Before we get started with the interview, here’s a bit about Wildfire Run: The president's retreat, Camp David, is one of the safest places in the United States. So why can't the President's son, Luke, and his friends Theo and Callie stay there without Secret Service agents constantly hovering over them, watching their every move? And yet, when an earthquake sets off a raging wildfire, causing a chain reaction that wreaks havoc at Camp David, they are suddenly on their own.
Now Luke needs a plan:
• To override the security systems
• To save those who were supposed to save him
• To get through an impassable gate
• To escape Camp David
Hi Dee! Thanks so much for talking with me today. First, I’d like to talk a bit about your debut novel, Wildfire Run. What was your inspiration for this novel?
Way back when Jimmie Carter was president, I remember hearing all the criticism of his daughter, Amy, for reading a book during a state dinner. All I could think of at the time was that would have been me. It made me aware of the strange lives presidential children lead. I didn’t think much about it again until the presidential primary races in 2008. There were several candidates with younger children or grandchildren, and it led me to again wonder what life would be like for children in that situation.
Luke and his friends are pretty cool characters. Authors often pull character traits from themselves or someone they know. How many of Luke, Theo or Callie’s attributes were inspired by your own family?
Luke’s inventiveness is pulled directly from my father. I had a fascinating but odd childhood, because my father was an inventor with his own small company. It was his hobby as well, so we were always using things he made. We used to canoe down rivers for fun, and he didn’t like the fact that once we were done canoeing, going back to get our car was a real problem. His solution was to cut a canoe in half, weld a panel on the cut part of the half to make it waterproof, then tow it behind us with a very small motorcycle in it, so he could ride the motorcycle back to the car. The motorcycle was very tiny. It looked like it belonged in a circus and my father wasn’t a small man. You can get the picture. Anyway, it was easy to write Luke’s quirkiness using my father as inspiration.
Other than that, all the characters are melded from non-family people I’ve observed over time. As one of the moms who are always chauffeuring kids and friends, I’ve listened in on many conversations and that’s been a great help.
I know Wildfire Run is the first of a series. Can you give us at least a little hint about the sequel? What can we expect more of? Less?
Wildfire Run is part of a non-traditional series. The second book, Wolf Storm, is an outdoor adventure as well, but it has different characters in it. It’s about kid actors on location filming a blockbuster sci fi movie. They get trapped in a blizzard and have to figure out how to survive all the things I throw at them. It was great fun to write. I’m a big movie fan, so I watched quite a few behind-the-scenes DVDs about popular movies, to get an accurate feel for the setting and the characters. That book will be released 09/01/2011.
Camp David is such a fun setting for a middle grade book. I’m sure most Americans have at one time or another wondered about the Presidential Retreat. Your setting felt very real to me. How much of it was learned through research versus how much is purely fictional?
Researching Camp David and the Secret Service was extremely difficult because I wanted an accurate feel to the book, yet for security reasons there is not much factual information available, particularly since 9/11. I read every nonfiction book I could find that had mentions of the place and of the Secret Service. I purposely stayed away from any fiction, because I didn’t want to be influenced by other writers’ imaginations. The rest of it just came from me thinking about what would make sense in a place like that, and then I let my imagination really go on the defense weapons. Interestingly, the part about the pool being built over the old bomb shelter is true, according to one of the nonfiction books I read. Richard Nixon really wanted the pool in a particular site, and it cost quite a bit of money to reinforce the roof of the old bomb shelter so the weight of the water wouldn’t collapse it.
Are there any particular themes you write to/readers you want to reach?
Basically, I wanted this to be a very fun book for readers. I did use aspects of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to map out how the plot would progress, because I knew that would strengthen Luke’s character arc. All of that is cleverly hidden, I hope, within the story, so that when kids are actually reading the book, the themes are there without kids feeling like they are being taught a lesson.
What was your favorite part of writing Wildfire Run?
The best part of writing it was the research, and you can probably see why from my answer above. I also liked figuring out how the kids would interact with each other, and trying to get the dialogue to sound like kidspeak.
The most challenging was trying to find the right balance between action and character development. Writing this type of middle grade book was an exercise in seeing just how lean I could go in my writing. It’s supposed to be a real page turner, so I couldn’t let the action slow down much.
Luke and Theo love to get techy with their robotics. What are some of your favorite hobbies?
My hobbies right now mostly involve things I can do with my family. I’m very conscious of time passing, and of my children growing up, so I want to take advantage of spending as much time with them as possible. We like to see movies, work on art and craft projects, cook together, things like that. We also love to travel. For myself, I love to read, of course, and so that’s what I do when I need some escape time.
Wildfire Run is a great adventure story for middle grade readers. It’s so much fun to read and figure out! What type of young reader were you? What were your favorite books/authors?
I read anything adventure, history or mystery-oriented. I loved books like Little House on the Prairie, Nancy Drew, and A Wrinkle in Time. I also loved animal stories, but only if no animals died. I didn’t like sad books, and I still don’t. I don’t want to cry when I read something. When I got older, I was very into science fiction and fantasy. I loved the Lord of the Rings, and Dune, particularly.
Since there are probably some aspiring authors that will read this, can you tell us a bit about your road to publication? When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
I wrote as a child and as a teenager, but then I made the mistake of giving it up after I got discouraged by the criticism from a college English teacher. Now looking back on it, I understand he was just doing his job, but I was ridiculously oversensitive. I started writing again when my now fifteen year old son was a baby. Since then, I wrote sporadically over the years, even stopped for a couple of years when we adopted our daughter from China, and then really started again when she started kindergarten. I’m always amazed at writers who manage to get anything written with toddlers. My brain is too fried by the end of a day of keeping up with a toddler, that it turns to mush.
Tell us about your journey to getting an agent.
I tried for several years to get an agent for a historical mystery I had written and rewritten. I had a great query, but I couldn’t get much interest at all, and I think it was because at the time, the cozy mystery market had really dropped off. It’s coming back now, but I heard an agent speak at a conference then who said even her current clients were struggling to find new types of books to write, because she couldn’t sell their mysteries.
I almost gave up, and then my son starting begging me to read some of his middle grade books. He loved books by Anthony Horowitz and Eoin Colfer. I read several, and thought, why not? There was no harm in trying. I also went to an extensive writer’s workshop that really stressed picking a concept to make an agent take notice. The overriding message was ‘Don’t be too quiet.’ I wrote the book, then called Escape from Camp David, and sent out two trial queries. I had one request for a full, but that agent rejected the book because he said it was too improbable. I tweaked the manuscript a bit, sent out four more queries and got two more requests for fulls. After all the years I struggled, that was an amazing feeling. One of those led to me signing with an agent.
And how about finding your publisher?
My agent has a strategy of only submitting to only a few publishers at a time, so if there is something in the manuscript that needs to be fixed, you don’t burn through all your possibilities without the opportunity for revising. We were lucky enough to get a revise and resubmit offer from one of the first three she submitted to. One other turned us down, and the remaining one offered a revise and resubmit after we already had a firm offer from the original R&R. There’s no way I was going to turn down a sure thing, so that’s how the book ended up with HarperCollins.
What is the best part of the publishing process?
Finally seeing the book on the shelf in a bookstore. I know that’s kind of a lame, boring thing to say, but it’s true.
The worst part is the lack of control writers have over most elements in the process, from the title to the cover to the marketing. Suddenly, your work is in the hands of other people, who may have a completely different vision for it than you do.
Thanks Dee! Looking forward to reading more exciting middle grade adventures from you in the future!
Make sure to check out the trailer for Wildfire Run!