Dave Patneaude

I have been lucky to be in a critique group with Dave Patneaude (pronounced Pat-node) for ages. He’s the only guy and takes our good-natured teasing abut putting feelings into his work in stride. His middle-grade adventure/suspense stories have been capturing young readers’ attention — and Young Readers Choice Awards — for years and his historical novel, Thin Wood Walls, is a powerful look at how we treated Japanese Americans in World War II.

Today is the pub date of his latest, a young adult novel called Epitaph Road. It’s a gripping, thought-provoking look at what would happen if women — or at least some women — ruled the world. I thought this would be the perfect chance for readers to get to know Dave better. . .before they rush out and buy his book. So pour yourself of cup of black coffee or order up a mocha and enjoy the interview!

Were you a flashlight-under-the covers or a run-and-play-and-collect-bugs kind of kid?

I was a combination of the two, I guess. I wore out a lot of batteries reading under the covers (they didn’t last long in those days), but I also loved being outside and interacting with nature. We always lived near the water and its creatures (frogs, fish, snakes, bugs), and my mom was glad to have me and my older brother out exploring so she could focus on the younger of the seven kids in our family.
The young Dave, already thinking about that first book.

What was the nudge/spark that set you in front of that blank paper to write for children?

I think I wanted to write something that I’d feel comfortable having my mom read. But seriously, folks, I think the decision to write for kids kind of evolved. My first thought was that I wanted to write, but I really had no focus for quite a while and not much in the way of initiative, either. I took a writing-for-kids course, which turned out to be fun and got me writing, and then I had some short stories published in magazines. Then I got another idea for a short story with a couple of thirteen-year-olds as the main characters, and that short story what-iffed its way into a 50,000 word novel, SOMEONE WAS WATCHING. The ages of the characters pretty much placed it in the middle grade to young adult (tween) genre. I found that I liked being there.

Who are the writers you read to be inspired?

There are some wonderful writers out there. I read their stuff for enjoyment, but I can’t help being inspired (and sometimes humbled) too. Besides the talented members of my critique group, the authors (adult and kid genres) who have gotten my attention lately and in past years (in no particular order and I know I’m leaving off a bunch) are Kurt Vonnegut, Neil Gaiman, Rebecca Stead, Ray Bradbury, Nancy Farmer, MT Anderson, Laurie Halse Anderson, Markus Zusak, Peter Hoeg, Jules Verne, Charles Dickens, Kate DiCamillo, David Guterson, Brenda Guiberson, Cormac McCarthy, Franklin W Dixon long before I found out there was no such guy, Steven King before he got self-indulgent, JK Rowling, John Irving, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Pete Dexter, Jim Lynch, Leif Enger, Tony Early, Louis Sachar, Ken Follett, Anne Tyler, John Krakauer, Hampton Sides, Joyce Carol Oates, Seth Kantner, Erik Larson, etc. etc. etc.

Do you have any special writing talismans/tokens in your writing space? If so, what are they?

As a matter of fact, I do—a now-sun-faded Crown Royal bag containing three vintage marbles you gave me when THIN WOOD WALLS launched, a chunk of a meteorite a friend sent me when A PIECE OF THE SKY was published, and a street sign painted with the words EPITAPH ROAD, in honor of the new book.

I love the title concept explored by Carolyn See in her Making A Literary Life: What do you do that helps you sustain and nourish your literary life?

I haven’t read the book, but besides reading and keeping an open mind to ideas, I find that my literary life is best nourished by keeping my butt in my chair and my laptop open.

What’s the worst writing advice you ever received?

The old advice WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW is way too limiting. And shortsighted. How much did you know about frontier life in Montana before you began your research for HATTIE BIG SKY? How much did I know about the Japanese American experience during World War II before I began investigating that history for THIN WOOD WALLS? You write what you know, yes, but diligent research allows a writer to know.

What was the scariest thing you’ve done as a writer?

After SOMEONE WAS WATCHING began getting noticed, I was invited by a school district in Illinois to come and talk about the book. Standing up in front of a bunch of middle-schoolers for the first time was a scary experience. Luckily, they thought I was a real author.

What are you proudest of in your work?

As you well know, just getting published is like back-to-back marathons run all-uphill, so the fact that I’ve been able to do that is a source of a bit of pride. The thing that makes me proudest, though, is the positive feedback I get from kids who have read one of my books, sometimes more than once, and look at the characters and the situations they get in as almost real.

How do you know when you have a story just right?

When it’s gotten the conditional approval of my critique group (and my wife Judy, the junior high librarian), when I’ve messed with it until I don’t know what else to do, and after the editor gets involved and we go through the whole process of looking at it with more sets of eyes and satisfying everyone concerned down to the last mixed metaphor and dangling participle and whom instead of who.

How long was it between “I’ve got an idea” to “We’d like to publish your book”? And what happened in between those moments?

It felt like it went fast, but I’m guessing that took three years or so. I was without an agent when I “finished” it, so I was shopping for an agent and a publisher concurrently. Luckily I found a talented agent, Elana Roth, who soon connected me with a terrific publisher, Egmont USA.

What, if anything, in the writer’s life has caught you by surprise?

The time it takes to get anything done once a manuscript leaves your hands.

