Class of 2k9 Author Interview: Rosanne Parry & Suzanne Morgan Williams

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Today it is my great pleasure to host not one, but two Class of 2k9 authors, Rosanne Parry (Heart of a Shepherd) and Suzanne Morgan Williams (Bull Rider). I am such a fan of both of their books. Read my reviews: Heart of a Shepherd, Bull Rider. You’re in for a treat with fabulous insider-info on two talented writers’ debut titles. Let’s get started!

Describe where you write.

Suzanne: Usually I write at my desk looking out at the Virginia Range in Nevada – where the Comstock silver was discovered in the 1850s. I also always carry a tablet or notebook when I travel and then I write longhand wherever I happen to be. Sometimes when I’m driving I pull off the road to write something down that I just thought of.

Rosanne: In a word—outside. Sitting still has never been a talent. I love to work outdoors. My tree house is my favorite place,

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but I also write in Forest Park

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Gabriel Park, Tryon Creek State Park and the Tualatin Hills Nature Park. Thank you fellow Portlanders for funding and maintaining my outdoor offices—just one of the 500 things I love about Portland!

Tell us about the initial inspiration for your debut novels.

Suzanne: The idea for Bull Rider came following a long day of storytelling about Nevada, cowboys, and Indian legends. Our SCBWI Region was hosting some speakers prior to an IRA meeting in Reno, and one of them suggested I write a series for young kids – maybe second grade – about rodeo and set it in Nevada. I had no idea then that it would turn into the book for older readers that it became.

Rosanne: My dad taught my son to play chess when he was in kindergarten—a task requiring heroic patience! It was quite hilarious to watch so I wrote a sonnet about them. Years later I wrote a short story about a boy and his grandpa playing chess on the back porch of a ranch house, but those characters were nothing like my family. I liked that short story very much and it won a Kay Snow Award from the Willamette Writers. I sent it to my editor, Jim Thomas, who I’d met a year before at the Oregon SCBWI fall retreat. He said, “This is great writing. Send me something else.” I put it aside and worked on other things but I really liked the boy and his grandpa so I kept thinking about how to integrate that chess game into a larger story. There are plenty of opportunities for conflict on a ranch, but it wasn’t until I added the military family aspect that I knew the story would work. Even so I got stuck just a few chapters in and was fortunate enough to get a critique from Wendy Lamb, another editor from Random House. She was very insightful and encouraging. I finished a first draft about nine months after that.

Both Heart of a Shepherd and Bull Rider demanded some serious knowledge of rural life – the worlds of ranching and rodeo. Describe your research process.

Suzanne: I’ve never lived on a ranch or ridden in a rodeo but I have some serious horse people in my family, a couple of farmers, and my husband’s family includes a group of orchardists who live in a small rural town. We’ve visited there a lot over the years and I’ve seen how things work when you know practically everyone in your community. I honestly can’t remember when I first went to a horse show or a rodeo – probably when I was about five or six. For the bull riding portion of my research, I was able to interview some professional bull riders, to get behind the scenes at the Event Center here in Reno, to see the bulls come off the trucks for the day’s rides – including one called Ugly. I visited a local bull riding ring and saw some kids take their first bull rides and talked to the guy who ran it. I was lucky enough to do an extensive interview with a local ranch family and they passed my manuscript on to a bull riding rancher. I did a LOT of research and checked and double checked. Oh, and I can ride a horse, and they used to brand calves across the street from my house until the land went to smaller horse properties.

Rosanne: I have been to eastern Oregon several times and it has never failed to impress.

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Most of what I know about ranching comes from friends who grew up on ranches. The landscape and larger towns in Heart of a Shepherd are true places, but Brother’s hometown, the creek and the reservoir are fictional. I took a topographical map of Malheur (Mal’-yer) County and put the town in a spot that would work for my story.

I have no ranch skills to speak of. I am able to sit on top of a horse that is moving. People who know assure me that what I’m doing is not riding. I couldn’t rope a fence post from standing on the ground if my life depended on it, but I did bottle feed a lamb once. Fortunately there are agricultural colleges and many people willing to describe in detail their working life on a ranch.

