You cannot begin to understand how very very happy I am to have the chance to interview Nancy Crocker the author of Billie Standish Was Here. You may read my review of her novel here. You may visit her official site here.
My name is Billie Standish. William Marie Standish. It's pretty clear what my parents' expectations were. The "Marie" was a nod to Daddy's mother because she died two months before I was born. Otherwise who knows? I might have been William Edward.
My parents were told at my birth that there would be no more babies. So you might say my name was down payment for using their one chance to have a son.
For a long time I was mostly invisible. That was okay, though. Once you've figured out you can't do anything right it's just good sense not to call undue notice your way. Why step out of the shadows and get yelled at for blocking somebody's light?
Besides, my mama's always had the kind of temper that gets the nearest dog kicked once in a while just for being there. Being invisible had its benefits. (1)
What inspired you to write Billie Standish Was Here? (Or how did this novel come to be?)
NC: I had been writing fiction for ten years or so; as fate would have it, the picture book Betty Lou Blue was the first thing I sold. When my then agent asked what I wanted to do next, I said, “A novel,” and he suggested the Young Adult genre. All that really meant to me was fiction with a young adult protagonist, and I already had such in a short story that kept haunting me. The first 60 pages or so of Billie Standish Was Here are, in essence, that short story.
How long did it take to write?
NC: I wrote the first draft the winter of 2002-2003 over the course of about six months, during my three-year-old son’s afternoon naps. (Ask me how much patience I have with people who tell me they would write if they “only had the time.”) But all in all, I worked on it for two-and-a-half years before it was ready for submission.
Were there any surprises along the way on your journey to publication?
NC: I’d have to say my second (and present) agent kept me ahead of any surprises.
What do you know now that you wish you had known then? (if anything…)
NC: It seems the more I learn, the less I’m certain of -- so I can’t help you out there.
Did the character of Billie come to you all at once, or did the character take some time to evolve? How about Harlan and Miss Lydia?
NC: I would say both Billie and Miss Lydia came to me as they are. Harlan surprised me. I hadn’t planned for him to become so central – I simply wanted a positive male character in the book – but he came to flat-out amaze me as well as Billie. I was happy to let him become so important.
Do you have a favorite character—a character besides Billie—I mean?
NC: I love all the characters. I’m even fond of Billie’s parents, who had their own challenges.
A favorite scene?
NC: I don’t know that I have a favorite scene, but no one has asked if I have a favorite sentence, so I’ll tell you that: “I guess it’s easier living in a fishbowl if you just decide to accept the stripes on the other fish.” That, to me, sums up life in a small town. Pretty much life in general.
What was the most difficult scene to write? Which scene was the easiest?
NC: The assault scene was torturous to write. How to say only enough to make the scene sufficiently real for the reader to fill in the gaps in a mental image? Conversely, many of the happy scenes with Billie and Miss Lydia practically wrote themselves – the day they recited jump rope rhymes, the day Miss Lydia bought the Cadillac, etc.
What do you hope readers gain from reading Billie Standish Was Here?
NC: I hope readers absorb what Billie learned. You deserve to be loved. No one else can define you. And there is someone you can trust.
Is there anything you’d like to tell kids/teens going through such tough times?
NC: First, go back and read my answer to the previous question. But remember that friendship doesn’t always come in a package you’d expect it to look like, and it only takes one true friend to keep you from being alone.
You have a great opener. “My name is Billie Standish. William Marie Standish. It’s pretty clear what my parents’ expectations were.” In just those few sentences, so much is conveyed. Did these sentences come easily or did you struggle with getting it just right?
NC: Oh, I struggled. But as with so much of the book, I finally sat back and asked myself, “What am I really trying to say?” And then I’d stop trying to be poetic and lyrical and the words would come. Directly. Feeling real.
Does Billie have a theme song by any chance? Have you given any thought to what a soundtrack to Billie Standish Was Here might consist of?
