Recently, we interviewed author Terry Lee Caruthers about her book – Vivie’s Secret
1. If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?
Compassionate / Tenacious / Fair-minded
2. As a reviewer of your book, I felt emotionally connected to the story, especially with Vivie. The story ends with the words, “They exclaimed over the gift of this feral kitten and asked, ‘What are you going to name it?’ Without hesitation, I answered, ‘Vivie.’” Why did you choose to keep the kitten’s name as Vivie?
Actually, that quote appears two pages short of where the story actually ends. The book concludes with the Epilogue on the following page in which Vivie’s incredible secret—who, or rather what, she actually was—is revealed.
As indicated in my Author’s Note, my novel is loosely based on actual events. Because I was convinced Vivie had sent me this kitten, I named her after my friend—living with and caring for this feline for several years.
3. The book “Vivie’s Secret” has something for every age group because of its inclusive nature, which shows how history has affected not only abandoned and homeless people but also animals and other living entities. What inspires you to highlight such overlooked aspects of the history of invasion?
I merely follow history’s lead. As a librarian, I am committed to providing an accurate and realistic account based on the histories that provide the background for my novels. In writing “Vivie’s Secret,” I spent many months researching the Hungarian Revolution, including reading first-person accounts of those who fled Budapest during November of 1956. Many of the characters I created and the scenes I wrote came from these refugee experiences and the photographs I encountered. For example, the characters of Andrew Covington and Martin Smith in Chapter 4 were inspired from the pages of Michael Korda’s book, “Journey to a Revolution.” My description of the brunette girl with the quilted coat holding a machine gun in Chapter 5 came from a photograph I stumbled across during my research, as did the river crossing description in Chapter 11. The fountain in Sopron’s square and the interior descriptions of the Orosolyita Church and Convent that Vivie and her family visit in Chapter 10, came from a link on the church’s website that provided a virtual tour of the sanctuary. Unfortunately, that tour no longer exists, but exterior photographs of the square and the interior of the sanctuary are available on the Internet.
All my source materials are in the book’s bibliography, and I welcome readers to explore them after they’ve read “Vivie’s Secret” to see what they might recognize from my novel.
4. In the world of conditional love, “Vivie’s Secret” portrays the innocence and purity of love between Vivie and Norsk. The quote states, “The twelve-year-old girl ignored the frenzied activity. She brushed back her curly auburn hair and turned the page of her book. Norsk lay curled in her lap. Soft, throaty purrs rumbled from the black Norwegian Forest cat. The slender girl undraped her gangly legs from the arm of the oversized, chintz-covered chair and tucked them up under her. Norsk resettled in her lap and continued to purr.” How do you perceive their relationship, and what do you think connects them?
It’s the human-animal bond at its heart—the only love that is unconditional and nonjudgmental. An animal doesn’t care about your appearance, your hygiene, your life circumstances, etc. They aren’t hateful, don’t yell, don’t criticize, or give ultimatums. That’s why most individuals have a closer bond with the companion animals in their life, than with their family members. This is the interconnection of Vivie and Norsk, thus the guilt and hurt she feels at abandoning her beloved cat through no fault of her own.
5. Vivie’s innocence has greatly emphasized the need for love, whereas her questioning will teach us to be non-negotiable with our terms. What are the hidden traits of Vivie that can help us to know her more?
She has an innate hunger to learn and understand. An intellect that compels a desire in her to seek information that will enable her to better comprehend situations, surroundings, people, etc.
I believe that’s why Vivie was still pursuing educational degrees in her 60s. These achievements were not something she needed to advance or improve her career or life circumstance but was spawned by a genuine interest in acquiring knowledge.
6. The universe has its own way of solving our problems; while the family was in trouble due to the invasion of their country, the help from the characters Andrew Covington and Martin Smith was a blessing. Do you believe in universal laws?
There was the appearance of the black feral kitten under my rhododendron bush that Vivie sent to assuage my grief.
When writing Chapter 21 of ‘Vivie’s Secret,’ I reached out to Alice De almeida, the concierge at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, for some history regarding their 1957 resident feline, Hamlet. As we exchanged emails and I communicated the gist of my writing, my jaw dropped when Alice revealed that, like Vivie, she had had family members who fled Hungary during the 1956 invasion. Not only that, she was a cat rescuer as well.