I have lived in small towns in rural Washington, Arizona and what Germans think of as rural Bavaria. The small town spirit was strikingly similar in all those places. In fact my neighbors in the tiny town of Unterafferbach, Bavaria had more in common with small town Americans than they did with their urban-dwelling countrymen.

Writing Heart of a Shepherd and Bull Rider meant you had to think like teenage boys. How did you do that?

Suzanne: For the last several years our house has been full of our son’s friends, and the men from our neighborhood who gather to work on a car or weld a fender or set a toilet – whatever – there’s a group of them who call on each other for help. Most of the time they forget I’m around and I just absorb all that testosterone based dialogue.

Rosanne: Twelve is a great age—one I often teach. I volunteer every week in my local schools. I have a son and lots of nephews, so boys of this age are not an entirely foreign country.

Part of writing outside of your personal experience is being attentive to the things people at that age, of that gender, in that cultural group have in common. It’s the small details that tend to resonate most so getting them right matters. For example, at 12, lots of boys have a fascination with yet revulsion at the prospect of shaving. It’s a very small moment in the second chapter, but it feels familiar enough to boy readers that they buy into the character and are willing to go along when he does things that are less typical of a 12 year old boy but essential to the character of this particular boy.

Your novels centre around characters who take on challenges and in the process, they learn a lot about what they’re made of. What did you each learn about yourselves when you were hard at work on your first novels?

Suzanne: Great question. Writing Bull Rider impressed on me a great respect for the men and women who’ve served in our military and given in a very personal way for all of us. I read the blogs of brain injured soldiers and talked to the people who care for and advocate for them. I heard stories about what their families had gone through. I came out truly believing this: It doesn’t matter what your politics are or whether or not you support the Middle East wars – we owe a lot to the military men and women whose lives have been changed, sometimes forever, by their service. We need to support our veterans, not just with lip service, but in real ways providing medical, psychological, and social services to them and their families as needed.

Rosanne: Probably the only thing I have in common with Brother is that we are outliers in our own families. I have a large extended family that loves science and engineering and logic and math. It’s not that they don’t like the arts or support what I do. It’s just that they are all very practical people who do sensible things with their lives.  Writing as a profession is wildly irresponsible, financially unpredictable and woefully inefficient. Part of the process with this first novel was asking myself, is this really what I want to do with my life?

Yes. Yes. Yes!

What do you hope kids and adults will think/talk about when they read your novels?

Suzanne: I hope they’ll enjoy reading the book and that they’ll think about family and what it means to them. I hope they’ll be a little enamored with the West – and particularly the open sage and pinion country that I love. And maybe that they’ll go beyond that and think of the cost of war in human terms. It’s a serious business that changes real people’s lives.

Rosanne: That they will talk at all about anything even tangentially connected to the book is the highest compliment to an author. One of the really magical things about writing novels is that it’s a form of collaboration at a distance. Every reader brings something different to the page, so every reader comes away with their own story: my words plus their meaning. I couldn’t predict what readers will take away, but here’s hoping they talk.

Best movie / best book about country life:

Suzanne: Oh man, do I have to answer that? I liked Horse Whisperer and its depiction of a strong ranching family. I’ve hardly seen or read them all. For kids, Terri Farley’s Phantom Stallion Series is fun and authentic in its depiction of ranch life in Nevada. And I love Rosanne Parry’s Heart of a Shepherd.

Rosanne: Stand By Me—the dynamics of a small town flawlessly presented in a story that is both deep and light. Best book about country life: The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss—my new favorite. It’s a wonderful book, an honest look at Oregon in the 20s with a strong and tender-hearted heroine.

Most beautiful countryside you’ve ever seen:

Suzanne: There is so much great country – Canyonlands in southern Utah at sunset, an elk peeking around moss encrusted trees in the Ho River rainforest in Washington State, a thunderstorm brewing over green fields in southern Michigan, the silent frozen sea ice on Hudson Bay. But, true to Bull Rider, I’d nominate the Reese River Valley near Austin, Nevada with a summer storm on the horizon. Stunning. And empty but for cows.

