I’m so happy to have the chance to chat with you, Joy! I really enjoyed your upcoming middle grade book, A FIELD GUIDE TO GETTING LOST, which will be released by Atheneum Books on April 14th. Can you tell us a little bit about it, please?
Sure! Field Guide is a contemporary story set in Seattle, where I live, about two kids whose parents are dating each other. Sutton is into coding and science, and Luis is into stories imagination. They are both MUCH happier indoors than outdoors. But then their parents take them on a hike…
How did writing a middle grade book differ from other writing you’ve done in the past?
My debut novel was YA, but before that, I had written nine previous manuscript that did not sell, eight of which were middle grade. So it’s actually the place I feel most comfortable. The YA I write is on the darker side, so I really enjoy having middle grade stories with much more light and humor as a sort of counterbalance. The writing process is not really different from YA to MG for me, but more the emotional experience of the tone shift.
Do you tend to plot out a story ahead of time, or let it develop on its own?
I fall somewhere in between. I love the E.L. Doctorow quote about writing being like driving at night. You need to have a destination in mind, but you only need to be able to see as far as the headlights in front of you. Something like that. I never write out a full outline, but neither do I wing it completely. I tend to sort of outline (sometimes just bullet points) the first chunk of a story – maybe 50 pages. I’ll draft those, and then with what I’ve learned about the characters and the story I’ll know how to plan out the next chunk of the story. More important than planning the plot is doing pre-writing and pre-thinking about the characters—their flaws and wants and obstacles and stakes. I always do a bunch of work on that before beginning to write.
What did you find most challenging about writing this story, and what came easiest for you?
Honestly, the process on this story was incredibly smooth and such a delight. That is not to say it’s always like that! But Sutton and Luis were pretty immediately characters I knew really well; there’s a lot of myself and my kids in them. I’ve set it firmly in the town where I live.
There were no experimental things happening in the structure (a thing I tend to get myself into in YA). This is such a tiny thing, but I remember my editor gently pointing out my wild overuse of exclamation points in the early drafts. I think I was just so happy to be writing something happy!
As a mom of a child with a food allergy, it was really refreshing to see it addressed in a middle grade fiction story. Where did you find the inspiration for your characters?
I have a serious gluten allergy, and am also allergic to bees. My own kids don’t have food allergies, but I have seen through birthday parties and Halloween and playdates the struggles of some of their friends who do, and how isolating it can be to be a kid who can’t eat what most of the kids are eating.
If you could say one thing to a young reader picking up your book, what would it be?
I hope you love it! But if you don’t, let’s find you something else to read. There’s a book for every reader!
Do you have another writing project on the go at the moment?
Oh goodness, yes. In spring of 2021, I have two new books coming, including my second MG from Atheneum, which is called Across the Pond. It’s about an American girl whose family inherits a Scottish castle. The other is my second YA from Dutton, and we’re still circling the title, but it’s partially verse historical and partially prose contemporary. (There’s that challenging structure thing I mentioned before!)
Can you please tell us where we can go to find out more about you and your writing?
My website is joymccullough.com and I am going to get right on top of updating it so it doesn’t only list my debut novel! I am also on Twitter and Instagram as @jmcwrites.
Thanks for chatting with me today, Joy, and best of luck with your book’s launch!
Thank you so much for having me! For anyone in the Seattle area, the launch party will be at Secret Garden Books on April 18th at 3:00!
Joy McCullough is not outdoorsy and she has a terrible sense of direction. She did climb a Guatemalan volcano one time, and she has hiked through Discovery Park. But she much prefers to stay inside, writing books and plays from her home in the Seattle area, where she lives with her husband and two children. Her debut novel Blood Water Paint was longlisted for the National Book Award and was a William C. Morris Debut Award Finalist. Visit her at JoyMcCullough.com.