By Claire Torregiano
Heather Vogel Frederick is the author of a number of children’s novels, including the seven-book Mother-Daughter Book Club series, the three-book Pumpkin Falls Mystery series, as well as six other children’s books and three picture books. Set in the slightly fictionalized town of Concord, Massachusetts, The Mother-Daughter Book Club series (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) follows the lives of five young girls who bond over their shared love of books as they navigate the perilous trials of sixth grade through the summer after their senior year. I first read the Mother-Daughter Book Club series in grade school. After reaching out to Heather Vogel Frederick on social media to express how much her work meant to me, I decided to further connect with Vogel via her website in September of 2020. She graciously replied with her phone number, and this interview was conducted over the phone. To speak on the phone with an author whose books I had read throughout most of my childhood was both nerve-wracking and exciting, but Frederick made me feel at ease by asking me about my own writing and initiating a conversation that felt like I was catching up with a friend from the past. We discussed her unexpected writing journey, her drafting process, her writing career, and her advice for aspiring young writers. Claire Torregiano CT: How do you feel the first draft serves you as a writer, especially in a series like The Mother-Daughter Book Club? HVF: I didn’t know that The Mother-Daughter Book Club was going to be a series. The way that the book came about was kind of interesting, because I was working on these books called “The Spy Mice” and I was having great fun with that. But I got a phone call out of the blue one day—it’s my editor—and she says, ‘You know, Heather, there are mother-daughter book clubs all around the country. I think it would be really fun to write a novel about a mother-daughter book club, and I thought of you.’ There was dead silence on my end of the phone, though, because I have two boys. In my head I was thinking, ‘Why on earth would she be thinking of me?’ At the same time, I didn’t want to ask that because I was flattered. She said, ‘You know, I remembered that you spent your middle school years in Concord, Massachusetts. That’s where Louisa May Alcott lived when she wrote Little Women. You could have the book club read Little Women.’ At that point I was hooked, because I used to ride my bike past Louisa’s house and just dream about being a writer when I grew up. I would save up my babysitting money to take the tour of the house and see the desk where she wrote. Really, it was my editor’s idea; I agreed to do it, then hung up the phone and basically panicked. My other books had just organically bubbled up from who knows where all stories come from, and this one was more of an assignment. I re-read Little Women to quell my panic, at least temporarily, and thought, ‘Well, okay, we’ve got four very different girls.’ What if I have four different girls in this book club—some who want to be there, some who don’t want to be there. They’re really different—so the girls are very, very loosely based on Louisa’s girls, and it just grew from there. We didn’t know the book was going to be as popular as it turned out to be. Of course, when a book is a hit, your editor almost always comes scampering back and says, ‘Hey, do you want to write another one?’ With each one, I really never truly guessed it would be seven books by the time it was done. It was a universe I really loved inhabiting, and I miss them from time to time. The first draft of any novel is you just crawling along in the dark. Even if you are a planner or a plotter, there are still curveballs that happen and things that you thought were going to work [but] don’t. For me, the first draft is very painful. I just hate writing first drafts. It’s hard because the writing for me—the fun part—happens when I’ve got something on paper, and I can start picking it apart and start re-writing until it’s something beautiful and it glows. The first draft looks like something the dog wrote. It’s just a mess. You’ve got this blank page in front of you, and you may have a vague idea. In your head you’ve got this beautiful novel, this shiny sparkly thing, but getting it down onto paper? Ew. Yuck. CT: From the initial draft to the final, how much changed in the first book of the series? What stayed the same? HVF: So much changed. I literally probably write half a dozen drafts before my editor even sees it. Maybe even more. Tons and tons and tons changed. There was a minor name change: Jess was originally named Joy. I got through the entire draft and turned it into my editor, knowing it wasn’t the right name; but then “Jessica Delaney” had such a nice ring to it, and I knew that was the right name. I toyed with the idea of not having Jess’s mother come back, but there’s something in me that always pulls toward a happy ending, and it just felt so right to have her come back. The very first novel I wrote, The Voyage of Patience Goodspeed, [also] changed tremendously. Two big things happened. I turned in the first draft—all hopeful, [having] never been published before. A friend suggested a particular editor at Simon & Schuster. I sent it off. One day, I get this phone call from him: ‘I love your book,’ he said, ‘but in the first hundred pages, nothing happens.’ I had kind of forgotten to put the plot in. I was really great at description and setting the scene. So, he gave me this forty-five-minute lesson on plot and tension over the phone. I had this girl who wanted to go to sea, and he said, ‘What if she doesn’t want to go to sea and you set it up right from the very beginning that there’s this tension between her and her father?’ The other thing that happened was I’d written it in the third person. It worked, but it was kind of flat. It just didn’t quite sing. One day, just trying to get into this girl’s head, just thinking about having her be at heads with her father, I tried writing this scene between her and her father in the first person, and all of a sudden, everything came to life. She came to life. The pages came to life. The story came to life. That was an enormous change. It taught me a good lesson: to just be open. That the story might need to be told in a completely different way. And it wasn’t wasted—all those first months writing that first draft—because that’s how I got there. CT: What is typically the next step for you after you’ve finished the first draft of any manuscript? HVF: It takes me a long time to finish the first draft. I discovered there’s a term for the way I write: the icicle method. You know how an icicle on the gutter of your house melts a little bit and drips down, and the icicle gets longer and longer and longer? For me, I write the first chapter, and then I go back and re-write the first chapter while pushing myself into the second chapter, and then I go back and re-write the first chapter again while pushing myself even further into the second chapter…It’s this process where I am kind of revising as I go along, so by the time I get to the end of the first draft, it’s still terrible, but it’s been somewhat re-written. In an ideal world, I would do what E.B. White did with Charlotte’s Web: he put that novel in a drawer for a year and didn’t touch it. He called it ‘letting the heat go out of the body.’ Then, you can return to it and you have a fresh, dispassionate eye; you aren’t quite as attached to everything you’ve written. I have never been able to do that because I’m usually on a deadline. I haven’t always had the luxury of being able to set a book aside for very long. Even a month can make a difference. You can finish the first draft, go off and do something completely different. Clear your head. When you go back to it, the errors and the flaws are a little easier to pick out. They kind of jump right out at you. But typically, I just dive back in and start revising after I’ve finished the first draft. CT: What are your obstacles when writing your first draft and how do you overcome them? HVF: I do get stuck sometimes. I used to write for Publishers Weekly magazine. I did book reviews and author interviews and all sorts of things. It was great fun. I interviewed a writer by the name of Brian Jacques. He wrote the Redwall series. They were novels about medieval heroes and adventurers who were animals. He’d grown up in blue-collar Liverpool, England. He’d had all sorts of different jobs: a bouncer in a bar, a radio announcer. I remember asking him about writer’s block and he said, ‘Heather, this is my job. What if I went to the grocery store and the cashier said, I can’t ring you up, I’ve got cashier’s block! I can’t say that either. This is my job. I sit down and I write. I don’t put up with writer’s block.’ So, I just kind of always adopted that and thought, you know, this is my job. If I get stuck on one part, jump ahead to a scene that’s coming seven chapters in the future. Or go back and work and revise. Something just to get the words flowing again. Because I think if you can just keep that going, eventually the problems will sort themselves out. I think people get tied up because it’s not coming out right. The thing with first drafts is, none of it is going to come out right. It’s generally crap. It’s generally terrible. But just get something down on paper, because then you’ve got something to work with. CT: Do you have any advice for students who are working on a novel and are trying to finish a first draft, or those who have finished one? HVF: Don’t get discouraged. That’s the main thing. If you’re struggling along with something and you’re just trying to push it through, don’t get discouraged or sidetracked. Just keep at it. There’s that great quote about persistence by Calvin Coolidge: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.” Sometimes it’s great to just get up and do something else. I often find if I can get my body busy, it frees up my mind to begin thinking through things. You know, wash the dishes, take the dog for a walk, or something. It just clears the cobwebs, as my mother used to say. You can come back and continue with it. If you’ve just finished a first draft, you give yourself a big pat on the back because you’ve probably done something that 95% of writers never do. A lot of people will say, ‘Oh I’d love to be a writer someday. I’d love to write a novel.’ Do they ever actually sit down and accomplish it? No. Life has a lot of distractions. If you can persevere—even if your first draft is the biggest ball of knotted yarn anyone has ever created—that’s okay because now you’ve got something to work at. Take a breath, go on a nice long hike, give yourself some time, and then come back and experience the joy of re-writing. Because, really, the real writing happens in the re-writing.
Read Issue 18