I'm so honored that Gayle was willing to come on Robin Hall Writes. You will love her, if you don't already, after reading this interview. Her debut, What the Mood Said released from Putman/Penguin Young Readers Feb. 20, 2014.
RH: As I mentioned, I found your book at the library and had to read it because of the cover. I'm mainly a YA reader, but I dabble with MG when my children have favorites or one catches my fancy. And that's exactly what your debut did for me. Were you thrilled with your cover?
GR: I was blown away by my cover! As a former librarian I know how important a good cover is to attracting a reader and one of the first things I said to my editor when she called to say Putnam wanted to publish my book--after some excited babbles of delight and thanks--was "Please, please give me a good cover!" (That's a direct quote.) I don't know if that's what spurred the amazingly lovely cover that MOON received or if it would have been every bit as beautiful if I'd said nothing, but I am deliriously happy with it. I recently saw my second book's cover and it is amazing, too. The art department at Putnam/Penguin Young Readers is nothing short of fabulous!
RH: Could you tell us a little bit about the process of creating your cover (if you were able to give suggestions or if Putnam did it all, etc.)?
GR: Putnam did ask for any photos I might have of the farmhouse, but other than that, I think they had a vision from the beginning of what the art should look like. My editor, Susan Kochan, worked closely with the art director to have artwork that would evoke the feeling of Esther's enthusiasm for life and her love of the farm, and I think they captured it perfectly as well as beautifully.
RH: Did Jonathan Bean, who did the illustrations at the start of each chapter (which I love!) also draw the cover? His drawing style fit so well with the feel of your writing.
GR: No, Mr. Bean didn't create the cover art. That was the work of talented artist/illustrator Zdenko Basic. The chapter art by Jonathan Bean was a thrilling surprise that came later. I agree that his black and white art showing the seasons and settings--Chicago or farm--are a perfect match for my story.
RH: When reading What the Moon Said, I could picture Esther and her mother rather well. I come from a family of five girls and two boys, and the family dynamic you created felt real to me. I especially liked the letters Esther would write to Julia. I felt for Esther and her need for her mother to demonstrate her love. I read on Literary Rambles that Esther came about a little from how you imagined your mom at ten and then bits of you trickled in and then she became her own self. How many revisions did it take to really discover Esther and her family?
GR: Amazingly, not all that many. It wasn't so much that I changed Esther's character as that I allowed it to evolve and grow over the course of the year, much as it would have in real life. The character I had the most difficult time with was Ma, because I needed to show her through Esther's eyes yet embed hints (for example the information Julia shares in a letter about how Ma blamed herself for the death of her little sister who resembled Esther so much) as to why she might hold herself so aloof from Esther. I needed to make her brusque without making her seem mean. It was a tricky tightrope walk sometimes and I had to rewrite scenes that centered on Ma several times to get them "right".
RH: Your grandmother was from the old country and superstitious like Esther's mom. Did you grow up believing some of the same things Esther did? Or were many of the superstitions ones you researched?
GR: Nearly every superstition I used in the story was one that I learned from my grandmother while I was growing up. Like Esther, I sometimes wondered how she kept track of so many! I did do some research on Russian superstitions and added a couple of things--primarily the bits about the fairies, because there was an experience from my girlhood that I definitely wanted to use in the story but didn't want to use exactly the way it happened. Here's the real story: when I was about eight years old my grandmother told me I wasn't to play with a new girl from down the block because she had a mole on her face which Grandma referred to as the "mark of the devil". I had to use this event, but no way was I going to insert the devil into my story, so instead I used the fairies that pervade many Russian folktales and superstitions to explain Ma's fear. Fairies, after all, could do plenty of damage, and in What the Moon Said they were the cause of Ma's fear of Bethany.
RH: What the Moon Said is set in Chicago and Wisconsin early in the Depression. I have a huge respect for people who write historical novels. The need to be accurate terrifies me so much that even in my contemporary novels I create fictitious locations. Can you tell us about your research process and how much time it took? Was there anything you couldn't find that you have to guess about? What surprised you most in your fact finding?
