Odyssey 2005 graduate Kate Marshall is the author of the young adult novels I Am Still Alive and Rules for Vanishing (Viking Children’s). Her science fiction and fantasy fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Crossed Genres, and elsewhere. She lives outside of Seattle with her husband, a dog named Vonnegut, and two small children. They all conspire to keep her on her toes.
You graduated from the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2005. What made you decide to attend the workshop?
I’m one of those writers who never wanted to do anything else. I declared that I was going to be a novelist when I was four (though there was a brief period when I was going to be a marine biologist, as my mother had informed me this was how one got to have a pet otter). I started submitting stories for publication when I was twelve (without success) and read every book on writing I could get my hands on. When I found out about Odyssey in my junior year of high school, it was a bit like finding out that Narnia was real. A place to go and write and learn about writing and talk about writing and be taken seriously? I had a good dose of that teenage sense of invincibility and destiny, so I was sure I would get in. Of course, I also had an equal dose of crippling self-doubt (endemic to writers and teenagers both, I suppose) and so I had to have someone else read the acceptance email to make sure it really said I could go.
I didn’t decide to attend Odyssey so much as I never considered the possibility that I might not attend. Occasionally it’s useful to channel your inner teenager!
How do you feel your writing and writing process changed as a result of having attended Odyssey? What insights did you gain into your own work?
Going to Odyssey at sixteen had its benefits and drawbacks. I met some lifelong friends, and I was treated like a peer and like a real writer instead of just a clever teenager with a hobby. I didn’t have the experience or sense to doubt my own abilities, which made aspects of the workshop easier. I think there are certainly things I didn’t yet have the capacity or maturity to internalize, but the foundation of craft and knowledge that Odyssey provides is invaluable at any age. I do occasionally feel bouts of embarrassment when I remember that these fabulous writers I’m still friends with knew me at sixteen in all my teenage awkwardness, but they’re nice enough not to bring it up.
There’s so much information to take in at Odyssey that it’s probably impossible to internalize all of it in one go. But even the things that didn’t yet sink in provided the scaffolding for later learning and development. And that sense of being a peer, working and learning alongside talented and dedicated writers, was more valuable than I realized at the time. It made me stop feeling like I was playing around with “what I want to be when I grow up” and helped me realize that I was already doing the work. This wasn’t playacting or practice. I was already building a writing career, and there were people (smarter, cooler people) who took me seriously. In turn, that helped me start to take myself and my writing seriously, and to develop a lifelong practice of examining and improving my craft and my art.
Congratulations on the upcoming September release of Rules for Vanishing, a YA novel about local ghost legend Lucy Gallows! What are some of the unique challenges of writing for a YA audience?
One of the tricky things about the YA audience is that it’s not very young adult! Most YA readers aren’t teenagers, but not by a huge margin—which means that you’re writing both for actual teens and for adult fans of the category. There’s a lot of crossover in expectations and preferences between the two sets of readers, but there are differences you have to navigate. What teens find unrealistic in a teenage character and what adults find unrealistic in a teen character are often quite different. And the online conversation and community is dominated by that older set of readers, which makes it important to seek out teens’ reactions and opinions, whether that’s through school visits or teen reader programs at libraries. And of course, it helps to actually know some teens. And to like them! There’s a lot of disdain out there for young adults, and it’s absolutely antithetical to the pursuit of writing YA. I started writing YA when I was a teenager, but when I picked it up again as an adult I made sure I was interacting with my target audience—in this case, through a mentorship program at a local high school, where I hung out twice a week one-on-one just to chat about my mentees’ lives.
One of the unfortunate truths in publishing is that debut novels sometimes don’t do as well. How did you rebound after your debut novel and get to where you are now with multiple books to your name?
The backstory on this question is that my first published novel was actually historical romance. The series didn’t do well—some of it was the book, some of it was out of my control, but the end result was tepid sales and no third book. I tried to rally with a new romance, but the risk I’d taken (picking an unusual time period) didn’t pay off, and that part of my writing career has lain fallow ever since. It was rough. Romance wasn’t what I had expected to write, but I loved writing those books. They were fun and, if not easy, challenging in different ways than my other books. Jumping between romance and other genres and then back again had this lovely creative cycle to it, like I was working out different muscle groups in sequence. And then—splat.
I vividly remember the call where my agent told me the series was being dropped. I was sitting on the bed, bobbling my two-month-old baby. He farted loudly through the whole call. I’m sure my agent thought I’d lost it, because I kept giggling. I wasn’t that distressed at the time. I’d been expecting it, for one thing, and I was determined to rebound. It was when that rebound book failed that things really hit me. And I’ll be honest—I’m not completely over it. But I never kept all my eggs in the romance basket. I could pretend this is a deliberate strategy of diversification, but the truth is that I see a shiny new genre and I can’t help but collect it, which is how I started writing romance in the first place. So a couple months after learning that the series was ending, we had an offer on I Am Still Alive, and all of a sudden I was a YA author.
The key to bouncing back was that even before my next book was out, I was working on something different. I didn’t sink all my hopes and dreams and effort into one book or series or even genre—but I also didn’t just give up when that series failed. I wrote a book that’s still one of my favorites, even if it turns out to not be the least bit marketable.
I don’t think you necessarily need to have such a dramatic shift to rebound properly—from a failed series or a manuscript that never got off the ground—but I do think it’s important not to get bound up in a single vision of success. Having your book on shelves doesn’t necessarily mean this book. Persistence is essential, but you need to be adaptable, too.
Here ends Part 1 of our interview with Kate Marshall. In Part 2, which will be posted next Sunday, Kate will talk about her writing and revision process, what she learned from reading slush for a magazine, and more!