Interview–Youth Librarians of Olympia, WA

Gabby Byrne: Today I have the great pleasure of interviewing two of my local Youth Librarians, working their special brand of book-magic here in Olympia, Washington. Now, if you’re a book person, you are already fully aware of this magic. It’s an uncanny blend of mind-reading, match-making and prophesying. How do they do it, and what are the dark wanderings that brought them to their work? Let’s dive in. What made each of you want to become librarians and what did that path look like?

MaryMary: Mine wasn’t a straight and narrow path! Love is involved—are you curious? When my first love and I were really in love, we were blissfully broke. The library was one of our only options for entertainment. We spent hours searching for and finding treasures. One day it occurred to me that I should try to get a job at there. So I did, and the rest is history! I started as a Circulation Assistant, but when a position opened up in youth services, I jumped on it. Once I got a taste of how amazing presenting storytimes to young children is, I was totally hooked on librarianship. I love being part of an institution whose most basic function is to provide access to information, entertainment, life changing stories, resources to help with issues of daily life, education, social services needs, etc. Programming for kids and teens is such a joy—the library truly feels like the community’s living room when you’ve got a couple hundred kids and adults grooving together to Caspar Babypants or dancing to a local band at our annual Biblioball event!

SaraLSara: When I was a kid, I wanted to do one of two things: be an author, or an actor. The older I got, the more voraciously I wanted to act as a living…and then when I got to college and started getting anxiety stomachaches every time I had to wait to find out if I got a part in a play or not, I realized that the acting life was not for me. It takes a special person to be ok with living job-to-job. I was a double major in theatre and English, so I switched to my other love, and decided I was going to be a literature professor. So I took the English GRE and literally failed. I don’t know if I’d ever failed anything before that, and I felt totally defeated – I was an English major with what seemed to be a completely subpar knowledge of the subject I cared so much about. But then, as I was walking through one of my favorite bookstores in the kid’s section, I realized WHY I had failed. Because in all the self-directed work in my undergrad program, I chose children’s literature. I wrote my thesis about Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. I wrote a final paper about the short story version of The Brave Little Toaster. Of course the stuffy old GRE wasn’t going to ask me questions about the literature I loved, because I loved books written for kids and teens. So as soon as I graduated, I got a job in the University of Washington’s Architecture Library and applied for the UW iSchool to become a Youth Services librarian. And it’s funny, because I got into librarianship because I loved literature, but this is not really a book job. Of course, books are a part of it – but it’s really a people job. The kids and the teens I work with and for are by far the best part of every day, and I LOVE developing relationships with them.

Gabby: What was your favorite book, or books, as a kid?

Mary: The first book that made me cry was Gentle Ben, by Walt Morey, about book1a boy and an Alaskan brown bear. It made me understand the subtle power of books and how a story can help readers recognize and become familiar with the deep, complex emotions within themselves. My sixth grade teacher read the class, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and I was so impressed with the possibility of leaving home that I obsessed for weeks about it!

Sara: Every book I remember obsessing over as a kid was given to me by book2either my elementary school librarian or the children’s librarian at my local library. The ones I remember reading over and over and over again were: The Girl with the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, The White Mountains and The City of Gold and Lead by John Christopher, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, The Giver by Lois Lowry, and Terror at the Zoo by Peg Kehret.

Gabby: What books, or series are you excited about this year?

Mary: You know, I read School Library Journal to keep up on what’s comingbook3 out and what gets great reviews, but I’m one of those aimless readers. I want to read spontaneously and kind of follow the path of my interests. I read two books by Dan Gemeinhart, a Washington resident. His most recent book, published at the beginning of this year, Some Kind of Courage is a historical survival story that is packed with action and details about pieces of Washington state history back in the 1890’s.

Sara: The best kid lit books I’ve read recently are: Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones (an epistolary novel featuring chickens with super powers), The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste (creepy adventure story based on Caribbean folklore), Pax by Sara Pennypacker (tearjerker about a kid and his pet fox), and The Detour by S.A. Bodeen (basically it’s Stephen King’s Misery for teens). As for upcoming books – if I’m being honest I have to admit that I always feel a little behind in my reading. There is SO MUCH good stuff being published at all times, that I often feel likebook 5book 4 I am just staying above water. I try to read as much of the already published awesome stuff, so I can actually put in the hands of kids and teens, rather than getting super excited about things that aren’t out yet. It’s overwhelming how much great stuff comes out constantly!

