Category Archives: Author Interviews

The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts: An Interview with Avi

As a big fan of other novels by Avi like Crispin: The Cross of Lead and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, I was thrilled to get to read an advance copy of The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts and interview Avi. If you’re devoted to middle grade historical fiction, action, and adventure, you’ll definitely want to read this one!

About the Book

In The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts, a young boy wakes to find his father missing and his house flooded by a recent storm. It’s 1724 in the seaside town of Melcombe Regis, England, and Oliver is alone with no money and no food. His father has left behind a barely legible, waterlogged note stating that he’s gone to London, where Oliver’s sister, Charity, is in some kind of trouble.

Exploring damage to the town in the storm’s aftermath, Oliver discovers a shipwreck on the beach. Removing anything from a wrecked ship is a hanging offense, but Oliver finds money that could save him from being sent to the ghastly children’s poorhouse, and he can’t resist temptation. When his crime is discovered, Oliver flees, following his father’s trail. His journey is full of cruel orphan masters, corrupt magistrates, and conniving thieves—but when he finally reaches his destination, Oliver finds that London might be the most dangerous place of all.

The Interview

All the reviews, which have been glowing and star-studded, compare this story to those of Charles Dickens. Are the wonderful similarities they note intentional? Is your book an homage to Dickens?

Thanks for your kind words about The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts. I am a reader and admirer of Dickens, but I think this book is cast more in the light of those great 18th century literary lights, Fielding, Defoe, Sterne, Smollett, et al.

My real homage to Dickens is to be found in Traitors’ Gate. It is full of references to Dickens and his life. Indeed, my hero there is named John Huffam, which is taken from Dickens’ extended name.

Oliver is a fantastic character. He’s pugnacious and funny and brave. There’s so much to love about him. Where are the points of intersection between Oliver and a contemporary twelve year old? Where do they diverge?

Young people today, as in the 18th century, lived and still live in a world created, and usually controlled by adults. Not necessarily a bad thing, and often a necessary thing.  That said, the young will often chaff under the restrictions, both physical and psychological of the adult world. Keenly aware of what is fair and unfair, they are the ones who should sit on the Supreme Court.

As I was reading your book, I was struck by the very tricksy way you use language. Here’s a bit from the first page:

On November 12, 1724, I, Oliver Cromwell Pitts, lay asleep in my small room at the top of our three-story house, when, at about six in the morning, I was shocked into full wakefulness by horrible sounds: roaring, wailing, and screeching. Confounded by such forceful clamors, I was too frightened to shift from my bed.

You manage to start with action but also language that feels appropriate for the 1700s. Can you tell us how you chose language that evoked the time period but was still accessible to young readers?

I have a great love of language and words. I enjoy browsing through dictionaries. (Short chapters!) English, the only language (alas) I know, has a huge and wonderfully rich vocabulary that has evolved over centuries. All of it is available to the writer.  (And language invention is welcome.) I love using old, but understandable words in a historical context. Indeed, when writing historical fiction one of the key challenges is giving the language itself a sense of the past. I think of the Unabridged Oxford Dictionary as my writing partner.

One of my favorite things about this book is how funny it is. As I read, I started marking particularly funny lines, and by the end, I had a ton of tagged pages. Here’s one of my favorites:

I am of the belief that when two adults exchange a meaningful look in the presence of a child, there is little doubt that the adults will have nothing pleasing to say to that child.

Oliver is both astute and funny in this passage. And what about the horrible Mr. Probert (who gets what he deserves if you ask me!), who says:

An authority has written: The sooner poor children are put to laborious, painful work, the more patiently they will submit to it forever.

And of course, in this description of Oliver’s father:

A stiff-rumped clink-clank.

I could go on quoting you to yourself for a long time, but instead, can you tell us about the role of humor in this book? Dickens wasn’t very funny. How did you work in the laughs and still end up with a book that feels Dickensian?

Funny is serious work. In this book, what is humorous comes out of Oliver’s character, who is often alone, and keenly observant. But it also derives from the historical style of the 18th century, which can be comical and satirical. Writers of that day looked upon the world with amusement, affection, and skepticism, as did our own Benjamin Franklin.

The poorhouse where Oliver ends up is pretty awful, and Oliver’s escape from it is pretty marvelous. Were there really places like that for children in the 1700s?

The poorhouse is based on research I did, even to the daily food allowance.  I also came upon an image of a punishment basket. The moment I saw it I knew I wanted to use it.

I know there is a ton of research behind this book. Were there any delicious factual tidbits that would have loved to work in to the pages but didn’t have room for?

As for what I left out, there is a whole library about British prisons, Newgate in particular, that could have been included. I somewhat regret that I did not use more of that.

