Fiction Forum

Fiction Forum Interview:
A Conversation with Therese Heckenkamp

By Carrie Smoot, Interviewer
Conducted September 2003

Therese Heckenkamp, 22, loves to write. By her teen years, her work earned prizes: a microscope, an ant farm, and a stamp collection. She was also published in the children’s magazines Cricket and Hopscotch, and shows no signs of slowing down. She lives in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, with her family-an American father, Australian mother, one older brother, Jerome, 23, and two younger sisters, Monica, 17, and Cassandra, 14. Her Siamese cat, Tibbles, mostly ignores her, but when he’s asleep she’ll swipe him into her room so he snuggles on her bed while she writes.

PublishAmerica, www.PublishAmerica.com, recently picked up Therese’s first novel, Past Suspicion, which she began at 18. It’s a 241-page trade paperback published by PublishAmerica, a traditional, royalty-paying publisher. It’s available now for pre-release order directly from the publisher at www.publishamerica.com, or order at www.amazon.com or www.barnesandnoble.com. The official release date is September 14, 2003. “I imagined a thrilling climax in which a girl entangles herself in a deceitful situation that may spell her doom. How did she get to this point? I wrote the story to find out,” Therese says. She also outlined the plot:

“In the beginning, the main character, Robin Finley, is rather resentful and angry due to her mother’s unexpected death and the uprooting of her life as she’s shipped off to an obscure Wisconsin town. She’s sensitive, but hates coming off as such. [She then] goes to the other extreme, appearing prickly. As the story unfolds, she becomes involved in a treacherous plot as she unravels the secrets of her mother’s past. Her goals begin to change as she learns not only about her mother, but also herself. She stays with her uncle Peter, a quiet bookstore owner who she thinks of as “an excessively ordinary” man. Though he’s lived alone for twenty years, he’s not lonely or bitter. His calm demeanor is admirable, even comforting.
The story is one about learning to trust, to love, about making choices and overcoming the past for a better future. While I never consciously set out to have a ‘message,’ I believe one that comes through is: The danger of holding suspicion in your heart is that it will blind you to all the truth and beauty surrounding you.”

Therese is writing an article about her “breakthrough” experience for the January 2004 “Breakthrough” column in The Writer. “I was definitely excited!” she says. “Moreover, I’m happy because this means another writing credit-a very noteworthy one!”

Ron Kovach, managing editor at The Writer, says it’s very unusual for someone of her age to be featured in a professional writing magazine and have a published book. Kovach sensed something different about Therese’s work. “Her original submission showed that she had taken the time and trouble to get familiar with our magazine and one of its regular features, the ‘Breakthrough’ column,” he says. “Lack of familiarity with the target publication is, in my experience at The Writer, perhaps the most common reason query writers shoot themselves in the foot. Her article arrived already formatted in our Breakthrough style. More importantly, she offered an interesting tale, some interesting insights and advice, and, given her unusually young age, an opportunity for us to continue to add to the diversity of the column.”

Let’s hear more of Therese’s thoughts about writing:

FF: What attracts you to the young adult market, and how do you define this market, both in age of readers and experiences?

Therese: My favorite books have always come from this category, so I’m simply writing what I like to read. (Therese’s favorite authors include Beverly Butler, Elizabeth Chandler, Cameron Dokey, Regina Doman, Lois Duncan, Phyllis A. Whitney, Daphne du Maurier, Victoria Holt, and Maud Hart Lovelace.)

I’m attracted by the richness of stories, subjects, and characters, and the fact that they touch readers at such a receptive age. This makes writing for this age group fulfilling. There’s genuineness to good YA books written by writers who realize these books are not just about teens, but also for them. Young adults are smart. Writing for them is not easier than writing for adults; in many ways, it’s more challenging. The writing should not only be entertaining, but meaningful. Even in fiction, you have to write truthfully. Yet I didn’t exactly choose to write for young adults; it’s how my writing naturally came out.
The YA reader can be any age, but is typically defined as a teen. I think of my readers as being twelve and up. The books serve as a “transition” from childhood to adulthood. This provides an often-poignant journey, one many adults appreciate, and I think that’s why so many adults are attracted to YA books. I once overheard a woman in a bookstore comment that she read one of “those” books, and she was surprised by how it affected her, saying that she “never would have guessed it was written for a kid.” Exactly. They aren’t written for kids or even teens exclusively. They’re written for anyone willing to experiencing life with a heightened awareness-but it’s an awareness teens have.

