BECK McDOWELL, Author of THIS IS NOT A DRILL
A few months ago, I was lucky enough to receive THIS IS NOT A DRILL among a batch of books to review for Children’s Literature. It intrigued me right away; once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. I was luckier still when I recently found its debut author, Beck McDowell, on Facebook, and she kindly agreed to be the first ever author interview on my website!
Beck lives in Huntsville, Alabama, with her husband David; her two grown-up kids, Emily & Drew, live in the same area. She writes between two and fourteen hours a day, and believes in “paying it forward” by helping other writers, in homage to her favorite childhood authors. Beck believes “time spent learning to do something well is never wasted.” In addition to writing thought-provoking novels, Beck has started two powerful projects. The first is a website created in 2007, exclusively run by teens who write book reviews and create book trailers: http://notrequiredreading.com/. The second is “Twenty-Six Books,” a beautiful tribute to the twenty-six victims of Sandy Hook Elementary (more on this later).
Here is the review I wrote for Beck’s must-read novel, which was chosen for the American Library Association’s Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Readers list, and also received rave reviews from School Library Journal, Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly & Kirkus:
This Is Not A Drill
“We started class this morning with our lesson on French words for animals. And by the afternoon, three people were dead.” This is how 17-year-old Emery sums up the horrific chain of events which she and her fellow tutor, Jake, endured with eighteen first-graders. The novel, told in alternating narratives between the two teens, recounts the day as it unfolded, with occasional digressions into Emery’s former “heart-stabbing, gut-twisting, butterfly-producing crush” on Jake. As the day begins, Emery and Jake are team-teaching the class under the wise and warm supervision of their teacher, Mrs. Campbell. Normalcy is shattered when Brian Stutts enters the room, demanding to take his son, Patrick. Before long, Stutts – a soldier plagued with post-traumatic stress disorder – pulls out a gun and holds the defenseless group hostage. It is impossible to read this book without thinking of the innocent lives lost in Newtown. Nevertheless, despite – or perhaps, because of – this, it is worth reading. Emery and Jake are tremendously sympathetic, as are Mrs. Campbell and the children. The varied and compelling ways everyone involved interacts with Stutts could lead to excellent discussion in classrooms (or with friends or parents). It is tragic that this fictitious story strikes so close to home, but its first-time novelist handles her subject matter with equal parts skill and sensitivity, creating a thought-provoking read worth sharing.
Now, please sit back and enjoy the interview! If you’d like more information afterwards, check out BeckMcDowell.com.
This is Not a Drill
Q: This is your debut novel. Could you tell us about your journey to publication?
A: Sure, I wrote one book called Daniel, My Brother that was never picked up by an agent, but I got enough positive feedback from agents to feel that my writing was on the right track. Just getting a little note of encouragement from an agent (along with the rejection, ugh!) can mean a lot. So I kept going. I got an agent with my second book, LAST BUS OUT, which is the true story of a boy named Courtney Miles who stole a school bus after Hurricane Katrina and drove over 300 people out of New Orleans. Sadly, the economy fell apart just at the time we took it out to publishers, so it didn’t sell, although we got very positive feedback from top editors. My agent and I decided, very amicably, to part ways, and so I waded back into the slush pile process with THIS IS NOT A DRILL. It was pretty terrifying to feel I was starting all over again, but I believed in this book. I actually sent it out to 7 agents on 7/7 – my own little weird superstition. But it worked! Jill signed me so fast I had to write to the other agents who had it to tell them I’d already accepted representation.
Q: How long did it take from first draft to final draft? And, roughly, how many drafts were there: a) before it was – amazingly! – discovered in the slush pile; and b) before it was published?
A: It’s hard to say how many drafts there were because I edit as I write (which is supposedly a no-no in most writers’ process but it works best for me.) It generally takes me 6-8 months to complete a novel for submission (plus several months of edits with my editor now.) The sale of THIS IS NOT A DRILL was crazy-fast. My agent, Jill Corcoran, signed me within 24 hours of receiving the manuscript, we had our first offer within two days, and we signed on with Penguin within two weeks. After several years of dealing with rejection on two other books I’d written and submitted, it was amazing to be in the position of choosing an editor for THIS IS NOT A DRILL from three of the “big 6” companies (at that time.)
Q: What significant changes were made from the first draft to the final, and why were they made?
A: I didn’t really make any changes, but that doesn’t mean I knew where the plot was headed. I write pretty organically, so I didn’t know how the story would end until half-way through the book. So that line that says “by afternoon, three people were dead” was added after the book was completed. It’s not something I knew up front.
Q: Why did you choose to tell your story in alternating points of view? Had you always planned to do so?
A: I think readers like alternating viewpoints, maybe because the internet has spoiled us with easy access to many different sides of each issue (which is a good thing.) In THIS IS NOT A DRILL, I wanted the added tension of a previous break-up between Jake and Emery who now had to overcome their messy past to help the kids. And we all know there are two sides to every break-up! So I needed both voices to allow each to tell their side of what happened between them. Also, I liked having two different perspectives on the actions of the soldier suffering from PTSD.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring novelists?
