Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Rebecca Petruck whose middle grade novel, STEERING TOWARD NORMAL, releases this week!
About the book:
Eighth grade is set to be a good year for Diggy Lawson: he’s chosen a great calf to compete at the Minnesota State Fair, he’ll see a lot of the girl he secretly likes at 4-H, and he and his dad Pop have big plans for April Fool’s Day. But everything changes when classmate Wayne Graf’s mother dies, which brings to light that Pop is Wayne’s father, too. Suddenly, Diggy has a half-brother who moves in and messes up his life. Wayne threatens Diggy’s chances to win Grand Champion, horns in on his girl, and rattles his easy relationship with Pop.
Despite his high hopes, eighth grade quickly turns into Diggy’s worst year ever, filled with jealousy, fighting, and several incidents involving cow poop. But as the boys care for their calves, pull pranks, and watch too many B movies, they learn what it means to be brothers and how weird the concept of family can be as they slowly steer toward a new kind of normal.
STEERING TOWARD NORMAL has already been selected for the American Booksellers Association Indies Introduce New Voices and the Spring 2014 Kids’ Indie Next List. Order your copy now from your local independent bookseller. Or visit Amazon or Barnes and Noble to get your copy today!
JCB: Congratulations on your debut, Rebecca! STEERING TOWARD NORMAL is rich with details about raising and competing steers and belonging to 4-H. Do you have a background with 4-H or raising steers? If not, what drew you to this topic and how did you research it?
RP: In our area in Minnesota, it used to be moderately common for families to buy an animal like a pig or cow in the spring, raise it through the summer, and have it butchered in the fall. Though I was a baby, my parents did that one year with a steer.
Apparently, we named him Duane after my dad, and I would “ride” his back, and when he escaped we chased him through the fields hollering “Duane! Duane!” to great hilarity (because of how it was my dad’s name, see?). Then “Duane” was just gone. I’m convinced that’s why I’ve never cared for steak.
Other than that summer, my family has never had pets, let alone raised livestock, and though I was a member of 4-H, I did art and sewing. I came to the topic for Steering Toward Normal sideways, which is how I think a lot of us come by our stories. I knew there were two boys about the same age and half-brothers (and the implications of that), and I had my hometown in Dodge Center, MN. I did research and eventually settled on steer competitions because the stakes were both externally and internally high, and the time frame of one year created a natural arc for the story.
It sounds a bit ruthlessly calculated when I write it like that, but it absolutely was not by the time I started attending fairs, interviewing steer competitors, and learning about steers. The competitors, from nine to nineteen years old, are serious, generous, and fun. They love their animals, and who wouldn’t because steers are so smart, empathic, and as varied in personalities as people. But at the end of the day, even show steers are only beef cattle. They must be loaded onto the packer’s truck for slaughter, and it’s heartbreaking every time.
JCB: Diggy is such a memorable character with a great voice. Do you remember how he first came to you? What came to you first, the story or Diggy?
“River Divers” from The Ogeechee: A River and Its People by Jack Leigh
RP: The story came to me first, from a photo of two boys who looked to be the same age but who I decided were brothers. It was wondering how that might be that led me to Steering Toward Normal. But for a long time, Diggy was a side character. He had another brother, named Modern, who had a much stronger voice. It took me a while to realize Modern had a stronger voice because he was strong. He wasn’t confused about his place in the family, he was confident about his decisions, and he was a natural leader. While he was a nice character to know, he wasn’t an interesting character to follow because he just didn’t have much of a learning curve. Diggy, who had frequently seemed annoying to Modern, had legitimate fears that deserved to be addressed and was rightfully angry. How he learned to cope with the situation was the much more compelling tale. Plus, he was always really funny.
JCB: Congratulations on being an ABA New Voice and Indie Next List pick! Is there a story behind how you first heard this news?
RP: Thanks! I first heard the news via email so I thought it was spam. Like, “You’re a winner! To redeem your prize, send us all your financial information, and we’ll send you a basket of rainbows and unicorns.” But the email was just personal enough that I couldn’t quite dismiss it—because, seriously, I was going to delete it. I sent it to my agent and editor, and it turns out the guys at Amulet had known and were glad they could finally celebrate with me!
JCB: Tell us a bit about your journey as a writer. How long have you been writing?
Can’t you just smell the pathos? (And the hairspray?)
RP: Like so many of us, I have been making up stuff since I was a kid. I was really into that TV show V, the original, not the remake, and I wrote several episodes with me as the spunky new character who saved the day, like, all the time. (Hey, does that mean I was into fanfic decades before it was popular? 🙂 ) I went through the bad-poetry phase in high school, and by college was writing bad plays and screenplays. As an adult, I took some classes at the New School in New York City and started a critique group, and my writing got moderately better. But for me it was really difficult to work full time and write. There are some people who can do it, but I just wasn’t one of them. I thought about entering an MFA program, but I kept getting raises and promotions, so it was really hard to leave that kind of security behind. Then September 11th happened. By the first anniversary, I had left the city and started my MFA.
