As many of you know, I’ve started a new occasional feature on my blog — a series of author interviews called In the Spotlight. I have so many friends who are writing so many amazing, wonderful, stellar books, books that you simply MUST know about and read, that I decided it’s time I got busy and shared them with all of you!
Stepping into the spotlight today is my friend Susan Hill Long. Sue is a dazzlingly talented writer and editor, the mother of two fabulous girls, an avid runner and cross-country skiier and hiker, a fellow bookworm, and also a fellow New Englander! I’m just crazy about her new book, a middle-grade novel called WHISTLE IN THE DARK. It’s already getting rave reviews, with The Christian Science Monitor calling it “wonderful” and “beautifully crafted historical fiction,” and Booklist noting that “as engaging historical fiction does best, this debut novel … vividly brings to light a period in time where values prove timeless.”
I have always been an avid fan of historical fiction. I just LOVE the way richly imagined books like Sue’s can transport me to another time and place and breathe life into history–in this case, a small Missouri lead mining town in the 1920s where 13-year-old Clem, who loves books and stories and words, has to go “down the deep dark” of the mine in order to help his family. There’s a great deal more to the story, of course, but I don’t want to give too much away. I want you to READ it!
I also love books whose characters walk right off the page and into your heart, and WHISTLE IN THE DARK is that kind of book. No wonder an excerpt from the novel won a prize even before it was published! It’s that stunning!
Pull up a chair as we settle in for a visit with Sue, and ask her about writing, her book, and what’s next.
1. Tell us a bit about how you came to be a writer, and how you came to write WHISTLE IN THE DARK.
I was first published at age 5, on my dad’s silk-screen press, which he set up on the ping-pong table in the basement. A career was born!
Not really. I worked as an editor for a while, and began to write for a living after that. I found I much preferred being on the author side of the desk than the editor’s. Of course, to be a writer, a person must learn to edit, to revise.
2. I love Clem! He is just such a REAL boy. And Grampy, and Old Saw, and Lindy–all of them–they’re just so solid and real. As a writer, how do you develop characters?
Thank you, Heather! I’m so glad you love Clem and his family, friends, and foils. I love them, too, and still think about them sometimes. If they seem real to you, that must be why. (I once heard Sara Pennypacker say she wouldn’t begin writing a book till she would take a bullet for her character.)
3. The book was inspired by a historic event. Can you tell us about that, and also about your research? What were some of the most interesting things you discovered in the process?
The Great Tri-State Tornado was indeed a real event. It happened in 1925. I read two excellent books in particular about the storm, and also corresponded with a fellow who was kind enough to share his own family’s personal story from that terrible day. Most interesting to me was the way people cope with catastrophe, how they move on, because they must. People tend toward what’s good; they make some good come from bad.
4. Have you ever been down in a mine or in a cave? If you have, how did that experience inform your descriptions here, which make the reader feel like they’re standing side by side with Clem. If you haven’t, is it something you’d like to do?
I have been in a cave, and I don’t even want to talk about it!
5. An excerpt from this book won the Katherine Paterson Prize from Hunger Mountain. Tell us about that honor, and how it made a difference.
Oh, it certainly was an honor, Heather. When I got the news, I ran down the stairs and out the door and down the sidewalk. I hardly knew what to do with my happiness and surprise. The difference the Katherine Paterson Prize made was both measurable — it encouraged me to complete the manuscript, an agent contacted me through Hunger Mountain, and eventually a book was bound — and immeasurable — the confidence it gave me to keep going, the possession of a secret message I could whisper to myself whenever I needed it. (Psst. Remember that time Katherine Paterson thought your writing was pretty good? Squee!)
6. Are there particular writers who have inspired or influenced you? Favorite books?
When I was a child, I loved all books by Joan Aiken — Black Hearts in Battersea, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase — just typing the titles gives me chills! I read The Chronicles of Narnia countless times, and I had two old George MacDonald books that had belonged to my grandfather — The Princess and Curdie and The Princess and the Goblins. Magical.
When I learned that Elizabeth George Speare had died, I burst into tears. I’m not sure why, but I think I felt such a personal connection to her books, and my memory of reading them is still so strong — I lived in Old Wethersfield, Connecticut, till I was 9 years old, and so The Witch of Blackbird Pond was “my” book, because it was set right there in my own town. I loved Kit. I loved my own outrage, reading about Kit’s plight. (She’s not a witch, you’re the witch, you old Goodwife Cruff!) I’m going to go and read it again right after I finish typing here.
7. Do you have any writing rituals?
I go for a run to start the day, and when I sit down at my desk I glance at this message: “keep calm and carry on,” which happens to be printed on a very large eraser — important reminder for a writer.
8. What can we look forward to next from you?
I’m working on another novel for middle-grade readers. All I can tell you for now is that I love my characters.
Thanks so much, Sue, for visiting with us today. Now everybody go visit her website for more fun facts (click here), then buy her book and READ IT!
To read an earlier In the Spotlight interview with Chris Kurtz, click here.