NC: Great question! And thanks for making me laugh -- I had not thought about it at all, but even as I read your question Grace Slick came into my head singing, “When the truth is found, to be lies….” I think Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” would have to be Billie’s theme song. And the soundtrack would likely be (or would at least parallel) the soundtrack to Woodstock. Billie and Harlan were of that era, remote as their location was. They watched the news. They bought LPs.
What was your first impression of the cover art of Billie Standish Was Here?
NC: It hit me on a visceral level and I thought, “She got it,” although I couldn’t explain why. Then I read the accompanying message (from Jessica Sonkin, genius), which explained her thoughts. She definitely got it. I love the cover.
Are you excited that Billie Standish Was Here has been selected as a finalist in the Cybils? Does award-season (best of lists, awards, etc.) make you nervous or excited as a writer?
NC: I am thrilled the book is on the shortlist for the Cybils. What an honor!
As for nervous vs. excited – it’s difficult to discern the difference sometimes, don’t you think? I’m so very happy that the book has already made so many year-end lists, and I hope it won’t matter to me if no more honors are forthcoming. I hope.
What do you love about writing?
NC: Someone once said, “Having written,” and that’s not far off. But something I do love is wrestling with a sentence, a thought, rolling the words around in different orders and trying new ones – and finally knowing, without a doubt, that the pieces have fallen into place and I’ve gotten it right. One sentence solved can be the highlight of my day.
What do you find the easiest? What do you find the hardest?
NC: I enjoy rewriting. Editing. It’s much easier to go back and see what’s working and what’s not than it is to stare at an empty computer screen. I’d say that’s the hardest.
Can you describe what a typical day is like as a writer?
NC: For me? Up early, take my son to school, hit the gym, write until time for school pick-up. Deal with email and the other business of writing and life in general after that. I try to make the most of the hours I have available to write.
Can you tell us anything about your current work in progress? Do you have any upcoming releases?
NC: I don’t like to say much about works in progress; I don’t even let anyone read my manuscripts until they’re finished. I don’t have any scheduled releases just now, but I have a finished novel I love and have high hopes for.
Who has been your biggest supporter or mentor along the way for you on your road to publication?
NC: My husband, Dan Roettger, has been great. He’s always my first reader. He has a great eye and a great ear and I trust him. But I also owe an incredible amount to Jennifer Flannery, my brilliant and wonderful agent who has taught me so much. It doesn’t hurt that she always knows when – and how – to make me laugh, either.
Growing up, whose work did you admire most? Was there a particular author that made you say, “I want to grow up and do that!”?
NC: I’d say the first author whose work I fell in love with was Mark Twain, and the second was Kurt Vonnegut. I don’t know that anybody else’s work inspired me to write, though; I think that’s either part of who you are or it isn’t. I’m not sure writers have much choice in the matter; it’s something they have to do.
What were you like at Billie’s age?
NC: I started singing professionally when I was twelve, so I had kind of a Hannah Montana thing going (on a very small scale). But I was very confident and at ease when singing and socially awkward when I wasn’t. I could’ve really used Miley Cyrus’s writers to script my off-stage life.
What were your hopes and dreams?
NC: I saw myself as a musician, writer, artist – all of those things filled my hopes and dreams.
Your biggest fears?
NC: I was deathly afraid of putting my foot in my mouth – which was, coincidentally, a specialty of mine. I still wince over things I said that unintentionally hurt people.
Your biggest challenges?
NC: Probably imagining a big life while living in a very small town.
Would you ever want to see Billie Standish Was Here on the big screen?
NC: I’m going to go with a guarded “maybe.”
If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?
NC: Oh, my. I think I’d strap my son in next to me, cruise by 1980 or so to pick up my father in his prime, and take my two Charlies to a private tropical resort where we’d spend the day talking and laughing and playing and feasting, all while being entertained by Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, John Prine, John Hiatt, and Lyle Lovett in a day-long concert. And thank you so much for that image….