Sunday, September 21, 2008

Part 2 of the Blog Tour for Surprise Packages

I had the chance to interview authors Nancy Anderson, Lael Littke, and Carroll Hofeling Morris via e-mail, and found out some background about not only Juneau, Deene, and Erin, but also each of the three authors. This is that interview.

Lael tells me, “For years Nancy, Carroll, and I vacationed together on writing retreats and worked on our own writing projects. Then in 1998 Nancy said, ‘Why don't we write a book together?’ It didn't matter that a novel with three authors had seldom been done. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, we said. So we figured out a character apiece, had them meet at BYU Education Week, and gave it a go. Nobody was more surprised than we were when it worked!” Carroll added, “At first, we approached writing the book in a casual manner. When we got together, we would read to each other what we’d written since the previous vacation. But we finally got serious when all of a sudden, it seemed, we had enough text generated that it began to look like a real book!” Nancy says, “I was just trying to think of ways to keep us vacationing together. And look where it has taken us. What an adventure.”

Each author has taken on the role of one of the characters in the books. Lael says, “We each wrote from the viewpoint of a single character with her own life and problems, then we intertwined those stories to show the influence the three women have on one another's lives.” Carroll recalls, “I still remember how Lael’s character, Juneau, showed up full-blown during our initial conversation! It took longer for my character (Erin) and Nancy’s (Deenie) to make themselves known.” Nancy adds, “It was great fun to write Willadene and to work with Carroll and Lael on the joint scenes. But to develop Deenie's story completely, I wrote what was essentially a whole novel. Chopping it down by 2/3s was surgery without anesthetic.”

I asked what the authors felt they might have in common with their characters, and Lael jumped in to say, “Quite a bit, probably. I think we've all three earned the title of Crusty Old Broads, which is in no way derogatory. It came up in the first book, when the mouthy grandson of Gabby, the woman Juneau, Erin, and Willadene are staying with for Education Week, gets angry at her and calls her a crazy old broad. The three women are shocked, but Gabby says, ‘To tell the truth, I don't object to the old broad part. There's something of longevity and strength in those words. It's the choice of adjective I don't like.’ They all consider what would be a more appropriate adjective, and Juneau suggests ‘. . . the oft-used and respected crusty.’ Deenie approves and says, ‘Like a fine sourdough bread. Warm and nourishing with some real texture.’ So that's what a Crusty Old Broad is, a term of honor.” Keeping their sense of humor about the title, Carroll says, “We actually use crustyoldbroads as our blog name!” Only women who are almost like sisters can get away with a nickname like that for each other.

Almost Sisters, as well as the other two books in the trilogy, almost didn’t come to exist at all. Nancy explains: “I never really thought as far as having the book published. I thought we'd go on and on forever just writing about the lives of these women. It was quite a shock to me that Lael queried Deseret Book and started the ball rolling. Making our gigantic manuscript into three books should have been easy, but by the time book two was finished our characters had changed so much, the material we had for book three didn't work any more and we had to start from scratch. That was a shocker!” Lael adds, “When our one book grew to be longer than the Encyclopedia Britannica, we got worried. I had been reading Dean Hughes's Children of the Promise series and suggested we try it as a trilogy.” And Carroll adds, “It was either that or a 1200 page book! it takes a truly dedicated reader to turn that many pages.”

Just because this series is over, doesn’t mean the three women are finished writing together. Lael says, “We are cooking up another book, but with different characters and in a different time period. We enjoy working together, and there's some kind of synergy that sets in when we brainstorm.” But Carroll says, “I think we’d have to reconsider another book though if Juneau, Erin, and Deenie start keeping us awake at night. So far, I’m sleeping well.”

Writing a book alone can be a daunting task, so I was curious what it was like to write with three women, all living apart from each other. Carroll said, “Technology was a challenge in the beginning, when we had computer and document compatibility issues. Nancy and Lael were writing in WordPerfect, and I wrote in Microsoft Word. They are PC users and I’m a dedicated Mac user. Also, Lael’s computer was so old, it didn’t even have a USB port for data transfer! But by the time we were on the second book, we were all using Microsoft Word, Lael and Nancy had new laptops, and we all had thumb drives for data transfer. What a relief!”

Lael talked about the positive aspects of writing together. “It's exciting when we work together and the ideas begin flowing and events connecting so that they lead somewhere. I don't know that it's more rewarding than writing a book alone, but it's lots of fun to be together, especially when we meet for a week at a nice resort. I have a couple of timeshares, and since my husband is dead, I like to invite people to use them with me. Nancy, Carroll and I have been all over the country for our writing retreats, which are actually thinly disguised vacations. Except when a deadline is imminent!” And Nancy agrees, adding “Writing alone is work. Working together is entertainment.”

As for other future projects, Nancy tells me, “Who knows what characters will present themselves. I have a young adult fantasy bubbling in the back of my mind that Carroll has expressed interest in working on with me.” Lael says “We're working on separate projects right now, with Nancy and Carroll doing another women's novel and me building another YA novel, which is what I did for decades before I met Nancy and Carroll. I wasn’t anticipating writing another book together, but one day three characters moved into my head, which was pretty well vacant at the time. They arrived almost fully developed, and when I told the others about them, Nancy and Carroll immediately began building onto these newcomers. So we have an excuse for more writing retreat/vacations together.”

Because many of my blog readers are jr. high school students and teachers, I was curious about books each of these three women loved from their own childhood, or books they have recently read that touched them in some way. Lael says, “My very favorite novel when I was a teenager was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. My mother gave it to me when I was 13, and totally loved it despite the fact that I lived on an Idaho farm and Francie lived in Brooklyn. I knew her inside and out because she was I. She was me. I was her. That book had a tremendous influence on the writing style I developed in college, and during the ten years I lived in New York City, I spent a lot of time in Brooklyn. As for a recent YA book, I liked Hattie Big Sky, probably because it took place in a Montana farming community, a familiar setting for me, and I liked its strong anti-prejudice theme.

Carroll says, “As grade schooler (a long time ago!) I loved Wilder’s Little House books and The Secret Garden. Other favorites (now and then) include A Separate Peace, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Light in the Forest, and the Great Brain series.

Nancy worries that her junior high school favorites are outdated for today’s readers. Because I teach there, I’m here to assure her, they are not. She says, “I loved reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, especially the Martian series. I was hooked on the novels by Jean Stratton Porter, published around 1910, as well, like Freckles and The Girl of the Limberlost. (My own personal favorites.) When my children were growing up I discovered Chronicles of Narnia and the Swiftly Tilting Planet series. I liked The Island of the Blue Dolphins and The Giver. My grandchildren introduced me to Harry Potter—a great read aloud. My granddaughter who is in her first year of high school recommended a series called Percy Jackson and the Olympians for fun and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to make you think. She especially liked the challenge and the story of The Odyssey.”

Their advice to writers who would like to enter the publication world has a similar theme to what we’ve heard from so many others. Lael says, “Go for it. Overcome rejection letters. Read a lot. Study. Develop your craft. Most of all, persist!” Carroll encourages writers to, “challenge yourself with new experiences. Meet all kinds of people. Ask ‘What if?’ Read, read, read. Write, write, write.” And Nancy says, “Keep on reading and writing in the genre that you like the most and don't let a rejection stop you!”

And that’s the same advice I would give as well. Thanks ladies for sharing more of the story behind the story.

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