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Rosanne: My first teaching job was in Taholah, Washington on the Olympic Peninsula. Taholah gets about 15 feet of rain a year, so it was pouring rain and cloudy the whole way there, but when I got to the crest of that hill above where the Quinault River runs into the ocean, the sun broke through and revealed the most arresting sight I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t just the beauty of the only stretch of wilderness beach in North America bordered by the rainforest, it was the sense that I had seen it before in a dream or distant memory. I was sure in that moment that I’d get the job I was interviewing for and that Taholah would be the perfect place for me. And it was—two of the most fascinating years of my life.

You’d be: a) a shepherd   b) a rancher   c) a bull rider
Suzanne: Easy – a rancher. Shepherd’s too lonely for me and you won’t see me riding a bull – ever. I am bull dog persistent and I’ll work till I drop. Rancher.

Rosanne: Bull Rider! Suzanne has inspired me!

Now it’s your turn to trade questions. What’s something you’d like to ask each other?

Suzanne: Rosanne, I know you drew on your family’s military experience when you wrote Heart of a Shepherd. How does your husband, your kids, the chess playing grandpa like the book?

Rosanne: My family has been amazingly supportive through the whole process. We’re all avid readers, so the kids are always reading over my shoulder or wandering off with my pages, but they are as excited about the process as I am. I do most of my writing when they are at school or asleep, but in the summer they are very respectful of my tree house time. My youngest sometimes brings me flowers and interesting rocks while I’m writing or arranges for a tree house lunch date. I am the luckiest mom on the planet!

Rosanne: Although your book is very even handed, war is political. Did you ever feel the need to compromise the view expressed by characters in  the book?

Suzanne: No, I wrote exactly what I thought the characters would feel. I did learn from listening to people who worked with injured vets and changed Ben’s attitude some according to those discussions. I had not imagined that a Marine who was so severely injured would want to go back into the war, but that’s what many of these folks want – to go back to help their friends.

Rosanne: Your book speaks very eloquently to both the ranching and military communities. Do you have any plans to do outreach with your book in those communities?

Suzanne: Yes, Rosanne and I, along with Terri Farley (Phantom Stallion Series and Island Stallion Series) hope to do writing workshops with kids, particularly in rural communities in the West. These would focus on the kids writing about their own “western” experiences. Rosanne and I are both also committed to getting our books into the hands of kids from military families. These families are often invisible when we think of the sacrifices people are making for the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. There are lots of kids out there with dads, moms, brothers, and sisters serving overseas and they miss them and worry about them. And there are many many injured vets who are also mostly invisible in the media at least. I sincerely Bull Rider will bring these issues front and center for its readers.

Thank you SO much to Rosanne and Suzanne, for such a remarkable interview. All that you shared about your inspiration, your writing and the land have given me richer insight into your novels. Congratulations on your debut year!

I’d like to end with two great photos: an adorable lamb (sent by Rosanne – no wonder Brother is a shepherd at heart!), and Suzanne and her dog Fred, romping about in Nevada:

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Heart of a Shepherd (Published by Random), is available right now. Bull Rider (Published by Simon & Schuster McElderry Books), is released on February 24th.

All the best ladies!

4 thoughts on “Class of 2k9 Author Interview: Rosanne Parry & Suzanne Morgan Williams

  1. Joy Preble

    Wow! Great questions. And I know it’s partly just a coincidence of release dates, but what a fabulous pairing of books. How cool if some classroom teachers decided to pair them in other ways as well. I love those moments of serendipity.

  2. shelfelf Post author

    It would be very cool if classroom teachers brought these two titles together for children to study. I’m sure wonderful discussions would result.

  3. Sherry

    I love the idea of you authors getting together and visiting the rural schools so the kids can record their ranch experiences. That’s the best – not only because authors never go to those places, but also ranch stories still need to be told.

    Rosanne, a friend sent me your book and I just read it earlier this week. It’s terrific. Suzanne, can’t wait to read Bull Rider.

    Thanks for the fun interview everyone!

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