Soul-Quencher: An interview with Melanie Crowder,
In a hot and barren land where water is a commodity some kill for, young Sarel has just witnessed the murder of her parents. Now she must keep herself and her dogs alive, though her family's secret well is about to run dry. Nandi, the dogs' leader and Sarel's canine right hand, knows that a boy with special powers is coming, if they can only last that long. Musa is a dowser, able to divine subterranean water, a skill so valuable the boy was kidnapped by warlords. When Musa escapes his captors, nearly dies in the desert, and is found by Sarel and Nandi, the three embark on a desperate quest for survival.
Author Melanie Crowder makes her powerful middle-grade debut with Parched (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), this poignant story told in spare, almost poetic prose. The book has already stirred talk of awards and annual best-of lists as the critical kudos pour in, well-deserved raves like this one from Kirkus: "Thirst and heat are palpable as kids and dogs fight fatal dehydration….A wrenching piece with a wisp of hope for the protagonists if not for the rest of their world."
“Parched began with a single image that appeared in my mind one day.”
AUTHORLINK: How did Parched come about?
CROWDER: Parched began with a single image that appeared in my mind one day. It was an aerial shot, as if I were in a plane flying low over dusty, dry land. On the ground below, a skinny girl and her pack of dogs walked along a narrow path. I wanted to know who she was, and how she had come to be all alone in such a harsh place. So I began to write…
AUTHORLINK: The story is told from three points of view. Why? What were the challenges of writing from three perspectives?
CROWDER: You know, the three perspectives were inevitable. I needed to show Sarel and Musa’s separate stories, so my choices were either alternating POV or omniscient. But distancing the narrative wasn’t right tonally for the story, so I made the decision to stay close to both children. However, I couldn’t show the opening scene through Sarel’s eyes. I needed to give the reader distance from that scene, and I wanted to give Sarel someone she could lean on in the aftermath of the violence. So the reader was shown a glimpse into Nandi’s mind, and my three narrators fell into place.
AUTHORLINK: The voice of Nandi, the dog, is so distinctive and powerful. How did you create it?
CROWDER: Thank you—I love Nandi! I think she is everything wise and brave and true.
Dogs are sensory and immediate, so short, stunted sentences made sense. Emotionally, dogs are fierce and loyal and playful, so her narration provides the perfect counterpoint to Sarel and Musa’s vulnerable state.
AUTHORLINK: There's a great deal of violence and heartbreak in the story. Did you ever question whether it should be included; did you ever feel you needed to shield your young readers? How did you approach writing those scenes?
CROWDER: Wow—I think I could write an entire essay on this topic! Yes, I questioned all those things. (Don’t we creative types question everything?) When I was in the revision process, I read Parched dozens of times. Each time I finished with a weight in my chest; I ached for my characters.
“Parched has been called unflinching, but it has also been called hopeful. I hope that combination
But I work with children in my day job. Some of them are living right now through abuse, neglect, and homelessness. In the greater world, children are living through war, human trafficking, and starvation. In the moments when I questioned the violence in this story, it was my students, and their insistence on hope and joy despite the darkness in their lives, that reminded me to be true to this story. Parched has been called unflinching, but it has also been called hopeful. I hope that combination honors the children who are living right now through violence and heartbreak.
Young readers look to books for all kinds of things—escape, humor, love, belonging, adventure—the list is unending. But one of the things they are looking for is a way to approach and understand the hurt they feel, and the pain they see in the world. A story doesn’t have to be a mirror of the reader’s experience for it to touch them. A child doesn’t have to be orphaned to feel lonely or abandoned. He doesn’t have to experience death to feel loss or grief. Young readers are at a point in their lives when they are forming the way they view the world. One reader said about Parched that it “[m]akes one want to love the whole world with more courage, gentleness, and hope.”
That. That is why I couldn’t flinch away from the heartbreak.
