Tall Tales: Interview With Karen Day

Here's the skinny, people: I'm not going to feel like I have to feature an interview with you, even if (a) you're in my writer's group, and (b) you mention me on the acknowledgments page (full disclosure.)

You've still got to write a novel that (a) fills me with hope, as it will for the tweens who'll read your book again and again, (b) gets me choked up with that mix of sadness and joy only a skillful storyteller can induce, OR (c) earns you a two-book contract from a Legendary Master Editor.

Karen Day, author of Tall Tales (Wendy Lamb Books, May 2007), fulfills all five of these requirements. I invited her out to the Fire Escape for a chat about the terrifying, amazing process of writing and publishing her first novel, due out this week.

Tell us about the journey to getting the book published. What was a high point? A low point?

I finished the first draft of Tall Tales in 2000. Almost instantly I had interest from an editor who saw the first 10 pages at an SCBWI conference. Over the next two years I worked on three revisions for her, without a contract, until she finally declined. I was heart broken but by then I had a different editor interested. More heartbreak followed when she declined after two revisions! Not long after this I got a particularly brutal rejection from an agent to whom I’d asked for representation. He literally brought me to my knees (and to tears!) with his harsh assessment of my novel. Definitely the low point in my struggling career! But after a couple of days of licking my wounds, I realized that his critique, while harsh, was right on. I did a major revision, eventually found a different agent and she got me into a bidding war. The most exhilarating part of this whole process was the two weeks when we went back and forth between these two houses. So exciting! In the end I signed a two-book deal with Wendy Lamb at Random House.

YA books are renowned for being edgy, but you're writing about an alcoholic and abusive family for a younger audience. What advice would you give writer wannabes who want to explore more difficult issues for upper elementary readers?

It’s tricky business, portraying a dysfunctional family in a middle grade novel. Sixteen-year-olds are typically more mature, more reflective and certainly more willing to be okay with being different. A typical twelve-year-old doesn’t want to be different nor does he/she have the necessary tools to analyze the situation. Yet feelings of pain, suffering, guilt, longing, desires, anger – they’re all there. So, you have to be extra vigilant in finding ways of showing these often unconscious fears and desires. In Tall Tales Meg and Grace write a book about two girls who start a business solving mysteries. Grace desperately wants the two characters to have “really cool moms who are also best friends.” Meg focuses on finding a “home” office for the two girls to stay in between jobs. Both of these desires speak to dominant issues the two girls wrestle with. Also, to an outsider looking in, the horrors of an alcoholic, abusive father might seem all consuming. But in reality, people living in this situation “get used to it.” Life goes on. You aren’t in crisis every moment. So there has to be a balance in writing a book like this, between the every-day matters that affect most 12-year-olds and the crisis moments.

What was the biggest (hardest) change you made in response to an editorial suggestion from Wendy?

After I signed my contract, Wendy came back to me with a 14-page, single space e-mail outlining changes/suggestions she had for the book. This WASN’T the most daunting part of the revision process because she was so astute and so careful that I was truly grateful. The hardest change came early on, when she initially rejected the book. She thought I left the family too vulnerable and wanted to see a happier outcome. She said she’d look at the novel again if I made these changes, but I wasn’t sure. I wanted to be realistic. I couldn’t see how to change it and stay true to my realistic conception of the novel. I fretted over this for months until finally I found a solution that satisfied me but also, I hoped, would satisfy Wendy. It required drastically rewriting the mom’s character and the last 100 pages. But I did it and Wendy loved it.

Describe a fear you have about this book that can keep you up at night.

Tall Tales is deceptively simple, with its short chapters and sentence structures, and even in what Meg wants, which I come right out and say in the first line. “I want to make a friend.” So, will readers see and appreciate what’s under the surface? Did I pull it off? Will they see and feel how Meg’s desperate and often unconscious desires for a “safe home” infiltrate the dialogue, descriptions, even the story that she and Grace write together? Will readers understand that Teddy, Abby and Dad’s static personalities were done intentionally, to illustrate how normal development is often stymied in families like this? Will they believe Meg’s conflicted feelings about her father? So, as you can see, I stay awake quite often at night, worrying!

Finish the sentence twice, first from an idealistic "literature changes lives" point of view and then give the savvy marketer's take.

Tall Tales will be a successful book if:

1. Just one kid reads it and feels empowered to make changes in his or her life.

2. If, if, if … I don’t know! I wish I had something savvy to say! All I can think about is that I want to make a difference in a kid or kids’ lives. And then I will forever feel blessed and gratefully and know that this journey was well worth it.

What's next for Karen Day?

My next book, No Cream Puffs, is another middle grade novel with Wendy Lamb and it will be published in the summer of 2008. I’m really excited about this book. Set in the 1970s, it’s the story of 12-year-old Madison who is the first girl in Michigan to play little league baseball with the boys. I use lots of themes that are important to me. My love for Lake Michigan. Mother-daughter relationships. How kids respond to intense pressure and expectations. I also toy with some of the adolescent development theories I explored in graduate school, specifically post-Freudian relational and gender issues that women like Carol Gilligan and Nancy Chodorow wrote about. One of Madison’s biggest conflicts in the book is how she reconciles her desires to win and play baseball (she’s the best player in town!) with her intense need to be liked and accepted. I don’t mean to make this novel sound too stuffy and academic. Most of these themes fly under the radar. It’s actually a very funny and poignant book and Madison is a great, quirky character.

Karen, thanks for coming out to the Fire Escape. I know firsthand what a disciplined writer you are; you inspire me daily with your dedication, craftsmanship, and energy. Many blessings to Tall Tales, to the readers who will love and root for Meg, and to you.