Meet Dee Garretson, author of Wildfire Run

My 10-year-old son is an avid reader and a tough critic. So when I received a copy of Wildfire Run, a debut middle-grade novel by Dee Garretson, in the mail I went to him first. I’d barely gotten through the first chapter when he ripped it from my hands and said, “Leave me.” I had to slip the book out of his room when he wasn’t home to finish it on my own.
Even I had trouble putting it down.
Wildfire Run is the story of Luke Brockett, the President’s son. Just once, Luke would like to be normal, to hang out with his friends at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, and maybe even do something slightly dangerous. But Luke can’t do that. Not with Secret Service agents watching his every move.
Then an earthquake hits, triggering wildfires and other disastrous chain reactions that injure and possibly kill several adults, including those assigned to protect him. Luke and his friends, Theo and Callie, are on their own, trapped in Camp David while wildfires roll in from every direction. They must escape a place designed to keep the worst of terrorists out while also saving those who were supposed to save them.
The result is a novel packed with suspense, but still grounded in the normal struggles among tweens and their friends. Somehow Dee Garretson manages to create a main character who, despite his high-brow status, is no different from any other kid. And while doing all that, she offers a book that is “teachable.” It is filled with historical references and other information about the presidency that makes Wildfire Run appealing as classroom literature.
As a writer, the novel left me wanting to know more about Dee, her writing and Wildfire Run. So I asked and here is the result:

Originally from Iowa, Dee lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two children. She has a bachelor’s in international relations from Tufts University and an associate’s in landscape horticulture from Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Until she decided to commit to writing full time, she worked as a landscape designer and taught landscape horticulture.

The trailer for Wildfire Run.

Me: At what point in your life did you discover that writing fiction was your passion, something you wanted to pursue as a career?

Dee: I have to say I don’t think of writing as a passion for me. Reading is, but not writing. Writing is more like an intriguing puzzle to me, something I have to solve. I love to make up stories in my head, but the writing down of them is hard work. I wrote stories as a child and a teenager, stopped in college, then started again when my now fifteen year old son was a baby. I was at home with him in a town where I didn’t know many people, and I needed a way to keep my brain occupied. I can’t pinpoint when I decided I wanted to write as a career, but it was about five years ago that I decided I was going to pursue it with all the energy I could spare. That was also at the time when my daughter started first grade and I had bigger blocks of time to write.

Me: Why middle-grade fiction?

Dee: I had spent years working on mysteries and was very discouraged that I wasn’t getting enough interest in my work. My son was at the age where he was reading middle grade and he was so excited about some of his books that he wanted me to read them. I did read some of them, and really enjoyed the mix of adventure and humor I found in them. I like to write in a lighter style, more plot than character driven, and that’s another aspect of middle grade that appealed to me.

Me: What was the inspiration for Wildfire Run?

Dee: Way back when Jimmie Carter was president, I remember hearing all the criticism of his daughter, Amy, for reading a book during a state dinner. All I could think of at the time was that would have been me. It made me aware of the strange lives presidential children lead. I didn’t think much about it again until the presidential primary races in 2008. There were several candidates with younger children or grandchildren, and it led me to again wonder what life would be like for children in that situation.

Me: You have this amazing combination of traits. You are artistic, yet you also seem to be methodical and practical. You wrote this wonderfully creative book with a suspenseful plot, well-drawn characters and vivid descriptions, yet you also know your audience well, researched the details thoroughly and acquainted yourself with the ins and outs of the publishing world, particularly in your genre, before you even sent out your first query letter. Is this approach learned from experience or is this just the way you do things?

Dee: I have you fooled! It is true that I had come to understand the publishing business before I sent out the first query for Wildfire Run, but that is only because I spent all those years before that attempting to get other works published. I learned so much during that time, especially the importance of studying successful popular books to understand why they appeal to readers.

Me: Among the most notable techniques you apply in Wildfire Run is the use of minute detail to advance the plot and build suspense. How did that develop? How did it become part of your writing? Was it conscious or did it just make sense to you and start flowing?

Dee: I’m a big fan of thrillers (those written for adults), and when I decided to write this story, I knew I would need to use those techniques to give the reader the sense of foreboding that the main characters only gradually come to feel. It’s a fun technique to work with, because it gives more options in terms of imparting information to the reader.

Me: Where did Luke come from, his character? Did he change from the beginning of the writing process to the end? Are there any characters who changed dramatically from start to finish or who shifted in importance as you wrote?

