By Cynthia Leitich Smith
Marian Hale on Marian Hale: "I can't remember a time when I didn't love books, but it wasn't until I was twelve and instructed to write a short story for my sixth grade English class that I first became aware that I loved writing, too. However, other than the occasional attempt at poetry over the years, I never pursued it. I suppose a lack of confidence had a lot to do with it. The path to becoming a successful author seemed nebulous and unachievable.
"I married the love of my life right out of business college, and some years later, I went into custom home design. Designing was a wonderfully creative outlet for me at the time. I enjoyed manipulating space to suit each client and the drafting of blueprints, but I especially loved that I could do most all of it at home with my three children close by.
"Years later I finally decided to give writing a real try. I wrote short stories for children and adults and eventually entered them in contests. When my efforts began to place and win prizes, I moved on to my first mid-grade novel, a failure on a professional level, but a huge success in exposing my strengths and weaknesses. It also reinforced my love for children's literature--historical fiction in particular--and I've never looked back."
What about the writing life first called to you?
I'm not so sure I was called to writing. I probably thought so during those early attempts, but it didn't take long to realize that the choice was never mine to make. It's just who I am, like being born with brown hair or blue eyes. Now I can't imagine not writing.
What made you decide to write for young readers?
It was just fun! I especially loved historical fiction, the way it allowed me to step back in time and experience intriguing eras and events as though I were there, seeing it all through the eyes of a teen or preteen. But I suppose what appealed to me most about writing for young readers was the opportunity to tell stories that would help my own children and grandchildren form a more intimate bond with the past, to ask the questions that would help them recognize the eternal connection we all have with older generations all over the world.
Congratulations on the publication of Dark Water Rising (Henry Holt, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for this story?
Thank you! I first considered this project some years ago when my husband came home from work with a tattered book found in an old abandoned house about to be torn down. It was a full account of the 1900 Galveston Storm, written soon after it happened.
I’d read many articles over the years about the devastating Texas hurricane that took more than 8,000 lives, but never one written while wounds were still tender, while wind and floodwaters still haunted dreams. I wanted to read more, to search out the multitude of hundred-year-old accounts and photographs, all of which were so vivid with intimate detail, so achingly real and painful that I felt as though I’d experienced this turn-of-the-century city and disastrous storm myself.
It was this window to the past that brought me to write Dark Water Rising (Henry Holt, 2006), and in so doing, I wanted to honor the overwhelming loss and Herculean efforts to rebuild the great city of Galveston. I was able to incorporate hundreds of documented details into my story and was very pleased when Reka Simonsen, my editor at Henry Holt, encouraged me to include some spell-binding photos of the aftermath in an author’s note.
What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?
The inspiration for Dark Water Rising (Henry Holt, 2006) came in 2003, almost a full year before I could even think of starting a new project. When I could finally clear my desk, I spent the next six months researching and cataloging the details I wanted to use. I walked Galveston's streets, studied the nineteenth century architecture, visited the Rosenberg Library to read transcripts of oral interviews, toured homes that survived the great storm, sought out where the two-story ridge of debris left by wind driven water had once encircled the city, and walked along the seawall where Saint Mary's Orphanage had once stood, envisioning the two dormitories that had housed ten Sisters and more than ninety children who perished that day. It was a poignant and inspiring journey. I then spent the following six months trying to do
justice to all those who had endured the deadliest storm to ever hit our country.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?
One of the most difficult challenges was choosing the best location in the city for my characters to experience the storm. I needed an actual home and surviving family, one that would allow me to show the devastation as fully as possible. I finally realized that I'd have to map the entire city, block by block, and key it to names and personal accounts before I could make that decision. The map also helped me locate major businesses, schools and churches, and gave me the confidence to write as though I'd walked through those 1900 neighborhoods and business districts myself.
Even more challenging was the emotional toll this story took on my day to day life. I don't believe anyone could read the many accounts of individual loss from this storm and not experience an intense emotional response. I certainly couldn't, but I couldn't allow myself to take the easy path of skipping lightly through the horrific aftermath either, just to ease my own discomfort. I needed to stay true to even the smallest details, though it meant living with the grisly effects of this storm for a full year.
From the onset of this project, hundred year old photos and heartrending personal accounts haunted me every day, and they were the last thing in my thoughts before falling asleep each night. These were real people, caught up in a real disaster, something that could still happen to any one of us today, and more than anything I wanted to stay true to their stories.
I'm likewise a fan of your debut novel, The Truth About Sparrows (Henry Holt, 2005). Could you tell us a bit about this book?
