This is an extended version of an interview also appearing on The Swanky Seventeens Debut Club.
Kim Ventrella (that’s me) recently got the chance to speak with fellow debut middle grade author, Nanci Turner Steveson, about her new novel, SWING SIDEWAYS, recently published by HarperCollins.
ABOUT THE NOVEL
SWING SIDEWAYS is a heartfelt middle grade debut in the tradition of BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA. Annie spends a magical summer exploring in the countryside with her new friend, California, in search of two missing ponies. But, when Annie discovers the truth behind California’s secrets, everything she’s learned about bravery, forgiveness, loss and love will be put to the test.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nanci Turner Steveson grew up with a book in one hand, the reins of a pony in the other. She wrote her first “novel” at age nine about a wild horse named Liberty. Nanci is a professional theatre stage manager, reading fairy tales to book-hungry children, and a Teen Creative Writing Instructor at her local library. She lives in a historic meadow cabin in the shadow of the Tetons with assorted horses and dogs, with visits from elk, moose, great gray owls, and the occasional black bear, all who reside in the national forest outside her back door. Find her online at www.nanciturnersteveson.com.
So, Nanci, when and how did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
I was a two-fisted reader from the minute I could hold a book in my hands, but when I was nine I read BLACK BEAUTY for the first time. I have a very distinct memory of turning that last page and reading where Black Beauty was at peace at last, and knowing someday I would be a writer. I wrote my first “novel” that same day, about a wild horse named Liberty. I still have that little book, ivory construction paper, stapled at the top, complete with hand-drawn images of horses. I use it in my school/library presentation.
I took a long, twisty-turny path to get to this point, but here I am, on the upward side of age 50, and that dream is coming true.
What is your writing process like? Are you a planner or a pantser?
Oh, I am not a planner during the initial writing process, not one bit. I am a very organic writer. I sit down and puke stuff out. I never know where it’s going, who will show up, or who will stay for a while and disappear. It’s a mess, a horrible mess.
Once all that is on paper, I start chipping away piece by piece until I have a fairly clean draft. Before I can go any further, I have to start doing little things to trick myself into making a plot and/or theme map. These feel very math-like to me, so my rebellious spirit raises it’s ugly head and says, “No! I will NOT do that!” Consequently, I have invented ways to make plot mapping fun and useful for me.
I use neon (not just colored, they have to be neon) index cards and write out each scene on them by hand, with pertinent information, then lay them out in order on a table that has nothing else on it (I’m very ADD and, even with medication, I have to have clear visual space when I’m writing — clutter befuddles me). Then I go through each card and attach mini sticky notes in different colors so I can track themes or character development (are you seeing a color pattern here?). When I’ve seen where things are messy, or need changes, or aren’t tied up neatly, or are telling, or dumb, I go through the manuscript and highlight those areas so I can find them easily (because I can forget a lot of things. . . it happens).
Sometimes I have to stop and do things that might seem silly to someone else, but make sense to me. My editor once told me he loves that I had “created a place where the rules of the real world don’t apply” for my characters. So I wrote each word on a different color sticky note, put it all together and hung it above my computer. I liked it and it helped motivate me. Don’t ask me why, but I think the process of doing something by hand like that uses different signals in our brains and for whatever reason jumpstarts creativity.
Kim: I totally hear you about not wanting to plan. I’m definitely a pantser!
And, on to the question all those aspiring writers out there want to know…how did you find your agent/editor?
My agent was not on my radar at all. He is the founder of Writers House and has clients like Neil Gaiman and Ken Follet. No way would he even look at my little kids book. But I was talking to a friend of my family’s on the phone one day (while driving) and she said, “My friend Claire’s husband does something in publishing but I don’t know what.” I asked his name and she said, “Al Zuckerman.” I almost drove off the road. I had done so much research into agents, and had actually picked two who I wanted to submit to, and who had asked me to submit to them when I finished my book. They were very well regarded, traditional kids agents.
A few weeks later, Maureen (family friend) invited me to go to a book launch at Al’s house in NYC. Heck yeah! Maureen knows nothing about publishing (like nothing about the etiquette, etc) so she introduced me to Al and said, “Nanci writes children’s books.” Al literally backed up two steps and said, “How nice, I have to go now.” Haha!
Another month went by and Maureen called to tell me Claire (Al’s wife) wanted to see the first few chapters of my book. She is not in the business, Maureen is just a good friend and believes in my writing, so we sent Claire the first four chapters. I was told later that she read them and woke Al up from sleep and said, “You’ve got to read this and get it, I have to know what happens to this girl!”
A few days later, I got a voice mail asking me to call Al Zuckerman. As soon as I listened to it, I threw up. Al had read the four chapters and asked to see the finished manuscript on an exclusive as soon as I was done. He got it late October and signed me early November.
Wow, what a crazy story! That’s a hard one to top.
And, for the final question…what’s your favorite line from your debut and why?
“But near the edge of the water, a lone, pale tree stood guard, its long, thin branches spreading wide at the top falling into the graceful curve of a hoop skirt against the grass of the tiny meadow.”
Because this is a moment when the main character has faced the ultimate challenge and has overcome all her fears, batted away her crippling angst, and has done something courageous to save someone she loves.
Okay, I know I said that was the last question, but, SURPRISE!, it’s time for a lightning round.
- Favorite writing snack? Always chocolate. Especially the kind my German friend sends me. Nothing gets written without chocolate.
- Oddest job you ever had? My first winter in Jackson Hole, after I quit my yucky corporate retail management job so I could have creative energy to write, I was on-call as a snow shoveler at the mountain resort. I’d get called at 4:am to be there at 5 and shovel for a few hours until the skiers started showing up. It was hard work, especially for someone my age, but it helped me get through that tough winter with some extra cash.
- Funniest writing story? Writing at a Barnes & Noble in Brick, NJ. Typing away, hard and fast, when I realized something was going to happen in my book that I wasn’t prepared for. It made me so sad, I typed harder and started crying. I couldn’t believe this was what was supposed to happen. Tears fell and I typed so hard a key popped off my computer. When I looked up, this lady, who was sitting at a table nearby with about 5 little kids, was getting them all up and herding them to a table far, far away from the crazy lady. From then on, I always wore my tee shirt that says, “Writer Working, be careful how you stare at me, you might end up in my novel.”
- What were you reading when you were 12? The book I remember most was called GO ASK ALICE. Also, I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS, and I think that was when I read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD for the first time. Or, anything with a horse in it.
- Robot revolution or zombie apocalypse?
- If you could have tea with any literary character, who would it be?
Either Jean Valjean from LES MISERABLES, or Don Quixote de la Mancha.
Order SWING SIDEWAYS:
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Kim Ventrella is the author of the middle grade novel, THE SKELETON TREE, the story of a boy who finds beauty – and possibly a friend – in death with the help of an unusual tree growing in his backyard. The book will be published by Scholastic (US), Macmillan (UK) and Il Castoro (Italy) in fall 2017. When Kim’s not writing, you might find her working as a children’s librarian or fighting crime with her dog/superhero sidekick, Hera. She is a fan of whimsy, magic and weird stories of all kinds. You can read more about her at kimventrella.com or find her on Twitter or Facebook.