The following is an interview with Marjetta Geerling, author of the award-winning YA novel, Fancy White Trash.
RH: When did you first write Fancy White Trash, and how did you find your agent?
MG: My writing mentor referred me to her agent after reading a completed draft of my first novel. I signed with him in 2002, and he valiantly tried to sell that book. Although it came very close several times, it didn’t take off. In 2006, my mother died. I spent a month in Phoenix with my dad after the funeral, not writing at all. But when I got home, Fancy White Trash poured out of me. It took about six weeks to write the first draft. I spent another month revising and then sent it to my agent. He loved it and sent it out right away. It sold in February 2007, four and a half years after I’d signed with him. My advice about agents is to look for loyalty. Even though it took a long time to sell a novel for me, he never gave up and always believed in my writing.
RH: What, in your opinion, is the best way for an aspiring author to find an agent?
MG: Outside of the usual query process, there are two methods that I’ve seen used successfully for many different writers. The first is to get a referral from one of the agent’s clients. This is a tricky thing because not all published writers are in a position to be able to refer to their agents. Never ask a writer for a referral because it puts her or him in an awkward position. However, getting to know published writers, having them critique your work, and studying with them in writing groups or workshop situations is a great way to meet writers who will volunteer to refer you. The second method is to meet agents at SCBWI conferences. Go to conferences, pay for the extra critique, go to the agent panels and talks, and be an involved participant. If you find an agent you really like, then you’ll have a shared experience to refer to in your query letter.
RH: What was your initial reaction when you learned you had received an offer from Viking (maybe even other publishers?) on Fancy White Trash?
MG: I was teaching 2nd grade when I saw on my cell phone that my agent was calling. My class was having writing time, so I excused myself and stood out in the breezeway where I could answer my phone but would still be able to see my class through the classroom door window. He told me that we’d received two offers for Fancy White Trash. My first reaction was nausea. I really thought I was going to throw up right then and there! He explained the situation for me, and then I ran into my classroom and told my students what had happened. Then I told them I needed to call my husband and went back into the breezeway. By the time I got back to class, one of my students had written a story called “The Day My Teacher Became a Millionaire,” and it was all about my book being published. It was an awesome afternoon.
RH: Since your debut novel was published, you have experienced the ups and downs of the publishing industry. What can starry-eyed authors who dream of being published expect when they finally break in?
MG: My journey has certainly been rocky, but so is everyone’s, I think. There will always be things that don’t go your way, whether it’s a cover you hate or pushed back publication dates or any one of thousands of things that can happen along the publishing path. What I’ve observed is that every writer’s experience is unique. It’s flat out amazing to be published. As long as you don’t lose sight of that, the obstacles along the way won’t slow you down too much.
RH: Many authors make the mistake of thinking their work is ready for the world when, in fact, it needs more revision. How do you know when your story is polished enough to begin the query process?
MG: I don’t know! Like many writers, I’m blind to my own work. I rely on my writing friends to tell me when something is ready. With Fancy White Trash, my editor had to stop me from revising anymore. I’d call and say, “But I want to…” and she’d say something like, “No, we’re done. It’s done.” Having an editor tell you you’re done is the best feeling in the world.
RH: What are some of the biggest mistakes you have seen fellow authors make when it comes to writing and/or publishing?
MG: The biggest mistake I see writers make is sending out manuscripts before they’re ready. The second biggest mistake I’ve seen is writers who don’t listen to feedback and don’t revise. The third biggest mistake I’ve seen is writers who listen to too much feedback and revise their books until the book is dead. It’s a tough call, knowing when enough is enough. It’s critical to have writer friends whose judgment you trust.
RH: With amazon.com’s popularity, the abundance of e-readers available,and the rise of self-publishing and Print on Demand services, do you feel it is still wise for writers to seek the traditional route via agent and editor?
MG: Yes. I thought about self publishing at one point and then decided against it. I wanted to win. I wanted to prove that my book was good enough to beat out thousands of others manuscripts. I believe in the competitiveness that agent-editor-publisher route entails. Working with my agent and editor made me a better writer.
RH: Why do you write for teens rather than adults? Was there any particular event or experience that led to this decision?
MG: My very first novel was Lorna on Rurak, and I wrote it when I was ten years old. Lorna was sixteen. In college, I wrote in different genres and for different ages but always came back to the teen years. It’s a powerful time in a person’s life. The essential question of YA literature is: Who will I decide to be? I’m fascinated by the choices we make, how we balance our family and upbringing against our own beliefs and experiences of the world, and how ultimately we blend all these things together to create our unique selves.
RH: When you sit down to write something new, how do you approach the blank page?
MG: I always start with character. Usually a character will have been yammering in my head for awhile before I decide that she has enough strength to hold a novel together. When I sit down, I let her talk. I follow her around as she lives her life and eventually she reveals what the story is about. From there, I race through a first draft as fast as I can. Then, I spend a long, long time revising.
RH: For you, what is the most difficult part of the writing process?
MG: The middle of the books is always the toughest stretch for me. I love beginnings and set up; I love wrapping everything up at the end. The middle, though, is often a slog and is most often where my book goes off track. I have to keep the promises I made in the beginning which is not always an easy thing to do.
RH: You have been a second grade teacher, and now you teach on the college level. Has teaching helped you grow as a writer? How?
MG: Absolutely. My dialogue is much richer because I spend time with so many different people every day. Thanks to my students, I have a lot of voices in my head that don’t sound like me which gives me more choices when I create characters. Also, teaching keeps me in touch with the world and particularly with the concerns of younger generations.
RH: As a YA author, why is literature for this age group so important?
MG: YA literature is rich and experimental. Although it’s treated as a genre, it really shouldn’t be. There’s just as much diversity in YA as there is in adult fiction. However, what ties all YA together is the target audience. YA literature is important to teens because it gives readers the ability to be other people, even if it’s only for a few hours. It helps teens think about how they would react in similar situations, builds empathy, provides an escape, and lets teens in tough situations of their own know that they are not alone. It’s a window into a world they’re trying to figure out, and I believe that being an avid reader of YA creates more thoughtful, insightful human beings.
Marjetta Geerling is the author of Fancy White Trash, which was released in 2008 by Viking Children’s Books. Fancy White Trash was selected as an American Library Association’s 2009 Best Books for Young Adults and for the 2009 Rainbow List. Marjetta grew up in Southern California and attended the Johnston Center for Integrated Studies at the University of Redlands. She holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University and is an adjunct English professor at Miami-Dade and Broward Colleges. Marjetta lives in Miami Beach, FL where she is currently at work on her next young adult novel.