Check This Out: Big Rig

With me on the blog today is the amazing and gracious Louise Hawes, author extraordinaire and member of the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts! She’s here to discuss her recently released middle grade novel, Big, Rig, published by Peachtree. I love this book, so I’m thrilled to have Louise here! Louise is represented by Ginger Knowlton.

El Space: Louise, what inspired this story? This might sound weird, but as I read your book, I thought of Route 66—the iconic route discussed in the first Cars movie, though that route is not a focal point of this book. Cars made me nostalgic. I had a strong sense of nostalgia as I read Big Rig, the trucking industry being so iconic. Back in the day, when my family traveled, we stopped at truck stops.
Louise: Honestly? What inspired Big Rig is the same thing that inspires all my books—a character. I never start with a story, you see, or even a premise or idea. It’s always a beating heart, a voice, that grabs me. Of course, Hazel, my 11-year old protagonist grabbed me harder than most and held on longer, too. She insisted on having her way as we hit the road together. She made it clear that she’s highly allergic to those two words, THE END. And even though my inner writing teacher tried to tell her about turning points and resolution, she just wasn’t buying it; she didn’t ever want to our story to end. She got her way, as folks will see when they read the book!

At Louise’s book launch—McIntyre’s Fine Books in Fearrington Village, Pittsboro, NC.

And that’s funny about Route 66. I wanted the book’s flyleaves to feature the major U.S. truck routes in a double spread. I never won that battle, but we did get road signs as chapter titles! Oh, and I wore a route 66 tie to the book launch!

Photo by Karen Pullen

El Space: How did you research this book?
Louise: Very unwillingly! At first, when Hazel popped into my mind and told me she and her dad had been traveling across the country for seven years in an eighteen-wheeler, I said to myself, and to her, “NO WAY! I know nothing about trucks, and I don’t want to know even the slightest thing about them.” But of course, after she popped into my mind, Hazel burrowed into my heart. And three years later? I know a LOT about trucks. I’ve researched trucks and the trucking industry. I’ve interviewed dozens of drivers, put plenty of miles in on big rigs. As a passenger. No, I’ve never driven one; at 100 pounds and 5 feet, I wouldn’t trust myself in the driver’s seat. I reached out to organizations like Trucker Buddy, who pair up individual drivers with classrooms; and Women in Trucking, who work with organizations like the Girl Scouts to publicize the fact that there are lots of women active in, and crucial to, the industry.

El Space: Hazel/Hazmat is a great character. She felt like an old soul—a marvelous blend of the past and the present. So confident and engaging. What was your process for finding her voice?
Louise: As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t find Hazel, she found me. But as with any character that inspires one of my books, I needed to trust her before I could begin an actual draft. I have a notebook of free writes (in the form of first-person letters from her to me); that notebook was full of her voice, cover to cover, before I ever wrote a single page of the novel.

   

Canine book reviewers: (Left) Jenn Bailey’s pooch, Ollie. Jenn is a VCFA grad and author. Photo by Jenn Bailey (Right) Bella, the canine co-author of “BEAGLES AND BOOKS,” a blog by Laura Mossa, an Elementary School Reading Specialist. Photo by Laura Mossa.

El Space: You have such wonderful characters. Even Hazel’s mother’s ashes (not much of a spoiler, since you learn that on the first page) is a character with weight in the book. What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
Louise: What a great question! I think the toughest moments to write were the ones where I needed to stay inside Hazel, and not give myself up to feeling sorry for her, which she never does for herself. The moments when she’s talking to her mom, or afraid of growing up, or angry at her dad—during all those times, she’s just right there in the moment, never feeling “poor me,” or “life sucks.” She’s just bringing her whole self to every experience, knowing better than most of us, that it will give way to a new one before we can truly catch hold.

The feline reviewer is an assistant to a Twitter follower and middle school teacher, Kate McCue-Day. Photo by Kate McCue-Day

El Space: What do you hope your readers will take away after reading Big Rig?
Louise: Besides the fact that a good story doesn’t need a beginning, middle, and end? I guess I’d like readers to undergo the same change-of-mind I did about truckers and trucking. Drivers and their rigs are crucial to all of us—to the economy, to the culture, to our whole way of life. And yet we pretty much forget about them, once we grow past the age of 6 or 7 and stop asking them to pump their air brakes when we drive by. We forget about automation and the driverless trucks that may well be destroying and brutalizing a whole way of life. That’s a thread that winds through the entire book, and I’d hope folks pay attention.

