The following is an interview with Patsi Trollinger, fellow Spalding grad student and author of Thrill in the Ville.
RH: What first inspired you to write Thrill in the ’Ville?
PT: During the 2000 Presidential campaign, I was working at Centre College as director of news, and when the college was chosen to host that year’s only televised Vice Presidential debate, it meant that I would host the media hall for the college. It’s hard to explain how much work was required to set up temporary office space and support services for approximately one thousand reporters and editors. Suffice to say that I (and dozens of other people at the college who were worked on other aspects of the debate) had many work days that lasted for ten, twelve, or fourteen hours. My twin daughters, who were sixth graders at the time, often ended up in my office for homework, naps, and snacks on the floor. They never complained, but at some point in the process, a fictional character began whispering over my shoulder (yes, an imaginary friend!), telling me that if he were my kid, he would have something to say. This boy stuck around to introduce himself (I swear he told me his name one day: Doug Alverton), and while I did my professional routine to promote and praise the college’s debate experience, Doug whispered in my ear. He was articulate and entertaining, an unvarnished anti-political pundit who kept me smiling. After the debate work subsided, I began to put Doug’s story on paper.
RH: I know there was a set back in its publication. Could you elaborate on your story’s journey to the shelves?
PT: By the time I had polished Doug’s story, I had a relationship with an editor at Viking and a contract for a picture-book biography. I sent her an early draft of Doug’s book (the scintillating title at that point was Campaign Trail), and by the time she read it, she had witnessed the fall of the World Trade Center in New York. She sent me a kind and memorable editorial letter that said, in essence: This is a fine story and probably a book that is needed, but America has lost its sense of humor about politics….and I don’t know when we may regain it. There is no market for this book at present.
The editor also made a few suggestions for revision and, for some reason, I went ahead with those revisions before shelving the manuscript and thinking it would gather eternal dust. Then, when the local college was again chosen to host an election debate, I remembered the manuscript and told myself: Maybe now is the time. America will never stop grieving over the World Trade Center, but perhaps we are ready for a little laughter about politics and governance. A coalition of nonprofit organizations agreed with me, and the book headed into print.
RH: What is the Civic Literary Project and how was your story a perfect fit for that organization?
PT: Here is a paragraph excerpted from the official statement for the project:
The Star-Spangled Literacy Project is aimed at promoting civic education and literacy to students in grades K-6 and to connect students with the democratic election process so they are more likely to become active voters in the future. The project’s timing is linked to Central Kentucky being selected as one of four locations in the nation for a televised debate between candidates in the 2012 Presidential election. The only Vice-Presidential debate this year is to be held in Danville, Ky., at Centre College on Thursday, October 11. The Star-Spangled Literacy Project has made it a priority to provide specially selected books and discussion/activity information for teachers and students in grades K-6 at schools in five counties contiguous to the debate location
My story proved to be a perfect fit because it’s kid-centric and humorous yet uplifting regarding the American vision of democracy. The small-town setting also had appeal.
RH: Thrill in the Ville is, of course, about the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to democracy. In your opinion, why is issue important for middle grade readers to consider?
PT: Each time I read the statistics about how many Americans choose not to vote, it boggles my mind. I hope, in some small way, to incline kids to think that elections and voting contain elements of fun. Also, I hope to get across the idea that disagreements in the political arena should have healthy parallels to sports competition…. The best soccer game (or baseball or football or tennis or whatever) is the one played with a strong sense of competition but also with ethics, decency, and respect for the rules.
Now that I have written that, maybe I should wish that more adults would read the book and remember that political competition should be approached with ethics, decency, and respect for the rules!
RH: Soccer also plays a large role in your protagonist’s life. Any particular reason you chose soccer, rather than another sport, like baseball or football?
PT: I never got to play on a sports team growing up (tiny rural school with no teams for women back then), and I love watching all kinds of sport events, but for some reason I am nuts about soccer perhaps because it involves so much running. At the time I was writing the book, I was attending lots of school and rec league soccer games to watch my daughters play. I loved the game so much that I would beg our gifted next door neighbor to play with my daughters and me in the backyard. When readers encounter a particular scene in which Doug discovers the pain involved in stopping a fast-moving ball without benefit of shin guards….well, they should know that I have personal knowledge of such pain.
RH: Many editors are searching for high-quality middle grade fiction, especially stories told from a male point-of-view. Having written for a variety of ages, how is the middle grade voice unique or distinct from that of, say, YA or children’s?
PT: Wow, what a terrific question. For part of the answer, I’ll borrow a piece of wisdom delivered by Linda Sue Park in a plotting workshop. She said the three major genres of children’s books should speak to three different mantras for encountering the world. Those are:
Young readers (picture books) = I am discovering the world.
Middle grade readers = I have discovered that the world is not fair.
Young adult readers = Okay, world, I’m making my own decisions now, whether good or bad.
So that’s part of the equation….knowing that middle grade readers care about fairness and that they are discovering just how often adults (and friends) can be wrong, weak, disappointing, or laughable. That’s the world view for this age group. The right literary voice for a particular middle-grade story is likely to emerge when the author can get inside that world view so as to see and describe people, places, and problems with a 10-year-old’s obsessions, joys, and vocabulary. It’s helpful to listen – really listen in an engaged, respectful way – when fourth and fifth graders talk to you. I am often blown away by their exuberance and lack of inhibition. It makes me hopeful.