Dee: Being the child of a president or any extremely successful person has to be incredibly difficult. I’ve known a few people whose childhoods were overshadowed by their parents’ wealth and power, and it seemed to make it more difficult for them to find their way in the world. My initial concept of Luke did not change much throughout the writing process, but once I had written the external adventure, I went back and strengthened his internal journey. I’ve very concerned about pacing, so getting the storytelling right was important to do first. My philosophy for this kind of story is that if you can’t get the reader pulled into turning the page to find out what happens next, they won’t care about the characters’ internal struggles.
The character of Callie, Luke’s friend, did not change so much as have her story trimmed. I’m very attached to the character and I wrote some chapters focused more on her. Unfortunately, those had to be cut to keep the story moving forward.

Me: How difficult was it to research Camp David; the social and emotional struggles of a First Child and the Secret Service? How close to reality did you feel you had to come in Wildfire Run?

Dee: Researching Camp David and the Secret Service was extremely difficult because I wanted an accurate feel to the book, yet, of course, for security reasons there is not much factual information available. I read every nonfiction book I could find that had mentions of the place and of the Secret Service. I purposely stayed away from any fiction, because I didn’t want to be influenced by other writers’ imaginations. I admire anyone who chooses to be part of the Secret Service for their level of dedication to their jobs, without letting their own political beliefs interfere with the way they carry out their responsibilities, and I hope the respect I have for them shows in the book. I’ve always followed politics and the people involved, so the issues facing different first families were something I felt like I already understood.

Me: Do you intend to stick with middle-grade fiction or do you plan to experiment with other genres?

Dee: I will stick with middle grade fiction for the moment, but I also want to go back to my historical mysteries, and someday I’d like to tackle an epic fantasy.

Me: Is another novel forthcoming? When can we expect it?

Dee: I just finished a second middle-grade adventure, titled Wolf Storm at the moment. It’s about kid actors on location filming a blockbuster sci-fi movie. They get trapped in a blizzard and have to figure out how to survive all the things I throw at them. Plans are for that book to be released in winter 2011/2012.

Me: Any advice for other unpublished writers?

Dee: I could fill a book with advice for unpublished writers, but I’ll just stick with a few bits here. Read as many books as you can in whatever genre you are writing in. There are a couple of reasons for this. One, you don’t want to spend months accidentally writing something too similar to a popular book that’s already out there. In the last year I’ve read the manuscripts of two unpublished writers with that very problem. Because they hadn’t widely read in their chosen genre, they wrote stories no agent would take on because they couldn’t sell the work.

And that brings me to the second reason. You can’t ever forget publishing is a business, a very competitive one, and there are an amazing number of good books out there. It’s too easy to fall in the trap of being overly pleased with your work just because you’ve managed to finish something. Often a writer doesn’t go into the revision stage with a critically enough. Because you have a vision of the story in your head, it can interfere with your analysis of how the story actually reads. Your readers don’t have your vision, so if you slip up in the storytelling aspect of the story, you’re going to lose them in spite of how well written your work may be.

Me: How does it feel to finally see your novel in print?

Dee: I had a weird, unexpected thought when I unpacked my author copies. I held the book, which is relatively small and lightweight and I thought given all the years of work that went into getting to this point, it should weigh much more. It is a thrill to see it in bookstores and it’s even more of a thrill to see it in libraries. I love libraries and the idea that it’s going to be in some for a long time makes all the work worth it.