Most young adults nowadays have experienced or know about most everything adults do. While a YA book shouldn’t “shelter” readers from real life, it needn’t submerge them in bleak pessimism. Teens get enough of that. Since books provide experiences, taking readers places they’ve never been, why not give them the choice of taking a journey with hope?

FF: How did you develop the characters?

Therese: I thought about them a lot. Their backgrounds, their motives, how they looked, spoke, and acted. I began with little character sketches. Then the characters began to carry on conversations in my head. But nothing compared to writing the first draft; this was when the characters truly revealed themselves. I “became” each character as I wrote. Yet Robin and her strong voice still fascinate me. I never doubted that she would tell the story. In true Robin-fashion, she demanded to.

FF: Are you and Robin similar in any way?

Therese: Probably more than I realize. Being so close to her and the story, it’s hard for me to distinguish. An obvious comparison is we both like to read. I’m devoted to my writing in the way she’s devoted to drawing. We both wore braces. Like Robin, I can definitely be naïve and overly sensitive. (More so when I was a teen and wrote the novel than now, I hope!) Her detachment from others I can relate to because being shy has often kept me from feeling like I fit in, particularly growing up. But I’m not as audacious as she can be. Robin may come across as cold, but it’s her defense mechanism kicking in, protecting her from being vulnerable.

FF: Are there any “standard” plot lines, or are editors always looking for something different? Are there more opportunities in this genre than in others?

Therese: Plot is like the tiers of a wedding cake-simple and strong, but holding up the cake and giving it an impressive form. There needs to be conflict and resolution in every plot, but other than that, the possibilities are about as endless as wedding cake designs. Topics and ideas are limitless; it’s the way a writer writes about them that will make them unique. Editors will more likely recognize what they want than predict it (otherwise they’d write that bestseller themselves.) Writers need to write what truly excites them-what drives them to paper or keyboard day after day and pulls them through the long, tedious revision process, compels them to keep sending that manuscript out, no mater how many rejections come-because if the writer believes in it, eventually he’ll find an editor who does, too.

FF: Are your readers primarily girls, or are you reaching out to boys as well? How would you motivate young people to read-a major push in today’s schools, and the earlier the better.
Therese: “Past Suspicion” would appeal mostly to girls because the protagonist is a girl, but other than that, anyone who enjoys a good suspense story should enjoy the book. There are actually more male characters than female. Being a female, writing for girls more often comes naturally to me, yet I’ve written stories for boys as well. (I currently have a short story and an article scheduled for publication in “Boys’ Quest” magazine.)

FF: What were the key experiences that shaped you as a writer? Who are your mentors?

Therese: Writing followed naturally from my love of stories and reading. I think it helped that, as a kid, I wasn’t allowed much TV. Playing with my brother, sisters, and friends helped develop my imagination. My mom read to me and took me to the library and “story time.” I figured if I learned to read, the stories would never end. I’ve kept diaries on and off since I was eight, and being aware of things going on around me, observing and recording and describing things, played an important part in developing my writing. When I was eleven, I discovered an ancient Underwood typewriter in the basement. Eager to use it, I started typing stories. By pecking and pounding at the keys (which often jammed together), I could type about a paragraph an hour. When I was thirteen, I won a microscope and an ant farm in an essay contest; this, and winning a short story contest in “Hopscotch” magazine really fueled my desire to write. In college, I won an August Derleth Writing award. Looking back, I realize how fortunate I was to get such periodic boosts of encouragement when I needed them most.

My parents have always been my mentors. They never doubted or deterred me; in fact, they encouraged me and gave me the freedom I needed to write. In an odd way, I also think of public libraries as my mentors, because from them I gleaned such a wealth of writing inspiration and information. There were times I’d stagger out of the library under a colossal stack of books, but it was worth the embarrassment when, at home, I sprawled out on the living room carpet with my “treasures.” In college, I took some writing classes and met Dr. Margaret Rozga, who believed I had potential and offered helpful, insightful encouragement for my writing and me. In fact, she and another student helped critique some of the first chapters of “Past Suspicion”!

