An Indies Introduce New Voices Q&A With Rebecca Petruck

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Rebecca Petruck is the author of Steering Toward Normal (Amulet Books), a spring 2014 New Voices selection for middle grade readers and a Kids’ Indie Next List pick. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and previously worked in publicity for a New York publishing house. A Minnesota girl at heart, Petruck has also lived in Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Connecticut, and England. She currently makes her home in North Carolina.

Steering Toward Normal’s Diggy Lawson has high hopes for eighth grade, until Wayne Graf’s mother dies and he learns that he and Wayne are actually half-brothers. “This blue-ribbon writing full of truth, pathos, humor, and 4-H tells a story of fathers, sons, and a brother who discovers himself and a family he never knew he needed,” said Summer Laurie of San Francisco’s Books Inc.

What inspired you to write Steering Toward Normal?

Rebecca Petruck: Steering Toward Normal was a bit formless until I met several steer competitors at the Pennsylvania Farm Show. Before then, I had the idea of half-brothers as the central characters and a complicated and confusing situation with the adults in their lives. I had settled on steers in a rather calculated, un-emotional way because the external stakes were highest with big financial payoffs for the winner. But after meeting actual competitors, the novel finally began to take shape because raising steers is all about heart.

The competitors I’ve met in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio, and Minnesota love their animals. Several of them talk about not getting attached, but it’s clear from the way they handle their steers that they always get attached. And it’s heartbreaking because steers are only and ever beef cattle.

In early drafts of the STN, I even saved the steers! I took them home and let them putter out in a field all day. It was a competitor who read an early draft and said that was nice and all, but it was kind of a Cinderella ending and would never happen. These kids actually did it for real — led their steers to the packer’s truck knowing that was it — and I didn’t even want to pretend in fiction. I knew it was time to buck up and be true to their experiences.

Diggy would never admit it, but he’s all heart. And year after year, he does something really hard that breaks his heart every time. He’s learned how to cope, and that knowledge informs the decisions he makes in other parts of his life.

You were in 4-H as a kid and you lived in Minnesota. Did you compete in the Minnesota State Fair, like your characters?

RP: My immediate family moved away from Minnesota when I was eight, though my grandparents and a ton of aunts, uncles, and cousins are all still in Minnesota. So when my sister and I were kids, usually twice a year, our parents drove us back to visit. And that is a long car ride from Louisiana and Mississippi when you’re 9, 10, 11 and your mom won’t pull over unless she needs gas. I think I’ve made emergency pit stops in a ditch by the side of the road in every state along the way.

I remember attending the fair with several of my cousins, but never competed. I actually didn’t become involved in 4-H until fourth and fifth grade in Vidalia, Louisiana. I didn’t raise animals; I was interested in sewing and art.

What was your favorite part about being a 4-H member? Would you encourage young people to join?

RP: I definitely encourage young people to join 4-H. What I recall most about my own experience is how included I felt. For a new kid, that was wonderful. And summer camp was so much fun! I even won a talent contest with my flashy baton twirling routine to “What a Feeling” from the movie Flashdance.

The 4-H members I’ve met these past years while working on Steering Toward Normal have impressed me enormously with their poise, generosity, involvement, and enthusiasm for everything they do. There are so many opportunities with 4-H on a local, state, and national level that there truly is something for everyone. But mostly, it’s that 4-H is a ton of fun.

Did a particular teacher foster your interest in writing?

RP: I’ve had so many wonderful teachers who supported not only my writing but also my creativity. That encouragement of creative thinking has been incredibly valuable to me through the years. So along with the inspiring and inspired English teachers I’ve known and loved, I remember a great many math and social studies teachers, too. All of them encouraged me to think and debate and be engaged, never seeming to get tired of all my “opinionating” that was probably silly half the time. Some of my best high school days were hanging out with Mr. Faigle in the Social Studies office after school, and I still remember my second grade teacher, Mrs. Papenfuss, saying I was a very good math student doing excellent work in class. She lit a spark that has never faded.

You’re a fan of National Geographic. If you could write a piece for them on anything, what would the topic be and why?

RP: Wow, this is a crazy hard question because one of the reasons I love National Geographic so much is the scope of its coverage. I’m genuinely interested in virtually every story they print from microscopic life and nanotechnology to space exploration and what our sun is really like. I think the article I would most want to write would be in one of two areas: a spotlight on people not often given the spotlight, like the steer competitors I’ve met, or coverage of oddball science that seems to have no obvious or immediate utility but is essential in making creative breakthroughs years and decades down the road. National Geographic does this really well already, and it would be a huge thrill to be a part of that.

Were books an important facet of your childhood? What book(s) did you read as a child?

RP: Books shaped me as a human being. Our everyday lives don’t give us a lot of opportunity to practice being the kind of person we want to be when tried by a difficult situation, so we’re often unprepared when those situations hit. But books give us space to imagine, and imagining is a classic training technique. I have found guidance in so many characters, and as a child remember Robin McKinley’s books being particularly influential — Beauty, The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown, and The Door in the Hedge.

I’m glad I had McKinley because generally I read books that were significantly too old for me. At the time, I thought it was cool, and I did love a lot of them, but now I read so many great middle grade and young adult novels and wish I had read them when I was a teenager. They would have made some of the tough years so much more bearable.

If you were a bookseller, is there a book you would say every child just has to read?

RP: I love, love, love The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly. It’s a crossover title and definitely for a more advanced middle grade reader, but the effort is worth it. The psychology of the character’s growth is so inspiring, and the fantasy of the twisted Grimm tales blended with the gorgeous writing makes it a perfect book for both personal satisfaction and the demonstration of how beautifully this writing thing can be done.

Also, The Phantom Tollbooth and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes.

If you were stranded on a desert island, what three titles would you want to have with you?

RP: This is another nearly impossible question. Do I go the practical route and select three survival guides? I actually do have one bookshelf devoted to such titles so, should the apocalypse happen and I have only minutes to leave my home, I can shove them all into a backpack and flee with some hope of surviving in the wild!

Or, do I take the heart road and select three titles that will comfort me while waiting for rescue? The Book of Lost Things will come with me because it must. Then maybe The Book of Knots and the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus because the Word Notes, Word Spectrums, and Word Banks inspire dozens of stories all on their own.

Are you working on anything now?

RP: My current project is about a school visit gone wrong when Ty’s mom brings in crickets for “snacks” because entomophagy is good for the planet, and the town, uh, reacts (and not in a good way).

Steering Toward Normal, by Rebecca Petruck (Abrams/Amulet, Hardcover, 9781419707322). Publication Date: May 2014.

Learn more about Rebecca Petruck at

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