Where do the ideas for your books come from?

When I do school visits, I often tell kids that finding ideas for stories is not the hard part. Over the years, I’ve trained myself to pay attention to interesting thoughts and experiences that I think might make good book ideas. I jot all my ideas down in a little notebook or a Notes app on my phone, and if the idea continues to seem cool to me, I’ll add to it over time. Many, many story ideas never come to pass, but the ones that do always start there!

With Where the Watermelons Grow, the story idea arose out of two inspirations: The first was when I was singing the song “Down By the Bay” to my baby and started wondering what could be the story behind the song. The second was my desire to write a story about a disability that does not end with a magical cure. Although I don’t have schizophrenia, I’m a disabled parent myself, and many of the experiences of the Kelly family were inspired by things my own family went through.

For Beginners Welcome, the story idea came when I started wondering what it might be like if a loved one died, but sensory reminders of their presence stayed behind. I was curious whether it would make it harder or easier to move on if you were constantly reminded of the sounds and scents of their presence, even when you couldn’t see them.

The idea for The Stars of Whistling Ridge was the funniest one I’ve ever had! One day I was trying to use my phone to google something about the book Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Instead, my phone autocorrected the search to “Little Winnebago.” I thought that was so absurd, and I immediately began to wonder what a story called The Little Winnebago would be about!

With No Matter the Distance, the story came about rather unexpectedly. I’d previously outlined an entirely different book about a character with cystic fibrosis—something I’d been working toward being ready to write for many years. When I sat down to draft that book, though, I just couldn’t find my way into the story. When the pandemic began in early 2020, I found myself overwhelmed and struggling to write anything at all. I ended up putting aside all my notes and instead pulling out a very old story idea about a girl who befriends a lost dolphin. Writing in verse, and writing a story so very close to my heart, helped me push through that pandemic writer’s block.

Why do so many of your books have characters who are sick or disabled?

I was born with cystic fibrosis and ehlers-danlos syndrome, two genetic conditions that affect multiple organ systems in the body. Chronic illness and daily treatments have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and when I was in my own middle grade years, a lot of my energy was used up trying to process big stuff like hospital stays, learning that CF was a life-shortening disease and I may never live past my 30s (the life expectancy back then), and trying to figure out how to chase my dreams when my illness always seemed to stand in the way. I write my books for kids like me—the ones who are going through hard, unusual challenges, and need to be reminded they’re not alone. I’m also passionate about disability representation in media, and it’s my goal to help flood the world with authentic, nuanced, and positive portrayals of disability.

Why are your books set in North Carolina?

I grew up in North Carolina, and though I no longer live there, it’s still one of my favorite places ever! Writing stories set there lets me “visit” places I love even when I’m sitting at my desk in Oregon. I don’t anticipate ALL of my books taking place in NC—I’m working on some story ideas set elsewhere—but it’s a setting I really love to explore in fiction. It’s also the place I know most intimately from the perspective of a preteen, like my characters.

Have you always wanted to be an author?

I have! I’ve loved books and writing for as long as I can remember, and when I was about eleven I decided I wanted to be a real, published author someday. However, some of my own favorite authors never felt they were good at writing as kids, and only started as adults. It’s never too late to practice writing!

Do you have any pets?

Not currently, unfortunately! I’m allergic to a lot of animals, which makes pets tricky. From 2020-2022 I did have two adorable pet rats named Scabbers and Puncenella, who we loved very much! Hopefully we’ll be able to have pets again in the future.

Did you major in English at college?

I did major in creative writing at college. However, there are two important things I want to say about that: First, that I wasn’t able to graduate college because of health issues—so a college degree is not necessary to become an author. Second, that although my college writing classes were awesome and introduced me to some of my best friends, they didn’t actually teach me a whole lot about writing novels, which is what I really wanted to learn. Most of what I’ve learned about novel-writing came after college, through attending writing conferences, reading blogs, and doing lots of Google searches. Majoring in English can be wonderful, but it’s also entirely possible to become an author without that.

How did you get your books published?

I sent my first book, Where the Watermelons Grow, to a literary agent who lives in New York City and knows a lot of editors there, and understands what they like. She sent my book out to several editors she thought would be good fits, and one of them loved it enough to offer to publish it. However, I tried two get two other books published before Where the Watermelons Grow, and neither of them worked out. Publishing is tough and takes a lot of patience!

Have you ever been rejected?

I had racked up over 110 rejections on my first two books from literary agents before I even started sending out Where the Watermelons Grow! While I did get an agent fairly quickly with Watermelons, I also got dozens of rejections on that one from literary agents, and several rejections from publishers as well. Rejection is a normal part of the publishing process. I think the most successful authors are able to cultivate resilience and a willingness to keep trying, even when things aren’t working out.

Do you design your own covers?

Thankfully, no! I’m not an illustrator and I don’t think I’d do a very good job. My publisher chooses somebody to design my book cover (I often get to help choose the illustrator), and the artist and design team work together to make a book cover that represents the story inside. I feel very lucky, because all of my book covers are beautiful!

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