When I was a kid, I saw myself as a writer without question. I carried around a notebook writing down everything all the time. I would practice walking down the sidewalk at my grandmother’s house so that I might look sophisticated, grown-up, and no-nonsense like what I figured a reporter would look like on their way to get a big story. Other days I would daydream about my first novel (which, at 40, is an achievement that has yet to be unlocked) and holding my published work in my hands.
The closest thing I could get to that was being in my school’s journalism program from middle school through high school – even doing yearbook for a year or so in college. I would pitch stories and talk to people and write and rewrite what would eventually be in a mimeographed school newspaper or the final yearbook.
I lived for seeing my words in print.
So when I heard about Claudia Mills’s newest middle grade novel Write This Down, I knew twelve-year-old Autumn and I would have much in common.
From the beginning lines of the book, (“Here’s the best thing about being a writer: it’s like having a magic wand to make whatever you want happen to imaginary people in a made-up world. Here’s the worst thing about being a writer: it makes you wish even more that you had a magic wand to make whatever you want happen to actual people in your own life.”) I knew that I’d be able to relate – both 40 year-old English teacher me and 12 year-old back-then me. And I knew that things wouldn’t be easy. Autumn’s older brother has grown apart from her since he’s gone to high school. He’s angry at everyone, it seems, and he goes out of his way to embarrass her and make fun of her writing in front of his friends – including one who could make her embarrassment turn to utter humiliation.
Since she can’t wave a magic wand, Autumn has no other choice than to prove that she’s a far better writer than he thinks she is. And the only way to do that is to get published.
I like her style.
The problem is that the piece that is most likely to get published is…about her brother.
Autumn – along with colorful cast of characters including her best friend Kylee, the boy of her dreams Cameron, her brother Hunter and his friends, and her parents – wrestles with issues of first love, stressful family dynamics, loyalty and ethics in the quest for personal success, and the journey of growing as a writer.
I was grateful to have the chance to send some questions to Claudia Mills about Autumn and her friends and the idea of writing about writing.
Claudia, thank you for being willing to visit Charting by the Stars!
Thanks so much for hosting me today, Cindy, and for the thoughtful questions!
- What was the inspiration for Write This Down?
I began with the desire to write about the ethical challenge that almost every author faces at some point in his or her career: how to balance the need to draw inspiration from our own lived experiences with the need to respect the privacy of friends and family members. As someone who writes realistic fiction based on childhood memories and parental observations, this is something I wrestle with constantly. So I thought it would be something I could explore in a story.
- Does your experience as a philosophy professor have any influence over the problem facing Autumn if her essay about her and her brother would be published?
Definitely! My specialty as a professor is ethics, and I’ve actually published two academic articles on exactly the situation Autumn faces, with titles like “Appropriating Others’ Stories: Some Questions about the Ethics of Writing Fiction.” This past spring I was a visiting professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where I taught a course called “The Ethics of Story.” So Autumn’s dilemma is very dear to my philosopher’s heart.
- I love that you had Autumn go far beyond what most twelve-year-old writers would do (submit poetry to The New Yorker, go to have work critiqued publicly by agents). How much of her writing adventures are based on experiences you have had as an author?
As a young writer, I also sought publication, and like Autumn, I started with submitting to the magazines my parents read, which in my case were The Reader’s Digest and a magazine that published inspirational poetry called Ideals Magazine. I had self-indulgent “First Person” essays and plenty of saccharine verse rejected by both of them. As an adult writer, I have also had poetry rejected by The New Yorker (you might as well aim for the top, right?). And yes, the public critique by two literary agents in the book is based almost word for word on a recent experience of mine, where even as a published author of almost 60 books, I left close to tears from the harshness of the comments on my work. Writing does involve a lot of criticism, and a lot of rejection!
- What advice do you have for young authors like Autumn who want to be published?
The most important thing is just to work as hard as you can to grow in your craft. The better your writing, the better your chance of getting the opportunity to share it with others via publication. In my own case, I feel I’ve grown most as a writer by getting critique from trusted friends and editors. How can I know if I’ve made readers laugh, cry, or think unless I come right out and ask them? It can be scary to share your work with others, asking them for their honest criticism, but it’s a terrific way to grow as a writer.
- I really enjoyed spending time with these characters – they each had details that just made them come alive. One of the details I couldn’t help smiling over was Kylee’s knitting. What was your inspiration for including this in her character?
Kylee is based on a close childhood friend who taught me how to knit. We both were bored (and freezing) at the high school football games and then realized that we could stay home knitting and baking cookies instead. I ended up a mediocre knitter at best, but she grew up to be a high school sewing teacher and has now taught generations of students the way she taught me.
- What question do you wish I’d asked you and how would you answer it?
Ooh! Maybe. . . would I have made the same decision that Autumn makes, in the same situation? I think I would. I’ve borrowed lavishly from real life in my fiction, but I’ve always changed characters and events enough to make them unrecognizable. I’ve never written painfully revelatory things about loved ones in a nonfiction piece. That said, I’m grateful to writers who are willing to bare their souls. Many memoirs that I’ve read have been a great gift to me by authors who are willing to say difficult or embarrassing things in print. But, for myself, I’m not willing to take the risk of hurting family members in order to share deeply personal stories with the world.
Thank you so much for sharing your answers with us!
Be sure to stop at the other stops on the Calling All Authors! Blog Tour!
Calling All Authors! Blog Tour for WRITE THIS DOWN
September 27: Ruth at ruth ayers writes
September 28: Cindy at Charting By the Stars
September 29: Melanie at Two Writing Teachers
September 30: Niki at Daydream Reader
October 1: Kathy at The Brain Lair
October 2: Maria at Maria’s Mélange