Melanie talked to fellow author Melissa Roske about her middle-grade debut, newly published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Melanie is a member of the Sweet Sixteens, an online group for YA and MG authors debuting in 2016; Melissa rolls with the Swanky Seventeens.
ABOUT THE NOVEL
When eleven-year-old Thyme Owen’s little brother, Val, is accepted into a new cancer drug trial, it’s just the second chance that he needs. But it also means the Owens family has to move from San Diego to New York, thousands of miles away from Thyme’s best friend and everything she knows and loves. Thyme struggles to reconcile her longing to return home with her growing awareness of the significance of Val’s new treatment, and the fear that returning home would mean returning without him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A lifelong book lover with a serious Post-It note addiction, Melanie Conklin spent a decade as a product designer, putting her creative spin on everything from baby incubators to pencil cups. She approaches her writing in very much in the same way: with three-dimensional thinking and meticulous attention to detail. Melanie lives in South Orange, New Jersey, with her husband and two children. You can find her at her website (melanieconklin.com); Twitter; on Tumblr; and Goodreads.
TALKING ABOUT ‘THYME’
Melissa: In COUNTING THYME, Thyme’s little brother, Val, suffers from neuroblastoma, a rare type of childhood cancer. What is your connection to neuroblastoma, and what made you want to explore it in your novel?
Melanie: I had a neighbor whose son was diagnosed with neuroblastoma and she kept a blog about their experiences. I followed the blog, as did many of my neighbors, to see how I could help. I ended up volunteering to raise money for pediatric cancer research, because I found it heartbreaking that these kids faced such low odds. Part of the reason is that neuroblastoma affects such a small percentage of the population and there’s not enough funding for research. That came to the forefront for me when I was deciding what to write about. I wanted to champion these kids.
The actual idea for COUNTING THYME came to me after reading [R.J. Palacio’s] middle-grade novel, Wonder. I sat back and said to myself: “What if you were the kid who wasn’t sick? What if you were the sibling?” It’s a difficult position to be in, because so much of the focus goes to the brother or sister. As a sibling, you have your own needs. You’re your own person.
Melissa: What sort of research did you do to give your novel its authenticity?
Melanie: Many parents in the neuroblastoma community keep extensive blogs in order to learn from each other and to make connections, so I followed as many as I could. I also did research through Sloan Kettering’s website [Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the world’s oldest and largest private cancer center]. Their findings and clinical trials are posted publicly, as are those from many hospitals around the world. I also read research papers and information from parents. You can find everything out there, because people are sharing a lot and trying hard to find answers.
Melissa: As a writer outside the neuroblastoma community, were you worried how families affected by this type of cancer would react to your book?
Melanie: That was certainly a concern of mine. As writers, we’re often writing about subjects we don’t know. It was important to me to honor what these families go through. By reading the families’ blogs, for instance, I was allowed a window into the reality of dealing with childhood cancer – not just the treatment and the science, which you can research – but how families’ lives are affected day to day. I think this came through, because the feedback I’ve gotten from families has been overwhelmingly positive, with wonderful messages and lovely, heart-felt letters. I feel very fortunate that the book was so well received.
Melissa: I know that COUNTING THYME went through at least eight drafts. What was the revision process like for you?
Melanie: Revision is something I’m still refining, but I’ve learned that I work best on paper. I print out the manuscript and put it in a three-ring binder. Then I work through each chapter, tracking different elements using colored Post-It notes. After that, I open my computer document and work front to back, revising as I go. This technique is helpful, because it allows me to see the big picture without worrying about the writing or focusing on the minutiae.
Melissa: Can you describe your typical writing routine?
Melanie: I write in the mornings after the kids are gone and my husband has left for work. I guard that time selfishly, and I don’t do anything else. I don’t do laundry; I don’t do dishes. I open the document right away and get lost in it. I preserve that time for myself, even if it doesn’t seem as if I’m getting anything done. The morning is mine and I can count on it.
Melissa: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Melanie: I’m a mix. When I start off, I always have a general idea of what’s going to happen to the character. I know what problems they’re dealing with at the beginning, and I know where I want them to end up. I usually don’t know what’s going to happen in the middle, or the specifics of the plot. If I try to make plot decisions before I’ve explored every angle, I find that I’m not as creative and it’s not as fun.
Another thing I do – usually at 10,000 words or so – is stop and let the manuscript sit for a week or two. It’s a good way to give myself some distance and readjust the course. Drafting a novel is like doing a puzzle. You have to be OK with having the pieces in the wrong places the first time around.
Melissa: What’s your go-to advice for writers?
Melanie: As a writer, it’s easy to put a tremendous amount of pressure on yourself. To feel as if you should be getting more done. I should write faster. I should be better! Well, we are what we are, and all those negative thoughts can shut you down and make you forget why you’re writing in the first place. You have to give yourself a break, and set reasonable goals. If you have an hour, for instance, you might want to say: “OK, I’m going to work on this one scene, or just these two paragraphs.” That way, you’ll feel as if you accomplished something. You deserve to feel that way!
Favorite writing snack?
I was an intern on the PBS show, The Woodwright’s Shop, in Durham, North Carolina.
The host [master carpenter, Roy Underhill] would make all this stuff with hand-held tools. It was totally weird, but there you go.
We had a dog that passed away a few years ago and we’re actually looking forward to having a puppy again this summer. I’d definitely pick dogs over cats!
Morning person or night owl?
I am definitely not a morning person. You will rarely catch me awake before 8 a.m., made possible only by my wonderful husband who gets the kids off to school in the mornings!
Music to write by?
It honestly doesn’t matter what I listen to. It just fades. Once I get into the writing, I’m gone.
What were you reading when you were a tween?
I loved Vanity Fair and was strangely attached to a massive volume of O. Henry’s short stories that I’d purchased at a flea market. I also loved Dick Francis’ horseracing mysteries and the veterinary tales of James Herriot.
Sweet tooth or salt-a-holic?
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Melissa Roske is a writer of contemporary middle-grade fiction. She is represented by Patricia Nelson of MLLA and is a proud member of SCBWI.
Before hanging out with fictional characters, Melissa interviewed real ones, as a journalist in Europe. In London, she wrote for Just Seventeen magazine, where she was later offered a job as an advice columnist. Upon returning to her native New York, she selected jokes for Reader’s Digest, wrote and contributed to several books and magazines, and got certified as a life coach. Melissa lives in Manhattan with her husband and teenage daughter. Her debut novel, KAT GREENE COMES CLEAN, releases from Charlesbridge in May 2017. Find Melissa at her website (melissaroske.com), on Twitter and on (Goodreads).