There are books...and there are books that you want to read and re-read and tell everyone you know that they must read. Sheila O'Connor's KEEPING SAFE THE STARS is an extraordinary middle grade novel that in my opinion everyone must read. Beautifully crafted with believable characters and a heartbreaking rich premise, STARS is a winner.
Sheila is also the author of the highly acclaimed SPARROW ROAD - another must read. I'm so lucky to have Sheila here today to talk about STARS - now, go find this book! Just hang onto your heart.
Congratulations on a terrific second novel! Please give readers a quick synopsis.
Keeping Safe the Stars is the story of three siblings: Pride, Nightingale and Baby Star, who must fend for themselves when their grandfather, Old Finn falls ill. Raised to be self-reliant, the Stars are determined to survive independently until Old Finn returns. For the Stars this means selling pony rides and popcorn, a diet of SpaghettiOs and cake, and lots of pluck and courage and adventure. It’s a book that celebrates the strength and ingenuity of children—how brave they are, how much they can accomplish on their own. Set in 1974 during the week of Nixon’s resignation, it’s also a story about truth, and family loyalty, and what Publisher’s Weekly so aptly called “the murky territory of morality.”
I loved the parallels you chose between Pride's tendency to lie and the Nixon resignation. Which came first, your character or the time period?
The characters absolutely came first. And it wasn’t until Pride went into the local café and heard the grown-ups talking about impeachment, that I realized the book was set in that time period. When I start a book, I start with discovery, and I like to let the story find its own way in the early drafts. Also, I’m always interested in the ways the conflicts in the larger culture press in on young people’s lives—and how aware young people are of the mistakes that grown-ups make. I remember being young and trying to make sense of all the drama swirling around Richard Nixon and Watergate.
Your names and nicknames are fabulous (Woody Guthrie, for instance.) They tell volumes. Is that something that comes to you easily?
I think so—but again, it happens in the early stages, the dream stage of writing, when I’m just trying to be open to the story that’s been given to me, so I’m never consciously aware of significance. I didn’t know these children, or their pets when the book began, but when I met them, all the names seemed exactly right. Old Finn named his dog and horses, and I learned about Old Finn through those names. The children’s nicknames all came from their mother—and it helped me understand the ways in which she loved them, and how much of her they still carry into the world.
Character is clearly a strength of yours. Is that where you start when you begin a project? And are you a pantser or a plotter?
Ha! I’ve never heard that term in a long lifetime of writing. A pantser—someone who writes by the seat of their pants—yes, that’s absolutely me, at least in the early stages of a draft. I don’t begin a book with plot, I begin with a world, and I enter that world deeply to discover the story. Here are some people, they must have a problem, what is it? Of course, as the book progresses, the trouble builds, it has to, and trouble is plot. I do many many drafts of my books, and plot is important to me, dear to my heart actually, but it does come later.
How was it writing the second book? Easier? Harder?
I think every book is hard. This is actually my fourth published novel, my second for readers of all ages, and in between, I’ve written my share of books for both kids and adults that I’ve ultimately shelved. They’ve all thrilled and exhausted me. There’s so much unknown in the novel process—I can be 300 pages into a book and still wondering if I have a book.
But I have a strange story about this particular book. It was finished, written and rewritten and rewritten, about to be sent to my editor, when suddenly during breakfast with a writing pal, I discovered privately (I didn’t mention it to my companion) that the novel that I’d finished wasn’t what I wanted. Not at all. So two days later, I dumped that book into the garbage and started over—started this book that became Keeping Safe the Stars. You would not recognized the other one.
Wow. I'm impressed and amazed that you could do that, but the result speaks for itself. How about promotion? How do you manage it?
I try to do the best I can—conferences, school visits, bookstores. I love to connect with readers and writers of all ages. Teaching writing to kids and adults, both poetry and fiction, that’s been my life’s work, so I’m always eager to talk to people about writing, literature, the power of story and imagination. Sparrow Road is just now out in paperback, so it’s making its way into schools and the larger world, and I love to go along with it. And now I will go out with the Stars. But I’m also a full-time professor and a writer, so some days it’s a challenge to do it all.
Please tell readers what is up next for you.
I’m in the process of writing another middle grade novel for Penguin—which is mostly in its secret-even-to-me phase until I’m sure I have it right. I’m a writer who likes to work alone, with plenty of confusion, until the book is clear in my imagination.
How can readers find out more about you and your books?
Readers can visit me at www.sheilaoconnor.com. I love to hear from readers, so drop a note.
Thanks so much, Sheila!