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Sunday, July 20, 2008

YA Interview ~ Nancy Hull

Nancy L. Hull extensively researched the history and visited many of the places described in her novel, On Rough Seas. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she teaches in the English Department at Calvin College.

Tell us about your current project:

My first novel was just released. It’s a historical fiction book set in Dover, England, a town that rests right below the famous White Cliffs of Dover. The story follows Alec Curtis as he tries to get beyond a tragedy that nearly destroys him and his relationships. Alec is stubborn and impulsive. He’s also driven to do the right thing. Sometimes those characteristics clash and bring him trouble—and sometimes he finds adventure with the trouble. He’s also surrounded by war talk, as England declares war on Germany and becomes a major player in WWII. In his adventures, Alec finds work as a galley boy on a ship, and he meets Eva, a character he’s not quite sure about. It’s a story that blends contemporary issues with historical facts. The war that surrounds the novel provides a mysterious backdrop to the war that is brewing inside Alec.

What are the highlights of your journey to publication?

When I was in England doing research with our son, an older man approached us and asked what had brought us to Dover. When I told him about the book, he said, “That’s interesting. I was a lad of 14 and lived in Dover during WWII.” I looked at my son, smiled, and took out my notepad and pencil. Then, we stood together on the shores of the English Channel, and I took notes as he described the town and told me about the British troops that had been billeted there. It was a moment where I felt affirmation about this project. What are the odds of being in England for the first time, visiting Dover for a few hours, and having someone introduce himself and share the information he did? It was a blessed moment.

Like many writers, I sent the novel out to a number of publishers and received letters that commented on “strong writing” or “engaging details” but then said it “wasn’t what we’re looking for right now.” So when the phone call came on a hot August day in 2006 (five years after I had begun), I could not believe it was true. In fact, I said to Virginia, “This is Nancy Hull. You’re sure you’ve got the right person?” She laughed and said, “Yes,” and we talked a few more minutes about revision and deadlines, and then hung up. And I put my head in my hands and I wept—grateful for all the nights I had stayed up to work, for all the people who had believed in me, for the moment when I heard “We want to buy this book.”

Why do you write for young people?

I’ve been a teacher for several years and worked with my husband for 15 years as youth directors in our church, and I’ve always loved kids. Also, growing up with four siblings—all of us teenagers at one time—I enjoyed the banter that we could have over any number of topics. I still remember those youthful, impulsive conversations we would have. Young people are sometimes brutally honest and yet lively. I like those traits. Some of my best memories are from teaching middle school where I never knew what someone was going to say or do. I want to write to that audience of readers.

What fiction most influenced your childhood, and what effect did those stories have on your writing?

My parents grew up in the Ozark Mountains in Missouri, and every year we would pack our station wagon and head south for two weeks of vacation with extended family. One summer, before we left on our trip, I read a novel titled The Shepherd of the Hills, and then that summer we visited the area where the novel was set in southern Missouri. I can still picture “Sammy’s Rock,” a place where the young female protagonist would sit to gaze into the valley (or holler, as it was called in the book). And we toured the land around Old Matt’s Cabin where Sammy’s father (a rough, shady character) lived. As a teenager, reading that novel and then visiting its setting combined to have a profound effect on me. I was amazed that a writer could put all the pieces together and create a story that gripped its readers. I’ll never forget it. Of course, I also read the popular Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden mysteries where smart young women were ALWAYS in the middle of solving the crime. Those books were like candy; they were a quick bite but very sweet.

What prepared you to write for children?

I’m not sure I would ever say that I am fully prepared to write for children. However, growing up in a big family with two older brothers and two younger sisters gave me many memories and topics. Also, teaching middle school and high school early in my career put me in classrooms every day, surrounded by kids who were always willing to talk about their families, their fears, their joys, their sorrows. I just try to listen well and read a lot—particularly other books written for young people.

What are a few of your all-time favorite books?

Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River is a forever favorite. I love his characters and their distinctive voices, and I love the way the story seems to roll along, like a river, over rocky times and through quiet valleys. I’ve also been a long-time fan of John LeCarre (The Spy Who Came In From the Cold; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). I like plots that surprise me, and his stories frequently catch me unprepared. In young adult literature, Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie grabbed my attention with one of the best opening lines ever. Edward Bloor’s London Calling expertly brings WWII and contemporary times together in a novel about a kid who loved his grandmother, wants to love his father, and can’t seem to get himself out of his basement. But Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird was my first introduction to spunky characters, and she has held first place ever since.

