Kate Messner is passionately curious and writes books that encourage kids to wonder, too. Her titles include award-winning picture books like Over and Under the Snow, Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, and How to Read a Story; novels like Capture the Flag, Wake up Missing, All the Answers, and The Seventh Wish; and Scholastic’s popular Ranger in Time chapter book series about a time-traveling search and rescue dog. Kate lives on Lake Champlain with her family and is trying to summit all 46 Adirondack High Peaks in between book deadlines. Follow her on Twitter @KateMessner and check out her website, www.katemessner.com.
We asked Kate about her new novel, THE SEVENTH WISH (Bloomsbury, 2016), her writing process, and her goals.
Charlie, the protagonist in THE SEVENTH WISH, is a well-rounded, fully developed character. Can you give us some insight into how you develop characters? What techniques do you use?
As human beings, we all play lots of different roles in the world. I’m Kate the writer, Kate the family member, Kate the hiker, Kate the child of two educators, Kate the traveler, and I could go on and on. All those elements meld together with all the people who have passed through my life and all the things that have happened in my life history (and the ways in which I’ve reacted to those things) to make me who I am. People are made of lots of complicated bits, and characters – good ones, at least – should be the same. Knowing a character means exploring all the different parts of that character’s life, so I spent time thinking not only about Charlie’s hobbies, her family, and her backstory, but also the things she wished for herself and for the world, and the things she feared.
I often use a character-building activity where I design my character’s bedroom, going into more and more detail. So what starts with a simple floor plan evolves into a description of every little detail. What color is the bedspread, and when was it purchased? Does she still like it? What’s displayed proudly on the bulletin board? What’s hidden under the bed or shoved in a box in the back of the closet, and who gets to see those things? You can learn a lot about a character that way.
I love how you have certain threads that run through the book, such as the word game, the ice, and the serenity prayer. I am always curious about a writer’s process. Were these threads mapped out from the beginning and or were they organic?
Mostly, those kinds of threads appear as I’m writing, and then I go back to strengthen them during the revision process.
What prompted you to write a MG novel that includes heroin addiction?
This element of the story was sparked by a personal experience. I was floored a few years ago when a neighborhood friend told me that her beautiful, smart, joyful daughter was hooked on heroin. My neighbor’s daughter got help and survived, and she’s doing well now, but I still struggle to understand how it could have happened. When I struggle – when something really scares me – I write. That’s where this theme in THE SEVENTH WISH came from.
What did you wish to accomplish with this book?
Before anything else, my goal is always to write a great story that kids will love and to create characters who feel real to them. But beyond that, I hope Charlie will be a particular comfort to families in situations similar to hers. Kids who have family members struggling with cancer or heart disease or diabetes get all kinds of support, but addiction is something many families still keep secret. We haven’t overcome that stigma yet, and as a result, the thousands of families affected by opioid addiction are often left feeling alone. They’re not, though, and I hope knowing Charlie helps kids to understand that.
Exactly. This novel is so timely. Substance abuse affects families on all levels and many young children carry hidden anger and shame because of a family member’s addiction. You addressed those feelings spot-on in Charlie. How did you conduct your research for such a sensitive subject?
I spent a lot of time talking with my neighbor’s daughter after she got clean. I was nervous to ask her for help at first. I didn’t know if she’d be open to talking about her experiences, but when I approached her, she said, “I’d LOVE to talk with you. We all need to talk more about this to help end the stigma.” And she told me everything – how it started, how she slipped further into addiction, how she lied to her family, and how she eventually told her mom the truth and asked for help. It was a sobering conversation for me, particularly when I asked her how she could have made that choice, knowing all that she must have learned about heroin addiction in health class at school. “All my friends were doing it,” she told me. “I know that sounds like a cliché, but it’s true. They were all doing it, and they were fine.” Until they weren’t. And then it was too late.
I also spoke with an admissions counselor at a drug treatment center in Vermont. She talked me through the process of checking in to a rehab center and explained what that kind of help looks like for both the addict and the addict’s family. We talked about what might happen when a younger sibling came to visit, what questions kids often had about loved ones in recovery, and that was tremendously helpful as I wrote Charlie’s story.