El Space: What inspires you these days?
Louise: Being outside, plain and simple. I need fresh air, and water in the form of the sea, or a lake, or a rainstorm. I need the bull frog in my pond with whom I engage in daily ten-minute dialogues. I need to see how relentlessly beautiful the world is, how it keeps going with or without us. I need something bigger than myself or my day. And nature gives me that.

El Space: What writing advice do you always share with your students and anyone else who’s asking?
Louise: The same advice I’ve been giving ever since I set myself free from slaving over every word via free writes. My first drafts are still like other folks’ second or third passes, and that’s because I can’t leave a word or a sentence alone until I hear it ring true. But with free writing, the loose, free times I spend with my characters, I can relax into them, get out of me. Which is why, behind every chapter I write, painstakingly, laboriously, there is a poem or a free write that came first. So, whenever myself or one of my students has a writing problem that’s stumping us, I advise taking it to our characters. To let it go, turn it over. That doesn’t mean I won’t edit or revise those free writes, or advise my students to do the same. But it does mean that what’s at the start, the heart of our work is something unhampered and flowing, something free.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Louise: I’m working on two things right now—one is a project I started a long time ago and am only finishing this year. It’s YA historical fiction, and the protagonist is Salomé, the biblical character who supposedly performed the dance of the seven veils and won the head of John the Baptist. The other project is a new novel for adults. The character who won me over there is a failed playwright who’s fallen in love with a dead poet. See? There’s just no telling with me, who’ll come out of nowhere and sweep me up and away!

Thank you, Louise, for being my guest!
Looking for Louise? Look here: Website, Twitter, VCFA, Facebook, Instagram
Looking for Big Rig? Look no further than Barnes and Noble, Indiebound, Amazon.
Comment below to be entered into a drawing from which one of you will receive a copy of Big Rig! Winner to hopefully be announced next week!

Other books by Louise:

    

Book launch and author photos courtesy of Louise Hawes. Tree photo by L. Marie. Other book covers from Goodreads and Louise Hawes.

The Emasculation of the Hero


Last week, Charles Yallowitz had an interesting discussion on tropes at his blog that got me to thinking about the subject of this post.

When I was in graduate school, I read The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. I was fascinated by the hero’s journey monomyth. Still am. Growing up, I loved stories like Star Wars, Beowulf, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Treasure Island, and comic books like Superman, Thor, Iron Man, Spider-Man, etc.

And yes, I am female—a female with two brothers, a dad, about a billion male cousins, and a number of male friends. And no, I’m not selling out myself or females in general because I love heroic adventures. I also love Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Batgirl, etc. I wrote my critical thesis on the heroine’s journey in middle grade fiction, following the steps of the hero’s journey (the call to action, etc.).

Back when I was a kid—a time when everyone had a pet triceratops—I used to watch a show called The Avengers. This is not the Avengers you saw in Marvel movies. It is described by Wikipedia as “a British espionage television series.” It starred Patrick Macnee as John Steed, Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel (left photo), and when Diana left the show, Linda Thorson became Steed’s partner, Tara King. I loved Emma Peel and Tara King, because they knew karate and could beat a dude down. As a kid, I often felt helpless, especially living in a rough neighborhood where guys ignored the “don’t hit a girl” rule parents used to enforce back in the day, and would pick a fight with a girl. I got into two fights in middle school with boys, which is why my older brother taught me to box.

 

Even with that love of seeing powerful women on an old TV show, I can’t help noticing how the hero has undergone a metamorphosis in some stories these days. Either he takes a backseat or is rendered weak and ridiculous—the constant butt of a joke. But I can’t laugh at this. Before you say I’m anti-humor, there’s a difference between a character with humor who doesn’t take himself too seriously (Tony Stark/Iron Man in the Marvel comics and movies), thus causing us to laugh with him, and someone who is deliberately written to look weaker and less intelligent than the female characters, which causes us to view him with contempt. I understand that some are glad to see this, believing this aspect to be “just desserts” due to the past. Maybe I’m old school, but I don’t like this. (And yes, I saw and laughed at the movie, Dumb and Dumber. But the characters, when compared to males and females, were considered silly. We laughed like we laughed at P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster.)

