about the rumors of espionage and about the boycott. Many decades later, after my grandmother died, we were cleaning out her apartment and found letters dated 1939 from local civic organizations, which voiced their support for my grandfather and his restaurant, and denounced the accusations that he was a German spy. I held onto those letters and knew that one day I would write about their story.
BTC: Frankie is Number Three, the youngest of three sisters and yet she is spunky and fun. Is her character autobiographical in any way? The sisterly relationships are so real. Did you draw on real life experience from your own family?
SS: Like Frankie, I’m a Number Three, so I do know what it feels like to be the last to do everything. (It doesn’t feel so great, let me tell you.) I certainly heard a lot of “No, you’re not old enough,” when I was a kid, so I can relate to Frankie’s frustrations. But that’s where our similarities end, I think. Frankie is much more adventurous than I was at her age, and she has a lot more gumption. Gumption. I love that word.
The relationship between the Baum sisters was really fun to write. I don’t think I consciously drew on any experiences from my own life, but it’s hard to say where things come from when I’m writing. Having an older brother and sister, though, has definitely helped shape who I am and made me sensitive to the dynamics between siblings.
BTC: You did an amazing job of capturing the feeling of life in a small city during the war. What kind of research did you do to create this authentic setting? What is your writing process like?
SS: Before I wrote a single word, I read a lot of books about pre-WWII era in the United States, and about anti-German sentiment and the super-patriotism of the time. I listened to radio broadcasts from the 1930s like “The Shadow” and dug up newsreels and local newspaper articles. I also interviewed family members and those few still living who worked at my grandparents’ restaurant in the 1930s. To get a feel for the place, I was able to find photographs dated 1938 of the restaurant and staff, as well as advertising postcards, matchbooks and an original menu.
My writing process is different for each book. For this one, I started out with the research and tried to immerse myself in the period. Then, once I felt as though I had enough of a handle on the time and place, I started writing. I knew I wanted to tell the story mostly through the youngest Baum’s eyes — Frankie’s — so I started with her character until I could find her voice. When I found it, the story started to take off.
BTC: One of the most impressive feats in this book is your ability to address injustice through Frankie’s eyes without preaching. So many children’s books seem to feel a need to teach a lesson and become didactic. How do you let the reader come to his/her own conclusion and avoid lecturing?
SS: That’s a great question. I try to stay inside my characters’ head as much as I can and let them react to what happens in the story as it unfolds. Honestly, as I’m writing, I’m rarely thinking about the reader — my focus is on the story and the characters — so the idea of teaching lessons or morals doesn’t ever occur to me. I learn so much about the world through my characters as I’m writing, so there’s no place for me, as the author, to preach to anyone.
BTC: What were some of your favorite books as a child and what do you tell children who ask for advice on how to be a writer?
SS: My favorite book as a child was The Secret Garden, but I read everything I could get my hands on. I was also in love with Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series. I still am, actually.
BTC: Will you share with our readers some of your favorite things about living in Maryland?
SS: I grew up in Maryland and continue to love living here for many reasons — watching the seasons change, being close to both the mountains and the ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, and enjoying its eclectic cities. Maryland has so much to offer. I’ve lived here all my life and still haven’t explored everything.
BTC: What can your fans look forward to next?
SS: I’m working on a new middle grade novel, but it’s too early in the process to talk about it in very much detail. I will say that it has to do with a lonely girl, an unkindness of ravens and a bit of old magic.
Jen Larsen’s critically acclaimed memoir Stranger Here detailed her own choice to have weight-loss surgery and the unexpected highs and lows that followed losing 180 pounds. In her teen fiction debut, Larsen tackles weight-loss surgery again in Future Perfect.
Ashley Perkins is the type of kid that any parent or grandparent would be shouting about from the rooftops: class valedictorian, AP student, on the volleyball team and now she’s set her sights on getting into Harvard. All of her friends and family know she is a shoo-in for admission. In her grandmother’s eyes, though, the main thing setting Ashley back is her looks: she’s fat.
Every year since her 13th birthday, Ashley’s grandmother presents her with a card: 50 pounds lost equals a trip to Disneyland, 80 pounds lost equals a shopping trip to Paris, 100 pounds lost equals a brand new car. Every year, Ashley has turned down her grandmother’s offer, but when this year’s card offers her Harvard tuition for the cost of having weight-loss surgery, Ashley struggles with the decision more than she ever has. Should she give in to her grandmother’s demands for how her body “should” look to get everything she’s ever dreamed?
Between the Covers recently caught up with Jen to talk about her novel.
Between the Covers: (No spoilers, please!) While you were writing this novel, did you know what choice Ashley was going to make? Did it change for you while developing her character?
Jen Larsen: I did know! Because her final choice is completely central to why I wrote this book. I wanted to write a character who was everything I wanted to be, and as brave as I wish I were, when I was her age. I wanted to write a book that was the book I needed when I was struggling with my own body issue demons, fear, doubt and isolation.
BTC: You documented your own weight loss surgery and its impact on your life in your memoir Stranger Here; what influence did your own weight loss have on this novel?
JL: When I chose to get surgery, I thought it was my only option—that I had no other choice, because it would be impossible for me to be fat and happy and lovable. That idea is dangerous and so incredibly wrong and yet so prevalent. Future Perfect is a counter to it, an argument for the fact that the body image standards that get pushed on us by the media and even by our own well-meaning family are limited, bigoted and cruel. There's no loving yourself "despite" your flaws, because your body isn't flawed. Not looking like a Victoria's Secret model is not some kind of defect.
BTC: Unlike other teen heroines "of size," Ashley never hides behind her body as a suit of "fat armor." She's not separate from her body, she just is. That is so refreshing! In developing Ashley's character, what pitfalls did you want to avoid? How did you reconcile those pitfalls with having to write a teenage character?
JL: It was really, really important that Ashley's voice be authentic. She rejects the idea that fat is a dirty word. She is fiercely, defiantly happy in her body, almost defensively so — because I think when you're a teenager you are very much still in a role where your beliefs and feelings feel challenged by your adults and your peer group. You feel as if you always need to be on guard, fighting back.
But Ashley also has ordinary doubts and fears and worries that nag at her. She compares herself to other girls, she has fleeting moments of self-doubt when she wonders why her boyfriend thinks she's beautiful, she struggles with her family's nagging and comments. When you're a teenager, your family's opinion is both the most important and the opinion you feel like you need to reject or rebel against. And that's part of what fuels her need to push back as hard as she can.
BTC: This novel could've easily translated to an adult trying to decide if this surgery was for her, so why teen? Teen voice can be very hard to capture, and these kids were very realistic. How did you transition your writing style to suit teen, if at all?
