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Interview with book creator couple Sarah McGuire (THE FLIGHT OF SWANS, Oct.1st) and Fred Koehler (GARBAGE ISLAND, Oct.9th)

Sarah McGuire and Fred Koehler were once both awkward teenagers who mostly grew out of it. Each draws on their unfortunate adolescence to write stories for young readers. They met at a writers conference and decided to get married. In common they share: love of travel and adventure, dogs over cats, and sci-fi movies. They most often disagree about Oxford commas, whether or not Florida has hills, and who gets the fuzzy blanket. You can find out more about Sarah at her website and Twitter, and more about Fred at his website and Twitter.

Sarah and Fred are not only both children’s book creators with middle grade books coming out this month, but they’re a married couple (they got married last year on St. Patrick’s Day)! Here’s some info about Sarah’s THE FLIGHT OF SWANS and Fred’s GARBAGE ISLAND:

Synopsis of FLIGHT OF THE SWANS (Carolrhoda Books, Oct.1, 2018) – Read the starred Kirkus review!

Princess Andaryn’s six older brothers have always been her protectors–until her father takes a new Queen who quickly enchants the men in the royal family. When Ryn’s attempt to break the enchantment fails, she makes a bitter bargain: she’ll remain silent for six years in exchange for her brothers’ lives. She never thought the Queen would turn her brothers into six black swans. She never thought she’d have to discover the secret to undoing the queen’s spell while avoiding the Otherworldly forces that hunt her. And she never thought she’d have to do it alone. Based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, “Six Swans,” The Flight of Swans follows Ryn’s journey to save her family and reclaim their kingdom.

Synopsis of GARBAGE ISLAND (Boyds Mill Press, Oct.9, 2018)

For fans of Stuart Little and Poppy, here is a middle-grade adventure in which a mouse and a shrew, lost at sea, try to navigate to their home in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Braving multiple dangers, they discover they have more in common than they could ever have imagined.


Thanks to Sarah and Fred for answering a few questions for me…

Q. What’s something unexpected or unusual about living with another children’s book creator?

From Fred: It was funny when we first started talking to realize how much we had in common. Favorite book & movie genres, a general sense of adventure, overactive imaginations–to name a few things. By the time we started dating, we decided we needed to invent something to fight about. (Just to be fair to everyone else.) We chose the Oxford comma, each coming up with ridiculous assertions for and against. Then we would send each other every article and argument we could come up with. Unfortunately, these exercises in creating conflict kind of backfired and we ended up getting married.

BONUS UNUSUAL THING: When you live with another book creator, you find out they don’t always look like they do in the author photo. 😉

Q. What are the pros and cons of living with another children’s book creator?

From Sarah: Pros? Having someone who understands the not-so-glamorous side of writing: deadlines and all the stuff that doesn’t happen when you’re trying to meet one. I also like that Fred’s writing strengths are different from mine. He has an amazing grasp of storytelling and pacing, and being with him has enriched my own writing. (Though my stories will never have as many explosions as he would put in his own.)

From Fred: The biggest pro, for me, is that I get to do life with somebody who understands what it is to be a working creative. The deadlines, the writer’s block, the bad reviews, the great reviews–working in publishing can send you down some weird emotional rabbit holes. It takes a very supportive person to be a friend to a writer. Sometimes you feel like another writer is the only person who can understand what you’re going through. As for cons… hmmm… they don’t always look as good as they do in the author photo.

Q. How do your typical work hours/routines compare?

From Fred: Hahaha! This should be rich. When I’m on deadline, I get up at four or five in the morning to work on books. Sometimes Sarah rolls over and mumbles “happy writing” as I roll out of bed. (At least I think that’s what she’s saying, but in all honesty it could just as easily be “get me some cheetos.”)

Sarah: I don’t function well in the morning. At all. I work part-time as a high school teacher, and my first period class knows I need my coffee if I’m going to make any sense. I get my most of my writing done in the mid- to late-afternoon. If I’m on deadline, I’ll stay up late and crawl into bed long after Fred has fallen asleep. (Sometimes he rolls over and mumbles something about Cheetos…)

Since I teach, I try to complete first drafts in the summer. I like revising so much more than writing a first draft. So I try to draft when I have more free time and revise when I can take a few hours in the afternoon to settle into it.

Fred: I’ve discovered that I like to draft using speech to text while I’m driving and if I need to get a lot written, I’ll purposefully drive an hour to the coast to go fishing. By the time I get home, I’ll have solid chapter written and either some fresh fish for dinner or a good story about the one that got away.

