As you can see I am posting on Monday rather than on my regular day, Tuesday. That is because I want to present you with…Ta da!
A Marvelous Middle Grade author today on Monday! Shannon Whitney Messenger decided it was time to give middle grade stories the attention they deserve, and as you guessed “Marvelous Middle Grade Mondays” was born. Or the abbreviation MMGM.
One of the members in my SCBWI Critique Group, Stuart, writes picture books as well as Middle Grade fantasy. I value him as a critique partner and after reading his middle grade novel, I value him as an author. I hope you’ve come prepared with your mocha or chocolate cream pie! Stuart has given us an interview that takes place as part one today and part two next Monday.
!—CBJ: You have published a middle grade novel called “Henry on Fire”, could you tell us a little about it? What would your elevator speech look like?
Stuart: Henry on Fire is about a boy trying to take charge of his life and figure out who he is and who he wants to be. Half the story is about his life suffocating in middle school and the suburbs. The other half takes place in the alternate reality of a land called Altara. In one world people are out to kill him and in the other he is just struggling to survive emotionally.
Your main character is 13-year-old Henry. Is Henry 13-year-old you?
There is a lot of me in Henry but Henry is already far more successful in middle school than I ever was. So really Henry is living the life I wish I had lived. My plan is to see Henry into High School and then start a new character. So right now I have two more stories in mind.
In the alternate world Henry meets Anree. Why does Henry get mad when Anree suggests going back to our world with Henry?
That actually comes from visiting in schools and talking about some of my story ideas. I found that a lot of kids were very reluctant to share their lives. When I suggested to one young man who someone was going to move in and share his life his response was, “I would just tell him we are going to step outside and settle this like men.” So I got the idea that there would be tension here I also got the Henry’s Dads message, “Boys fight, men talk.”
Will Anree ever get to go to Henry’s world?
Like Henry I don’t see that happening. If it does happen it will be at the very end of the series.
So is this a dream journey?
Henry believes the alternate world of Altara is as real as his life in middle school. At one point he says he is not sure whether he lives in Altara and dreams of the life with his brother and parents or he lives with them and dreams of his life in Altara.
Is this your first foray into middle school writing?
Yes, middle school seemed to be a very natural voice for me. The story is told as a first person journal and I was able to return to that place in my life and really live into the story. I spent some time with middle schoolers noting how they talked to each other and to adults and also paying attention to what they talked about.
Did you consider taking it to traditional publishers or through an agent?
I spent two and a half years sending my manuscript to over seventy-five agents and publishers. Most responses were much like my dating life. “It’s not you it’s me.” I only got a few helpful lines of feedback but I appreciated what I got. Those rejections and some other critique and workshop experiences kept me writing and improving my work. I almost feel like sending an apology to those people who I sent Henry off to in the first year. The manuscript was definitely not ready.
Why was it important for you to self-publish?
I would have appreciated the full attention of an editor and what that might have brought to the work but self-publishing allowed me to stay in control of the project. There are a few elements that I think an editor would have talked me out of but in the end I decided they were part of the work. One element that always got mixed reviews when I shared the manuscript with critique groups was Henry every so often turns and talks directly to the reader. In plays this is called breaking the fourth wall. These lines are in parenthesis and I mean them to show that Henry desperately wants to believe that someone cares enough about him to read his journal.
CBJ: Are you going to continue to pursue traditional publishers for you novels or picture books?
Stuart: Lately I have used my writing time to write and to go to events where I can sell books. These are the two parts of the writer experience I enjoy the most. I also enjoy the control self publishing gives me. So I am keeping my eyes open for an illustrator to collaborate with to self publish my picture books but I haven’t totally decided that that is the way to go.
Where can readers find your book? Is there an e-reader or tablet you think it looks best on that you’d like to recommend?
My book is on Amazon as a paperback and as an e-book and on Barnes and Noble as an e-book for nook. They can also link to it through www.henryonfire.com.
Stuart grew up in the suburbs of Houston where, like Henry in the story, he felt he was suffocating. As he left those suburbs and his child hood he found his passion and fire in many places. His passion for this story came upon him at the beach while on summer vacation. In the last three days of the vacation he wrote the first three days of this story. When he got home from vacation he did nothing with those pages. As he headed off to the beach the next summer he found the spiral notebook he had been writing in. That second summer he wrote the next nine days of Henry’s life and completed the first draft of the story. Henry led him to a new passion. A lot of hard work has led from that first draft to the final story.
Thanks so much, Stuart, for appearing here on my blog. It has been both an honor to feature you and to read your book. I have thoroughly enjoyed both.
Thanks also for talking to us about your great middle grade novel, Henry on Fire. We loved hearing about the book and look forward to next week when we find out your difficulties in self publishing and what you are working on now. I think your critiques are extremely valuable on my picture book drafts during our crit group meetings. I know that your expertise on my manuscript drafts was used on your own book as well as a professional editor. It shows. I found your book a fast extraordinary read. In short, I highly recommend it to anyone. Not just the middle graders. And fantasy isn’t usually my cup of tea. But I found myself enjoying it and wanting to go back to it after each stop. It passed the “I don’t want to stop and go to the bathroom” test.
If any of you readers have questions for Stuart, please don’t hesitate to ask them in the comments section.