Once I received the contract from Black Rose Writing for “Vivie’s Secret,” I was excited but also conflicted. The ‘imposter syndrome’ lurked in my head—a doubting of my ability to the point I felt physically ill. That afternoon I parked my car in its usual space at the Beck Cultural Exchange Center and looked up to see a black cat sitting on the lawn in the rain directly in front of my car. I was so stunned, my hands fumbled for my phone. By the time I had it in hand to take a photo, the cat was sauntering across the parking lot. It hesitated, turned and looked back at me. In that moment, I knew I had received a message from Vivie. The nausea and gut ache I had endured for three days instantly vanished. That night, I signed the contract and never looked back.
So, yes, I do believe.
7. The experience of Vivie and her subconscious mind, which holds memories of Norsk, are beautifully portrayed in the book. Vivie is quoted as saying, “Vivie reached over and lit a candle for Norsk. She knew some people would be appalled, thinking that praying for a cat was sacrilegious, but not her. Vivie believed in praying for those she loved. And to her, Norsk was family—just like Mama, Poppa, and Mae.” How do you want readers to connect with Vivie? Emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, or in some other way?
Emotionally. Shortly after the story begins, Vivie becomes a refugee—fleeing for her life like so many in today’s world. I want readers to empathize with her struggles. To feel and know her fear, exhaustion, starvation, loss, helplessness, frustration, despair, suspicion, uncertainty, guilt, etc. and be aware that there are those in our world who are experiencing what she and her family did when they escaped the invasion of their country, along with so many others. Hers is a story of perseverance. She never gave up.
8. In contemporary times, everything is commodified and has a price to pay. However, you have contradicted this belief by showing Vivie’s determination towards Norsk, as quoted: “‘I promise you, Vivie, as soon as we get settled, I’ll buy you another Norsk.’ A pain seared through Vivie’s heart as though she had been stabbed. Her eyes widened with hurt. He did not understand. Norsk could not be replaced. She was not an object like a broken pencil, a worn-out pair of shoes, or a lost mitten.” Vivie wanted to shout at her father, but she didn’t. What was the reason she kept quiet instead of saying anything?
This is based on my personal experience with people who don’t understand the human-animal bond. They fail to comprehend that animals, like humans, are sentient beings, often times marginalizing them with the words “just a” as in “it’s just a dog” or “it’s just a cat”—dismissing and diminishing them as though they were a used tissue. It’s useless to argue with a mind-set that sees an interchangeability in living creatures and does not recognize their individuality or uniqueness. That cats, like people, differ not only in body type and coloration but by personality. So, when Vivie heard those words, she knew her father fell into this category, and any protest on her part would be futile, only bringing about a “Norsk-is-just-a-cat-Vivie” response. Therefore, she doesn’t respond.
9. In “Vivie’s Secret,” Vivie challenges the myth and prejudice surrounding cats being labeled as evil and satanic by Anders. As an author, what message were you hoping to convey to young readers through Vivie’s questioning of such inhumane behavior? Do you think children’s literature has a responsibility to address and challenge myths, superstitions, and prejudices in society?
Actually, Anders was not labeling cats as such. In Chapter 14, he and Vivie are having a conversation about the feral feline Theodolf rescued, and Anders is specifically addressing Satan’s feral temperament.
Ferals are often fractious because of their lack of socialization, so they have an innate fear and distrust of humans. Because of this, a lot of myths and prejudices have developed around these felines—even in scientific communities. As a retired former cat rescuer, rehabilator, and socializer of ferals—as was the real-life Vivie and many others like her, I know for a fact ferals have the capability of being socialized at any age. It can be a lengthy process and takes dedication and patience. The cat Satan-Pandora mentioned in Chapter 32 was a feral that Vivie initially rescued and I later adopted from the veterinary clinic. The book’s encounter between Vivie and Lee is exactly how the two of us first met.
As for addressing and challenging myths, superstitions, and prejudices, I do believe it’s important to present the facts that dismiss them. Take feral cats, for instance. There are several venerable scientific institutions today that perpetuate the myth of the impact feral and outside cats have on bird species because of their use of pseudo-scientific methods in studying the issue. To put it bluntly, they make assumptions about bird kills, failing to necropsy them. Throughout the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, studies found that outside cats had little to no impact on bird populations. Paul Leyhausen (1916-1998), a German zoologist whose work Vivie encounters in Theodolf’s writings in Chapter 31, replicated these earlier studies, actually collecting and necropsying these bird kills. His research revealed the same results as earlier studies: that the birds feral cats managed to catch were either diseased, elderly, or had some type of physical anomaly—usually spleen-related, determining that cats were actually culling unhealthy specimens which would have negatively impacted the species. His work went on to study cat behavior, proving why cats are not proficient at catching birds—thus the line in Chapter 31 that states “Leyhausen’s research shattered so many myths, like a cat’s impact on wildlife.” Unfortunately, his work is overlooked since it was primarily published in his native German in both books and peer journals. Some of his research was later translated and published in English by Garland Press in a book titled “Cat Behavior” (1979), that is included in my bibliography. While not included in my resources, Muriel Beadle’s book “The Cat,” published by Simon and Schuster in 1977, references not only his studies but those that preceded his work. And as also mentioned in Chapter 31, Ellen Perry Berkley’s 1987 book, “Maverick Cats: Encounters With Ferals” includes some of Leyhausen’s research. In more recent years, similar studies have come out of Australia.
And one of the primary reasons I wrote my book “Sergeant Stubby, Soldier-Dog” was to address the myths surrounding this WWI pit bull mix. Unfortunately, many of these myths are still being perpetuated as evidenced in a recent animated feature film about the dog.
10. The book “Vivie’s Secret” largely emphasizes that love should be shared not only with those we love, but also with those who are in need of love. Carmen and other cats were a great source of happiness for Vivie. How did she manage to take charge of so many cats responsibly?
It’s a matter of being selfless, committed to putting the needs of these cats first as most rescuers do. Having a reliable veterinary clinic, like Central Veterinary Hospital, with doctors that support a rescuer’s efforts. Being willing to sacrifice your time, money, and energy to provide the daily care these cats need, which includes cleaning litter boxes twice a day as well as feeding quality food and suppling fresh water. Add to that, setting aside enrichment time to interact with ferals that builds the needed connection to humans and eventually activates the little switch in their brain, allowing them to trust. All of that in addition to cleaning up hairballs, washing crates, sweeping cat hair, laundrying bedding, etc. Vivie was just one of many who responsibly care for multi-cat households.
11. In “Vivie’s Secret,” you are also part of the story as the character Lee. Do you think you have anything missing to add about your relationship in the book you want to share?
Satan-Pandora, the feral that brought Vivie and I together, developed cancer—basal cell carcinoma under one of her front legs. Over the years, she underwent three surgeries to remove these tumors. I can’t recall whether it was upon leaving the clinic after the second or third surgery that I encountered Vivie in the parking lot after collecting Pandora. As always on these impromptu parking-lot meet-ups, it resulted in an hour-long rescue conversation. Upon sharing the news of Pandora’s most recent surgery, Vivie immediately asked if I needed any financial assistance with the bill. I was touched that she had asked but told her “No, everything’s fine. I’ve got this.” Afterward, I thought to myself how kind she was to ask when she was likely no better off financially than me, only to discover how mistaken I was following her death. Several months later, I was overwhelmed to learn that she had remembered me in her will. The news brought me to tears.
12. Your books largely overwhelm readers with emotional stories that end up inspiring someone to respect animal rights and live in harmony with animals. Have you ever thought of forming some kind of association or organisation to create awareness about animal rights as well? You have been working for 20 years with the feral cats, rescuing, rehabilitating, and socialising them. How do you manage to find the time, and what really inspires you to help cats?
There are wonderful local organizations already working on behalf of animals—seeking fosters, volunteers, basic supplies, etc. I specify local rather than national because once these organizations and associations have CEOs, an administrative staff, and marketing campaigns that ask for contributions, the bulk of those monies is being diverted to operate the organizational structure, rather than supporting rescue and animal rights. Also, any new organization that forms pulls resources from those that are already established. I do my part by contacting local leadership regarding animal welfare issues and by donating supplies and money to our local humane society and specific rescues as well as the stray fund at Central Veterinary Hospital.