FF: How has place played a role in your writing, other than to inspire some of the settings in your book?
Therese: Place is such a necessary part of writing, and its value increases when it’s used as more than a mere backdrop. Used skillfully, it can create atmosphere, foreshadowing, and credibility. As a writer I use it to orient my characters, my readers, and myself. Details add richness. It’s not just a tree, but also a crabapple tree with petals sprinkling down like soft confetti. When I go anywhere new, I often automatically begin picking out unique qualities, filling my idea “storehouse” for the future. I never know when a setting may come in handy or even inspire a new story. Also, place can play a part in making me want to write. (Particularly those classic “dark and stormy” nights.)

FF: What does it feel like to snowboard, and who taught you how?

Therese: When conditions are right and you’re in control, it’s awesome-like surfing on snow. Zooming downhill, you feel like a part of the wind. My dad taught me when I was eleven, but it took me a while to feel confident enough to enjoy it, instead of being afraid of wiping out. My first few times at big ski hills were frustrating and frightening. But since my dad and my brother snowboarded, I had to learn-I didn’t want to be left behind!

FF: When did you first consider writing as a career? Did you find a lot of support from family, friends, teachers, and other people? Why or why not? How did you overcome the naysayers, if you encountered any?

Therese: I don’t think of it as a career, per se. It’s what I do, but I don’t expect it to pay bills (thus the day job). I think of it more as a calling. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. After my first year of college, in particular, I knew I wanted to concentrate on writing-not term papers-but the ever-increasing stories that kept barraging my mind to be released. Don’t get me wrong. I got a good college education, experience, and an associate degree, and I’m happy I did. But I’m happier now having the freedom to live my dream of being a writer. Since I want a family someday, I’m grateful writing is a flexible profession that will allow me to be home for them.

FF: What advice would you have for other young writers, especially in planning their high school and college careers, locating internships and getting experience? How did the University of Wisconsin at Waukesha, http://www.wisconsin.edu, meet your needs?

Therese: There are so many resources available on these subjects. I’d recommend starting at the library and getting a strong idea of all the opportunities. Talk to parents and trusted teachers. Basic English and word-processing skills are essential, no matter what area of writing you want to get into. Truth be told, college is not always essential for creative writing, but the experience will open up many doors. Aim for a degree if you’re career-oriented. Build up writing credits in any way you can: writing for school publications, entering contests, even volunteering at nonprofit organizations (where people are often needed to write flyers, brochures, and letters). But don’t get swamped in all the theory and planning. Write, but don’t forget to enjoy it.

FF: How important is the Internet in getting a book published? Are you particularly Web-savvy? Why or why not?

Therese: For me, it was very important, much more than I ever would have thought. PublishAmerica works with its authors primarily over the Internet. The page proofs of “Past Suspicion” were sent to me through email, and that’s how I returned the final revised manuscript. The Internet is becoming more important all the time. Writers can use it to explore publishing companies’ Web sites to get an idea of the material they publish, and to look for writers’ guidelines and contests. I appreciate that it’s fast and efficient. Unfortunately, the Web can also be a great distraction and an easy way to waste time. When doing research, you also need to be able to discern what is credible. You have to be aware of out-of-date and misleading information. I wish I were more Web-savvy, but I never really used the Web till I went to college. The past few years have been educational, but I still have a lot to learn.

FF: What have you learned about book contracts, agents, worthwhile deals, and marketing as you landed your first book deal?

Therese: I’ve learned to take time to study options so I feel like I’ve made the best choice. Read, re-read, and understand your contract. Ask questions if you need to. Make use of resources. My SCBWI guide came in handy for understanding contract terms and knowing what to look for and specify. I’ve never worked with an agent, so I can’t speak from experience on this. All I know is, so far I’m doing fine without one; I’m enjoying managing my work and learning about and being a part of so many different aspects of the publishing industry.

FF: Please tell me more about your experience with PublishAmerica. What advice do you have for other writers in working with them?