Gabby: Librarians have a unique perspective on literature. You know what kids are reading, what parents are asking for – and what’s marketable. Talk about that a little. What trends are you seeing in kidlit?

Mary: Kids ask me at least once a day for the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. The interest in those books is still very strong–what a genius (rich genius) Jeff Kinney is, especially when you consider that the first book was published in 2007!  Rachel Renee Russell’s series, Dork Diaries, are still in great demand as well. Also books that feature fairy tale characters are really popular: Chris Colfer’s series, The Land of Stories, and Micheal Buckley’s The Sisters Grimm. One trend I see, and I actually hope it’s not a trend because it should never go away or pass, is publishing more books that feature non-white characters. There is a huge campaign in children’s books called, We Need Diverse Books, and we’re seeing more books whose characters are non-white and their stories are not about the fact that they are racially/ethnically diverse. Their mission as stated on their website is: “Putting more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of all children.”

Sara: Diversity! Or at least, the attempt at diversity. Things are getting so much better, but there’s still a long way to go. Parents and teachers and librarians are asking for more diversity in youth literature, and we’re FINALLY starting to see it. Genre fiction with people of color. Characters with disabilities. Books written by people of color. I hope that in five years our collections will more accurately reflect the diversity of the people who use them (both the characters and the authors). We’re not there yet, but I feel the surge toward it. Beyond that, it seems like the Greek mythology/fantasy adventure/dystopian trend is going to last forever. Kids read fantasy adventure stories along the lines of Percy Jackson rabidly, and I don’t see that dying down anytime soon.

Gabby: What’s the most difficult thing about being a librarian? How can parents, teachers, and writers support you and your work?

Mary: It’s hard to answer how all those folks can help support me and my work because I see myself as the support person to the above groups. I think supporting libraries and spreading the good word about them with their children, students and audience is an excellent way to support me and my work. You want to make me happy, come hang out at the library, talk to me, tell me what you’re reading, ask me what I’m reading, tell me how excited you are about learning more about a subject, attend our awesome programs, make a new friend at the library!

Sara: Honestly, the most difficult thing for me is finding time to do more than just preach to the choir. The people who physically come in to the library are already in the know about how awesome the library is. They come to our free programs and our storytimes and our book clubs because they know what an amazing community resource we are. I wish I had more time to get out into the community and impact those who don’t already know how magical the library is. I want to do more outreach to at-risk youth and the people who truly need our free services, and can’t get to the library for one reason or another. Basically, it boils down to always wanting to be doing more for our communities, and not having the resources and time to do so. The most important thing that parents, teachers, and writers can do to support our work is to help spread the word about the incredible things the library can do for people. Encourage people to vote for the library when it comes up in elections so we can get more staff and better buildings and more resources. Remind people that they can attend free early literacy programming and social events for teens. The more people who help us spread the gospel of the library, the better we can serve our communities!

Gabby: How have changes in technology impacted libraries? Do you see these changes as mostly positive, mostly negative, or neither?

Mary: As long as kids and teens keep leaving the library with armloads of books, I think something very positive is going on. I love it that digital books are so accessible to people and that patrons can browse our ebook catalog from home and have a book delivered to their device in seconds!

Sara: It’s funny, because I never really worked in libraries before they were filled with technology. I’m a 90s kid – I’ve had a computer since I was in 6th grade, and I have never (not even once) used a card catalog. I see technology as an integral part of libraries. The advent of eBooks and online database resources has been SO amazing for people – you don’t even need to come in to the library to use the library anymore, so the barrier of coming into our physical space is somewhat removed. We aren’t just a building anymore, we’re an online space. The library evens the playing field. You don’t have to pay an internet bill to use the internet if you have a library card.

Gabby: What are some fun, creative ways that you’ve used to encourage kids to get excited about reading?

