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Bookseller-Author Interview: Sarah Bagby and Clare Vanderpool

May 28, 2012

Memorial Day weekend seems like the perfect time to talk about summer reading, and if Moon Over Manifest isn’t already on your list it will be after reading today’s post.

Sarah Bagby, owner of Watermark Books and Cafe in Wichita, Kansas interviews her friend, one time bookselling employee and 2011 Newbery Winner Clare Vanderpool about winning the award, her inspirations, summer reading plans and a sneak peek at her next book.

How has your life changed since winning the Newbery?

In some ways it has changed a lot. I’ve had many great opportunities to speak in schools and at conferences around the country. The Newbery is an incredible honor that focuses a lot of attention on a book and, as a result, many more people are familiar with Moon Over Manifest because of the award. It’s still an amazing thing for me to see my book pictured on Newbery posters and listed among some of my favorite children’s books. From a family perspective, the kids have had a great time accompanying me on various trips. I was able to take the girls toNew York and the boys toWashington,D.C. And of course, everyone went toNew Orleans where I received the award. But on the whole, family life is pretty normal. The most challenging thing is we have one desktop computer and if I happen to be working on it when school is out, I often have someone tapping me on the shoulder saying, “Are you done yet?” That keeps things in perspective.

Do you have a favorite snack food while you are writing?

 M & M’s and hot tea.

What was your favorite book or books as a young reader?

Island of the Blue Dolphins and A Wrinkle in Time

Did you have a favorite Independent Bookstore growing up, and why do you feel that Independent Bookstores are important?

We have two amazing independent bookstores in Wichita and they’re both within walking distance of my house. Watermark Books is our friendly neighborhood bookstore where I took my children for storytime when they were little. A highlight of the week! They also have great authors come in to do book talks. I get to ride my bike over and listen to the best of the best. And Eighth Day Books is a quiet haven. They have a warm sunny spot by the front window where I like to read (and sometimes nod off if it’s really sunny). They have even given me the key to the store if I need to do some early morning writing. Independent bookstores are so important because they’re staffed by people who know and love books as well as they know and love their customers. With this intimate knowledge, they’re able to match books with readers. That’s a beautiful thing.

If you made a reading list of the books that influenced you to write this book the way you did, what book would be at the top of that list?

I don’t know that there could really be a top of the list. I loved all the great children’s books, Anne of Green Gables, The Little House books, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Dr. Seuss–the works. I’m sure these all influenced my writing. Moon Over Manifest is a coming of age novel in a historical setting that is also part mystery mixed with humor. I am a big fan of historical fiction and books like Richard Peck’s A Long Way From Chicago and A Year Down Yonder. I love that these stories are set in the midwest, they have a wonderful cast of diverse characters that sparkle with color, personality, humor, flaws, and unexpected moments of redemption. As for the mystery, I was a big Agatha Christie fan growing up which probably influenced that part of the book. She is the master of making the person “who dunnit” the person you don’t even consider to be a suspect. Another influencing factor isn’t a book but I studied the movie The Sting to figure out the ins and outs of a good con.

Were there any other influences that helped you decide to write a historical novel? For middle readers?

I always knew I wanted to write a book that would be on the children’s shelves at the bookstore. But I don’t think that I necessarily write just for children. I write the kind of stories that I like to read which seem to be fairly layered with significant emphasis on both theme and plot. I love hearing from senior citizens who have read and enjoyed my book. That tells me I’m writing a good story that doesn’t have age limits. Historical fiction seems to be a good fit for me. I like to read it and I love research. For me, it is the next best thing to time travel. Looking through old newspapers, photo albums, yearbooks, journals–what a great way to get lost in another time and place and enrich the story I’m writing at the same time.

What books influenced or inspired you to become a writer?

I have always been a big reader. Some of the books that inspired me to be a writer as a young reader were Half Magic by Edward Eager, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, and The Wrinkle in Time quartet by Madeleine L’Engle. Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins made me fall in love with historical fiction. Books I’ve read as an adult that have shaped me as a writer are One of Ours and Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather and Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners.

One of the entertaining elements of Moon Over Manifest is the vast cast of characters-all with a story to tell and a unique voice in which to tell it. Was it difficult to write so many characters? Did you have to cut any? Were some created for plot purposes after you were deep into the story?