A series of que
stions about work habits:

  • Computer or long-hand? I wrote SOMEONE WAS WATCHING in longhand, riding the bus back and forth to my day job. Now I’m almost strictly tied to my laptop.
  • Coffee or tea? I’m at a coffee shop working every day, where I drink nothing but coffee.
  • Quiet office or music going? Depends on what I’m writing. Music can set the mood for certain scenes.
  • Desk: messy or tidy? Tidy about twice a year; from there it deteriorates.
  • Essential writing snack food: Coffee—see above. Plain black at home, mochas or eggnog lattes away.

Let’s get to the new book, Epitaph Road. I got the chills when I read it. It addresses such a fascinating concept – imagining a world with women in charge. Where did you get the story seed for the book?

I like to imagine where this world might be in another fifty to a hundred years. I thought about a lot of different scenarios when I was considering ideas for the story, and I have to admit that given the general direction we’ve gone over the past years and centuries (despite some positive things happening), I found myself looking pretty pessimistically at the near-future. But as a writer, I have the chance to mess with things, and I began thinking about a world where men were no longer able to mismanage our lives, where women had a real chance to be in charge. And then I began to think about possible scenarios for how that could happen.

Tell me a bit about where the story is set; it feels futuristic but without the gizmos one associates with science fiction.

It takes place in the Seattle and western Washington area, briefly in 2067 but for the most part in 2097, thirty years after a plague has devastated the world. Technologically there isn’t a lot of change, but part of that is an intentional move toward a way of life that is less impactful on people and the planet, and part of it is due to the arresting effects of the plague. We’ve made a lot of advances in the past half-century, but they’re not necessarily the ones that were predicted. I remember forecasts of flying cars and no poverty and meals in the form of a pill.

I have always admired the way you seamlessly weave setting details into your work. How do you do that? I want to know all of your tricks!

I just try to link them to the action of the scene. I try to never stop the action to describe a setting, and I try to only cover what’s essential to the story or at least to set the mood and anchor the scene and dialogue to a setting. I try to make the details meaningful. For instance, readers tell me they vividly remember the scene in SOMEONE WAS WATCHING, after the protagonist’s little sister disappears, when he touches the indentation in the back seat of the car where her car seat once sat.

A novel is a huge undertaking; I know I was daunted by the thought when I began Hattie Big Sky. But I called you and you shared how you go about assembling your stories. Can you share your process here?

It’s definitely not unique to me, but I’ve come up with a process that works well for my writing, so I stick with it. After all the idea development and taking notes here and there so I don’t forget what I’m doing, and coming up with a basic story flow in my head that I think looks interesting and has a beginning, middle, and end and some characters to make the story work, I write a one or two-page synopsis describing the main thread of the story—setting, characters, conflict, resolution. After that I begin envisioning what scenes will work to allow the story to be told in the best possible way. So I come up with scenes (a one or two-sentence description) and then arrange them from first to last. After that, I’m ready to begin my rough draft, keeping in mind that the scene outline I’ve done is simply a map, not necessarily a route. If I get a better idea once I get into the writing, I’m free to change, add, subtract, rearrange, and I always make adjustments. But the outline gives me something solid to guide me along, and I very rarely get that writer’s block thing going.

I have a feeling the book might stir up some great discussions – or I should say, I certainly hope it does. Have you thought about reader reactions to Epitaph Road?

My chief goal in writing the book was just telling a story that would captivate readers, but I was pretty sure the whole time, or at least I hoped, that people would read things they subsequently would want to talk about. My wish is that they talk about the story and characters as much as they talk about the underlying questions.

What was your biggest challenge in writing this book?

Two challenges stuck out. One was imagining and creating a world ninety years in the future after something terrible has happened and almost everything, including the way nations are governed, has been turned on its head. The second thing is related: building a new world for the reader without overdoing it. There is always a temptation to stop everything for a huge expositional “lump” or a lot of smaller “lumps” explaining to the reader exactly what the world looks like and how it got there. So during the revision process I (and the other folks who got involved) spent a lot of time deciding on how much was enough and how much was too much. You have to have faith in your readers that if you provide good clues and strong memorable details, they will be sharp enough to fill in the blanks. Because they are.

I know the cover went through some different incarnations. Can you talk about that a bit?

Well, we thought we had a strong cover, but after living with it for a while, we found out that there were people involved in the process who weren’t convinced it was the best choice. So we (actually, I can’t take much credit—it was the art and design folks who came up with the ideas) went back t
o the drawing board and came up with a revision. I like it even better than the first one, so I guess the convolutions were worth it.

What’s next for you?

What isn’t? I’m working on an alien-in-your-neighborhood novel, a sequel to THIN WOOD WALLS, a coming-of-age story written in verse, a missing-kid mystery set in the 1950’s, a young reader basketball story, and a short chapter book starring a chicken. And in my head, there are countless ideas begging to be set free.

Is there anything you wish I’d asked you? If so, what is it?

I sometimes complain about the little idiosyncrasies of this business, but there’s no denying I love writing, and I love that I’m writing for kids.

Prior interviewees have shared secret talents with us (for example, Susan Patron shared her recipe for making a flaming dessert). What secret talent do you have that we might not know about?

My secret talent is that I’m really good at eating flaming desserts. So if you’ll have Susan send me one (without the flame), I can provide the match.

Thanks, Dave. And I wish you all the best with your new book. I’m predicting New York Times bestseller!