The problem of substance abuse is a hard reality, and yet you included a fantasy aspect to the novel with the wishing fish. What was your motivation for the fantasy element?
Sometimes, I think fantasy gives us the distance we need to look at things that might be too scary or controversial without that lens of magic as a bit of a filter. We see this a lot in the Harry Potter series, which addresses all kinds of issues – from violence and hate in our world, to the persecution of groups of people based on their heritage. I feel like magical stories often give us a way in to explore those tougher issues in our real world – and a way to talk about them more openly.
Even as you deal with sensitive subjects, the information you share is age appropriate. I recognize an educator’s hand and heart in your novels. How did your background as a teacher influence your writing?
This was something my editor and I talked about a lot as I revised THE SEVENTH WISH. I wanted to tell this story in a way that was honest and true, without sugar coating the realities of opioid addiction, but also in a way that was age appropriate for readers aged 9-13. I think my roles as educator and parent both played into that. Kids can often handle so much more than we think. We knew that kids who had been through similar experiences might find a lifeline in this book, as it reflected back their emotions, but we also knew that the book would probably be a window for many other readers, giving them a glimpse at a family experiencing a crisis that might not be familiar. This is how we build empathy, how we think about what it might like to be someone else, and also how we might react if we were in a similar situation some day. Given all of that, my editor and I had to work hard to make sure the depiction of drug use wasn’t over-the-top scary. All of the heroin use, for example, takes place out of Charlie’s sight, and therefore, out of the reader’s sight as well. So the story really ends up being about the experience of a family member who loves and worries about an addict and has to deal with her own emotions swirling around the family crisis as well.
You use a traditional fairy tale device with the wishing fish. It works in this modern setting because, unlike old-time fairy tales, Charlie realizes the absurdity of it. She even refers to her English classes about wishing stories, and the difficulty in wishing right. If you should ever catch a wishing fish, what would your wish be?
I’d think long and hard before making any wishes. The temptation, of course, would be to find just the right words to wish for world peace, but like Charlie, I’ve read enough wishes-gone-wrong stories to know that even the most kind-hearted wishes can backfire.
At 24 Carrot Writing we are big on goal setting. Do you set detailed writing goals, broad yearly goals or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
I keep a bullet journal, so I have pretty detailed lists of my monthly writing goals as well as daily to-do lists. Also, I am geeky enough that I love talking & writing about how I organize my writing life, so if you’re interested, I have a whole blog post about my bullet journal here: http://www.katemessner.com/bullet-journaling-childrens-author-version/
You are such a prolific writer, yet you do school visits and many other public appearances as well. How do you structure your writing time? Do you write on specific days or do you write every day?
Hahahhaha!!!! Oh, sorry…. You’ve asked this question about balance on a day when I haven’t been home in three weeks and I’m staring down a full in-box as well as two manuscripts that need revising, and all of that is buried under two suitcases full of laundry. I hope you’ll forgive my maniacal laughter.
In a perfect world, I do try to keep some balance. Typically, I try not to travel more than a few days a month, and on the days that I’m home, I do write every weekday, usually from around 8am to noon. Then I take a break to work out and have lunch, and I’ll either deal with email and business things after that or get another hour or two in after lunch, before my daughter gets home from school. On my travel days, the writing is more sporadic and tends to come in quick bursts, over dinner at the airport, on the plane, or scribbled in a notebook in the car.
What is next?
Right now I’m working on a novel called BREAKOUT, about what happens in a small town when two inmates break out of the maximum security prison, launching a massive, two-week manhunt that changes life for everyone. It’s a thriller in some ways, but it’s also written in all different documents that show how everybody in town sees the situation a little differently. And I’m also working on the seventh book in my Ranger in Time chapter book series, about a time traveling search and rescue dog. This time, he’s going to Normandy during the D Day Invasion.
Thank you, Kate for giving us a peek into your fabulous writer's mind, and for being brave enough to write a book that provides support for children with family members caught in addiction.
For a review of THE SEVENTH WISH, click HERE or visit our Book Picks page.