JL: Because I believe teen fiction is so, so important. There's this huge number of brilliant, hungry kids out there looking for themselves in the books they read, wanting their worries, interests, hopes, needs understood and validated. I choose teen because I thought this story and idea and message is so important for teens to hear when they're in the throes of their own struggles with the expectations of the adults around them.
BTC: Ashley's group of friends could each have a wonderful novel in and of themselves! In writing these characters, why was it important for you to stress how, in a lot of ways, these friends were her family perhaps more than her family was?
JL: Thank you! I love her friends very much. I wanted to talk about what happens when the family you have isn't the family you need. It's so important to surround yourself with people who give you strength, who love you and support you. It's okay to push back against your family's expectations if they don't understand you, or care for you the way you need, and create your own community to help give you the strength you need and support your sense of identity and self-worth.
BTC: I've seen a lot of people comment that "No loving grandmother would ever do this to a child!" Do you agree? Why is Grandmother so hard on Ashley when she gives others such love and attention (her dad, Jolene, etc.)?
JL: That kind of direct criticism and pressure on kids about their weight and size is incredibly common, from the really subtle stuff I used to get as a kid ("Why don't you just butter one piece of toast and then press it against the other piece?") to flat-out disapproval and condemnation. Parents and caregivers are roped into The War on Obesity by doctors, and forget that study after study shows that shaming and coercion is useless and, in fact, incredibly harmful. It can cause life-long eating issues, disorders, depression and even more weight gain. It is real and it is common and it is horrific.
Ashley's grandmother genuinely believes she's doing right and good—that she is taking care of her granddaughter in the best way she knows how, and actually helping her to achieve her identity. She thinks if Ashley wants to be successful, she can't be fat. That she'll be denied opportunities and struggle in her career. She thinks she's helping Ashley fight back. And in that sense, she's helping Jolene fight back against the people who reject Jolene's sense of self, unaware of the irony in celebrating Jolene's body autonomy while dismissing Ashley's.
BTC: What's next for you and your writing? (Please, please tell me there's a Jolene book somewhere.)
JL: I love Jolene and would love to write a book about her! But currently I'm working on a couple of new teen books—my first fantasy novel ever, a retelling of the "Princess and the Pea" and a book that's incredibly important to me, about two girls in love and San Francisco and social justice.
Thank you so much for such awesome questions!
I sat down with British illustrator and comic artist Luke Pearson while he was in town for the Small Press Expo to discuss his recent work and his ongoing graphic novel series, Hilda.
Between the Covers: How has Soft Spot [the animation you’ve been collaborating on with fellow comic artist Phillippa Rice] been going?
Luke Pearson: Phillippa is the driving force behind Soft Spot. All the stop motion stuff is entirely her. I’ve been doing smaller bits within those episodes. We haven’t collaborated that much before, so it’s nice to have something that’s actually both of us. We’re both just kind of experimenting and playing around.
BTC: You’ve also joined the pantheon of people working for Adventure Time doing some storyboarding.
LP: I’ve boarded four episodes overall and I’m hoping I can do more at some point. They’re very time consuming because I’ve always done it freelance with quite big gaps in between. It’s quite hard to get back in that mindset.
BTC: You’ve spoken before about how you’re inspired by Scandinavian myth in the creation of your own series, Hilda, but I see a lot of original world building and myth making.
LP: The Scandinavian folklore is like a jumping off point really. So much fantasy in general comes from those same stories and people just twist them and reinvent them in their own way. What I was trying to do with that was portray them in a way that is closer to how they are in the oral tales, rather than sticking a grand mythology onto them. There’s tons of stuff in Hilda which is just made up as well. I think as it goes on, it’s evolving into its own thing and the place she lives in has less of a point of reference with a real world place.
BTC: Hilda exploring the world seems like a central theme. Are you also figuring out what the rules for that reality are as you go along, or is it building on something you already know?
LP: It’s not really building towards something I already know. There are certain things that I have had locked down in my head from the start, I’m not totally winging it. But I don’t have a big bible that I wrote beforehand with all the stuff in there. I think that would feel counterproductive. As time goes on my tastes and interests change, when I draw each book I want to feel like I can change my mind about things. I’d rather do that than be a slave to this thing I made up five, six years ago that maybe I don’t agree with anymore.
BTC: Do you consider your audience as you’re working? Do you censor yourself because you know you need to appeal to kids?
LP: I don’t censor myself because I know they’re not for really little kids. It wouldn’t cross my mind to do a super dark Hilda story. What’s the point? I would just do a different comic. I want it to be a little bit scary and weird. I think kids can handle more than some people can give them credit for. If there’s a scary thing in the story, I want them to actually be scared of it. I don’t want to just put some big, goofy monster in that everyone is acting afraid of but isn’t actually scary. I always aim to resolve things in a way that is comforting.
BTC: Your next book, Hilda and the Stone Forest, is going to be coming out next year. Is there anything you can share about that project?
LP: It’s a bit different to previous ones in that it’s the first one where I feel like you probably do need to have read at least one of the other ones to get it. I’ve always been reluctant to do that in previous books, I wanted each one to be a standalone thing, but as I get deeper into the series it makes less and less sense. I feel like people enjoy the way the world is growing and it feels like a shame to gloss over all the other things. The start of the book will be the kind of things Hilda’s been getting up to. Hilda has so many magical-ish friends and tricky ways that her mom is getting slightly irate. She’s off on adventures all the time, possibly covering up how dangerous they may or may not be. It will be the first story where Hilda and her mum actually go on an adventure together.
BTC: I really like the way you’ve been portraying their dynamic. They’re obviously parent and child but they get along and it’s not stereotypical, you convey a more complex relationship.
LP: I’ve just naturally become more interested in exploring the mom character. She was just there in the first couple of books to explain how Hilda exists in the world, because she can’t live on her own. That character’s just been evolving to the point where, in this one, they’re co-leads. It’s tricky to do but I want the child reader to slowly pick up on the fact that she’s not just a mom, she is a person. It seems like in a lot of children’s fiction the parent is just a source of comfort or a source of antagonism and that’s it. They’re like a caricature. I like the idea of a kid empathizing and relating to the mom in a personal way rather than relating their idea of their mom. It’s hard to see your own parents like that until you get older.
BTC: Are you finding any of your own childhood emerging when you’re writing?
LP: I had a pretty comfortable, pleasant childhood but stuff does kind of come through. The last book all the stuff where she joins the Sparrow Scouts, that was kind of based on my experience as a scout.
BTC: Did you enjoy scouts?
