February Author Spotlight
I’m very happy to post this month’s interview with another award-winning author. Bobbi Miller earned her MFA in Writing for Children from Vermont College, and was awarded honors with distinction for her Master of Arts in Children’s Literature degree from Simmons College in Boston. She is represented by Karen Grencik, Red Fox Literary.
Please share a little about your books.
My first middle grade novel (my fourth book), Big River’s Daughter, begins: “This here story is all true, as near as I can recollect. It ain’t a prettified story. Life as a river rat is stomping hard, and don’t I know it. It’s life wild and woolly, a real rough and tumble. But like Da said, life on the river is full of possible imaginations. And we river rats, we aim to see it through in our own way. That’s the honest truth of it.” River’s story is an historical American fantasy, a blend of the tall tale tradition that captures so much of the American identity, and a unique form of fantasy. I have long been a student of tall tales, epitomized in the exploits of Annie Christmas and Mike Fink — two important characters in River’s life. Annie Christmas in particular was an important, and yet forgotten, character in history. She was one of the first original heroines in African-American folklore. Her tales were a favorite of the Creoles and the American blacks in pre-Civil War southern Louisiana and Mississippi River. I used many characters from history to help re-create the unique society that was colonial New Orleans. Another, Madame Rochon, is certainly a forgotten hero. A black woman, intelligent and astute, she became a shrewd and successful businesswoman. And, one of her business partners was the pirate Jean Laffite, the antagonist of my story.
Even Tiger, the best friend of River, has some truth to him. In 1806, a sea captain brought the first two tiger cubs into America.
The setting of my book was an extraordinary time in American history. We were embroiled in the War of 1812. While the War of Independence set us free of British rule, the War of 1812 ultimately defined us as a force in world power. My story is also grounded in many events. In December 1811, a series of earthquakes shook the Mississippi River basin. Three of these earthquakes would have measured at magnitude of 8.0 on the modern-day Richter scale. Six others would have measured between 7.0 and 7.5. The quakes were felt as far away as Canada. It shook so hard, it forced the Mississippi River to run backwards, changing the very landscape. It also sets into motion River’s story.
A good story makes history personal. History isn’t dull or dry, as textbooks would have us believe. It isn’t a list of dates and names, like a shopping list that no one remembers once the task is complete. History is real and relevant. The study of history, in essence, is a way of making sense of the present. As David McCullough once said, in one of my favorite quotes, “We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by-and-large historically illiterate. [But] there is literature in history.” History enlarges our understanding of the human experience, suggests Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and as such, it needs to include the “stories that dismay as well as inspire.”
As I was researching another book, I came across a small newspaper article dated from 1863. It told of a Union soldier on burial duty, following the Battle at Gettysburg, coming upon a shocking find: the body of a female Confederate soldier. It was shocking because she was disguised as a boy. At the time, everyone believed that girls were not strong enough to do any soldiering; they were too weak, too pure, too pious to be around roughhousing boys. It was against the law for girls to enlist. This girl carried no papers, so he could not identify her. She was buried in an unmarked grave. A Union general noted her presence at the bottom of his report, stating “one female (private) in rebel uniform.” The note became her epitaph. I decided I was going to write her story in my next novel, Girls of Gettysburg. And like Big River’s Daughter, many of the characters in this book are also found in history. Ultimately, the story featured three perspectives that are rare in these historical fiction depictions: the daughter of a free black living seven miles north from the Mason-Dixon line, the daughter of the well-to-do local merchant, and a girl disguised as a Confederate soldier. The plot weaves together the fates of these girls, a tapestry that reflects their humanity, heartache and heroism in a battle that ultimately defined a nation.
What advice would you give to new authors hoping to become published?
Repeating what others have said: learn your craft. Read everything. Take a class, or two, or three. Join SCBWI and other organizations that support your work. Attend conferences and workshops. But more than this, learn the business of children’s publishing, too. After all, it is first a business. Even before you are published, you can start creating an online presence. Write reviews, write articles that establish your authority, contribute to a group blog, create your own blog. These become an important tool that demonstrates to editors that you are a marketable entity. Editors will research you online if they are interested in your story. Ultimately, if you want to be a writer, start by considering this as a job: you get up, you do your job the best way you can.
One piece of wisdom I learned early on: While writing reviews is an important element in your career, reading reviews of your story, once you are published, can be akin to entering an emotional minefield. This can be counter-productive. Writers by definition are empathic individuals. In order to write fully-realized characters, we have to get inside the hearts of our characters. Fiction is, after all, an emotional exchange. So, rejoice and celebrate in the positive reviews, because your story touched someone! Yea! But let go of the not so positive. Readers bring to the page a slew of experience. Not all reviews are equally weighted. Some are more reactive then reflective. Some carry trunks of emotional baggage, full of assumptions on what a story should be, but offering little insight into the story you wrote. You can’t please everyone. The most you can do is write the very best story you can write.
Favorite books = Pandemic, by Yvonne Ventresca; Minty, by Christina Banach; Guilt and Guiltless, by Erin Johnson (Laurie J. Edwards); Call Me Amy and Amy’s Choice, by … gee, I wonder who!!