Mary: Book talks! Sara and I visited almost every elementary school in Olympia in the spring. We prepared book talks and presented them both to classrooms and at assemblies to the entire school. The very best thing about interacting with kids around books is having a sincere conversation about what I loved about a book, or what scared me, or made me laugh or made me cry. Stories have a magical way of connecting us to each other and to that universal experience of being human.

Sara: I think that the number one best way I have to get kids excited about reading is booktalking. Once a year (right before Summer Reading), we get the magical opportunity to visit all the elementary schools in our school district. We use these visits to talk up Summer Reading, but my favorite part of them is booktalking. Booktalking is a pretty library jargony term, so I suppose I should explain it. Basically, it means presenting a book in front of a group of people in a way that will hook them into wanting to read it. I take great pleasure in finding creative and unique ways to get a kid excited about reading a book. For example, I just booktalked Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones, and I wrote my booktalk in the style of a letter, which is how the book is written. The amazing thing to me is how well booktalking works. When I started talking about The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste in mid-May, we had eight copies with no holds. Now, more than a month into summer (and more than a month since I stopped booktalking), every copy is checked out and there’s a hold list of 24 people.

Gabby: AND now…our lightning round. Are you ready? *gives Mary and Sara sunglasses for spatial-temporal shift*

Mary: *Smiles*

Sara: * Makes Wayne’s World sound effects*

Gabby: Coffee or tea?

Mary: Tea— a nice smoky Yunnan with whole milk and sugar every morning first thing. An occasional coffee in the afternoon as needed!

Sara: I have been coffee-less for the last two years, and drink tea every day. I couldn’t cut out caffeine entirely. I tried.

Gabby: Sweet or salty?

Mary: Both, for sure! Salted caramel anything is just fine with me.

Sara: For the most part, salty. Especially if cheese is involved.

Gabby: Dog, cat, or other?

Mary: Dog, yes, dog!! I love books about dogs—Gary Paulsen’s collection, My Life in Dog Years is my go to comfort book!

Sara: Cat. Specifically, my tiny weirdo tortie, Clementine.

Gabby: Paperback, Hardcover, Audio, or E-book?

Mary: In this order: Hardcover, Paperback, Audio E-Book!

Sara: All of the above. Audiobooks while I’m doing chores around the house, E-book if the library copy is available and doesn’t have any holds, and physical book if the E-book is checked out.

Alright! Thanks so much for letting me interview you for The Winged Pen. Want more, dear readers? Go chat up your local youth librarian and find out what they’re reading!

— Gabrielle Byrne lives in rainy wilds of the Pacific Northwest, and writes dark and twisty tales for middle graders. She is represented by Catherine Drayton at Inkwell Management. Find her on Twitter.

Author Interview — Jeff Zentner

jeffGabby: Today, I’m thrilled to be chatting with Jeff Zentner. He’s the author of the YA novel, THE SERPENT KING, out now, and GOODBYE DAYS, coming out in March of 2017. If you’ve read Jeff’s work, you already know you better have your tissues handy. Jeff lives in Nashville, TN where he like to rock out, show kids how to rock out, and write books that will make you cry. Thanks for hanging out with us, Jeff!

Jeff: Thanks for having me on Winged Pen!

Gabby: I’m going to dive right in. What’s the best writing advice you ever got?

Jeff: I always struggle with story stakes because I find people just living their lives so fascinating. My two amazing critique partners, Kerry Kletter, and Adriana Mather, both gave me the advice to “put a ticking clock” on my story, have something impending, something my characters are racing.

Gabby: What was your favorite book as a kid? How about this year?

Jeff: As a middle grader, my favorite book was A HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS, by John Bellairs. As a young adult, it was THE OUTSIDERS, by SE Hinton. My favorite book this year has been OLD SCHOOL by Tobias Wolff.

Gabby: What writers inspire you?

Jeff: My friend Kerry Kletter inspires me with her use of metaphor and lyricism. I’m also hugely inspired by Jesmyn Ward, Joan Didion, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Ondaatje, Ocean Vuong, Donna Tartt, Stephen King, Joe Bolton, Charles Frazier, Anthony Doerr, Phillipp Meyer, Cormac McCarthy, and Leslie Marmon Silko.

Gabby: Can you talk about your most difficult craft hurdle?

