We are so excited for this special stop on the #ChasingBlogTour. An interview with Sharon Mentyka:
Q: What was your favorite part of the writing process for Chasing at the Surface and how did this experience differ from your previous writing projects?
Plotting out characters in stories is always fun. It’s a little bit like getting to know new friends, except you have a lot more control! But honestly, and I may be an outlier in this respect, revision is really my favorite part of the writing process. That’s when everything starts to coalesce, and the story can really find its own way. It’s hard work. I think I must have gone through six to eight full revisions on Chasing. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back, but if the story is one that’s worth telling, revision work is always satisfying.
My first published book was a chapter book for younger children, aged 4-7, B in the World, the story of a boy who faces bullying for wanting to explore his feminine side. That book was a little different because with chapter books, the clarity of language and sentence structure is really important and drives the revision process to some degree. What was really special for me about revising “Chasing,” which is my debut middle-grade, was that I had the privilege of having Michelle McCann as my editor. Michelle has an incredible ability to identify any weak spots in the narrative, and as a children’s editor, she pushed me to really think extra hard about my readers in every scene, every dialogue exchange. You’ll hear writers say this again and again, but it’s so true. Having the expertise of someone like Michelle made “Chasing” a much stronger story.
Q: Many students find research work tedious. How did you go about researching when writing a book like this? How long did it take you and what was your favorite part of the process? Did you visit any of locations in Chasing at the Surface?
Obviously, research was particularly important for this story because as you know, Chasing was inspired by a real event that happened in an enclosed inlet in Washington State in the fall of 1997. But actually, all my writing projects start out with research, and I think that’s true for a lot of writers. The danger is that sometimes it’s so much fun to research that we keep putting off the actual writing!
Research doesn’t have to be tedious. I think sometimes what’s missing when kids tackle research projects is choice and active research. By choice, I mean, all of us are more inclined to want to learn more about a topic that’s already sparked our interest. If a student has a choice of what they want to research, or can narrow down a broad research topic to something that really sparks their curiosity, they’re much more likely to be successful. The second ingredient—active research—means going beyond the Internet and sometimes, even books when doing your research on any topic. It means going direct to primary sources, whether it’s newspaper articles, or interviewing people or visiting sites. Besides being much more fun, it’s an approach that’s going to serve students well through high school all the way on up into college.
For Chasing, I absolutely visited the Dyes Inlet, several times, in addition to reading all the newspaper reports from when the event occurred in 1997. I also spoke to some of the whale researchers and residents who witnessed the month-long event, to help me nail down some facts and details. As a writer, I really believe that setting is one more character in a story. So walking the streets of the towns around the Dyes Inlet was probably my favorite part of research for this book, and a whole lot of fun.
Q: What do you find most challenging about writing for middle school students?
I think there are probably 10+ kinds of profiles of what a “typical” middle grade student is like. The common thread might be that the middle grades are a time when kids are all about finding where they fit in or where they stand out in their families, their schools and the world. They’re living at a kind of a tipping point, where they take note of everything happening around them, and weigh it all against the backdrop of “how does this fit into my worldview and who I am?” In some ways, this is great, because middle grade stories can tackle all sorts of issues. But what speaks strongly to a fourth-grader is not going to necessarily resonate with a seventh-grader. Middle grade books really so span a wide age range. I tend to think my stories are aimed probably right there in the middle. So that’s the challenge, trying to find the ideal slice that’s perfect for each particular story.
Q: You also offer school visits, what is your favorite thing about interacting with students?
I have to say that I think, in general, we underestimate what our students are capable of and what insights they bring to ideas and problems if we, as adults, are open to really listening. When you spend time with young people, you can see their innate optimism and how receptive they are to learning and growing. Stories still matter, and every child has a story inside them that they need to see reflected in the books and stories they read and hear. As you know, this is a pretty hot topic right now in the children’s lit community—the right that every child has to see themselves in stories.
I also always find it telling that students are genuinely surprised and, in a way, encouraged, that the book an author is showing them took many years of hard work. It just didn’t appear one day, complete and whole. I think it makes any struggles they might have less lonely. I’m also lucky because my role as a visiting author is kind of like being a grandparent. I can come in and have great interactions with students, but then I get to leave at the end of the day. It’s the full-time teachers who have the greater responsibility and burdens of working with students on a day-to-day basis, and these are the folks we really need to support.
Q: For readers who love your writing, what should we watch for next?
I have a couple of projects in the works. One is a nonfiction picture book biography that I’m excited about, and I’m also working on another middle-grade novel that follows a boy who turns to art to heal a crisis in his family. This book will include a section of visual pages relating to the story, which is fun for me because I still do work as a graphic designer in my “day job.” Hopefully, I’ll be able to announce more details about both of these soon. There’s also another story that’s very close to my heart that I’m still looking to find a home for—a historical fiction middle grade told through the perspective of two characters of different races. This is a story that holds particular significance for me because of my personal experience, but it’s also a story that I know I need to be very sensitive in telling. But ultimately, I think my readers need this story, which is one of compassion and forgiveness.
Q: What is your favorite compliment you have received from a reader?
I think that has to be when a reader tells me their favorite scene in one of my books, or something that a character has experienced and they say, “That’s exactly how I felt when something similar happened to me.” Hands-down, that will always make me tear up, because it means I’ve found that elusive point of empathy, a common connection between people or between people and animals, that they recognize and share.