Interview with Kate Messner

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Kate Messner is an award-winning author whose books for kids have been New York Times Notable, Junior Library Guild, IndieBound, and Bank Street College of Education Best Books selections. The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z was the winner of the 2010 E.B. White Read Aloud Award for Older Readers. Kate also spent fifteen years teaching middle school and earned National Board Certification in 2006. She lives on Lake Champlain with her family and loves spending time outside, whether it’s kayaking in the summer or skating on the frozen lake when the temperatures drop.

“Literacy is so important for kids because it opens a thousand doors”

Julia Shelton: You’ve mentioned online that you’ve loved writing since “you were old enough to hold a pencil,” but that it never occurred to you as a real career. What changed where you saw it as a possible job?

Kate Messner: I grew up in a very small town in Western NY, and no one I knew was a writer. My parents’ friends were teachers, or they worked at the hospital in town, so being an author wasn’t even on my radar as a possible job. When I told my high school guidance counselor I liked to write, he suggested journalism, and that’s what I studied in college. I worked in television news for seven years before going back to school to get my teaching degree, and it was in my classroom, sharing stories with middle school kids every day, that I rediscovered how much I loved writing stories and started to think about publication.

JS: Do you brainstorm with other people when writing a story?

KM: Not at first, but at some point, in the process, I always end up reaching out to writer friends. Often, that’s just to talk through what I see as the story so far, and inevitably, great ideas come out of those conversations.

JS: What subject/literary technique do you find the hardest to write and how do you overcome that?

KM: I don’t really have one answer for this question because I never know what’s going to trip me up in a project until I’m in the middle of it. The thing about writing is that every book is different, so you might finish a novel and think you have it all figured out, but the next book presents completely different challenges. The only way to overcome that, at least for me, is to keep faith in the process.

JS: How do you feel that your writing has most improved?

KM: I’m less afraid to take risks now than I was when I was a beginning writer, and I think that shows in stories that are more honest and true.

JS: What was it like acquiring an agent? Did you send only query letters, or did you have your full manuscript ready to send out?

KM: I had a full manuscript ready to send out, and that’s definitely the advice I’d give anyone who’s hoping to query agents. If the manuscript isn’t done and in the best shape it can possibly be, then your time will be much better spent on getting that done first. I queried a number of agents, but Jennifer Laughran was the one with whom I really connected, and I could tell right away she’d be an amazing advocate for my work. I’ve been with her for over ten years now.

JS: How would you describe the style and voice of your writing?

KM: I write an incredibly wide variety of books, from quiet, poetic picture books to thrillers to historical fiction, but there are a few threads that I think run through all of my projects. One is that sense of curiosity – whether it’s about animals living under the snow or what it might be like to be a girl in Viking Age Iceland. And the other thing that I hope readers notice in all of my work is the care I take in research. That goes for both fiction and nonfiction. It’s one of my favorite parts of the writing process, and I think it’s essential for stories to feel real.

JS: Who is your favorite secondary character from your books that you don’t think gets enough attention?

KM: Well, a couple of years ago, I would have told you it was Zig from The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z, but he has his own book now because Bloomsbury published my companion novel, The Exact Location of Home. I also love Emma, Ava’s little sister in All the Answers.

JS: Has your process of writing changed at all since you first started out?

KM: I think I’m more comfortable just following the process now, so I’m more likely to go along with it if I’m curious about something, even if I’m not sure right away if there’s a book in the subject or not. And I spend even more time on revision because I’ve come to recognize that all the best parts of my books are scenes that emerged in fourth or fifth drafts, at least.

JS: Why do you think literacy is so important for kids?

KM: Because it opens a thousand doors. The ability to read for information and just for the joy of story is something every child should have.

JS: In the excerpt for your book, Real Revision, you explain that, “revision is so much more than spelling corrections; it involves re-thinking not what a piece of writing is, but what it might become. It involves reflection and time to consider roads not traveled in the first draft.” After you finish your first draft what is your first move to start the editing process?

KM: While I’m writing a draft, I keep a big piece of paper by my desk, with a list of known issues – all the things I already know I want to work on some more. When I finish the draft, I take a short break from the story and then dive into that list, and that’s my first revision pass.

JS: What are some of your favorite themes that you have gotten to include in your books?

KM: I think a lot of my stories, across all age groups, really come back to being who you are instead of who the world decides you should be.

JS: How do you decide what you are going to write next? Do you plan out if your next book will be a picture book, middle grade, etc. or do you get the idea first and just go with it for whatever age group fits best?

KM: I keep a notebook that’s full of story ideas, and when I finish a project, I flip through to see what’s calling to me the loudest. Usually, when I have an idea, I know if it’s going to be a novel or a picture book, or a chapter book for younger readers, but I do experiment with that sometimes, too.

JS: How will you celebrate when your newest novel, Breakout, comes out June 5, 2018? What are you most excited about for when the book finally comes out?

KM: When Breakout comes out on June 5th, I’ll be at the very beginning of a two-week book tour, so I’ll be spending that day with readers at three terrific schools in Vermont. Can’t imagine a better way to celebrate!

PRR Writer, Julia Shelton

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