I quite enjoyed Julia Nobel’s first book, The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane ($23.99, Raincoast Books, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky), a middle grade novel, which is the first book in what may be a five-part series. I thought my 10-year-old son would also enjoy the book, which is full of adventure and mystery, so that night I began re-reading the British Columbia author‘s book again, often giving into the: “Please, Mom, one more chapter” until we finished reading it within a week.
My son keeps asking when Book 2 is coming out and whether I sure it was going to be a series and what happens if the author changes her mind and doesn’t write any more?
I reassured him I was certain there was going to be more and Nobel herself confirms it in this Q&A below.
Hi! I’m really excited to meet your readers!
Q. Congratulations on your debut middle grade novel The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane. This is the first book in a new series. How many books do you see in this series?
A. I have a map for five books, but it’s really flexible at this point. We’ll have to see how it goes!
Q. How did you come up with the idea of The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane?
A. I’m a pre-school teacher, and I was standing on the playground one day when I wondered what it would be like for an American girl to be sent to a British boarding school. I started asking questions, like, how would she end up there? What might she find? What might her parents be like? I kept asking questions for weeks and weeks and soon a plot started to come together.
Q. Was it always going to be a series?
A. I’ve always wanted it to be a series! I loved reading series as a child (actually, I still love reading series!), and I’m completely in love with my characters, so I want to write them for as long as I can.
Q. When writing a series, how do you decide what goes in the first book and subsequent books?
A. Because each book has a very distinct plot, the decision about what goes where is pretty simple. At first I wanted to save things for subsequent books, but a lot of those things have ended up in the very first book. I found that without those elements, the first book was lacking the depth that it really needed.
Q. Is it difficult writing with a series in mind?
A. I actually love writing with a series in mind because there’s so much time to explore. I love seeing where my characters take me and where I can push them.
Q. What are the benefits? What are the cons?
A. Being able to stay with my characters for a long time is a huge benefit, because you can really dig into who they are and what they want in the long term. The downside is that there’s no guarantee for how long the series will last, which can make planning each individual book a bit tricky.
Q. As a lover of Sweet Valley High and the Babysitter’s Club, why did you decide to write middle grade fiction? Why a mystery?
A. Middle grade fiction has my heart. It was hugely important to me growing up, and it’s still hugely important to me. I love that there’s no limit to your imagination in middle grade. You can explore difficult topics and tough emotions, but you can do it with crazy fun plots! I have always loved mysteries, both reading them and writing them. I love to weave lots of different elements along so I can keep my readers guessing.
Q. What is it about this age level that is fun to write for? What is the challenge?
A. When people talk about books that turned them into lifelong readers, they so often talk about books they read as an MG (middle grade) reader. Middle grade books are such a formative part of so many people’s lives, and it’s a huge privilege to be a part of that. The challenging part has been finding that illusive ‘middle grade voice’ that is so distinct from any other category. Your narrator has to sound like a 12-year-old, but with the clarity and insight of an adult. It’s a very tricky balance!
Q. Why did you decide to set your book first in the U.S., then in England?
A. I really wanted Emmy to be an outsider finding her place, and having her be an American who is going abroad for the first time felt like the right away to approach that. Even though I wanted her to be stunned at the idea of being sent away, I also wanted there to be something drawing her there, something more than just a sense of adventure. Going to England plays a huge part in her finding her identity.
Q. What kind of research did for this book? Have you ever been at a place such as Wellsworth?
A. I’ve been in the area of England where the book is set (North Norfolk), and I did a lot of research into the history of the area. I’ve never been to a boarding school, so I spent a lot of time reading about similar schools in the U.K. One of the biggest challenges was writing English and Scottish characters, because the rhythm of their speech is slightly different from North Americans. I worked in a British pie shop here in Canada for about 10 years, and spending so much time with Brits was definitely helpful!
Q. How long has the idea for The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane been in your head? When did you decide to write about it? What came first, the idea or the characters?
A. I first got the idea more than 10 years ago! I spent six months imagining the school, the characters, and the plot, and then I finally got up the courage to start writing. It took me four years to finish the first draft! I had no idea how to take an idea and turn it into a novel. I took writing courses, I studied the craft, and slowly but surely, I figured things out. Any time I write something new I almost always come up with the premise first, and then imagine what kinds of characters would find themselves in that situation.
Q. Can you please tell me a bit about your writing process? Do you plan or do you write?
A/ I am a super-planner! I have no idea how people write mysteries without going in with a plan, because I could never do it! There are so many elements and so many threads, I need to plan each of them out very carefully before I start. That being said, when I start revising, everything gets moved around, and lots of elements changed or are added or removed. Revising is my favourite part of the process. It’s like a giant puzzle that I get to fit together in my head and on the page!
Q. How long did it take to write this book?
A. Oh boy, well it took four years to write the first draft! I revised it for about two years, then I queried agents. I rewrote almost all of it based on the feedback I got, and that took another year. I queried again, and then I got into a mentorship program called Pitch Wars. I got to work with Julie C. Dao (author of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns), which was amazing. She really helped me create depth and intrigue, and helped me so much with the narrator’s voice.
Q. Can you briefly tell me what happened after you wrote it and how long the process was (rejections, how much editing, etc)?
A. I queried it three times. The first time I only queried about a dozen agents, and the feedback was all very similar, so I stopped querying and worked on it for about a year before I queried it again. I had just finished that round when I got into Pitch Wars. Pitch Wars has an agent showcase at the end of the revision period where agents look at each book’s pitch and decide if they want to request the manuscript.
My agent, Melissa Edwards, asked for my manuscript and offered to represent me soon after. All together, I think I got about 50 rejections in the querying stage, and about 12 rejections from publishers, which is actually pretty good! Getting rejections is just part of the business these days, and those rejections can often be really helpful because they help you improve.
Q. What is your favourite part about the writing process? The editing process?
A. I love the initial phase of imagining possibilities and discovering characters. I really have to push myself through the first draft – it’s definitely not my favourite part! I think that’s one of the reasons I plan so heavily before I draft, it’s almost like writing the book before I actually have to draft it!
Revisions are my favourite part of the process. It’s where I get to take the giant mess called a first draft and create something fun. I love it!
Q. What is the plan to launch the book? What are you most looking forward to?
A. I’m most looking forward to doing school visits! I love working with students and doing workshops. I’m offering Skype visits as well, so it will be really fun to connect with people both at home and far away.
Q. Have you had any kid feedback on your book? If yes, what are their favourite parts? What do they want to see more of?
A. I’ve actually heard from a number of kids who were able to get their hands on advanced reader copies! The characters are what kids talk about most. Emmy, the main character, is shy and awkward, but also brave, curious and fiercely loyal. Her friend Lola is bold and brash, always putting her foot in her mouth, and usually not caring when she does. Their other friend Jack is quiet and thoughtful, but he also has some skeletons in his family’s closet that play a big role in the story.
Q. Are you currently writing Book 2? When can we expect it to come out?
A. Book 2 should be out next spring. I’m currently revising it with my editors at Sourcebooks, and that’s been such a great experience. They’re both so passionate about the story, which makes working with them a lot of fun!
Q. Who would you recommend this book to? Why?
A. The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane is definitely an action-packed mystery, but with a lot of heart and soul. The characters really drive the story, and I think they are the most memorable part. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes mysteries with character and depth.
Q. Anything else you would like to say?
A. Thank you so much for having me! Your readers are welcome to get in touch with me at www.julianobel.com. If they’d like to book a Skype visit for their class, they can get in touch through my websites contact page at http://julianobel.com/get-in-touch/