Today I interview debut author, Donny Seagraves, about her new novel GONE FROM THESE WOODS.
Q. What a gripping tale, Donny! The story centers around a tragic hunting accident near Athens, Georgia and 11-year-old Daniel who must work through his grief over the loss of his favorite Uncle and find a way to move on. What inspired this story?
A. I got the idea for Gone From These Woods from a real story that I heard when I was a kid. The husband of my second grade teacher, Mrs. Campbell, was accidentally shot by her nephew. That’s all I knew about that real-life tragedy in my community. The story stuck with me all these years and every now and then I found myself wondering how a person could go on with life after such a horrific event. I sometimes jot down story and book ideas. On one of those lists years ago, I wrote this idea: The boy who idolizes his uncle. One day he goes hunting with him and accidentally shoots him. The uncle and part of the boy die that day.
This list of ideas floated across my office for several years. One day, when I was looking for a book idea (I’d already written nine other books that hadn’t been published and was ready to start a new one), I found the list with the “boy shoots uncle” idea and decided to write that book.
Q. Daniel's grief is so palpable and his journey through it felt so genuine - was it difficult to write?
A. Yes. Of course I felt the emotions Daniel feels as the story progresses. Plus, as I wrote I thought about my own beloved uncle, Terry Bailey, who died young, and used those memories and feelings to create the character of Uncle Clay. The hardest character to write was Daniel. I’m a middle aged woman and Daniel is an eleven-year-old boy. When I decided to tell the story in first person as Daniel, I knew it would be a real challenge. But I like challenges so I went forward with that idea, using memories of my own son at that age, my younger brother Mike, and my youngest nephew Joseph, and two neighbors down the street, Brian and Michael, to create the character of Daniel. I also gave him some of my own thoughts and feelings. For example, when they encounter the already dead rabbit in the woods, I used details and feelings I’d had when I discovered a rabbit who had died in mid run on one of my morning exercise walks around my neighborhood in rural Winterville, which is about six miles from Athens.
Another difficult part of writing this book was dealing with the hunting/gun part. I’m not a hunter or a gun person, but I needed to use hunting and a gun in this story. So I got a gun “lesson” from our former police chief in Winterville, Eric Pozen. We took a .410 rifle out in the woods and Eric and I recreated the hunting accident scene, with him playing Uncle Clay and me acting the part of Daniel. My editor had asked me to make that scene more clear, so I actually fired the gun and listened to the sound, smelled the gun smoke, and learned what it feels like to hold a gun in my hands.
Another challenge for me was writing the counselor scenes and creating Mrs. Hardy, the counselor who helps Daniel. For that, I made an appointment with Becky Kelley, a counselor at Malcom Bridge Elementary School in nearby Oconee County. Becky was kind enough to give my imaginary boy, Daniel, an hour’s worth of imaginary counseling. I used Becky as the model for Mrs. Hardy and her office as the model for the counselor’s office.
Q. The imagery of Winterville and Athens, Georgia and the Mouse Creek area of Cleveland, Tennessee was so familiar to me. I know you live outside Athens, but what's the connection to Tennessee?
A. About 30 years ago, my father was named postmaster of Cleveland, Tenn., a charming mountain town located about 30 miles from Chattanooga. My dad died four years ago, but my mother still lives in Cleveland as does my younger sister, Leanne, and her family. Over the years, I’ve spent many days visiting in the Cleveland and Chattanooga area. When I needed road names, I decided to borrow Mouse Creek Road and Hooper Gap Road from Tennessee. I like the sounds of these names and think they fit in well with the fictional rural area of my story. The real Mouse Creek Road is a long road that winds through beautiful Tenn. countryside. Hooper Gap intersects with Mouse Creek. Of course, I liked the name Mouse Creek because we think of a mouse as maybe a timid creature and perhaps a boy who cannot shoot a rabbit is like a mouse?
When I think of the fictional town of Newtonville, I envision it as being somewhere out in Oglethorpe County, past the real small town of Winterville where I live. I took some details for the actual setting from my morning exercise walks around the rural area of Winterville where I live. For example, the lake is a real lake behind my house. I would often stop in the early morning and watch the mists float across the lake, as Daniel does in GFTW.