GR: The need for accuracy in historical fiction was the single most difficult aspect of writing Esther's story. Like you, I am much more comfortable writing about make-believe places and events where I can't be caught in a mistaken detail. I did lots and lots of research on everything from the cost of a stamp in 1930 to what crops are planted in southern Wisconsin and in what months and when they are harvested. I fretted over every detail fearing I'd make some unforgivable error and lose all credibility and get blasted by reviewers. But every time I read any part of the manuscript I found myself questioning new details and then fact-checking them. There were three phases to my research. First, the conversations with my mother about her childhood, especially on the farm; then I read books about the Depression; and finally I did detailed research online. The internet was an incredibly useful tool. I do confess to making up the name of the town the farm is set near. I wanted the freedom to make up the details of the community without getting snarled up in the "facts" of a real town's history. Luckily, too, I had the comforting reassurance of knowing that amazing copy editors at Putnam were watching my back and double-checking anything that raised any sort of flag for them. But yes, writing historical fiction adds a whole extra layer of work and stress to the writing process.
RH: Your verb choices were precise and strong. From page one I knew you could create a vivid story. Can you tell us about your drafting (pantser/plotter/detailed outliner) and revision process?
GR: I am a plotter who works from a rough outline. First I get an idea; then I let it simmer on the back burner of my mind for a while to see if it holds my interest/passion and if lots of sub plots sprout from the main idea. If it does and they do, I start making lots of notes about the main character, their family, their friends, and the setting. Then I create a crude outline--really more of a summary broken down into chapters. And when I know how my story is going to end, I begin writing the first chapter. It always takes ten times longer than writing any other chapter since I am still feeling my way a bit and I'm laying the foundation for everything else that is going to follow in the book. If the first chapter isn't solid, it won't grab the reader, and the rest of the story won't grow organically from it.
RH: Could you tell us what you're working on now?
GR: I just finished the final copyedits on my second book which will be coming out in August of 2015. It's another historical fiction novel for middle graders, but it's from a more recent time period. It's called Cold War on Maplewood Street and takes place in Chicago during the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Now that it's officially out of my hands, I'm working on a contemporary story (also MG) about loyalty and how far it should go.
RH: What were your favorite books growing up?
GR: Little Women, Trixie Belden mysteries, Anne of Green Gables, Taffy's Foal, Heidi, A Wrinkle in Time, The Wheel on the School, and Charlotte's Web are just a few of the many, many books I loved as a girl.
RH: My ten-year-old son is writing a book. Do you have any advice for young aspiring writers? GR: Tell your son I said, "Way to go! I'm very impressed. Writing is hard work--but when it's your passion, there's nothing that you'd rather do." As for advice, I always tell aspiring writers to keep a journal--not necessarily about their daily activities; that can get boring pretty quickly. But about highlights/lowlights of family events, personal disappointments and triumphs, and especially the feelings that accompanied them. These are great to draw on later to remind us how a ten or twelve-year old thinks and expresses his feelings. The other reason to keep a journal is to jot down ideas for stories, and to paste in pictures from magazines that suggest settings or stories, as well as to keep track of ideas for unusual characters. A journal is also a great place to keep a list of the books they especially loved reading including a few notes about why they loved them. All of this is not only going to be a great resource in the future but is a fun way of nurturing the blossoming writer within them.
RH: Thanks so much for being here and sharing so much of your writing experience with us. I can't wait for Cold War on Maplewood Street and am looking forward to your MG contemporary.
Gayle has a great website with all kinds of links to exploring the world where Esther lived. Find all that goodness here.
Gayle grew up in Chicago. Like Esther, she enjoyed school, was an avid reader, and loved dogs and horses. She attended Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where she majored in Creative Writing and was the editor of the literary magazine. Gayle never outgrew her passion for children's books, and she worked as a children's and young adult librarian at a public library for several years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, enthusiastically sharing her love of books with young people.
Also like Esther, Gayle eventually moved to Wisconsin, but by then she was a mother with three children. She worked in the reference library, and later as a copyeditor, at American Girl. During this time period she published short stories for children in Cricket, Ladybug, Jack and Jill andChildren's Digest magazines.
Now Gayle writes full-time in her home just outside of Madison, Wisconsin, where she lives with her husband, Don, and slightly neurotic rescue dog, Fiona. She is living her dream, she says, writing books she hopes will make the same difference in children's lives as her favorite books and authors made in hers. What the Moon Said is her first novel.