The amazingly talented Candace Fleming is at The Hiding Spot today, answering questions about her newest nonfiction novel for young readers, The Family Romanov, her writing process, and more! Take it from me - if you read one nonfiction book this year, make sure it's The Family Romanov. It's absolutely unputdownable.
Candace Fleming awarded herself the Newbery Medal in fifth grade after scraping the gold sticker off the class copy of The Witch of Blackbird Pond and pasting it onto her first novel—a ten-page, ten-chapter mystery called Who Done It? She’s been collecting awards (her own, not Elizabeth George Speare’s) ever since.
Today, Candace is the versatile and acclaimed author of more than twenty books for children, including the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award-winning biography, The Lincolns; the bestselling picture book, Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!; and the beloved Boxes for Katje.
1. There are countless historical families you might have written about. What was it about the Romanovs that captured your attention?
It’s such a compelling, heartbreaking and, at times, downright weird story. Imagine this: The Russian royal family is living a fairy-tale existence. The richest man on the planet, Tsar Nicholas II owns one-sixth of the world’s land, thirty palaces, gold and silver mines, five yachts, an endless collection of priceless painting and sculpture, two private trains, countless horses, carriage and cars, and vaults overflowing with precious jewels. The Romanovs have it all! But Nicholas is a man of limited political ability. He’s simply not suited to rule Russia. And his wife, Alexandra, is held spellbound by a charismatic, self-proclaimed holy man named Rasputin. She believes Rasputin can save her hemophiliac son, Alexei, from bleeding to death. Desperate, she will do anything – anything -- including handing over the reins of power to the evil monk. Meanwhile, in the palace there also lives four, beautiful grand duchesses – Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia. But they are kept isolated from the world by their paranoid and overprotective parents. They don’t attend balls or banquets. They don’t have any friends their own age, or suitors, as they grow older. The have only each other. Living in this bubble stunts them emotionally. Even at age twenty, Olga giggles like a schoolgirl and blushes when she sees an onscreen kiss. And with all this craziness going on inside the palace gates, no one is paying any attention to the dark clouds that are gathering outside them. Starving, war-weary Russians are tired of Nicholas and Alexandra’s inept rule. They revolt, and the Romanov’s fairy tales lives come crashing down, leading to ninety days in captivity… a horrific and bloody mass murder… hidden bodies and rumors of escaped princesses. Wow, if that’s not a great story, I don’t know what is!
Tell me a little bit about your writing process: Do you outline? Start at the beginning? The middle? The end?
Honestly, they’re all hard. And here’s the thing. When I’m in the throes of a biography, I daydream about working on a picture book. “That would be so much easier,” I say to myself. Of course when I’m laboring over a picture book text I think, “Oh, if only I was working on a biography. That would be a snap.” And novels? I confess I’m not a natural novelist, so whenever I’m working on one of those… well… I always wish myself at the beach.
What jobs did you have on your way to becoming a published author? Is there a certain work experience that has shaped your writing or provided inspiration?
With biographies I don’t start writing until I know the book’s structure. And I won’t know its structure until I’ve done the bulk of the research. But once I understand the story – really understand it – it reveals its structure to me. It just sort of whispers how it wants to be told. Listening closely, I put pen to paper. Literally. I write all my first drafts in long hand – biographies, novels, and picture books. I call this part of the process “dumping down” because I’m not terribly concerned with getting those quotes comma-accurate yet, or stopping to look up details in my notes. I’m working in broad sweeps, writing the dramatic, imperative moments first, and looking for those places where I need to slow down and illuminate an important point. In short, I’m following the story’s narrative arc. There are lots of holes in my first drafts. “TK” is liberally sprinkled across the pages. That’s because as I write I find gaps, places where ideas and concepts need fleshing out. This typically has to do with context. What, I ask myself, does my reader need to know to understand the next scene. The Family Romanov is context-heavy. One of things I grappled with was how to explain certain Russian concepts to young readers who have little or no base of information. How could I fill in the gaps for them without stopping the narrative flow? Still, I don’t worry about those TK’s overly much. I know I can go back and fill in the second time around… or the sixth time… or the tenth time.
If you had to pick a favorite word, what would it be and why?
I’ve had plenty of jobs, but nothing terribly exciting. I’ve been a waitress, a bartender, an archivist at the Chicago Historical Society, a copywriter for an insurance company. Probably the job that most shaped my career is that of mother. After my second son was born with a congenital heart condition, I became a stay-home mom. That’s when I started writing with the goal of publication. As a young couple with a three year old and a sick baby, my husband and I didn’t have a lot of extra money. So I’d stay up late, writing at the kitchen table. I wrote my life – articles for parenting magazines and the occasional history piece for the Chicago Tribune Magazine. My aim was just to earn a few dollars so I could paint the kids’ bedroom or buy new curtains for the living room. What I didn’t realize at the time, but recognize now, was how much I was learning. I was honing my craft, learning how to work with editors, making deadlines. By the time I came to children’s books (after rediscovering my love of them by reading to my sons) I’d completed an apprenticeship of sorts. I was ready for the next step.
My blog is dedicated to my personal hiding spot, books. Who, what, or where can be credited as your personal escape from reality?
Cornucopia. It’s the first word I can remember that ignited my passion for language. I can still remember the day my second grade teacher, Ms. Johnson, held up a horn-shaped basket filled with little pumpkins and asked the class to repeat the word, “cornucopia.” I said it again and again. I tasted the word on my lips. I tested it on my ears. That afternoon I skipped all the way home chanting, “Cornucopia! Cornucopia! Cornucopia!” From then on I really began listening to words – the sounds they make and the way they are used and how the make me feel.
That’s an easy one. The southern shore of Lake Michigan is my hiding spot. When I’m walking along those endless stretches of sand, picking up beach glass and humming in my head, everything else just fades away. I’m happy there. I’m beautiful. I’m home.
What can readers look forward to next?
I have two picture books coming out next year, both illustrated by my partner, Eric Rohmann. Athenuem will publish the first –a story for preschoolers -- in the spring. It’s called Bulldozer’s Big Day. The second will appear in the fall from Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook -- a gorgeous piece of nonfiction called Giant Squid. I’m also in the throes of a new biography about William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, tentatively titled Presenting Buffalo Bill. Every day, I sit down at my desk and gallop across the Great Plains. It’s fun.