NPM 2017: 5 Questions for the Verse Novelist, Featuring Ellie Terry

Happy Poetry Friday! I’m excited about today’s interview.

A few years ago, my PitchWars mentor, Joy McCullough-Carranza, was working with a new mentee on another middle grade novel-in-verse. Joy asked me to read the manuscript and share some feedback.

This story has two happy endings! The manuscript Joy sent me became Ellie Terry’s debut novel, FORGET ME NOT. And then Joy sold her own young adult verse-novel, BLOOD/WATER/PAINT which will be out in 2018.

Congratulations on your debut, Ellie! Tell us about FORGET ME NOT. What is it about the story and characters that led you to write the book as poetry?

FORGET ME NOT was released last month from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan. It is the story of a girl named Calliope June who is desperate to hide her Tourette syndrome from her new school, while trying to convince her mother not to move them yet again, especially after she makes friends with Jinsong, the boy next door, who also happens to be the school’s popular student body president. It is told in two points of view. The MC, Calli’s, POV is in free verse and her neighbor Jinsong’s POV is in regular prose.

I did not set out to write the novel in (mostly) poetry. When I first began drafting Calli’s story, I heard her voice a certain way and I typed it into the computer that same way. When I looked it over, I realized I was writing a verse novel. Although I’d had plenty of experience writing free verse poetry, the thought of combining poetry with an actual PLOT really scared me. I’d never done it before. But I knew it was the way the story needed to be written.

Have you ever written a full or partial draft of one of your verse novels in prose (or vice versa), only to decide to switch? How did you go about making that change? What were some of your clues that you needed to rethink the form?

Yes! Both with my debut novel and a manuscript I am currently working on. With FORGET ME NOT, both Calli and Jinsong’s POV were originally in verse. But in order to differentiate between the two voices, I switched Jinsong’s to regular prose. (And I’m REALLY glad I did. His voice really came alive after that switch!) Besides wanting to differentiate between the two voices, Jinsong’s voice in verse felt . . . forced somehow. Stilted, perhaps? Whereas if felt completely natural for Calli.

The all-verse draft was the version I read. I’m excited to see what you did with Jinsong’s voice.

As a first time verse novelist, how was the experience different from writing prose fiction? What draws you to poetry as the backbone of how you tell a story?

My experience writing the verse for FORGET ME NOT felt like a very natural extension of how I feel and think inside my own heart and head. And having been writing poetry nearly all my life, it felt very natural for me and therefor seemed to flow from my fingers a bit easier than writing in prose. In fact, sometimes when I’m having trouble getting feelings out with my prose, I write it in verse first, then switch it over.

I see a similarity between the poems in novels-in-verse and dramatic monologues. Each poem in a verse novel has a character communicating his or her emotions and observations. There is often a realization or shift in thinking that happens in both monologues and in a verse novel’s poems. What do you think about the overlap between a speech for the stage and a poem in a verse novel?

I think the purpose of poetry is twofold:

  1. To be seen on the page
  2. To be spoken out loud

Really, you need to do both to get the full experience of a poem. If I may quote the first two lines of a poem I wrote when I was twelve . . . It’s titled, POEMS (really original, huh?) “Poems are meant to be read aloud / over and over again to a crowd.”

Also, as my children and husband will attest, I regularly read my verse out loud over and over again, to test the flow of words and catch bumpy syntax, to make sure the lines are conveying the emotions correctly, and to just enjoy hearing the words spoken aloud. So, I definitely see dramatic monologues and free verse poems as being related. Something like cousins, I imagine.

Most of the middle grade and YA verse novels I have read are contemporary or historical. I’d love to see a fantasy or science fiction novel-in-verse for kids. Do you think the form is flexible enough to stretch into other genres of fiction? Why or why not?

I think verse novels in general seem to be more character driven, rather than plot driven, so that may be one reason why verse lends itself more easily to contemporary and historical fiction. Lots of exploring of character feelings and such and less explosions and intricate conversations. However, I think it can work with fantasy and sci-fi, as long as the writing is good, it just may be slightly trickier to accomplish. I critiqued a friend’s fantasy verse novel a few years ago, and thought it worked very well. I personally would love to see a good fantasy or sci-fi verse novel published! (You hear that readers? Get your pens out and start writing!)

Thanks for being part of my National Poetry Month project, Ellie! 

Ellie Terry writes heartfelt contemporary fiction for middle-grade readers. Her middle-grade debut, FORGET ME NOT, was published March 14, 2017 by Feiwel & Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. She lives in southern Utah with her husband, three kids, two zebra finches, and a Russian desert tortoise.

My series of National Poetry Month interviews with verse novelists continues next week with Margarita Engle.  

And we’ve added a bonus interview! Holly Thompson will be here on April 30 to wrap up the series.

Here is the full list of posts:

4/3 Jeannine Atkins, STONE MIRRORS: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis (Find the post here.)

4/6 Caroline Starr Rose, BLUE BIRDS (Find the post here.)

4/10 Leza Lowitz, UP FROM THE SEA (Find the post here.)

4/13 Shari Green, MACY McMILLAN AND THE RAINBOW GODDESS (Find the post here.)

4/17 Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu, SOMEWHERE AMONG (Find the post here.)

4/20 Ellie Terry, FORGET ME NOT (Find the post here.)

4/24 Margarita Engle, MORNING STAR HORSE and FOREST WORLD (Find the post here.)

4/25 Tamera Will Wissinger, GONE CAMPING (Find the post here.)

4/27 Debut novelist Amanda Rawson-Hill (Find the post here.)

4/30 Holly Thompson, FALLING INTO THE DRAGON’S MOUTH (Find the post here.)

You can find a list of National Poetry Month blog projects at Jama’s Alphabet Soup. And check out this great list of recommended MG verse novels from educator Cassie Thomas at the blog Teachers Who Read.

My dear friend Tabatha Yeatts-Lonske is hosting Poetry Friday this week. To find poetry posts from around the blogosphere, visit The Opposite of Indifference.