Sunday, December 21, 2008

Author Chat: An Interview with Angela Morrison

(Image from Angela Morrison's Official Website)



Me: Taken By Storm is set in your hometown of Tekoa, Washington. From what you wrote in the book, I gather there aren't too many Mormons 'round those parts. What was it like growing up as one of the only LDS kids in town? Leesie is definitely taunted for her beliefs - did you experience anything similar?

AM: Tekoa is tiny. There were sixteen kids in my graduating class. The only thing you can find in abundance is wheat. There were usually a couple LDS families in town, but for several years, my family was it. When you are the only ones, you can't be lukewarm. You are watched and challenged every day. You either get strong or leave the church. The youth in our branch were drawn from three high schools hidden in the wheat fields along the highway going up to Spokane. We had a good time together. The kids in my grade showed me a lot of respect even though I was such a puzzle to them. But, a group of guys in the grade ahead of me decided I was pretty good sport. When I started writing TBS, I gave Leesie way too many of those experiences. She was smothering and couldn't grow into a unique character. Ron Koertge, my first Vermont College mentor, told me I needed to change Leesie up if I ever wanted a "New York editor in her DKNY dress" to "warm to this." I cut back a lot, but some of my personal experiences survived the many drafts I wrote. The scene on the bus on the way home from the field trip is straight from my journal--except I didn't have a Michael to run to. It was cool to write a noble guy into that episode.

When I left Tekoa at eighteen, I was eager to get away, but now I go back as often as I can--even if its only in my imagination.

Me: From where did the idea for Taken By Storm come? Why did you find the idea of these star-crossed lovers so compelling? In other words, why did you write this book?

AM: Several years ago, my husband and I were scuba diving off the coast of Cozumel, Mexico. Halfway through the trip the weather turned nasty. Dark skies. Rain. We still dove. Darker than usual, but nothing stops divers. In between dives, we huddled on the boat getting rained on. To the south of us, a thick band of wicked clouds blocked up the sky. A newsy guy informed us our rain and those clouds were what was left of a hurricane that had just hit Belize. He told us the hurricane had capsized a boatload of divers and most of them drowned. None of us believed him. Divers don't drown. He insisted--and he was right. A large live aboard yacht docked in what they thought was a safe port. They were wrong.

Over the next several months, I followed the story closely. I found news articles on the Internet and watched the memorial grown on the website of the dive club who hard charter the boat and lost so many. I felt a kinship with those dead divers. The clouds that killed them rained on me, too.

I began asking myself, "what if?" What if the only survivor of a similar fictional accident was a guy whose parents drowned? How did he survive? What happened to him after? Who would he live with now? Where would he go?

And, most important, who would love him?

When I started my MFA, Michael's voice emerged during a free-write. I stirred around the pieces of my life in my memory, and picked up my Grandmother's house in my tiny home town. I sent Michael there and introduced him to the only Mormon girl in town who was living in my old farm house. They started talking in my head all time. I scribbled as fast as I could to keep up. It's really their story, not mine.

What I did was revise, revise, revise--with the help of my MFA advisors, critique pals, editors who rejected me, and at last the editor who fell in love with Michael and Leesie just like I did. If you go on my website (http://www.angela-morrison.com/) or YouTube site (http://www.youtube.com/AngelaTheAuthor) and watch the trailer, you can see pictures of all the places I used for settings.

Me: Your book is the edgiest LDS novel for teens that I've ever read. What made you take such an honest, unflinching approach? How do you think readers, both LDS and non, will react to the story?

AM: I tell LDS readers, TAKEN BY STORM is a standards night they won't put down. My inspiration for this novel was all the young women I'd had in my seminary classes over the years who live what Leesie lives in the novel, but LDS readers weren't my first audience. TAKEN BY STORM was my creative thesis for my MFA at Vermont College, so I had to craft a novel anyone could pick up and sink into.