RH: What issues or questions do you like to explore when you sit down to write?
PT: For good or ill, I am interested in everything. But I have a particular passion for anything involving social justice and fairness (yes, I have the middle grade world view). And from thinking standpoint, I seem to be mesmerized by paradox and contradiction. One middle grade novel that I’m trying to finish right now involves a sixth grade class clown who has to decide how she can go ‘grow up’ and learn to deal with extreme sadness without giving up the blessing of laughter. (Confession here: If I ever write a memoir, I want to title it Hillbilly Panache and pay homage to all the relatives, neighbors, and friends in the Appalachian Mountains who were smarter and more sophisticated than the world ever knew.)
RH: Anyone who knows you can attest to your wonderful sense of humor, which is evident in your writing. Where does your humor come from, and how do you approach including it in your writing?
PT: Oh, dear, Rebekah, how do you come up with such good, tough questions? I think the humor can be traced directly to my father, who along with his tender heart and strong work ethic, possessed an incredible wit. Everyone in my family picked up his gift for saying funny things, but when I finally tried to write humor, I was stunned at how hard it was. Thanks partly to my MFA studies through Spalding University, I began taking a hard, systematic look at some of my favorite children’s books ….and realized that most of the ones I idolize could be described as humor-and-heartache novels. There are many of them: Al Capone Does My Shirts, Holes, The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I go back to those books and others, over and over, trying to understand their techniques. At the point of writing a first draft, I try to be spontaneous and fast, throwing stuff on the page. For the revision stages, I have been building a chart that reminds me what kinds of things are funny to adults (including me) but boring to kids, and vice verse. Think about it. Who laughs about the IRS, bad bosses, car repairs, and corrupt government? Who cracks up about bodily functions, eccentric teachers, and nerdy peers? So there are humor topics that matter, and of course there’s vocabulary. And for that (as I mentioned above), I have to listen, listen, listen to lots of talkative kids. It’s one of my greatest pleasures.
RH: I have had the pleasure of reading and critiquing some of your work, which is always filled with delightful humor and spunky characters. How do you come up with your ideas?
PT: For most of my fiction projects, the initial ideas have usually arrived in the form of a mental image that feels like a movie scene running in my head. Sometimes the mental image arrives because I’ve seen real people interacting in a way that grabs me. The scene stays and I conjure up a story from it. At other times, the ‘movie scene’ may arrive as a brief, surprising daydream, probably produced by my subconscious because of something troubling my conscious thoughts. This was the antecedent for my middle grade novel, Make Me Laugh about the class clown trying to figure out how to grow up. I got a vision (a ‘scene’) of the girl and her dilemma after driving a dear friend to chemotherapy sessions for the breast cancer that would eventually take her life. No matter how bad a day my friend was having, she told me funny stories when I drove her places. Sometimes we laughed and cried simultaneously, and later my mind would be overwhelmed by ponderings about the thin line that separates laughter and tears. I had no idea what to do with these thoughts until the character named Jamie showed up to make movies in my head. That started my writing process, which began while my friend was alive. Trying to finish the book in a way that celebrates strength instead of loss has been difficult. I am way overdue with work on the final 25 pages.
RH: Like most authors, you have experienced the peaks and valleys of the publishing industry. What advice can you give to aspiring authors out there who are struggling to make their dreams a reality?
PT: 1. Read, read, read. Read the books you consider to be incredibly, impossibly good. Enjoy them, then try to figure out how the authors achieved such excellence.
2. Find resources to round out your professional knowledge and networking. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators has been ideal for me, with solid information about best business practices, workshops on plotting and other craft topics, and reasonably priced conferences where I could obtain critiques and feedback from editors and agents.
3. Know your strengths, but figure out your weaknesses, too. I wish I had put more effort into learning about the business side of publishing early on.
Patsi B. Trollinger is the author of two children’s books. Thrill in the ’Ville is middle-grade fiction that offers a humorous kids’ eye-view of an election year. Her picture-book biography, Perfect Timing, about Isaac Murphy, the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times, was honored as a Junior Library Guild selection and a Best Book of the Year by the Children’s Cooperative Book Center. Both books have been featured in community literacy initiatives.
Trollinger was born and raised in East Tennessee, where her family nurtured a love of books and good stories. Trollinger’s earliest writing ventures in elementary school involved a line of homemade greeting cards. In high school, her focus shifted toward journalism, and she became the teen correspondent from Holston High School to the Kingsport Times-News.
Trollinger graduated from Emory & Henry College and served the college as director of public relations. After moving to Kentucky, she coordinated the news service at Centre College and directed the media hall when the college hosted the 2000 vice presidential debate.
Now devoted fulltime to writing, Trollinger has written articles for magazines including Ladybug, Back Home in Kentucky, and Keeneland. Trollinger and her husband, Richard, live in Danville, KY, and are the parents of adult twin daughters. For more information about Patsi and her books, please visit: www.patsibtrollinger.com and http://www.facebook.com/PatsiBTrollinger.