As for how I managed, I made choices and set priorities, knowing the welfare of those cats in my care came before anything else. Like Vivie, it meant getting up earlier to empty litter boxes and ensure that everyone had fresh water and food before I headed out the door for work. Upon returning home, it was the same routine including cleaning bedding and spending time socializing the ferals. One of the greatest rewards in my years of cat rescue was gaining their trust.
As for what inspires me to help, I have always had an affinity for helping animals. I’m able to recall all of those strayed and injured creatures I was unable to assist as a child. To this day, they still haunt me, and this is my way of giving back.
13. “Vivie’s Secret” is very personal to you as well as a surprising journey. How do you see your bond and friendship with Vivie after her absence in your life?
I still miss this incredible woman. On the day she died, I was stunned to learn who or I should probably say what she was. My mouth literally dropped open. That’s when my mission of sharing her story with the world began. While it did not take the path I intended, I’m so blessed Black Rose Writing published “Vivie’s Secret” and to learn my readers have been captivated by her journey.
14. “The Faithful Dog” is a critical book that delves beyond the romanticism of fantasy and depicts the realities of civil war and violence through the perspective of a dog. What inspired you to explore themes of hope and resilience in such a challenging and traumatic environment, and what message do you hope readers take away from your work?
I wrote a book called “Sergeant Stubby, Soldier-Dog” that was licensed to a digital subscription school library program in 2015, which I hope will one day be available to my readers. While researching Stubby’s history, I encountered the newspaper article concerning Lieutenant Louis Pfeif’s death and his dog. I felt their incredible bond needed to be recognized and shared. So, I tucked the item away until I could research and write their story, which was published by Black Rose Writing in 2022.
The very heart of “The Faithful Dog: A Civil War Novel” exemplifies the unwavering bond of devotion between a dog and his human—much like that shown in the books “Greyfriar’s Bobby” and “Hachiko”—but this story takes place on the battlefields of war.
15. How did you research and gather information about the Fifty-Eighth Illinois and the events they experienced during the Civil War? Can you discuss the challenges and rewards of writing historical fiction, and how you balanced the need for accuracy with the need for storytelling?
With “The Faithful Dog,” I began delving into the military history of the Fifty-Eighth Illinois Infantry—their roster, their training, their orders, their battles. From there, I began seeking out information about them in civil war history books. And since I was writing about actual individuals, I also turned to Ancestry.com and sought out census data on these men as well as their military records. In fact, Louis Pfeif’s description—his short stature, his sandy brown hair and light blue eyes—came directly from his military service record and passport application. Shortly after publication, I noticed a review of my book on Amazon, where a reader inferred I had misspelled ‘Pfeif.’ His assumption was incorrect, for the spelling of Louis’s family name came directly from six sources: his passport application and his Civil War Pension file at the National Archives, Chicago census records and City Directory listings on Ancestry.com, the US Adjutant General’s Military records, and Louis’s military records on file with the National Park Services’ Archives, Records, and Research database. Since I did encounter spelling differentiations in the names of some of the men and officers serving in the Fifty-Eighth Infantry, I addressed them in my Author’s Note stating that I used the source I deemed most valid—soldiers’ letters and the official military records.
As a librarian, I strive to ‘get the story right’—as historically accurate as possible. To date, the only literary license I have taken with historical fact is addressed in the Author’s Note of “The Faithful Dog,” where I acknowledge having altered the date of Mary ‘Mother’ Bickerdyke’s arrival at Shiloh from April 10 to April 6,1862. Short of that, everything else but the dog’s activities are rooted in fact—the weather, the hardships, the battles, etc.
What I love about writing historical fiction is that I learn so much in the process, often discovering fascinating and little-known facts. For example, in researching the Fifty-Eighth’s arrival at Cairo, Illinois, I learned that the 8th Wisconsin Infantry was stationed there. In delving into their history, I found a Major John W. Jefferson. Further research revealed him to reportedly be a descendent of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. For that reason, I couldn’t resist having Major Jefferson be the officer who greets Colonel Lynch in Chapter 8.
