Monday, January 10, 2011

Voices You Should Hear: Trent Reedy + Giveaway!

Please read to the end - I'll be giving away a copy of Words in the Dust to one lucky reader!

I'll confess right here that I know Trent Reedy. He graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts in the residency that I started. When I heard he'd sold his first novel, Words in the Dust, I celebrated his success.

What I couldn't know was what an extraordinary novel it is. I'm reading it now, and it's wonderful. I'm delighted to feature Trent, one terrific writer.

Congratulations on the publication of your novel, Words in the Dust. Can you tell us a bit about the story and what inspired it?

Thank you, Janet.  Because I was born and grew up in Iowa, I always thought my first novel would be about people living the adventure of growing up surrounded by the corn fields of home.  I certainly didn't expect my first novel to be about a girl in Afghanistan.  Words in the Dust was inspired by an experience I had while serving in 2004 and 2005 with the Army National Guard in the western part of Afghanistan.  My unit encountered a girl named Zulaikha who suffered from birth from a horribly disfiguring cleft lip, crooked teeth, and a misshaped nose.  My fellow soldiers and I knew we had to help her so we pooled our money to provide transportation to our main base in Afghanistan where an Army doctor volunteered to conduct the needed corrective surgery.

When Zulaikha returned to our outpost I was amazed at how she had been transformed!  Only the smallest scar hinted that she had ever had a problem.  Seeing her smile was one of my happiest moments in the war.  Throughout it all, she possessed this sort of quiet courage and dignity, and for me, she began to represent the struggle of all of Afghanistan, particularly of Afghan women and girls.  She had faced difficulties, but, like Afghanistan, she exhibited that indomitable spirit and proclivity for hope.  The last time I saw Zulaikha, I watched her ride off of our base in the back of a truck, and although she could not hear me or understand my words, our eyes met and I promised her I would tell her story.

Keeping that promise was a challenge because outside of Zulaikha's appearance I really knew very little about her.  I wrote Words in the Dust by combining a lot of elements from research and my other experiences in Afghanistan.

Words in the Dust is the fictional story of an Afghan girl named Zulaikha who suffers from a cleft lip.  Because of this she is tormented by local bullies and she believes she will never marry and that she will be a burden on her family.  She wishes she could look normal, or even pretty like her sister Zeynab.  Soon Zulaikha meets a woman who offers to teach her to read and write and about the ancient poetry that Zulaikha's mother loved before her death.  When American soldiers arrive in Zulaikha's village and offer her corrective surgery for her mouth, Zulaikha dares to think all her problems may be over.  But few things are that simple in Afghanistan, and Zulaikha will have to search for something lasting and meaningful for her own life.

We are both graduates of the Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts (yay!). Was Words in the Dust written as part of your thesis? Can you tell us a bit about the process?

I applied to the Vermont College of Fine Arts with the express mission of keeping my promise to that girl in Afghanistan.  Words in the Dust was certainly my creative thesis.  I received some wonderful guidance there from all of my instructors.  I'll never forget approaching my first Vermont College advisor Rita Williams-Garcia with the idea of writing this book.  I really believed she would think I was crazy.  After all, I was a white guy from Iowa wanting to write a book from the perspective of a young Afghan girl.  But Rita is enormously talented and thoughtful.  In her own writing she has never shied away from a challenge or difficult topic.  She was incredibly encouraging and patient.  Two other advisors Jane Kurtz and Margaret Bechard also helped a lot.  I learned a lot as I wrote Words in the Dust.

Can you describe your path to the publication of Words in the Dust?

Like any writer, I received many rejection letters when I began to send Words in the Dust to agents.  I always forced myself to view those rejections as "trophies for trying."  In fact, I still have all of my rejections hanging from a nail on the wall just above my computer.  When I recently moved from Iowa to the state of Washington, that stack of rejection letters was the first thing I hung up.  I didn't start work without them there.

Years ago, when I was about to graduate high school and go to college,  I confessed my dream of being a writer to my father.  He told me very sternly that I should never give up on my dream, "because the world is full of people who did."  With that in mind, every rejection letter was physical proof that I was still trying.  

What's more is that some of the rejection letters offered useful feedback.  On one occasion I received two rejections, one from an editor and another from an agent, both citing the same problem with the manuscript.  I took their advice and revised.  The result was the version of the manuscript that finally was accepted for publication.

