Interview with M.L. Tarpley, Author of MAYLIE AND THE MAZE
HS: Hey, M.L.! We're so delighted to have you at Smack Dab. Please tell us about Maylie and the Maze, which just released this month. Elevator pitch.
MLT: “Maylie and the Maze” is middle grade realistic fiction that follows 10-year-old Maylie Montes on an inspirational trip across Europe filled with the shenanigans of her zany family and the mishaps of her overactive imagination. It will appeal to fans of the Middle School series by James Patterson, The Tapper Twins series by Geoff Rodkey, and the Melanie Martin series by Carol Weston.
HS: Most authors have a long and winding publishing journey. What was yours like? Were you a young author like Maylie?
MLT: Yes, definitely a long and winding journey for me.
I've always loved reading and writing, stories and storytelling. I wrote my first novel when I was 12. It's horribly hilarious. It went on for like 30 or more chapters, and it never ended.
After I wrote that very long, ongoing book in junior high, then I went high school and was busy writing essays and research papers, which I strongly dislike, and then I went to college and studied journalism. I didn't take any creative writing classes or anything, but the heart of journalism is asking questions, the right ones, and so it is as an author. To write a story, you must ask one specific question—what if?
What if this happened or this happened? That to me is the spark of a story. That's what I like to call it. And it's something that Maylie learns.
I didn't start writing novels until I was out of college, which was a decade ago. I’ve spent these years learning the craft of writing fiction, attending writer’s conference and webinars, reading writing books, and writing a lot of bad first drafts. (Ha.) As with any skill, you have to practice and put in the time. And you have to learn from the best.
In 2013 I had the idea for the series. I can't remember what the exact spark was, but I had traveled to over a dozen countries and those experiences provided the stage for my novels. I wanted to write a series where kids could travel all over the world and see the countries like they would as a tourist. That was the heart of it.
HS: How did you decide on your publishing method?
In 2017, while I was pregnant with my son, I looked at that story idea from several years before and started writing the book. I finished the first draft in 2018, edited it, sent it out to agents, and got rejections. I worked with a professional editor who offered great feedback to rewrite parts of the book and strengthen the storyline. It was at that point that I realized that I really didn't want to query the book because I had a specific vision for it, including how it would look with illustrations, and I didn't want to sacrifice the full control over it.
I didn't know anything about self-publishing at the time, but I learned and in March 2020 decided to self-publish my novel, so literally, this was a COVID project.
It has been a huge learning curve this year, but it's been great, and I'm really pleased with the final product.
(View the full trailer here.)
HS: You have a fantastic MG voice. How did you tap into it?
MLT: Thank you! Whew…I’m so glad you think so.
I still feel like I’m 10 years old a lot of the time (ha!). It is like ideas for stories geared to kids in middle grade and younger just pop into my brain. I wouldn’t have it any other way! I also have a toddler and over a dozen nieces and nephews, so I have plenty of firsthand experience with kids too.
One of my favorite things to do is settle in at a coffee shop with a composition notebook and pen and just let my imagination run free! I love to scribble away while sipping on a latte.
And re-reading my diaries from when I was a kid helped too. They’re very funny to read and help me remember what was important to me at that age and what my thought process was like, etc. Very enlightening!
HS: Totally agree about those diaries! I read several of the poetry journals I kept in high school before drafting my first YA. Moving away from the text a bit, I have to say that the illustrations add so much to the book! What was it like to work with an illustrator?
MLT: I think so too! It was really neat to see my book truly come to life through the illustrations. Artist Monica Bruenjes (www.artistmonica.com) is very talented!
It was a learning process for me to work with her. She was so great, but I didn’t know what I was doing! (Ha!) We worked out a system for my notes and merging both of our visions into crafting each illustration.
HS: I love the tagline STORIES THAT TAKE YOU PLACES. It seems especially important in these times, when we’re all spending so much time at home. Do you hope the book will provide your readers a much-needed escape?
MLT: Yes, I certainly hope Maylie and the Maze can be a much-needed escape.
Throughout this series, I want kids (and adults alike) to have a chance to travel the world through fiction and along the way learn a bit. I’ve tapped into my own first-hand experiences from traveling to over a dozen countries and filtered them through Maylie’s eyes.
In this instance, the story is set in England, particularly at Leeds Castle in southern England. The castle is absolutely gorgeous! It’s known as the “loveliest castle in the world” for a reason. And it’s nearly 1,000 years old. Isn’t that amazing?!
The book had to be set in England because that’s where the maze is located. Plus, I love England! I love the countryside and manor houses and castles and the mix of modern-day and history in the city of London. My favorite place is the city of Bath.
One of my favorite memories in England is staying a few nights in a 500-year-old thatched cottage in a tiny English village surrounded by green fields edged with low stone fences and full of sheep. It was idyllic and quite inspiring for a creative’s mind!
HS: In many ways, this is a story about the writing process, which I found really intriguing. What’s your own process like?
MLT: I’m a total plotter. I have outlines that have outlines that have outlines. Lol
But I LOVE brainstorming and scribbling away on my ideas in a notebook. It’s a lot of fun!
I first write down the heart of the story as I know it, and the direction I feel it should go. I research the country and tourist attractions to see what nuggets of inspiration will pop up, then I start writing out scene ideas and string them together in an outline. I write my stories from start to finish and don’t skip around. I like to follow along with the story as it flows.
After the first draft is done, I let it sit for a few days before the first edit and then it goes to my critique partner to read and then more edits and so on.
HS: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to young authors?
MLT: My advice to writers of any age is to write, just sit and write and invest the time. Just like you would if you went to further your education in training, in college, or on the job. Make sure to read the genre you are writing to get a feel for how it’s done.
Do writing prompts. Practice. To do anything well we have to put in the time and effort. Writing is no different.
Maylie and the Maze centers on one of Maylie’s main struggles being that she longs to become an author, but she can’t finish a story. I feel like that is a struggle for so many—kids and adults alike, so I decided to write a companion non-fiction book that I would give to a kid like Maylie.
The book, “Young Writer’s Kit: A Guide for Young Writers,” teaches kids how to write fiction and includes a fun genre matching game, writing prompts, and more. It’s currently available for purchase on Amazon; though a free condensed PDF version is available for those who sign up for my newsletter, which anyone interested can do here: www.mltarpleybooks.com
I wish I would have had someone at that time, who was a writer, who said if you really want to do this, here's how. And so through this series, even though it's fiction, I want to teach children how to write their own stories.
HS: What’s next for you?
MLT: I’ve written the next book in
the series and will start working with the illustrator on it soon. It will
publish in Spring 2021. I am currently writing the third book, which will
release Fall 2021. I am also working on a picture book series and have the idea
for a chapter book series stirring in my mind. Exciting!