Therese: I’ve had a very pleasant experience working with PublishAmerica. They had “Past Suspicion” in the consideration process for about six months, after which they offered me a contract. From there, things progressed swiftly and surely. Dealing with PA mainly through the Internet made it easy to contact them with any concerns or questions, and they usually gave quick responses. They are a fairly young company that welcomes new authors and are eager to give you a chance as long as you prove to them you have a well-written, compelling story that others will want to read. Many of their books have strong values and deal with characters overcoming obstacles. They did a great job on my book cover and, though the ultimate decision is theirs, they even welcome input and suggestions as to how you want your cover to look. Their website provides an author’s message board that is made up of a helpful community of writers. PA offers a standard contract (but don’t expect much of an advance). While they do no major editing, I see this as a plus, because it’s truly my novel, written in my style, that is being published. So if your manuscript still needs work, don’t submit it to PA and expect an overhaul. They have to see a promising yet professional manuscript before they’ll offer a contract. Finally, as unknown authors, we’re pretty much on our own for promoting our books, though PA provides them through all the major distributors, including Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Brodart, and Barnes & Noble.

FF: A writer’s center in my area has many writing classes for kids and teens. Did you take similar classes? What other opportunities for young writers did you uncover? What’s your advice to other kids and young adults about making the most of opportunities? How would one break in to magazines that welcome kids’ submissions? Do you have any advice to kids about Writer’s Market?

Therese: Other than the few writing classes I took in college, I never sought out classes. My major resources were always from the library and my writing subscriptions. Aspiring writers should feel free to choose what works best for them. Whatever you choose, read a lot. Whether conscious of it or not, you’ll absorb things that could never be taught. Take advantage of the assortment of young writer’s guides available. Check local high schools and colleges for writing classes. Keep your eye on local publications for writing contests (odds will be in your favor). Start small and work your way up with a list of publishing credits to support you. Immerse yourself in magazines that welcome kids’ submissions and familiarize yourself with what they publish. An updated volume of the Writer’s Market is invaluable for putting both major and minor publishing opportunities at your fingertips in an organized and manageable way. I particularly like the focus of the Children’s Writer’s Market. Among many things, it lists contests for young writers. But keep in mind that most “adult” writing advice applies to young writers as well. You have to be willing to do your homework and be professional. Don’t expect a “break” because you’re young; in fact, expect a battle-you’ll be vying for publication with mature professionals. Yet youth does give you great advantages: you see things in a fresh way, and this helps you write with eager energy and a unique voice.

FF: What organizations and professional associations have helped you along the way, especially those related to writing for young people? What’s been the greatest benefit of being affiliated with them-especially the Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators< http://www.scbwi.com/>?
Therese: The Institute of Children’s Literature caught my eye as a teen, and I took their writing aptitude test. I receive their newsletter, Children’s Writer, and have found their books helpful. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators gives me a valuable “inside” edge in terms of what’s going on in the publishing industry, as well as offering helpful articles related to all aspects of writing for kids. They hold workshops and conferences and offer grants. As a member, I also receive the annual roster and listing of publishers, along with the opportunity to take part in a manuscript exchange with other members. Belonging to the society continues to motivate me. Each time I receive their newsletter I’m eager to read it, make use of writing advice, and comb the markets. Being a member of this world-recognized society means something to publishers: it means you’re serious about writing. Finally, it was through the SCBWI that I first learned of PublishAmerica (listed as Erica House).

FF: When has an author edited his or her work enough? How does an author develop trust in an editor?

Therese: When you get to the point where it’s the best you can make it and it reads like a “real” story to others. This happens after you’ve worked on it to the point of exhaustion, put it away for a while, then returned to it with a fresh, critical eye. There comes a time when all you’re doing with each read-through is tinkering, and you may be making your work worse instead of better.

This comes with realizing the editor wants what is best for your writing because his or her purpose and the writer’s is the same: to get a piece to the point where others will enjoy reading it while gaining something worthwhile from this reading. The editor should work with you to get it to that point-but never use this as an excuse to submit sloppy work and let the editor fix it because “that’s his job” or no one will want your work in the first place. You should want your work to reflect the best you can be, so revise and polish till it shines. You can trust an editor who proves to be a professional by doing what he says he will, who treats you with consideration (remember to do the same). Changes should be done for valid reasons. If an editor is changing everything so that you don’t like what your piece is turning into, you may need to rethink your choices. One of the things I appreciate about PublishAmerica is that while they edit for grammar, spelling, punctuation and typos, they don’t mess with story, message, or style. It’s truly your own writing that’s being published.