LP: Yes and no, which I think I was trying to get across for Hilda. I like the idea of it and I did have fun at times, but I also didn’t enjoy it that much for not quite the same reasons as Hilda. I was just always very shy. I liked messing around but I always felt like I wasn’t very good at actual, legitimate scout stuff. As a kid I basically only enjoyed sitting and drawing and making stuff up.
BTC: What are you reading right now?
LP: I’m actually reading the Earthsea series for the first time. It’s really good. I’ve only read the first book so far but it’s incredible. I’ve had this boxed set since I was a kid, I think they were my mom’s. I’ve been carrying them around forever.
The next Hilda book, Hilda and the Stone Forest, is due to be released in Spring of 2016.
I managed to catch up with one of the Small Press Expo’s special guests, British illustrator and cartoonist Gemma Correll, while she was in town for the convention. Gemma has recently released Pig and Pug, a picture book about an unlikely friendship, and The Worrier’s Guide to Life, a comic strip collection that strikes a humorous balance between The New Yorker cartoons and cat memes.
Between The Covers: Is there anyone at SPX you’re excited to meet?
Gemma Correll: I know Kate Beaton’s here. That’s quite exciting. But I’ll probably be too scared to say anything. I thought comics people were meant to be really introverted, but it seems like everyone is really outgoing.
BTC: That’s one of the reasons I like your work so much, because you’ve pretty much nailed what I feel like as an introvert. When you make comics about any social anxieties or issues you’re working through, do you think it’s therapeutic in any way?
GC: Yeah, it is very therapeutic. That’s why I started doing that kind of comic in the first place. I’ve always done diary comics and if I’m anxious about something I tend to draw to get through it. I draw on planes a lot because I get really anxious on planes. But I feel like I look really aloof because I’m drawing. I’m not trying to be rude.
BTC: How many sketchbooks have you filled to date?
GC: If we count from when I left college, about 30 — some are bigger than others though.
BTC: You’re just finding other ways of interacting. Pig and Pug, that’s a story about two friends who don’t like each other at first but, in spite of themselves, they start to become friends. Would it be wrong to classify them as “frenemies”?
GC: Yeah, I think that’s probably the right word.
BTC: Was that a theme you felt tied to, or were you more drawn to the animal aspect of Pig and Pug?
GC: It’s kind of a bit of both. The first thing was that it’s a pug. If it’s a pug I have to do it, it’s like a law.
BTC: Have you gotten tired of pugs yet?
GC: I never get tired of doing pugs. I just worry about other people getting tired of me doing pugs all the time. The story is for really young kids and it’s very simple and very funny. I do like the undertones of them being frenemies but really loving each other. It’s one of those things when people are similar in temperament and they clash. I went and visited the author [Lynne Berry] in Nashville. She doesn’t have a pug, she has Boston Terriers but Boston Terrier isn't alliterative. But she does have a pig. And the pig was really sweet and really, really grumpy. She would kind of snort at you unless you fed her.
BTC: That sounds like my dog.
GC: Yeah, that’s what my pugs are like as well — grumpy unless you’ve got treats for them.
BTC: What do you think it takes to be a pug aficionado? I don’t think there’s really a term for people who really love pugs, is there?
GC: No. There should be. I was going to say pugaphile, but that sounds pretty weird. Not pugaphile. [laughs] Yeah, pugs are kind of cat-like in certain ways, so I can see the similarity with a cat-lady because they’re lap dogs and pug people get obsessive with pug stuff. You’ll have everything with pugs on it. I’ve got a ridiculous amount of stuff with pugs on them.
BTC: And you’ve contributed to that with your pug merchandise.
GC: I know, it’s my own fault. It seems to be a certain kind of person who loves pugs, generally. Maybe more odd people? Which is fine, I’m one of them.
BTC: You’ve been really prolific recently. As well as Pig and Pug, you have the line of “Doodling…” activity books, How to Be a Girl and The Worriers Guide to Life. What do you think is the most effective habit that you’ve developed to produce so much work?
GC: Drinking coffee. I don’t know. I’ve always just drawn so much that it just kind of comes naturally. If I’m not drawing, I feel a bit lost. I find it hard to say no to things and I’m always working on my own work anyway.
BTC: You’ve had some interesting side projects recently, including a mural — is that right?
GC: I painted a mural of my characters. It was a local project in Norwich to brighten up an underpass. I didn’t really have the time to do it, but I really wanted to do it.
BTC: Your work actually covers a pretty wide range of interests. Is it just natural because you have that many interests or do you think about your audience?
GC: Yeah, it comes out of having so many interests and, quite often, I worry that I do too much different stuff. I can’t help myself. I love pugs and I love drawing them but I don’t want to only draw pugs.
BTC: But there are some running themes in your work, including gags about millennials. You’re still young enough to be a millennial, what is your take on the way they’re portrayed in media?
GC: Well, it’s pretty negative, isn’t it? Every generation above thinks the next generation is ridiculous, so I like making fun of that. I am a millennial and I do drink coffee every day and have tattoos. But I don’t think people see how millennials are affected by finance and housing issues.
BTC: You recently helped to get Eat More Comics kickstarted, how was that process?
GC: It was really, really good. Although The Nib doesn’t exist on Medium.com anymore, it was such a good online anthology. I feel like it all deserves to be remembered. Some of the things on there were really hard-hitting and clever. A lot of those comics have disappeared into the void of the Internet.
BTC: I guess it’s exemplifying a weird stage in Internet publishing. You have to preserve content in some way, if it’s not going to be online. That’s why print’s not dead.
GC: No, it’s not. I don’t think you could ever get what you get from a book on the Internet.
BTC: So is there anything you’re working on right now?
GC: I am working on a feminist coloring book. It’s not connected to the “Doodling…” books, it’s more in depth. I’m having a lot of fun with it. The publisher is Seal Press in New York and they publish a lot of social, political and feminist books.
BTC: Did that evolve out of your working with How to Be a Girl or was it something you were already planning?
GC: It came out of my Four Eyes comics. I’ve done a few which are not explicitly feminist comics but have the theme of body image and things like that. I think they saw it online and thought they could do something with it. So I worked with them to come up with something that is partly educational and partly fun.
BTC: That’s always an extremely difficult challenge, to find a good balance between those two. But there is such a great outpouring of work in the feminist bent making it into pop culture. Which is exciting.
GC: There’s a lot of books like Caitlin Moran’s books and humor books about feminism but there isn’t a coloring book yet.
BTC: But now there will be! What are you currently reading?
GC: At the moment I am reading Girls Will Be Girls. It’s a feminist book by and about Emer O’Toole, an Irish writer. It’s a humorous book about various concerns — there’s a whole chapter on body hair. It’s part memoir, part essays.
BTC: What drove your research for the feminist coloring book?
