2009 Debutante Author Interview Series: C. Lee McKenzie

It’s not a heart-grabbing noise like when somebody jiggles the doorknob to see if it’s locked. It’s not a bitter smell like the electrical short we had last month, when all the breakers popped. No. It’s something in the air, something like a ghost making its way through the room. And it can’t be Monster, not after last night.

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C. Lee McKenzie’s here! She has her debut novel, Sliding on the Edge, coming out from WestSide Books in April and she was kind enough to answer all the questions I had about her road to publication. Thanks, C. Lee!

Sliding on the Edge is your debut novel, so a big congrats on that. But can you give us a little statistical rundown on how long it took you to get to this point? How many books? How many rejections? How many days, months, years?
I had to dig into my archives to answer this one. I’ve written two Middle Grade stories that are gathering moss on my C drive. Sliding is my first YA and I think I sent queries and sample chapters to about six publishers who either didn’t think it suited their mix or didn’t respond. As to how long this book has been in the pre-birthing phase: I started thinking about it in 2006. I wrote some of the ideas down in my notebook (something I consider an additional appendage) through the first part of 2007; then I started actually putting those ideas into scenes and chapters. I hauled what I now refer to as the first draft to a conference and was asked, “What made you write about something like this?” It wasn’t a nice question, BTW, and I was thoroughly discouraged for about half an hour. I finally sold the book in January of 2008. So . . . three books, seven rejections, two years to sale, three years and three months to publication.
Seven rejections! That’s it? Pretty amazing! Which “Call” thrilled you more? The call in which you landed an agent or the call in which you landed your book deal?
Wish I had a comparison to offer, but I don’t have an agent. I’m flying solo without any pre-flight instruction. But talking to my editor is an all-time high, so as life moments go, I’d rank our discussions right up there at the top. The first time we spoke the conversation was pretty one-sided with her doing most of the talking. I was working on breathing while I searched for the part of my brain that knew words. I guess you’d describe the moment as “exciting,” but that’s such an inadequate word.

I’m so impressed by authors who can go it alone. Congrats on making that sale. I know you also write Middle Grade fiction. How do you switch gears when writing between two different age groups? Are there certain things you need to keep in mind for each?
I guess my head just goes into another place when I’m writing and if I’m into MG, I sort of nestle into my pre-teen self. It’s still in there, waiting to be noticed and enjoyed again. My angsty YA is pretty demanding. It has a lot to say, so when I’m there things kind of pour out, like sweat after a run. I’m not really “in” my usual mind when I write. I can’t explain it very well, except to say that I kind of slip into my character(s) and they tell me stuff. So I guess my answer is I don’t have any problems about keeping the two genres separate.

This is Fumbling with Fiction, so I have to ask, in your writing career have you ever had a big “Oops!” moment?
Only one? I hope I’m allowed more than that because I’m way over my quota if I’m not. My biggest oops is probably sending a query addressed to one publisher to another. That was super embarrassing, but the publisher was kind and returned the letter to me with something like “oops!” (and not dodo bird) written across the top. She also included a short note saying she liked my idea, but it wouldn’t work for her house. Sigh.
Hey, we’ve all been there. Or at least I have! You’re now at the beginning of your writing career. Can you believe it? Where would you like that sure-to-be illustrious career to take you?
I’d be very happy to see another book of mine on the shelves and in the hands of readers. I’ve completed (loosely speaking) another YA novel and am working on a third, so I guess I’m thinking continued publication would please me greatly.

Tell us a little about receiving your first rejection. What was yours like? How did you feel when you received it?

My first one? Oh not that! It was horrible. They actually rejected my book (one of my Middle Grades). How could they? That book was positively brilliant. It was the next Harry Potter of the publishing world. Of course, after a few years I came to recognize that the brilliance was more in my head than on the page.

Well, hopefully your upcoming book will be the next Harry Potter, right? Finally, if you could have written one book previously published by another author, which book would it be?
This is not only the last, but also the most difficult question, Chandler. Thinking. Thinking. Thinking. Only one? I seem to be asking that question a lot in this interview. Well, I’ve been re-reading S.E. Hinton lately, and I really love the way she captures the young male adults in her books. So I guess I’d choose my favorite among her publications and say I wish I could have written Rumble Fish.

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