Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Interrogation Room #35: Lisa Bullard

We're heading to the midwest for our next suspect in our interrogation room. Lisa Bullard hails from the land of 10,000 lakes (that'd be Minnesota), a setting that factors prominently in her new middle grade mystery, TURN LEFT AT THE COW.

First, a little bit about TURN LEFT AT THE COW:

Thirteen-year-old Trav has always wondered about his dead-before-he-was-born dad. But when he heads from California to his grandmother's house in rural Minnesota, hoping to learn about his past, he gets more than he bargained for.

It turns out his dad was involved in a bank robbery right before he mysteriously disappeared, and the loot from the take is still missing. Along with Kenny and Iz, the kids next door, Trav embarks on a search for the cash. But the trio’s adventure quickly turns dangerous when it becomes clear that someone else is looking for the money—someone who won’t give up without a fight!
So, what was the original seed of this novel? Did you start with the Minnesota setting, a character, the crime, or something else? Did you know from the outset that you were going to be writing a mystery?

Piecing together the origin story for TURN LEFT AT THE COW is like piecing together the clues to a good mystery—there were so many different things that came together to nudge the story into being. But one of my favorite “seeds” was a creature called a walking catfish. I was doing research for a nonfiction book about animals and I stumbled across a description of this fish, which, when its pond turns toxic or no longer provides enough nutrients, can actually shimmy across land until it finds a better pond. I was enthralled by the idea of this literal fish out of water. I knew right away I wanted to create a human character who was inspired by this fish to leave his/her own “toxic pond” and go looking for a better environment—a “pond” that was initially strange and mysterious, but ultimately as right and necessary as air (or as necessary as water—I’m still not completely clear how this fish manages this trick!).

And I did always know it was going to be a mystery, partly because I love reading mysteries, and partly because of a different surprise element that also popped up very early in the writing process.

TURN LEFT AT THE COW explores not only a mystery about a family secret, but also a story about how Travis navigates the complexities of family dynamics and other relationships. How important do you think it is for young sleuths in mystery novels today to be fully realized, complex characters – as opposed to the traditional Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys model, where the primary objective is mystery-solving?

Travis is thirteen, and I think that it is at around that age that a person starts to realize that your own life is actually a puzzle to be solved: Who am I, apart from the people who have raised me or contributed to my DNA? Who do I want to try to be as I move towards becoming my own fully independent person? So I knew that untangling Travis’ complex family relationships, and his personal quest to figure out the missing pieces of himself, would be their own layers of mystery in this story.

But I admit that I love a good puzzle no matter what—I’m a big fan of mysteries that are character-driven, but I’m also a fan of mysteries that are more about the puzzle. And I think that there are readers for both kinds of books, so I tried to incorporate some of each in my story. Along with the other questions at hand, TURN LEFT AT THE COW also has body parts in a freezer chest, the unsolved disappearance of a bank robbery suspect, and a missing treasure that is possibly buried on a deserted island.

Prior to writing a middle grade mystery, you wrote picture books and nonfiction books for younger readers. What was it like to switch genres and audiences? Did writing for other readerships help you at all with the writing of this book?

Switching to a whole new genre and audience had me sweating it out worse than a guilty suspect in a lineup! My biggest struggle was in trying to figure out how I was going to write something so much longer than the other books I’d written, most of which had brevity as a major requirement—I was used to the mandate that my books could be no longer than 600 words, and now I was looking at something a hundred times longer than that.

Then I got some great writing advice from an unexpected source. I did a lot of school visits, and kids who were too old for my picture books would beg for a longer story. This happened often enough that I had actually created a long-winded explanation for why some writers (like me) were better off sticking to short pieces. But one day, this 5th-grade boy called me on me on my feeble excuse. He rolled his eyes at me big-time and said, “Oh, just write a bunch of short things and stick them all together!” In my defense, it only took me a moment to realize that the kid had a great point: Wow, I thought, I think they’re called CHAPTERS!

And yes, writing nonfiction for young readers did prove to be a big help with writing a mystery. Along with giving me the walking catfish idea, it taught me how to piece together seemingly disparate bits of research into a coherent whole—which turned out to be great training for turning a series of clues into a tightly plotted mystery.

What do you find to be the hardest part about writing mystery novels for a younger audience? Did you face any particular challenge in writing a middle grade mystery – and if so, how did you overcome it?

The irony is that when I first set out to write this novel, I thought I was going to write a mystery for adults, a story that featured a 34-year-old woman in the same rural Minnesota setting. But I just couldn’t get past the opening few chapters. Then I took a writing class from a mystery writer named Ellen Hart who is both a fantastic teacher and writer. She gave us an assignment the very first night that made me rethink my character, and a new voice marched in and took over—the voice of a young teenage boy. He had so much energy and such a desire to tell his story that I knew if I just followed his lead, I could finally finish the book.

