After living on several continents and teaching high school in Egypt, Dan Gemeinhart found his home in Washington State, working as an elementary school teacher-librarian and immersed in a rich middle-level literature. The journey to publishing her first mid-level novel spanned 10 years, eventually culminating in a full-time career as an author and a body of work that explored themes of community and belonging. In his sixth novel, The Midnight ChildrenFound family hunted from “Ragabond” orphans finds ally in lonely, artistic boy eager to transform his community. TP spoke with Gemeinhart about her unconventional style choices in The Midnight Children and the meaning of house in mid-level fiction.
The Midnight Children continues in the tradition of 21st century children’s books with a narrative style that might have been borrowed a century earlier – books like The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Penderwicks, or a series of unfortunate events. Yet other elements of the story, like the satirical and gory portrayal of the meat industry, come across as decidedly modern. What was the starting point of your story?
The seed of this story came years ago. It started as a bedtime story for my eldest daughter when she was three or four. That opening scene where a boy wakes up in the middle of the night and hears a noise and looks out the window to see a mysterious group of children moving into the house across the street – no furniture, no adults, just the kids – this scene has stayed the same through all the different versions I’ve done. I am so thrilled that this story which started as a special thing for me and my daughter is now available for other people to enjoy.
There are hints of magic throughout the novel, but you never confirm if the magic is real. Why did you choose to leave it ambiguous?
For me, it fit in with a lot of other elements of the story – where it’s a scary story in many ways but not a horror story, and it’s kind of an ancient story but it’s not not an ancient story, and it’s kind of a magical story but it’s not entirely fantasy – and the whole narrative threads that needle. It felt like magic worked better that way because if you go for full magic, then it really leaves this world entirely. With a little magic, kids can still imagine it happening to them, and it added to that slightly otherworldly tone the book already had.
Your imagery in this novel is concrete but requires a conscious stretch of the imagination – as when Virginia’s tone of voice “stood [Ravani] at arm’s length, and maybe even a little frown. How did you come up with this distinct narrative voice?
This voice really came to me through all of the writing and rewriting that I’ve done over the past 10 years, in many versions of the story and in which almost every element has changed. One of the last things to fall into place was that tone and that voice. I tried first person; I tried third person; I tried the past; I tried the present; and all the different tones from very serious to light and pleasant to the one I landed on, which is kind of that old-school voice with some interesting imagery and different kinds of language and words. Since the setting became amorphous – there’s no real named setting, there’s no named date – that’s exactly how the story seemed to want to be told. It’s a storyteller, it’s third person, and they’re right there with the reader. I hope it feels like someone is telling the story.
The imagery that the narrator used came from me to understand how it was the most fun and how it was the most interesting and how the voice could best match the story and the setting. You could say trial and error, but I would say working really hard on how the story should come out, like chipping away at the marble until the statue that was always meant to be could be there.
Your website’s author bio mentions that you moved around a lot in your youth, including to different continents. Did this experience influence your creation of the Ragabond siblings bouncing from town to town?
I think for sure, and listening to all my other stories, every book I’ve written has been a travel story. None of the books I’ve written are about a child or a group of children in the house or the town where they live and that’s the story. This one is the most like it because it’s all set in one town, the town of Slaughterville, but even that story has a lot of movement in the backstory – and even in the story itself, not through our main character, Ravani, but by the Ragabonds. It’s about trying to find where you belong and trying to find where your family belongs, and I really think, subconsciously, that came out of my childhood.
Has living in a variety of countries given you a different perspective on what home means?
Growing up, moving around a lot, home was never a place. Home was where you were next. Home was where you were with your family. This is a theme of many stories, especially for middle school students – finding where you belong. Because that’s the big question you wrestle with as a middle school student, as a 10 to 18 year old. As you leave childhood behind and begin to grow into the kind of person you are going to be, it answers all those questions, “Who am I?” Who do I want to be my friends? What kind of person am I going to be? what kind of person am i not going to be?” I think the beating heart of almost all mid-level literature, regardless of the setting of that particular story, is the protagonist trying to figure out who he is and where he belongs.
Both The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise and The Midnight Children managing community building as well as finding solace and strength through connection. Can you talk about the role that community has played in your life or in your work as an author?
Where we are, who we are with, who we choose to be with, and how we choose to interact with those people is life. This is how we define ourselves as people: the relationships we have and what we give or take from the world around us. And so these are the questions that we, even as adults, wrestle with in our work, in our personal lives, and in our families.
In my first book, The honest truth, one of the main themes is said by one of the supporting characters, “We’re all in this together”, this not only being the situation of the book, but the life. And that’s the definition of the community that I’ve always tried to be a part of as an adult – when I was a teacher and a librarian, trying to serve these kids and their families and the other teachers that I worked with, and now I work from home, but I’m always looking for ways to interact with the world around me and give back to those around me.
At age 12, Ravani and Virginia support and rise up in the face of bullying, and their positive actions reverberate to bring change throughout their town, even shaking up the local economy. What drives you to empower mid-level characters rather than writing for other age groups?
I started writing at the intermediate level thanks to my work as a librarian in elementary school. I had thought ages ago that I wanted to write books for adults, and I tried one that luckily never got published because it was a wreck. But then I got a job as a teacher-librarian in elementary school, so I had to read all these books so I could do my job and sell these books to kids and see what was going on with Kid Lit, which I didn’t really interact. Since I was a child. And I was blown away by how far mid-level literature has come in 25 years, and how many incredible authors were writing such incredible stories of depth, beauty, meaning, and humor.
So that’s what I started writing, and I never looked back. I love this time in our lives that intermediate level readers go through. It’s such an interesting, exciting, sometimes scary, sometimes confusing part of our lives, and that’s why I think mid-level literature is all of that, too. It deals with almost all of the same great stuff as adult literature, but in a way that I think is so much more fun and engaging.
Are there things you wish you had known before embarking on your decade-long publishing journey that could help budding authors?
The short but odd answer is no. I’ve written several books that have never been published – years of my life, a decade of failures and rejections – but that’s kind of the path I had to go through. And each of those setbacks taught me something, and each of those setbacks made me work a little harder or try something different, dig a little deeper. Now I could whisper a few words of encouragement to myself because it could be very demoralizing to fail at something for 10 years when you’re trying so hard and caring so much, but I think the lessons I had need to learn, I don’t think you can learn them just by being told them. I think you have to learn them by failing and doing.
What are you working on now?
I’m in kind of a fun phase where [The Midnight Children] is about to come out, so I’ve been talking and thinking about this a lot, but then you start thinking, “OK, so I’ve had these other ideas in my head and on my computer for the few years that it took me to finish this book. So you rub your hands together and say, “What do I do next?
I’m playing with a few mid-level novels that are in the very early stages, and I’ve also written the draft script for a graphic novel that’s currently with my agent to see if it goes anywhere. It was a really fun learning experience to flex a different type of muscle. And I work on picture books. So right now I have some pots simmering, and I hope some of them turn into something good.
The Midnight Children by Dan Gemeinhart. Holt, $16.99 Aug 30 ISBN 978-1-2501-9672-9