Tell us about your new book.
Christine: It’s the first installment in a series about three nine-year-old friends—Sadie, Jess, and Maya—and their comical adventures with a witch named Ms. M, who turns up one day out of the blue in Sadie’s old backyard playhouse.
Ron: The title tells it all – an amiable witch with questionable magic powers turns up in Sadie’s back yard just as she needs a friend.
Christine: So far we have three books under contract, each told from the perspective of one of the girls. The next two books are scheduled for publication in 2016 and 2017, and all will include illustrations by the amazing Deborah Marcero.
Do you have a favorite part of the book or a favorite character?
Christine: My favorite part is the overall tone of the series. My daughter Audrey describes it as “smart-stupid”—and she means that as a compliment! The stories aren’t frivolous; they have a lot to say about friendship and parent-kid relationships and different ways of looking at the world. But the humor is goofy. Anytime a scene seems to be veering dangerously toward “heartwarming,” Ms. M will say or do something silly and, crisis averted.
Ron: I like the beginnings of things: the first few minutes of a movie, the post parade at the races, and the opening scenes with Sadie abandoned by her friends.
What was it like writing a book with a former student/faculty mentor?
Christine: Honestly, those labels, for me, went away a long time ago. For years now, we’ve simply been friends.
Ron: Chris was always such a good writer that I never thought of her as anything but a peer.
Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline?
Christine: I workshopped the first few chapters or so at an alumni weekend. People said encouraging things and gave us good advice, as usually happens during workshop.
When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish?
Ron: Ummm, a couple of years ago now and we worked on Book #1 for 6-9 months.
Christine: We started work on the first book in the summer of 2012. I remember because that was a rough time for me: my husband had just been laid off from his job, and I was in limbo with the manuscript that would become Poisoned Apples, waiting to hear from an editor who seemed enthusiastic, but couldn’t quite commit. (Eventually I got an agent, Tina Wexler, who found the perfect home, at Greenwillow, for it.)
I wanted to work on something fun and distracting. Ron and I had talked semi-seriously about doing a picture book or an early reader together. At some point I floated the idea of a girl with something living in her playhouse—a rhino or a dragon or a witch. Ron said, “I like witch.” And we were off, as they say, to the races.
As the work progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about?
Christine: Can’t remember what the specific changes were, but I know they involved fleshing out the story and the characters. Ron and I are both minimalists.
Ron: Chris and I would be away from the ms. for awhile, then come back and sense these holes that needed to be filled in. And our keen-eyed editor, Martha at Greenwillow, had suggestions.
Christine: Under [Martha's] direction, we kept going back to the story, adding layers. Sometimes it was just a line or an additional paragraph; sometimes it was whole new chapters.
What research did you do before and while writing the book?
Ron: Chris did bird-watching stuff. I interviewed witches.
Christine: Ms. M is a birder, and she turns Sadie into one—not magically, but by showing her how amazing it can be to sit and observe the natural world. I already knew a little about birding, but I still checked out a lot of birding books from the library. Also, I lived in Chicago at the time and spent some wonderful sunny afternoons hanging out behind the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park, watching birds at feeders.
Where did you do most of your writing for this book?
Christine: I like to write in coffee shops. Ron writes in his study.
Ron: We live on opposite sides of the country, so we talked on the phone and sent each other works-in-progress. Once a year we got together face to face.
Any final thoughts on the book you'd like to share?
Christine: It makes me very happy for lots of reasons. One is that it’s about friendship, and I was lucky enough to be able to write it with my friend.
Ron: Who knew I’d write for very young readers? I wrote Stoner & Spaz and the dark fairy tales in Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses. Most writing is enjoyable, but this book was flat out fun.
Thanks to both Christine and Ron for taking the time to answer our questions and discuss a little bit about their creative process. Congratulations again on Backyard Witch! We can't wait to read the next two.
*Ron Koertge is a faculty member at Hamline's MFAC program, and author of over a dozen books, mostly for young adults (Backyard Witch being a notable exception). You can learn more about his work by visiting his website or visit his faculty page to learn about him as a professor at Hamline University.
**Christine Heppermann is a January 2010 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. Her book, Poisoned Apples, received five starred reviews and was chosen as a Best Book for Young Adults 2014 by Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, The Boston Globe, and The Chicago Public Library.. Christine lives in New York's Hudson Valley region. To learn more about her and her writing, please visit her website.