“Big River’s Daughter” is described as being “Huck Finn meets ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’” I’m really intrigued. Tell us more.
That was the pitch that my editor, Pam Glauber, used to sell the manuscript to the other editors and marketing at Holiday House. I love that description! Who doesn’t love Mark Twain? And in fact, I read through many of Twain’s works while working on this story to get a sense of river life.
“This here story is all true, as near as I can recollect. It ain’t a prettified story. Life as a river rat is stomping hard, and don’t I know it. It’s life wild and woolly, a real rough and tumble. But like Da said, life on the river is full of possible imaginations. And we river rats, we aim to see it through in our own way. That’s the honest truth of it.”
So says River Fillian as she begins to tell her story. My book is an historical American fantasy, a blend of the tall tale tradition that captures so much of the American identity, and a unique form of fantasy. Tall tales, epitomized in the exploits of Annie Christmas and Mike Fink (two important characters in River’s life), were the means by which people dealt with their insecurities when faced with a new life on a new strange and alien land. These characters were larger than life for a reason: they could by sheer size and force of will take on the overwhelming challenges of life, and win. Even their language was as wild and unabashed as the circumstance and landscape that created these characters.
River is the daughter of the Mississippi River pirate king. When her father disappears after the horrific earthquake, her world is literally turned upside down. Rescued by Annie Christmas, River must face pirates and outlaws who hope to claim her father's territory. Like Huck Finn on his great journey down the big muddy, River’s journey is a rough-and-tumble adventure as she searches to find her place on the Mississippi.
Annie Christmas is one of the original heroines in African American folklore. Her tales were a favorite of the Creoles (persons of mixed Spanish, French, and African ancestry) and the American blacks in pre-Civil War southern Louisiana and Mississippi River region. Annie Christmas not only defies the social order that defined New Orleans of the time, she soon defies that social ordering on the big river to become a respected keeler captain. An important symbol in her story is her pearl necklace. Each pearl, a symbol of her power, is a tribute paid by one who challenged her authority and was bested.
The tall tale figure of Mike Fink also finds a place in River’s story. Based on a real person, he is notorious for his sense of humor and for his willingness to fight. Of course, the one person he could not best is Annie Christmas.
Just as it does in the tall tale tradition, the landscape itself is an important character in my story. After all, it was the near incomprehensible vastness, the extraordinary fertility and the natural peculiarities of the land that inspired the tall-talk grounded in humor of extravagance and exaggeration. River’s story takes place on the mighty Mississippi River in a time when the big river was considered the edge of civilization, the frontier. The American frontier is the most significant event in American history. While everyone is familiar with the wild west and its hallmark character, the cowboy, the frontier began when the English colonial settled here in the early 17th century and ended when the last of the mainland territories became states in the early 20th century. The frontier is that archetypal symbol that designates the wild area beyond the edge of civilized life. It’s that ‘other’ place where anything can happen.
Beyond that edge of civilization was a place full of outlaws and pirates. It was the hiding place of Jean Laffite and his brother Pierre. The Brothers Laffites plundered British and Spanish ships for anything they could sell, including slaves. At one point, they were the most powerful buccaneers of the Caribbean.
This was also an extraordinary time in American history. We were embroiled in the War of 1812. While the War of Independence set us free of British rule, the War of 1812, what some historians call the second war of independence, ultimately defined us as a force in world power. My story is grounded in many historical personalities, such as the Laffites, as well as events. In December 1811, a series of earthquakes shook the Mississippi River basin. Three of these earthquakes would have measured at magnitude of 8.0 on the modern-day Richter scale. Six others would have measured between 7.0 and 7.5. The quakes were felt as far away as Canada. It shook so hard, it forced the Mississippi River to run backwards, changing the very landscape. It also sets into motion River’s story.
What was the inspiration? Any life experience involved here?
Well, my dad wasn’t a river pirate, and I never rode a keeler down the Mississippi (although I did take a Windjammer cruise on the oldest wooden ship still on the job). But you know, fiction is primarily an emotional exchange, one that carries certain kernels of emotional truth. An old Ibo (Africa) proverb states, all stories are true. Not necessarily factual, but certainly true to what it means to be human.
