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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

The Little Woods: a Q&A with McCormick Templeman

Part of me would always hear a string of chords just beyond the range of sound, a leitmotif that ran through my life, whispering that the truth of what had happened that night was someone else’s secret.

–McCormick Templeman, The Little Woods

littlewoodsTwitter has gifted me with some of the most rewarding friendships of my life (and of course it still counts as friendship before you’ve met in person). I’m pretty sure it was Nova who first put me in touch with McCormick Templeman (you can read Nova’s YA Debut Interview with McCormick here; and you might also remember her very smart tweets, which I appropriated for a recent post on productivity), but what I find amusingly not-as-random-as-it-seems is that Corm and I have the same literary agent. We were tweeting to each other for months before I realized this.

Her debut YA novel, The Little Woods, went on sale July 10th, and that morning I picked it up at the Barnes & Noble at Union Station and devoured it in a day. Here’s the jacket copy:

When Cally Wood starts at St. Bede’s halfway through her junior year, she’s suddenly thrust into a world of privilege and prestige, and in no time flat, she learns to navigate the complex social world of the upper echelon. But amid the illicit romances and weekend-long parties, Cally discovers that a brilliant but troubled girl named Iris disappeared from St. Bede’s just a few months ago. Most people assume she ran away, but the police still haven’t found her. And Iris wouldn’t be the first girl to go missing from the school. Ten years ago, Cally’s sister was visiting a friend from camp at St. Bede’s when both girls vanished from their beds.

As Cally tries to unravel the mystery surrounding Iris—one she can’t help but link to her own sister’s disappearance–she discovers that beneath the surface of this elite school and its perfect students lies a web of secrets where rumors are indistinguishable from truths and it seems everyone has something to hide.

The Little Woods is smart and creepy and full of memorable characters, the best of whom will no doubt linger in my thoughts for months. I love it when an author manages to create a character I really, really wish were a real-life person.

I want to share this delicious novel with you, so enjoy the Q&A with McCormick and then enter to win a signed copy of The Little Woods!

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You mentioned in your interview with Nova that the idea for The Little Woods came to you while reading the case studies of a 19th-century medical examiner, and corpses figure prominently in both this novel and The Glass Casket (which Delacorte will publish in 2014). Have you always been interested in gothic subject matter? Did you read a lot of scary stories and fairy tales as a child?

I was obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe when I was little. I used to read his stories, and get so scared that I would run out of the room and go hide from the book. This was when I was really young, like when I hadn’t even started reading middle grade books yet. Once I had those Poe foundations, I started making up my own stories, and they were always scary. I don’t know if my tastes were strictly gothic, though. I also lapped up slasher movies by the bucket when I was a kid, and I was pretty non-discerning with some of those. Fairy tales were strange for me. I mostly enjoyed them before I could read. I knew the stories from having had them read to me, but I would stare at the illustrations and then kind of change the narratives to what I thought they should be. I would tell myself what I deemed the “real” story. The Glass Casket was born out of that practice. I used to change Snow White pretty dramatically when I looked at the illustrations, and one day I just decided I should try to write the story as I had seen it as a small child.

I think a lot of kids who grow up at home are fascinated by the idea of boarding school. (I know I was, and that was before Harry Potter.) From a writer’s perspective, the boarding-school set-up gets the parents out of the way so that wild and interesting stuff can actually happen, but did you feel any of that wistfulness growing up?

It’s funny. When I decided to set it at boarding school, I didn’t even think about getting the parents out of the way. I suppose if Cally had stayed at home and had awesome parents, she probably would have had a happy, uneventful junior year of high school, and then there wouldn’t have been much of a story to tell. The Year My Mom Made Me Stay Home and Walk The Dog doesn’t sound too exciting. Actually, I take that back. I would totally read that book. Originally, though, the book was set in a small town at the turn of the 20th century, and I wasn’t getting the claustrophobic feeling I wanted from it, so I decided try setting it at boarding school, and it just clicked. As for the wistfulness, I didn’t feel wistful at the time, and I definitely don’t now. I’m pretty sure Cally won’t either.

You’ve led such an interesting life! How did you come to study Chinese medicine, and how has that side of your life affected your writing?

I was in my last semester of my MFA program when I became ill. I ended up seeing a doctor who eventually referred me to an acupuncturist from whom I got immediate, and pretty dramatic results. I had never given any credence to alternative medicine, and it pretty much changed everything for me to find out my assumptions had been so totally wrong. I was so blown away that I started reading everything I could about the medicine, and six months later, I was enrolled in acupuncture school. It was a very intense, long program, and I loved everything about it. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. It changed how I thought about the world, and it helped me not to take myself so seriously as a writer. I still take writing very seriously, but it helped me not to worry so much about external approval and success and stuff like that. Many of the patients I treated as an intern came into the clinic for adjunctive treatment for cancer therapies. It’s hard to care too much about whether your story gets published when you’re dealing with people who are facing mortality. The philosophy behind the medicine also helped me think about the shapes of narratives differently. I notice that when I’m revising a manuscript, I will often use diagnostic techniques that are inspired by Chinese medical diagnosis. It’s about looking at the manuscript as a whole, and viewing it as a kind of organism. It’s about balance and circularity, roots, and branches. That sounds weird, but it’s helpful for me to think that way.

