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Interview with Frances O'Roark Dowell

I have recently had the distinct pleasure of interviewing author Frances O'Roark Dowell regarding her newest book, Ten Miles Past Normal.

What were you trying to accomplish when you started writing Ten Miles Past Normal? What do you feel you’ve accomplished with the finished product?
With every book I write, I’m hoping to write something that readers will relate to and find themselves in. Ten Miles Past Normal is at heart a story about someone who wants to be like everyone else, but just can’t figure out how to do it. I think most of us have felt like that at one time or another.

What inspired you to write this story?
I’ve always wanted to live out in the country. But whenever I bring it up with my kids, they’re like, “No way!” They don’t want to move away from their friends. So I saw the comic possibilities of a farm girl feeling stranded in a way of life she’s just not that psyched about.

Why do you think that being “normal” is such a large concern for many teens and even adults? Why did you choose to make that a central issue for this book?
We all want to be part of the tribe. There’s security in it. And it can be a lot of fun. Think about cheering for your team at a big game, sitting there with hundreds of other people cheering with you. It’s exhilarating.

The problem is, we often have to sacrifice bits and pieces of ourselves to fit in. Some people are very willing to do this, if it means they get to be part of the group. Some people just won’t do it, and they’re the ones who spend high school on the outside. Some people—and Janie is like this, and I was, too—want to be normal and fit in, but they just can’t figure out how.

And then there are people like Monster in Ten Miles, who are accepted by everyone just by being themselves. There’s always one kid like this in every school. They’re kind of a miracle.

Can you tell us a little about the process of creating your characters?
I start with a triggering idea—i.e. What if there was this girl who lived on a farm, but wished she lived in a subdivision like everyone else? Why is she unhappy with farm life? How’s it affecting her? Then I just start writing, and get my characters “talking” on the page. It’s a kind of freewriting that lets me explore. I try to come up with some backstory—what’s their family like, what’s their house like, who’s their best friend, that sort of thing—so I can start getting a sense of who they are and how they live.

What kind of research, if any, did you have to do to write this book?
I did a lot of research on the care and feeding of goats and some research into the literacy programs run by Civil Rights workers in the 1950s and 1960s.

What was the most enjoyable part about writing Ten Miles Past Normal?
Coming up with the character of Monster. Every time he walked into the story, I had a good time.

What is the most interesting thing you learned while writing Ten Miles Past Normal? (This can be about yourself, about writing, or anything at all).
I learned that goat poop actually doesn’t smell that bad unless it’s really, really fresh.

What is the most rewarding part about being a young adult author?
Hearing from readers who love your books. Writing for teens and tweens is the best writing job there is. You have the most passionate readers in the world.

If there was one thing you could change about Ten Miles Past Normal, what would it be?
That’s a question you should ask me a year from now. Sometimes you have to have some distance from your books before you can really critique them and think about what you might have done differently. I’ll definitely have a list of things down the road, but right now I’m just feeling happy that’s published and getting read!

What are you working on next?
Right now I’m working on a middle grade novel about a girl who struggles with her weight and is getting bullied, but who decides to fight back.

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