We at the Mixed-Up Files are obsessed with middle grade literature. Why are you drawn to writing for this age group? What do you think characterizes middle grade and makes it distinct from young adult or adult books with young protagonists like those by Dickens?

I love the way middle-graders read. They are passionate readers, who can engage fully with the experiences depicted in a story. They embrace character and plot with enthusiasm. They care about what happens. They can be articulate about what they read, too, but not in a pedantic fashion. “It’s good.” “It’s bad.” “I loved it.” I hated it.”

“It was boring.” “It was exciting.” All cool.

They approach reading with both hands and an open heart.

I once had a letter from a middle-schooler which began, “I read your book, and it was boring at first. But by page two it got really good.”

I loved that.

They also like puns.

For the reader who adores The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts, which one of your other books should he or she read while waiting for the next installment?

Those who enjoy The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts might like the above mentioned, Traitors’ Gate, and also, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Crispin, Beyond the Western Sea, Catch You Later, Traitor—all adventures stories with historical settings, all character driven.

I know more books are in the works. Any hints about what dreadful fate will next befall our noble hero?

As for Oliver’s fate, he has been sentenced to be shipped to the American colonies and sold into slavery for a period of seven years. I am writing the book now, and he is not enjoying the experience.  Freedom calls, but an iron collar round his neck is not easy to get off. And where is his sister?  I’m not one of those writers who always knows the endings.  So, I’m working as fast as I can because I too want to know what happens.

About the Author

Avi is the author of many books for young readers including Catch You Later, Traitor, the Newbery Medal novel Crispin: The Cross of Lead, and the Newbery Honor books The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and Nothing But the Truth. He lives in Colorado. For more information, visit www.avi-writer.com.

The Blurred Line Between MG and YA

It’s easy to tell that some books are middle grade novels at first peek—and the same goes for some young adult novels. But a bunch of them feel like they’re somewhere in the middle of MG and YA. With a main character who is 13 or so, the line between MG and YA feels blurred at times, because MG can explore intense topics and some YA are fairly tame.

I asked a bunch of amazing authors who have both middle grade and young adult novels published how they know if their books should be MG or YA, besides the age of their main characters. Here’s what they said:

Debbie Reed Fischer

As “Kidlit” authors, we aren’t just writers; we’re impersonators. Teens and tweens can smell an adult author doing a bad impersonation a mile away (so can editors). One word or phrase off, and you’re sunk. Sometimes we don’t always get it right. I went through an ‘Is this MG or YA?’ identity crisis with my original version of THIS IS NOT THE ABBY SHOW, my first middle grade novel. When my agent first submitted it to publishers, it was a YA manuscript (or so I thought) starring Abby: age 16, impulsive, funny, and ADHD. Editors responded enthusiastically to the premise and humor, but felt Abby’s voice and concerns were middle grade, despite the fact that the book contained profanity and sexuality. There were also other MG aspects, like a character who did magic tricks. You almost never see magicians in YA, but magician kids do appear in MG. Editors wanted to see the book again but as a middle grade. I had never considered writing middle grade, and I had heard from author friends that middle grade humor is difficult to pull off, so I shelved the manuscript for over a year. But eventually, I made the decision to give middle grade a try, because the only difference between me and a rottweiler is that a rottweiler eventually lets go. Also, I really wanted to get published again.

So I read middle grade books and started researching the differences between MG and YA. I learned that middle grade books focus more on family, friendships and the Here and Now. There isn’t a lot of serious long-term planning in their characters’ perspectives, whereas if you’re writing a senior in high school, personal life goals, serious relationships, and the looming future typically factors in. What’s important to a middle grader isn’t the same as what’s important to a high schooler. What’s funny to an eleven-year-old isn’t what’s funny to a seventeen-year-old. What scares a seventh-grader is not the same as what terrifies a high school freshman. Once I understood both the overt and subtle differences, I began again from scratch and completely rewrote the book. I eliminated several characters and added more members of Abby’s family, I toned down the romance aspect to make it more of a friendship story. I focused more on her evolving friendships, her struggle to control her ADHD impulses, her classroom experiences, her relationships with teachers, and the complications of daily life with her quirky family. I made it multi-generational, making her grandparents key characters, which is something you see more of in MG than YA. One to two words can make all the difference in tone and authenticity. Did you know some editors/ gatekeepers consider “crap” a curse word in MG? I didn’t. Word choice was challenging. I made the chapters shorter than the chapter length of my YA novels to reflect the pace of a middle grader’s point of view, and shorter chapters also moved the plot faster to reflect the reactive way a middle grade mind works. Shorter chapters also served to mimic an ADHD mind, which was important to me while writing from Abby’s POV. Ultimately, I learned that middle grade vs. young adult has more to do with voice and mindset than age level.

