Author and MFAC alum Rebecca Grabill talks about her novel, Halloween Good Night. Halloween Good Night, published July 25, is a counting book starring your favorite monsters.
Gliding through the moonlight
come the monsters big and small,
sliding up your stairway
and oozing down your hall.
They aren’t very scary,
in fact they’re rather sweet.
So snuggle into bed and let them whisper,
“Trick or treat!”
Why do you write?
I won’t be the first to say this, but I write because I must. It’s not self-expression or fame (who cares what I have to say?), it’s not some deep idealistic zeal to change the world (I’m far too cynical to do more than hope). It’s compulsion, plain and simple. When I go too long—a couple days—without writing, I feel uneasy, then agitated, then depressed, until I write again, even if all I can manage between newborn feedings and dropping teens at events is a few lines of a lousy poem. I have to write. There’s no other option.
How did HALLOWEEN GOOD NIGHT get published?
This is actually a fun story (see what a great teaser that is? That’s why I get the big bucks. Umm…). Anyway, I wrote the first draft of HGN during my MFA at Hamline, during my semester with the venerable and amazing Phyllis Root (whom I adore). I remember reading it at a student reading and thinking, “Yes, finally I figured this picture book thing out!”
Sadly editors weren’t agreeing. After graduation I did everything to the story from changing it to a direct “copy” of Over in the Meadow (super super simple and made me want to weep with self-loathing), to attempting to rewrite it in a little monster preschool setting. That’s where I realized I didn’t want to write a monster-goes-to-preschool book (well, I might want to, but I didn’t want This book to become That book). So I stopped re-envisioning it and revised to make it as sparkly as I could, and then I waited. I was also expecting a baby (#5) around then, so I was well practiced at waiting.
In fall of 2014 when I was barely able to function because of newborn and life, my agent called to say she had interest. Apparently an editor she knew was looking for a Halloween book, and she said, “Oh, I have just the book!” and passed it on to the editor and the editor happened to LOVE my story.
A few days later, on Halloween day, while I was hiding in the car and nursing the baby while my big kids were in class, the official offer came in. I got off the phone with my agent and floated around the rest of the morning. Until the kiddos were done with class, and then real life returned with, “Mommy, I’m hungry,” and so forth.
When you start writing, do you know what the ending will be?
Generally, yes. The ending is often the first thing I know about a story. Or think I know, since everything is open to change as the story and characters develop. This is especially true with picture books since these stories are so palm-sized and visual. I sometimes have an “image” in mind of the end before I even have a beginning. I certainly did with HGN. I saw a child tucking all the “scary” Halloween monsters into bed, mastering fear, being the adult, and the story grew from there.
On the flip side, I have a fantasy series in the works, and the ending has been a struggle for as long as I’ve been writing it. It’s been dormant for a few years, but now that I contemplate returning, I know that blasted ending will still be there, ugly as it is. I haven’t figured out what to do about it—yet.
What’s your writing process?
Um, cry, eat chocolate, drink coffee (decaf, see the in-utero comment above), cry some more… Just kidding. Sort of. Because of the demands of life, I have to guard my writing time (afternoons while the littles nap, big kids do independent schoolwork/pretend to do schoolwork, i.e. binge watch inappropriate Netflix or YouTube), and I have to accept that a little progress each day is better than no progress at all.
Basically, when 2pm rolls around, I put on my noise cancelling headphones and let the rest of the world shriek. And I write. I don’t do warm up exercises (please, as if I have time for that!), I don’t freewrite and brainstorm and play with my little Garbage Pail Kids figurines (ok, not much), I pick up where I left off the day before, and I keep going. I stop only when nature calls, when I need to tell one of the kids, “Yes, fine, whatever, go eat a bowl of ice cream with marshmallows and popcorn and watch Walking Dead” (not really, really I’ll just grunt and wave them away and discover later what they were asking me), and I keep going until finally I realize if I don’t stop Right Now nobody will be eating dinner.
This of course will all be blown to h@ll in December when the baby comes, but it’s what I’ll work toward even then.
