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An Author Joins Us: Discussing May B. by Caroline Starr Rose

January 6, 2012

We receive manuscripts for books sometimes as early as a year before they are published. One book that became an early favorite of our group was May B. by Caroline Starr Rose (who happens to be a faithful reader of this blog). We’ve mentioned it before, but we’re thrilled to announce that the book will finally be available next week so that all of you can see why we fell in love with this sweet novel in verse about a very brave young girl trying to survive on her own through a cold prairie winter. Today, Caroline joins us to share inspiration, her thoughts on social media and much more.

Q. What book made the strongest impression on you as a child?

A. This is always such a hard question for me! I have so many strong, positive memories about all sorts of books. I will say so that the Little House on the Prairie series made a profound impression on my life — so much so that I’d talk about Laura as if she were someone I knew personally. I’d tell my mother things that Laura had done or said, and she’d assume Laura was a classmate of mine.

Q. As an author, how do you feel about the role social media and blogging plays in your writing life?

A. I started blogging two years ago and have really enjoyed the experience. Writing can be a solitary activity, so it’s been fun to make connections with others and have almost instant feedback on the things I post about.

I love “talking” about what I’m reading, things I’m discovering about writing, and — now that I’m no longer in a school setting and miss teacher conversations — ideas for the classroom.

It’s possible I’m the last author on the planet not on Twitter. I’m sure it’s a wonderful way to connect with a variety of people, but I’m a bit resistant to add in another social media commitment. I want to do well the things I do online; I also want to guard my writing time.

Q. Are you working on a second book?

A. I’m working on a couple of things: a picture book about the Louisiana Wetlands, a contemporary middle grade about a girls’ club, and a historical verse novel that is just in the beginning stages.

Q. What was your favorite genre to read as a teenager?

A. As a teen I read adult books. I don’t remember there being many books for teens when I was a girl, or at least not many that interested me. I read a lot of Agatha Christie mysteries and ate up classics — I was one of the few kids at school who loved almost everything we read in English class.

My grandfather, mother, and I exchanged a lot of titles. From them I learned of The Shell Seekers (Rosamund Pilcher), Crossing to Safety (Wallace Stegner), and Cold Sassy Tree (Olive Ann Burns). Many of the books I read as a teen I still count as favorites today: The Count of Monte Cristo, A Separate Peace, Gone With the Wind (I read this the summer before sixth grade and the summer after eighth), Katherine, and Desiree.

Q. What inspired you to write in free verse?

A. May B. didn’t start at as a verse novel. My first few attempts at writing the story felt distant and lifeless. It wasn’t until I returned to my research (and specifically a book called Read this Only to Yourself: The Private Writings of Midwestern Women, 1880-1910) that I saw the patterns these women’s writings had in common: terse language, stark circumstances, a matter-of-fact tone in all things — whether talking about laundry or the death of a child. It was if the heavens had opened for me, and I was able to climb inside May’s world, using the voices of the women I’d encountered through research.

A confession: I’d read only two verse novels before writing May B. — Karen Hess’s Out of the Dust and Sharon Creech’s Heartbeat. This both terrified and liberated me. I didn’t let myself anywhere near Karen Hesse’s Newbery-winning book while writing, for fear of crumbling into a heap of worthlessness (though I felt I understood for the first time why she told her story this way — the immediacy verse brings speaks volumes, especially in trying times). On the other hand, I wasn’t bound by patterns or rules. Several readers have said May B.’s pacing reads more like prose (swifter than the typical verse novel), which ultimately served the story.

Q. How did you get the inspiration for May B? Why did you choose to make her dyslexia a focus of the book?

A. Because of my Laura Ingalls love, I wanted to create my own strong pioneer girl. I was also curious how someone might write about solitude and challenged myself to experiment with a storyline that would confine one character to a limited space (believe me, there were many times I didn’t feel up to this challenge!). I’d also fallen hard for Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet and wanted to create a survival story told from a girl’s perspective.

