Thursday, May 21, 2015
YA HISTORICAL FICTION: COURTNEY MCKINNEY-WHITAKER'S THE LAST SISTER
I absolutely adored Courtney McKinney-Whitaker's THE LAST SISTER. So much so, I asked her to stop by to discuss historical fiction and working with a university press--two rarities in YA fiction:
Are you an avid reader of historical fiction? What were you reading as a teenager?
Of course! I'm an avid reader of most genres, but historical fiction has always been among my favorites.
I was a teenager in the late '90s, shortly before the YA boom, so I read mostly adult books, including A LOT of classics. I would say I was in a real AP English phase: Dickens, Hardy, Austen, Alcott, Eliot. At one point, Tess of the D'Urbervilles was my favorite book. Today's YA has nothing on Hardy for melodrama. That was my era of "If it's old, I'll read it." It gave me excellent background knowledge on the development of the novel.
I love that this book is your answer to a “challenge,” as you say in the Author’s Note. This story DOES have so many elements of popular YA fiction—love, violence; you make it clear in the first chapter you’ve also got a strong female protagonist. Why do you think young readers are drawn to futuristic (in recent years, dystopic) literature, rather than historical fiction? Why is past reality less interesting than purely imaginative works set in the future?
I think a few factors play into this. First, historical fiction is immediately suspect because adults (teachers and parents) often want it to be "educational" (Whatever that means. I've learned something from every book I've ever read), so historical fiction ends up with a reputation as the vegetables of literature, and most people prefer dessert. There's that immediate resistance to whatever's being (even slightly) forced upon you. Second, our pop culture view of history is wrong. There's this idea that history is very straight-laced, that nobody cursed or had premarital sex or stepped out of line ever before 1960. The idea of squeaky clean history is laughable, but it has a very strong hold on the popular imagination. Finally, young readers are interested in the future—their own, in particular, and the past doesn't seem like the place to find it. For me, though, history is very much about people reaching for the future, and those are the stories I want to tell.
Oh, absolutely! I grew up in Catie's world, and I was outside almost every day of my childhood. The scene where Catie encounters the cougar is based on a creek bed where I used to play with my brother and our neighborhood friends.
I’m also a bit of a genealogy nut. (I was shocked to find I do have some Native American ancestry.) Did genealogical research factor into your drafting process?
Not at all. My family has lived in upstate South Carolina since before the American Revolution, so I do have some ancestors who would definitely recognize the setting, but aside from the general fact of the Scots-Irish migrations into the Carolina backcountry in the mid-eighteenth century, none of the characters or other elements are based on my own genealogy.
Your descriptions are so vivid. I can imagine that your research set your imagination spinning…For some, research is merely a bunch of dry dates; for others, historical texts play out in their minds like a movie. I imagine you’re the latter. Do you hit a point, though, where research can become a hindrance? How do you blend fact with imagination?
Yes, research always does get my imagination going, but to tell you the truth, some research texts do that more than others. Nonfiction is an art as much as fiction is. Research can become an excuse for not writing, which is one reason I tend to do the two simultaneously. I research to get a good feel for the setting, and then I write a first draft. I always let the story take the lead and figure out what kind of specific research I need to do to create the details that make the world feel like a real place. Sometime around the fourth or fifth draft, I do a "research draft" where my only goal is to go through and answer specific research questions. For example, with THE LAST SISTER, my initial research consisted of a lot of general reading about the Anglo-Cherokee War and backcountry communities, and then after several drafts, I was looking at the contents of highland soldiers' haversacks and the quartermaster's logs from Fort Loudoun.
How long did it take to write THE LAST SISTER? What was your drafting process like? How is drafting historical fiction different than drafting contemporary work? What are the pitfalls drafting historical fiction? What’s your best piece of writing advice for anyone about to write the opening lines of their historical novel?
Wow, that's a lot of questions! I'll try to answer them one at a time.
THE LAST SISTER has a funny textual history. It was originally a dystopian novel that I converted into historical fiction after learning that the market was flooded with dystopian novels, which in retrospect, maybe I should have known in 2010-2011, but I was a beginner in the industry and just trying to find my voice. However, that practice novel was my route to THE LAST SISTER, which I never would have written without knowing that basic story, so I'd say it was worth it. Writing the first novel took me about a year, and writing THE LAST SISTER took another year beyond that.
I learned my drafting process over the course of working on those two novels. I started writing seriously in November 2010, for NaNoWriMo. I still start with a quick first draft, which at 2000 words a day, usually takes about a month. Then I start over with a clean document and draft it again. After that, I work with what I have, drafting many more times until I can't do anything else. I think I ended up with about 10-12 drafts of THE LAST SISTER. All this time, I'm outlining and re-outlining, and researching and reresearching.
