For the past seven years, I’ve been celebrating the highs and lows of writing with my friend, Stephanie J. Blake. I’ll never forget the day she took us all by surprise and announced her book deal, not too long after she had announced that she was taking a break from writing to try out some other ventures. Most of us travel a bumpy road to publication and we learn to accept that the bumps are just part of the process. But Stephanie’s writing travels have been filled with twists and turns, and even an occasional cliffhanger.
At last, I am excited that we are now here to talk about Steph’s arrival at her first destination, a debut novel titled The Marble Queen, published by Amazon Children’s Publishing. The following description comes from Amazon.
Freedom Jane McKenzie isn’t good at following the rules. She doesn’t like any of the things that girls are supposed to like. She’s good at fishing, getting into trouble—and playing marbles. All she wants is to enter the marble competition at the Autumn Jubilee and show the boys in the neighborhood that she’s the best player. If she can’t be the Marble King, then she’ll be the Marble Queen. First, Freedom has to convince her mother to let her enter. But there’s a new baby on the way, Freedom’s daddy is drinking too much, her little brother is a handful, and her mother is even more difficult than usual. Freedom learns that when it comes to love, friendship, and family, sometimes there are no rules. Set in 1959, The Marble Queen is a timeless story about growing up.
Welcome to The Mixed-Up Files, Steph! Before we talk about your journey to publication, I’d like to know a little more about The Marble Queen which takes place in 1959. What kind of research did you do to learn about what life would be like for a young girl during that time?
Since 1922, hundreds of kids have competed (and still do) in the National Marbles Tournament, now held in Wildwood, New Jersey. Mibsters can win prizes and college scholarships. How cool is that? I was inspired to write The Marble Queen after reading an article about a group of old men who were crowned Marble Kings as children. These men felt that playing marbles had changed their lives for the better. In 1948, sponsors started crowning a boy and a girl. A book idea was born. One problem, I knew virtually nothing about marble shooting. I took some liberties with the time frame in the book because I wanted to explore the gender roles of girls and women during the late fifties. I had a lot of fun teaching myself how to shoot and play Ringer, the marble game featured in the book. I’ve been collecting marbles from antique stores. I also learned a lot about the fifties. I ate SPAM. I watched tons of old commercials and television shows. I listened to Elvis.
Was the character of Freedom based on anyone you know?
The main character, Freedom, is the daughter I’ll never have, and she is a bit like me when I was a kid—independent, stubborn, strong-willed. The incident in church with the thimble is familiar. My mother used to thump us when we acted up. Also, I actually fed my little brother a worm once. We were going to name our last child Freedom Jane, but he happened to be a boy.
How did you know you were meant to be a writer?
In 6th grade, I decided I was going to become a writer. I kept a journal and read everything I could get my hands on. In high school, I had reported news and sports for my hometown newspaper. My first college major was journalism. I fancied myself the next Dianne Sawyer. I got a B.A. in English. My first creative publication credit was a poem in the college literary magazine. My father couldn’t understand why I didn’t get a teaching certificate. I told him I was going to be a writer! And I was/am. I wrote employee handbooks and policies & procedures for several years in the telecom field. I also worked on short stories and poetry. A few years into staying home with my boys, I started a cheesy romance novel, but quickly abandoned it for picture books. In 2006, I got serious about publication. Wrote a novel for middle grade boys. Came close, had an agent, but no offers.
Was there ever a moment when you thought you’d made a mistake about choosing to write?
I had just finished a new manuscript (ironically it was The Marble Queen), when I was abruptly dumped by my first agent. I worked with two other agents on another manuscript over two years, but nothing happened.
Agent after agent rejected The Marble Queen—17 in all. “Too quiet.” 13 publishers rejected it. I figured it was never going to happen for me. I gave up, went back to school, and earned a phlebotomy certificate. I was working at a hospital, drawing blood, when I got an offer on The Marble Queen. The manuscript had been in a slush pile for a year! I quit that job two weeks later and haven’t looked back.
The absolute best day was “The Call!” Of course, there have been some fairly awesome days since…depositing the advance check, squealing over cover art, seeing the printed ARC, seeing the pre-order go up on Amazon, and I’m starting to plan the launch party.
What has been one of the lowest moments?
Oh, the agony of trying to get published; don’t we all know it well? Honestly, some of my biggest challenges to date happened during revisions. I cried, I ranted, I worried, but it’s made the book stronger.
You strike me as a really strong-willed and tough person, a lot like your character Freedom. During the moments when the business side of writing becomes a drag, how do you stay motivated?
Well, thank you. I am unagented right now, so I’m going at this next part of the journey alone. I have not been assigned a publicist or given a big marketing plan, but I was given 25 ARC’s, and I am trying to place each one where it will get the most bang for its buck. I have created a school visit packet, a book club packet, bookmarks, bookplates, a website, etc. I have reached out to my local bookstores, libraries, and local media outlets.
I don’t write every day, but I do try to “work” an hour or so a day, whether it’s catching up on Facebook or Twitter, reading, research, etc. I need to get better at turning off the noise of the internet. I work better on deadline right now.
Your book was originally sold in June 2010 to Robin Benjamin at Marshall Cavendish. Then, in December, Marshall Cavendish was bought out by Amazon Publishing. Can you tell us what that process was like and what it means to you and The Marble Queen?
I found out along with the rest of the world that my original publisher had sold its children’s titles to Amazon. My heart fell out of my butt, if you want the truth. I was afraid that my little book would be swallowed whole by a big corporation. Turns out, the only thing that has really changed is the name of the publishing company. I don’t know what any of it means, except that the book will also be available for the Kindle, as well as hardcover and audio. I hope the book will be reviewed and makes its way into bookstores, but I don’t know, yet.
Do you have plans for your next book?
My editor is reading my option book, a contemporary middle grade with touches of magical realism. I’m keeping that one a secret for now. The main character’s name is Liberty. I am also working on a companion novel to The Marble Queen, which will be little sister Barbara’s story, set in 1971.
When can we get our hands on The Marble Queen?
Amazon is releasing all three versions on December 18, 2012: Hardcover, audio, and Kindle. They are available for pre-order. www.themarblequeen.com
To celebrate my birthday, Sept 24th, I would like to give away one Marble Queen ARC to a random commenter below.
That’s awesome! It’s your birthday and you’re offering our readers a chance at a free gift. Thanks, Steph. And thanks for dropping by for an interview. I hope you have a fantastic birthday!
So, readers, like Stephanie said, leave a comment below and I will draw a random name for an ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) of The Marble Queen. The winner will be announced on Sunday, September 30.