GC: It is such a wide theme. I wanted to put a lot of basic stuff in because some of the people who are reading it will be more knowledgeable than others. Also, because it’s an American publisher I’ve been reading up about American feminism, like the Seneca Falls conference. The Emer O’Toole book I was reading anyway. That’s just good for seeing how you can write about feminism in a funny way.
Get to know former Baltimore Raven Trevor Pryce, a man of many talents — including writing and producing — as he talks about his popular Kulipari series of books for kids, soon to be a Netflix animated series. Learn more about the Kulipari and this fantastical world here. The third book in the series, Amphibian’s End, is out now, and Trevor shares his thoughts on writing, living in Maryland, upcoming projects and, of course, playing for the Ravens.
Between the Covers: The Kulipari trilogy is such a fun blend of adventure, magic, the natural world and animals. What inspired you to create this fantastical land? And why frogs versus scorpions?
Trevor Pryce: I grew up in the '80s, a fan of Star Wars, X-Men and Transformers. And I remember being so wrapped up in the stories and how deep they went. The worlds seemed real to me because of the depth of the ideas. That never left me. When I got older I also found myself drawn to studying different parts of the world and civilizations. I visited Australia once and have never forgotten the experience. Aboriginal culture was one that I latched onto because I love the art and their mystic ways.
I grew up in Florida, and frogs weren’t my favorite of nature’s offerings. However, poisonous frogs were fascinating. Their bright colors make them almost whimsical, yet they are actually the deadliest creatures on the planet. So I put the fun side and the strong side together to create the world of the Kulipari in my books.
Kulipari as a word actually translates into the word “poison” in an Aboriginal dialect. Bringing frogs to my version of the Outback was a lot to mix together, but readers love the books so it works well. I continue to play with Aboriginal themes such as the Rainbow Serpent, The Land and more.
BTC: How does the battle for the Amphibilands compare to a Ravens-Steelers game?
TP: Funny. In a Ravens-Steelers game, we all shake hands afterwards and all of the players are cordial. In the battle for the Amphibilands, there’s no “Good game” afterward. There’s no mutual respect. There’s only a winner…and a loser. And the loser faces death. Wait…then maybe it is like a Ravens-Steelers game! [laughs]
BTC: The illustrations by acclaimed artist Sanford Greene do so much to support the storytelling and bring this magical place to life. Describe the process of working with an illustrator and how it impacts your own writing process.
TP: There’s a secret I’ll let you in on. Kulipari was written as a movie first. So it was always meant to be told visually. I was acting as a director would. There were ideas and themes that I wanted the readers to not have to imagine — things that would be come back later in the story. So although I like the power of imagination, there were some parts I didn’t want the readers to make up themselves. Like the “Poison” found in the characters and them glowing because of it. There’s a very specific way that I saw that in my mind so I wanted the readers to see the same way. I think if you had read the Star Wars movie script and saw the description of Darth Vadar, in your mind I doubt what you saw would have matched what George Lucas brought to life.
I also put a lot of work into the design of the characters. The Amphibilands was another point of emphasis. Sanford helped me envision everything. He’s an incredible artist and by the time we got to book three, I didn’t have to tell him much or give any direction at all.
BTC: Why kids’ books? How have your own children influenced your writing?
TP: Before I wrote Kulipari, I had written a drama for ABC television, submitted storied to the The New York Times, NBC.com and other Hollywood outlets. I kept coming back to my son, who is now 9 years old. He had TVs in our house on whenever he wanted to. So Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ninjago, Marvel, etc. A writer is usually a product of his influences and surroundings. And my son surrounded me with the things he loved. If my daughters ran the TVs in the house, I would have likely written my own version of Twilight.
With kids’ properties, they live on forever, if they’re good. There’s always new 10-, 11-, 12-year-olds. It’s the reason why Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles keeps being re-booted.
BTC: What were some of your favorite books when you were a child?
TP: When I was a kid there was Batman, Star Wars and ShaZam and the rest. My favorite book as a kid was called The Hooples Horrible Holiday.
BTC: Congratulations on the trilogy becoming a Netflix series (arriving next year). How involved will you be in production? Do you have any other news you can share about the series?
TP: Thanks! The Netflix series is in production now. The first season is 13 episodes. Seven of them are done. It looks pretty fantastic. I serve as the creator and executive producer. I picked everything. The music, the designs and the story the way I wanted to tell it. It’s a labor of love.
Right now I’m writing the the prequel story, The Hidingwar trilogy that tells the story of Darel’s father Apari, and the formation of the Amphibilands after Terra Australis and the Poison Scrolls. I’m really, really excited about that one. They will be live action movies in theaters around 2018.
BTC: What other books or projects do you have that we can look forward to?
TP: Kulipari: Battalions, the mobile game, is available now for IOS and Android. It’s a tower defense game in the vein of Clash of Clans or Game of War. It’s really, really cool. You can pick either Frogs or Scorpions and build your army. In the future, we are going to add Spiders and Turtles. And this month, the release of book three in the series Amphibian’s End!
Mattel has made a series of toys that go with the game that give in-game upgrades. Really, really cool. And Under Armour is making Kulipari Gear starting with limited edition T-shirts available now. Very limited quantities of course.
There’s going to be a fourth book in the series called Kulipari: A Lord Rises, which picks up after Amphibian’s End. Burnu is also getting a comic book called Kulipari: Heritage, as he’s the Kulipari version of Wolverine and will set out on his own adventure.
Also be on the lookout for Kulipari: Dreamwalker on Xbox One and PS4 next fall.
BTC: You were such an important part of the Ravens’ number 1 ranked defense. Can you share some of your favorite moments or games during your time as a member of Ravens Nation with our readers? How do Baltimore fans rank compared to fans from other cities you played in?
TP: I think the biggest thing I can share about that was the fact that my family and I decided to stay in this area. We live in Howard County and love it here. My kids were all born in Denver and, if not for playing for the Ravens, we would still be living there. And although Denver is great, it isn’t the DMV [D.C./Maryland/Virginia area]. And we are so grateful that a place like this exists. Everything about it.
So I would say I have the Ravens to thank for that. We would have never looked at Baltimore as a viable place to raise our children and set roots if not for me playing here. It’s a great organization, yes, but it’s even better as a part of the country. I’ve told everyone I know that they should move here.
Really, at the end of the day, I played for three cities, and my biggest compliment is that when football is over, where do the players go when they retire? I went here. I stayed here. I didn’t stay in this part of the world because it was just the last place where I played. I stayed because I love it. And there’s no better thing I can say than that. Really. And that’s my favorite memory. Because every day it keeps giving.