I was blessed with an offer for publication from Cheryl Klein at Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic.  In our first telephone conversation, I was very nervous, having never spoken at length to a children's book editor, certainly not to one who was interested in my book.  There were one or two other editors at the time who were still considering my book, and so my agent told me that this first conversation with Cheryl Klein was an opportunity to see if I thought she was someone with whom I could work.  I don't remember much of that conversation.  I know I nervously paced the whole house.  The one thing that I clearly remember was when Ms. Klein and I were discussing the war in Afghanistan.  She said that after reading Words in the Dust, whenever she read about the war or changes in war policy, she couldn't help wondering what effect that policy would have on girls like Zulaikha.  That's when I knew that Cheryl Klein was the exact right person to work with on this novel.

Do you have any advice for beginning writers?

I think it's important to love writing and revising for its own sake.  If a beginning writer is satisfied to just have fun working on a story and to enjoy revising and improving his craft, without constantly worrying about publishing and promoting, he has a much better chance of writing the sort of book that agents and editors are looking for.
Can you tell us something about your personal life – inspirations, plans for the future, goals, etc.?

My wife and I have recently moved to the state of Washington, so I look forward to exploring my new home.  So far it's a beautiful and fascinating place.  I'm also eager to meet other writers.  I'm always interested to learn about how an author works or about her philosophies about writing and literature.

Do you have any new writing ventures underway? Please share!

I always have new writing ventures underway!  Writing is my favorite activity in the world.  One of my favorite challenges is that I'm always dreaming up ideas faster than I can write the stories.  I do have a few novels in various stages of production, but it's still too early to offer details about them, except to say I'm having loads of fun writing them.

Do you have a website where readers can learn more about Words in the Dust? 

Absolutely!  I hope people will take a moment to look around my website at:

There's a section there where readers can contact me.  I'm always eager to hear from people.

And now for the give-away!! I have one copy of Words in the Dust to give to one lucky responder. Here are the rules:
1. To be eligible, you must be from the US
2. You merely have to leave a comment with contact info
3. If you tweet or Facebook this post, add that to your comment for one additional "comment" point per
4. The winner will be chosen next week! 


CT Mom said...

I'd love to win a copy of this book. It looks like a good read.

rmccoy1234 at yahoo dot com

Patti L Brown said...

Janet, you didn't finish yet? I won't spoil it for you but oooooh, it just gets better. I love this book. Even if Trent weren't my friend, I'd still love this book. So glad you posted! This book is a hit!

And I'd love to win a copy! Should I be so lucky to win, you can reach me through Facebook or through my website. (

Great interview!

Anonymous said...

looks great!

Janet Fox said...

Thank you guys for coming! This is a wonderful book...

david elzey said...

more love for mr. reedy here, but i'm sure there are some more deserving folks than me for the giveaway. i'm just here for the love.

great interview, janet!

Janet Fox said...

David - you are always deserving!! Thanks for helping to spread the word. Hugs! j

Irene Latham said...

Having written a book that crosses cultures, I have a HUGE soft spot for other authors braving those same often treacherous waters. I also have admiration for Cheryl's projects and always enjoy them. Big congratulations to Trent... and I hope I win. :) irene at irenelatham dot com Will also tweet.

Amber Argyle said...

I should never give up on my dream, "because the world is full of people who did."
--loved that. Easier said than done, though.

have fun working on a story and to enjoy revising and improving his craft, without constantly worrying about publishing and promoting, he has a much better chance of writing the sort of book that agents and editors are looking for.
--Couldn't agree more. I tell unpublished writers the same thing. They don't much like it though. But it's the truth.

Leah Cypess said...

Sounds fascinating! Enter me please.

Anonymous said...

I'd love a copy of this book! I heard @chevalaque talk about it at a conference, and I've wanted to read it since!

My info:

emcsims at gmail dot com

Anonymous said...

Sounds very good! Enter me for sure.

Anonymous said...

Great interview. The book sounds amazing. I have to say at first I was leery of a man writing this kind of book, but with this interview I'm a believer! Good luck Trent and thank you Janet!

Janet Fox said...

Thanks everyone! Truly, Trent has done something remarkable here.

Bonnie J. Doerr said...

The story behind Words in the Dust is enough to sell me on the novel. Clearly Trent put a great deal of passion in this novel. Thank heaven the publishing world appreciated his subject as well as his talent.

Ishta Mercurio said...

I live in Canada, so I'm not eligible for your giveaway, but I will look for this book! It sounds like a real treasure.