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Got Voice? Augusta Scattergood Does!

Originally published at Through the Tollbooth. Please leave any comments there.

I first met Augusta Scattergood in 2005 at the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Conference.  I was nervous and wide-eyed seeing all the editors and agents who attend this day long event held each year in October.  Augusta was a kind face in a big crowd, and we started talking books and writing over breakfast.  It’s a friendship that’s lasted through all the ups and downs of writing and publishing. First off, Augusta is whip smart and reads with the critical eye of someone who loves children’s books and knows the literature as a former librarian. Plus, she writes with a voice that is funny and warm and real. And you have to admit, Augusta has the perfect name for a children’s author!  Augusta’s first novel for young readers, Glory Be, is just out from Scholastic Press, so I’ve invited Augusta to the Tollbooth today as I spend the week talking about voice.  The narrator of Augusta’s book rings with a true Southern voice, so let’s see how she did it!

Richard Peck says there’s a whiff of Carson McCullers in Glory Be.  I’m a huge McCullers fan and wondered if she was the inspiration or muse for Glory’s voice?

I’ve always heard character voices in my head! I was a librarian. I read aloud to kids, helped with classroom book discussions, book-talked all the new books. But when I left my school to write full time, the voice I heard was from my own childhood in Mississippi. While I’m honored by Richard Peck’s comparison and appreciate having even a whiff of McCullers in my writing, unlike Glory, I cannot tell a white lie. She was not really my muse.

For your readers who might not know about author endorsements, also knows as book blurbs, at least in my first experience the publisher, or perhaps your agent, asks authors to write the kind, generous words for the back of the book jacket. I was completely blown away when I read mine for the first time. Richard Peck, Barbara O’Connor, Kathryn Erskine. These esteemed authors actually read my book and took the time to write these amazing words. Wow was all I could think.

You say in the author’s notes that the story is fiction, but it seemed so authentic to my own Southern childhood.  Are there parts of the book that echo your own childhood?

There are so many things from my own childhood. I have a younger sister, and she’d say I’m a lot like Jesslyn. Bossy and controlling.

I was in the Pep Squad and actually had a college roommate who twirled a fire baton. I was envious, but alas it was beyond my skills.

Truly embarrassing confession: Many of the things about Elvis are straight from my life. I was a huge fan. This Christmas my niece gave me a small plaster-of-Paris Elvis bust that’s now in the Junk Poker box I show to kids in schools. (The statue replaces the large one my mother tossed out when I left for college.)

The food, the heat, the swimming pool noises and smells—all came straight from my Mississippi summers. Even some of the names. “Brother Joe” was my good friend’s daddy, the Methodist minister across the street. The family name was bestowed on the Hemphills before I ever met you, Helen. But, yes, we do have those deep Southern roots.

Darn!  I thought you named Glory for me!  Glory’s relationship with her father is a special one in the book, with a nice blend of love and exasperation.  Did that relationship come easily to the story?

What were the hardest relationships to “get right.”

Originally Brother Joe was a minor figure. A shadow who mostly existed to tell Jesslyn no on occasion.  I’d played down his fatherly role in an attempt to show Emma in charge. But the more I worked on it, the more important he became to the story and to Glory. Thank you for noticing and no, it did not come easily.

Relationships are so important in writing for young readers. I find when a plot line isn’t working, I go back to the relationships and dig deeper.

The two sisters’ story was probably the easiest. But Laura and Glory gave me the most to think about. Laura didn’t do much in the earlier versions. Perhaps because I didn’t know any Yankees when I was Glory’s age! What did they do besides talk funny and wear black socks and clodhoppers? Glory sure didn’t know what to make of her at first. But I worked hard on that part. Soon I realized they were just two girls getting to know each other, and they became good friends who loved Nancy Drew and the Beatles.

Tell readers a little bit about your writers’ groups in New Jersey and Florida.  Did they see bits and pieces of the novel as you wrote it, the whole manuscript, or both?

Writers’ groups are crucial to my literary endeavors! My New Jersey group started out with six women who wanted to learn more about writing. Our writing goals were widely disparate. One published personal essays. Another was a poet. Another a novelist with books published in many genres. I mostly wrote book reviews and essays.

Originally Glory Be was a short story for adults about a wedding planner who babysat the preachers’ daughters. It wasn’t long before I realized that was not what this story was meant to be. In the middle of this figuring out, we moved to Florida. I panicked. How could I live without my critique group!

Since moving, I’ve been in three critique groups. Actually, they kept disbanding, and I hope that had nothing to do with Glory! I’m now in an SCBWI group of fellow children’s writers, a perfect match. They see chapters, sometimes multiple times. I also have an amazing online critique partner whose skills complement mine perfectly.

The hard part about a critique group is that you can write a sparkling chapter or scene. Your characters may sing. Your settings glow. And then there’s that scary PLOT thing. Which can be hard to discern when you proceed slowly, chapter by chapter, with days or even weeks between readings.

You mention in the author’s notes the help of trusted readers and resources to make this book so authentic.  What advice would you give to new writers just dipping their toes into a manuscript?

The most important thing, of course, is to read. I had a headstart on that, having been a book reviewer and a school librarian (for a very long time). I suspect reading aloud to kids helped me get the rhythm of sentences, the sound of words, the flow of paragraphs and pages.

I still read my own writing out loud. When nobody’s listening, of course.

When writing historical fiction, especially for kids, I strongly believe you need to be sure your information is correct before you even begin to add it to the novel. I listened to oral histories for the words and stories of real people who’d lived during Freedom Summer in the South. I read a lot of non-fiction about the period. And when it came down to it, I reached out to friends and family. Especially in the final stages of editing, I needed help with crucial parts of the story. Emails and phone calls flew! Do you say doodlebug or roly-poly? Fireflies or lightning bugs? And the more serious questions, what happened in your community during those historic times. Would Glory have stood up and spoken out like she did? I knew I didn’t. But I discovered it was something a lot of us who grew up in the early 60s wish we’d been brave enough to do.

When I began to think like Glory, to worry about swimming pools and libraries closing for no reason, I knew I had a story.

It’s a wonderful book, Augusta.  I can’t wait to give it to some of the fifth grade students I’m working with here in Nashville.  They just finished reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963, and I think this is a terrific companion novel to that book. You can see Augusta in person if you happen to be near Oxford, Mississippi!  She’s be signing books at Square Books Jr., one of my favorite bookstores, on March 1 at 5 pm.  Have fun, Augusta, and thanks for hanging out with us in The Tollbooth.

On Wednesday, we’ll talk more about voice. How does a writer “make it real?”  Come back, y’all hear!

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