Blythe Woolston won YALSA's 2011 William C. Morris Award for a debut YA novel. She lives in Montana with her family.
Blythe Woolston learned to read when she was very young. It made her unfit for decent work, but it did prepare her for dumpster diving, collecting library fines, and the harmless drudgery of nonfiction indexing. However, one day when she was desperate for something to read, she started writing and discovered it to be satisfying—like making soup or painting with a two-year-old. Her debut novel, THE FREAK OBSERVER won the 2011 William C. Morris Debut Award, a prize given by YALSA for the best YA book by a first-time author. BLACK HELICOPTERS was a Kirkus Reviews’ Best Teen Books of 2013. MARTIANS, published in 2015, has also received many accolades.
In 2018, Blythe’s first picture book – WORDS – will publish with Candlewick, illustrated by Chris Raschke.
She lives and writes in Montana.
When and how did you start writing?
I wrote unintelligible scribbles as an infant. Then I wrote dismal poetry and a couple of short stories. But I had never considered writing a novel before April of 2007. Even then, I was just telling myself a story. I had no intention of writing a novel. I had no outline. I just couldn’t find anything to read that day.
I am not one of those authors who knew that writing was what they wanted to do. I was happy reading other people's books. I’m still happy reading other people’s books.
Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?
THE MAGIC BOAT by Lula E. Wright. I was six years old. I wrote about it on my blog…
It isn’t a classic, but it is a loyal friend.
I had a fairy tale book and a copy of Edith Hamilton’s MYTHOLOGY. Someone gave me a horror comic where a scaly, green arm snaked out of the sewers and crushed people into little round balls. You could tell who they were by the remnants of exposed clothing.
I really loved Rosemary Sutcliff’s books about ancient Britain. I found them when I was obsessed with history. Ray Bradbury introduced me to science fiction, which is one of the best things that ever happened to me. There is no end to the wonders of science fiction.
Poe, Hawthorne, Vonnegut, Rilke…it was pretty much the usual suspects after a point.
Can you talk us through the writing of your latest book? What were the key moments?
It is a difficult book about a difficult subject. There is no redemption for my protagonist. The best I could hope for was to make her behavior comprehensible. The key moments were when I hated it and just wanted it to stop. There were a lot of key moments.
Was it hard to get an agent? Can you talk us through the process?
I can’t write a query letter or a synopsis to save my life. No joke. I very nearly didn’t get to go to the dance because I couldn’t tie my shoes. I’m certain my first book would never have been published if Andrew Karre hadn’t read the whole thing on an airplane. I signed with an agent after I’d sent my second book to Andrew. Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought everything through. I wasn’t sure what my own objectives were. I severed my ties with that agent and gave myself six months to think things over.
So how does a person who can’t write a decent query find an agent? I met Sarah Davies at a SCBWI conference in Montana. She liked the chapter I had brought for the workshop session and invited me to keep in touch. When I had the book finished, I sent it to her. So I got my agent by writing the best book I could. When she talked about the book, the things she said made sense to me. She named weaknesses that were true. I quickly came to the conclusion that working with Sarah would make better books possible.
Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?
I write at home. I live with other people who have a very impromptu approach to life's adventure, so a hard-and-fast schedule isn't something that would work. I like to write in the early mornings or the late evenings when there are fewer distractions. The best possible thing is to be able to walk for an hour before I sit down to write. I actually do quite a bit of oral composing while I walk. Sometimes I talk my way through a scene five or six times before I ever actually type a word.
I don't look for inspiration; it just shows up. I’m a magpie, constantly collecting shiny ideas. When I’m not inspired, I look through the drift of sticky notes, photographs, and scribbled envelope backs that make a nest around my computer. “My life has gone awry—I didn’t learn to play the bass lute in high school.” That’s on a green, star-shaped scrap. I think my eldest son might have said it; it’s the sort of thing he says.
Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?
Writing is like cooking; fresh ingredients matter.
Read outside your comfort zone. The worst thing you can possibly do is to limit yourself to books you know you will enjoy. Read difficult books and dull books. Read picture books and academic nonfiction.
If you aren’t focused on the present moment of writing, stop it.
Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?
1) I taught technical writing for a gazillion years. That experience helped me focus on writing as a tool to transfer information from one brain to another. I tend to approach writing/reading this way, to understand it as a cognitive operation. I also learned to appreciate the power of confusion.
2) Dialogue is key. Incredible things happen emotionally between the parties in a conversation, even when—maybe especially when—they are talking about mundane things. Even silence is conversation.
3) I benefited from the study of grammar, rhetoric, and poetics. I value punctuation. I value words. I value imagination.
Which favorite authors would you invite to a dinner party? What fictional character do you wish you’d invented?
The dead have lost their appetite, so only the living are invited: Wolf Erlbruch, A.S. King, Guus Kuijer, Koji Kumeta, Margo Lanagan, Ursula LeGuin, Michael Alan Nelson, and Sjon. I’d be a much better writer after that dinner party.
John Gardner’s Grendel is an extraordinary accomplishment: a brute poet, the perfect antihero.