Sunday, April 26, 2020

Jenny Chou has Five Questions for Author Joy McCullough

Today on the blog I’m thrilled to welcome Joy McCullough, author of the newly-released middle grade novel A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Joy’s luminous writing first caught my attention two years ago with the publication of her first book, a YA novel entitled Blood Water Paint. This enthralling novel tells the story of Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi. At age seventeen, she was the apprentice to her father, a mediocre Italian painter, and she secretly filled his commissions. Written for teens who will feel empowered as they root for Artemisia, adult book clubs would enjoy a lively evening discussing her choices, too. Booklist called Blood Water Paint “captivating,” and it received a nomination for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. And made my list for Top Five Books of the Year (and I read a lot of books!)

A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a delightful read, full of humor and warmth, with an unexpected outdoor adventure. I especially loved how the two main characters, Sutton and Luis, figure out over the course of the novel that they’re much braver than they thought.

Jenny Chou: Welcome to the Boswellians Blog, Joy! Can you tell us about the challenges Sutton and Luis are facing in A Field Guide to Getting Lost? And what inspired you to tell their stories?

Joy McCullough: Thanks so much for having me! Sutton and Luis are two very different kids. Luis is imaginative and social, but he’s allergic to a ton of different things, and his very protective mom keeps him a bit isolated. Sutton’s mom, on the other hand, is all the way in Antarctica, and while she has a lot of other great adults around her, she’s really bummed Mom won’t be home for her tenth birthday. Their story first sparked for me when I was taking a walk with my visiting father who made a joke about being lost in the park. At first I thought it was a picture book, but it grew into middle grade!

JC: So cool to see girls embrace STEM, and I really appreciate that Sutton’s retired neighbor was a female computer scientist at a time when the field was just getting started for everyone. I’m guessing you are more like Luis, who is writing a Harry Potter inspired novel, with his own unique twists. But you did a great job showing Sutton’s interest in robotics and her knowledge of all kinds of scientific details about the world. How did you go about researching her love of science and robots?

JM: You are correct: I am much more of a Luis (though I do relate to Sutton’s introversion). I kept the coding research fairly simple, but I did a much deeper dive on penguins in Antarctica, which is what Sutton’s mom is studying and Sutton references a fair amount. There could be no research more fun than watching penguin documentaries (unless I’d found a way to interact with actual penguins).

JC: Please let us all know if you find a way to interact with actual penguins so we can join in too! Your background is in theater and playwriting, which I see you studied here in the Midwest, at Northwestern. How did the skills you learned writing plays and acting translate into writing fiction? What were some of the challenges?

JM: The most obvious answer is that dialogue comes easily to me, as a playwright. But more broadly, I had a solid understanding of story arcs and character development before I ever began writing fiction. I also learned from theater not to read my reviews! And how to handle rejection! In terms of challenges, I definitely had to learn to think more visually as a novelist. When I’m writing a play, I’m only responsible for the dialogue, and there are actors and designers and the director to create the world the audience sees. In novels, I am playing all those roles.

JC: Every writer seems to have a different path to publication. Some writers might have several books go out to editors before one manuscript finds the perfect home while others sell their first novel at an auction (when editors bid against each other). I’d love to hear about your publishing journey. And then can you tell us what’s next for you?

JM: How much time do you have? My journey to publication was loooong. My debut novel was the tenth one I wrote. I wrote the first five before getting an agent. Then I had five books go on submission to editors before one sold. But now, here I am a couple years after my debut, and I’ve got YA, MG, and even a picture book on the way!

JC: Wow! That’s so inspiring.

JM: As for what’s next, my second middle grade novel, Across the Pond, is about an American girl whose family inherits a Scottish castle. That will come out in 2021. My second YA also comes out in spring of 2021, but the title is unannounced. It’s a combination of contemporary prose and historical verse about the legendary knight Marguerite de Bressieux.

JC: Those new projects both sound amazing. My ancestors came from Scotland to Nova Scotia to America. Maybe there’s a Scottish castle in my future. And while we’re imagining, let’s imagine you get to be an Indie bookseller for a day! Are there any new releases you’d suggest to middle grade and YA readers?

JM: A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat is a book I am going to be raving about for a long time. It’s a middle grade Les Miserables retelling and it is utterly stunning. Chirp by Kate Messner is an empowering, engaging mystery, with a pitch-perfect approach to #MeToo for MG.  In YA, Red Hood by Elana K. Arnold is a Little Red Riding Hood-inspired novel that defies description, except to say it’s super compelling and deeply feminist.

JC: I loved Red Hood! In fact, here’s a link to my review.

Follow Joy on Instagram and Twitter @JMCwrites. She posts a lot, often with great ideas for what to read next. Be sure to check out A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which is perfect for kids in grades 3-6th. Thanks so much for joining us on the Boswellians Blog, Joy!

JM: Thanks so much for having me!

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