by Darcie Gudger
Melody Carlson Interview
went from being an atheist to a Christian at fifteen---and my life
-- Melody Carlson
Melody Carlson is the award-winning author of hundreds of books for children, teens, and adults. Over the years, she has worn many hats—from preschool teacher to senior editor.But most of all, she loves to write! Currently Carlson freelances from her central Oregon home where she lives with her husband and Labrador retriever. Skiing, hiking, and camping in the beautiful Cascade Mountains provide an inspirational setting for her literary passion.
Darcie: At what point in your life did you know you wanted to be a writer? What did the journey look like from draft to first published novel?
Melody: I always loved to write, but because it came easily, I didn’t take it seriously. It wasn’t until my mid thirties that the desire to write became overpowering—I couldn’t not write. Without even knowing what or why I was doing it, I started writing a book. Then I wrote another. Then I realized I needed to “market” my books, but didn’t really have a clue. Fortunately I met an editor at a writers’ conference who took my writing seriously. And although my first book published ended up being nonfiction (she felt it was the only way to get my foot in the door since fiction wasn’t too hot at the time) it did seem to lead to the next, and the next . . . fortunately I had a good stockpile of novels to pick from by then.
There are several opinions on how many books you've actually had published. Some sites say 70, others 100! Which is it?
It’s actually a lot more than 100. My agent estimated it to be around 200, but it’s hard to say that big of a number in a blurb because I feel the need to explain that many of those were board books, kids books, teen books … certainly not all novels.
Wow, that's a LOT of wordage! I'm in the process of writing my first YA novel and it's hard coming up with creative characters and situations. What is the creative process like for someone who writes at such a volume?
It’s hard to explain. Mostly I come up with a character, add a problem, and take it from there. The story just seems to flow out of me. I think that stories are only as limited as people. In other words, every single person on the planet (living or dead) is like a book—each one has a story that’s totally unique. From that perspective you can see why I think stories are limitless. Also, I refuse to believe in writer’s block. J
Browsing the YA section of Mardel and Family Christian, I can't help but notice your name dominates the current Christian YA market. What inspired you to write for this specific demographic? What are some of the needs of teens YA authors (such as myself) should be focusing on?
I’ve always had a heart for teens. This might be because I went from being an atheist to a Christian at fifteen—and my life was dramatically changed. But I also worked as a Young Life leader and later on the adult Young Life committee. I think if we can reach kids as teens, we might be able to spare them some of the pain of growing up in a culture where values can get pretty messed up. As a writer, I try to tell stories that feel honest, genuine, heartfelt...and I try to get into the heads of teens. I think the worst thing you can do is “write down” to them. Some authors have assumed that because YA books are shorter, they must be easier. I don’t think so. Teens are really good at sniffing out a phony. They want you to get them, care about them, and be honest. I try to do that. I suppose I feel like a teen myself as I write. One teen girl said to me, “You’re like this, uh, middle-aged woman with a teen girl trapped inside.” I think that’s true, although that bit about being middle-aged...well now. :)
The YA sections of Christian bookstores are painfully small. Is there truly a market for YA novels with a Christian world view? What about teen boys - do they read at all? I noticed absolutely nothing for boys over the age of 12. What trends do you see evolving in the world of YA fiction, or would LIKE to see evolve?
I know that YA sections in Christian bookstores are small. But they used to be smaller. If you think about it, adult Christian fiction is relatively new. But I’ve noticed that Christian publishing seems to follow the general trade. Have you seen the YA section of Barnes and Noble lately? It’s humungous. And my books are right there with the rest of them. Well, not all my books. But some . . . and that’s pretty amazing. So the point is girls are reading. Unfortunately a lot of the YA books (teen chick lit) are extremely skanky. I know this for a fact because I forced myself to read some. And that actually motivated me, when I thought I was done, to write even more books for YA. Thus, I’m doing a YA chicklit series which is really fun. I just finished the second book and I’m giving the girls what they seem to want—boys, dating, sex, clothes, money...but I’m giving it to them with truth and consequences. Something the general trade publishers left out.
Given the rapidly changing moral challenges for teen girls in our culture, how do you keep you novels fresh and current? Are you physically involved in working with teens in any way?
We just stepped down from positions on the Young Life committee in our town. But I try to keep up with what teens are doing through a variety of things. Simply the internet, movies, TV, magazines, music, books...can show you what teens are exposed to these days. And then the typical teen problems, while more intensified and extreme, aren’t all that different than when I was a teen.
Have you had any difficulty selling YA manuscripts dealing with sensitive subjects such as those found in your "TrueColors" series?
I think I’ve proven myself to really care about teens. I don’t write to be sensational, but I don’t shy away from the tough topics either. Publishers who really care about teens get this. Whether it’s cutting, anorexia, alcohol, or suicide . . . people who understand teens want them to get the kinds of stories they need so that they can make better choices and not end up like some of my less fortunate characters.
What unique qualities do you believe you bring to the YA market that other contemporary Christian authors don't?
