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Today we feature Bobbi Miller, author of adventurous picture and middle grade books, including her forthcoming The Girls of Gettysburg. Welcome!
How long have you been writing?
Like most writers, I have been writing forever. I began writing for adults. My first editor was Marion Zimmer Bradley, author of Mists of Avalon. I sold her two short stories, and she offered incredible encouragement to keep writing. But then life happens, and you have to pay the bills. I’ve worked as a reporter (when everything was in print), editor, and bookseller. It wasn’t until I went to graduate school that I turned my attention to writing for children. It was quite exciting! Graduating from Vermont College, I was filled with that special enthusiasm one has when starting a brand new adventure. In my case, I graduated with a four-book contract and a brand new agent. I was so ready for a new life to begin.
A four-book contract and an agent? Not many can make a boast like that! Were you on your way to fame and fortune from that point on?
No, because, of course, more life happens. I learned about the realities of the business. There were issues with the agent, which resulted in a parting of the ways. And my books didn’t come out until 2009—eight years after I sold the manuscripts. Many days, and sometimes weeks, I’d be overwhelmed with the little nitpicking nasties of self-doubt. What if I never get anything published? Was it all a waste of time? Maybe I’m not good enough?
Lucky for me, I have a master guru (Eric Kimmel) who—like any coach—keeps me moving forward. I began stretching my own abilities, working in different genres, fine-tuning my technique. I went to classes, and I taught classes. By doing this, I managed to stay afloat.
Your first books were picture book tall tales before moving to middle grade books. Describe your picture books a bit and the relation to tall tales/folklore.
I’ve been a student of American folklore since my days as an undergraduate student, and have written extensively on using folklore in the classroom. American folklore is unique in the world, and its characters are absolutely engaging. More than this is the language itself. The language defies the tidy and restrictive, even uptight structure of formal grammar. It mocks it, in fact, using pseudo-Latinate prefixes and suffixes to expand on the root. The result is a teetotaciously, splendiferous reflection of a frontier too expansive for mere words to capture. By creating such a grand language, the frontier storyteller found a means to make an unknown frontier less scary. More than this, the grander language captured the bigger ideas.
A teetotaciously, splendiferous reflection. I love that! Do young children benefit from the language of folklore?
Absolutely. In reading such tales, a young reader develops an appreciation for language itself, for language is more than mere words. The rhythms and patterns, the musicality and the poetry of language. Studies suggest that language acquisition is keyed to youth, and we can infer that language appreciation is similarly keyed. What else is at risk in this age of minimalist language and truncated text talk if the picture book traditional tale fades away? If language reflects what lives inside us, our hopes, our dreams, our history, what does this truncated text talk reveal about us? LOL.
But you’ve expanded beyond folklore, too. Tell us about that.
Besides folklore, I’m also an avid student of American history. David McCullough, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote, “We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by and large historically illiterate…We have to know who we were if we’re to know who we are and where we’re headed…If you don’t care about it—if you’ve inherited some great fortune, you don’t even know that it’s a great work of art and you’re not interested in it—you’re going to lose it…” History is literature, McCullough says. And our history is full of amazing stories. When the folklore market bottomed out in the children’s literature field, I had to adapt. It became a natural progression to move to middle-grade fiction.
I met Mr. McCullough once and I can tell you his words are genuine. His books reflect who he is professionally and personally. I respect his work and the quotes you referenced. Sorry, side-tracked! Moving on…
The Girls of Gettysburg is historical fiction, yes? Was the research different and/or more intense for this book?
Historical fiction is the coming together of two opposing elements: fact and fiction. As we know, it isn’t easy to define historical fiction. For some, historical fiction is first fiction, and therefore anything goes. Others condemn this blending. Yet, nothing about history is obvious, and facts are often open to interpretation. Once upon a time, it was considered factual that the world was flat, that blood-letting was the proper way of treating disease, that women were emotionally and physically incapable of rational thought. In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but he didn’t discover America. Some would say he was less an explorer and more of a conqueror. History tends to be written by those who survived. As such, no history is without its bias.
How did this bias affect the way you approached the writing of Girls?
When I tackled the battle of Gettysburg as the focus of this new novel, I had to first get the facts right. This was a daunting task because no other battle has been studied so thoroughly. I read A LOT to get these facts right. And then, there’s the emotional truth, the story behind the facts. Historical fiction makes the facts matter to the reader. If I didn’t get that right, creating characters true to their time and place, the readers wouldn’t care about the facts. For me, the only way to discover this emotional truth was to walk the battlefield of Gettysburg, and witness that landscape where my characters lived over one hundred and fifty years ago. I traveled to Gettysburg four times, walking the battlefield and talking to re-enactors and the park rangers.
Now that’s thorough research! However, even when authors write brilliant books, they still need to promote their own work these days. How do you do that?
When you find the answer to this, let me know. The business of publishing, while an important facet to know and understand, befuddles me.
Where can readers find your books? Do any independent bookstores carry them? (I’m a huge supporter of indies.)
Holiday House, my publisher, lists where you can buy the book:
Also you can win a free copy of the book on Goodreads! You need to be a member of Goodreads, and a US resident, and enter before August 1, 2014:
Bobbi, thank you for joining us! It was wonderful learning more about folklore and historical fiction. Your past books have been marvelous (I’ve enjoyed every one!) and I look forward to reading The Girls of Gettysburg.
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