Interview With Patricia Wiles, Part One

Patricia Wiles is the author of three novels for young adults: My Mom’s a Mortician (2004 Covenant Communications), Funeral Home Evenings (2005 Covenant Communications), and Early Morning Cemetery (2006 Covenant Communications).  My Mom’s a Mortician and Funeral Home Evenings won the Association for Mormon Letters’s Award for Young Adult Fiction in 2004 and 2005, respectively.  Besides serving as a member of SCBWI and as an editor of the Midsouth region’s quarterly newsletter, Patricia serves on the board of latterdayauthors.com.  She is also an activities director at an assisted living facility.  She and her husband live in Kentucky.

In Part One of this interview, Patricia Wiles answers questions from A Motley Vision. In Part Two, she responds to questions from two of her newest fans: Val, age 9, and Saul, age 16.  For both interviews, Patricia has agreed to respond to comments and answer questions from AMV’s readers.

AMV: When and why did you start writing professionally?

PW: I enjoyed writing as a child and young adult, but I really became interested in writing when my children were in elementary school.  Their fifth grade teacher used middle-grade literature as a tie-in for lessons for all kinds of subjects.  For example, when the class studied Margarite De Angeli’s A Door in the Wall, she incorporated the story into her math, science, writing, and history units.  I read the books after my children finished them and the more I read the more I thought it would be wonderful to write those kinds of books.  The love of reading I had as a child rekindled.  I remember the night I read Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet.  I was mesmerized by the writing and his ability to tell a story.  It left me with a longing to write for children. 

In 2000 I heard about Delacorte’s First Middle-Grade novel contest.  I toyed with the idea of entering but I’d never written a novel and I had little to no faith in my ability to do so.  Then I read “Cast Not Away Therefore Your Confidence,” by Jeffrey R. Holland, in the March Ensign.  That article changed my life.  I knew when I read it that I couldn’t give up.  I knew I had to keep writing whether I felt I was good enough or not.  That was when I wrote the first draft of My Mom’s a Mortician.  It took me about two months.  I sent it in to the contest and got it back a few months later with a rejection notice.  I put it in the drawer and left it there for about a year.

In 2002 I started writing a Sunday column for our local newspaper.  It was great fun and I got paid (a tiny amount, but it was something).  Still, I couldn’t shake the desire I had to write for children.  I got My Mom’s a Mortician out of the drawer, tweaked it, and started the process of sending it off to publishers.  I’d get a rejection, cry, tweak the manuscript some more, and send it off.  After five or six rejections I let two of my long-distance author friends, Terrie Bittner and David Woolley, read the manuscript.  They recommended I send it to an LDS publisher.  (At that time there were no LDS references in the book at all.)  I had no choice but to submit the manuscript — David wouldn’t leave me alone until I did.  The rest is history.

The journey from my first inklings to write to publication of my first novel took ten years.  I’ve heard other writers speak of the ten-year rule and it is true — at least in my case.

AMV: Some LDS authors write strictly for a LDS audience, some write for a Christian audience, some write for a general audience, etc.  For whom do you write?  Could you tell us why you made that choice?

PW: I write for the one — the individual who reads my book.  I am a Latter-day Saint.  I am an author.  But I’m not strictly an LDS author and have never felt inclined to title myself in this way.  I am comfortable wearing the cap of children’s/YA author.

As for the Kevin series, my hope is that anyone (LDS or not) who reads the books will connect with the characters.  Each person goes through emotional and spiritual ups and downs regardless of their faith (or lack of it).  That’s what I try to focus on as I write.  I make a conscious effort not to sort my readers or my characters into Mormons or non-Mormons.  I just hope to write good stories that children and young adults can relate to. 

AMV: In your Kevin Kirk series, Kevin’s family owns and operates a funeral home and death plays a matter-of-fact role in your stories.  This is one element of your writing — some would say a daring element — that makes it unique and provocative, especially for your middle-grade audience.  How has your audience responded to the Kirk family business?

PW: Death is a part of life.  Most of us are touched by it only when a family member or a friend dies.  But when you work with death every day, it becomes less mysterious and more commonplace.  I don’t think that’s being callous.  To morticians, death is a business.  Somebody has to take care of the bodies.

In Early Morning Cemetery, one thing I felt was important was to show that even though Kevin was used to being around death, even though he had a testimony of what happens when we die, it was still painful when his grandmother passed.  The belief in life after death makes death easier to accept, but you still have to go through the grieving process.  You still want the association with that person and you miss them.  I think it’s important for young people to know that the hurt you feel when someone dies is normal.  That doesn’t mean you are weak or lack a testimony.  Even Christ sorrowed at the news that Lazarus had died.

On a more humorous note, while I was in Utah back in March doing book signings, I was surprised at the number of people I met who grew up in funeral homes just like Kevin does.  I was pleased to hear that my books were pretty close to what it’s like to live in one.

AMV: You break the mold in other ways.  For instance, in  My Mom’s a Mortician, Kevin faces the problems that come with attending a new school, including having to deal with the school bully.  Bully stories often follow a predictable pattern: Boy-meets-bully, bully-torments-boy, boy-gets-even-with-bully.  You chose to take it deeper than that.  Why?

PW:  It goes with the theme of My Mom’s a Mortician: there’s more to life than what we see.  Part of growing up is learning to see things from a different perspective.  You become less self-centered and more aware of what’s going on around you and how others are affected.  In the case of the bully, Kevin discovers why the bully is the way he is and it changes his perspective.

In his review of Early Morning Cemetery, Jeff Needle says, “Reading these books with your children might be a good way of getting them to ask questions about life, death, love and God.”  Was this one of your intentions in writing the Kevin Kirk series?  Have you heard from parents who have done this?  What do they say?

PW: I’ve tried hard not to shy away from grief or from how grief affects people in different ways.  There are elements of grief in each book.  The first book explores grief as Kevin sees his father cry for the first time and then discovers how grief has created a heart-wrenching family secret.  In the second book, Kevin grieves over the consequences of his sins.  In the third book, for the first time in his life, Kevin learns what it’s like to grieve at the death of someone he loves.

Young readers know when you’re trying to gloss something over or write “down” to them.  There’s a difference between honesty and sensationalism.  

As for feedback, I get more from young readers than I do adults.  The children who write to me tell me how much they love the novels.  Interestingly, most of the adults who do write to me have read the books to or with their children.

AMV: Has Kevin done things that have surprised you?  That is, did parts of your novels write themselves so that the stories tooks turns you hadn’t planned on them taking?

PW: Definitely.  I experienced this with the second book, Funeral Home Evenings.  People tell me it’s a bit dark and they don’t like what happens in it.  The book explores unpleasant issues such as pride, bigotry, and unrighteous judgement.  But I had to write it.

I knew when I first formulated the story that Kevin was going to do something foolish and get hurt.  But I didn’t want it to happen and didn’t know how readers would react.  So I avoided the issue by filling the manuscript with a bunch of junk.  I sent it to my editor.  He sent me a two-page letter about how I had so much going on in the manuscript that I needed to narrow the focus.  I realized I had been writing in circles, hoping to avoid the ending I knew had to happen.  I cut a lot of the junk out, wrote the story the way I knew it was supposed to be, and it was right and honest.  I made up my mind after that to write true to the characters — essentially allowing them their free agency.

Thanks to an editor who was sharp enought to read between my contrived lines, Funeral Home Evenings became the book it was meant to be, and it won an AML award.  Moreover, Early Morning Cemetery was much easier to write because of what I learned. And people tell me it’s the best book of the three.  

AMV: How far will this series follow Kevin?  Are you sending him on a mission?  Are you already planning his temple wedding?

PW: I’m currently working on the last book in the series.  I know how it’s going to end.  But I won’t tell — not right now.  I will say that Kevin faces some difficult truths about free agency.  There will be some happy moments and some sad moments.  He will have to make an important decision, and to do this he will go on a journey — a quest — that will help him make that decision.  I’m intrigued by the idea of the hero’s quest, and that’s kind of what he’s going to do — though he won’t recognize that’s what he’s doing.  It will be like a pilgrimage and he’ll find his answers on the road.

I’ve enjoyed writing Kevin’s story.  But I feel it’s time to let him go and write other stories.

AMV: Thank you for consenting to this interview, Patricia Wiles!  We’re looking forward to that fourth book in the Kevin Kirk series and wish you the best in your writing career.    

7 thoughts on “Interview With Patricia Wiles, Part One”

  1. To be honest, I don’t know that I’ll be reading much YA fiction — I have other interests and priorities at the moment. But I’m quite pleased at the success that Mormon authors have had in the genre, both with Mormon and national publishers.

    As a father, it’s comforting to know that there is a body of work out there that will, hopefully, appeal to my daughter.

    I love the titles of the Kevni novels, Patricia. Corny titles are par for the course in YA fiction, but when they work, they work and these do. If I had seen these on the shelves when I was a kid, I would have pulled them down and started reading for sure.

    Here’s my question:

    Your mention _Hatchet_ — are there other YA novels and/or authors that you really enjoy, Patricia? Any that you don’t (if you’re willing to say so — if not, no worries)?

  2. Hi William:

    Thanks for your comments.

    Patricia’s children asked me the same thing, and so I discuss my current reading preferences in part two of the interview. However, I’ll add here that because I’m concentrating on writing for children and my time is limited, when I do read a book it’s usually a middle-grade or YA novel. I want to be familiar with what’s on the national market. I make a special effort to read books by the authors I know in my SCBWI region. There are some great children’s writers in the south!

    As for what I don’t like… well, I don’t care for romance and I lost interest in Harry Potter around page 50 of book five. I think it’s great that kids love Harry Potter and see nothing wrong with them reading the books–I just got tired of the story by that point, put it down, and never picked it back up.

  3. William said, “To be honest, I don’t know that I’ll be reading much YA fiction — I have other interests and priorities at the moment.”

    LOL, so did I. But as I read _Early Morning Cemetery_ and _My Mom’s a Mortician_ with my kids, the quality of Patricia’s stories impressed me. I could see from my kids’ expressions they were more than just entertained — they were thinking and feeling all the way through both books. These kids are diehard LOTR and Harry Potter fans, so I wondered how they’d … um … transition to Patricia W’s writing. Not a problem. And any work that provokes my children to think and feel rather than sit passively and be “entertained” is all right by me, especially when I can share the experience with them.

  4. Patricia W, you said, “I write for the one — the individual who reads my book. I am a Latter-day Saint. I am an author. But I’m not strictly an LDS author and have never felt inclined to title myself in this way.”

    So then what advantages do you see in publishing your first major works through LDS publishing and marketing channels? Are you hoping to publish in a wider market some day?

  5. Patricia K.,

    I’m glad to hear how your children reacted to the books! That’s what every author hopes for.

    I can’t say I thought of publishing in the LDS market as an advantage; at the time, I just wanted to get a book published. I’ve been happy with the results and hope to continue to write books for this market.

    However, in my situation I see three good reasons why I should not write solely for the LDS market. First, it’s a narrow market and the market for writing children’s books within it is even narrower. Second, it’s nearly impossible for me to participate in marketing my books because I live in the south and the booksellers are in the west. Third, I can’t do public school visits. I can discuss writing in a classroom, but I can’t talk to the students about my faith-based fiction works. (This may not be the case in the west but it is here.)

    Yes, I hope to continue writing fiction for young LDS readers, but I also want to publish in a national market. I want to be able to interact with readers and visit public schools and libraries.

    And, as I said earlier, I like the idea of writing for the individual reader. In the best of all possible worlds, it shouldn’t matter if someone who reads my book is LDS or not. So I think I should worry less about that and concentrate more on writing a good story.

    Patricia W.

  6. Patricia W. said, “I can’t say I thought of publishing in the LDS market as an advantage; at the time, I just wanted to get a book published.”

    Me: I took a similar course. After having two national-market agents solicit my ms. and hold it for a total of eight months together only to say they liked it but didn’t know how to market it, I took a look at the LDS publishing prospects just to get the book published. I guess my hope is that when I try the national market again the fact I have a book published already might beef up my prospects.

    Patricia W.: “However, in my situation I see three good reasons why I should not write solely for the LDS market. First, it’s a narrow market and the market for writing children’s books within it is even narrower. Second, it’s nearly impossible for me to participate in marketing my books because I live in the south and the booksellers are in the west. Third, I can’t do public school visits. I can discuss writing in a classroom, but I can’t talk to the students about my faith-based fiction works. (This may not be the case in the west but it is here.)”

    Interesting! Hadn’t thought about publishing through an LDS market as possibly putting something like legal limits on your audience or on your interaction with them! Did you do any bookstore or library readings and signings in Kentucky or other states, or was your book tour limited to the West and to LDS bookstores?

  7. Patricia K,

    I did attempt a fundraiser for my local public library. I had a booksigning and let them keep the proceeds from the sales of the books, so I did get a few out in my area that way. But I’ve had no luck getting local stores to carry them. I’ve also spoken by phone with a class of third graders about the writing process, but I was told I couldn’t talk about my books because they are faith-based fiction.

    The market for LDS-themed books where I live is slim to none. I’d just like to have the opportunity to talk about my work more than just the occasional visit to Utah.

    When I visited back in March I went to about 16 or 17 stores in 6 days. I also got to attend about two hours of the Forum on Children and Literature at UVSC. It was nice to finally see my books in a store and to meet people who had actually read my books.

Comments are closed.