Monday, November 16, 2015

You Heard it Here First: Jo Hackl's Path to Publication Part I

If you're a member of the SCBWI-Carolinas region, then you probably already know Jo Hackl's cheerful, friendly face.  For three years she served as assistant Regional Advisor and for another three she was the voice of reassurance and encouragement as the Critique Coordinator at the annual conference. She and I have been in the region for close to the same length of time, and I've always felt like we were kindred spirits. When I read her response to my questions, discovered her favorite books and that her debut novel includes a cantankerous goat, I understood why. It gives me great pleasure to feature Jo in a two part blog series celebrating Random House's announcement to publish her book in 2017. If you live outside North and South Carolina, you'll just have to come to one of our fantastic conferences to meet Jo and our other fantastic writers!
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Carol: First of all, what was your pitch for Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe

Jo: SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE OF MAYBE is an outdoor survival meets art mystery story set in a rural Mississippi ghost town.  It features Cricket, a budding artist in search of her run-away Mama.  The story also includes a Trans-Am driving aunt and fireworks obsessed step-cousins, with a part-time moonshiner and a cantankerous goat thrown in for good measure.  I like to think of it as Hatchet meets From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler meets Turtle in Paradise.

Carol: Where did you get the idea for the book? How long did these ideas swim around in your mind before you started writing? Did you wrestle with several different versions before you settled on the one that Random House finally bought? 

Jo: I grew up next to a ghost town in rural Mississippi and spent a great deal of time outdoors, exploring the woods.  I discovered thick, crumbling sidewalks cutting straight lines through a vine-tangled forest, cement pillars from old home-places laying sideways in the red clay, old garden patches with rambling roses and wisteria gone wild,  and mysterious-looking bottles everywhere. The place had so much history that I could practically breathe it.  
"Walking Bridge" was taken with Jo and her cousin in the gravel road that ran in front of
their grandparent's home in Kemper County, Mississippi, circa 1970. 

I knew that I wanted to use that rich setting in this book.  I’m also a fan of contemporary art and wanted to include an art-related mystery element.  In brainstorming on the project, I was inspired by the way that From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (one of my favorite books) placed the main characters in a fascinating setting- the Metropolitan Museum of Art- and introduced them to an art mystery.  I wanted to see if I could figure out a way to make the ghost town setting function in similar ways to the museum in The Mixed-up Files- by challenging my main character, sparking her curiosity and imagination, and engaging her in unravelling an art mystery.  

I imagined a secret room in the last house standing in the ghost town, its walls, ceiling and floor covered in paintings, with clues to a treasure hidden in the images.  To make things more interesting, I added additional clues in a vine-covered sculpture on a pine tree in the woods and on a carving on a dowsing rod found inside the house (because what could be more cool than a rod that can be used to find underground water, treasure, or bodies - take your pick).  
The historic marker for the town of Electric Mills, Mississippi;
the ghost town that inspired the setting for Jo's book.
No story set in Mississippi would be complete without a cast of lively characters, all ready to speak their mind.  I played around with voice and backstory until the characters became real to me.  I brainstormed for about a year before I started writing.  I also tried several variations and plot structures through the writing and revision process until I found one that seemed right. 

Carol: How many drafts did you complete? How long was it from your idea inception to when you started querying agents? 

Jo: Oh my!  It’s been a long process and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each stage. I wrote the first draft in five months and spent seven more years revising, refining and polishing.  I completed at least nine full drafts (I’ve lost count).  I was on at least the fourth draft and several years into the project before I started sending it out. 

Carol: What type of help did you receive as you wrote your debut novel? 


Jo: I began the first draft of my novel in a class taught by the wonderfully talented Ashley Warlick, who offered a novel writing workshop through Emrys, a local literary arts organization and Ashley has continued to offer wise counsel throughout the project.  I attended writing workshops and read books about the craft of writing.  I studied and wrote poetry. Emrys and SCBWI conferences and workshops were extremely helpful.  


Ashley Warlick and Jo 

The Emrys, SCBWI and outdoor communities are delightfully generous and I had help from many readers, independent editors and critique groups members.  I took classes in outdoor survival skills.  Naturalists, artists, and people from the mental health community shared their knowledge and answered my questions. Colleagues and friends have been very supportive. And, of course, Tracey Adams’ comments have been invaluable in shaping the manuscript. As soon as I got the word of Random House’s offer of publication (and after I let out a huge whoop and thanked Tracey and my family), I immediately pulled out the ongoing list I’d been keeping of people to thank, to make sure it was updated.  It’s a long list! In my case, it really did take a village to write a novel and I was blessed to have this wonderful village to help me on my journey.  I look forward to giving back.
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Next week Jo will share how she has balanced a very full life of being a lawyer, mother, and author, as well as the role that SCBWI has played in her life. 