I’m reminded by many on social media and in other places how this is the time of women and how we need strong females in literature. While I agree with the need for strong females, if a female character can only be strong by making the male characters weak or stupid, how is she strong? That would be like calling yourself a weightlifter, but you only lift weights made out of marshmallows.

A while ago, I read an article in Entertainment Weekly about the need for strong heroes who are the match to strong villains and wrote this post and this one on it. Often you see a weak, dull hero with an interesting, powerful villain or a powerful hero and a lackluster villain. The article talked about the need for strength on both sides. Well, there’s a need for strong females yes. And strong males also.

What I loved about the first Avengers movie (2012) was the fact that Black Widow’s strength as a character didn’t cancel out the strength of her male teammates. They enhanced each other.

Dune 2021 has a hero—Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet)—as well as strong women, like his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and others I will not name due to spoilers. Granted, this is an adaptation of a book written in the 60s. But it was a hit.

Anyway, this is something I’ve been thinking about and couldn’t rest until I had written this post. I know people have the right to write whatever they want. But I know what I like and what I don’t.

Diana Rigg photo from somewhere on Pinterest. Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow poster from somewhere online. Book cover from Goodreads. Generic hero from pngarts.com. Photo of Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson found at vanityfaircom. Photo by Chiabella James. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, Chris Evans as Captain America from news.doddleme.com.

How Do You Keep Track of Time?

Some great posts by Charles Yallowitz on flashbacks (like this one) got me to thinking about timelines and story. Another thing that got me to thinking was catching a mistake in the timeline of one of my WIPs. Events I thought happened concurrently with the events of another character’s day weren’t lining up. Though I plotted the movements of each character on a calendar, something was missed. I needed to fix that.

Why does this matter? you might be thinking, especially if you don’t write novels. A story’s timeline affects the story events you include. If you claim a story happens in, say, twenty-four hours, but the characters do enough activities to fit a thirty-six-hour timeline, you’ll need to address that gap. Things get even messier if you are tracking the movements of more than one main character, as I was doing.

As a freelance line editor, I have had to check the timelines of many manuscripts. Only occasionally did I receive a typewritten timeline from the author. Someone gave me a handwritten note with dates once. Somewhat helpful, but not overly so, since I had to give the publisher a typed timeline that the copyeditor and proofreader could use—which meant I had to type it. Some authors didn’t have notes, preferring the “it’s all in my head” method. I’m not knocking that if it works for you. But does it work for your editor? One hundred percent of the time in the manuscripts I have edited, I have found timeline mistakes even in the most linear stories. Even if an author hands me written notes, I don’t just take those at face value. I check the notes against the events of the manuscript.

So, this post is kind of a PSA (public service announcement, since those initials stand for many things these days) asking you to please keep a written timeline if you are working on a fiction or nonfiction book with any type of chronology. If you have time to type your manuscript, you have time to keep track of, and type, your chronology.

You’d be surprised at how easily an author can get a sequence of events wrong, even with the use of time markers like “the next day,” especially if the author is coming up with events on the fly (and sometimes adding scenes between existing scenes) but isn’t keeping track of the chronology of said events. Imagine having to tell an author, “Your timeline is three months off” as I have had to do, which definitely meant a major rewrite.

I totally get that writing anything takes precious time. With some impossibly fast deadlines, you don’t have much time. And keeping track of a timeline is one of those drudgery activities that no one really likes to do. It’s like loading a dishwasher or a washing machine. But if you elect to avoid doing it, mistakes—like dirty laundry—can pile up. If your editor has to take the time to fix something you could have fixed early on, it becomes more costly, especially with freelance editors charging by the hour. So please listen to Auntie L. Marie and keep track of your chronology. Your editor (even that editor is just you) will thank you.

Clock from cloudcentrics.com. Project management image from getharvest.com.