Tamara Will Wissinger’s novel-in-verse Gone Fishing was published this past March by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Tamara lives, writes, and fishes in Vero Beach, Florida.
Please describe the book in under 50 words.
Gone Fishing is a humorous father-and-son fishing adventure and sibling rivalry middle grade novel in verse for children ages six and up that includes a section of poetry information called “The Poet’s Tackle Box.”
Would you tell us a bit about the story’s development?
Here is the timeline for developing GONE FISHING:
2007: I wrote one poem called “Night Crawlers.” It was published in Wee Ones Magazine and would become the first poem in the story.
2008: More fishing poems followed and developed into a short collection. I worked on these “on the side” while I was a student at Hamline.
July 2008: Nikki Grimes visited Hamline and lectured on how she uses a traditional story arc to write her books in poetry. Nikki’s lecture lit a spark in my brain about how I might be able to do that with my poetry.
Fall 2008: I introduced more conflict into my fishing poetry and developed a stronger story arc.
December 2008: Phyllis Root, my faculty advisor during my final semester at Hamline, asked me to submit something that I would continue working on after graduation. I submitted Fish Tales, my fledgling story in poems.
2009/2010: As Phyllis had suggested, I worked on my poem story, including with fellow Hamline grads in person and online, and at a Hamline alumni weekend in the summer of 2010. Dear friend and Hamline alum Jamie A. Swenson critiqued my poetry story and suggested that I label the poetic forms that I was using. I did.
2010/2011: I submitted Fish Tales as a picture book story in poems. I received many rejections.
March 2011: I received a magical note from my editor at Houghton Mifflin: Yes, she was interested in publishing it!
Remainder of 2011/early 2012: We revised from picture book length to short verse novel length, expanding the poetry from about 20 poems to over 40. We changed the name from Fish Tales to Gone Fishing: A Novel In Verse. My editor had the great idea of adding end matter to discuss the poetic forms that I used. Matthew Cordell signed on to illustrate. Copy edits arrived in a beautiful shade of purple ink.
How did it come to the attention of its editor?
I sent an unsolicited manuscript and my editor pulled it from her slush pile. A note on this: My editor first came to my attention when she visited Hamline during a residency. I actually met her at lunch that day and when she spoke I remember thinking that based on what I understood of her sensibilities and taste, she might like to read my stories when they were ready.
What research was involved?
The story itself came mostly from childhood memories, fishing experiences, and my imagination, so that part didn’t require research. I did research the specific details of catfish and bluegills to make sure those elements were just right, and the poetry forms and definitions took a great deal of research and care. I wanted to be sure that I was expressing the correct information in the right way.
Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline?
Yes, at the summer alumni weekend in 2010. I was with the workshop group that was made up of alums with last names in the second half of the alphabet.
What was your critical thesis on?
For my critical thesis I studied picture books to understand how authors successfully develop their texts either by following or varying from the classic story arc and word/picture balance principles.
What was your creative thesis?
My creative thesis included a combination of poetry, picture books, and a portion of a middle grade historical fiction novel.
Did you discover and fall in love with any books while in the MFAC program?
Many books, including those written by the fabulous Hamline MFAC faculty! And I happily rediscovered old books that I hadn’t read in years, and of course, the craft books are wonderful as well. How can you not fall in love with John Gardner, Janet Burroway, and Donald Maas?
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’m fortunate to have a combination of live-action and online readers. Depending on what I’m working on, I generally try to make something as polished as possible before I share it with anyone. (Much more easily done with picture book-length work.)
Can you briefly describe your writing life? How has it changed since you graduated?
I’m a fan of regular writing with big blocks of time and staying on a schedule. Mornings are my favorite time to write, and I was fairly disciplined at that while I was a student. Keeping a schedule hasn’t always been possible since the book’s release in March. I feel lucky to have been welcomed into bookstores and classrooms this season already, and I have more events scheduled over the summer, into fall, and for poetry month next April. Reading and writing poetry with children is one of my new favorite things to do; they’re so welcoming and full of energy! I’ve also embraced social media and online marketing – something that, until recently, I avoided.
Marsha Qualey helped me over that hurdle last summer when she shared her social media philosophy with me, something to the effect of “being part of the conversation.” (Note: It’s never too late to go to Hamline and learn something new!) Despite these changes, I’m trying to write each day, even if it’s only for a short burst of time. And if I don’t produce something one day, I try to the next.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a couple of quirky picture books, more poetry, and a middle grade novel. I recently learned that one of my concept picture books, This Old Band, will release in 2014 from Sky Pony Press.
What would you like to say to current or prospective students?
If you haven’t already done so, learn to love the critical essay, embrace the critical thesis, and find a way to comfortably speak to an audience and read your work in front of groups. These are as important stepping-stones to developing fully as a writer as the creative aspects. Once you are graduated from the program, your critical thinking skills will help you figure out the answer to any literary question you may have. And if you publish your work, pursue teaching – or any writing role that involves working with others – speaking and reading what you wrote will likely be part of your position. You will never find a more enthusiastic and supportive audience than the one you have at Hamline. Be bold – You can do this!
You can learn more about Tamara and her work at any of these places: