Queen of Sci-Fi: Margaret Peterson Haddix

I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to build a relationship with Margaret over the past few years in sharing her books with our ARC sharing group, #BookVoyage, and now having the privilege to interview her for Teachers Who Read. 

I know most of us as educators are familiar with MPH through her Among the Hidden series - the series that brought science fiction to life in classrooms, the series that made children want to read and know more, the series that I know in the end I can turn to and it will ALWAYS work to get kids hooked. 

One thing I want to share is that over the last few years she has came out with some of my favorite books. I truly don't know how she does what she does, how she produces so many stories in such a short amount of time. Her imagination is beyond inspiring and something that I would love to be one day in the future. 

Her most recent of mine, Remarkables, is a stand alone book that I couldn't put down. It was a story with a lot of twists and turns. I loved finally getting to some of the mysteries throughout the book and getting answers. I found that I was really enjoying the unknown which is not something of the norm. This is a much toned down sci-fi book for MPH, but I still loved the magical realism placed throughout. I think students will relate to what Marin and Charley both feel on many levels, and Ashlyn and Kenner as well.

Then there is her new Greystone Secrets series that I seriously am obsessed with. It reminds me so much of a similar story line to Stranger Things (minus the monsters) that my students have devoured. The newest one comes out soon and I can NOT wait to get it into the hands of my students too.

As a 5th grade teacher, I definitely believe that her books are some of the best to read aloud - especially the start of series to get kids hooked AND to use them with all of the notice and note signposts!

Without further ado, here was our interview! :)
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself as an author and everyday person? What are your likes/dislikes?
A: Both as a writer and an everyday person, I love to read! (This is probably not surprising.) I also like movies a lot. As a kid, I was pretty much a disaster at sports and a total klutz, so it is kind of surprising that the older I get, the more I like activities like hiking, biking, and swimming. I also like to travel and see new places and meet new people. I like finding out about other people’s lives and viewpoints.

Dislikes: Being bored. Having to sit still for very long. Not having good answers to questions I’m curious about. Seeing people in pain when I don’t know how to help.
Q: When did you know you had a gift of writing?  
A: I’m not actually sure that I “know” it even now.  Writing is such a roller-coaster activity: even after writing professionally for more than twenty years, I still have spells when I feel completely incompetent just trying to string together a basic sentence. Other times, I do feel like there’s a gift involved. But it’s that the words or ideas come to me as a gift that I can share with others, not that it’s something I possess.

For me, the love of writing developed alongside my love of reading. Starting in about third grade, I fell in love with making up stories of my own, not just reading them. But at that age I was much better at making up stories and just telling them to a friend or my younger siblings out loud, rather than doing the work of writing them down.  
Q: I personally know I have dubbed you as the “Sci-Fi Queen” as have many other book loving friends – how do you feel knowing you write science fiction in a way that gets readers hooked?  
A: I love the idea of hooking readers on books in general, and on science fiction and speculative fiction in particular. I think this genre is particularly great for encouraging kids to stretch their imagination.
Q: Series seem to be something that you are primarily writing and then The Remarkables came out and it was a stand alone – how do you write multiple story lines at one time?
A: For most of my writing career, I’ve done a lot of bouncing back and forth between series and stand-alones. I really like that approach. In fact, with both of the long series I’ve done (the seven-book Shadow Children series and the eight-book Missing series) I always alternated between writing those series books with either stand-alones or a book from some other, shorter series in between each installment. I think it helped clear my brain—like a palate cleanser between books. Or, to mix my metaphors here, it’s like the fun of a sprint in between the long slog of a marathon. But I should also admit that I typically don’t write the same stage of multiple story lines at once. I usually only work on one first draft at a time, though it might be interrupted for the revision or proofreading of some other book.
Q; Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind The Remarkables?
A: That book had several inspirations. One of the major sparks was the fact that I, like Marin in Remarkables, made a dramatic move from Illinois to Pennsylvania at a time in my life when I was facing lots of changes anyway. In my case, I was an adult, not a kid, and I was 1) pregnant with my second child; and 2) about to have my first book published. Those were both happy changes, of course, but they were also fraught. My husband was also taking on a stressful, time-consuming new job, and we didn’t know a soul in our new town. I’d even agreed to move to that Pennsylvania town sight unseen, without having ever stepped foot there first. There were many, many ways all that could have gone wrong, and we owe lots of people who started out as strangers but became fast friends for helping us survive that phase. But soon after that move, on nights when I was getting up at all hours to nurse a newborn, I started paying rather distracted attention to a group of teenagers who appeared to live in a house across the street. Or rather, it seemed that at least one teenager lived across the street, and others drifted in and out on a rotating basis. I could never figure out who was a resident and who was a guest. I also never saw an adult who appeared to live at that house, though the teenagers were always friendly. They seemed like nice kids, but also… was “enigmatic” the right word? As a baby, my son was horrible at the whole sleep thing, and so I was seriously sleep-deprived for a good nine months. So as I was abstractly considering the question, “What’s the deal with our new neighbors?” all sorts of weird possibilities occurred to me. What if it was a top-secret spy ring? What if they were secretly superheroes—high school students by day, crime fighters by night?

For years—about twenty, in fact--the idea of a mysterious houseful of teenagers stuck in the back of my mind as a possible inspiration for a book someday. Then I hit another phase of my life when a lot of change was swirling around me: some good, some bad, all of them challenging.  And, again like Marin, I wanted to embrace the happy changes and have things go well. But I was a little stuck obsessing about past hurts and past mistakes. Writing Remarkables was a way to move both Marin and me away from being stuck.

And when I figured out the explanation Marin and Charley discover for the mysterious houseful of teenagers in their neighborhood, I was so, so happy.
 (Though I’m pretty sure it was not the same as the explanation for the real teenagers I knew all those years ago.)
Q: I also have students who are very into the Greystone Secrets series right now – where did the inspiration for that story line come from?
A: That inspiration goes back even farther—about thirty years! (This makes me sound like someone who really has to think for a long time to come up with a book. Sometimes it does take years; sometimes I start writing within days or weeks of getting a new idea.)

With the Greystone Secrets series, it took me decades to recognize the original idea as a book idea. I’d read a newspaper column about a woman who was totally freaked out hearing about three young children killed in a car wreck. The reason she freaked out so badly—even to the point that she stopped driving herself for a while—was because the kids who died were the exact same ages as her own children. And the two oldest kids had the exact same names as her two oldest. The third did not—but he had the same name she and her husband had decided to use if their third child had been a boy, instead of a girl.

The memory of that newspaper column stuck in my head as a cautionary tale—something horrible I actually tried not to think about, especially once I had kids of my own. No parent wants to think about the sad truth that sometimes children die. Then, rather randomly one day, I happened to remember that story and suddenly wondered: If that was so weird for the mother to know about something so awful happening to kids who had the same ages and nearly all the same names as her own kids… then how weird would it be for the kids to find out about something terrible happening to kids who are essentially their doppelgangers?

As soon as I flipped the idea around that way, I wanted to write about it. But I didn’t want my story to be about kids dying; I wanted the “something awful” to be something the kids could recover from—or be rescued from.

Q: How do you get started on your writing, and what advice would you give to middle grade students who are writing?
A: I am not terribly consistent in my approach. Sometimes I have pretty much everything about the story planned ahead of time, and I’ve made lots of notes to myself about how it should go. Other times, I have the seed of an idea in mind, and I’ve figured out an opening scene or two, but I feel like I need to take a leap of faith starting out; I just have to hope that as I go along the characters will take over and start acting and reacting and driving the story to its end. I often advise kids to think about what’s motivating their characters—there has to be something big and important driving the characters to do and say what they do and say. And those motivations also have to drive the plot.

A big piece of advice I would also give middle grade students is to be patient with yourself as a writer. (This is also advice I need to hear sometimes, even now.) It is so easy to get discouraged when the brilliant idea in your head comes out looking like nothing but a giant mess in your first draft. But it is perfectly fine to have a messy draft. Congratulate yourself for getting something down on paper. And don’t worry if it takes a while to figure out how to improve it.
Q: Can you describe your revision/editing process for students? Also, do you start writing on paper/computer/etc?
A: I do start writing the story directly on a computer, although when I am plotting and planning I often switch back and forth between making notes on paper and on a screen. I think switching up the formats helps sometimes to jog different ideas loose. I can be totally stuck staring at the screen, but if I switch to writing in a notebook—even if what I start out writing on paper is complaining, “This isn’t working! My characters won’t do anything I want them to!”—that often evolves into me figuring out what the problem is and how to proceed.

Even when I am writing a first draft, I always read over the past five or ten pages when I start each day and do at least minor revision/editing to warm up for writing new chapters. As I’m going along, I also keep a “fix” file of things I know I will have to go to back and attend to. Then, when I finish a draft, I read over the whole thing and make more notes about things to fix. I do a lot of revision before anyone else sees the manuscript. Then, after my editor has read it and made suggestions, I do a lot more.
Q: Future projects that you are currently working on? 
A: The second Greystone Secrets book, The Deceivers, is finished and will come out in April 2020. I’ve also written the third book in that series, but still have a lot of revision left on it. (Even the title is up in the air right now.) At the moment, that book is on hold until my editor has had a chance to read it. In the meantime, I’m in the early stages of working on a new stand-alone that also doesn’t have a title yet.
Q: What else would you like teachers and young readers to know?
A: That I hope they will enjoy my books!


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