Interview with Samantha M. Clark

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Samantha M Clark is the author of middle-grade novel THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST (2018, Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster).

She has always loved stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. After all, if four ordinary brothers and sisters can find a magical world at the back of a wardrobe, why can’t she? While she looks for her real-life Narnia, she writes about other ordinary children and teens who’ve stumbled into a wardrobe of their own. In a past life, Samantha was a photojournalist and managing editor for newspapers and magazines. She lives with her husband and two kooky dogs in Austin, Texas. Samantha is the Regional Advisor for the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, and explores wardrobes every chance she gets.

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What made you want to become an author?

I never set out to be an author. To be honest, I never thought it was a job that was available to me. When I was growing up, my school didn’t have author visits. I never connected a real person with the names on the books I loved. But I always loved and wanted to tell stories. When I was little, I wrote plays and put them on for my family with puppets. I also wrote stories about our neighbors and put them in my own neighborhood newspaper. As I grew older, I was an avid reader and continued to write stories for school and me, but with no thoughts of getting them published.

It wasn’t until I was studying Mass Communications at the University of South Florida that I began to see writing fiction as an option. One of my professors was an author, and for an assignment, he got me an interview with Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game, with whom he shared a agent. Being able to talk to these authors made a huge difference to me. I began to think that maybe—maybe—I could be one too. I started to write my first novel while I was in college, and although I took a few detours along the path, it’s really the only job I’ve ever wanted.

You debuted with The Boy, The Boat and The Beast. What was it like writing your first Children’s novel and why did you choose Children’s literature?

THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST is my debut published novel, but it isn’t the first novel I wrote; it was my third (not counting the novel I started in college). By the time I signed with my agent, I had written two more novels. And by the time BEAST sold to Simon & Schuster, I had written a sixth novel and a novella.

These were all either middle-grade or young adult (with the exception of the novella, which is more for adult readers), but while I love reading children’s and teen books, I never set out to write specifically for that audience.

The novel I started in college was for adults, and after college, my husband and I moved to Los Angeles for his work. While I was there, I figured “when in Rome” and tried to write screenplays. I wrote six, and the more I discovered what I enjoyed, the younger the protagonists got. It was while I was writing my seventh screenplay that I realized that I preferred writing novels. That was my passion. And what I really loved was writing novels for kids and teens.

I’m not sure that I can pinpoint one specific thing about middle-grade or young adult that makes me lean toward those stories. Maybe I’m a kid at heart. ☺ Ultimately, it’s what speaks to me. The stories that come to me are about kids and teens. But there are things I love about writing for these age groups. There’s an innocence to the middle-grade audience, where they still believe anything is possible. No matter where you take a story, as long as you make it believable, they’ll be willing and eager to stretch their imagination and follow along. Children’s books also always end in hope, which I think is something we all could use. Plus there’s an incredible challenge in writing children’s books, because you have to tell a complex story, with a main throughline and subplots, that’s workable on multiple levels and for all audiences. (I don’t believe any children’s book should have an upper age.)

What inspired The Boy, The Boat and The Beast?

All of my stories start from a small idea, a what-if question. For THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, the idea came to me when my husband and I were living in Houston. One day, I was walking our dog along the shore of Clear Lake and began to wonder what would happen if a boy woke up alone on a beach and had no memory of who he was or how he had gotten there. The boy was so clear in my head, and I thought about him all the way back to our house. When I got home, I had a novel forming. I told my husband, and we sat brainstorming ideas for over an hour.

But, while most of the ideas we talked about that Saturday are still in the book, the real story—why the boy was there and what his true journey was—wasn’t clear to me until I wrote the final scene of the first draft. I had a huge ah ha moment, when I realized the real story was about the boy feeling like he could never be enough, battling an inner bully that filled him with insecurities. I revised with this in mind, and that’s when the story really began to take shape.

We see the boy wake up on a mysterious island where all these magical events play out. What inspired the setting for the book?

I grew up partly in the Caribbean, in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, and I fell in love with the ocean. There’s something very mysterious about the ocean, like it’s a living, breathing thing. The beach was one of my favorite places to be—I even studied for exams on the beach! So that was a big influence for the story, the beaches I grew up on and everything that came with them, the sand crabs and sea grape trees I used to sit under.

Before we moved to the Caribbean, I lived in England, and the woods were one of my favorite places there. I used to read sitting in trees. So having beaches, the ocean and woods in the same book was enormous fun for me.

First and foremost, though, the setting was what was called for by the story, but being able to pull details from my childhood was hugely helpful. I loved the setting as much as I loved the characters.

In the book, we see the boy is accompanied by a bully. Why did you include this bully character?

Great question! The bully represents the boy’s insecurities, and I think most people have a bully of some kind in their head giving them insecure thoughts at times, that feeling or even belief that they can’t do something, or aren’t capable, or will fail if they try. I know these thoughts well. To me, the bully is the equivalent of the scared 10-year-old who lives within all of us and speaks up when we’re trying to move out of our comfort zone. As the book says, it’s hard not to listen to these thoughts, but to allow them to hold us back is to do ourselves a disservice.