Fred: There’s also a HUGE difference between writing and illustrating. When I’m writing, I have to be alone or at least wearing my “do not disturb” face–ball cap pulled low over my face, headphones in. When I’m illustrating, I don’t mind being around people. I feel like I suck in the chaotic energy from a crowd and channel it into the artwork.

Fred: On weekends, we work next to each other, usually at a coffee shop. Back when we had first started dating, I remember one time she asked if it was okay if she sat next to me while I was working on these huge pencil drawings for FLASHLIGHT NIGHT that took up most of a coffee shop table. To which I responded “As long as you don’t touch me.” And so now she asks if she’s allowed to sit next to me AND touch me. Every. Single. Time.

Q. Have you ever considered collaborating on a book project together?

Sarah: Would I be able to work with him and touch him?

Fred: So… once upon a time when we were dating long distance I was illustrating a picture book about dragons. She texted to ask how the dragons were behaving. I responded that I would send one to pick her up in Virgina and fly her to Florida for the evening. That was the point we decided that the world needed dragon taxis and even if it wasn’t a real thing, it might make a good book.

Sarah: I was out of the country at that point, and so it was fun to have this project to play with while we were apart.

Fred: We had lots of fun building a world, coming up with the backstory, and writing the rules for a community in which a secret dragon taxi service could exist. Then we started trading chapters. It was interesting because our narrative voices are VERY different. Her prose are gorgeous and lyrical. I like explosions.

Sarah: THAT was the interesting part, because we draft differently or would want to do different things– even with a scene that we’d already plotted out. We also had to figure out how to critique each other.

Fred: The idea never took off, and we both got caught up in projects that did find publishing homes. But for me, the takeaway was that YES! We could totally work together on something someday.

Sarah: Absolutely!

Q. What advice do you have for young writers and illustrators?

Sarah: Work at it. Just write or draw or both! And don’t be afraid of being awful. There’s nothing worse than having an amazing, glorious idea that keeps you up at night … and then having it be a scrawny, misshapen story when you actually start to write it.

But that’s normal. Absolutely normal, and it will happen almost every single time you write. It doesn’t mean you aren’t a good writer.. It just means that it takes a while for your execution to match your imagination. Sometimes it takes years to figure out how to do your story justice. Sometimes it takes days. But that fact that you can tell there’s a difference between the story in your head and the story you put down on paper is actually a good thing. It just takes a while to make the two match. (Ira Glass said all that much better than I just did, by the way. See this post.)  Also, be curious! Ask questions about the world, about people. You know how little kids and puppies get into everything? Be like that–and let yourself be excited by what you discover.

Fred: The most successful people I know in the biz (is it cool to call it ‘the biz’? It totally feels cool.) have an abundance of two things: discipline and imagination. If you work hard and study anything for long enough, you develop competency and craftsmanship. The same discipline helps a person become a good woodworker, dishwasher, or water skier. With enough lessons and practice, anyone can become a competent writer or illustrator. But the difference between competent and brilliant, in my opinion, is imagination. Once you’ve learned the tried and true way of doing things, you start to see these little crinkles of opportunity along the straight and narrow. You color outside the lines. You twist the plot in unexpected ways. You find ways to flip the story and deliver fresh, never-before-seen narratives that readers will gobble up.

Q. What are each of you most excited about right now?

Fred: Sarah has a new book coming out and it’s AMAZING. It’s called THE FLIGHT OF SWANS and it’s based on a Grimm Brothers tale. In her (ahem) starred review (ahem) from Kirkus, the reviewer calls it an imaginative retelling filled with magic, romance, and peril that shines in the quiet moments. I can’t agree more. Fingers crossed that this book finds a place in the hearts of many fantasy lovers.

(In other news, I’m also excited about the potential canoodling that could be in my future since I mentioned her project instead of mine.)

Sarah: Can we add that to the pros? Having someone champion your work even when you’re not that good at talking about it??

In hopes of further canoodling, let me tell you about Fred’s MG novel, which he wrote and illustrated. (Did I mention that we were both working on these two novels when we met? And now they’re releasing within nine days of each other?)

Fred’s novel is GARBAGE ISLAND and it is the book I would have loved to read as a kid. It’s got adventure and inventions and an unlikely friendship between a mouse and a shrew and all the other animals trying to survive on an pile of trash that’s swirling in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. And it is awesome. Bruce Coville, Sara Pennypacker, AND Chris Grabbenstein also happen to agree with me.

For more insights from book creators, see my Inkygirl Interview Archives and Advice For Young Writers And Illustrators From Book Creators.