I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but at some point during my service in the U.S. Army in the war in Afghanistan I began to realize that all the stories that interested me the most were stories about young people. Maybe seeing all those Afghan children who seemed to have had so much stolen from them by decades of war reminded me of my own comparatively wonderful childhood.
I think also that growing up is the greatest human adventure, the ultimate time of wonder and discovery. Forget spy thrillers, courtroom dramas, or the introspective existential. Give me kidlit! I think young people, with their full faith and trust in fun and friendship, may be closer than many (who would claim to be older and wiser) to understanding what life is really all about.
I was also led to writing children’s literature because of a promise I made during my time in the war. My squad encountered an Afghan girl named Zulaikha, who had suffered from birth from a defect called cleft lip, wherein the two halves of her upper lip had never joined. This problem happens in the US and UK, too, but it is almost always surgically corrected very early in the child’s life.
Because the Taliban would have not allowed a girl to see a doctor, and because medical care would have been expensive for her family, this girl was ten or eleven and still suffered from this problem. My fellow soldiers and I pooled our money together to pay for her transportation to one of our bases in Afghanistan where an army doctor performed the needed surgery.
I was astounded by how much better she looked after the surgery, and as she had become to me a symbol of the struggle all Afghans face in making better lives for themselves, I knew this story was important.
The last time I saw the girl, she was riding off of our base in the back of a truck. She could not hear me or understand my words, but I promised I would tell her story. No matter what happened after that, I knew I had to keep that promise.
My promise to that girl was what led me to write my first novel Words in the Dust.
2) Is there an author, living or dead, who inspired you particularly?
This is a difficult question to answer because people in the children’s literature community are really quite generous and so I have benefited from the help of many great people. However, my most significant influence remains Katherine Paterson. My time in the war in Afghanistan was very difficult for me. My first few months there were some of the most difficult of my life.
Because our permanent base was still under construction, my fellow soldiers and I lived in a rented Afghan house that had been designed for a family, not for fifty men and their weapons and equipment. We were hungry, filthy, exhausted, and receiving almost daily death threats from the Taliban. Life was reduced to nothing more than weapons and body armor, and duty. I had serious doubts about ever making it home again.
Then one day the mail finally arrived, and with it, a paperback copy of Katherine Paterson’s novel Bridge to Terabithia. It was one of those rare days when I found enough time between missions and guard duty to read the whole book. Bridge to Terabithia saved my life. Or at least my sanity. I absolutely needed that reminder of friendship and beauty. I needed to know that somewhere in the world, things were still okay. Katherine Paterson’s novel reminded me that there is still hope, even in midst of the most difficult circumstances.
I didn’t know anything about Katherine Paterson at the time, but I thought she should know how important her writing had been to me. I wanted to remind her that her books mattered in very real and important ways. I sent her a thank you letter through her publisher with the hope that such a letter might cheer her up if she ever had a bad day. I never expected a response. However, that letter began a correspondence that developed into a friendship that I cherish very much.
It was a long time before I admitted to Katherine that I wanted to be a writer. It was still longer until I told her about my wartime promise and my desire to write a book about an Afghan girl. Realizing the controversy that sometimes surrounds the issue of white people writing outside their culture, I asked Katherine if she thought I could possibly write such a book. She said that she thought I should try. That was all the permission I ever needed.
Katherine Paterson has told me that she could never be a writing teacher, but nobody could offer a better example of how to be a writer. I remain forever in her debt.
3) Please, tell us about your last book and, if you can, about your future projects.
Words in the Dust is the story of a thirteen-year-old Afghan girl who has suffered from birth from a cleft lip. She believes that if she could only look pretty like her beautiful older sister Zeynab, then all would be well. She could get married and have kids, escaping from her stepmother’s constant harsh cruelty.
When American soldiers arrive in her village, interested in building a new school, they see Zulaikha and offer her corrective surgery. Zulaikha believes this could fix all her problems, but life, especially life in Afghanistan, is more complicated than that. Working with Meena, the former university professor who once taught Zulaikha’s mother about Afghanistan’s rich heritage in poetry, Zulaikha faces triumphs and tragedy as she works toward a better life in post Taliban Afghanistan.
My second novel “Stealing Air” is schedule for a release in the US in October. This is the story of three sixth-grade boys from Iowa who discover friendship and learn a lot about life while they work together in a secret workshop, building an experimental airplane using skateboards, an enhanced lawnmower engine, and other fun bits. It’s a fun adventure story with a lot of heart.
4) How was your writing journey? Was it difficult to find an agent and get published?
Except for those people who make us all jealous by writing their first novel in only a few months and then quickly scoring a lucrative publishing contract, I think everyone finds it difficult to get an agent and get published. I’m certainly no exception.
I have always hung all of my rejections letters from a nail in the wall above my computer. They are a reminder to me that breaking into the writing business is difficult, but as I look up from my writing and see the rejection letters, I’m comforted a little, knowing that I will not give up. To me, each rejection letter is a trophy for trying. For each letter, there are a hundred thousand people who wanted to write a book, but never started. For each letter, there are ten thousand who started to write a book, but never finished. Thousands more finished, but lacked the courage to submit or gave up after facing rejection.
A few of those rejection letters and e-mails were actually quite helpful, offering useful revision ideas that served the novel well. I’ve since thanked some of those people for that feedback.
Overall, I’ve been blessed to work with a fantastic agent and wonderful editors in both the US and UK.
5) What’s your opinion about this E-book revolution? Would you consider the indie route?
Through my course of studies for my MFA in writing for young people at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and in recent years, working with stellar editors, I have learned that there is a tremendous difference between a book-length story and a novel. The impact of professional editors on the process of crafting a novel cannot be overstated, and so I would never consider independently publishing a major creative work.
6) Nowadays many publishers expect their authors to use social media a lot to promote their books. Many authors, on the other hand, would prefer to write only, without being distracted by digital trivialities: what are your thoughts?
I use Facebook and Goodreads pages as well as a personal website to get the word out about my books. I sometimes write guest blog posts or answer questions for online interviews. I have posted a few promotional videos online. That is the full extent of my electronic promotion.
As you rightly point out, writers have different preferences about electronic promotion. For my part, I’m simply too busy writing books, and I take a great deal of time and careful thought before releasing my writing to the public, so I cannot find sufficient time on a regular basis to keep up with my own blog, or with the dozens of other social networking sites.
I’m a little concerned by all the magazine articles and blog posts that talk about the importance of building an “electronic platform.” There seems to be an idea writers can’t succeed unless they are actively blogging, putting up videos, or interacting on Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Google+, Pinterest, or a host of other social networking sites. I think sometimes some writers, especially those working toward their first publication, run the risk of making the digital promotion more important, at least in terms of time consumption, than writing the novel. I’m baffled by long blogs and frequent Facebook posts all about how the writer doesn’t have time to write her novel. It would seem that said writer does have time to write, but is misusing it, concentrating on building that web platform instead of on writing the novel that the platform was supposed to promote.
Marketing and promotion are important, but I believe a writer’s primary role must be in crafting the best novel he can. I still believe that novels are mostly judged on their own merits, and not as much on the author’s electronic presence.
To know more about Trent, please visit his website: http://www.trentreedy.com/
To buy his latest book, simply click on the cover below: