Kim Ventrella is the author of Skeleton Tree, a children’s book about what happens when you find, and believe in, the unexpected. It is a finely tuned story exploring life, love, families and friendships, and the stirrings of the heart which define them all. Published by Scholastic Press, it was released in October. It is her debut novel.
It is exciting seeing Skeleton Tree pop up in so many places on social media! I just finished reading it this past weekend, and let me give you a well-deserved congratulation on a well-written, touching book. I really enjoyed the book and loved the characters.
I'd like to start with a couple questions about you, so the reader can get to know you a little.
Knowing that you are a librarian and a writer, I feel confident saying you must love books. When did that love start and who/what helped that passion for reading grow?
I’ve always had an eclectic taste in books. When I was younger, I adored Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Bunnicula, biographies and Agatha Christie. I love discovering a story world that I want to inhabit long after the book ends. Harry Potter definitely did that for me. I also love books that help me understand the world in new and surprising ways, like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.
Tell us a little about how you got started writing?
In second grade, I entered my version of Roald Dahl’s story “The Landlady” in a writing contest and won second place. It’s the one where the mild-mannered landlady kills and taxidermies her guests. I don’t remember what made my version different (obviously, my second-grade self wasn’t too concerned about copyright law), but I loved the experience of creating something magical with nothing but words and punctuation.
On the topic of writing, do you have any advice to give aspiring novelists?
Absolutely! Two things. First, the success-fail cycle. Before you can be good at something, you have to try, fail, learn from your failure and then start the cycle all over again. It might take five failures before you have one success, or ten, or twenty. So, if you really want to sell your work, you can’t be afraid to fail. Second, as you go through the process of failure, rejection and eventually success, take time to remember why you love writing. That strong conviction in why you’re doing what you’re doing can carry you through the inevitable hard times.
Can you share with us what works to keep you motivated?
Every time I read a great story, even if it’s so good I know I could never write something to match it, it inspires me to create. Writing is a magical process, especially in the beginning stages, and knowing that I get to live that exhilarating experience again and again keeps me motivated through the less fun parts, like revising.
Where do you look to for new ideas/inspiration?
For me, discovery writing is the best way to find new ideas. Outlining is a useful and probably necessary part of the process, but I find that it’s the actual act of stringing words together that sparks my creativity. So, if I try to come up with a story idea in a left-brained, outline-y sort of way, it always feels forced and unoriginal. But if I sit down in front of a blank page and just start writing, I can usually come up with something that feels weird and fresh.
All the characters in this book are well fleshed-out (and I don't mean that as a poor pun). Ms. Francine is a real riot and great sage-type character. How did you come up with her character?
I lived in Kyrgyzstan for over two years during my Peace Corps service, and I met so many wonderful, wise, amazing people. I never encountered anyone exactly like Ms. Francine, but I did have an amazing teacher named Bakyt (who shares a name with Ms. Francine’s goat).
Speaking of characters, I found myself, as a dad & step-dad, personally appalled by the behavior of Miren and Stanley's father. I really liked how you had Ms. Francine talk about his behavior towards the book's conclusion and felt his character did work well as an antithesis to some of the themes in the book. Can you share why you chose to write him in the manner you did?
The thread with Stanly’s father was definitely something that evolved a lot during the revision process. Some of it does come from personal experience. I’ve only met my father twice. When I was around Stanly’s age, I sent him a letter after one of our visits, and he never responded. I didn’t worry too much about it at the time, but it’s one of those things that’s always stuck with me in the back of my mind. Several of the experiences that Stanly endures in this story are dark and difficult, but I try to temper that with humor and light. I think it’s important that children encounter tough topics like this within the safety of a book, so that they feel better equipped to tackle real-life hard times. I also had one adult reader, who grew up with a distant father, let me know that the storyline with Stanly’s father made a huge positive impact on her life, more so than years of therapy. That made me feel like this whole process has been worth it.
Books that have that "moment," that emotional tug that makes you take a minute to breathe and clear the tears from your eyes, whether they are happy or sad tears, are the ones that stick with me. Without giving anything away, I can say Skeleton Tree has that moment. Was that something that you knew would happen from the earliest ideas of the book or was it a product of the writing?
I definitely didn’t know if that would happen, or if I would be capable of creating that kind of emotional response in the reader, but that’s the magic of storytelling! A novel is greater than its author and greater than its individual parts.
What advice can you give as a writer about the pacing to set up that moment?
You definitely want your character to go on a journey of highs and lows before reaching the emotional climax of the book. Even if you’re discovery writing, at a certain point you probably have some idea of where your character will end up. In that case, ask yourself what it would take for you to reach that same emotional point, and use that to guide your writing.
Will we ever hear more from the characters in Skeleton Tree? If so, is there anything you can share with us now?
My second novel, currently titled Bone Hollow, is set to come out in Spring 2019. I can’t give out many details, but it definitely focuses on a similar theme as Skeleton Tree, with a stronger fantasy element.
What's next for you?
I have a lot of projects in the works, but nothing I can officially announce. Stay tuned!
Thanks Kim! I really appreciate the opportunity to interview you. I look forward to seeing where Skeleton Tree takes you, and I will be one of the first in line for Bone Hollow. Congratulations again on your debut novel.
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