Jeff: Try as I might, my first drafts never have high enough stakes. I’m so content with very quiet stories. But ultimately, I want my stories to be more propulsive, and that won’t happen without stakes.

Gabby: I’ve read that you came to writing through your work in music. How did that happen? Are you still involved in the Nashville music scene?

Jeff: I’m pretty much retired from music. I have time for a day job, and one serious creative pursuit. So I pick writing. I do still maintain my connection to the music world through my work with Tennessee Teen Rock Camp, and Southern Girls Rock Camp.

Gabby: What is your work/writing schedule?

Jeff: I’m not one of these writers who writes every day. I go months without writing a word in my work in progress. But I do a lot of writing in my head, especially when I go on walks. I consider consuming other stories – books, TV—part of my writing process. When I’m in a writing phase, I’ll write for 45 minutes on the bus on my way into work, over my lunch hour, and for the 45 minute bus commute home. I try to do 1,000-1,500 words a day. I can generally do that without having to work nights.

Gabby: Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you get past it?

Jeff: Sure. I go for walks. I’ve never gone on a walk without finding a solution to a problem.

Gabby: Your newest book, GOODBYE DAYS, comes out in March, 2017. What’s it about and what was the inspiration for the story?

Jeff: It’s about a young man struggling with grief and guilt in the wake of the death of his three best friends, which he may have caused by texting them. While struggling with panic attacks, and undergoing therapy for them, and contending with the threat of prosecution, he embarks on a series of “goodbye days” with the families of his friends. On these, he spends one last day with them trying to recreate their friend and loved one’s life for one more day. It was inspired by my obsession with death and loss.

Gabby: Do you have any strange writing habits?

Jeff: Before I’ll begin writing, I invite my characters into my head for a months-long residency, where they have conversations and I listen in and eavesdrop, until by the time I start writing their story, they’re telling me their story and I’m not telling them their story.

Gserpentabby: One of the quotes I’ve seen floating around about THE SERPENT KING, is from the New York Public Library. They said, “Move over, John Green; Zentner is coming for you.”  So, my question to you is, do you have anything you want to say to John Green? Will there be fisticuffs?

Jeff: I would say, “Move over, John Green, I’m coming for you,” and he would call down from his castle walls, “What? I can’t hear you!” And I would yell back, “I said I really loved Looking for Alaska!” In all seriousness, I really enjoy John Green’s books and I think he does a tremendous amount of good in the world. I’m glad he exists.

Gabby: Okay, Jeff. It’s time for the Lightning Round. *hands Jeff a burger* Ready?

Jeff: Mmmph [eating burger]

Gabby: Coffee or tea?

Jeff: Moroccan mint tea from Trader Joe’s. I’m a junky.

Gabby: Sweet or salty?

Jeff: Yes. I’m a kettle corn man.

Gabby: Dog, cat, or other?

Jeff: Dogs, but I feel no great need or desire to actually own one.

Gabby: Plotter or pantser?

Jeff: Plotter. Who often wears pants.


Well, thanks for hanging out with me at The Winged Pen. We’re wishing you even more success with GOODBYE DAYS. For all you readers and writers out there, we strongly advise you to check out THE SERPENT KING, if you haven’t already, and to keep a weather eye for GOODBYE DAYS. Don’t forget your tissues.

— Gabrielle Byrne lives in rainy wilds of the Pacific Northwest, and writes dark and twisty tales for middle graders. She is represented by Catherine Drayton at Inkwell Management. Find her on Twitter.

How We Read & What’s On My Nightstand

Ahhhh, the dog days of summer. Heat like syrup. Thunder rolls. Falling into the soft, ink-scented comforts of a good story, told well. If you’re anything like me though, summer rolls through your life with the speed of a locomotive, and your only chance to slow it down is to throw a beach towel across the tracks and derail that sucker.

Still. Every year, I look with hopeful eyes at the tall stack of books on my nightstand and whisper sweet promises to myself—extra reading time. Yes, you will be mine. I want to share which stories I’m hoping to spend time with soon, but one of my fine Winged Pen colleagues suggested I also share some of our WP reading styles. How do Winged Pennies read, and when?