Here’s another part of your bio that intrigues me: are you really descended from criminals?

Indeed! On my mother’s side, I’m descended from a famous Irish revolutionary who was executed in prison. On my father’s side I’m descended from an outlaw who rode with Jesse James, and then growing up my mother’s family was frequently visited by FBI agents searching for cousins who populated their most wanted list. It should be noted, though, that this information comes from my relatives who are themselves probably criminals and therefore not to be trusted.

And now for my pet question: do you have any writerly rituals or superstitions?

I don’t. I’m kind of boring that way. I enjoy writing, and I can and will do it pretty much anywhere under any circumstances. I had a wonderful teacher in grad school, the writer Keith Abbott, who really demystified the writing process for me. He focused on the nuts and bolts of writing, on rolling up your sleeves, being methodical, and just getting to work. That appeals to me. I also don’t have any writing talismans or anything like that. I would lose them immediately. One thing I do, though, is I allow myself to get a fun new notebook when I’m about to seriously commit to a book. I’ll fill up random notebooks with notes for months and then when I feel the call to draft, I’ll go and get a notebook that seems right for the project and I get so excited about it, I feel like a little kid at an amusement park. Then I spend months trying not to lose the notebook.

One more pet question (I always ask this because it’s a great way to get book recs): if you were stuck on a desert island, what are the five books you’d want to be reading (over and over and over…)?

Ooh! Five? That’s exciting. Okay so Journey to The West because it’s like a billion pages and explains pretty much everything you need to know. A Manual of Acupuncture because it’s awesome. Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle because it’s my favorite book, and because you can spend a lot of time on each of those sentences. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy to make me laugh when I get depressed about being trapped on a desert island, and The Complete Sherlock Holmes to keep my deductive muscles primed in case there are any desert island mysteries that need to be solved.

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Thanks, McCormick! To enter to win a signed copy of The Little Woods, leave a comment and mention a book you’ve enjoyed this summer. Contest closes 5pm (ET) Friday, and winner will be chosen by random-number-generator-a-bob! In the meantime, you can follow McCormick on Twitter at @mktempleman.

9 Comments to The Little Woods: a Q&A with McCormick Templeman

  1. July 18, 2012 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Is it cheating if I say that a book I’ve enjoyed this summer is one of your’s?
    I’ve been knitting and spinning so much I’ve hardly had any reading time this summer. Another one I enjoyed was Spinners by Donna Jo Napoli – it’s an old YA book that we stumbled on at the library, a re-telling of Rumplestiltskin.
    What have you enjoyed this summer?

  2. July 18, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Of the four books I finished last week, Madeline Miller’s “The Song of Achilles” has stayed at the forefront of my brain. It’s well-written, but more than that, it’s a beautiful retelling of one of our best legends.

  3. July 18, 2012 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    That was a great Q&A, Camille. I learn so much from you and your writer friends.
    Funny about McCormick’s notebook ritual, I do the same. I keep a journal for everything, then when I feel a story pull me, I have to start a new notebook just for that project. I actually go through my journal for snippets that relate the the project and note the dates and page numbers (yes, I number the pages of my journal) in the new project notebook.
    I’ve had McCormick’s book on my TBR list on Goodreads for a while now. I love boarding school stories.

  4. dee's Gravatar dee
    July 18, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    I just finished How I escaped my certain fate: The life and deaths of a stand-up comedian by Stewart Lee. Loved it, passing it on to himself right away…

  5. Desiree's Gravatar Desiree
    July 18, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I loved One Moment by kristina McBride. It was soooo good! Thanks for the giveaway, I’m crossing my fingers for…me!!

  6. alicia marie's Gravatar alicia marie
    July 18, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the great interview! The last book that I read and really loved was Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. So so good!! Cannot wait to read this book!!

  7. July 18, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    I love the Q&A, but also how you slipped in a link to the post which makes me nastalgic for that trip to Wisconsin. How can I have fond memories of YOUR trip??? LOL
    I’m reading South Beach Shakedown. My favorite is typically whatever I’m in the middle of reading, so I’ll go with that.

  8. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    July 18, 2012 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    I am embarrassed to say that I have not really been reading this summer. That being said, that last book I really enjoyed was Country Driving by Peter Hessler.
    P.S. I was always fascinated by boarding school too!

  9. Ailbhe Slevin's Gravatar Ailbhe Slevin
    July 19, 2012 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    I’ve just finished and loved ‘Cross Stitch’, which was recommended by a good friend!

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.