AUTHORLINK: We're never told exactly where the story takes place, though it seems somewhere in Africa is likely. Or it could be some dystopian world. It could be a contemporary story, or even a futuristic one. Was the ambiguous setting an intentional choice? Did it free you to explore the story in a different way, perhaps?
CROWDER: Yes, this was a deliberate choice. Though I worked from a very specific setting, we decided in the end to keep the location ambiguous. Parched has a very realistic premise, and we wanted readers to feel like this could be happening anywhere, at any time.
AUTHORLINK: The descriptions of drought—its effects on people, creatures, and the land—are especially potent. How did you craft them? Have you spent time in a desert setting? Or did you simply imagine how things might look, feel, react?
CROWDER: I have never lived in a desert like the one I wrote about in Parched. But I did a great deal of research, and I surrounded myself with the sights and sounds of my setting while I wrote, to keep myself grounded in that place.
AUTHORLINK: The extraordinary level of detail woven so subtly through the story is impressive. How much research did you do into topics like subterranean water, dowsing, desert plants and wildlife? Any tips for working potentially boring factual detail into prose without bogging things down?
CROWDER: Thank you!
“I did so much research! (No one ever tells you how much research goes into fiction!)”|
I did so much research! (No one ever tells you how much research goes into fiction!) I looked for information everywhere—from the more conventional encyclopedias and websites to biting into a horned cucumber and planting my own aloe cuttings.
My suggestion for delivering factual detail (without beginning to sound like one of those encyclopedias) is to make the detail sensory, or use it to echo your character’s emotions. If you want to show the grass, have it tickle your character’s toes. If you want to show the mountains in the distance, have the rumbling storm clouds (which resemble your character’s building anger) sweep past them.
AUTHORLINK: How did the acquisitions process unfold? Did many editors see the manuscript? What were their reactions? Talk about receiving The Call—how excited were you?
CROWDER: The acquisitions process for this book was really unique. Two and a half years ago, I sent in the first twenty pages to be considered for the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt prize for Middle Grade Literature.
I was very nervous to even send it in—the story felt so experimental at that early stage. But I won! It was an amazing feeling! However, no one who had previously won the prize had ever seen their manuscript move forward to acquisitions, so I tried to temper my excitement. As it turned out, there was no need. A few months later, I received a request for the full manuscript, which I promptly sent it in. A few months after that came a request to revise and resubmit, which I did. Shortly after, Parched was acquired.
So this story never went out on submission. I got really lucky. It found the perfect editor on the first try!
AUTHORLINK: You received your MFA from Vermont College. Would you have been able to write Parched without that experience? Would you recommend the Vermont program to other writers or aspiring writers? What did you gain from the program?
CROWDER: If I had tried to write Parched before my MFA, it would have been an entirely different story—probably a three-hundred-page dystopian adventure of some sort. Before VCFA I would not have had the skill or confidence to write with such restraint.
“I absolutely recommend VCFA to aspiring writers. I saw tremendous growth in my writing over those two years.”|
I absolutely recommend VCFA to aspiring writers. I saw tremendous growth in my writing over those two years. I was pushed far beyond my comfort zone, and the evolution in my craft that resulted is nothing short of amazing. Also, I gained lifelong friends and a bunch of really skilled, really smart critique partners.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
CROWDER: Next up for me is a YA verse novel about the life of labor activist Clara Lemlich. She was an extraordinary young woman, and I am thrilled to be working on her story with Liza Kaplan at Philomel.
To learn more about Melanie Crowder and her books, visit www.melaniecrowder.net. To read the first three chapters of Parched, visit http://www.scribd.com/doc/142570387/Parched-Excerpt.
About Susan VanHecke
Susan VanHecke is an author and editor of books for adults and children. Her titles for young people include Raggin' Jazzin' Rockin': A History of American Musical Instrument Makers (Boyds Mills, 2011), Rock 'N' Roll Soldier (HarperCollins, 2009), and An Apple Pie For Dinner (Cavendish, 2009). To find out more about Susan and her books, visit www.susanvanhecke.com and www.susanvanheckeeditorial.com.