I just finished the ARC of A RAMBLER STEALS HOME by debut author Carter Higgins, and let me tell you, it is entirely charming and heartwarming – it'll make you experience the full spectrum of human emotion on the pages. The main character, Derby, has an authentic voice that jumps right off the page, and the narrative is a sensory explosion of sights, smells, and sounds of summer at the ballpark. You might remember Carter's contributions in my past post on creating a welcoming at-home children's library – and I was lucky enough to meet her in-person at the SCBWI-NY conference a few weeks ago! She is just as warm and friendly as I thought she'd be. Join me today with a fun author Q&A and learn more about Carter, her writing process, and A RAMBLER STEALS HOME... On shelves next Tuesday, 2/28!
In A RAMBLER STEALS HOME, eleven-year-old Derby Christmas Clark is a rambler of the road. She travels year-round in an RV with her father and younger brother, selling Christmas trees during the cold months and burgers and fries during baseball season. Derby always did prefer grease splatters to hauling trees, so she’s excited that summer will take her back to small town Ridge Creek, the Rockskippers, her best friend, and her surrogate mom, June. But this summer, a tragedy has changed Ridge Creek—and as Derby tries to help those she loves, long-held secrets are revealed. This warm-hearted southern debut is perfect for fans of Kate DiCamillo and Sheila Turnage.
Hi there Carter! I'm so happy to have you on the blog today chatting about A RAMBLER STEALS HOME and your life as a debut middle grade author! First things first, when and how did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
Hi back! Thanks so much for having me. I've had my nose in a book for as long as I can remember having either a nose or a book. Even in college, I'd spend more time with picture books than linguistics textbooks. But it wasn't until six or so years ago that I thought I'd like to get serious about writing for kids.
How did you come up with the idea for your middle grade novel? How long did it take you to first-draft your book?
In November of 2011, I drove past one of those pop-up tree lots on the corner, and I wondered about the people who worked there. Did they do other things the rest of the year? What were they? Who were they? Around the same time, I pictured a food truck parked outside of a baseball stadium, but covered in greenery and lights. Derby came next. And then the work is always chasing these questions and images until some kind of story emerges from them. I think it took about a year and a half to finish a first draft of the manuscript.
I'm always interested in hearing about an author's publication journey. What was your experience like, getting an agent and a book deal? Were there any big "a-ha" moments for you?
My agent-getting and book-selling journey was a long series of steps that are fairly standard: write something as great as you can, research agents, and query ones who might be a match. My agent, Rubin Pfeffer, helped me develop a few picture book ideas for a number of months before we officially began working together. He invested in me without any hope of a return. So the “a-ha” moment there was how human and kind the book-making process would be. He wasn't looking for a paycheck or promising gold. He was interested in a small collection of my work and asked me questions that helped me to clarify those slippery notion of voice. Both mine and my characters'. He is savvy and wonderful and I feel so lucky to be working with him.
Baseball plays a big role in your debut novel. Did you play the sport as a kid? Did you do any interesting research on the subject while writing your book?
When I was a second grader, I got two tickets to a minor league baseball game for making the honor roll. My dad took me, and because baseball is a slow-moving thing, he was able to explain the ins and outs of every inning. I loved it. We returned to the stadium the very next night with my mom and sister. And from then on, minor league baseball was just an obvious part of our family's fabric.
I think it's cool that we both have middle grade contemporary novels featuring 11-year old female protagonists as our debuts this year! One thing I hear people talk a lot about in our genre is the authentic "middle grade voice." What was your experience like, tapping into the voice of your MC and her friends?
This is such a great question. We've all heard agents and editors say things like, “we know voice when we read it,” and I feel the exact same: I know voice when I write it. And also, I know voice that's not working when I write it, too. That's not an answer that's helpful, but it's an answer that's truthful. A stumper, right? I don't think there's a mechanic for something that either works or doesn't. Or at the very least, it's hard to measure. I'm a slow writer, so I do a lot of listening and considering and feeling before my pencil even hits the page. There's a heartbeat to capture. I don't want to scare it off.
