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A couple of posts ago, I reviewed a book I LOVE called Three Rivers Rising: A Novel of the Johnstown Flood by Jame Richards. If you haven’t read this wonderful historical novel yet, what are you waiting for? Hie you to the bookstore, Amazon, or the library or click on the title or the image of the book cover below to order. This book is delicious! Now I’m happy to tell you, Jame Richards generously gave me the time for an interview. I think you’ll enjoy reading more about her and the process of writing Three Rivers Rising.
The Johnstown Flood was certainly an extraordinary event, but one not a lot of young people know about. How did you decide on that as the basis for your book?
The flood had always fascinated me ever since seeing a documentary in high school. Years later, when I started writing, it became clear to me that the flood would make a fantastic backdrop for a Romeo and Juliet-type story, but many years passed, along with several failed attempts at writing it. When the opportunity arose to take a workshop with my hero Patricia Reilly Giff, I thought, “Geez, I better write a few pages of something to bring to the class. If only I had a story idea simmering in the back of my mind…hey, wait a minute!”
I loved the marriage of fictional characters to the backdrop of such a powerful historical event as the Johnstown Flood. Was it always your intention to write this story as fiction?
Writing about any true story, you want to start with as much factual information as possible. You can only do so much, though, adding fictional elements to the lives of real documented people. At the end of the day, you can control the story more with completely fictional characters. The character Joseph was inspired by the real life John Hess, but in order for that storyline to be told through the eyes of a young person for YA, I opted to give him a child bride and tell it from her point of view.
What did you do to prepare for writing Three Rivers Rising?
A few things had changed in my writing life by the time I completed Three Rivers Rising. Working on a screenplay for many months had changed my writing style. Screenwriting moves you away from the interior reflections and the observational: everything is action and dialog. Action and dialog. Action and dialog. The setting, as needed, is the majority of the description. So when I applied this to novel writing, it became a more immediate and visual style.
The other thing that changed was trying verse for the first time. I had always felt comfortable writing poetry, but it never amounted to a novel-length work before. After reading Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, I could get my head around telling a larger story one poem at a time.
How did you discover your fictional characters? Are they based on real people?
No one is literally based on a real person, but you take pieces of yourself and others to build characters. Rather than the well-worn character of the feisty headstrong girl who throws caution to the wind, I wanted Celestia to be quietly rebellious and conflicted. She loves her family members, even though they’re flawed, and doesn’t want to be cut off from them. That felt more organic and real to me. Peter, by design, had to be a little more cultivated than the average joe so he could relate to Celestia and see himself with her. For Kate it was easy to choose her actions and reactions based on the Know It All/OCD behavior of anyone I might know who’s like that. I think she feels most like a real person to some readers, though maybe not the most sympathetic. I was very much in touch with Maura’s experience because my children were small when I was writing this, and I was knitting, nesting.
Your writing has such a great, natural flow to it. Do you spend a lot of time planning your writing – outlining and such – or is it a much more organic process for you?
Thank you! I guess I’d describe it as setting off toward the horizon, but you can’t see your destination. I write for a while until I know where I’m going, then I might do a play-by-play of the remaining scenes. So, no, I don’t do a ton of planning before I start—I would miss all those great surprises that jump out along the way!
Writing can be a lonely business. Do you work with critique groups or critique partners? Maybe you could talk a little about your writing process.
I get together with other writers frequently, but it’s not Writing by Committee. It’s more like a support group in a way. We talk about the industry. We bounce ideas off each other. We read our work aloud and maybe we say, “It was a little slow in that spot” or “I didn’t get where you were going with that.” That’s the biggest benefit: reading for an audience. More often than not, I know what I need to do to fix something that way.
Also, I’m very lucky to have Patricia Reilly Giff for a mentor. She gives lots of encouragement and spot-on feedback.