Bestselling author, architect and Westminster resident Charles Belfoure will join Baltimore County Public Library for a librarian-led group book discussion on Friday, September 25 from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. in The Ivy Bookshop tent at the Baltimore Book Festival. Mr. Belfoure will discuss his new historical novel, House of Thieves, as well as his well-regarded first novel The Paris Architect. Both stories feature an architect who ends up using his skills for precarious endeavors. In The Paris Architect, set during the Nazi's occupation of France, Lucien Bernard collaborates with a local industrialist to design hiding places for the Jews. In House of Thieves, architect John Cross is forced by gangsters to use his blueprints to expedite home burglaries to save his son from a gambling debt. Recently, Charles Belfoure answered questions for Between the Covers about House of Thieves.
Between the Covers: You do such a masterful job placing readers in late 19th century Manhattan. What made you choose New York’s Gilded Age for your setting and this lively time period?
Charles Belfoure: That was my favorite period in architectural history and I was also fascinated by the social history of the period. I spent a lot of time doing research on the worlds of the super-rich, the miserably poor and the underworld of the Gilded Age.
BTC: You introduce your readers to John Cross, an architect who gets drawn into the criminal underworld to protect his family. Did you have anyone from real life in mind when you created this character?
CB: I came across a real historical figure named George L. Leslie. He came from a wealthy family in the Midwest and had come to New York in the 1870s to practice as an architect, but gave it up because he preferred the life of a bank robber. When I was young, I had done a project for a Mafia boss who’s since been murdered. That was also an inspiration for doing a book about the underworld.
BTC: In many ways this story is a tale of societal contrasts. Was this deliberate on your part?
CB: Yes, there was an incredible contrast between rich high society and the miserably poor in New York City. The poor of that time had no social safety net like unemployment insurance or Medicaid to help them as they do today. The poverty was staggering. I wanted the lives of people in these two different worlds to intersect.
BTC: Both of your novels revolve around the world of an architect using his skills and training in ways never imagined. Can you talk a little about your own world as an architect?
CB: I still practice as an architect or as a historic preservation consultant. I help recycle historic buildings into new uses. As an architect, I’m doing three buildings on Eutaw St. on the block up from the Hippodrome and one on Howard St. As a preservation consultant and historic tax credit consultant, I’m currently working on a dozen buildings.
BTC: Tell us about your Baltimore roots?
CB: I grew up in Woodlawn in the 1960s and early 1970s. I graduated from Woodlawn Senior High. Woodlawn is right on the western city-county line so I went into Baltimore City quite a bit on the bus. I’d go down to Howard St. to go to the big department stores and movie theaters. It’s strange that I now work on projects on Howard St., which is this dangerous rundown deserted area so different from when I was a kid with crowds of shoppers. I think I do these historic rehab projects to try to bring back the city the way it used to be.
BTC: Baltimore has its share of noted local authors? Do you have a favorite?
CB: Anne Tyler, one of America’s finest novelists. No one has a finer insight into human nature than she does. She’s the only writer that I’ve read consistently.
BTC: Are you working on a third novel?
CB: Yes, it’s set in England in 1905 and about an architect who has hit rock bottom.
Mr. Belfoure will be signing copies of both novels, available for purchase, during the event.
Ronald L. Smith's debut novel Hoodoo, also the name of the main character, is about a 12-year-old African-American orphan living in Alabama in the 1930s. Hoodoo was named as such because of his birthmark which was taken as a sign of his inheriting the family’s magical talent. Despite the mark, Hoodoo is incapable of casting a spell. His lack of skill doesn’t stop him from being drawn into the supernatural world in this spooky story enhanced by historical details of rural life during the Great Depression. Get to know the author as he shares his inspiration for the story, tips for young writers and living in Baltimore.
Between the Covers: Hoodoo is set in rural Alabama during the Great Depression. You do an amazing job of bringing that time and place to life. Can you share some of your research? Why Alabama? Why the 1930s?
Ronald L. Smith: Thank you.
Well, my parents are from Alabama and we took trips there when I was a kid. I fell in love with the flora and fauna, the food and people. It’s a place full of history and tall tales. When I started looking into my family history, I began to wonder about that time and what it must have been like to live in that era. My parents were a great resource, and they told me much about their early lives.
BTC: Some have said that this novel is a meeting of Zora Neale Hurston and Stephen King. I think this is a perfect description. Was it challenging writing horror for a younger audience? Why did you want to share the history of folk magic?
RLS: Well, I didn’t really set out to write a book like this. As a lot of writers would probably tell you, ideas just come to you, and if they stick around long enough, you just have to put it on the page. Once the story began to take shape, I started thinking that I might be on to something special.
I wasn’t challenged by the horror aspect of the book. I just wrote for myself, as something I would have liked to read. Of course, I was aware that the book would be geared towards young readers. My editor and agent weighed in and I think we found a good balance.
BTC: Hoodoo’s voice is genuine and appealing. How did you get in the head of a 12-year-old living in the south during the Great Depression?
RLS: I guess a lot of it is drawing from my own childhood: the way you feel as a kid, the way your parents talk to you, the way you look at the world. It all just came out in a kind of fugue state, if that makes sense. I used to write literary fiction until I discovered that my voice was a better fit for children’s literature.
BTC: This is your debut novel. What has been the most exciting thing about the publishing process? Has anything surprised you?
RLS: It has all been very exciting! It’s something I’ve wanted my whole life. The most exciting aspect of the adventure was when my agent called and told me the book was going to auction. That’s something I’ll never forget. Getting support and input from my editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was also fantastic. It’s truly been a wonderful experience.
BTC: Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to complete your first novel? What’s in store for readers next?
RLS: Well, writers will tell you there are two kinds of writers: plotters and pantsters. I am of the latter, which means I fly by the seat of my pants when I write. I have tried outlining, index cards, Scrivener — all to no avail. I start with an idea and see where it goes. Once I have a few thousand words, the story begins to take shape. I always go back and add whatever is needed, once I know where the story is headed.
Hoodoo is my third novel, and the one that got me an agent. The first one I wrote took a few years and is on a file on my computer where it will remain! It was good practice, though. The second book is still close to my heart, and I would like to see it published someday.
After Hoodoo comes The Mesmerist, another middle grade, [which] takes place in Victorian England! Expect plagues and scary monsters!
BTC: What authors, books or ideas influenced you? What are you reading now?
RLS: That is a good question and I could fill several pages, but I’ll spare you.
I like children’s lit that is smart and assumes the reader will understand the concepts and themes of the book. Authors like M.T. Anderson, Philip Pullman, Holly Black. I’ve always been a big sci-fi and fantasy buff. I like dark movies and films. Not horror, specifically, unless it is done very well. I’m more interested in the supernatural aspects.