The most challenging and concerning aspect of writing historical fiction is encountering inaccurate information during my research. Authors who have made assumptions and published them as fact, not only in self-published nonfiction works but in traditionally published books as well. I encountered both situations while researching “The Faithful Dog” and specifically addressed those inaccuracies in my Author’s Note.
16. Your book “Vivie’s Secret” received a mention in the YA category at the Royal Dragonfly Awards, while “The Faithful Dog” won second prize in the MG category and was also mentioned in the YA category. How do you feel about these achievements, and what do you think is the strength behind these insightful contributions? When you first looked at the sketches of your characters, Tansy and Big Mama, for “The Big Day,” you felt emotional. Similarly, this picture book won first prize for the best interior cover design. What is it about these sketches that evoke such emotions in you?
It is always a thrill to experience feedback on my work, having it recognized and acknowledged by others. I put a lot of effort into my writing, sometimes spending hours on one sentence—from something as mundane as finding the perfect word to ensuring I’m communicating my intent. So, I appreciate this validation, whether through awards and honorable mentions or the reviews my readers leave on Amazon, Google, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, etc.
My picture book “The Big Day” was based on an individual I encountered in a newspaper article that listed the first women to vote in my city. Among them was the name Agnes Sadler, the first black woman to vote in Knoxville, Tennessee. That evening, her story came to me through the eyes of a child. As I wrote this picture book, I never envisioned what Tansy or Big Mama looked like. So, when I received Robert Casilla’s sketches—and that’s what they were at the time, sketches not the watercolor illustrations in the book, they moved me to tears because it was the first time I actually got to see who my characters were. What Tansy and Big Mama looked like.
17. Can you talk about the significance of including diverse voices and stories in children’s literature, especially when it comes to historical events like women’s suffrage and civil rights?
Diverse voices are vital in children’s literature.
Children need these shared experiences. To see themselves reflected in books.
Writers must ensure they are doing them justice, whether they are diverse voices themselves or not. A few years ago, there was a controversy over a particular title because the author was writing from a perspective that others felt she lacked a knowledge of and familiarity with. That’s why it is incumbent for an author to not only research but reach out to those who live this experience.
Take my book “The Big Day” for example. Here I was, a white woman writing about a black experience. At the time I wrote it, I had been married to my husband—a black man—for nearly 38 years. Even though his family had been my family for all that time, I made no assumptions when it came to portraying the lives of my characters, from hair-time to voting day. Once it was written, I reached out to well-known black leaders in our community—both male and female—and asked for their input. I wanted to ensure the story I was telling was not only told from an accurate perspective but was representative and respectful as well.
That’s why I was taken by surprise after “The Big Day” was published, when I became aware of a review that took issue with several aspects of my work. It was written by a white woman who stated that as an ally (a person who supports those marginalized in society), she deemed my character Big Mama a racist stereotype. What she failed to understand is that “Big Mama” is what many children in black and brown families affectionately call their grandmothers. She also found it disrespectful that the book’s illustrations portrayed black and white women voting together, claiming it diminished the struggle of blacks in achieving voting rights. What she did not understand—and what I had established in the book’s Author’s Note—was that in Knoxville, Tennessee blacks and whites stood in line together to vote in some precincts. This included black males who were voting prior to 1919 in our city. In responding to her review, I shared this information—including that Professor Portia Scott, a black professional, gave the book a glowing review in her podcast for 2021’s Multicultural Day, stating she, too, called her grandmother “Big Mama.”
I share this to say, that if you are writing from a perspective in which you have not personally lived, it is vital that you contact and connect with those who have. Let them read what you have written and weigh in on what you’ve done well and where you have missed the mark.
18. As a writer who has been influenced by many strong women in your life, what are some of the most valuable lessons you have learned about womanhood and empowerment, and how have these lessons impacted your writing?
To lead by example. To never let someone diminish you or your voice. To speak truth to power. To champion those who are unable to represent themselves. To assist those in need. To persevere and follow your dreams. To not let life or circumstance defeat you.
My maternal great-grandmother walked out on an abusive marriage in the 1920s. Taking her seven children with her, she moved to another city and never looked back.