May’s name, Mavis Elizabeth Betterly, came to me before I did any character development. I liked the way I could shorten Mavis Betterly to May B. and loved the way her name hinted at the wishy-washy word “maybe” (which is a word like mediocre or okay; it doesn’t carry a lot of conviction), but also contained the strong word “better”. Though I wasn’t quite sure of the specifics, I determined there had to be something in May’s life that made her feel mediocre, something she longed to do better and something that spoke not only to her lack of ability but also her sense of worth.

As a teacher, I’d always wondered how children with learning disabilities had fared at a time before their challenges were understood, especially in the days when recitation and reading aloud were the major means of instruction. Dyslexia became a perfect obstacle for a child striving to do better and mirrored nicely May B.‘s the theme of isolation.

Q. Do you plan to continue writing for children or do you think you might write for adults down the road?

I can’t imagine writing for any other age group.

Q. What is one piece of advice you would like to give to aspiring authors?

A. I started writing in 1998 and sold May B. in 2010. There were a lot of years of rejection in between. During that time I held onto the belief I had something unique to say and if I kept working at it, my writing would improve.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 6, 2012 10:10 am

    The book sounds terrific & will go on the TBR list. I love the little house books, and am also intrigued by those who survived as settlers on the prairie since I live on the edge of it in Colorado near a wonderful place called the Plains Conservation Center. Thanks for the interview.

  2. January 6, 2012 10:51 am

    I remember one of my good blogging buddies loving this book, and I have to say that the premise sounds so intriguing. It’s funny that Caroline loved the Little House books so much, as I get a distinct Little House feeling from the synopsis of this book! Great interview today!

  3. January 6, 2012 5:04 pm

    Wow, I love her journey to writing this in verse. I am so excited about this book and was thrilled when I learned it’s written in verse.

  4. January 6, 2012 5:57 pm

    Now I know why we’re friends . . . we love so many of the same books. Agatha Christie, Gone with the Wind, Little House Series, Count of Monte Cristo – and I haven’t heard anyone mention The Shell Seekers in years. OHMYGOSH, I Loved That Book – which sent me off reading ALL of her books! I also wildly LOVE Daphne du Maurier. Most of these I read when I was younger, too, teens and twenties. Enjoyed the interview, Caroline, and congrats!!!

    • Erin permalink
      January 6, 2012 6:24 pm

      I was thinking the same thing- so many of those were my favorites as well (including Shell Seekers- amazing book!)

  5. January 6, 2012 7:06 pm

    Thanks, Random Acts of Reading, for hosting me today. Books in common mean instant friendships, don’t they? There is no need to establish any sort of foundation; it’s already there. Looks like I’ve found a few new friends today!

    Zibilee, it’s funny. Because of my strong connection to the Little House books I was very concerned what I was writing was too similar. It was hard to get perspective on my story and the ones I grew up with. It’s been lovely to have reviewers nod to Little House but still view May’s story as its own thing.

    Kimberley, how have we never discussed some of these books before now? I’m just about to finish Agatha Christie’s autobiography. It’s interesting to see which of her books she most enjoyed (And Then There Were None she felt was most satisfying — I’d have to agree!). As for Daphne du Maurier, I’ve only read Rebecca, but what a book! I love the way she’s able to make her audience sympathetic to Maxim. The man’s a murderer, but we see him through Mrs. DeWinter’s eyes and are blinded. Powerful.

  6. J. Anderson Coats permalink
    January 6, 2012 7:27 pm

    I’m looking forward to gifting MAY B. to a young Little House fan I know. Awesome interview, Caroline, and good luck!

  7. January 7, 2012 12:53 am

    I loved the Hatchet! It was so thrilling, and it kept me thinking over and over again whether I would have the courage and strength to survive alone, out in the wilderness. I kept wondering if I should take survival classes or something. 😛


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