As for recent reads, I recently finished Lee Kelly’s City of Savages, which was quite good, and have also read the first book in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy.
I am also re-reading the Harry Potter books. I’ve pretty much forgotten what happens in each, as it has been so long since first reading them. I’m watching the films immediately after I finish each book.
BTC: What would you tell young people interested in becoming writers?
RLS: They’ve probably heard it before, but read. And then read some more. Read everything that interests you, and also pick up books that you might at first turn away from: history, anthropology, biographies of historical figures. Share the things you write with people you admire: teachers, parents. Once you feel comfortable, join a group where you can all share your writing to get feedback.
BTC: You grew up in army bases all over the world and are now settled in Baltimore. How long have you lived here and what made you stay? Tell us some of your favorite things about Baltimore.
RLS: Well, my wife and I moved to Baltimore after living in Chicago for 13 years. We wanted to be closer to family. We’ve now been here for about six years. Baltimore is a strange little place. Not quite a big city, but too big to be a small town. I like its oddity, its accents and one-of-a-kind characters. The creative people that live here truly love what they do. They work hard and play hard. After living in Chicago for so long, I’ve come to appreciate Maryland’s green spaces, its beaches and rivers. Everything is here or a short drive away.
Also, crab cakes.
Jill Morrow’s Newport sends us to the glamorous and wealthy Newport, Rhode Island, of the glitzy 1920s inside a spectacular mansion filled with secrets. Adrian, a debonair lawyer and former resident, has returned to handle a will and encounters the secrets of the Chapman family while dealing with his own murky history. With elements of mystery and dark humor and a cast of distinctly drawn characters, Newport succeeds in bringing the 1920s to life in a finely wrought setting. The New York Times bestselling author Beatriz Williams noted, “A delicious plunge into the gilded lives and mansions of another era, Newport sends you swimming through an intricate mystery involving money, tragedy, bittersweet love affairs, and voices from beyond, until you arrive at the whirlwind ending. It’s everything you need for literary escape: a ripping good read.”
Local author Jill Morrow has worked in various fields, including practicing law and singing with local bands. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Towson University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Baltimore School of Law. Meet Jill at The Ivy Bookshop on July 8 at 7 p.m. and get to know her there as she answers questions about her novel, writing and Baltimore of course!
BTC: What inspired you to tell a story set in the upper echelons of 1920s Newport society?
Jill Morrow: I wanted to set this story in an era where individuals were particularly vulnerable to the lure of séances and the supernatural. 1921 fit that bill. Following the end of World War I and the influenza epidemic of 1918-19, people were desperate to contact their lost loved ones, and spiritualism experienced a surge in popularity that cut across social class.
Newport appealed to me as a setting because it really had everything needed to enhance this story. There was the beauty of the ocean, the danger of the rocks, the magnificent mansions …and an iconic social class which several characters in the novel longed to join.
BTC: Adrian is at the heart of the story and is a fully developed character who the reader empathizes with immediately. Was it difficult getting inside the head of a man to present an honest portrayal of his emotions and development?
JM: Adrian arrived with a story to tell. He was, in fact, the first character in Newport to introduce himself to me. His story unfolded slowly, so I never quite knew where it was going. I was so immersed in each layer revealed along the way that it never struck me that I was writing from a man’s perspective. To me, it was just Adrian’s story, and I wanted to get it right.
BTC: How long did the novel take you to complete? Describe your writing process. Do you write every day? Where? Who do you use as a sounding board? Are there any must-have beverages or snacks to keep you motivated?
JM: My writing process now is very different than it was when I wrote Newport. With Newport, I had yet to give myself permission to treat writing as much more than a hobby, which meant that a manuscript that would probably have taken about a year-and-a-half to write stretched into three years. Life is different now. I write nearly every weekday, although that doesn’t mean I’m always working on my current manuscript. In general, I prefer to write in the mornings, and I like to leave myself notes to help jumpstart my next writing session. I have a great office at home, but if I’m really stuck, I take myself and a legal pad away from home distractions and walk to a coffee shop. (There should be a seat with my name on it at both Towson Hot Bagel and Panera.) I’m a great believer in long walks, too. They help me think.
I was fortunate with Newport: I had talented critique-group members to use as sounding boards.
I’m a coffee person throughout the morning, but I can’t even open the door to snacks, because I am a chocolate person all of the time!
BTC: You really bring the Newport of the 1920s to life. How involved was your research for the novel?
JM: I research quite a bit, because I want to get not only the facts of a historical story right, but the texture of the time as well. I usually start by researching the bigger picture. What was the state of the world? Who were the world leaders? What new discoveries or products had just hit the market? How did people spend their leisure time? I research just about everything you can think of, from ground-breaking world events to which toothpaste my characters would use.
I like to research. My problem is knowing when to stop researching and start writing – a misleading statement, since I usually find myself researching each new aspect that reveals itself in a manuscript, which makes research an ongoing process throughout the writing of the story.
I should add, though, that no matter how hard I try to be accurate, no matter how often I triple-check my facts, there is always the chance that something incorrect will slip into the story. I cringe in anticipation of that.
BTC: I enjoyed the essays at the end of the book describing the American Spiritualist movement and The Four Hundred. Séances are important to Bennett Chapman. Why was including the spirit world necessary in the telling of this story?
JM: Newport had its roots in an incident I read about years ago. It took place in the late 1860s and involved Victoria Woodhull (who later became the first woman to run for president) and her sister, Tennessee Claflin. These two were the daughters of a con man and a fanatic spiritualist, and it would take more than a brief paragraph to do justice to their vivid lives. In 1870, Victoria and “Tennie” became the first women to open a stock brokerage firm in New York City. They were a success, but whether or not native acumen played into that was open to debate since they were backed by Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in the country. They’d caught Cornelius’ ear at just the right time: He was a superstitious man, still mourning the loss of his beloved first wife, so the sisters began hosting séances for him to “help ease his pain.” Naturally, this arrangement proved fortuitous for all parties involved. The sisters got financial backing, while Cornelius’ broken heart was soothed not only by the séances, but by Tennie, with whom he had an affair. That story started me thinking. At what point do people who grieve become so desperate that they will believe anything? Does anything other than greed motivate the medium? What if the medium is legit, and the messages delivered from “beyond” are real? So, from the very start, the spirit world was in Newport’s DNA. But aside from the obvious plot points, there were subtle benefits to using the supernatural that I didn’t pick up myself until the book was well underway. The spirit world leveled the playing field between classes. In his desperation to hear from his late wife, Bennett Chapman allowed himself to view Catharine and Amy in ways he never would have done otherwise. And all of the characters became vulnerable where “Mrs. Chapman” was concerned, regardless of their class, backgrounds or the secrets they wanted to keep.
