Candace “Candy” Pickens has been obsessed with the swamp lore of her tiny Louisiana town for . . . forever. Name any ghostly swamp figure and Candy will recite the entire tale in a way that will curl your toes and send chills up your spine.
That doesn’t mean Candy’s a believer, however. But with swamp haunts appearing in town every day, a suspicious new family in town, and her own mind starting to betray her, Candy must come to terms with the one piece of swamp lore she’s never heard before. It’s a tale that’s more truth than myth, and may hold all the answers . . . and its roots are in Candy’s own family tree.
Natalie is the author of Beware the Wild and Behold the Bones (both from HarperTeen), as well as the editor of the forthcoming young adult anthology, Triangles: The Points of Love. She is the founder of Madcap Retreats, an organization offering a yearly calendar of writing retreats and workshops for writers in all stages of their careers. In her not-so-spare time, she is a grant coordinator for the University of Kansas, where she runs writing workshops for tribal college students in STEM disciplines.
I met Natalie C. Parker at DFW Writers Conference this past May, when I sat in on one of her panels. I swear, every time she opened her mouth, the most brilliant thoughts would spew forth, articulate and inspirational. I pounced her and asked for this interview the second the panel was finished. Luckily, she said yes! Thanks for talking with us, Natalie!
One of the things I find most fascinating about you is how much you’re involved in the writing community. Your bio lists a lot of it, but you also do matchmaking for agented authors, you do a lot of conferences, you organize retreats, you write long and short fiction. And in your spare time, you throw together anthologies full of amazing authors.
How do you manage to do so many things so well, and what do you gain from being so involved with the writing community?
Managing multiple projects keeps me engaged and entertained, but I think the real reason I keep as many balls in the air as I do all comes down to coffee. All kinds – regular drip, cold press, espresso, chocolate covered beans, salad dressing. If there’s coffee to be had, I’ll have it.
But really, the reason I do all of the things listed above is because I think the writing community is incredibly talented, generous, and inspiring, and I love having the opportunity to contribute.
Can you tell us a bit about your anthology? How and why you started it. What you’re most excited about.
Three Sides of a Heart is a collection of 16 takes on the love triangle trope. I pulled it together one day in a fit of irritation having attended a conference panel during which one panelist announced they’d like to see the love triangle “die in a fire.” It was meant (mostly) in jest, but it was also a serious criticism of one of the fundamental ways YA literature engages readers which is through romantic tropes.
Young Adult literature is routinely criticized for leaning on the love triangle in a way that is cliché. I resist the notion that any trope is intrinsically worthless, so I invited 15 authors to explore, expand, and interrogate all the love triangle has to offer. And I have not been disappointed. The collection is beautiful and political and exciting and due out in the fall of 2017.
It sounds fascinating—I can’t wait to read it! I want to talk a bit about your books for a minute. Beware the Wild, your debut, is fast-paced and fun. I love the small town Southern setting. It’s hard to capture great Southern gothic atmosphere, but you did such a wonderful job of it. It’s a perfect blend of mystery and magic and superstition. You nail the characters and the world building.
Your newest book, Behold the Bones, is set in the same town, but it’s from the point of view of a different protagonist altogether. I love the twist that instead of being the only one to see the ghost, your character is the only one who can’t. Your cast of characters in both books is fabulous.
How did you manage to make your MCs of each book so distinct from each other when so many aspects of the stories are similar? Any tips for building complex, loveable, realistic, interesting characters?
Such a great question! One of the things I used to distinguish Sterling from Candy were their metaphors. Sterling, while more poetic than Candy, sees the world in a very specific way, she finds her metaphors in the places where the beautiful or magical meets the mundane. When she describes the world around her, she reaches for the things we see all the time but might fly under the radar. Where we might see a dark night sky, Sterling might say it’s “dark as a dog’s nose.”
Candy, on the other hand, is more aggressive. She sees all the ways the world might be out to get her. As a result, her metaphors tend to have an edge of action. For example, someone might “toss his smile like a lasso.”
Both grew up in the same town, but drawing them apart came down to how they would describe the exact same setting – one finding the beauty in the mundane, the other finding the hint of aggression.
If you’re writing from a first person point of view, try describing a scene from a secondary character’s pov and see how much you learn!
That’s fantastic advice! Can you tell us anything about how the setting took shape? Where the idea came from originally, what research you’ve done on the town and swamp setting, and how it all came together?
I love the ways small towns keep their own histories in the stories they tell. Small towns in the south seem to do this in ways that are deeply wed to the landscapes around them. As someone who also loves gothic fiction, this felt like the perfect opportunity to talk about memory and family and the fine line between safety and vulnerability.
That’s my academic answer My other answer is this: my entire family is from southern Mississippi, so I’ve spent several years living in the south, hearing the strange tales that collect in families over time. The swamp books grew out of knowing that my mother and uncles had a pet alligator in the front pond when they were kids, and out of knowing my grandfather could tell the history of every tree in his pecan orchard. I wanted to write about all of that—how strange and surreal the south can be, but at the same time how magical and loving.
Okay, for the shotgun round, can you tell us your current favorite…
Author: Ursula K LeGuin
Book: And I Darken by Kiersten White
Song: Angel Eyes, Bo Racha
Television Show: Sense8
Movie: Mad Max: Fury Road
Snack: Boom Chicka Pop!
Place to Visit: New Orleans
Any of those things particularly influencing your work right now?
Mad Max: Fury Road is my guiding light at the moment. Which….mixed with coffee is a little dangerous.
Haha! Yes. Fury Road is amazing on so many levels. What other types of things do you do to find inspiration for writing?
I consume as many stories as I can (books, TV, film, radio), and I run so my mind can go numb for a while and come back stronger.
Making your mind come back stronger—that’s such an interesting perspective. Can you tell us about your writing process?
My process seems to be an evolving thing. When I started, I would hurdle forward without much sense of where I was going, but lately I’ve found that I work best from a vague outline, so I try to find the basic beats before I jump in, but once I’m in, that outline continues to evolve and grow as I learn more about the story I’m trying to tell.
What’s next for you?
Secret things, but all inspired by Fury Road.
Ah, the anticipation might kill me! Okay, to wrap up, we love to ask what your best advice is for aspiring writers:
Know the rules, but break them whenever possible.
Best advice for life:
Don’t break the rules, but do question them at every opportunity.
Thank you so much for your time, Natalie. I love your books, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know more about you and what makes you tick. We really appreciate you talking with us!
Thank you for having me, Emma! And for this incredibly thoughtful interview!
Grab your copy of Behold the Bones:
and Beware the Wild:
Find Natalie C. Parker online:
(You must go see her website. It’s amazing.)