I think all authors are unique. But maybe because I didn’t grow up in a Christian home and I tend to think a little outside of the box and am not afraid to take some risks . . . that might set me apart slightly. Although, really, I know lots of authors like this.
I've browsed the YA shelves at Barnes & Noble and Borders. Most of what I find is pornographic in nature (I.e. "Gossip Girls" series and the new book POP! about a girl's journey to loose her virginity.) Personally, I'd like to see your books on the shelves alongside the smut so girls know good fiction is available. How do you feel about the segregation of "Christian" fiction versus ABA fiction?
As mentioned above, I am making some headway onto the general trade shelves. Multnomah actually repackaged Diary of a Teenage Girl (at a general trade bookstore’s request) so that it would fit better there. Still, you’re right, a lot of bookstores still try to corral the Christian books to some far off corner. But the teen chick lit series I’m doing now (The Carter House Girls, Zondervan) is going to be designed to “fit” right in there with the skanky, trashy books.
Do you think secular publishing houses would publish a YA book with Christian themes? I've read books with Islamic and New Age themes that are placed with the mainstream collections. They are not regulated to the "inspirational" section. Why is Christianity treated differently?
I actually think I could get published in a secular house now. But only because I’ve established myself as a YA writer already. Sometimes I consider this, but I like how the Christian houses I work with really have these same goals. They are doing their best to get my books on the secular shelves. Whether it’s Walmart or Sam’s or Barnes and Noble, they are making progress. So I can’t complain.
I'd like to ask you about your new series, "The Secret Life of Samantha McGregor". Samantha has an unusual gift. What inspired you to create such a character and deal with such a controversial topic such as revelatory dreams?
According to statistics, most girls have dabbled with or are interested in the supernatural. I think, who is more supernatural than God? And why aren’t we giving him some attention for this? So I decided to create a specially gifted girl—one who takes her walk with God seriously—and just go for it. In some ways, this series is the most spiritually heavy of anything I’ve done.
What has the reader feedback been like on Bad Connection, Book #1 in the series?
So far so good. But then my publishers might be protecting me from any cranky letters. J But girls seem to like meeting a character who is in some ways normal, but in other ways totally different. And I hope that Sam is a role model too. I know that I wish I were more like her.
Tell us about your upcoming chick-lit These Boots Weren’t Made for Walking.
This was an I-need-a-break book. I do a lot of serious books (like the TrueColor series, Finding Alice, Crystal Lies...) and sometimes a girl just wants to have fun. So far, all I’ve heard (some reviews are coming in) is very positive. This is a relief because I know that some people might question me going from mental illness issues to chick lit is a bit of a leap, but I really had a blast writing it and plan to do more.
What inspires you to write chick-lit?
The YA novels can get a little heavy and serious. But I have to admit that it was while writing a YA novel (Fool’s Gold) about consumerism, designer mania, and debt . . . that got me thinking that chick lit could be a fun break. Also, I’ve enjoyed reading chick lit when I need to lighten up. So, why not?
Do you have any words of wisdom to share with an aspiring YA author?
Like with any writer, I’d say read a fair amount of books that are in the genre you want to write for—try to read the best ones you can find. Then become a student of teen culture. Immerse yourself in the things they’re immersed in. Listen to their language. Watch how they act, what they wear, what they care about . . . and then just let yourself go. Be honest in your writing and have fun with it.
Finally, I have some fun non-writing related questions for you. You're standing in line at Starbucks and the clerk says they are out of an ingredient in your favorite drink. What do you order?
I am so boring when it comes to coffee. I normally get a latte with skim milk. So if they were out of skim milk, I might get crazy and have whole milk. Woo-hoo!
What food do you absolutely crave?
My morning coffee—always. And once a week, I crave an egg salad sandwich from a particular deli in town. They only make it on Thursdays. But it is amazing. It has things like sun-dried tomatoes, bacon, and lots of other fattening ingredients. But I almost always indulge—and hopefully take a long walk afterward.
Your bio mentions you love the outdoors and biking. Roadie or Fat tire?
Mountain bike. I guess that’s more of a fat tire with tread. But we have trails near our house and I picked my bike to handle that. Of course, it’s great on the road too. And then I do a spin class at the fitness center.
If you could camp/hike anywhere in the US for a week, where would that be and why?
We love the national parks and so far (thanks to our own forest fire season and bad planning) we haven’t made it to Glacier, which my husband says is wonderful. Maybe this summer.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. I look forward to reading more of your books as I hope to add my books to the shelves.
Thanks, those were great questions!
Darcie Gudger is a freelance writer currently working on a young adult novel while trying to solve all the mysteries of motherhood with her adopted son, Kyle. In her spare time, she coaches the 2A Colorado State Champion Sheridan High School colorguard, judged equipment for the Rocky Mountain Colorguard Association and sings for the Bear Valley church choir and worship team. An adventure-seeker who lives and writes in the shadow of the Rocky mountains, Darcie loves hiking, camping, cycling, photography and keeping her husband guessing. Visit Darcie online at her blog, Joy in the Litterbox.