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An Interview with Children’s Author Kate Messner

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Kate Messner's first book, a historical novel set during the time of the Revolutionary War, combines real life and imaginary characters. In this interview, Kate talks about her book, Spitfire, her writing habits, and her favorite young adult authors. She also offers advice to aspiring writers. 

Do you consider yourself a born writer?

A born writer? Unfortunately, no. I love the idea of children showing up in the world with beautiful language just spilling from their crayons, but I’m afraid it’s not much of a reality – at least not for this writer. I’ve always loved stories and books, and I’ve always found magic in literature. When I was a kid, I’d escape into Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume books for hours on end, and after a while, I decided I wanted in on that magic, and I started writing. Like most writers, even though I liked it, it took me lots of practice before I was any good at it (and some days, I’m still not very good at it!).

When did you decide to become an author?

When I was seven. School was over for the summer, and I missed the research and the writing, so I started assigning myself these little reports. The rain forest. Gorillas. Sharks. The shark story was my favorite. My parents put it on the refrigerator, and that’s the first time I was “published.”

I’ve always loved learning about history and digging into the past, so historical fiction is a favorite genre for me. I absolutely love having a license to ask zillions of questions and explaining that I’m working on a book. (The truth is, I’d probably be asking the questions anyway, but it sure sounds a lot better this way!)

Tell us about your historical young adult novel, Spitfire. What is it about? What inspired you to write such a story?

Spitfire is about a girl who disguises herself as a boy and fights in a Revolutionary War naval battle on Lake Champlain — the Battle of Valcour Island. If you visit my website, you’ll see some pictures of Valcour Island, which is truly a stunning place. I live on Lake Champlain, not far from there, and I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that an important Revolutionary War battle took place right out there on the lake. Then in 1997, the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum was doing a survey of the lake bottom and discovered the last remaining gunboat from Benedict Arnold’s fleet in 1776 on the bottom of the lake. That’s when my fascination turned into a bit of an obsession, and I did everything I could to learn more about that battle.

The most exciting thing I learned was that there was a 12-year-old boy involved in the battle. His name was Pascal De Angelis, and he came to the Champlain Valley with his stepfather, who captained one of the ships. The Battle of Valcour Island went on for three days because the Americans escaped from a British blockade and got away for a time before the British caught up and the fighting started again. This boy, Pascal, celebrated his 13th birthday on the lake in the middle of the battle. I knew that was the story I wanted to tell, and I knew that I wanted to connect his story with the story of the missing gunboat, which was identified as the Spitfire.

My book is historical fiction, so it’s a mix of historical fact and fictional characters. There are two narrators – the real historical figure, Pascal, and his fictional friend, a girl named Abigail who joins the fleet disguised as a boy so she can search for her uncle. Researching and writing this book was a joy for me, and seeing kids who live in this region read it and appreciate the history of their lake is just incredible.

When working on a novel, what is your schedule like? How long does it usually take you to finish a full-length book? Do you edit as your write or do you cough up the first draft and leave the polishing for later?

Oh boy… the schedule question. I teach middle school English full time, and I have two kids of my own, so it seems like there’s never enough time in the day. I generally write from 9pm to midnight. I’ll turn in earlier if I’m really tired or later if I’m on a roll, but that’s my usual schedule.

I’m a spill-out-the-first-draft kind of person. I like to have that draft done so I have an idea where I’m going. Once it’s down on paper, I can settle down and revise. I’m much better at revising than actually writing.

Who are your favorite young adult novelists?

I have too many favorite middle grade and YA novelists to count, and I read a huge variety of genres. But I love the work of Laurie Halse Anderson, Rick Riordan, JK Rowling, Ellen Klages, Nancy Werlin, Joseph Bruchac, Cynthia Lord, Sonya Sones, Sarah Dessen, John Green, Lisa Yee, Bruce Covillle, and Lois Lowry, to name a few. I’m always discovering new authors, too, and I love reading a book by a brand new author and introducing it to my 7th graders. Some terrific new voices I’ve discovered in the past year are Linda Urban, Sarah Miller, Melissa Marr, and Carrie Jones.

Fledgling writers often try to emulate their favorite author's style. Did you experience this when you first started writing? If yes, who was your role model?

I try to learn from every author whose work I read and admire, but I can’t say that I really emulate any particular style. Voice is tough to fake, and if you’re not writing in a voice that authentically yours, it doesn’t sound true. I worked in broadcast journalism when I graduated from college, and I remember an older anchorman at the NBC affiliate in Syracuse, New York, chewing me out because I admitted that I was trying to sound like another well-established reporter in one of my stories. “You can’t be Sheryl Nathans,” he told me. “Because that job is already taken… by Sheryl Nathans.” It’s advice that I remember to this day – the only voice that will work for you as a writer is one that’s uniquely your own.

With so many books published, how do you promote your work and still have time to write, or vice versa? Do you follow a planned writing/marketing schedule? Any tips you would like to share with other authors?

Juggling marketing and writing with teaching and family is a delicate balancing act for me. I think I make a good go of it, but I’m certainly not in a position to be giving advice!

Any upcoming books in the horizon?

I’m finishing revisions on another historical novel set on Lake Champlain — this one during the 17th century — and I have a middle grade contemporary novel that’s out with a few agents right now. I’m just starting work on a humorous chapter book and polishing up a few picture books.

Do you have a website where readers may find more about you and your work?

http://www.katemessner.com.  Teachers will find the site especially useful, since the full study guide for Spitfire is available as a free downloaded pdf document.

If there was one book you'd recommend as absolute read for aspiring young adult fiction authors, what would that be?

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. It’s not about YA fiction but about writing in general and the life of a writer. I love this book and recommend it to everyone who will listen. It has lots of great, concrete advice, but more than anything, Anne Lamott has a way of making you laugh and then believe that this whole writer thing will work out. That, for me, is what it takes to stay in my chair and keep working.

What advice would you give to those young adult fiction authors who are trying to break into print?

Read a lot. Write a lot. Join SCBWI and hang out at Verla Kay’s Children’s Writers & Illustrators Discussion Boards. You’ll learn a lot there. Find a critique group with people you enjoy who will challenge you to make your writing stronger.

And don’t try to be Sheryl Nathans or anyone else, no matter how much you admire his or her work. Those other jobs are taken. Work to find the voice that belongs to you and let it shine.

Thank you, Kate!

Thanks for having me!

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About Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Represented by Serendipity Literary.