One Came Home (Knopf, 2013) by Amy Timberlake begins with a funeral for Agatha, Georgie’s sister, and Georgie doesn’t believe the body in the ground belongs to Agatha. It’s 1871 in Placid, Wisconsin, and we already know the story won’t be placid! Georgie, known for her uncanny aim with a rifle, sets out to find out the truth with Billy McCabe, her sister’s rejected sweetheart.
Praised by author Karen Cushman, the book has received starred reviews in Kirkus, The Horn Book, School Library Journal and The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. One Came Home, called “a ‘True Grit’ for the middle school set,” is a fabulous read. I particularly loved the gutsiness of Georgie as she deals with villains and heartbreak.
Amy took some time to exchange emails with me:
Mixed-Up Files: One Came Home is adventure-packed! You tell the story masterfully—with bad guys, plot twists, and page-turning details. Does storytelling come easily to you?
Amy Timberlake: I do love to tell stories, but I wouldn’t say they come easily to me—particularly when I’m writing them. There’s this though: I come from a storytelling family. Growing up, all the men in my family told stories over the dinner table. I wanted to be able to do that too, but I wasn’t as quick and inventive with my tongue. So I took those stories in, and when I was older, I began to write. Using a pen, I could rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and yet make it seem in the moment.
MUF: Before I read this book, I didn’t know about passenger pigeons. Now extinct, you bring to life what it must have been like (“The sky was a feathered fabric weaving itself in and out”). I love the way her grandfather’s store capitalizes on all the pigeoners. Tell us about your research.
AT: I use a historically accurate passenger pigeon nesting as part of the setting of One Came Home. (It happened in 1871 and covered 850 square miles.) For that information, I mostly used A.W. Schorger’s amazing history, The Passenger Pigeon. This was a book I came across by chance—I read it because I’m a birder and will read a book about birds and bird behavior now and again. That part of the setting could not have been written without that book. I’m truly indebted to A.W. Schorger.
I also read a lot of histories for One Came Home. There were local histories, a history of the photographer H.H. Bennett (an early photographer of southwestern Wisconsin), a history on rifles, a history on death in the civil war. I read some John Muir. I read other stuff on passenger pigeons. I read about women naturalists and scientists from that period . . . The list goes on.
And I’ve got an undergraduate degree in American History. This helped—maybe mostly because it gave me confidence in my ability to research and in my ability to imagine the time period.
That said, I had avoided trying historical fiction up until this point because I was afraid of getting absorbed in the research. See, I love to research, and I was afraid that I’d never write the story—I’d just spend all my time in books and archives. To avoid that fate, I made myself write the story until I absolutely could not go on without some research. This is the way I did my earliest drafts. During my later drafts, I checked everything, made timelines, etc.
As far as the story—One Came Home is one part western, one part mystery, and one part adventure. It was a joy to write and I think writing using some of those genre conventions helped keep me going when I was tempted to open Google to look up some fact.
Ah, Google’s siren call! Does anyone escape? If you’ve got a secret, let me know!
MUF: Both Agatha and Georgie are strong female characters. Agatha wants an education, something that was difficult for girls in the 1870s. Georgie is an ace shot and does the rescuing. Does feminism inform your writing?
AT: I wouldn’t say it informs my writing per se. I would say that I look for extraordinary individuals as characters. These are people that inspire me, that overcome the odds. If they happen to be female, so be it!
MUF: You’ve written three books—one picture book and two middle-grade novels. What do you like about writing middle grade?
AT: I don’t think this is restricted to middle grade stories, but I love these characteristics: earnestness, passion, and a sense of justice.
MUF: Your books were published in 2003, 2006, and 2013—a slower pace than some say today’s publishing industry expects. What is your writing process?
AT: I simply take the time I need to take to tell the story well—that’s it. Whatever it takes, I’ll do it. I do lots of drafts.
MUF: (Want to know her secret? Watch this fun video about Amy’s writing life.) What are you reading now?
AT: Donald Worster’s biography, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir. Wow—what a biography! I can’t put it down. Normally biography isn’t something that I’ll read. This though, is making me want to write biography—yeah, I’m totally trying to figure out Professor Worster’s secret sauce . . .
MUF: Well, like Georgie’s confidence with her rifle, I think One Came Home has a sure shot at the Newbery!