BTC: What authors, books or ideas have influenced you? What are you reading now? Is historical fiction a favorite genre? Do you have any favorite historical fiction authors?
JM: I have always enjoyed historical fiction. I’m not sure I could point to any particular authors who have influenced me, but I tend to be drawn to novels where the history doesn’t hijack the story, but instead infuses characters and plots with a sense of time and place.
I just finished The Other Side of Midnight by Simone St. James and am looking forward to catching up on her other titles. I enjoy Beatriz Williams and Lauren Willig, and am eager to read each of their new summer titles (Tiny Little Thing and The Other Daughter).
I’m currently reading a nonfiction book called Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies.
I like looking at my nightstand and seeing a nice stack of books waiting for me. Right now that stack includes Murder at the Brightwell (Ashley Weaver) and Dark Road to Darjeeling (Deanna Raybourn).
BTC: You’ve had a varied career, including working as a lawyer. How did law school and your legal career influence your writing?
JM: My three years of law school were probably my least productive creative-writing years ever. Too many facts jangling in my brain, too much “real life” going on (During those years I also sang in a band, got married and had a baby.) But each life experience has value, not only adding information to my personal databank, but allowing me to understand different approaches and varied patterns of thought. For a writer, that’s invaluable, because it gives me a whole range of choices for fleshing out my characters and their lives.
BTC: What’s the best part about living in Baltimore? I know you sang in local bands. Is that something you still do? Do you enjoy the Baltimore music scene?
JM: Baltimore’s history is rich, varied, and not always pretty, and I’m always fascinated by the way those roots have formed the city’s modern-day personality. I’m also amazed by the fact that no matter where you go in this city, you’re likely to run into somebody you know.
I enjoyed the years I spent singing in bands – can I send a shout-out to Fortune and Mariah here? I left band work to perform in musicals, so it’s really been quite some time since I’ve been involved in the Baltimore music scene. I am woefully out of touch!
BTC: What can readers expect next?
JM: The novel I’m currently working on is tentatively titled The Road to You and is set in Hollywood during the years 1930-1934.
Paul Gude’s picture book A Surprise for Giraffe and Elephant highlights the close friendship between a silent, thoughtful giraffe and his constant companion, an enthusiastic, loquacious elephant. The second outing for this dissimilar pair, Surprise features three funny, knowing stories that manage to distill the essence of what true friendship entails. In the first, Giraffe struggles to find the right time to play his alpine horn. The second depicts Giraffe working through the night to honor Elephant’s wish for a toboggan. The final story finds Elephant diligently preparing to throw her friend the perfect surprise party. Gude’s simple yet expressive line drawings and bright, zingy color palette are immediately appealing to young readers.
BTC: Congratulations on the publication of the new Giraffe and Elephant book. I understand that this duo has been around for quite some time. Tell us their origin story and a little bit about their history. And why a talking elephant?
Paul Gude: My standard line when people ask me why Giraffe doesn't talk is to say, "You're less surprised about the talking elephant?" So, you've beaten me at my own game. My hat is off to you. Giraffe came first. I would draw little pictures for my friend with little captions. I drew one that said, "Here is a giraffe eating some leaves!" She made some comment like, "I like giraffes almost as much as I like elephants!" I drew another picture with a giraffe and elephant eating ice cream cones together with a caption like, "You don't have to choose! Giraffes and elephants are friends!"
I had this crazy idea of just drawing the giraffe and elephant doing all sorts of things together. So I kept at it. The very next thing they did was steal a van. Then Elephant shot Giraffe out of a cannon. They invented new words. Every day it was something new. That was in 2000. In 2001, my friend KMO at C-realm.com gave me space to publish them. This was before Tumblr and its ilk, so having a place to put an archive of comics was kind of a big deal. I just kept doing them over the years, until I amassed almost a thousand.
I flirted with publishing a collection of them in the mid-2000s, but nothing came of it. Later on, a friend of the editor who had been trying to get someone to publish the book asked her if she knew anyone who might need representation. She put him in touch with me and that's how I got my agent.
We sent out the collection, and the feedback was, "We like the characters, but can they be involved in a story?" At one time I would have taken this to mean, "We don't like your book," but I had matured enough by then to know it meant, "We like the characters, but can they be involved in a story?" My agent was smart enough to make sure I understood that this wasn't a brush-off, and set me to work telling the stories. That became When Elephant Met Giraffe, which my agent sold to Disney/Hyperion. That's kind of how they solidified into the personalities that they are today. Granted, they're drawn a bit better now as well. Years of practice can help in that regard.
BTC: What medium do you use to create your art?
PG: While I like pen and ink just fine, Giraffe and Elephant were born as crudely drawn characters using a mouse and Photoshop. They've been mostly digital from then on, although I do experiment from time to time. The artwork for both When Elephant Met Giraffe and A Surprise for Giraffe and Elephant was done on an iPad 2 with a program called iDraw. It was actually the cheapest option and I was short on funds.
BTC: When I read the Giraffe and Elephant books, I was reminded of both James Marshall’s George and Martha and of Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie. Did they come to mind as you were writing the books? Which children’s authors or illustrators inspire you?
PG: I love Mo Willems. I was lucky enough to interview him back when that was part of my day job. He's very friendly and super funny. It's worth noting that he and I are both published by Disney/Hyperion and he was there first. So, I'm hoping the fact that we both have characters who are elephants will stop being a sticking point for some folks eventually. Your question was very polite, but others have been quick to criticize as though my elephant is derivative. I think it's a little unfair. First of all, his elephant's name is Gerald. Elephant's Gerald. Say it out loud, and you get what kind of a genius that man is. Second, anyone who reads Mo's books and mine knows that his are mostly dialog-driven, whereas mine are more narrative. In short, they are much more like George and Martha. More of what I was reading as a kid, I suppose. Maurice Sendak was a big one for me. Also, I loved Shel Silverstein. Other favorites from my childhood include the Ann Trompert and John Wallner book Little Fox Goes to the End of the World. So many others I know I'm forgetting. In these modern times I'm a big fan of Zoom and Re-Zoom by Istvan Banyai and Jon Klassen's hat books. Again, I know there must be more. I'll have to check my daughter's bookshelf.
BTC: One of the things I loved about both When Elephant Met Giraffe and A Surprise for Giraffe and Elephant is that they’re picture books adults also enjoy — they’re droll, and not preachy or sappy. How does being a parent affect your work?
