I finished a terrific debut novel over the weekend, The Year The Swallows Came Early by Kathryn Fitzmaurice (Bowen Press/HarperCollins). It follows 11-year old Eleanor "Groovy" Robinson, who has big plans to attend culinary school one day, funded by money left to her by her sci-fi author great grandmother. When Groovy learns that her dad gambled away her inheritance and it was her mom who sent him to jail for it, she's faced with some very difficult lessons about forgiveness and acceptance.
Fitzmaurice wrote the gentle, quirky tale after giving up her teaching job to commit full-time to a writing career. Seems authorhood is in her genes – her grandmother, Eleanor Robinson, was a science fiction author who always encouraged her granddaughter's writerly pursuits. Esteemed editor Brenda Bowen chose Swallows as the launch title for her eponymous imprint at HarperCollins.
I had an opportunity to e-chat with Fitzmaurice about her new book yesterday...SV: I've read about how you started your writing career, but how, specifically, did this book come about? Did you know from the start that you wanted to write a story that included the swallows, culinary aspirations, a gambling father, a flaky mother, etc.? Kathryn Fitzmaurice: From the start, I knew just two things. I knew I wanted to write about my grandmother, and how she left me a box of manuscripts which later shaped my life. But also, I wanted to write about the swallows and their annual migration back to the mission every year. Their return reminds me of a promise which can never be broken. It’s so touching and hopeful to me. I am there every year, waiting for them, amazed that they somehow know the way home. The other parts came to me while I was writing. I am not the kind of writer who uses an outline. I have a general sense of where the story is going, but mostly, the story comes to me as I’m writing it. SV: As you were writing, did you feel pressure to live up to your grandmother's reputation and the expectations folks might have of you because of her literary career? Did you feel her influence in any way as you wrote? Kathryn Fitzmaurice: I haven’t felt any pressure to live up to my grandmother’s writing career because she mostly wrote science fiction, and I write contemporary fiction and hopefully, someday, historical fiction. She didn’t have a huge career, though, and in fact, at times, even edited state legislature during the day while doing her real writing at night. But mostly, I don’t feel any pressure to live up to her because she was always so encouraging and full of praise for whatever I wrote, even the shortest of poems. I feel the influence she had on me every day. There is an inscription she wrote to me in a book of poetry written by Emily Dickinson, which she gave to me for my birthday many years ago. I made a copy of it and framed it. She wrote: E.D. is a revered poet. Perhaps the same will be said of you someday. Best love grandmother E. This framed inscription hangs on the wall of my home office, encouraging me every day to try to write the best that I can. SV: How long did Swallows take to write? Did you have a critique group or partner that could give you feedback? What parts were the most challenging to write? Kathryn Fitzmaurice: It took me three years to write The Year the Swallows Came Early. During that time, I met with my critique group usually twice a month, went to writing classes at University of California, Irvine, and attended many writing conferences. I think the parts of Swallows that were most difficult to write were leading my main character, Groovy/Eleanor, into the place where she could forgive her father because the whole mindset of forgiveness can be a difficult place to get to sometimes. It took her a long while to come around to it. I wanted to let her get there on her own time, and she finally did. SV: How did the Bowen Press deal come about? How did it feel to learn that yours would be the debut novel from the brand new imprint? I understand HC has recently closed Bowen Press – where does that leave marketing and promotion of your book? Kathryn Fitzmaurice: I feel so lucky to have been able to work with Brenda Bowen. I couldn’t believe when she called me to talk about the book, and her ideas for it. I was just thrilled. I remember that I wrote everything down that she told me that first time I talked to her, and it was a good thing I did, because when I hung up the phone, I couldn’t really tell anyone what she’d said. I was that excited! My agent, Jennifer Rofe, from the Andrea Brown Literary agency, presented the book to her, and Brenda contacted her back right away. I am deeply saddened by the decision to close the Bowen Press imprint. It was a huge surprise to everyone. I am happy, though, that I get to stay with Molly O’Neill, who has been reassigned as my editor there [at HC]. She was Brenda’s assistant, and so this makes perfect sense. I feel I am in very good hands. SV: Do you have another book in the works? Will HC be publishing it? Kathryn Fitzmaurice: I am working on two books right now. Both are middle grade novels. One is a companion book to The Year the Swallows Came Early, and the other is a historical fiction book. HarperCollins will be publishing at least one of them. SV: What advice would you give someone who might be contemplating writing for children as a second career? Is it ever too late to just jump in there and start writing? Kathryn Fitzmaurice: It is absolutely never too late. In fact, when I sat down to write my middle grade novel, I had no idea it would take me three years. Three years. Had anyone told me, "This will take three years of your life," I might have walked away. I remember the first week of my "serious writing," where I had decided to quit my other job (teaching) and completely commit. When it was just me and my computer and my doubts and my dream of writing a book. A fellow writer and new mother recently emailed me to tell me she had been faithfully working on writing a book, but her baby now took a lot of her time, and did I think it was possible for her to write a bestseller during naptime? In case there is someone who is in a similar situation, or who is thinking of taking the same chance I did many years ago, sitting down with their computer, wondering if it can be done, and, finally, joyfully, starting their own serious writing, I want to tell them this: Anything is possible. Even writing a bestseller during naptime. Besides being an awesome writer, Fitzmaurice is a totally nice person, and has kindly offered a signed copy of The Year The Swallows Came Early to the fifth person who can answer this question: What is the name of the California site to which the swallows return every March? If you think you know the answer, drop me a line at email@example.com!
And be sure to check out Fitzmaurice's website, where you can learn much, much more about her and her books!
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Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators
National Trust For Historic Preservation