FF: How do you know if your work is on target-from believable characters, snappy dialogue, action/conflict as well as mechanics?

Therese: Read books along the lines of your own writing and see how they compare. Let other well-read, objective people read your manuscript and give an honest opinion. Did they get out of it what you intended? After letting it rest, re-read your work as impartially as possible and see how it strikes you. See how it holds up when you read it out loud. Do you stumble through awkward sentences? Does the dialogue sound phony? Learn as much as you can about the craft of writing and incorporate expert advice into your own work. Even though you may break grammar rules for dramatic reasons, you need to know why you are doing so. Know the rules so you can break them to produce the right effect. Writing is a translation of ideas, experiences, emotions; your writing should make you, the writer, invisible so there is a direct connection between the reader and the story-so they live it like it’s their own.

FF: Do you have a critique group? Why or why not?

Therese: No. The only ones I’ve ever participated in were in college classes. This doesn’t mean I’ll never join one. But I know from experience that I seem to get the most out of my solitude writing time. At this point, it’s not worth cutting my writing time to fit a critique group into my schedule. While I realize family and friends can be the least objective readers, my family is becoming skilled in offering advice even when it may be something I don’t want to hear, and this form of critique works for me. While a critique group is an experience that’s worth a try for every writer, keep in mind you’ll receive some of the best and some of the worst advice, so you’ll have to be willing to weed through.

FF: Please tell me about any writing setbacks you’ve had, and how you have dealt with them-everything from writer’s block to rejections, and leads that didn’t pan out.

Therese: Personally, I try not to label myself as having “writer’s block.” Certainly there have been times when I feel I’ve written myself into a rut, but most often the problem works itself out in time or is forgotten. At least I know I’ll never get writer’s block from lack of ideas. But blocks can come from other sources, such as stress, lack of knowledge, low self-esteem . . . you have to identify the source before you can get past the block. Corny as this may sound, any writer feeling down would benefit from reading “Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul.” It contains true stories of overcoming the worst writing situations.

As for rejections, they’re like bills. They’re always going to come. Accepting this fact makes them easier to deal with. Use them constructively. They may hold hints of hope, particularly if they contain personal notes or suggestions. Editors don’t waste time writing to you unless you show promise. When I was searching for a publisher for “Past Suspicion,” the blow of rejection was sometimes softened with occasional encouragement or suggestions from editors. I incorporated revisions and continued the quest for a publisher. In the meantime, I got busy on other projects.

Don’t stuff all your hopes and dreams into one envelope and one manuscript. I had high hopes for a middle-grade novel, “Project Graveyard,” that I entered in Random House’s annual Marguerite de Angeli Contest when, even though it didn’t win, an editor replied saying I had talent and that my novel received “special attention.” The editor expressed great interest in the manuscript, saying if I revised, she’d be willing to take another look at it. I revised, sent it back, and worked on other projects. Months later, the manuscript was returned. It hadn’t changed enough to fit their current publishing program.

FF: What do you have planned for your next project?

Therese: I have so many projects in the works that sometimes I find it difficult to crack down and focus on just one. I love the variety, but it can become overwhelming at times; I have to take a step back and say, “Choose one thing and stick with it, at least for today. You can’t work on everything at once.” It’s hard because I get so many ideas and get excited about so many different things. Yet it takes discipline and complete devotion to a project to carry it through to full potential. Since I have a completed rough draft of another YA suspense novel (this one about a teen whose brother disappears-kidnapped, or did he run away?-and she treks into the harsh atmosphere of the chill north woods to find him), this may be my next published novel. I’m also currently marketing my middle-grade novel “Project Graveyard.”

Thanks, Therese, for a fabulous interview! Look for Therese’s “Breakthrough” column in the January 2004 edition of The Writer, http://www.writermag.com. Also visit Therese’s own newly launched Web site, http://www.pastsuspicion.com.