What’s the best or worst advice (or both) you’ve heard on writing for young adults?

Best advice: Young adults are discerning readers. Don’t talk down to them, but give them a slice of life that they can recognize in the pages on your novel.

What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?

First, I read other works to be sure there’s an audience for the book. If others have written on a similar topic with a similar story, then I’ll go to another idea or tweak the setting. Initially, I’m thinking about who would read this book and why. Those are my first steps. Then, particularly with historical fiction, I start the research to see if what I want to do can be done and enjoyed by young people.

You spoke at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith & Writing this past April. When leading workshops, what is the primary idea you want writers to walk away with?

Whenever I speak about writing, whether it is in a workshop or a first-year composition course, I try to convey to listeners that writing is the hardest work I do—and the most gratifying. And I want them to believe that they can learn the craft as well. Like most skills, writing requires diligence and attention to detail, but with focused practice, we can all improve.

What are the special joys and challenges of writing historical fiction for children (young adults)?

A primary challenge is including enough details to be faithful to the history but not so many details that readers get bogged down with numerous characters or events. Readers (children and adults) also need to find something within the story that touches them—something that prompts them to say “Yeah, I know about that. I had almost the same thing happen to me.” Also, if a novel is set in the 1940s, then (as one editor told me) it needs to “shout” 1940s. So being true to the time period is imperative. But the joys outweigh the difficulties. I LOVE the research. Also, when a reader asks, “Are there really tunnels there?” the writer rejoices to know someone has actually read the book.

Do you have a favorite quotation related to writing?

One day a colleague at Calvin taped this statement (by E. L. Doctorow) on my computer screen: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You never see further than your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.” So, so true.

What aspect of a story is most challenging for you: strong setting, vivid characters, engaging voices, delicious prose? How do you develop your weak areas?

Frankly, I struggle with all of these components, perhaps because each depends on the other to enhance the narrative. If I’m writing historical fiction, but the setting is not that far removed from contemporary times, then my characters’ voices will fail as well. But I confess that making characters real and distinct—that problem keeps me awake at night. However, reading strong stories told by other writers—many, many stories—helps me find my own voice and voices for my characters.

Can you give us a view into a typical day of your writing life?

I do most of my writing in an office at home that my husband designed and built for me. With two large windows that face the East, the space is bright and warm in the early morning hours when I prefer to write. I’m surrounded by lots of books and trinkets of travels and family fun. Most days, when I’m not teaching, I can work for three to four hours without stopping unless our youngest son, who is a drummer in a band, is home from touring. Then I have to be prepared for the moment he jumps into my office (this happened just last evening) to plug in a CD for me to hear his double bass drumming. As I say to my friends when they ask about how my writing is going: “Life interrupts sometimes. Thank God, I have a life that provides such interruptions.” When the morning is done, I’ll often lace up my running shoes for a run along a nearby river, and I always mull over one writing problem I’m encountering. Typically, by the time I’m home, the problem is resolved, and I make the changes in the draft the next morning.

If you could choose to have one strength of another writer, what would it be?

Without a doubt, I would want my colleague Gary Schmidt’s work ethic. Honestly, the man is so diligent; he gets more done in a day than anyone I know.

Your current work in progress is. . .

It’s another historical fiction novel set in the South soon after the War between the States, but its characters will have suffered the effects of the war as they piece together their lives and make their own peace in the process.

How much publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?

Well, I’m a rookie in this area. The publicist asked me for a list of local bookstores, and advance copies went to those places. And I did follow up with a call to a couple of stores just to tell them I was a local author. I’ve had one book signing that was well attended (Shout out to family and friends), and I spoke at a couple of schools before the year ended. Beyond that, I am just hopeful that folks will read the reviews and then pick up the book.

Do you have a dream? Something you’d like to achieve with your writing?

Three dreams have already been met: someone liked the book enough to publish it; my sons have both read it; and my 80-year-old father introduced me the other day as a writer. What could be better than a life like that? But like most writers, I am dreaming that the next novel will make a reader smile in approval when the last word is read and the cover is closed.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for this interview with Nancy. I can relate to her experience in the U.K. as I had a similar one while researching my WWII novel. The people there were so eager to tell their stories to me. I agree with the comment that if it's a 40's story it must has the authentic 40's feel to it. I loved the advice on writing, too All the best with On Rough Seas, Nancy.


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