Monday, December 14, 2009

Interview with author Suzanne Morgan Williams

Today the Slushbusters
welcome Suzanne Morgan Williams, author of the YA novel Bull Rider. Suzanne is a member of the class of 2k9.

Bull Rider is the story of Cam O'Mara, a fourteen year old Nevada boy whose family has long been involved in the rodeo. Cam wants something different for himself, and spends his time practicing skateboarding tricks. When Cam's brother Ben, a Marine, returns injured from the war in Iraq, Cam begins to change his mind about bull riding, knowing it is up to him to continue the family tradition.

Bull Rider is your first novel for young readers, but you have written several nonfiction books. How did you come to make the transition from nonfiction to fiction? I’ve always wanted to write both fiction and nonfiction. My nonfiction books happened to take off before the fiction did, but while I was writing nonfiction I usually was writing fiction too. The skills I learned about listening, observing, and research for nonfiction were extremely valuable with writing Bull Rider.

How did your nonfiction background help you in researching Bull Rider? As I tell kids at school visits, I’m not a bull rider, a skate boarder, or a fourteen year old boy. Neither have I been injured in Iraq. In order to stay honest in writing Bull Rider, I needed to research rodeo, bucking bulls, skateboard tricks, ranch life, traumatic brain injury and recovery. Although some parts of this were personally more difficult than other parts, none of it seemed overwhelming. I already knew how to find experts, interview, what sections needed to be vetted, and when to stop researching. All good to know. Last, I spent several years working with native people on nonfiction books. From them I learned patience and the ability to listen well. I also learned to take in and adjust to difficult information. I couldn’t have researched and written about the war injuries in Bull Rider without those experiences with my tribal experts.

What gave you the idea for Bull Rider? Did you start with a plot, a situation or a character? I actually started with the title! I usually start a book with a setting and a character and ask myself, what about this place makes people grow up different from other places. But with Bull Rider that came second. I was talking with an editor who was visiting and Reno and she suggested I write a book and title it Bull Rider and set it in Nevada. Then I sat down to think about what that book might be.

How different is the final product from your first conception of the book?
Wow, they are really different. That first book was for a series aimed at seven and eight year olds. It was a 75 page manuscript, number one in a series of three. Because it was for younger children, the book didn’t have any of the war stuff in it and it had a much simpler plot. Cam wanted to ride a bull and his mom didn’t want him to do it. When that series didn’t work out, I knew I needed to make the book bigger and I wanted to write it for older kids. The setting and the family remained the same, and Cam’s friends and skateboarding stayed. That first manuscript was kind of like a prequel – Cam O’Mara at age 11. Bull Rider, as it is now, is a 256 page novel for ages ten and up. It’s been embraced by middle school and high school aged kids and Cam, aged fourteen, and Ben, aged nineteen share center stage. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to turn Bull Rider into the novel that was eventually published.

What is one of your favorite parts of Bull Rider? Why do you like it so much and how did it come to be? Oh, that’s not fair. How can I pick? You’ll just have to read the book. I did love writing the ranching scenes, though.

At what point do you outline? Before you even start writing? After the first few chapters? I do a lot of prewriting about characters, creating voice, and maybe writing up some scenes. I create a cast of characters and think of what they want and need from each other. Then I do a very basic plot outline – it probably fits on a page. From there, I begin to write the book in sections. If I start to get confused, I will outline a section or three or four chapters. After my first draft is done I may outline the book again, this time chapter by chapter, and then trim and add scenes as needed.

Are you part of a critique group? If so, how does that fit into your process? At what point do you let someone else read your work? Good question. I have been part of critique groups and they’ve been very helpful and supportive. Right now, I’d say I have four or five critique partners who aren’t part of any formal group (they don’t even live in the same states) but who I feel absolutely confident showing my work to and asking specific questions of. We do this as we need input, not on any schedule. I did belong to a critique group when I wrote the first version of Bull Rider and I shared the first draft as I wrote it. I remember one evening one of the women said, “That’s just great, it sounds like a real book.” That was pretty much the idea. . . At this point, I try to get my work to a polished point before showing it to anyone unless I need specific direction. I can see the promise in my early drafts but others may not. I’d rather get the draft where I’m feeling either confident or stuck and then share.

The Slushbusters as a critique group help each other improve our writing. Beyond that, we’ve grown into good friends who support each other through successes and failures. How have other writers in your community done the same for you?Oh my gosh, I think most of my dearest friends now are writers who I’ve been in groups with or who I met through SCBWI. The fact that I don’t have a critique group right now doesn’t change these friendships. And they keep coming. This year as a member of the Class of 2k9, I added so many more friends to my circle. Not only do other writers support me personally and inspire me creatively, they are often extraordinarily important in my professional life.

What is one question you've not been asked but are always dying to answer? Would you do this again? Yes!!!

Thank you, Suzanne for stopping by! We look forward to reading your next book, China's Daughters, when it comes out in 2010.


Tess said...

How fun to learn a bit more about Suzanne and her writing process. Thanks for putting this together .. always interested in novels that might appeal to my boy.

Sarah said...

Thanks Suzanne and Michelle. Great interview.

I liked reading about the work that Suzanne did before she started writing the book.

Amy Tate said...

Great interview! I got to sit with her at the SCBWI luncheon in NYC last January. Her book sounds amazing.