Tell us a bit about your writing process. Are you a morning writer? Nighttime? Pantser or outliner? Do you have any strange writing quirks?
I am a write-whenever-there's-time writer. Being a school librarian requires a lot of daily creative stamina, so I don't believe that you have to write every day to be a writer. It's like the heartbeat-capture-thing: I think about my stories and characters every day, but I don't always put words on the page. Weekends and summers and long holiday breaks are when I do most of my drafting. I'm a pantser who'd like to be a bit more of a plotter, so I swear by the Nine-Box Method, which allows me to be a pantser with some intention.
What authors and books inspire you? Middle grade novel at the top of your TBR pile?
I loved Karen Romano Young's painfully authentic take on sixth grade in Hundred Percent, and I love what Peter Brown did in The Wild Robot. As a picture book writer, that book reads like a series of picture book texts, and I just adored it. I'm also completely stunned by the writing in Kelly Barnhill's The Girl Who Drank the Moon. Every single sentence is exquisite. Next up for me is When the Sea Turned Silver by Grace Lin, which has taken me longer to get to than I'd like! And I just finished an ARC of Laurel Snyder's May release, Orphan Island. I can't shake the characters and the feeling and the place. It's her very best. All of those are modern books, but I am equally inspired by Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Pippi Longstocking and Tuck Everlasting.
You have not one but two books coming out in 2017! In addition to the middle grade novel A RAMBLER STEALS HOME, your first picture book THIS IS NOT A VALENTINE comes out in the fall. Tell us a bit about this book...
I do! And I can't wait for people to see This is Not a Valentine. It is a complete charmer. It's sort of a tribute to the trials and tribulation of love and crushes in an elementary school classroom. Cooties make an appearance. How could they not? Lucy Ruth Cummins (A Hungry Lion, or a Dwindling Assortment of Animals) made the pictures, and the work she has done is incredible. It's funny and sweet and tender without being too ooey-gooey. It will be published in the fall by Chronicle Books.
How has being a librarian influenced your writing?
I think my work as a librarian has finely tuned an acknowledgement and understanding of what it really means to be a kid. They are unabashed, messy, and have a real sense of justice. And they have no problem feeling things strongly. Or expressing that they do. They have all of the nuance and complexity of grownups, but just haven't been on the planet as long. They deserve great writing and important stories.
Um – I just read online that you won an Emmy. Amazing! Tell me everything!
It's true! When I first moved to Los Angeles, I studied motion graphic design and visual effects. I had taken a break from teaching to try something new, but there's definitely a thread of visual storytelling that connects librarianship and graphic design. Truly! I worked on one last television show before returning to the school library, and our work won an Emmy for Outstanding Graphic Design and Art Direction. It has my name on it and everything!
What writing advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Read. Read so much. Read books in the categories in which you'd like to write. Read modern books and classic tales. Study the giants and the enormous, beautiful history of children's literature, but don't be afraid to share your voice. And know that a series of small things can make up a story. Maybe you'll see a Christmas tree lot and wonder about their summers.
How should teachers contact you if they wish to schedule a Skype Classroom or in-person visit?
You can email me at carterhiggins at gmail dot come. I'd love to hear from teachers and librarians–I am one of you!
What are you working on now?
I jsut finished drafting a new middle grade novel, so it's been shoved into a drawer to marinate for a bit. Right now it's about three kids and a house and a cat named Chicken. I'm not really sure what else yet. That's the fun of revising.
Lighting Round Questions!
Favorite pasttime? Watching The West Wing.
Best place to vacation in the summer? Somewhere with shrimp and sangria.
Christmas trees – artificial or real? I do love a real tree! That smell! But an artificial one stays up all through the year, and maybe I'm a little bit like Garland Clark.
Book you could read over and over again? Because of Winn-Dixie. A Hole is to Dig. Anything by Arnold Lobel.
Three words that describe RAMBLER? Sweet potato fries.
Writing session must-have? Hope.
Thanks for chatting today, Carter! Friends, pre-order your copy of RAMBLER now or buy it on shelves everywhere 2/28!