Monday, September 7, 2009

Interview with author Edie Hemingway

“Like the best of children’s literature, Edith Hemingway’s Road To Tater Hill is timeless. The deep and universal emotions of pain and loss that her memorable, fully-realized characters share are as true today as they were in the story’s 1963 setting. Hemingway skillfully evokes the healing bonds of family and friendship in this sensitive, gracefully written tale—one that is sure to engage readers of any age.”--Joyce McDonald, award-winning author of Devil on My Heels, Shades of Simon Gray, and Swallowing Stones.

“Drawing on the author’s childhood roots, the heart of this first novel is the sense of place, described in simple lyrical words: the soaring mountains and the valley rippling outward “in waves and waves of fading blue,” like one of Grandma’s patchwork quilts. True to Annie’s viewpoint, the particulars tell a universal drama of childhood grief, complete in all its sadness, anger, loneliness, and healing.”--Booklist

I was the lucky Slushbuster who volunteered to interview Edie Hemingway, the 2k9 author of Road to Tater Hill. I was hesitant about volunteering, but my Slushbuster friends assured me that the authors were nice and that I would have fun. They were right! I began the process by doing some research. I started with the class of 2k9 web site, was then led to Edie’s personal website, and finally to a blog Edie contributes to. The more I read the more interested I became in the person who is Edie Hemingway. My research stirred up questions in me about Edie’s personal life, her writing, and her book. I sent her a bunch of these questions and asked her to pick her favorite eight to answer. When I got the answers back and read them, I was thrilled to discover a person who not only wrote a book that I want to read, but who also has feelings and life experience that connect with my own and who I would like call a friend.

1. Do you have a favorite book that is tied to a specific memory and can you share it?

I have so many favorite books that it’s hard to pick just one, but if I go back to my childhood, two books that jump right out for me are Calico Captive and The Witch of Blackbird Pond, both by Elizabeth George Speare. I read both of them the summer my baby sister was born prematurely and died, so, of course, I had to have my character Annie Winters read them, too. I guess I will always associate them with that summer, but, more than that, they instilled in me a love for historical fiction. Being able to travel to a different place in time and actually live that time period right along with the main character was an exciting thing for me, and I discovered that means of escape during that difficult summer. In my mind, even after I had finished a book, I went right along living the life of my favorite character as I imagined it would continue—that is, until I met another character whose life I wanted to live. It’s a great way to never get bored!

2. I read that you based your story on a memoir that you wrote about when your baby sister died. I was wondering if you could share something about your experience.

Years ago in a writing class, I had an assignment to write about a childhood experience that evoked strong emotion. The result was a 10-page essay about the experience of losing my longed-for little sister (I would have been just as happy with a little brother!). My mother had 4 miscarriages, so you can imagine how our family anticipated the birth of this baby when we thought everything was going smoothly with the pregnancy. I used this essay in one of the residency workshops during my MFA program at Spalding University, not really knowing what I’d ever do with it. The workshop leader and my fellow students urged me to turn it into a novel because of the strong emotional core of my story. At first I had a hard time separating myself from the main character, but my faculty mentor for that semester (Susan Campbell Bartoletti) suggested I switch from first person to third person as a way to step back and allow Annie to become a character in her own right. What great advice! Suddenly it was much easier to move into fiction and turn Tater Hill into a better story.

However, in my last round of revisions with my editor, she was urging me to dig a little deeper into the emotional color of the indoor scenes. That’s when I had one of those “aha” moments, and realized I needed to go back to first person. By then Annie was a strong fictional character, so I didn’t have that separation problem. Writing the novel was a cathartic experience for me, and I like to think of it more as a story of healing, rather than grieving.

3. I read that you live in a log cabin. I saw pictures of you climbing big rocks near your house and the picture of the dulcimer hanging on your wall. I am intrigued by these pictures of your life. Can you tell us a little bit about your life and how you ended up in a log cabin?

My husband and I live in a 1930s log cabin, Misty Hill Lodge, built from chestnut logs from the property before the blight. Even more amazing are the doors, which were salvaged from a steamship ferry that was part of the Chesapeake Bay Company from 1907 until 1930. Each door still has the original skeleton key with a leather tag inscribed with the room number and “S.S. City of Atlanta,” the name of the ferry. About 11 years ago, we were looking for a smaller house with more property. Misty Hill Lodge was the first place we looked, and we were hooked. It wasn’t just the cabin that drew us in, but also the 6-acre property, which includes 400 feet of rock cliffs across the top of Braddock Mountain near Frederick, Maryland. We have several trails up to the rocks, where I often go to write in my journal. Part of the instant attraction was the rustic, relaxed feel of the house with its huge open great room and massive fireplace, and part was the similarity of the property to the North Carolina mountains where I spent all of my childhood summers.