When I started writing TBS, I knew Michael was a sexually active guy, and Leesie was a faithful Mormon girl committed to the law of chastity. When I put them together, I was led to scenes and discussions that I had to deal with honestly and frankly. I owed that to my characters and my readers. At first, I flinched a lot. The sensitive, passionate scenes took many, many revisions, lots of handwringing and prayer. I could not have written them without divine assurances and many wise earthly critiques.

At Vermont College I worked with some of the finest young adult authors and poets in the field. They taught me to be honest. Fiction is truth repackaged as story--but truth must be at its heart. Teens live these situations. They experience these feelings, and I refuse to talk down to them or deny that they have those feelings. I remember the agony of it all way too clearly. As the novel continued to evolve, Leesie's voice became her private poetry. That has to be no honest if I wanted to pull the reader deep into her psyche.

Before the TWILIGHT revolution, it was hard to find YA novels that didn't contain sexually explicit scenes, obscene language and guys that creep you out. Stephanie Meyers has shown that clean, romantic novels with noble heros have great appeal. For me, it was a challenge to write those steamy make-out scenes, but they are not explicit. There is a line I won't cross. I want my readers to know that. When they pick up a novel with my name on the front, they'll get authentic characters, lots of great kissing scenes, a frank discussion of teen sexuality with a moral side to it, and they won't have to skip pages or put down the book. They are safe. I care about that. Teens run into the destructive forces of soft porn disguised as music videos, movies, TV shows, magazine articles and even books daily. They won't be bombarded with it from my novels.

Reader reaction? From the stumbling chapters I sent to Ron Koertge, my first advisor in my MFA program at Vermont College, non-LDS readers have been fascinated with the authentic look deep into a faithful Mormon girl's life that Leesie affords them.

LDS girls can't put it down and give it to their friends. LDS moms want their daughters to read it before they start dating. The realities of Leesie's world are the same realities all LDS young women deal with. TBS shows them how someone as wonderful as Michael and something as precious as love can hurt them. Jack Weyland says reading it was like, "watching two trains racing toward each other." He went on to say he was, "quickly drawn into their story, hoping for the best for both of them, but not really knowing what that would be."

Everyone, female at least, falls head over heals for Michael. The YA specialist at Blue Willow Books in Houston, TX admitted to having a crush on him. She wrote that she sent her family out for dinner and ate a bowl of cold cereal so she could finish reading it.

Me: It seems that mainstream publishers are only interested in "Mormon stories" if they are tell-alls about polygamy or other controversial issues. How were you able to attract interest from a national publisher in a story about a good LDS girl who's trying her best to keep her nose (and the rest of her body) clean? Was it a tough sell?

AM: Tough sell? Oh, my word. Where do I begin? I need to count up all the rejections in my file. It's a good inch thick--and that doesn't include all my email rejections. I just got another one the other day. I began marketing it when I graduated with my MFA in July, 2004. I sold it in January, 2008. Three and a half years? Very tough. One house read four revisions before slamming the door shut for good.

Two things happened that made this novel possible. First, Stephenie Meyer single-handedly transformed the YA market. Then, I met my editor, Lexa Hillyer, at SCBWI's Sequester north of Paris. She's a young, beautiful poet and author in her own right. I rewrote Michael's opening dive log journal entry specifically so she'd fall in love with him. It worked!

At first, Lexa and her boss at Razorbill weren't sure if the "Mormon angle" would work for their list. After they read the whole novel, they decided Leesie's Mormonism was an exciting hook that would entice curious readers. Miracle? I kind of think so.

Me: I really didn't find your book preachy, but every story has a moral, so here's my question: What do you hope readers learn/take away from TBS?

AM: I wrote my MFA critical thesis on how to write about faith and NOT be didactic and lectured on the same topic--so I'm pleased you feel it isn't preachy. Different readers will take away different things. Some might be introduced to the possibility of purity, their right to say, "no." Others might find themselves validated through Leesie. Some might taste the spiritual world for the first time. Others may see it as a cautionary tale.