 

Dorian Cirrone

For me, the issues that the main character deals with in a middle-grade novel seem to have more to do with friendship and family. And while there might be a male-female bond brewing, it’s more of a crush than anything resembling the type of relationship you’d find in a ya novel. If I think of a story where characters are concerned more with the immediate world around them rather than a larger view of society or a relationship involving love and/or sex, I know it will be middle grade. This isn’t to say that middle-grade novels don’t involve heavy themes. They do, but they’re seen through a different lens, sometimes more earnest, less jaded. In addition, while young adult novels often end on a hopeful note, sometimes they don’t. I would say middle-grade novels almost always do in some way–at least the ones I’ve been reading lately. One more practical issue: If the characters can’t get to where they have to go (without adults) by foot, bike, or public transportation, I’ll have to rethink the setting or the age.

 

Sean Easley

The struggle in figuring out whether you’re writing a YA or a MG novel is very real, but I think it comes down to what the reader’s mindset is more than the characters, and what you’re wanting to communicate. MG readers are, mostly, still in a world of dependence, safety, and trust. They need adults, and they have to figure out how to accomplish their goals within a framework of that need. That carries through into their goals, and the way they see the world, too. If you live in a state of having your needs cared for, then your goals are to explore, to connect, to learn, to enjoy.

YA readers are in a different place. Freedom is on the horizon, and there’s a fear that comes with that. They’re butting up against their parents because they want to experience that freedom, to figure out what life is going to look like for them. They live on the edge, testing adult boundaries, figuring out who they’re going to be for the rest of their lives. Whereas MG readers live in dependence on the adults in their lives, YA readers are growing cynical of the boundaries placed on them. And while MG stories can be full of peril, at the end of the day their readers still often need the comfort of knowing it’s going to be okay, that there is someone they can trust besides themselves, and that the responsibility isn’t all on them.

Something important to note too is that, in writing for a target demographic, you’re writing for just under that age bracket, too, as well as (and this is important) all the gatekeepers who will decide what is appropriate for that group. This might not matter as much with YA, but in MG you’ll have to walk a very careful line with your content. More mature subject matter—while it might be something you are certain kids need to deal with and understand—will be content filtered by librarians, parents, etc. before it ever gets into the hands of your reader. Those harder topics will have to be handled delicately if you want to find your audience in MG, and if they’re not you’re going to have a rough time. A lot of determining whether your book is MG or YA comes down to when it’s age-appropriate to deal with the content, and the character, you want to share.

 

For all the nonfiction lovers out there, Jennifer Swanson, one of the queens of nonfiction, shared this:

When writing a nonfiction book, tone, language, and content are the things that determine the age range of your reader. The biggest factor is that you need to make sure what you are discussing in your book has already been introduced to your target reader. For example, if you want to talk about how plants grow, in a picture book, you will explain how they need water, sunlight, soil, and nutrients. But, if you are going to discuss photosynthesis, the process by which a plant takes energy from the sun and turns it into food for itself, you are going to be writing a book for say a 3rd to 5th grader. If you want to talk about the genetics of a plant, how they cross-pollinate, and the way you can manipulate their DNA and RNA, you will be speaking to YA reader. The voice of the manuscript will also help you decide the appropriate reader age. Books for middle graders will have a more lively, active tone and should still be fun. There should be lots of explanations and age-appropriate analogies. For instance, when I talk about height, I say it’s “as tall as a 3-story building” or maybe “it’s a long as a football field”.  When you write YA you have longer, more complex words and sentences. You can use bigger words and give more in-depth explanations and more sophisticated examples, such as exact measurements and exact scientific terms. That is because you assume that your reader has a much wider vocabulary. The length of the story also comes into play. Middle grade nonfiction tends to be shorter than YA nonfiction, which can run up to and over 30,000 words. Basically, if you are unsure which level your manuscript is, I highly recommend taking a look at similar books to see where they were placed. That will give you a good idea of what level your own manuscript might be.

 

Here’s the response of author and writing coach, Joyce Sweeney, when I asked how she can tell which genre her client’s books should be besides the age of the main characters:

There are a couple of differences between MG and YA.  The most obvious is romance.  In an MG, there are crushes and romantic feelings but they are pure and innocent, not going any further than maybe a kiss very close to the end of the book, at most.  In YA, main characters are more aware of their sexuality and openly lust after each other, fall in love and can even have sex in some books where it makes sense.  Another difference is that YA readers are aware that at some point in time, they will truly grow up and leave the nest.  MG’s are still ensconced in a world where grownups have the power.  So MG’s may save the world, question the system and fly on dragons, but at the end of the day, they still depend on adults to care for them or lead them in some way.  YA’s have an almost antipathy for adults which is a defense mechanism, because soon they will have to leave their care.  In many YA novels, the main character does end the book outside the care of adults, on their own in some way.  Finally I would close with this — in Picture Books, the reader lives mostly in their body, in Middle Grade, they live mostly in their minds.  In YA they live mostly in their emotions.  So while an MG reader has super patience with complicated world building, for instance, they are most interested in a smart main character who figures things out.  A YA reader identifies with a main character who feels deeply and acts on those feelings.

