Author Interview: Mara Purnhagen

mara purnhagenI’m so pleased to be able to share with you an interview I’ve recently done with author of the Past Midnight series of books, Mara Purnhagen. Aside from being a terrific author of paranormal ghost stories for young folks, Mara is one of the kindest writers I’ve ever met. I first met her at an SCBWI conference where she gave so generously of her time to help newbie writers find their feet by tirelessly critiquing our pages, and teaching us all how to write query letters. I’ve kept my notes from her sessions to this day. Mara is currently working on her fifth book, a contemporary middle grade story, set in Kentucky.

When I asked Mara some searching questions about the Past Midnight, series, here’s what she had to say …

KC: The Past Midnight trilogy is a paranormal mystery series for younger readers. What drew you to the genre, particularly for that reader level?

MP: I taught high school English for seven years and loved it. And the aspect I loved most was when we read a story that resonated with my students. So when I decided to commit to writing novels, I thought about the audience I most wanted to speak to, and that was younger readers.

KC: Some of the themes explored in the trilogy (loss, trust etc) are pretty heavy for young readers. What were some of the challenges of writing those aspects of the books?

MP: The only real challenge when writing for younger readers is to not to talk down to them. Seriously— respect your audience. If you don’t, they’ll know. When you’re writing, you are speaking to the reader, and the reader is listening. Speak to them in a condescending way, and you’re done. It’s about respect for the kid who picks up a book and chooses to spend their time with you. Don’t waste their time preaching to them or offering stereotypes. Readers are smart. They deserve your respect.

KC: One thing I love about these books – in fact any books where young folks discover romantic relationships for the first time – is the thrill of meeting another person who you really want to trust and share your life with. What are the challenges in writing romantic relationships for younger readers?

MP: Is there anything better than a first kiss? If so, I don’t want to know. I like what you said: “…the thrill of meeting another person you really want to trust.” A kiss says, “I trust you.” Sometimes, that trust is broken. But it doesn’t stop us from trusting again, from searching for that first, perfect kiss.

The challenge is in knowing that a first kiss does not always lead to a relationship that will last forever. The challenge is in recognizing that it feels that way and those feelings have worth, they are valid. An adult knows that after the first kiss comes a lot more—some of it wonderful, some of it awful or tedious or downright mundane. The challenge is in putting that all to the side and focusing on the very real thrill of the beginning of something meaningful.

KC: Did you have to do a lot of research on the paranormal aspects of these books? How did you go about it?

MP: Yes, and the internet played a valuable role. There are so many sites with forums discussing investigations and online stores that explain and sell the different paranormal gear. But for one of my novellas, I asked questions of my uncle, who works as a funeral director. And for Beyond the Grave, I relied on my brother (a news anchor) to walk me through the process of editing a show. Whatever you’re writing about, there is someone with knowledge and expertise. Ask them—then be sure to include their name in the acknowledgements!

KC: As a mother of four, you really have your hands full at home. How do you balance writing with family?

MP: Yep—I have four boys (one of whom is still in diapers) and one very needy cat (who is also male, so basically I live in a sea of testosterone and Lego pieces). So there are demands on my time and energy. But everyone has those demands, in whatever form they may take, and I am incredibly fortunate that I can stay home with my children and work on my writing.

Here’s the thing about writing: half the time, it doesn’t include any actual writing! Before I sit down at my computer, I have already spent hours thinking about what needs to get onto paper. I develop setting in my head as I do laundry. I create dialogue while loading the dishwasher. I picture my characters as I get the kids ready for the day. Then, when I finally sit down to write, I am brimming with ideas.

Before I had kids, I wrote short stories. I had my own office and required absolute peace and quiet in order to focus. I told myself it couldn’t work any other way.

Now, my desk sits in my bedroom (with lots of toys scattered beneath and around it) and I am surrounded by noise and motion. But when I write? There’s a sliver of peace. There is always calm within the chaos if you look for it. I have learned to embrace the chaos. I have learned that if you truly want to write, you can make it work, no matter what obstacles your surroundings present.

KC: Have your views on writing changed as your children have grown older in terms of what you want your own kids to be reading?

MP: I take my kids to the library and let them pick out whatever appeals to them. We read together every night—no exceptions. Sometimes I choose the book, sometimes they do. And I’ve learned what they like. I’ve learned that they get bored with too much dialogue. I have learned that they really care about what happens to a pig named Charlotte or a boy named Alonzo.

But I’ve also learned that they are not ready for “scary” stories. My two older boys picked out a Goosebumps book at the library. After two night of reading it aloud to them, I found both boys curled on their bedroom floor. They were scared. They weren’t ready. And that’s fine. Figuring out what speaks to them is a process of trial and error. It is also the best bonding experience I have had with them.

KC: As a reader, what are some of your favorite middle grade or young adult books?

MP: I could give you a Top Ten list of books I love. I could give you a Top 100 list. Instead, I hope it’s okay to give you the names of five titles I have read in 2014 that I loved and highly recommend:

Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

Copper Magic by Julia Mary Gibson

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

KC: What authors give you the most inspiration for your own writing?

MP: The list of authors I admire expands every week. So many times I have finished a book and thought, “Wow. I wished I had written that.”

If you want to know more about Mara or her work, check out her website here.