Thank you; that's always so nice to hear. The Truth about Sparrows (Henry Holt, 2004) was my first historical fiction and a story very close to my heart. It follows Sadie, a twelve-year-old girl who loses her Missouri home during the Great Depression and is forced to start all over in a one-room tarpapered house on the Texas coast.
Although the characters are fictional, most of the events were taken from my parents' and grandparents' experiences, even the scene where Sadie has no choice but to help with the birth of her baby sister. It was a joy to recreate this struggling 1933 fishing and shrimping community for young readers, and I was especially grateful for the opportunity to include the character of "Daddy," modeled after my own grandfather who had polio before he was a year old and never walked.
What do you hope readers take away from the story?
I suppose I've had the same hope for both books. I'd like to think my readers will come away with a deeper appreciation for what so many families, even their own, have endured and overcome, and perhaps be inspired to face their own adversities with that same kind of courage and determination to succeed.
What advice do you have for beginning novelists?
One turning point for me was learning to trust my own instincts and allow myself to become each character. This was tremendously helpful in letting readers in on my character's thoughts so they could share in the emotion, understand the cause, and care about the outcome. I've always tried to let each part of my story evolve naturally to a believable conclusion, following when it insisted on wandering paths I’d never expected or drew me to characters I'd never planned, even when doing so could change the ending I'd envisioned. This seat-of-the-pants writing may not work for everyone, but some of my most surprising and gratifying scenes/characters were written this way.
I suppose the best advice I could give to any new writer, besides the important "read, read, read," is to love what you're doing. Love the characters, the words and the images they evoke, and yes, even the revisions. Look at each revision as another chance to bring more clarity, to make some part of your story touch your reader more deeply and hopefully linger long after your book is back on the shelf.
What do you do when you're not writing?
I'm still doing an occasional home design and my family keeps me very busy since my daughter and her preschool children are with us now, but I try to always make time for the simple joys. When I can, which isn't nearly often enough, my husband and I like to pull our travel trailer to a river or lake to fish and watch the sun go down. We take a few good books and CDs; grill fish, veggies, and stuffed jalapenos; and open a nice bottle of wine. My grandchildren are finally big enough to go with us occasionally, so we'll probably need a larger travel trailer before long!
What can your fans look forward to next?
My next book, untitled at this time, is another historical fiction set in 1918 Canton, Texas, and again, partially derived from old family stories.
It begins with the dreams of sixteen-year-old Mercy Kaplan, a sharecropper's daughter, who has never wanted to be anything at all like her mother. Mercy longs to be free, far from the threat of being saddled with kids, dirty laundry, and failing crops the rest of her life. When the deadly 1918 flu epidemic sweeps through Canton, she gets what she wants in a way she never imagined and soon finds herself employed by the newly widowed Cora Wilder. But there's something secretive and downright strange about the woman. And then there's Daniel Wilder, her eighteen-year-old stepson, with his green eyes and fierce determination to protect his fatherless siblings, just the sort who could sweep a foolish girl off her feet and into a dull and wearisome life like her mother's if she isn't watchful. But Mercy is watchful, and observant enough to uncover the clues to Cora Wilder's odd behavior, which inches her ever closer to exposing a twenty-year-old murder.
More on Dark Water Rising
"A master of her craft...this is historical fiction at its best." --Kirkus, starred review
"...this fine example of historical fiction has something for almost everyone." --Booklist, starred review
"Fact and fiction are blended effortlessly together in an exciting read that leaves readers with a sense of hope." --School Library Journal
More on The Truth About Sparrows
Nominated for six state awards and selected for the following awards and honors:
Editor's Choice for 2004 by Booklist Magazine;
Top Ten First Novels by Booklist Magazine;
2004 Top Shelf Fiction for Middle School Readers by VOYA (Voices of Youth Advocates);
Lasting Connections of 2004 by Book Links Magazine;
Children's Books 2004: One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing, by the New York Public Library;
Teachers' Choice for 2005 in the Advanced category by the International Reading Association;
The Best Children's Books of the Year 2005 edition, selected by the Children's Book Committee at Bank Street College of Education;
2005 Notable Books for a Global Society list by the NBGS committee of the Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group of the International Reading Association;
"Worthy of Special Note" books for The 2005 Virginia Jefferson Cup Award (for historical fiction and nonfiction);
The Editor's Choice - Best book of the Month by Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Review.
"...a beautifully realized work, memorable for its Gulf Coast setting and the luminous voice of Sadie Wynn." --Kirkus Reviews
"...triumphant and memorable." --The Horn Book
“Sparrows is a breath of fresh air even when it brings tears to your eyes.” --USA Today
This interview was conducted by guest blogger Cynthia Leitich Smith, who is on hiatus from Cynsations and Spookycyn.