I recently had the chance to interview Dianne Salerni, author of several Young Adult novels, including We Hear the Dead, a book my local book club read last year. She has a new book out, The Caged Grave, and is currently working on a fantasy series called The Eighth Day, due out next summer. I was so pleased to be able to learn more about Dianne and I am excited to read her next books!
BCM: My book club thoroughly enjoyed reading and discussing We Hear the Dead. We were so excited to read a local author! I have always enjoyed historical fiction and Young Adult fiction is one of my favorite genres. How did you decide to write for young adult readers?
DS: Barbara, I’m so glad your book club enjoyed We Hear the Dead! Thank you for recommending it!
Prior to We Hear the Dead, I wrote mostly for children. I had a lot of unfinished projects and three completed books – two fiction, one non-fiction. I submitted those to agents and publishers without any success.
I didn’t have a teen audience in mind when I began writing the story of Maggie Fox, and originally I didn’t intend to spend so much time on her romance with Elisha Kane. However, when the voice of the protagonist came out on the page, I realized it wasn’t a voice for a middle grade novel. But it was Maggie’s voice, and I didn’t try to change it. I changed my intended audience instead, from children to young adults. As for Elisha, when he came on stage, he refused to get off; so their tumultuous relationship became a large part of the second half of the book (just as it was a large part of Maggie’s real life).
BCM: How did you learn about the Fox sisters and the Spiritualism movement?
DS: I came across the story of the Fox sisters while researching ideas for a completely different book. After reading the adult book Inamorata by Joseph Gangemi (also a local author!), I became interested in the Spiritualist movement. I decided to write a book for middle grade readers about a young girl helping two bumbling aunts with their fraudulent séance business.
While I was doing my research, I came across the story of Maggie and Kate Fox and became fascinated. I changed my project and wrote about them instead.
BMC: Which comes first for you, general interest in a particular historic era or the idea for a story? Or do they develop simultaneously? How do you conduct the research that goes into your books?
DS: The idea comes first – the premise – such as the story of the Fox sisters, or two caged graves, or an apprentice spying on Nikola Tesla for Thomas Edison. Usually, the premise will dictate the historic era for the story.
I do a lot of research online, and thank heavens for historical societies that post information on their websites: census results, historic photographs, and town histories written by people who lived a century ago. If there are historic characters in my book, I read their biographies. I even choked down Elisha Kane’s book Arctic Explorations to get a feel for his voice. (After the first five chapters, it wasn’t too bad. He had a good sense of humor!)
Occasionally, I’ll visit a location in person, such as the cemetery with the actual caged graves, Elisha Kane’s crypt – and most memorably, Teotihuacan, Mexico so I could climb the Pyramid of the Sun.
BCM: Tell me about your early writing career. When did your interest develop?
DS: I’ve been writing since my days as an elementary student. I was the kind of kid who carried tablets of paper and dictionaries in my purse. I filled dozens of tablets with stories. The ones from my elementary years are, sadly, gone. But I still have many of the ones I wrote in high school – and a few typed on onion-skin paper from college.
BCM: What kinds of challenges do you experience as a writer?
DS: In terms of the writing itself, first drafts are the bane of my existence. I struggle mightily with them, even when I write an outline in advance. That’s not to say that I don’t love completing each new chapter of a first draft, but putting new words on the page usually comes with a lot of insecurity and self-doubt (and whining). Once I have a completed story, it’s easier to identify the flaws (on my own and with the help of critique partners) and start revising. I love to revise.
In terms of publishing, there are many challenges. Writers work really hard to find an agent and a publisher. Even after you have an agent and a published book (or two or three), that doesn’t mean every manuscript you write will get published. An editor who liked one book may not like the next one. Contracts with option clauses and non-compete clauses sometimes limit what you write or when a manuscript can be submitted – and to whom. It was a big eye-opener for me!
BCM: In what ways does being a teacher of fourth and fifth grade students influence your writing? Do your students tell you what they like to read? Do you bounce ideas off your students?
DS: I have often incorporated my personal writing into lessons in the classroom – teaching point of view, verb tense, or specific writing skills. I wouldn’t say that the students influenced my writing a lot until I started working on my middle grade fantasy series. My students were fascinated with the premise, and since the book was targeted for their age group, I ended up reading an early version of the manuscript aloud to my class last year. Their reactions and comments influenced me as I worked through revisions with my editor.
Yes, I have bounced ideas off them, sometimes consulted them on word choice for my MG character. In one instance, my class helped me brainstorm a solution for a problem posed by my editor.
And I can’t forget to mention that the title We Hear the Dead was suggested by one of my fifth grade students. My original title for the book was High Spirits.
BCM: Does your family give you feedback on your ideas and work?
DS: Absolutely! My husband and daughters are early readers of most of my manuscripts. You can be sure they tell me what they think in no uncertain terms! Additionally, the premise of my fantasy series – a secret, hidden day of the week – came out of a long-time family joke.
BCM: It seems as if the modern writer has a lot more to manage than in the old days, between writing, promoting books, and the need to have an active internet presence. How do you balance these responsibilities, as well as teach full-time?
DS: Sometimes, it doesn’t feel as if I balance them very well. I’m grateful for summers and vacations when I can get a lot of writing done. I stay up really late on most weekends, because that’s one of my most productive times to write. I’m also grateful for the support of my family. My daughters, aged 13 and 16, do a lot of work around the house when I have deadlines to meet.
As for the online presence, I try to keep active on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. But when things get stressful, that’s the first thing I give up to get the other stuff done. (Unless I’m in the middle of a book release. Then it’s probably sleep I have to give up!)
BCM: What is your work style like? Do you write every day?