A: Read, read, read, and write, write, write. Most writers have a book in a drawer (or several) that didn’t get published. New writers don’t want to hear this because they think you’ve wasted a year or more of your life writing it. On the contrary, that first book is the most important one you’ll write because you learn to write with it. Also, don’t give up. All successful writers were rejected; it’s part of the process. Believe in yourself and keep writing.
Q: You chose to begin the story in the hospital, AFTER the incident in the classroom. Why did you make such an interesting choice?
A: I wanted to draw in even the most reluctant reader with a really provocative scene – of a main character in the hospital in the aftermath of a tragedy that left three people dead. I felt the suspense of not knowing who didn’t make it would keep the reader turning pages. I think it also symbolizes the random nature of violent events – because there’s no rhyme or reason to who makes it out alive. I didn’t linger there for long, though, because I wanted the reader to come to know Emery and Jake as people and to root for them in their long ordeal.
Q: This is a difficult book to read – not only because of the frightening subject matter but because, tragically, it hits so close to home. Has it generated any controversy?
A: Well, there was no way to know that the worst elementary school shooting in history (Sandy Hook) would take place just six weeks after our publication date. It was devastating for all of us to watch that story unfold on t.v., but for a writer, you almost “live” in that story for a year of your life while writing it, so I felt I’d, in some small way, “been there.” I cried in front of the news for four days before my husband said, “You have to get out of the house.” It was hard to find a way to honor those victims, but I ultimately chose 26 first-grade level books to donate to my public library – one I felt was appropriate for each victim based on the stories their families told about their interests. Other libraries have picked up my list to remember these victims, which is very gratifying, as I think books are always a great avenue toward healing any hurt we experience. * To learn more about this incredibly worthwhile and moving project – and perhaps to get libraries and/or schools in your own area to create the same collection of books, please visit: http://www.beckmcdowell.com/index.php/blog/item/twenty-six-books?highlight=YTozOntpOjA7czo1OiJzYW5keSI7aToxO3M6NDoiaG9vayI7aToyO3M6MTA6InNhbmR5IGhvb2siO30=. If you would like to see Beck’s book list, here it is: http://www.beckmcdowell.com/index.php/blog/item/book-list-for-sandy-hook-project
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
A: I think some people were understandably reluctant to read the book after what happened in Connecticut but those who have read it, from the reviews posted online, seem to be glad they did – and seem to get what I was trying to do with the book in shedding light on mental health and school safety issues. I was so pleased to see that some schools are using it as a springboard for discussions of both. I hope the book will inspire some rethinking about the way we reacclimate military personnel when they return home. There’s so little help for soldiers suffering from emotional problems due to their battlefield experiences – and still such stigma against admitting there’s a problem and seeking help for post traumatic stress. I do think it’s a good sign that many people have dropped the “disorder” part of the condition. To me, it seems more like a natural reaction to surviving horrific events than a disorder.
Q: You thank the Southern Breeze chapter of SCBWI in your acknowledgments; how did they help you?
A: I learned so much at SCBWI conferences about every aspect of writing and getting published. I love that you can choose the sessions that fit your needs and learn from reputable professionals who work in the publishing business every day. It’s also great to talk with other writers about the challenges and triumphs of being a writer. The writing process is lonely work, so that communion is really important to your sanity.
Q: Have you met with any teenagers to discuss your book? If so, what sorts of questions were discussed?
A: I’ve spoken with many student groups, and I love hearing their perspective on my book and on writing in general. Many of the questions they ask are about the process – how I come up with characters and ideas, how many hours I write a day, etc. When we discuss TINAD, I think they’re most fascinated with the character of Brian Stutts, because he’s this villain, of course, holding a classroom of small children hostage – but we can’t help but sympathize with him as he feels he’s losing everything from his wife and child to his reputation and career. He was definitely the toughest character to write, and I love it that teens want to delve into that ambiguity.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming book, Immortelle?
A: Yes, thanks for asking! IMMORTELLE is set around Lafayette Cemetery in New Orleans and tells the story of Cassia, who grew up playing there. Her Dad is losing his restaurant – and also their home – because of the double whammy of Hurricane Katrina and the recession, and she’s dealing with great loss on several levels. She’s also balancing an infatuation with an older guy with a budding relationship with a new guy her own age she’s just met. IMMORTELLE is not paranormal, but there’s a bit of magical realism because, well, it’s New Orleans, and it’s a magical city.
Beck also has another book out: Her non-fiction work, LAST BUS OUT, is the story of Courtney Miles, who stole a bus after Hurricane Katrina, and drove over 300 people to safety. “While government officials posed for cameras, a boy from the projects with no driver’s license stepped up and showed what ‘drive’ is all about.” http://www.lastbusout.com/Last_Bus_Out/Last_Bus_Out_by_Beck_McDowell_homepage.html
Towards the end of your novel, Emery says the following lines, which I think are two of its most powerful: “You can’t truly see what’s good in your life without a reminder of how easily you could lose it. And I’m not going to spend one more minute letting yesterday’s anger rob me of today’s happiness.”
Thank you, Beck, for this interview, for this amazing book, and for reminding us to cherish what we often take for granted.