GABBY BYRNE:  I’m a late night reader. I have a full-time day job, and kids, so that’s the time I’ve got. I don’t tend to read when I’m drafting, but I do read when I’m editing (my own stuff, or CP stuff). It’s a rare book that I read more than once (The Hills is Lonely currently holds the record). If I don’t like a book, I don’t finish it. I didn’t used to be that way. When I was younger, I’d compulsively read to the end, unless I hated it—a lot. Now, I have no time or energy for books I’m not enjoying or learning from.  Which book I read first is mood-driven.

MARTY MAYBERRY: I work 40 hrs/wk as an RN and drive 8 hours to work, but my kids are grown, so that gives me more time for myself. I don’t read when I’m writing or editing because I fear being influenced. But, I’ll read when CPing and in between writing, 3-4 books in a week. Since I write both YA and adult, I try to alternate the categories. I buy books when they appeal and add them to my TBR pile, then read whichever appeals the most first.

JESSICA VITALIS: I used to finish every book I started. But my time has become too precious. These days, if I can put a book down and walk away without thinking about it, I won’t go back and finish it. I typically read in bursts, powering through several books at a time and then taking a break when I’m deep in writing mode. Since my nightstand is always overflowing with unread books, I generally pick the one I’m most eager to read from the pile. But sometimes, my book selection depends on my mood.

SUSSU LECLERC: I usually read three books at the same time. I listen to YA fantasy audiobooks either in the car or during nap time with both of my kids. I also read at bedtime to my youngest son who prefers adventure MG. Finally, I read a non-fiction book (usually about writing during the day.) This is without counting the stories we read during homeschooling hours. It does take me a lot of time to finish a book, but I get the job done and I get two people to discuss literature with. Epic!

HILARY HARWELL: With the mss I read for the agent, I don’t always have tons of time for all the books I’d like to read. I usually hit up the library for 2-3 at a time and try to read a published book or two a month. It helps balance out some of the gems from the slush. 😉 Like Jessica, if I’m not feeling the book, I just won’t finish.

JULIE ARTZ: I used to read to the end of every book I started. Now I often stop after the first few chapters if I’m not feeling it. Between my editing clients, CPs, and a huge amount of nonfiction research on my current WIP, I haven’t gotten much reading done this spring/summer and I’m antsy about how my TBR list is growing out of control. I have to be in the mood to read a book, so I usually have a variety of age ranges and genres on my nightstand and Kindle so I can quickly find one that feels just right.

HALLI GOMEZ: For me, I try to read in the genre I am writing in, for example, I am reading a boy main character YA and the next one will be about a character with mental illness. I also have a book on my phone and another one on my iPad (both of which are horror short story anthologies). I don’t have a problem reading when I’m drafting or revising, in fact, I prefer to do that as long as it is in the same genre. I would love to be able to put down a book I don’t like (I’ve only done that twice that I can remember) and the book I’m reading now is terrible! But for some reason, oh yeah, OCD, I have to finish it

GITA PANJABI TRELEASE: When I’m stuck, I *want* to be influenced by something good, so like Halli, I’ll read something in my genre. Or something that’s somehow similar. But it must be excellent, or I will toss it aside. I don’t want to be influenced in the wrong way and at this point in my life, I only want to read good books. When I’m revising, I find craft books can give me good ideas.




THE REAL BOY, by Anne Ursu

THE WOLF WILDER, by Katherine Rundell


THE DARK IS RISING, by Susan Cooper




LISTEN SLOWLY, by Thanhha Lai

BRIDE OF SLUG MAN, by Julie Mata

THREE TIMES LUCKY, by Sheila Turnage

In addition to my friends at the WP, I’d like to give a shout out to the following tweeps for their recommendations: @MissDahlELama, @mariekeyn, @Reader_Fictions, @ShaunieDarko, @Bibliogato, @JMCWrites, @rklipman, @EMKokie.

gabrielle byrne2GABRIELLE K. BYRNE lives in Olympia, Washington and writes fantasy for middle graders.  She is represented by Catherine Drayton at Inkwell Management. Find her on Twitter. Her web site is here.

