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Where did the idea for TELL ME A SECRET come from?
Before I started Tell Me a Secret, I was mostly writing dreadful picture books. I’d had a short story published in a Chicken Soup book and a few stories and articles in Spider and Cricket magazines, and I’d begun a middle grade novel. However, all of that took a sharp turn when a personal tragedy struck our family. None of those projects had any meaning for me anymore, and I almost quit writing. A few months later and with the support of many friends, the idea for Tell Me a Secret struck. It took a few months to get my bearings—it was way beyond the scope of anything I’d written before, and it involved delving into those personal experiences. My good writing friends cheered me on, and the book—and the writing of it—turned out to be very hopeful.
What was the inspiration for DON'T BREATHE A WORD? Did you do any research about teen homelessness?
“It takes two ideas to spark a story,” author Sid Fleischman used to say, and that was true for DBAW. I keep an idea notebook, and I had written down something about a “girl who fakes being homeless.” She was going to be maybe a cheerleader by day and fake being on the streets after school. Then my friend Jack put out a call for socks and toiletries to take to the homeless teens in Seattle, and suddenly I had an idea for a girl who had to run away for real. Creed and Santos and May kind of came all at once, so vividly. I went home and wrote a fifteen page synopsis of the story.
I didn’t know if my ideas would fit with the reality of teen homelessness, so I did a lot of independent research, talked to people, took a class at New Horizons (the homeless teen org in the book), and asked Pam Longston, the board president at New Ho’s (that’s what the homeless kids call it), to read the story. I was really surprised when the ideas I already had (like street names, ideas of justice, and banding together for family and protection) were confirmed by real life.
You write about teens and their struggles in life and finding themselves. Does the inspiration come from your teen years?
The exact events of my novels are fictional, but the emotions are true. I have vivid memories of my high school and college years, and I tried to draw on them to make the characters and scenes as authentic as I can. When I was Miranda’s age, I always felt this polarization between my creative side and the logical side, a little bit like Miranda caught between her wild sister and her rigid mother—wanting to be like the one, and fearing being like the other. As a writer, I’ve found that dichotomy to be quite useful—my creative side writes the first draft, and the intellectual side fixes it up into something readable—but it took me a little while to figure out how to get them to work together.
Do you have any comments about abusive relationships?
As Joy learns in DON’T BREATHE A WORD, abusive relationships aren’t just about physical abuse—abuse can be verbal, emotional, and psychological. If you sense you are in a relationship that hurts you or demeans you, listen to that inner voice. Tell a friend, get help. I discovered my words had power, and so do yours.
What do you do when you get writer’s block?
I wish I’d know this while writing TMAS—it would have made things so much easier. While I was writing Don't Breathe a Word, I discovered the most amazing trick: a kitchen timer. I would set it for 15 minutes with a goal of 300 words—candy at the end…bonus!—and usually I would hit 400 or more. It was great for outrunning the internal critic, which can be really devastating when you’re trying to write a book (or do anything, really). The last voice you should listen to is the one that says you don’t have value.
What are three things on your author bucket list?
Write a novel with a friend.
Spend a month writing in some exotic locale, like on the coast of the Black Sea.
Write a book that changes lives.
What are you working on now?
There are several projects simmering—an allegorical fantasy, a speculative-eschatology, maybe even a theological mystery. Right now I’m working on a contemporary: four voices, four terrible secrets, and one explosive murder that will bring them all together. I don’t have to write contemporary, but it’s hard not to write about secrets of one kind or another.
Any advice for finding an agent/publisher?
This is such a slow process. Don’t let yourself be discouraged. It’s part talent, part timing, part sweat, and part luck—and don’t forget, an agent and publisher are looking for your work, too. Make it the best it can possibly be by learning the craft, writing whenever possible, reading excellent writing, and getting feedback from peers you trust. Join a writer’s group, like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and soak up the knowledge and experience of others who are making the journey. Keep going!
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