What’s the book about?
The book is about a 17-year-old boy named Finn who witnesses the kidnapping of a beautiful young woman, but no one in the small town of Bone Gap — including his own brother — believes his story. It’s a mystery twisted with magic. Or magical realism twisted with mystery. Or it’s just twisted.
As the story progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about? When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish?
A better question might be: What DIDN’T change about this book? This story began as a book for younger readers and contained not one iota of magic. It ended as a book for much older readers with magic everywhere. As I’ve talked about on the Inkpot
before, I’m a huge reviser, so it’s not uncommon for me to turn my books inside out, cut hundreds of pages, chop characters/storylines/points-of-view. But the revisions for this book were intense even for me. When I started it somewhere around 2007, I had no idea what I was writing. I was working with so many different point-of-view characters — including a 19-year-old, a grandmother, a cat, and a beehive — just feeling my way along. Even after I’d done a few drafts, I still hadn’t gotten to the heart of story. I set it aside and wrote other things.
A couple of years later, while on a run, I started thinking about the book again, how I might revise it, focus it, make it more of what it wanted to be. I mulled over the inciting incident, the thing that sets the story in motion, which is the kidnapping of this young woman. “She’s taken from the fields like Persephone,” I thought to myself. And then I skidded to a stop. Was it really like Persephone? How much like Persephone? I went home and read the manuscript, and realized that what I’d done was a retelling. A loose retelling using not one but two different myths, and maybe some tidbits of others, but a retelling nonetheless.
After that, it took another two years of work—more revisions than I can count—till I had a decent draft to submit to editors. And then I revised that draft till my editor pried the copyedits out of my hands and told me I had to find something else to do, please.
What research was involved, and how did it affect the story’s development?
In the beginning, the “research” really wasn’t research, it was a set of random experiences that somehow coalesced in my head. My late father-in-law handed me an article about a woman who had lost her child at a fair and could not find him for reasons she didn’t understand. I visited a school in rural Illinois and met the son of a farmer, a kid so mature and polite that he seemed to be out of another century. I met a fabulous woman at another school visit in Wisconsin, a woman who invited me up to see her barn, meet her horse and talk to her daughter, a fierce and fearless equestrian. At a graduation party, a whip-smart, charming teen named Miguel and I compared our freakish arms to see whose were longer (we declared it a tie). My dad told me stories about running the horses on his grandfather’s farm, horses with evocative names like Gladiola and Thunder. My husband’s aunt died, the last of his family that spoke any Polish.
After the pieces of the story started to coalesce, I read about all kinds of things—bee behavior, neurological disorders, corn, farming, crows, wildflowers of Illinois, the phases of the moon, Polish cuisine, Greek myth, kittens.* And then I talked to beekeepers and EMTs and more farm kids. I rode some horses. I tried my mother-in-law’s golabki recipe. I took long drives through the cornfields.
I can’t say exactly which bits of research made it into my book, but I can say that all of my research informed and inspired the book.
Without naming names, tell us who your first readers are (e.g., live-action writing group; online writing group; editor; agent). When do you share a piece of writing?
I have one reader who sees everything as I write it, who understands that when something is so tiny and new and barely-formed that what I need most is encouragement. I need to know what she loves about it. What’s working. When I have a complete draft, I’ll send the whole thing to her and also to my in-person writing group. I do many rounds of revision based on all their feedback.
Only then do I send to my agent.
What books do you love to teach or recommend to students?
So many different books for so many reasons. Recently, I’ve recommended ONE CRAZY SUMMER for voice and scene. WHEN YOU REACH ME for voice and overall structure, WE WERE LIARS for the same. THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTER GO for voice and the rules of magic. OTHERBOUND for magic and structure. CHIME and BROWN GIRL IN THE RING for voice and setting. OKAY FOR NOW for objective correlative (getting emotion on the page). BREADCRUMBS and TWO BOYS KISSING for point-of-view (omniscient and 1st person plural respectively). POINTE for voice and unreliable narrators. FAKE ID for plot. SPEAK for just about everything.
During the January 2013 residency Emily Jenkins lectured on “How to Be Funny,” and one of her suggestions was to “use jolly words.” A good idea even if one isn’t trying to be funny. Do you have a favorite jolly word? I definitely have favorite words, some of them jolly. Flummox. Otter. Kerfluffle. Schadenfraude. Bamboozle. Wombat. And I have a newfound love for the word “bananas” (i.e., this sh*t is bananas.)
*Okay, all my research includes kittens.