I hope everyone comes away from these pages knowing that love is real, fervent, and will change your life--even at seventeen.

Me: TBS is your first published novel, correct? Tell me a little about your writing life previous to TBS. Did you always want to write? I know you had a teacher who influenced you big time - who else has influenced your writing? Why do you write?

AM: In kindergarden, I wanted to be a veterinarian, then I learned how to write in first grade, and my world changed for good. In high school, I spent all my savings on a correspondence course in writing for children. My English teacher, Mrs. Daniels, helped me get into week long fiction workshops held near Port Townsend, WA. Beaches, kelp, waves, a blonde guy with green eyes who gave me a shell and was a writer, too. Finding people who suffered from the same addiction I did was heaven. I also got to meet Peter S. Beagle, a fantasy guru, who dissed a fellow author as a "futurist," leaned forward and said, "You and I--we're writers." I studied English at BYU with Eugene England, Douglas Thayer, and even got to take the first course poet, Leslie Norris, taught at BYU. My favorite classes, other than creative writing, were grammar and usage.

When my kids were in grade school and junior high, I started student book presses and a lit magazine at several different schools. When I finally published a short story in THE FRIEND, I joined the Society of Children's Book Writer's and Illustrators. Their newsletters and conferences showed me the real world of publishing and put me on the path to Vermont College. After my MFA I moved to Switzerland, and SCBWI's conferences kept me in touch with writers and I continued to meet editors and agents--until I met Lexa.

My mentors at Vermont College were Ron Koertge, Sharon Darrow, Louise Hawes, and Susan Fletcher. I workshopped with YA legends like M.T. Andersen, Norma Fox Mazer, and Tim Wynne-Jones.

My idol right now is Markus Zusak.

Why do I write? Many writers say they feel called. I share that sense. Besides, I'm miserable and grumpy when I don't.

Me: Along those same lines, here's a question I ask every author I interview, just because I find the different answers so fascinating: What is your writing process? Do you write every day or is it hit and miss? Do you draft manuscripts on the computer or dash them out by hand? Do you outline obsessively or just let the ideas flow? Where is your favorite place to write? Is there anything you HAVE to have next to you when you write?

AM: I start my writing day scribbling morning pages--yes, I'm an ARTIST WAY fan. Sometimes I can start when I first wake up and capture what's playing in my brain--that's the best. Other days I wait until the house is quiet, take a relaxing bath, and crawl back into bed to scribble my pages.

I draft by hand on pale pink blank sheets using a medium point black gel pen on a kidney-shaped wooden lap desk. Then I take the scene to the computer and type it up. I try to put an assignment by my bed at night so that's where I can start in the morning.

The handwritten draft of the scenes is usually half-baked--mostly just dialogue. I add stage directions and emotional reactions when I type it up.

From that beginning I go over and over it trying to make it better. I revise on the screen and print it and make handwritten edits. I try to apply everything I learned studying poetry to my prose, so read what I've written aloud is essential. I have to be the only one home when I do that. My kids already think I'm crazy.

Me: Who are your favorite authors? What books are on your nightstand right now?

AM: I'm a huge fantasy fan. I've loved Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy since I was a teen. Ah, Ged. The wounded hero. What a babe. And of course, one must homage Tolkein. Mary Stewart is another fantasy favorite. She wrote a bunch of great, stiff upper lip Brit romantic suspense novels decades ago I read until they fell apart. My Jane Austen collection looks like that, too. Will Cather is my favorite American author. I discovered Chaim Potok's MY NAME IS ASHER LEV when I was at BYU. And fell in love with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. WAR AND PEACE is the ultimate romantic novel. I also love the Hornblower books. This fall I've been reading the more obscure Bronte novels. I read Anne's novel and really enjoyed its tenderness. I was addicted to Edward and Bella like everyone else. When I finally got the first three in the series, I read them all in one weekend.

I tell everyone I meet to read Markus Zusak's THE BOOK THIEF.