That was 2002, and my book came out this year. So the journey has been slow and heart-wrenching, full of highs and lows. This is not a profession for the faint of heart. But of course I wouldn’t change any of it because Steering Toward Normal is in the world now, and having a novel published is just as amazing as you think it will be.
JCB: What books have influenced you as a writer?
RP: I think Save the Cat by Blake Snyder and Wired for Story by Lisa Cron have been the most important books for me as a writer, though I’ve appreciated others like Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and Second Sight by Cheryl Klein.
Personally, the books that will never leave my shelves include Robin McKinley’s early novels, like The Blue Sword and Beauty, Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, Plainsong by Kent Haruf, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, and, forever and always, The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly and everything Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson.
JCB: What are you working on now?
Insect Cuisine by Shochi Uchiyama from Eat the Weeds, a web site by Green Deane
RP: The working title is BUGS because I’m crap with titles and the story involves (can you guess?) bugs. I first read about entomophagy, the eating of insects for nutrition, a few years ago in National Geographic and was immediately fascinated. I’m a logic-oriented person, so entomophagy makes perfect sense to me—bugs are a highly nutritious food source that require far fewer resources to produce than our current staples. But I’m also American, so the idea of eating insects on purpose has a high ick factor. Confronting that contradiction seems perfect for middle grade. So far the WIP is about a boy, bug-eating (by someone for some reason), and soccer, but I swear it will get better than that.
JCB: As this community is fearless, we’d like to know something you are afraid of and something you are not afraid of?
RP: My deepest, biggest fear was abandonment. (And, huh. Steering Toward Normal is about two boys who are abandoned—go figure. Seriously—I didn’t make that connection until just now.) That real fear manifested as all sorts of other fears, like people breaking into our house or sneaking up on me and taking me away and then *all the bad things* happening. But then my fear came true when someone I cared about deeply left me on purpose. It was horrible, but totally survivable, and after that I realized I just wasn’t afraid anymore.
As writers with good imaginations, I’m sure we’ve all freaked ourselves out with scenarios that made us wedge chairs under doorknobs, sleep with a heavy and useful Maglite, and wake up every hour to do a quick sweep of the house. But after my fear came true, I forgot to lock doors. I forgot to close doors to the outside when I showered. I walked outside at night without thinking a thing of it, no keys to hold sticking out between my fingers. I talked to unseemly looking strangers, and I even picked up strangers on the side of the road and gave them rides. Craziness, right? I think after all that time having been afraid, not feeling afraid made me reckless and take advantage of the new lightness I was experiencing.
Of course, none of that behavior was wise, and I’ve since made myself get better about being reasonably cautious, but I do it as a sensible person and not a fearful one. The thing about fear is we give it what power it has. And it turns out that, for me, confronting my fear (even though I didn’t want to and very much against my will) really was the way to end it. (Is that Buddhist or Ninja?) I still have everyday worries about my career as a writer, paying bills, some social anxiety, and things like that. But that deep, visceral fear that could nearly blind me with terror, that doesn’t live inside me anymore. So, in a way, I’m grateful for that person I loved who left me. Though let’s not get carried away—I wouldn’t mind keying his car.
Thank you for inviting me to be on Fearless Fifteeners!
JCB: Thank you for stopping by our blog, Rebecca! Congratulations, again, on STEERING TOWARD NORMAL!
About Rebecca Petruck:
Rebecca Petruck is a Minnesota girl, though she also has lived in Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, England, Connecticut and, currently, North Carolina. A former member of 4-H, she was also a Girl Scout, a cheerleader, and competed in MathCounts. She reads National Geographic cover to cover. Her first novel, STEERING TOWARD NORMAL, is an American Booksellers Association Indies Introduce New Voices selection and a Spring 2014 Kids’ Indie Next List title. Vanity Fair’s Hollywood dubbed it a “book we’d like to see made into a film.” STEERING TOWARD NORMAL will be released by Abrams/Amulet May 13, 2014. You may visit her online at http://www.rebeccapetruck.com.
|Jennifer Chambliss Bertman is the author of the forthcoming middle-grade mystery, BOOK SCAVENGER (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt/Macmillan, 2015). BOOK SCAVENGER launches a contemporary mystery series that involves cipher-cracking, book-hunting, and a search for treasure through the streets of San Francisco. Jennifer earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College, Moraga, CA, and is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA.