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.