Since I mainly write picture books, that’s what I spend the bulk of my time reading. For me to pick up (and finish) a middle grade novel, it has to really pull me in and keep me wanting to turn the page. That is exactly what happened when I picked up Cathy Carr’s debut, 365 Days to Alaska. Releasing on January 19, Carr’s MG features Rigel, an eleven-year-old girl living off-the-grid in the Alaskan Bush. When her parents divorce, she, her sisters, and her mother move to Connecticut to live with their grandmother. But she makes a secret pact with her father: stick it out in Connecticut for one year and he’ll bring her back home to Alaska. I was so excited to interview Cathy to learn a little more about her creative process for this fantastic book.
KC: Cathy, this story touches upon so many preteen truths. It takes a familiar theme of a moving/adjusting to being the new kid in school and makes it fresh. What was your inspiration for this book?
CC: There were so many different sources of inspiration for the book, from my dad’s stories about Alaska to my own experiences with moving, but one major inspiration came from a magazine article I read decades ago. It was about an off-the-grid family in northern Canada. The parents had just split up, and the mom took her three daughters and moved south to a large city in western Canada, Winnipeg or Calgary I think. She found a job and an apartment and enrolled the girls in public school, a totally new environment for them. Two of the daughters had made a quick adjustment and were doing great, but the third girl was having a rougher time. She missed the wilderness and her dad, but there was no going back. That third girl lingered in my mind for years. I knew I wanted to write about her.
KC: I love how you’ve taken inspiration from so many different places. Have you ever lived in Alaska? If not, how were you able to capture it so authentically?
CC: I’ve never lived in Alaska. Not yet anyway. My father lived in Alaska. He was stationed on Kodiak Island when he was in the Navy and got to travel around quite a bit in the rest of the state. He loved to talk about it and describe it, and he had taken tons of photos he liked to show us, and that spurred my interest in the state from a young age.
So, even before I had the specific idea that led to 365 Days, I would click on any Alaska news I came across and I would borrow books on Alaska from my local libraries. Not a few books, a lot of books. And not just fiction, but non-fiction, academic dissertations, cookbooks. . . Basically, if it had to do with Alaska, I would take a look through it. So even before I started the specific research for 365 Days, I already had a lot of non-specific familiarity with the state.
I also had a good bit of familiarity with the off-the-grid movement. There was a time in my 20s when I knew lots of people who had serious interest in the possibilities of that lifestyle. Let’s just say I slept in quite a few geodesic domes and thumbed through a lot of copies of Mother Earth News. Some of my friends from those days actually did make the jump to off-the-grid life, although I don’t know if any of them are still doing it. I had a good idea of what the challenges might be, from home-schooling your kids to struggling with the financials.
Lastly, I found some authenticity readers to advise me on the manuscript. They were both long-term Alaskan residents and writers. One of them had grown up in the bush and the other one had traveled extensively throughout the state. So they were really helpful and, as hard as I tried to get everything just right, both of them caught some things that I’m really glad didn’t end up in the final manuscript.
KC: Can you share a little bit about your writing process for this book?
CC: There’s this great saying I heard somewhere: “Once is never. Twice is always.” It applies so well to the creative process. I spent many years working as a technical writer, a documentation specialist. That was great training for writing stories and novels. When you write documentation for a living, you do it every day, whether or not you feel like it. Your butt hits the chair, it’s time to write, and you get going. It doesn’t matter whether you have a headache or if you’re not in the mood. Some days I sit down thinking something like “I’m not feeling it today” and realize half an hour later that I’m writing busily away—why? Because I’m used to getting down to work when I sit at my desk.
Another thing that has helped my process is the fact that I have a child. Being a mom and dealing with child-generated chaos makes me more efficient about using whatever time I can grab. I like to write in the morning after I’ve gotten my son on the bus, but if that doesn’t work out, I’ll write in the afternoon. Or whenever my babysitter might be able to come for a few hours. If my son is home sick, I write at night after he’s in bed.
I’m not a fast writer. I tend to be meticulous. That being said, my idea of an outline is six or seven lines scribbled on a page of scrap paper and stuck into one of the piles on my desk. So, I’m a pantser and I will definitely wander off the trail to chase something shiny. Starting a new big project is almost always a difficult process with many failed attempts. There’s a lot of staring out the window. It usually takes me a long time to find the premise that will keep me going.
KC: I love how you get the work done–no excuses! What was the process like for fleshing out/discovering/creating Rigel as your main character?
CC: Rigel basically jumped into my mind fully formed. I was lucky, because for sure it doesn’t always happen that way. I knew what she looked like, what she thought about, and what she worried about. I knew what kind of food she would like, and that she would hate smiling for pictures.
After I had finished my first draft, one of my trusted readers suggested changing her name. He wasn’t wild about the name “Rigel.” He suggested I pick another celestial-inspired name, maybe Lyra or Aurora, maybe Cassiopeia. I always try to be open-minded about feedback, so I changed Rigel’s name. I typed in “Aurora,” hit “Replace” and read the first few paragraphs, and it was almost like my character sat up and said, “What are you doing? My name is Rigel. Do I seem like an ‘Aurora’ to you?” I remember laughing, before I hit “Undo.” I knew right then I had created a character, someone who had substance on the page.
KC: Haha! It’s good to be open-minded to suggestions but in the end, the character knows who they are. What are you working on now/next?
CC: I’m working on my next MG novel, which is about a 12-year-old girl, Franny, who lives in a small town in New Jersey—really, the New York City suburbs. Franny lives with her grandmother. Her mom abandoned her when she was little, and even though she tries to act as if this doesn’t bother her, it does. Franny’s grandmother is kind of old-school and strict, and altogether Franny often feels like all the good times are happening elsewhere to other people. That’s the book’s premise, and I’m still working out where it goes from there.
KC: Sounds like another amazing book! What is your advice for aspiring kidlit authors?
CC: Some people have a fast, smooth track to publication. I just heard recently about a woman whose book got accepted within a week or so of submission, and actually received multiple bids. Wow. I have no idea what that must feel like. For most writers I’ve known the experience of getting published is a lot slower and indirect. There are a lot of rejections and a lot of negative feedback, not to mention the occasional tactless remark that just zaps away any confidence you might have managed to acquire. Even once you have an agent, the critiquing doesn’t stop. My sweet, supportive agent told me how much she loved my manuscript and then made me rewrite it three times before submission. My lovely editor also told me how much she loved my manuscript and made me rewrite it three times. And don’t get me started on my fabulous copyeditor.
So aspiring writers need to prepare for a marathon, not a sprint. They will need really good running shoes, lots of water, and friends in the same boat so everyone can do a whole lot of whining to each other about how tough the submission process is. Figure out how to deal with those rejections and the negative feedback. If you want your work out there, you have to find some toughness in yourself. I wish I could tell people where and how to find it, but I can’t. It does help to know other people who are doing the same thing. Which is why writing communities can be such wonderful things.
*GIVEAWAY!* Cathy is giving away a copy of 365 Days to Alaska! Comment on this post by January 19th (which is also the release date for the book!) to be entered in the giveaway.