And if your LDS readers haven't discoered Martine Leavitt, google her instantly. Her National Book Award nominated, KETURAH AND LORD DEATH is a must read, but don't overlook THE DOLL MAGE--it's amazing.

Katherine Paterson is my ultimate model for middle grade and young adult novels. She writes with so much faith and meaning. I learned so much studying her.

And no one writes with as much painstaking beauty as my wonderful advisor, Susan Fletcher.

Me: I've heard rumors that there may be more books about Leesie and Michael. Where would you like their story to go? What else do you have in the works?

AM: When I finished TBS, Michael and Leesie kept chatting online with each other in the middle of the night, and I kept scribbling. I have two more books planned for them--UNBROKEN CONNECTION and CAYMAN SUMMER. Tragedy hits Leesie in UNBROKEN CONNECTION, and Michael helps her put her life back together in CAYMAN SUMMER. Razorbill needs to see how their investment in TAKEN BY STORM turns out before they will commit to a sequel. So now it's up to the readers . . . and kind reviewers like you.

I signed a two book contract with Razorbill, so this fall I've been working on another tragic teen romance for them. It's called SING ME TO SLEEP and, if all goes as planned, it will come out Spring 2010. SING starts Beth, an ugly duckling singer who gets a massive makeover when she ousts the soloist in her competitive girls' choir. Beth's great performance lands the choir a place in the Choral Olympics where, Derek, a mysterious star of a neighboring boy's choir, sweeps her off her feet. She gets home to find the sweet boy who has always been her friend now wants to be more than that. Beth is committed to Derek, but she's torn. He's hiding something scary, and she can't get behind his perfect facade.

Derek composes and Beth writes lyrics so Lexa asked me to sprinkle lyrics all through the book. That was a challenge. I sent the first draft to Lexa at Thanksgiving. It made her cry "copiously" by the end. I'll spend the next several months revising it.

I also have a heartbreaking historical love story, THE COLLIER LAD'S LASS, and a middle grade time slip adventure for boys, THE TIME ASSASSIN, looking for kind editors.

Me: Besides being an author, you're also a voracious reader, a scuba diver, a pianist, a dancer and a world traveller. If you were forced to participate in only 2 of your hobbies for the rest of your life, which would you choose and why?

AM: Writing is my vocation--not a hobby, so I'm not counting that in the two, okay? My family would be thrilled if they didn't have to listen to my halting piano playing, so I could give up that, but I'd miss it. This year we're spending in transit in Singapore I don't have a piano and it is driving me crazy. It helps to pound away when I get stuck in a scene. I listen to music now, but it's not the same.

I've travelled the world quite enough for awhile. I must, must read, so that's the first one. So that leaves scuba and dancing to choose from to keep me moving. If I could dance every day, I'd do that. Scuba every day would kill you, but I love to swim. That would be great, too. Hmm . . . I think I'd choose dance. You see, my wildest fantasy is to be fifteen years younger, taller, thinner, coordinated, famous, and . . . "Dancing with the Stars."

Me: Thanks so much, Angela!

3 comments:

  1. Great interview. You asked reall good questions and you got great responses.

    Tony Peters
    Author of, Kids on a Case: The Case of the Ten Grand Kidnapping
    www.eloquentbooks.com/KidsonaCase.html

    ReplyDelete
  2. Nice interview, fascinating that she only graduated with 16 other kids. I love learning the background of authors.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I just finished your book Taken by storm. I loved this book! It was an amazing story! I am so excited that you are planning on writing more about Michael and Leesie, I will be waiting for the next one! And hoping somehow they will end up together!!!

    ReplyDelete

Comments make me feel special, so go crazy! Just keep it clean and civil. Feel free to speak your mind (I always do), but be aware that I will delete any offensive comments.

P.S.: Don't panic if your comment doesn't show up right away. I have to approve each one before it posts to prevent spam. It's annoying, but it works!

Blog Widget by LinkWithin