Twilight: why even literary snobs are in the author’s debt

I did not want to read it.
I am not a fan of romance.
And I generally dislike the paranormal stuff.
I have a backlog of books I’d prefer to immerse myself in.
But the intrigue finally got to me.
I had to know how one book could could enrage so many writers and, at the same time, convert thousands, at least, of people who had not picked up a book in decades into passionate readers.
So when a friend offered me a copy of Twilight, I couldn’t resist.
And I was surprised.
Very surprised.
The answer to Stephenie Meyer’s success is simple, but it is also quite complicated.
It’s not the writing that makes Twilight a best seller. It is a combination of psychology, seductive descriptions, simple language and skilled storytelling. And that combination is too perfect to argue that Stephenie Meyer simply got lucky.
Let’s start with the psychology.
Like any good romance writer, Meyer’ chooses a girl who believes herself to be ordinary, who has never even had a date, who is so much like so many of us, especially when we were in high school.
She takes this girl and makes her the object of a highly desirable man’s obsession. She gives every ordinary girl or woman out there hope. She feeds her fantasies. She helps her feel good about herself and feel good about her potential self.
Next, she draws vivid and fascinating portraits of these vampires.
I want to watch them walk. I want to breath their scents. I want to experience their powerful arms, their speed, their bodies in sunlight. I want to watch them play baseball.
They are spectacular and original.
Somehow, Stephenie Meyers makes me want that.
Add to that the seduction. The way Edward touches Isabella is almost pornographic.
It’s hard to remember that they do nothing more than kiss. I want to find out what happens to them. Does it work? Does she become a vampire?
The plot and it’s pacing are enough to pull me through.
Otherwise, I have to admit, the writing is pretty lousy.
If I had to read that a character’s eyes, face or expression was “unreadable” one more time, I think I might have burned that book. I quickly grew tired of lengthy descriptions of Isabella’s every mundane move. Do I really need to watch her climb each and every stair? Brush her teeth? Pee?
Over and over again?
And how quickly her characters leap to rage. I could never be friends with these people. There is no warning, no build-up. One wrong word or move and they clench their fists, turn purple and refuse to speak to each other.
Seconds later, they are best buddies again, of course.
This lack of emotional transition is the mark of an impatient writer. Someone who is too lazy, too unobservant or too lacking in literary talent to get it right. I found it unforgivable. So unforgivable that, despite the awesome vampires, I could not like this novel.
But, I’m not her market.
I’m not important and that’s okay.
The elements of writing that I find annoying in Twilight are among those that make the language accessible for nonreaders or hurried readers. I don’t want to be told how someone feels. I want to be shown. I want to feel myself growing angry with the character, or calmer or happier.
More readers than not don’t want to work that hard.
From Twilight, they want two things: seduction and action.
The rest is irrelevant.
But, as a writer, there are two things I get from Twilight: more people who are turned onto books, people who might start off with Twilight, but then, later, become more sophisticated readers; and more money for the publishing industry, money that allows editors to take chances on novels like mine own.
So, how can I complain? How can any writer complain? How can anyone deny Stephenie Meyer the right to her success?
I felt it in the beginning, before I read Twilight, before I formed informed opinions of my own.
Her critics–the hard-core unyielding critics who accuse her of single-handedly triggering the demise of literature–are jealous.
Their complaints are, as I suspected, sour grapes.

Still Alice

I had always thought that, should I ever develop cancer, I would forgo chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is poisonous and barbaric, I believed. It brings us to the brink of death and then drags us back and, some folks never do return.
I’d rather take my chances on clinical trials and new treatments, I thought. And I firmly believed that these decisions should be made while we are healthy, when our minds are not clouded by the subjectivity and irrational passion that comes with disease.
Then I read Still Alice, a first novel by Lisa Genova.
Now, Alice does not have cancer. She has early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. But, like me, the healthier, rational Alice believes that she knows what is best for the Alice to come. She creates a quiz for herself that she takes daily, thanks to the reminder technology on her Blackberry. If she can’t answer all the questions correctly, she is directed to a file that will instruct her to take a lethal dose of sleeping pills.
I won’t go into the rest of the story because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. But I will say that the novel has altered my perspective on terminal disease. The author, Lisa Genova, has a PhD in neuroscience and works with Alzheimer’s patients. She clearly knows her subject and almost seems to crawl into the Alzheimer’s mind.
Her depiction of the progression of Alzheimer’s is, admittedly, a bit too rosy at times.
Alice isn’t anything like my husband’s grandmother (Well, she wasn’t really his grandmother. She was his step-grandmother and, also, his aunt by marriage, but I won’t go into that here.). Alice doesn’t confuse real life with soap operas and accuse her husband of cheating on her.
She isn’t like my good friend’s aunt, whom he found strapped to her bed in a nursing home when he visited. He was told that she had lashed out violently and that they had no choice, but to restrain her.
But the author’s decision to leave out the nasty stuff doesn’t matter.
We do have an Alice in our neighborhood who lives with her son. She is sweet, kind and completely unaware of her surroundings. Alices do exist. All cases are different and the author doesn’t have to rely on the worst-case scenarios to get her point across.
And her point is more universal for me than it is, I think, for most.
Sure, she deepened my understanding of Alzheimer’s disease with her well-informed fictionalization. She helped me understand that we are more than our memories and that no disease can change our souls.
But, for me, the lesson was broader.
Through Alice, I came to see that I cannot make rational, informed decisions for myself before I face the possibility of death or terminal disease. I don’t know enough yet. I am ignorant, just as Alice was ignorant in the earliest stage of her own disease.
I am ignorant because disease is more than science.
Treatment is about more than medical cures.
And living is about more than being physically or mentally whole.
I am ignorant, but am happy to embrace that ignorance.
Thanks to Alice.