Q. The dogs in the story seem reminiscent of Where the Red Fern Grows. Was that book an inspiration for you? Were there others?
A. I’m familiar with the book, Where the Red Fern Grows, and may have even read it years ago. But the dogs came from a man named George Langdale, who was the inspiration for the neighbor character, Frank Hooper, in my book. George used to ride up and down the road when I was on my early morning exercise walks, in his old pickup truck with the back of it full of barking hunting dogs. He’d sometimes stop and talk to me and the dogs would bark the whole time. George, who passed away about three years ago, owned a farm past the lake behind my house. I used the rural land in his farm as a model for the woods in my book.
Donny's writing space:
Q. This is your debut novel and it's with a top editor at a top New York publishing house (Delacorte) - CONGRATULATIONS! I know people want to hear your journey to being published - mind sharing?
A. Thanks, Elizabeth. I’ve been writing for at least 25 years! (Yes, that’s a very long time.) But it’s not like I’ve been sitting in the chair writing that whole time. I’ve also done many other things at the same time. I raised twins (Greg, who lives in Cumming, GA and Jenny, who lives in Duluth), worked as a freelance newspaper columnist, magazine article writer, worked many part time jobs, including a year and a half as a children’s library assistant, served five years as a Winterville City Councilmember etc. I decided to write children’s middle grade novels after unpacking Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, at the elementary school library where I worked (this was when that book was new and before it had won awards). I went for years sometimes without writing middle grade novels (for example, the five years as an elected official and the ten years as a used and out-of-print book-dealer on the Internet). About five years ago, I got serious about writing middle grade novels again and Gone From These Woods is the result.
I can thank the Southern Breeze Region of SCBWI (and I did thank them in the acknowledgments page of GFTW) for providing the opportunity for me to make this first book sale as a result of the 2007 SpringMingle Writers conference in Atlanta. At the First Pages session, Michelle Poploff, VP and Editorial Director of Random House Chileren's Books made some very favorable comments about the first page of what would become GFTW. So I decided to send my first three chapters to Michelle after the conference.
A couple of weeks later, I got an email message from Michelle asking me to send the rest. I did, and two or three weeks later, I got another email message from Michelle asking if she could call me the next morning to chat about my manuscript.
Of course I said yes. She called and about half way through our approximately 45 minute conversation, she said, “I’m going to make this a very lucky Friday the 13th for you -- I’d like to buy your book!” That was one of the best sentences I’d ever heard in my life. After that, it was contract negotiations and rewriting and then the waiting for the publication day, which was August 25, 2009.
Q. Do you have any events lined up to celebrate the book's release?
A. This summer, I presented two sessions at the Harriette Austin Writers Conference in Athens and I also had my first area book signing event at Borders and sold all the books! Recently I participated in a panel at the 4th Annual AJC Decatur Book Festival and I will be traveling to Greenville, SC for SIBA and on to Nashville for the Souther Festival of Books. I have other festivals plus some school and library visits lined up as well. More information is available on my website, donnyseagraves.com and on my blog wintervillewriter.com.
Q. Finally, what's next for you in the book world?
A. Right now, I’m working on rewriting what I hope will be my second published book. The working title is Josh and Tiffany. This middle grade novel is quite different from Gone From These Woods. It’s the story of Josh Meyers and Tiffany Ash, two eleven year olds who learn to live in the land of like and face each other in the school bee. Random House has an option on this book. I’m also working on the book after that, Fantastic Dinwiddies. I have an agent now, so my main focus is on writing rather than selling. I like that change.
Thanks for asking me these questions, Elizabeth. I appreciate your comments on GFTW.--Donny
Donny is visiting several more blogs during her release if you'd like to read more:
Monday, September 21: Leandra Nessel's Madame Queen
Tuesday, September 22: Lynn Coulter's Seedlings
Wednesday, September 23: Eddie Suttle's Georgia Books and Water
And of course, she'll be at her own blog, Winterville Writer.