We did have to make some changes, since the house was only 1200 square feet and had no closets—only hooks on the bedroom walls for hanging clothes. The previous owners had used it for a weekend getaway. We have since built a master bedroom addition and have renovated the kitchen. We do love sharing our home with friends and family, and I teach monthly writing workshops here. It’s a perfect writers’ retreat!

4. How did you meet your husband? What is something that you really liked about him?

I met my husband, Doug, in college at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, which is also the area where my novel takes place. Believe it or not, my husband was my brother’s roommate, and we started out as good friends. We were both members of the hiking club, so we did a lot of outdoor activities, including rock climbing and spelunking, and just enjoying the mountainous surroundings. I think what I liked best about him then (and now) is that he didn’t talk too much, but when he did talk, he had something worthwhile to say.
Doug is the first and closest critiquer of my writing. Whenever I finish a chapter of whatever I’m working on, I read it aloud to him first, and I can count on him to be honest and give sound advice.

5. Whose advice has been the most helpful or brought the most change to your work?

This is a difficult question because I’ve had a number of people who give me very good feedback and advice. Two friends in particular, both of whom graduated from the Spalding MFA program in writing for children, are my most regular critiquers. One lives in Florida and the other in Michigan, so we send each other our work electronically and try to get together once a year for a weeklong retreat at the Floridian friend’s condo in Key Largo. (Not a bad place for a writing retreat!) They both are able to point things out that I’ve missed and have given me wonderful encouragement. I try to do the same for them.

I guess the thing that has brought the biggest change, or improvement, in my work has been to complete the brief residency MFA in Writing for Children at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. Even though I had two co-authored published novels before I earned my MFA, I feel as if my writing has improved by leaps and bounds since then. The other change has been since I started teaching creative writing. Putting together a lesson plan or trying to explain an element of the craft of writing forces me to take a longer, closer look at my own work.

6. What does your daily writing life look like? Describe the discipline/routine.

Ha! Right now my daily writing routine consists primarily of book promotion activities. The expectation for what the author will do to promote a new book has changed drastically since my first co-authored book came out nearly 13 years ago! I’m finding it much more overwhelming than I expected, and I’m having trouble getting back to working on a new book. When I am in the writing mode, I work best in the mornings. If I’m on a roll, I don’t stop, but keep going so I won’t lose the flow. I do, however, like to stop writing for the day when I still have something more to write. That serves as kind of a hook (like the end of an exciting chapter) to draw me back into writing the next day. I also work best with a deadline. If I have too much open time and space, I tend to get distracted easily.

7. What is one of your favorite parts of your book? Why do you like it
so much and how did it come to be?

My favorite part of my book is the reclusive mountain woman, Miss Eliza McGee. Her character, including her mysterious background, is the only truly fictional aspect of the story, so I had complete freedom with her. I also am drawn to her sage advice in Chapter 12 (which I won’t explain too fully because I don’t want to give away the story). She says, “Reading and dreaming is what gave me the freedom to burst beyond those thick walls. It gave me the freedom to fly.” I didn’t really plan Miss Eliza’s character. She became so real to me during the writing of the book, that I followed her lead.

8. Of all the possible readers in the world, who would you most like to hear had read your book and loved it?

It’s hard to think of a specific person that I’d like to hear had read and loved my book, but it would be fun to know that some respected and revered authors, like Katherine Paterson or even Elizabeth George Speare (who is gone now) had picked it up to read. I think what I’d like more than anything is to know that it touched a child’s life enough for her to go on “living” Annie’s life in her mind the way I lived my favorite characters’ lives when I was 10, 11, or 12. I’ve had lots of feedback from adult readers, but not yet from child readers, so that’s what has me most nervous as Road to Tater Hill goes out into the world.


Tess said...

What a wonderful interview! I am a huge fan of MG historical fiction so this is right up my alley :)


Sarah said...

Great interview! Thanks, Edie and Steph.

I really liked reading about how Edie had to write in 3rd person to establish Annie's character, but then move the story back to 1st person to help readers connect emotionally with Annie.

Edie said...

Steph and all the slushbusters,

Thanks so much for taking time to focus on the different authors and books of the Class of 2k9. I really enjoyed this interview and the different sorts of questions asked. They forced me to think a little differently about my writing process.

Michelle said...

Tess, we've got more MG authors coming soon!

Edie, we've been happy to have you all share your journeys with us! Thanks again.

Jennifer Major said...

Great interview. I really look forward to reading the book!

Amy Tate said...

Oh, what a wonderful interview! Thank you so much for sharing this with us!

Lisa said...

Great interview! Steph, thanks for asking questions a little different from the normal author interview questions. And Edie, thanks for delving into your personal life with us.