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Well our summer break is finally over and I thought it would be a great way to kick off our return with a new Author Spotlight. Melissa Wiley is a fellow SCBWI San Diego member and had three, yes three, books launch in August. So grab a cup of coffee as we shine the spotlight on Melissa. 

Brief Bio:

Melissa Wiley is the author of more than a dozen books for kids and teens, including The Prairie ThiefInch and Roly Make a WishFox and Crow Are Not Friends, and the Martha and Charlotte Little House books. She lives in San Diego with her husband and their six kids. Melissa blogs about her family’s reading life at Here in the Bonny Glen and is a contributing writer for GeekMom.

Author Spotlight:

WOTS: What was your road to publication?

MW:I earned my MFA in creative writing at UNC-Greensboro—a completely wonderful experience in which I got to study with poet Alan Shapiro and one of my favorite writers in the world, the great Fred Chappell. While I was there, I served as Poetry Editor of the Greensboro Review and worked part-time at a children’s bookstore called B. Dolphin. I really didn’t have time for a second job, but I fell in love with that little shop the first moment I walked in, and I basically begged them to hire me. It was there, reading my way through the inventory, that I came to realize my heart was in children’s literature. After grad school, I took an entry-level editorial assistant job at Random House Children’s Books as a way of continuing to learn about children’s publishing while I worked on my own manuscripts. I left editorial when my first child was born and that’s when I began writing for a living. My first published books were work-for-hire projects like a pair of Carmen San Diego mysteries–a really fun way to learn how to grapple with novel-length manuscripts. Before that, I’d been writing mostly short fiction and poetry.In the late 90s, HarperCollins and the Laura Ingalls Wilder estate asked if I’d be interested in writing a series about Laura’s Scottish great-grandmother, and I was over the moon with happiness. I loved getting to dive into the family archives and go deep into the period to imagine what Martha’s life might have been like. It was a dream job–I got to write original novels deeply rooted in historical fact, and since very early on in the Martha series I was also asked to write a series about her daughter, Charlotte (Laura’s grandmother), I got to go back and forth between writing Martha as a little girl and writing her as a mother. It was an incredible experience.WOTS: Can you tell me a bit about your writing process? Do you plot or not?

MW: I plot loosely. Too tight and I lose interest–I have to leave room for my characters to surprise me. I usually know the main narrative arc, and I often jump ahead and write scenes out of order, but I work out subplots and even some of the primary events as I go. And then I usually have to go back and do a massive rewrite to weave everything together. And I always wind up writing far more than I actually keep in the book–sometimes sixty or seventy extra pages, scenes I need to help me get where I’m going but which don’t actually belong in the story.
WOTS: Are you working on any new projects that you can tell us about?
MW:Right now I’m deep in a historical fiction novel based on events from my own family history–a little-known chapter of the Civil War. It’s a story I’ve wanted to tell for a very long time. It will be published by Knopf in 2013, if it doesn’t kill me first.My newest novel, The Prairie Thief, comes out in late August. The title sounds Little-Housy but it isn’t anything to do with Laura’s family–its setting was inspired by a wildlife refuge I worked at during college, a gorgeous expanse of Colorado prairie. It’s another period novel–late 1800s–but it’s really a kind of fairy tale. Let’s just say humans weren’t the only creatures who emigrated to the New World in the the nineteenth century.I also have some early readers launching this month: a Level 3 Step Into Reading for Random House called Fox and Crow Are Not Friends, and the first in a series of Level 1 readers for Simon and Schuster’s Ready-to-Read program. It’s called Inch and Roly Make a Wishand is about an inchworm, a roly poly, and their bug friends.

WOTS: Describe your studio or usual work space for us.

MW: Well, I live in a small house with a work-at-home husband (also a writer) and a small army of children. I work in my bedroom, on my laptop. My books and reference materials spill all over the room. Right now my bedroom wall is covered by a massive family tree made of index cards–my way of keeping track of my current large cast of characters.
WOTS: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
MW: Gardener. I spend a lot of time working in (and then ignoring for weeks on end) my little butterfly garden in the backyard. And I do this thing–I’ve always done it–where I plant imaginary gardens in the yards I pass on the street. I’d love to have other people’s gardens to play with.
WOTS: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?
MW: I have a secret weakness for really awful disaster films–catastrophe stories with dubious special effects and far-fetched plots. The kind where a supervolcano erupts or an asteroid is about to hit the earth–I’m a complete sucker for those. I generally don’t enjoy post-apocalyptic films–the bleak, grim kind where bedraggled souls wander a gray landscape–but I adore an apocalypse as it unfolds–the more preposterously, the better.
WOTS: How do you juggle being a writer and the mom of six children?
MW: It depends entirely upon what my husband is doing, professionally. When he was an editor working long hours in an office, I wrote on weekends–and it took me three years of Saturdays to write The Prairie Thief. Now he’s a freelancer working from home (as he was during the years of my Little House work), and I get a nice long writing shift every afternoon. And Scott does all the laundry. It’s a pretty ideal arrangement. I get to spend all day with my kids (we’re homeschoolers) and then go off and write for hours.
WOTS: What challenges did you encounter writing the “Little House” Series?
MW:Well, I wrote the first Martha book in a hospital room while my daughter, who was a baby at the time, was undergoing treatment for leukemia. Researching that book was a challenge, to put it mildly. My wonderful editor connected me with a scholar in Edinburgh who handled the legwork for me–I would email her my questions and she’d send back boxes, literally BOXES, of material for me to read. Writing Charlotte was much easier–I was able to go to Boston and visit the area where she had grown up. And each year, there was more and more available via the internet. It wouldn’t be nearly as difficult now.But all historical fiction poses a specific challenge, which is that it’s very easy to get bogged down in the tiny details. You’re trying so hard to be completely accurate in all things, big and small. Sometimes it seems like you have to stop five times every sentence to look something up. But I love that part of the work, too–it’s hard, but exhilarating. You get to go on all these little treasure hunts. It keeps things lively and you learn so much.WOTS: We here at Writing on the Sidewalk tend to procrastinate with our writing, where do you fit in Procrastinator or Proactive?

MW: Oooh, it depends! I’m a procrastinator by nature but my circumstances don’t allow for it–I have to jump on writing time when I have it, or seventeen other things will crowd in to chew up the time. I have a mighty terror of missing a deadline. It has only happened once.

Thanks Melissa, for visiting with us on the Sidewalk. If you are interested to learn more about Melissa and her books please check out the following links:  Website: melissawiley.com, GeekMom: wired.com/geekmom, Webcomic: thicklebit.com, Twitter: @bonnyglen.

Happy Reading,

Suzanne Santillan

Writing on the Sidewalk

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