PG: The funny thing about the publishing world is that it moves so very slow. When I was writing When Elephant Met Giraffe it was a little too advanced for her. By the time it was published, she had already outgrown it. She's 9 now, way outside of the target demographic. Still, she's the one looking over my shoulder when I'm working. So, I suppose in a way that's a big reason why I throw in humor that everyone can enjoy. I want my kid to still think I'm funny. In a more pragmatic sense, the parents are the ones who are going to have to read the book over and over again, so I try to make it as painless as possible. Very few words. Funny pictures. You can't go wrong. Well, you can go wrong, I suppose. It depends on who you ask.
BTC: One "quirk" of Surprise mentioned by a major review publication is the fact that Giraffe uses an acetylene torch to build a toboggan. Were you surprised by this bit of criticism?
PG: Oh, boy. Yes. This was brought up as the book was in production, and I was like, "No, no, they can be wood or metal. I know. I had a metal one." Apparently I am one of the few people who remembers these types of toboggans that had metal scoops on the front, though. If you look for pictures of them online, the curved part at the front is almost always wood. I kept searching and searching until I found a picture of one. I thought I was going crazy. They exist, though. I've seen them. I've linked to one on my blog. It's odd to me that people leap to the idea that Giraffe is erroneously using a torch on a wooden object rather than the thing he's constructing being partially made out of metal. I assume they simply don't have the design skills of a giraffe.
BTC: I recently followed Giraffe on Twitter. I’ve enjoyed having a look into his psyche. What prompted him to get on social media? What kind of device does he use?
PG: It's always been in the back of my mind that Giraffe has a very rich inner life. When Elephant isn't distracting him from his studies, he's pursing art and science through his own self-taught methods. As an offshoot of this, I had an idea that Giraffe has built himself this amazing contraption that allows him to communicate on Twitter via Morse code. There's a pressure plate he uses to tap out words, and then this complex series of switches turns it into text. Where does he get his Wi-Fi service though? Giraffe keeps secrets even from me.
Christopher Scotton's ambitious debut novel The Secret Wisdom of the Earth generated such a torrent of in-house support from the publisher that the novel's first printing was bumped up to 100,000 copies. Scotton, CEO of a software company, took 15 years to write this story of a 14-year-old boy who spends a fateful summer with his grandfather in Kentucky coal country. Widely appealing and whispering of second chances, the coming-of-age tale mines the burden of loss for those living in a poor rural landscape that will never look the same. Recently, Scotton answered questions for Between the Covers.
Between the Covers: You capture so eloquently your characters' voices. What was the process for making them come alive for your readers? Was there anyone from your background who was the inspiration for your protagonist, Kevin?
Christopher Scotton: I create a deep written study for each main character, detailing everything about them and getting to know who they are — their hopes, fears, histories and dreams. Then I just let them combust in the plot. The old English 101 chestnut, show don’t tell, is probably the best single piece of advice about creating great characters. If one describes a character through their actions it’s just a more fulfilling experience for the reader — it allows the reader to better build out the wireframe of the characters in their mind. Kevin is very similar to the kind of kid I was at 14 — insecure, unsure, a bit nerdy. Fortunately, I had none of the grief and guilt that life has layered on him.
BTC: You have multiple stories and themes coursing through the small town of Medgar. How did you prepare yourself for telling the story of this unique local culture since you are not from Appalachia?
CS: I visited the region often in my teens and 20s and again when I was writing the novel. I let the feel of the place seep into my marrow so that, when back in London, I could transport myself there. On my trips I would just listen to the stories folks would tell, listen to the rhythm of their dialect. What I found was that small town Kentucky is not that different from small town Maryland where I grew up.
BTC: The setting for your novel is 1985 Kentucky coal country, where the earth seems to languish as much as your characters. Were you looking to make a statement about the devastation of mountaintop removal?
CS: I was not trying to make a statement so much as present the truth of mountaintop removal — the argument is not as simple as big bad coal vs. the people. The issues are much more nuanced than that. There really are few economic options for the hard working folks in the region so they are left with some very hard choices to make about their future. I’m personally against mountaintop removal, but I hope the novel presents a more balanced approach to the problem.
BTC: Your readers may be encountering a “madstone” for the first time. Why was introducing this folklore important to the story and your characters?
CS: A madstone is an old folk remedy to cure snake bites and fevers. It’s a calcified hairball-like thing from the intestine of a cud-chewing animal. You’re probably thinking, “Cool, where can I get one!” If someone is bitten by a copperhead or a rabid dog, the madstone would be applied to the bite, and the poisons would be drawn out of the bite. Madstones vary in strength and effectiveness — a madstone from a cow is only mildly effective, a madstone from a deer is considered quite powerful. However, the madstone from a white deer is the most powerful of all and unicorn-like in their scarcity. Interestingly, madstones can’t be bought or sold or they’ll lose their power; they must be found or given.
In the novel, the earth becomes a madstone for several of the characters, drawing out the pain and poison from the losses they suffer. The healing properties of the earth — both to heal us, her caretakers, and to heal herself — are a major theme in the novel, and the madstone is an example of that theme.
BTC: You grew up outside of D.C. in an area not too different from your protagonist, Kevin. Can you talk about how your experiences impacted the writing of the novel?
CS: I was born in Washington, D.C., but moved out to the country 30 miles north when I was 9 or 10 — back then it was undeveloped land and a truly magical place to be a kid. Those summers of secret swimming holes, tree forts, mud pits and dammed-up creeks provided a rich influence for Kevin and Buzzy’s back-country adventures. In my early teens, developers bought up much of the land and the endless woods of my youth became tract housing. I tried to bring that same “loss of place” experience to the novel. Being an outsider, as is Kevin, allowed me a bit more freedom to write as an outsider — but ultimately the narrative needed to be authentic, and I hope it is.
BTC: These are exciting times for you. Hachette ordered a 100,000 first printing. Reviews have been favorable. Some have compared your book to To Kill a Mockingbird. Taking a breath now, how has this whole process of publishing felt to you as a new author?
CS: It’s been fascinating, fun and more than just a little surreal. I feel so incredibly fortunate to be in this place. Hachette is taking a huge gamble on me as a complete unknown, with zero writing credentials and no platform. It really does demonstrate their commitment to bringing new voices to the market. The support I’ve gotten within the company, especially from the sales team, has been overwhelming…I’ll start breathing again come summer.
BTC: What’s next for you?
CS: I’m working on my second novel. It’s a completely different time period and a different setting from Secret Wisdom. It takes place in 1875; two 14-year-old Irish twin sisters emigrate to New York to live with their aunt and work as domestics. After a few weeks in America, they disappear without a trace. Their 19-year-old sister comes over to try and find them and she follows their trail from New York, across the country and ultimately out west in an attempt to rescue them and bring them home. It’s a great story and based on an actual series of events that happened in my family in the 1800s.