As far as process for individual books, it varies so incredibly for each project it would be useless to describe. Some are written in a bout of inspiration, others are written and re-written dozens and dozens of times over the course of years. And yes, I do mean years. My current project started as an essay around 2003. It’s now almost “done” (whatever that means) and has been rewritten from the ground up at least six times, and heavily revised and restructured twice that many. AND I’m not sick of it, which means something. Hopefully something good about the manuscript and not something disturbing about myself.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I homeschool four of my five children and feed the youngest sixth child—in utero until December—copious amounts of chocolate and cucumbers, but not together because I may be pregnant but I do have standards. I also love to binge-watch Netflix in the evenings and read books about food and sustainable agriculture.
I spend an inordinate amount of time in the kitchen because of medically necessary food restrictions—some mine, some belonging to various children. And I spend an inordinate amount of time Googling bizarre medical (and other) questions, which I could say are research, but come on, let’s be real. Weirdness and the abnormal, medically and otherwise, fascinate me.
I have kept chickens, though after a recent raccoon massacre I’m taking a break, and I have a large, ill-kept garden of mostly tomato hornworms and herbs. I also do photography (mostly stock) when the whim strikes at a time when I also have time, which doesn’t happen often, sadly. Sort of like an eclipse.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Don’t try to copy another writer’s process. Seriously, I LOVE reading about how Stephen King writes, or Hemingway, or Anne Lamott. I love it because I think somewhere in their process will be this Golden Truth I’m missing in my own process. I think if I adopt their Magic, somehow my writing will go from slow-plodding-work to flying on clouds of bliss. Except then I get pissy because their process won’t work for my life. Like seriously, if Stephen King were a homeschooling mother of soon-to-be six, would he have time to write ten pages every single day? If Robert Olen Butler were a mother of ANYTHING would he be getting up at 5am to write from his dream state? So that’s to say, don’t look for the magic wand, golden ticket, mythical Dream State. It doesn’t exist. The only way writing gets done is by writing. Period.
Also, listen to feedback. Especially editors/agents, but even Uncle Sal knows a good book when he reads it (usually). Your readers know more than you think. Are they wrong sometimes? Sure. But if three of five readers are saying, “This really shouldn’t be in verse,” then try it in prose no matter how attached you may be to it the way it is. The worst that can happen is you spend some time making a change that doesn’t work. The best is that you end up with something amazing. Risk, try, and for heaven’s sake back up to Dropbox or the cloud or something. And consider Scrivener because it’s awesome, and no they don’t pay me to say that (but they should!).
What are you working on now? Any upcoming events or other info you’d like to add?
I’m finishing up a Middle Grade novel about “influence” and happy little topics like race and cruelty and beauty and friendship. Or I think I’m finishing it. I’ve “finished up” this novel before, so I hesitate to say anything for certain. Then I’ll turn my attention to maybe some picture books or an early MG about a hog, or that ending-less fantasy. Or maybe I’ll be so thoroughly pregnancy-brain-addled that I’ll decoupage everything in the house. It’ been known to happen. Or tie-dye all the diapers… Hmm, actually that does sound fun.
That’s writing stuff. Once publication happens, there’s a whole new to-do list. I have an author questionnaire to fill our for one book (with things like the names of all my local librarians, all the famous people I know, Costco’s buyer and home phone number [kidding, sort of]), and another book that will be hitting editorial soon, and I have an October full of book-release events for Halloween Good Night, plus social media/blog/etc. to keep up with.
Be sure to check out my website: www.rebeccagrabill.com! And if you’ve read and loved Halloween Good Night, I would love love love to see some nice reviews pop up on Amazon!
Rebecca Grabill is author of the picture books, Halloween Goodnight (Atheneum 2017), Violet and the Woof (Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins 2018), Mama Earth’s New Year (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers 2019). Other publications include poetry and essays in a broad range of literary journals, as well as a play published in the UK. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University. Rebecca also photographs professionally for Getty Images. Browse her online portfolio here.
All of life inspires Rebecca’s art, from chicken-raising and rug hooking, to countless cross-country road trips with her husband and five children. She lives in Michigan with the aforementioned chickens and children, and two cats.
She is represented by Victoria Wells Arms of Wells Arms Literary.