I've never written contemporary fiction, so I don't really know how it's different from writing historical fiction. I can say that historical fiction has that world-building element in common with fantasy and science fiction, but I think that every good novel is a world unto itself. I admire writers of contemporary fiction. Given the amount of time it takes to write and publish a novel, I would be so afraid my work would be out of date. I feel like historical fiction gives me a little more freedom in terms of the publication timeline, though of course it needs to remain relevant to the time in which it's published.
One of the pitfalls of writing historical fiction may be that the research can last as long as you want, so it's always a good excuse not to write. I think you really have to be careful to let the story itself take the lead and not bog your reader down in historical detail that's irrelevant to the story and the characters. It's hard, because you uncover cool stuff and you want to tell everyone about it. I mean, the number of times I have LOL'ed at diary entries...because people are just funny, at any time.
To go along with that, my best advice is to focus on your story, not the HISTORY with a capital "H." Your story comes first, before the details, and definitely before any lessons readers are supposed to learn from it. I think some writers see historical fiction as a good way to get a message across, another potential pitfall. Don't try to teach, and definitely don't preach. If you have a message, write a billboard, not a novel. Story first, always.
I’m intrigued by the fact that this book was published by a university press. What was the process of working with a university press like?
It's been great! The University of South Carolina Press is one of the first university presses to publish children's and young adult books. I ended up publishing THE LAST SISTER with the USC Press after receiving feedback that the book was too "regional" to sell to a national market. (Pet Peeve: Why are books so often tagged "regional" if they have strong settings outside major metropolitan areas? Two separate groups of students have asked me why books set in rural SC are "regional" but books set in New York City aren't. Good question. Young readers do notice these things.) I had published an academic work with the USC Press in 2006, and I contacted my former editor to ask if he could recommend any regional publishers. He told me about the Young Palmetto imprint, which I don't think was even publicly accepting submissions at the time.
First, the book was reviewed and recommended for publication by the Young Palmetto Books series editorial board. This was an awesome experience because the members of that board were mostly people I knew by reputation in the field of children's and young adult literary scholarship and earning their approval meant a lot to me. Next, the book went through the process (typical to scholarly publication) of being reviewed by two anonymous peer reviewers who provided feedback and recommended for publication. After that, it went to the USC Press Committee for final approval. This whole process, from initial contact to book contract, took from February to July of 2013, and then the book was given an October 2014 release date. It was a MUCH faster process than most commercial publishing.
I've had such a great experience, so I always recommend authors seeking publication think beyond the commercial giants.
I can see this book having a long life in a high school history class; have you heard of any classrooms using your book? If so, what was that experience like?
In January, I received a Facebook message from a history professor at Converse College in Spartanburg, SC who was teaching the book in her class on the American Revolution in the Southern Backcountry. We emailed back and forth, and I ended up speaking to two groups of students at Converse in April. They were interested in writing, history, and books for young readers, so we had wonderful conversations.
What can we expect next? Another historical read? A new genre? Any sneak peeks you can share?
After I completed THE LAST SISTER, I wanted to try something different, so I wrote a sort-of fantasy, fairy tale-ish book (still rather deeply steeped in history). It's finished, but I haven't found a publisher or representation for it yet.
Meanwhile, I've recovered from writing THE LAST SISTER and am working on a companion. It's set in South Carolina at the tail end of the American Revolution (1780-81) and features Catie's daughter, Bess, as the main character. While it will feature some of the same characters, it's intended to work as a standalone read, as well.
Catie’s such a compelling heroine. Who, for you, are the Caties of today?
It is so important to me that Catie doesn't save the whole world, that she doesn't entirely understand the geopolitical situation she's caught up in. I think that's the case for most people, in any time. I would be lying if I told you I had a complete understanding of the crises we're facing today, and really lying if I said I had the answers. So many things are comprehended only in retrospect. One aspect of popular literature I wanted to avoid was the "chosen one" character: that's not an attainable, or I would argue, a desirable goal for most young people. I think we're too quick to divide history into heroes, victims, and villains. Most people have a little of all three in them. Catie voices my own philosophy, developed over years of working with history: most people in any time are doing the best they can with the cards they've been dealt. Catie wrests good things from terrible situations. She decides what she wants and how high a price she's willing to pay for it. She doesn't save the world, but she builds a life she can live with. She saves a precious few people who are dear to her. She does the best she can. And if lots of people do the best they can, then we end up with a better world. That's how we reach for the future.
Get your own: THE LAST SISTER.