When my paternal grandmother discovered her husband was involved with several other women in the 1920s, she divorced him—leaving with their 5-year-old son. She later married my grandfather and had three additional children—only two of whom survived, the youngest being my father.
In many ways, I had a non-traditional / non-sexist upbringing in the early 1960s, in that I was raised by working parents—my mother returning to work about six weeks after I was born. I spent my days with my paternal grandmother until I began nursery school at age 4. Those days with Gang Gang were filled with activity since she was involved in the community and her church.
My mother was the accounts manager for a florist supply company. And both my father, a banker, and my grandfather, a railroad engineer, assisted with the housework and the cooking in the family. As a child, in addition to the ubiquitous dolls, kitchen set, and dishes all little girls had, I was blessed with several electric train sets, receiving the first one at the age of 2, as well as cars and trucks, and a peddle-operated fire engine that I delighted riding up and down the driveway until I out grew it!
Strength of character and a positive self-image have been woven into the fiber of my being. I’m not someone who cries over a bad haircut; after all, it will always grow back. Even though the characters in my stories may occasionally doubt themselves, you will find the same resilient characteristics in them that were forged in me.
19. How do you approach handling difficult or sensitive topics in your juvenile books, such as loss or bullying? In your opinion, what impact do you hope your juvenile books will have on young readers?
It can be challenging. Fortunately, I’ve worked or been associated with children since my teens, which aids me in communicating with them and seeing things from their perspective. There are also traumatic and emotional events that have stuck with me from childhood and my teens, like the heart-breaking loss of a dog that I still struggle with today. I draw on those emotions, despite the pain, and infuse them into my writing to help my readers see their way through similar situations.
20. As a writer, how do you handle rejection from publishers and agents, which can often be discouraging? What strategies have you developed to stay motivated and persist in your writing journey despite setbacks?
Every writer has a different path to publication. No two are the same. Dr. Seuss’s first book was rejected 27 times before finding a publisher. Jasper Fforde’s ‘The Eyre Affair’ was rejected 76 times. Reportedly, William Saroyan had 7,000 rejections before selling his first short story.
Perseverance is the key.
What one agent or publisher rejects, another will latch onto. Take “The Big Day,” for example. There was an agent who was extremely complimentary about the manuscript but passed on it. I then sent it out to several publishers. Star Bright Books expressed an interest; and while I was awaiting my contract, two other publishers contacted me about “The Big Day.” So, I went from no interest at all to three companies seeking to publish my manuscript.
Personally, I view each rejection as a stepping stone that gets me one step closer to securing an agent or a contract from a publisher.
21. During your youth, you were drawn to books about dogs and horses at the library. What captivated you about this genre, and do you see any themes from these books that have carried over into your own writing?
It was likely my inherent love for animals that drew me to these books. I gravitated to Marguerite Henry’s and Dorothy Lyons’s horse stories and Jim Kjelgaard’s dog books. Though I still have a few of these tucked into my bookshelves, I haven’t read them in many years.
Jim Kjelgaard’s dog books may have had some subconscious influences on my writing the dog’s perspective in “The Faithful Dog,” but who’s to say?
22. The cover page of the book titled “Vivie’s Secret” is deeply embedded with meaning. Would you like to share how you come up with such cover page ideas ?
I presume you’re referencing the book’s dedication. The person or persons whom I select to honor have some meaningful connection to me, my writing, or the story.
With “Vivie’s Secret,” I sought to acknowledge not only those who were instrumental in both my life and Vivie’s in supporting our rescue work, but those rescuers—many unappreciated and ignored—who give tirelessly of themselves to improve the lives of neglected and marginalized felines.
I dedicated “The Big Day” to the woman whose story made the book possible—Agnes Sadler, the first black woman to vote in Knoxville, Tennessee.
In “The Faithful Dog,” I acknowledged my late husband and my late mother, both of whom whole-heartedly supported my writing efforts and provided constant encouragement.
I have yet to write the dedication for my Lemkin book. It will likely be dedicated to my publisher because of her desire to see this man receive the recognition he deserves.
For my other forthcoming book “Red and Me,” I dedicated it to the dogs I’ve shared my life with over the years and those I’ve rescued and rehomed.