Interview with Author — Kerry Kletter

Today, Winged Pen is thrilled to spend time with the (fabulous) debut author of the YA book, THE FIRST TIME SHE DROWNED. Kerry Kletter is in the house! I’m especially excited to get to know Kerry better, as we not only have the same agent, but also share a country and a coastline! Yay! Thanks for being here, Kerry.

Kerry: Thanks for having me on Winged Pen!

Gabby: Okay, can you tell us about the best writing advice you ever got?

Kerry: A fellow writer, Jen E Smith told me very early on in my career to study screenplay structure. Life-changing advice.

Gabby: What was your favorite book as a kid?

Kerry: Blubber by Judy Blume. I also wanted to be Harriet the Spy for many years. Still do, actually.

Gabby: How about your favorite book this year?

Kerry: In adult lit, the nonfiction book WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR by Paul Kalanithi, which is profound, extraordinary. In YA, THE SERPENT KING by Jeff Zentner which I think is destined to be a classic. I’m also reading a book of poetry called NIGHT SKY WITH EXIT WOUNDS by Ocean Vuong, and it is so beautiful it physically hurts to read.

Gabby: I loved THE SERPENT KING too. Tell us about which writers inspire you.

Kerry: I am most inspired by beautiful language, so Elizabeth Strout, Tobias Wolff, Jo Ann Beard, Pat Conroy, Frank Conroy, Emily St. John Mandel, Donna Tartt, Jennifer Egan etc. I could go on and on. Give me a book with beautiful language, and two sentences in I just want to start writing.

 Gabby: Can you talk about your most difficult craft hurdle?

Kerry: I am not a big fan of plotting. I find it a necessary evil. But it tortures me. It bores me.

Gabby: What is your work/writing schedule?

Kerry: I pretty much write every second I get. Which is not to say I produce a lot. I’m a very slow writer.

Gabby: THE FIRST TIME SHE DROWNED is your debut novel. What about the process has been surprising?

Kerry: I think what’s surprised me most is how supportive people are, friends, family, the writing community. It has blown me away.

Gabby: Tell us about the book. What inspired it?

the firstTHE FIRST TIME SHE DROWNED is about a girl who is committed for two and a half years to a psych ward by her mother for something she says she didn’t do. When she turns 18 she signs herself out against medical advice and attempts to start over but her mother reappears in her life, throwing everything she knows about her past and herself into question.

The inspiration came from a variety of places. I’ve always been interested in complicated family dynamics and trauma—and how these things tend to get passed down from generation to generation, playing out in very predictable ways within families. I also wanted to examine what can happen when mental illness is undiagnosed and untreated within a family—how difficult it can be to determine where the sickness actually lies—who is acting and who is reacting and how fine the line between them can be. And at the end of the day, I think I just wanted to write a book that speaks to people, both teens and adults, who have felt unloved by a parent, who have struggled with the identity issues and the emotional wounds that accompany that. I wanted to hold up a validating mirror to that experience and I wanted to write about going on and being okay.

Gabby: What next? What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

Kerry: I’m finishing up an adult novel right now. I’m too superstitious to say more than that!

Gabby: Do you have any strange writing habits?

Kerry: Not really. Or if they are strange, I am unaware of them being so! I do type with two fingers which is a habit born of my failure to learn typing in high school.

Gabby: Ha! I love that. So…if you had a super power, what would it be? Don’t say typing.

Kerry: LOL. I’d pick the ability to end suffering.

Gabby: Okay – here’s comes the lightning round. *hands Kerry a cookie*

Kerry: I’m ready.

Gabby: Coffee or tea?

Kerry: Coffee

Gabby: Sweet or salty?

Kerry: Sweet

Gabby: Dog, cat, or other?

Kerry: Dog

Gabby: Plotter or pantser?

Kerry: A little bit of both.

Gabby: Whew! Alright, last question. Any advice for all those aspiring authors out there?

Read as much as possible. Learn to accept criticism and always strive to be better than you are. Enjoy the process. Support other writers. Expect rejection. Expect that it will be hard. If you truly love it, do it anyway.

 Thanks so much for joining us at Winged Pen, Kerry. We wish you all the luck in the world.

— Gabrielle Byrne lives in rainy wilds of the Pacific Northwest, and writes dark and twisty tales for middle graders. She is represented by Catherine Drayton at Inkwell Management. Find her on Twitter.