DS: I do something related to writing every day. That doesn’t always mean drafting or revising my novels. I might write blog posts, or read one of my manuscripts on my Kindle (usually for editing purposes), brainstorm solutions for an upcoming plot problem, or conduct research for a new book idea.
BCM: I watched the sneak peak of the short film, The Spirit Game, which premiered at Cannes 2013, and tells the story of We Hear the Dead. How exciting! Tell me how this came about.
DS: I was contacted by Amy Green, a Hollywood producer and owner of One Eye Open Studios regarding a film option for We Hear the Dead. Originally, I collaborated with her on a screenplay for a feature length film, but that didn’t pan out. Later, Amy met up with director Craig Goodwill, and they applied for a Canadian arts grant to produce a short film. I bowed out of the project so they could bring on a Canadian writer (as required by the grant), but Amy and Craig kept me informed and involved throughout the process.
The short film is amazing – and makes a wonderful tool for pitching the premise as a possible television series. I have no news to share on that front at this time, but I still get updates – so it’s not out of the question!
BCM: Tell me about your blog site, The Practice Room. Is this a writers’ forum? How does it work?
DS: The Practice Room is an online meet-up for writers. The site was engineered by Tina Laurel Lee. Right now, I run writing sessions on Monday nights, and Tina hosts crit chats on Thursday mornings.
My Monday night sessions theoretically begin with a dedicated, private writing time from 8-9pm (EST). Participants usually visit the site during the half-hour before this writing session to check in and identify a goal for the evening. I say theoretically, because participants who cannot write during that hour slot are still welcome to join the chat afterwards.
After the writing session, participants return to the site to chat via Chatroll. We talk about what we accomplished during the hour, plot problems, revisions, queries – anything and everything about what we’re writing. We throw around a lot of ideas during those chats!
All writers are welcome, any time!
BCM: Your other blog sites look very interesting as well. They seem like a great way to network and connect with other writers and readers. Do you have a favorite?
DS: I wouldn’t say I had a favorite, but each blog serves its purpose. I spend the most time with my own blog In High Spirits, where I talk about writing in general, my current projects, and offer monthly first page critiques. The Practice Room is mostly a chat group, as explained above. Project Middle Grade Mayhem is a shared blog produced by writers of middle grade fiction – some published, some as-yet unpublished. I also occasionally post at The Crowe’s Nest, which is my agent Sara Crowe’s blog.
BCM: The Caged Graves is your most recent published book, another historical fiction, this time a mystery. Set in Pennsylvania in 1867, it’s a story of witchcraft and a possible buried treasure. I’m already interested! Do caged graves really exist? How did your idea come about?
DS: Yes, the caged graves do exist! The two graves are located in an abandoned cemetery outside Catawissa, Pennsylvania. They belong to two sisters-in-law who died within a couple days of one another and whose families, for some reason, enclosed their graves in iron cages. The family has long since died out, and while the local historical society has theories about why the graves were caged, no one knows the complete truth.
The area around Catawissa is ripe with historical significance, and after researching some of the events that took place during the Revolutionary War (about 80 years before the caged graves), I knew exactly what sort of mystery I wanted to weave around this cemetery.
BCM: Your next book, The Eighth Day, is a little different, the first in a fantasy fiction series about a boy who discovers an extra twenty-four hours between Wednesday and Thursday. I am one of many readers who loves reading series books and I think young readers especially like this format. How did you develop this idea?
DS: This idea came out of a family joke. Whenever my daughters would pester my husband about when they’d get to do some activity – visit Hershey Park, for instance, or go to the beach – my husband would answer, “We’ll do it on Grunsday.”
One day, I asked the family, “What if there really was a Grunsday in the middle of the week, but not everyone knew about it?”
That became the premise of the story, although it took another 18 months to develop a plot to go with it. I’m very excited about writing a series because I know middle grade readers love reading books in a series. As a matter of fact, immediately after I finished reading The Eighth Day aloud to my current class (from an Advanced Readers Copy), they started begging me for Book 2, The Inquisitor’s Mark, even though that one is still undergoing revisions. (I told them maybe in a few months.)
BCM: What else can you tell me about that has influenced you as a writer?
DS: I was greatly influenced by gothic mystery writers when I was a child, especially Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mary Stewart, and Virginia Coffman. In high school, I switched to fantasy and science fiction, and as a young adult I read a lot of historical fiction. I suppose, as a writer, I’ve tried various combinations of these genres in my own work.
BCM: Besides your new series, anything else in the works?
DS: Working on this series, while teaching full time, has kept me pretty busy this year. There have been some months when I was simultaneously proof-reading Book 1, revising Book 2, and writing the first draft of Book 3. I have a previously written manuscript that might go on submission to publishers early this year, but that’s the kind of thing we’re not supposed to talk about. (Shhh …) I have ideas for a couple new projects, and I’ve even done some preliminary research, but I don’t think I’ll have time to commit myself to one and begin any new writing until summer at the earliest!
Barbara, thanks so much for inviting me to your blog!
DIANNE K. SALERNI is a fifth grade teacher by day and a writer by night. She’s the author of YA historical novels, We Hear the Dead (Sourcebooks) and The Caged Graves (Clarion/HMH), and a forthcoming MG fantasy series, The Eighth Day (HarperCollins 2014). In her spare time, Dianne is prone to hanging around creepy cemeteries and climbing 2000 year-old pyramids in the name of book research.
Check out these blog sites! Project Mahyem http://project-middle-grade-mayhem.blogspot.com/; Crowe’s Nest (agent Sara Crowe’s blog) http://acrowesnest.blogspot.com/; The Practice Room http://tinalaurellee2.blogspot.com/; In High Spirits http://diannesalerni.blogspot.com/