When I first saw the cover of ACROSS THE POND I couldn’t believe that there was a Middle Grade novel set in Scotland, and in a castle! Joy McCullough also wrote the critically acclaimed YA novels Blood Water Paint and We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire. Her other Middle Grade title is A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
Callie can’t wait for her new life to start. After a major friendship breakup in San Diego, moving overseas to Scotland gives her the perfect chance to reinvent herself. On top of that, she’s going to live in a real-life castle!
But as romantic as life in a castle sounds, the reality is a little less comfortable: it’s run-down, freezing, and crawling with critters. Plus, starting off on the wrong foot with the gardener’s granddaughter doesn’t help her nerves about making new friends. So she comes up with the perfect solution: she’ll be homeschooled. Her parents agree, on one condition: she has to participate in a social activity.
Inspired by a journal that she finds hidden in her bedroom, Callie decides to join a birding club. Sure, it sounds unusual, but at least it’s not sports or performing. But when she clashes with the club leader, she risks losing a set of friends all over again. Will she ever be able to find her flock and make this strange new place feel like home?
According to your website bio, you studied theater at Northwestern University. In what ways, if any did this shape your writing?
I started doing theater when I was a small child, so I’ve always been a storyteller. In college, I focused on playwriting and wrote plays for more than a decade before I began to write novels. So my theater background has absolutely shaped my writing, from craft things like understanding character and plot and stakes, to a familiarity with the creative life and all that comes with it – receiving feedback, handling rejections or reviews, the discipline to do the work even in the face of obstacles, etc.
I still write plays, and teach playwriting at Seattle Pacific University, and I especially love the collaborative nature of theater. My plays are only words on a page until actors, directors, designers, and technicians make them a play. Writing a novel is a great deal more solitary, but having a foundation of collaborative work makes it much easier to work with the things that are out of my control in the publishing process.
That makes sense! I love how ACROSS THE POND confronts the realities of castle life. What, if anything, surprised you while writing this book?
Across the Pond is based on my family’s real experience of living in a rundown Scottish castle when I was a small child. I was so small I have few memories of the time, but in talking to my parents as I prepared to write the book, my dad said that he quickly realized upon moving in that there’s a big difference between a palace and a castle.
I had the great fortune to be able to travel to Scotland to research the book and visit the castle I lived in as a small child. That was an incredible experience, and I based the castle Callie lives in on that castle.
I think the most surprising things in the process came in my research into birding, which is a big element in the book. Things like the hugely declining numbers of birds over the last decades. Bird populations have gone down by nearly three billion in my lifetime.
Wow! Definitely sobering. Your YA novel, BLOOD WATER PAINT, was a National Book Award finalist. What parts of this story do you feel resonate most with readers?
Blood Water Paint is based on the real story of Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi, and deals with her sexual assault by a teacher and the subsequent trial. It’s set four hundred years ago, and yet feels incredibly present day because of how little has changed in terms of patriarchy and rape culture.
The readers I hear from connect with Artemisia’s feelings of isolation as a young woman in a world that’s hostile to her, and the way she draws strength from the stories of powerful women before her. They also resonate with how she uses art to process her trauma. The most amazing part of the response to that book has been seeing art readers have made because of it.
And I’ll bet their art is amazing! If you could tell your younger writer self one thing, what would it be and why?
I wouldn’t give myself any advice that would change my journey. But I would perhaps reassure myself that it would all eventually happen. I had a very long journey—Blood Water Paint was my debut novel, but the tenth novel I wrote and queried to agents, the fifth to go on submission to editors. I very well could have given up—except I couldn’t—and I went through a great deal of heartache and feeling like it was never going to happen. But it not only happened, it happened just the way it was meant to, with the right book and the right team of people.
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For Joy McCullough’s other books, go to https://joymccullough.com/
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