There’s a children’s picture book biography I’ve yet to find a publisher for, which I’ve dedicated to a co-worker. While working on a project for him, I discovered an article that compelled me to write the book. This is my way of acknowledging the fact that if it weren’t for his project, the book would have never been written.
23. As an author, how has your favorite book “To Kill a Mockingbird” influenced and guided your own writing journey, and in what ways do you draw inspiration from its themes and characters?
Ironically, on July 4, 2018, I was awakened about 6:00 a.m. by the voice of a ten-year-old girl named Marlene Reynolds screaming in my head, demanding that her story be told. It only took two months to write because I was transcribing what she was telling me.
Upon its completion, I was struck by the fact that Marlene’s personality bears a strong resemblance to that of Scout’s in “To Kill A Mockingbird.” And there are those who have read the manuscript who have said it reads like a cross between “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Old Yeller.”
In “Red and Me,” readers will likely recognize a similarity of themes and characters. It was nothing I strived for; it was an organic process. For this MG novel was not anywhere on my writing radar. I can’t take any credit for it. “Red and Me” is all Marlene’s doing; I simply wrote down what she shared with me.
24. How has your family influenced your passion for books and storytelling? Can you share any specific memories or experiences that stand out in shaping your love for literature?
The maternal side of the family is where my love for reading, books, and storytelling originated. My grandmother—Mammaw—loved to read and produced a family of readers, one of whom was my mom.
As for Mammaw, I have vivid memories of snuggling up on the bed at her house, where she would read “Walt Disney’s Uncle Remus Stories” to me and my cousin. Then after I was older and my grandfather had passed away, she would occasionally spend the night at our house. That always meant a trip to the library. For the rest of her visit, the three of us—Mammaw, Mom, and me—sat together in the living room or outside on the deck with our noses in our books. And when I spent the night with her, I remember crawling into bed and reading Helen Fuller Orton mysteries into the wee hours of the morning.
She passed her love of reading down to my mom, who then passed her love of books and reading along to me. From home movies and family photographs, books are seen in my hands almost from the time I could walk. I still have a few tattered and well-thumbed ones from my early childhood like “The Kitten Twins” by Helen Wing, “Hoppy the Puppy” by Barbara S. Bates, “The Puppy on Parade” by Virginia Grille, and Richard Parker’s version of “The Gingerbread Man” to name just a few. As I grew older, every family vacation included a Bobbsey Twins book that Mom would read to me in the car and before I fell asleep at night. And almost every year Santa left me two or three Nancy Drew books, which I usually saved to read after sledding on snowy days. My third grade teacher Miss Domenick and my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Howe often read aloud to us in class. Miss Domenick introduced me to a favorite mystery—Elizabeth Honness’s “The Mystery of the Secret Message” and Mrs. Howe to George Selden’s classic “The Cricket in Times Square.” Both of these teachers read a book—one a mystery set in a house on an island and the other a story about a stable boy during the Revolutionary War, that I would love to rediscover, but I have no clue as to the title or the author of either of them. Also, I’d save my lunch money in elementary school to buy books from Weekly Reader’s Scholastic Book Club—one of them being a paperback copy of Marguerite Henry’s “Shamrock Queen,” in fourth grade, which I still have.
As I grew up, my mother gave away some of my early books, something she came to regret. Among them was a rhyming Christmas story that I had dearly loved. For years, I tried to find it, which was difficult since I could not recall its title. I remembered its illustrations and the gist of the story, but that was all. Years passed, and I had essentially given up ever finding the book again. Then a package arrived from my aunt—my mother’s oldest sister—who was living in Ohio. I opened it and was ecstatic to find myself holding a copy of “The Happiest Christmas” by Jessie Home Fairweather. At 33 years of age, I had finally been reunited with the Christmas story I had treasured as a child.
25. Do you have other writers in the family?
My late mother wrote some children’s stories, none of them published. One of her writings was a short story that I’ve developed into a MG novel, which I hope will eventually see publication.
26. One of your upcoming books “Raphael Lemkin, Citizen of the world: The man who created the word Genocide” implies to the sudden shift from your usual genre of writing. What was so peculiar about him that drew your attention; any event, his struggles or his achievements? Additionally, can you tell us about any other upcoming books you have in the works?