As writers, we all hear so much about the editing process. Did you have to do a lot of re-writing once Three Rivers Rising was placed with Knopf? Did you feel an editor would be able to give you much guidance considering writing in verse is so different from prose?
I wouldn’t say I did a lot of rewriting, but there were stubborn sticky parts that had to be clarified repeatedly. Did I also write new material? Yes. Did I also cut out chunks? Yes. But in general, the finished book is very similar to how it sold.
I didn’t know what to expect from an editor since it was my first book. I did know that my editor had worked on other verse novels that I admired, so I trusted that. She wasn’t afraid to get down into the nitty-gritty where every word counts. It worked out very well.
Did you have an agent represent the book or did you sell it on your own? If you had an agent, do you feel it was harder to find an agent because your book was written in verse?
Verse is still considered a risk. So it is harder to find an agent. And harder to find a publisher. Consider the economy and the concerns about the future of publishing—everyone wants to aim for the sweet spot and I can’t say I blame them.
Do you feel your job is easier or harder now that your debut novel is out and a big hit? Is there more or less pressure? Does the pressure come more from yourself or others?
The “harder” part is trying to top yourself. The more people liked your first book, the higher the bar is set. Hopefully, I’m a better writer by now, though. I would say I’m my own toughest critic, so there’s some pressure that way, but there are definitely external expectations, too.
What has been most thrilling for you since your novel debuted?
The biggest thrill is hearing from readers who reach out, much like yourself: bloggers, teachers, librarians, etc. I often hear from other writers, too. It seems we’re each other’s biggest fan base!
It’s never easy to find enough time to write, but you have small children. Is it a distraction or an inspiration?
My writing time was very limited when they were small, but I found that helpful in a way. It forced me to shut that door at naptime and sit quietly glued to the computer until the baby squawked. I had to hit the ground running or my writing time would be gone. So I was actually very productive. Same with nursery school and half-day kindergarten. When you have that finite window, it makes for a useful urgency.
What do you hear from your young readers? Do they seem to find the verse more appealing or the story?
They express surprise at how quickly they forget they’re reading poetry (like it’s supposed to hurt?), how they just get swept up in the story and how quickly they finished it! (Instead of 250 words a page, my novel averages 100-150.)
What advice would you pass along to those of us who haven’t gotten that first book published?
- Write. Rinse. Repeat.
- Read for craft.
- Write some more.
- Don’t think of your manuscript as chiseled in stone. Break it all apart. Cut out the excess and put it back together better.
- Don’t give up after a few rejections. It is part of the process. Period.
- Rejections get less painful as you get closer to the destination. More constructive and encouraging. Those initial blunt form rejections can take years off any writing life, I know, but don’t park there.
- If your work isn’t selling, sell something else. The market changes. It’s different for me now than it was when I sold 3RR, different from when Hesse sold Out of the Dust, different from when my mentor sold her first book. Maybe it’s not the time for one manuscript. Polish up another. Get it out there. You can’t sell it if it isn’t out there.
I saw on your website as the third of three girls, you were named for your father. I was the fourth of four girls and my father lobbied for me to be named for him. (If he’d had his way, I would be Frederica Alberta Hollinbeck!) How do you feel about your name? Did you like growing up with an unusual – almost boy’s – name?
Frederica is a great name! You should name a character that…see what parallel life you might have led.
I like my name a lot now. It fits me. I think a boy name on a girl is cool and I hope it makes me seem tougher than I am! But it was a real drag as a kid because every time I was introduced to someone there was a big rigmarole of explanation. Plus, there was always mention of Jamie Sommers, the Bionic Woman, and that created a detour into pop culture. Nowadays we’re more accepting of unusual names. It’s fashionable even.
Thank you for so generously sharing your time and thoughts. Is there anything I didn’t ask about that you’d like to tell us?
You’re welcome! I hope I covered everything, but if your readers want to know more, they can check out my website www.jamerichards.com or like 3RR on Facebook for updates on events.