I’m sending a huge thank you to the awesome authors who took the time to help all of us make the line between MG and YA a lot less blurry than it was. You’re such a wealth of information!

I’d love to see your tips for knowing if a book is better for an MG or YA audience.

Happy Book Birthday to Patricia Bailey and The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donavan

There are a few great joys in the writing world and a book birthday is certainly one of them. But I have found more and more that one of the most enduring joys of working in children’s books is seeing someone who just a few years ago was tentatively emb
arking on the process of writing a whole novel. Someone who is coming to their very first writers retreat. Someone who has work that they are ready to share with a mentor or a critique group for the very first time. And then to see their work grow over time and their connections in the book world develop and then one day they have a newly published book. And so I couldn’t be more thrilled to introduce our newest Mixed Up File member Patricia Baily and her debut novel The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan. I met Trish in 2011 at the Summer Fishtrap, a writers workshop held in the Wallowa mountains on the home ground of Chief Joseph’s band of the Nez Perse (Nimiipuu). Trish took my workshop and had a great story that she had worked really hard on. We’ve met several times at writer’s conferences over the last several years and every time Trish had grown as a
writer and gained confidence from her network of fellow writers. I couldn’t be more thrilled to introduce her to our MUF readers.

First things first. I think I saw some scenes from Kit Donavan in 2012, but how long have you been working on it altogether?
It seems like forever – but so much of that time was learning about the town of Goldfield and what was happening there during its boom years. I really started working in earnest on the writing in 2011 – when I received a Fishtrap Fellowship. So, I guess I’d say it’s taken six years to go from words on paper to a novel on a bookstore shelf.

The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan is set in a real mining boomtown. Can you tell us why you picked that time period and a little bit about your research process?

I’ve always loved stories set in the Old West. And I’ve always been particularly interested in the Turn of the Century. There was such a clash of old and new – stage coaches and automobiles, outhouses and electricity. When I came across the story of Goldfield, Nevada – with all its drama and contrast – I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like to grow up in that environment. Lucky for me, a fair number of famous people passed through there, so the town was mentioned in letters and biographies that were easy to access. There’s also a thriving historical society in Goldfield and museums just down the road in Tonopah. I was able to go through old newspapers at the Central Nevada Museum and tour an old mine at the Tonopah Mining Park. I even got a private tour of Goldfield with one of the members of their Historical Society.

Historical societies are such a great resource for writers. I’ve been grateful for them many times over the years. I always struggle with finding the right names for my characters, and Kit is perfect. Is there a story or special meaning behind the names?
For some reason character names come to me pretty easily – which is good because I don’t start writing until I have one. Once I get an idea for the name that seems right, I look it up on one of those online name meaning sites to see if it fits the notes I’ve made about the character’s personality. In Kit’s case, it all meshed right away. There just wasn’t anything else to call her. She was Kit from the beginning – and it still feels completely right.

Kit is a spunky character – and one who is a little more outspoken than most girls at that time, which I love. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to develop Kit?
Kit was an interesting mix of spunky and sorry right from the beginning. She spoke her mind quickly – and often regretted it when faced with the consequences of her quick-temper. The trick with Kit was to address both sides of her personality – the part of her who wanted to be good and fit in and make friends and the part that just couldn’t stay quiet when faced with injustice – big and small. One of the things she has to reckon with is deciding if speaking her mind is worth the cost. She also knows that there are expectations for how a lady is to behave. One thing that I wanted to do was have Kit notice all the different ways women could be in the world. That – at least here in the gold camp – all women weren’t necessarily defined by the traditional lady-like life she’d been dreading.

You live in a small town with fewer resources and a smaller local writing network. How have you managed to forge a writing community there?

I think most of my local writing community has been a direct result of our county library system. For years, I’ve taken every writing-related class they’ve offered – no matter the genre. That’s how I met other people who were serious about writing. It’s taken a long time, and lots of meet ups at the local coffee shop, but I’ve managed to find a few other writers to meet with regularly. Sometimes we just talk about what we’re working on. Sometimes we critique pages or share a resource. Sometimes we talk about what we’re struggling with. I love my online writing friends, but it’s a real treat to have people you can talk to face-to-face.

I’d never make it without my critque partners either and three cheers for the local library! Next time you’re at your local library ask them to get a copy of The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan, a wild west adventure story with plenty of heart.