The challenge after that was in figuring out whether it was a YA book or a middle grade book—I thought it was meant to be YA, but when I started submitting it, I kept hearingback from editors that it should be middle grade. I realized I had to make Travis slightly younger and shift other elements in the story accordingly. It took me a while to get comfortable with this shift, but it became obvious even to me that it was the right thing to do, so I ignored the manuscript for a few months and then came back to it with a fresh perspective and made the necessary changes.

What is the best part of writing a mystery for younger readers? (Or: what was most pleasurable for you about writing this book?)

I know, from working with so many students over the years, that many young readers approach books with a great intensity—they completely invest themselves in the stories they love. They live inside them in the same way I lived inside this story while I wrote it. It was very satisfying to imagine connecting in that way with the eventual readers of this story.

Are you an avid mystery reader yourself? What have been some of your favorite mysteries, real-life or fictional?

I have been an avid mystery reader for most of my life. When I was young, I inherited a huge box of books that had first been my mom’s, and then was added to bymy older cousins. So alongside Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and the Three Investigators, I read the wonderful out-of-print Judy Bolton series.

As for real-life mysteries, D.B. Cooper was a big inspiration for TURN LEFT AT THE COW. I found a newspaper article about a man who was convinced his brother was the missing hitchhiker, and it started me to wondering what it would be like to discover that a close relative had committed an infamous unsolved crime.

Have you ever solved a "real life" mystery?

Other than an uncanny ability to discern people’s motives (a great asset for any writer), I can’t think of anyreal-life mystery I’ve solved. But there was another real-life mystery that inspired my story. My cousins and brothers and I spent our childhood summers visiting a lake cabin owned by my grandparents, and we grew up hearingabout the mystery of Green Lake. Years before, a small plane had crashed into the lake and was never found, despite regular searches by trained divers. We started taking out the canoe to search for the plane ourselves, convinced that somehow a bunch of kids might be able to track down something that the adults hadn’t managed to find.

So as a fellow midwesterner, I love the setting of your novel--there aren't enough books set in the woods and water of the upper midwest, as far as I'm concerned! I especially loved how you've included such regional details, like dairy product sculptures and live-bait vending machines in TURN LEFT AT THE COW. I'm wondering though, for our readers who have only ever flown over the midwest, would you care to explain one of Minnesota's local specialities...hot dish?

I’m laughing so hard at that question that if I had happened to be eating my favorite childhood hot dish at the moment, it would probably be snorting out my nose. Some people know hot dish by the name “casserole.” If that still doesn’t clear things up for you, the key thing to know is that you can find maps of Minnesota sectioned out by the kind of hot dish they are most likely to serve when they want to show off at the church potluck, and they tend to fall into two basic camps: those that have as their base Campbell’s Cream of [fill in the blank] Soup, and those that feature Campbell’s Tomato Soup. It’s a little bit like northern versus southern Italian cuisine, except with Tator Tots or Shoestring Potatoes on top.
What do you mean you’re still confused? It’s as if you grew up not eating SPAM, or something! Here’s what’s even funnier about your question—in the earliest drafts of the book, when it still had an adult main character, hot dish was actually going to be the key clue to the solution of the mystery. I kept a mention of it in the story as a nod to that early incarnation. Good for you for ferreting that out!

Will there be more adventures for Travis? Or more mysteries? (We hope!)

It’s time for my big confession! Although I can no longer get away with the alibi that I can only “write short,” I am still the world’s slowest writer. And I do a LOT of writing in my head before any actual words make it onto my computer screen. I’m still in that early stage of writing where everything feels like a dark and stormy night, but I’m hopeful that some clues will start to emerge soon as to the true shape of my next mystery.

What writing secret will you reveal only under the harsh lights of this interrogation room?
I have a love-hate relationship with writing. I spend a lot of time and energy figuring out ways to avoid having to do it, because initially, it’s often painfully hard. But once I do finally get going, I become completely immersed in the story-world: I dreamscenes every night and spend entire business meetings secretly plotting surprise developments. I go on 24-hour writing binges where I’m shocked to realize that the sun is actually rising and I haven’t yet been to bed. I guess it’s the equivalent of any serious addiction!


Lisa Bullard is the author of the new middle grade mystery Turn Left at the Cow (Harcourt, October 2013). She’s also written picture books and nonfiction titles for young readers, includingTrick-or-Treat on Milton Street and You Can Write a Story. Lisa’s awards include a Children’s Choice Award, an honor for the Storytelling World Award, and two Teacher’s Choice Awards. Lisa teaches writing through the Loft Literary Center and lives in Minneapolis. You can find out more about Lisa at her website at lisabullard.com.

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