The Real Write What You Know: AKA Your Life in Hip-waders

The universe is fond of a good story, same as you and me. This, I tell myself, is why, when one thing goes wrong, there tends to be a glorious cascade of things falling apart to ride along on that one thing’s coat tails. As writers, we can have the last laugh. We can use it.

stressAs a comment on craft, I’m pretty sure this is the deeper, truer version of the adage, “write what you know.”

Bear with me. I’m going to explain, but to do it, I need to share a brief recap of my last couple days.

My youngest daughter and I had just flown home from a one-way road trip to visit Tennessee great-grandmother, leaving the other half of my family to return the Tom Robbins go-adventure way. All was well. I adjusted my work schedule so I could take my kid to school, and Grandma (my mom) would do pick up.

percy 2Well, the fam broke down outside the security checkpoint at the Hoover dam. There was some kind of stomach flu. There were grumpy, righteous guards. There was also, eventually, a $1,200 repair bill and two nights in a roadside Las Vegas motel. I reminded my eldest daughter, now half-way through her second week of missed school, that it was all very Percy Jackson.

Meanwhile, my mom was scheduled for major surgery and I was on my own. So, at 4am, with my seven-year-old in tow, I took mom to the hospital. Then her cat decided to have kidney failure. “Never fear,” says I. “I will hold down the fort.”

At this point, I’m certain that if someone doesn’t manage to hold things together, said fort will break into a thousand sharp, tiny slivers and shoot off into the void. Despite this possibility, the only thing running through my head for the next five hours is, has enough change fallen into the couch for me to buy a decent curry?

Things are calmer now. Mom’s surgery went well. The youngest has a school-night sleepover. The cat is staying at the vet for testing, system flushing and…as well may be, more unpleasant things to come.

Breathe. Just keep swimming (thank you, Dori-the-fish).

Come Saturday, my mom will be at home needing care, my sister will need a ride from the airport, the other half of my road-weary cast will return home, and the cat will either get out—or not, but there’s a parade in town, so, you know, there’s that.

Thing is—this story is universal. Okay, not THIS story, but you see where I’m going. We all have times when reality dishes out some crazy novel-quality hurdles.  It’s just that, for authors, “you couldn’t make this stuff up,” doesn’t apply. We can and, in fact, we should!

roller coasterThe experience behind writing what you know isn’t the cat with kidney failure, the lack of childcare, the stress over roadside blow-outs, missed school, the finances, and the…whatever comes next. That might be a great story too, but the real value is in the AND. It’s the pile-on. It’s knowing *knowing* that the universe is sniggering at you from behind its sly, masterful hand. Those feelings are the ‘what you know’ in “write what you know”. Your physical, emotional and psychological roller-coaster can be applied to your characters in any situation of crisis, whether brief or prolonged.

You’ve suffered. Use it. The beauty is that, in crisis, your experience will be both unique and universal at the same time. There may be value in writing about your specific experience too. Don’t get me wrong. Maybe that story is the plot of your next novel. Regardless, you can use any difficulty, or cluster of difficulties, in creative ways to give depth to your characters and to raise the stakes.

Now, if you have the wherewithal to take actual notes when you’re wearing imaginary hip-waders to get through your own life, then I applaud you. My advice is just to be aware of what you’re going through and what those around you are going through. Probably, forgetting it won’t be an issue. When you can sit down at last, glass of wine in hand, to do some writing, you may even feel capable of a little chuckle behind your sly, masterful hand.


*A note as I sit in the relative calm aftermath of these events. The road trip, where my daughter learned about the Anasazi, panned for gold in a secret spot only her Grand-dad knows, broke down at the Hoover Dam, got jumped by a twister, and visited Titanic artifacts in Vegas (not-to mention getting a gorgeous hat from the Brothel/gas-station), will be a life-long story for her to share. Meanwhile, I’m putting together a proposal to the powers that be (?) to forever rename road trips, Crisis Navigation Skill-building Experiences.

GKBGabrielle Byrne lives in Olympia, Washington and writes dark and twisty tales for middle graders, often with roots in mythology and folklore. She is represented by Catherine Drayton at Inkwell Management. Find her on Twitter.