I’ve long studied American folklore. In fact, I earned my MFA in Writing for Children from Vermont College, and was awarded honors with distinction for my Master of Arts in Children’s Literature degree from Simmons College in Boston, in which both times I studied the folklore process in children’s literature. Children’s literature at that time showcased the best storytellers of the genre, including Eric Kimmel, Rafe Martin and Aaron Shepard, among many others. Folklore was a stable in picturebook collections. Because of economic and technological changes, the market shifted dramatically. Writers had to find a way to adapt. I moved to middle grade fiction. My studies in folklore grounded my own sense in voice. Of course, style and voice are related but they are not necessarily the same. A writer’s style includes those familiar devices as word choices, sentence structure, description, rhythm and so on. Rising out of these stylistic devices comes a writer's voice. You can say style without voice is hollow, but a voice without style is pretty darn bland!
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.
Our readers are always interested in the path each book takes to publication. Tell us about your own ups and downs.
Getting Big River’s Daughter followed a similar meandering as the big river itself. And it included torrential rains and raging riptides!
I graduated in 2001, armed with my second master’s degree and a four-book contract. As River would say, “Who-op!” But, as much as I knew about story, I knew nothing of the business of children’s publishing. And it is foremost, a business.
I signed on with the first agent who would help me with the multi-contracts. What I didn’t realize is that an agent/writer relationship is akin to marriage. While this agent helped seal the deal with the contracts, other issues arose. Needless to say, that relationship didn’t work out. I was referred to another agent, and more problems arose. It turned out that the contracts contained a couple of damaging clauses. According to this new agent, I couldn’t submit work elsewhere and she couldn’t renegotiate the clauses. The relationship ended, of course. Meanwhile, I went to Author’s Guild, learned what I had to in order to understand these clauses and then renegotiated the particular clauses myself.
My first two books came out in 2009, eight years after signing the contract. The third book came out in 2012, eleven years after signing the contract. The fourth contract, however, was cancelled. It turns out, all this is routine in the business of publishing. Thankfully, I had a strong circle of friends, in particular Eric Kimmel and Marion Dane Bauer, who understood that business side of things and shared their wisdom and support.
But there was yet another, stronger riptide of a lesson I had to steer through. Beginning in 2001, the children’s market was changing dramatically. The folklore picturebook market bottomed out. The very thing that I had studied for, loved, and wanted to define my career was no longer an option. What the heck do I do now? Eric said, write middle grade books.
The challenge became in combining all that I had learned and loved in folklore with this new format. For a while, it was a hit and miss. Of course, as hindsight reveals, I was actually refining my skills. Finally I had this manuscript. By now, I was unsure if it even fit in a market that no longer viewed folklore as relevant. Even historical fiction was having a hard time.
And that’s when I learned my greatest lesson. Here’s what happened:
I met Emma Dryden via Facebook, when she was describing her recent experience as a passenger on a Windjammer cruise – the very one I had gone on! I’ve known about Emma for decades: she’s legendary in the field. It turns out, she had just started her own business, drydenbks. I signed up, asking her a crucial question: do I still have a chance? Where do I fit in now?
And of course, Dumbledore that she is, she helped clarify my thinking and create a plan that would help me achieve my goals. A business plan!
And part of that plan included an introduction to agent Karen Grencik, who – it turns out – just started a new agency. And this time, I wasn’t shy about asking questions, even dumb ones. And I knew: she’s the one.
One month later, Karen sold Big River’s Daughter to Holiday House. Three months after that, she sold my second middle grade novel, Girls of Gettysburg, also to Holiday House. The big lesson I learned: Patience. Everything happens for a reason at the time they are supposed to happen.
I love writing middle grade novels, and I would never have discovered that if events hadn’t unfolded as they did. I love my agent, and I could not have met her sooner because she was busy elsewhere. And likewise, I love Emma Dryden, which I would never have met if not for that Windjammer cruise.
So as River plunges into the wilds of the frontier, taking on the Pirates Laffite and the extraordinary landscape of the mighty river herself, in a rough and tumble Big River’s Daughter, there is that truth of River’s journey: if one perseveres, life can be full of possible imaginations.
For a wonderful educator’s guide on how to use Big River’s Daughter in the classroom, see: http://www.holidayhouse.com/docs/Big_Rivers_Daughter.pdf
For an interesting discussion on folklore in children’s literature, see the conversation between writers, editors and librarians at: http://www.bobbimillerbooks.com/for_writers.html#gpm1_6
For more about voice, see the conversation between some of the best writers and editors in the business, including Eric Kimmel, Kathi Appelt, Cheryl Klein, Emma Dryden, Adam Gidwitz, Louise Hawes and others at: http://www.bobbimillerbooks.com/on_voice.html
Finally, for a conversation that explores why historical fiction is important, see: http://www.childrensliteraturenetwork.org/blog/radar/