Tell us a little bit about the story and how you came to write it. Did your job as a librarian affect how you came up with AFTER THE ASHES?
AFTER THE ASHES is about Katrien, a young teen who lives on Java in the Dutch East Indies in 1883. She loves her home, and she loves exploring the jungle with her friend Slamet, a native boy. Unfortunately, her aunt wants her to be more like Brigitta Burkart, a former friend of Katrien's who is now her detested rival. When Krakatau erupts and giant waves attack Katrien's home, Brigitta is the only one who will follow Katrien to safety in the jungle. The two of them will have to overcome their differences to survive.
You could say my job as a librarian did affect how I came up with the book. The idea came to me while I was reading "The Day the World Exploded: The Earthshaking Catastrophe at Krakatoa" by Simon Winchester. While I was reading, I had this vague image of a girl pop into my head. She was exploring the jungle and was interested in science, and I thought she might have an intriguing story to tell.
Of course that meant I would have to develop an interest in science, and that would take a lot of research on my part.
What has your job as librarian you about marketing and publicity for children's books, or about the book world in general? What kinds of books do you see being the most popular with children?
I've been a children's librarian for 15 years, and the last 13 years I've been involved in collection development -- which is what librarians call ordering new and replacement materials and weeding those materials that have lived their library life. What I've learned is that books with a bigger publicity budget from publishers generally have more copies on order from the book vendors we use. That's an indication that the publisher has high hopes for that particular book and is willing to spend the money to promote it. The types of books that get those kinds of heavy promotion change -- it used to be paranormal books, now it's dystopias. There is still a discrepancy in promoting children's books versus young adult books versus adult books. That's understandable; marketing children's books is still primarily aimed at the adults who will be buying those books. There are still problems with marketing 'boy' books and 'girl' books and thinking one is more important than the other. That isn't simply a publishing problem, but the publishing industry could help address that issue.
The kinds of books that are popular with children where I work are fantasy and humor. Scary stories -- usually short story collections, in that case -- are also always popular. Teens are reading fantasy and/or science fiction and contemporary fiction.
There are a lot of dark moments in the story. How did you deal with writing them and what lessons do you hope young readers take away from everything Katrien experiences and learns?
I actually skipped around writing this first draft. I started out writing chapters in order but I wanted to get to the volcano's eruption, so I jumped to that bit and wrote that scene through to the end of the book. Then I went back and filled in the beginning. That probably helped me in some ways because I didn't fully know the characters yet. It wasn't until later drafts that I think the real emotion arrived in the darker moments. So writing those dark moments was a bit easier because I already knew the outcome.
I hope that readers understand that we all go through dark times (maybe not as dark as Katrien's), but that we all arrive on the other side damaged but resilient. Even the most horrible events can have a positive effect on our lives and even others' lives. Hopefully readers will embrace that message as they go forward in life.
How hard was it to revise AFTER THE ASHES and how many times do you think that you revised it before it was in the form that we see now? What kind of things did you end up changing, i.e. theme, structure, etc.?
AFTER THE ASHES was not the first novel I ever wrote. It was actually the sixth manuscript I completed. From the beginning, I thought this one was special. I thought this one was The One, so I made sure I used whatever revision skills I had and ones I could adapt from others.
I revised it at least three or four times before I took it to a novel revision workshop with Darcy Pattison. My critique partners there liked it and were immensely helpful in their criticism and supportive in their praise (Their work was great, too!).
I revised it again using some of the tips and tricks I learned from Darcy's workshop. Then I had some other critique partners read the whole thing one more time. I made a few final revisions and submitted it to about four or five agents.
You requested the full manuscript and suggested some changes. I made those changes, resubmitted to you and then you offered representation. Once I signed with you, we revised it about three or four more times. Then editors had suggestions, so we revised again. Then more editor suggestions and more revisions.
Finally, Holiday House offered to buy the manuscript, and I worked with Kelly -- who is amazing -- to get it in the shape it's in today. I think we had about two or three rounds of revisions.
What does that work out to? Ten or 15 revisions. Whew!
Initially, AFTER THE ASHES had a completely different title and was written as a young adult novel -- Katrien was 15 years old. The change in the character's age was the biggest change. From the beginning, my revisions always added words. I tend to write short and add detail during revisions. The most significant structural change was in Part One of the novel. There was a lot more detail about the relationship between Katrien and her aunt that got cut. The earliest drafts also had a different relationship between Katrien and Brigitta. They were always enemies, but it wasn't until later that it became a soured friendship. Earlier drafts just had Brigitta as a Mean Girl, but early readers wanted more depth to her. So I added characters and changed histories. It was tough to keep all that straight in my head.
What was the most fun aspect of writing an historical fiction like this? The most difficult?
I love history, so anything that allows me to get inside the head of someone in the past is fun. I love the research and the interesting details and the challenges that arise. When writing historical fiction, you can't have it sound too modern. So you have to look at your writing in a detached way and double-check word usage to make sure what you've written could have been used during that time period by that person in that place, which is why Katrien never refers to the giant waves as tsunamis. How would she know that Japanese word?
The most difficult part, for me, is thinking of descriptions that are historically accurate. I couldn't have Katrien describing the wave hitting her with the speed of a jet plane when airplanes weren't around. I think of myself as pretty awful writing description anyway, so to force that added layer of historical accuracy onto it makes it that much more painful to create. But it's a battle I continue to fight, as I keep writing historical fiction.
Talk to us about your path to publication!
As I said, AFTER THE ASHES was the sixth novel I completed, but it's the one that got me my fabulous agent and publication. I tried finding an agent for an earlier manuscript and got 100 rejections. When I hit about 85, I promised myself I would get an iPad if I hit 100, which I did.
So don't give up!
There isn't anything terribly unique about my path to publication. Write, revise, query. It's not an original story, but there's some gratification in that. The traditional path works as long as you stick to it and keep trying to improve. Develop a thick skin, and don't take any rejections personally. A lot of publishing has to do with luck and timing, but you can improve your luck by working hard and refusing to give up.
Any advice to new or aspiring MG historical fiction writers?
Read! I know it's something everyone says, but it really is the best advice. It doesn't matter if you read in your genre or out of it; you just have to read. Reading is the best way to absorb how to write (or how not to, in some cases). You're not reading to copy someone's style. You're reading to learn sentence structure, analogies, how to incorporate flashbacks, all those details you will need for your own writing. And, of course, you're reading for pleasure. Because if you don't like to read, why on earth do you want to be a writer?