Jo Hackl is represented by Tracey Adams of Adams Literary.  Jo is also a corporate lawyer with Wyche, P.A. in Greenville, SC, where she is Past President of the Greenville County Bar Association and the recipient of the Richard Riley Award for her pro bono service.  She is a past president of Emrys and the founder of Outdoorosity.org, which provides a free source of information and inspiration about the outdoors to individuals, families and educators. She lives with her family on the side of a mountain where she writes every day and tries to spend as much time outside as possible.

35 comments:

sheri levy said...

Wonderful interview. I may be a little biased. And yes, Jo Hackl has written a fun and clever story! So excited and happy for her!

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Sheri. Sounds like you've read the book already!!

Vijaya said...

I can see why this needs to be a two-parter. Jo is full of stories!!! This book sounds delightful. I eagerly await Part II.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Vijaya. Stay tuned!!

Jo Hackl said...

Many thanks, Carol, for such a generous article. I look forward to helping to celebrate the path to publication of many more writers from our area.

Carol Baldwin said...

My pleasure, Jo! You know I love sharing good news!

Ann Eisenstein said...

Thank you, Carol, for a wonderful interview with Jo! I, also, can't wait for part two. Jo has written a delightful story, in an intriging setting, about Cricket and her mysterious adventures! It's going to be a big success!

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Ann. We're all waiting to read Jo's book!

Linda Vigen Phillips said...

Carol, thanks for featuring Jo and a glimpse into her debut book which sounds so delightful. Congratulations, Jo, I can't wait to read it, and l am always impressed with the length of time and number of revisions that go into a great book.

Carol Baldwin said...

thanks, Linda. We've got great talent in the Carolinas!

Joan Y. Edwards said...

Dear Carol,
Thank you for sharing about how Jo wrote and got her book published. It is quite fascinating!
Jo, you will be so happy to hold your book in your hands! Congratulations!

Never Give Up!
Joan

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, JOan! I love hearing the story behind the story, don't you?

Linda A. said...

Thanks for a terrific interview, Carol. Jo, you give so much encouragement to others. It didn't surprise me one bit that one of the first things you did after receiving your book deal was to pull out your long list of people to thank. A perfect example of your genuine love and concern for others. Thank you for all you do and will continue to do for fellow writers.

Carol Baldwin said...

You're absolutely right, Linda! Jo is a gem.

Clara Gillow Clark said...

Thanks for this great interview, Carol. What Jo said about the years it took her to revise her book was a boost for me today. Some days it seems I'll never get to the end, but I know I will somehow, someway, someday!

Carol Baldwin said...

Clara- I'm sure you've been at this point many times. You'll get there. We'll cheer each other on!!

Rosi said...

Well, I simply have to read this book! It sounds incredible. Too bad we have to wait a whole year. Thanks for the very inspirational interview.

Carol Baldwin said...

You're welcome, Rosi. With any luck, I'll get an ARC and you'll have a chance to win it here!

BonnieA said...

As a fellow participant in one of the Emrys workshops Jo mentions, I was introduced to bits and pieces of an early draft of Cricket's adventures--I can't wait to see where the revision journey took this delightful character! Congratulations, Jo--I know there's more to come! And thank you, Carol, for bringing us the backstory.

Carol Baldwin said...

Bonnie,
You're one of the fortunate ones! Thanks for stopping by.

Sandra Warren said...

It's always interesting to read about other author's path to publication. Seven years of sticking to it is proof that you have to believe in your story and be persistent and good things will come your way.

Thanks for sharing Jo's journey. It will serve as an inspiration for many writers.

Great job, Carol. And congratulations again, Jo!

Carol Baldwin said...

Yes, Sandra. This novel-writing-business requires persistence!

Dot said...

I'm so excited to read this book especially after reading this interview! Can't wait!!
-Jo's sister in law

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Dot. I guess you've been hearing about this book for awhile. We'll all be excited to get our hands on it. Thanks for commenting here.

Young Authors Program said...

So exciting! Congratulations, Jo!!

Constance Lombardo said...

This book sounds so engaging!! Congratulations, Jo!

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks Dorothy and Constance, for welcoming Jo into the world of about-to-be-published authors!

Chris Woodworth said...

I just love Jo and can't wait to read this!

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Chris! Me too!

Jo Hackl said...

Wow! Your enormously generous comments and warm well-wishes are just two of the many reasons that I'm so blessed to be part of this wonderful community. I look forward to more great news from writers in our region and to helping to celebrate many more writers' paths to publication. In the meantime, I'm sending warm wishes for a creative and relaxing weekend.

Carol Baldwin said...

You already are a great encouragement to us, Jo!

Melodye said...

Whoo boy, does this ever sound like something I'd enjoy! Thanks for sharing good news about great stories. You're my go-to friend for that. :)

Carol Baldwin said...

Glad to be that friend for you Melodye!

kathleenburkinshaw said...

Carol,
Such a wonderful post! Love the pictures too. I am so happy for Jo. Definitely looking forward to reading SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE OF MAYBE! Hooray for another SCBWICarolinas' member success :)

Carol Baldwin said...

Yes, indeed, Kathleen. We've got a super region!