It wasn’t hard to come up with that many characters but it was challenging making sure that they all had their own voice and place in the story. Yes, I did cut a couple of characters and I merged a couple of characters into one. I felt like my job as a writer was to hear each character out–listen carefully to each story and make sure that the reader could hear and know them as individual people – not just as a group. If I couldn’t hear someone clearly enough, then I let them fade into the background. That’s a nice way of saying – they got cut! I can’t think of any characters I created for plot purposes, there were already so many clamoring for attention that I didn’t need to make up any more! There were some nice surprises, though. I would just talk to certain characters that I needed to know more about – to find out why they were in the story. I remember folding laundry one morning and asking, Ned, “Who are you? What is your role in this story?” His answer came to me out of the blue. “I’m an immigrant.” (I don’t think I actually heard the words out loud, but who knows.) I hadn’t realized this about Ned and it really changed the direction of the book.

Did any characters clamor to be heard above others?

Most of the characters were pretty assertive but the one who arrived very clear from the beginning was Abilene. I almost feel like she showed up at my door and said, “I’m here!” With a story as layered as Moon Over Manifest, with multiple characters, storylines, and timelines, it was nice to have such clarity surroundingAbilene. I knew from the beginning how she spoke, her outlook on life, her manner and disposition. I remember one time in the early stages of the writing that I wrote a line of dialogue that I knew immediately was not Abilene’s voice. That’s the beauty of the backspace key. I deleted the line and let her do the talking the rest of the way.

Were there any characters you had to cut?

Yes, but they’re still sulking and they would prefer not to be named.

While Moon Over Manifest is set inKansas, and based on an existing small town, the story is universal, how would you respond to someone who thought the setting might dissuade them from reading the book? What are the universal themes you explore in the book?

I did hear one reader say that at first, they weren’t too interested in reading Moon Over Manifest because it seemed too far-fetched that there could be this little town in southeast Kansas with such a colorful history and all these citizens from around the world. She thought it was far-fetched until she found out it was based on the real town of Frontenac in southeastern Kansas. Once I started delving into this town’s history, I knew I had struck a gold mine of setting and history. Well, actually it would have been a coal mine because that was the main industry in the town. The story is universal in several respects. It is literally made up of people from around the world. People who come from diverse backgrounds and somehow end up in the ultimate melting pot of Manifest, Kansas where there are immigrants from twenty-two different countries all living right next door to each other. When people from such diversity are living in such proximity, it is maybe a little easier to find the things that unite us and bind us together as human beings. The experiences of loss, despair, hope, and redemption. The need for community, belonging, place. And especially our common need for story.

What is on your summer reading list?

I don’t exactly have a reading list or even a stack of books waiting on the nightstand. That starts to feel too much like required reading. My favorite thing to do in the summer is find the perfect book for the moment, read it, savor it, drink it in by the pool, then take a deep breath and start the search for the next perfect book. The searching is almost as wonderful as the reading! Right now, I’m finishing March by Geraldine Brooks. It’s the story of the absent father, Mr. March from Little Women who is away in the Civil War. If I did have a list, some books that would be on it are Gloryland by Shelton Johnson, The Blue Star by Tony Earley, and Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos.

We’re going on vacation next week, so the search begins for the perfect vacation book. The requirements are a little different for a trip because it not only has to be a great story, it also has to fit in my purse for those occasions when I get separated from the group (accidentally or on purpose) and need to have my book at hand. We’re going to Disney World with the whole family so I might also get a little reading time if I’m not tall enough to go on the roller coaster.

Tell me about your next book.

My next book is called Navigating Early. It’s the story of thirteen-year-old Jack Baker who, after his mother’s death at the end of World War II, is suddenly uprooted from his home in Kansas and placed in a boys’ boarding school in Maine. There he meets Early Auden, that strangest of boys, who reads the number pi as an unending story and collects clippings about sightings of a black bear in the nearby mountains. When Jack and Early find themselves alone at school, they set out for the Appalachian Trail on a quest for the great black bear. Along the way, they meet some truly strange characters, several dangerous, all lost in some way, and each part of the pi story Early continues to reveal. Jack’s ability to be a steadfast friend to Early will be tested as the boys discover things they never knew about themselves and others.

Many Thanks to Clare Vanderpool for joining us today and a special thank you to Clare and Sarah Bagby for this lovely interview! And we’re looking forward to reading Navigating Early early in 2013.

Please share your thoughts with us in our comments sections and Happy Summer Reading!

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 28, 2012 8:46 am

    What a fabulous interview! I wonder if any of those sulking characters will make it into another book?

  2. May 28, 2012 10:12 am

    M&M’s and hot tea…and some time to read. Heaven!

  3. May 28, 2012 12:12 pm

    I haven’t read Moon Over Manifest yet, but it is now at the top of my reading list. Great interview!

  4. May 28, 2012 4:52 pm

    Hi Clare,
    Your Abilene reminded me of Scout. And your lovely Lois Ruby is part of of my writing world here in NM!

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