Manifesting these thoughts as a character also gave them more weight, helped show that often these thoughts are not under our own control, and, from a more writerly perspective, allowed dialogue. For the majority of the book, the Boy is the only character, so having the bully as a character in his own right, was enormously useful for me as the writer to break up the action and include more dialogue. We learn about characters through what they do and say, and while the Boy could’ve talked to himself, having an inner bully on the other end of that conversation made it much more interesting.

In the book, we see the boy inspire himself through fairy tales and imagination. Why did you choose stories as his source of courage?

Stories were a big influence on me growing up. I lived in four different countries, and many more towns, by the time I was 12. I was always the new kid. Plus I was very shy, so making friends wasn’t easy.

But no matter where I lived, I could always go to the library and find my friends in books. It was in those stories that I learned how to be brave like Lucy Pevensie in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and how to gain more confidence like Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield in the Sweet Valley High books.

Incorporating stories into THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST came later in the revision process, after a critique partner suggested the boy play by himself at times. That was a fantastic note, and it pushed me to expand the boy’s imagination while he was going on this journey. Through that came the idea of including the stories, that the boy—like me—might benefit from stories.

The more I played with it on the page, the more I realized that insecurities are really just negative stories we tell ourselves. So what would happen if we turned them around? With this one note, a new level and dimension fell into place, and now I couldn’t imagine the book without this element. It’s even something I talk to kids about when I visit schools, helping them write their own stories so they can make their own courage.

What advice would you have for aspiring writers?

First, if you’re writing, you’re a writer. Period. Being an author involves the business part, but you can’t be an author if you’re not writing, and the only way to be a writer is to write. So my first advice is: Write. Write as much as you can, when you can. Got five minutes between classes? Pull out a notebook and write. Got to walk across campus? Put a couple characters in your head and let them play.

When I was writing my first novel, I would write when I had time, but this meant that weeks and sometimes months would go by between writing sessions. So every time I sat down to write, I’d have to spend a lot of time getting back into the story. When I started to get serious about writing, I changed my mind set: Instead of writing when I had time, I made time to write. It made an enormous difference. The first half of my first novel took about 4 years. The second half, took about 3 months. Since then I’ve made writing a priority, and not only does it take me less time to finish a project, it’s also easier to write because the stories and characters stay in my head.

My second piece of advice is to not rush to publish and instead to focus on craft. (See, my first writing advice!) While I was writing my first novel, I did lots of research about the publishing industry and how to query. I wasn’t in a hurry to get published and didn’t think I was so brilliant that my first novel was going to be snapped up. But I knew I had promise and thought—wrongly—that an agent could help me get my work over the finish line. Most of all, though, I queried because I wanted the validation that comes when an agent or editor says yes. I wanted someone who wasn’t my husband, or friends, or critique partners to tell me that all my hard work wasn’t a waste of time.

Now that I’m a published author, after years of rejections, I know that I wasn’t ready for an agent with my first novel. Or my second. Because when I put my focus on improving my craft over my need to get published, I came to trust myself as a storyteller, and that’s very important.

Rejection is a big part of publishing, from agents, to editors, to reviews, and while in some cases rejections might be warranted, in others they’re merely subjective. Different people have different tastes. Some people can’t get enough of Harry Potter, and others couldn’t care less. Some people are going to get your work, and others won’t. It’s very important as a storyteller that you trust yourself—not that you’ll always get it right, or that you can’t always learn (you’ll never stop learning), but because only you can tell YOUR story. You’ll get feedback from critique partners, agents and editors that will conflict with other people’s notes or your own vision for the story. So it’s important that writers trust themselves, so they can know that, with persistence, they’ll be able to figure out what’s best for them as a writer and for their story.

So, my advice is:

1. Focus on writing your best story.

2. Writing isn’t always easy, so be around others who are doing the same. They’ll understand your pain. The children’s book industry is incredibly supportive, especially the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. Get involved and make friends.

3. Help other writers. Maybe you can’t answer a question about marketing right now, but you might be able to help someone format their manuscript properly. Whether it’s through a critique group or volunteering with your local SCBWI chapter, helping other people will let you see the value in you.

4. Try not to compare your journey with others’. I know it’s hard, but everyone’s journey is different. Some will get published quickly, others will take longer. But at every point, while we’re feeling less than someone else, someone else wants to be where we are. Focus on you, on what you can control—your craft (see #1)—and the rest will come.

5. And when you feel like you won’t make it, can’t make it, contact me through SamanthaMClark.com (LINK: http://www.samanthamclark.com/contact/). I’ll tell you that if I can do this, you can, and that I believe in you. If you’re writing, learning, and working to improve, you will succeed. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but some day. I’m looking forward to reading your books.

PRR- Christopher Lee

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