First, I’ll say that is the tentative title for this work, and it is actually not a writing shift. The Lemkin book is, in fact, a children’s picture storybook biography my publisher at Star Bright Books asked me to write for them. Needless to say, I was honored by this request. When I agreed to write the book, Raphael Lemkin was just a name to me. I knew nothing about him. Once I began researching him, I found the task daunting. How was I going to make this subject matter appropriate for children? Fortunately, I was able to find a thread in Lemkin’s life that I was able to weave into the fabric of what would become his story. I was happy with the results and obviously my publisher was pleased as well. It’s expected to be released by December 2023.
As for other works, “Red and Me,” the MG novel set in 1935 that I discussed in Question 23, is slated for publication by Star Bright Books in 2024.
I have a YA historical fiction work that is currently undergoing critique, and I’m working on a YA time-travel novel as well as a mystery.
27. In your opinion, what are the key differences between writing for children and writing for adults?
Content, detail, vocabulary, and length
In terms of content, there is obviously subject matter, that depending on age, may be deemed inappropriate for younger readers—specifically graphic sex and violence.
As for detail, the amount of description used within the writing is based on the reading level. For example, in the picture book version of my “Vivie’s Secret,” manuscript, there was no need to describe Vivie’s appearance. The illustrations would have revealed to the reader her curly auburn hair, gangly legs, etc. While in writing for adults, there’s the need to create an image either through details like Vivie’s curly auburn hair or to make comparisons that will either be familiar to the reader or motivate them to seek out and explore on their own—such as in Chapter 18 in which I mention Oswald’s resemblance to the actor Ronald Colman.
Vocabulary can be another aspect, depending upon the word and how it’s used. And it’s important to remember that children are far more intelligent than some adults give them credit for. By that I mean, they can often intuit the meaning of an unfamiliar word by the manner in which it is used.
Finally, there’s length. As a general rule, young children have shorter attention spans and will seldom slog through a 400+ page book, unless they are captivated by the character and plot as in the Harry Potter series.
28. Your novels are known for being the result of years of thoughtful planning and patience. What advice would you give to new authors who are just starting out on their own writing journeys?
First, read, read, read, read, read. Not just the genres you’re drawn to but those you would not necessarily read. My caveat is, there are a lot of well-written books out there and some badly written ones as well. So, in beginning your craft, my advice would be to concentrate on those books with well-known authors and publishing companies to ensure you’re reading a work that has been professionally edited—not that they don’t make occasional mistakes as well.
Second, join a writers’ critique group. You need input from individuals other than friends and family members. These strangers are going to provide you with honest feedback. Not like Uncle John saying, “Hey! I really like this!” or Auntie Jane saying, “This is good. I knew you could write.” The multiple opinions garnered in a critique group setting are important. They help you determine clarity—are you communicating what you intended—and help weigh whether changes need to be made. For example, if four people express a similar opinion and one is in opposition, that tells you you’re probably on the right track with your story. You should also give some thought to that dissenting opinion, for there may be a way to address it without compromising your story. At the end of the day, it’s your manuscript. You don’t have to change a thing, if you don’t want to. But it is important to listen and think about the feedback you receive. These other writers are there to help you analyze your scenes and characters, catch misspellings, missing punctuation, etc. I’ve been participating in a critique group since 2011, and it has definitely improved my craft.
I’ll also share this. There is a woman who came into my life in 2012, who is also a writer and a creative writing instructor. She wanted to read some of my writing. I was more than pleased to share because I knew it was good. Well, Francine absolutely tore my work apart. I was enraged. I muttered and mumbled around for weeks afterward. Then as I cooled down and went back over her comments, I realized she was 100% right. I sat down and made rewrite after rewrite. I continued to send her my writing, and her criticisms continued to sting. But over the years, a magical thing happened. The criticisms on the writing I sent her became fewer and farther between. That was because my technique had improved. I still send her my manuscripts, and she still provides input. And I would not be the writer I am today, if I had not listened and heeded her advice.
Thank you for reading this interview. If you’ve read my books, I would certainly appreciate you leaving a review wherever you can—Amazon, Google, etc.
Check out: Vivie’s Secret by Terry Lee Caruthers
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