Interview with Debut Middle Grade Author Samantha M. Clark

“An unforgettable, life-affirming tale.” ~Booklist, May 2018

“Clark writes with a lyrical and appealing rhythm, as she viscerally explores childhood emotions of fear and anxiety relating to bullying, abandonment, and getting lost.” ~Publishers Weekly, May 7, 2018

For a debut author, these reviews are the stuff of publishing dreams. But in Samantha M. Clark’s case, they’re now reality as her debut middle grade novel THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST launches tomorrow from Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster with advance praise for her writing and storytelling capabilities. We asked Samantha to share with us some of her insights into the publishing process and how THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST came to be.

Question: What are you most excited about THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST being published right now?

Samantha M. Clark: Oooh, this is a good question. It does seem like every book has its time. I wrote the first draft of THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST eight years ago, in 2010, and since then, middle-grade books have continued to broaden in depth, themes and structure. The industry has seen that there’s a place — and a need — for middle-grade books that tackle tougher topics because today’s kids are tackling tougher issues.

There are a number of other MG books coming out this year that deal with deeper issues kids are facing, including EVERLASTING NORA by Marie Miranda Cruz, THE PROPHET CALLS by Melanie Sumrow and THE COLORS OF THE RAIN by Rachel Toalson in the fall. More recently Kelly Yang’s THE FRONT DESK covers some difficult topics, JUST UNDER THE CLOUDS by Melissa Sarno looks at homelessness, and K.A. Holt’s FROM YOU TO ME discusses loss and grief.

It’s wonderful to see librarians and parents, the gatekeepers for children’s literary, realizing how much these books help children. These types of books help empower kids who have difficult things in their lives, give them tools and take away shame. But these books also instill empathy in kids who aren’t going through tough times, so they can be more understanding and tolerant toward other kids in their schools and communities. We need this so much today, and these books are helping these children be a stronger generation for our future.

Question: What’s been most challenging to you with publishing THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST?

Samantha: Wow, there are so many challenges in publishing a book, but with this one I think the biggest challenge has been learning how to trust myself as a creator and storyteller. This story stretched me like no other. THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST has elements that were really difficult to get right. There were times when I didn’t know if I would ever figure them out. Some critique partners even suggested I cut them completely, and there were many times when I wondered if they were right. But the more I read, the more I learned, and the more I developed my craft and voice, I knew deep in my heart how the story had to be told — and I had to trust that with enough work, I’d figure out how to do it right.

Question: How did this story come to be?

Samantha: THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST began while I was walking my dog by the shore of Clear Lake in Houston. I got an idea of a boy who woke up alone on a beach and had no memory of who he was or how he had gotten there. The boy was so clear in my head, and I thought about him all the way back to our house. When I got home, I told my husband, and we sat brainstorming for over an hour.

But, while most of the ideas we talked about are still in the book, the real story — about the boy struggling to overcome his fear and insecurity — wasn’t clear to me until I wrote the final scene of the first draft. I remember having this huge ah ha moment, when I thought, “That’s what this book is about.” Then I had to write it again with this new information in mind.

Question: What’s the one thing you hope a reader would take away from reading this book?

Samantha: I always think readers will find what they need in a book, and it might be different for different people. But one aspect of this book that I love is the idea that you don’t have to feel brave to be brave. The book explores the feelings many people have of not being enough, and too often those thoughts can hold us back in life, even cause us to spiral into depression. In the book, the boy experiences this and uses tools to help with his fear and anxiety. I hope people who read THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST will be able to recognize that their own negative self-talk is not an accurate representation of who they and that they can turn it around to something more positive.

I actually worked with a clinical therapist, Bonnie Thomas, who specializes in working with children, on a program to help kids who experience this. Together we’ve developed a Make Your Own Courage Art Therapy Project, named after a line in the book. The Project has two downloadable PDFs — one for clinical therapists and one for parents/teachers or other caregivers — filled with activities based on self-care tools the boy uses in the book. The PDFs are downloadable free from my website here, and I hope readers will find them useful.

Question: For kidlit writers just getting started, what is the single best piece of advice you could offer them?

Samantha: That’s easy: Get involved with the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. It’s the best investment in time and money any kidlit writer or illustrator will make for their career. Through the organization, I found critique partners, support groups, and friends; I’ve learned my craft through webinars, workshops, retreats and conferences; and I’ve made invaluable contacts that I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.

I’m now a volunteer Regional Advisor for the Austin chapter, organizing our events, and while it’s a lot of work, it’s incredibly rewarding when people have grown in their career thanks to the work we’re doing. I can’t say enough how supportive this group is, and I highly recommend getting involved however you can.

Question: What’s one thing you wish you knew earlier in your writing career that you know now?

Samantha: Craft is the most important thing to your career. It doesn’t matter how much networking you do, or how many query letters you send out, if your manuscript isn’t the highest quality, it won’t get published. There are exceptions to this rule, but they’re rare. And besides, your name is on the book — don’t you want it to be the best? So learn your craft, dig deep and find your voice, write something that scares you, then revise and revise and revise. It will be worth it.

Question: What’s up next in your writing career?

Samantha: I have a YA that’s due to go on submission to editors soon, but I’m also working on another middle-grade novel that’s similar in style to THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST but a very different story. Like BEAST, though, it scares me, but I love the story and the characters and hope I can do it justice.

Samantha M Clark is the author of middle-grade novel THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST (2018, Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster). She has always loved stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. After all, if four ordinary brothers and sisters can find a magical world at the back of a wardrobe, why can’t she? While she looks for her real-life Narnia, she writes about other ordinary children and teens who’ve stumbled into a wardrobe of their own. In a past life, Samantha was a photojournalist and managing editor for newspapers and magazines. She lives with her husband and two kooky dogs in Austin, Texas. Samantha is the Regional Advisor for the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, and explores wardrobes every chance she gets. Sign up for news and giveaways at her website.