Recently I posted about The Graham Cracker Plot on Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf (see here), so I was excited for the opportunity to interview its author, Shelley Tougas. Since 2014, Shelley has had a middle grade novel published every year, and she’s got another in the works for 2017. Dang. Naturally, I wanted to know her secrets! Read on to find out what she told me.
Hi Shelley! So tell us about your newest novel, A Patron Saint for Junior Bridesmaids, which is due out in just a few days. How did it come to be?
The book is about a 12-year-old girl [Mary] tapped to be a bridesmaid in the wedding of her cousin, whose social anxiety disorder requires Mary to be the bride’s advocate. Mary has to manage the wedding chaos and the aspirations of a meddling grandmother, all while navigating her first crush on a boy who challenges her religious thinking. My editor likes to describe it as a middle-grade version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
I started A Patron Saint for Junior Bridesmaids nearly 10 years ago. At the time it was a young adult novel with four alternating narrators. The book had no religious references and a different title — a title so bad I won’t repeat it in public! The only character who survived the original version is Eden, the bride. It took years for me to figure out what the book is about at its core. Romance? Faith? Family? For me, it’s about Mary accepting herself as a flawed person and loving herself anyway. She redefines her role in the family and learns to see the world in shades of gray. There are no easy answers.
Mary, the protagonist of the novel, is Catholic, and this is very important for both her character and for the story itself. I was raised Catholic (my grandmother used to give me holy cards for my birthday!), so I definitely recognized her world. What about you? Were you raised Catholic? Do you see any of yourself in Mary?
I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school for nine years. But 12-year-old Mary is nothing like 12-year-old Shelley, or even the adult me. You might think I come from a devout family because my parents forked out cash for Catholic school tuition and because I wrote a book with Catholic themes. But my family isn’t devout. We didn’t regularly attend church. We attended church bingo nights more often than Mass. I always wondered what my classmates thought when they went to church on Sunday and I wasn’t there.
Honestly, I had little awareness of patron saints. I knew Saint Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals, but I had no idea there were so many patron saints and for such odd things. There’s a patron saint for carnival workers. There’s a patron saint for people who fear wasps. That’s incredibly specific. My ex-husband’s family introduced me to this world. His aunt gave us a Saint Christopher medal to keep in our car to protect us from accidents. Saint Christopher is the patron saint of travelers. She also told us about burying a Saint Joseph statue in the yard to help sell our house. We kept the Saint Christopher medal in the car, but we never buried Saint Joseph, and we still managed to sell our house in two days. I guess you don’t need Saint Joseph in a hot real estate market.
Were you at all worried, writing a book that has religion as such a central focus?
My answer is one of those annoying “yes-and-no” answers. The “no” part of my answer is because the story isn’t about religion—it’s basically a tween romantic comedy. The family just happens to be Catholic. They could’ve been Lutheran or Methodist or any other religion. It’d still be the story of a people-pleasing girl trying to save her cousin’s wedding while navigating her first crush.
The “yes” part of my answer is I worried that having the word “saint” in the title might limit the audience. But when I talked to my editor about a book steeped in Catholicism, she made an excellent point: Church is a huge part of many kids’ lives (regardless of religion). She said there aren’t enough books for kids reflecting a church-going lifestyle.
You started off your career as a journalist, and you’ve also written some nonfiction books for kids. How did you transition to writing middle grade novels?
I started writing fiction in elementary school and considered being an English major. I didn’t want to teach, though, and I knew I wouldn’t support myself writing novels as a young adult. I decided to study journalism because I knew I’d get paid to write. Journalism combined my interest in writing with my interest in politics and social issues. Great journalists don’t just type up facts. They tell compelling stories.
When I left journalism for public relations, I met an editor who wanted to hire journalists to work on a series of educational books about iconic news photos that changed society. I took that gig, and my second book in that series, Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration, sold well and got great reviews. Booklist and School Library Journal put it on their lists of the top ten best books for kids in 2012. I knew I had a window of opportunity. I wrote a middle-grade novel called The Graham Cracker Plot, and I leveraged the success of Little Rock Girl to get my fiction into the world. I found an agent (Susan Hawk) within a couple of weeks, and after two rounds of revisions with her, she sold it quickly at auction.
Tell us a little bit about your agent, Susan Hawk. How did you find her? What is it like to work with her?
I was one of Susan’s first clients. I was interested in working with her because she had a long career in publishing (mostly in school and library marketing) before joining an established agency. We clicked immediately. She’s an incredible reader with spot-on revision advice. Most importantly, she wanted to work with me on building a career and not just selling a book. She talks to me about my long-term goals, and then we discuss the steps to getting there. I’m very lucky to have her.
Since 2014, you’ve had a novel published every year, and you’ve got a novel in the works for 2017 (called Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life). Amazing!! How are you managing to be so prolific?!
When I’m sitting at my computer, staring at the same paragraph for two hours, I definitely don’t feel prolific! Journalism taught me speed. You have nights where you’ve literally got fifteen minutes to write a news story. I wrote The Graham Cracker Plot (my first novel) in five months. Since then, I’ve become a slow writer. Maybe it’s because I knew the plotline for GCP when I sat down to write it. Typically I start with a concept and a few plot points, and I end up working it out as I go. It’s not the most efficient process. A detailed outline is key. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to write full time. Most writers have to balance their writing with a full-time job. There’s not enough money in publishing to support a middle-class lifestyle unless you have a partner who can cover expenses in between your paychecks.
Recently I started working a few hours a week as a library clerk. I love talking to people about their favorite books and what their children are reading. Writing is lonely. I’ve been missing the busy world of an office with people chatting in the break room and bouncing project ideas off each other.
Speaking of Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life, can you give us a sneak-peak? What is the one-sentence summary?
Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life is about Charlotte Lake, a girl whose adventure-loving mother drags the family to the Minnesota prairie so she can tap the spirit of Laura Ingalls while writing her first novel. Charlotte has to find her place in this new world.
What is your favorite thing about being a middle grade author?
I love the age of the audience. Tweens are still wide-eyed and imaginative, but they’re beginning to see the world in shades of gray. I also love the flexibility of my schedule. I can volunteer at my daughter’s school and be home with her during breaks. I can nap and take long lunches with friends. I can write in the middle of the night. There’s tremendous freedom.
And finally, what is your favorite piece of writing advice?
My favorite piece of advice comes from a friend of mine, author S.A. Bodeen. We talk a lot about our inability to control so many aspects of publishing—who reviews you, how the marketing unfolds, what readers say about you online, etc. The one thing you can control is the writing. Get to your laptop and write. You can and should effectively manage your part in the process.
Shelley Tougas worked in journalism and public relations before becoming a novelist. Her book, Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration, was among Booklist and School Library Journal’s top ten best books of 2012. Her middle grade novels include The Graham Cracker Plot, Finders Keepers and A Patron Saint for Junior Bridesmaids. She lives outside the Twin Cities.