Author Spotlight: Nora Shalaway Carpenter
April 17, 2020
We are excited to feature author Nora Shalaway Carpenter and her debut YA novel, THE EDGE OF ANYTHING (Running Press Teen, March 2020). Enter to win a copy!
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Tell us about your background and how you came to write for teens.
Well this is a circuitous path. I’m from a super tiny town (less than 1000 people) in rural, West Virginia. I wrote a lot as a kid and teen, but in college I majored in English literature and Humanities (Classics) instead of creative writing because I thought I’d go the professor route. However, once I started grad school (in Washington, DC) I found myself envious of my creative writing MFA friends and realized that the academic path wasn’t fulfilling me.
After an internship with the National Education Association during which I was assigned to cover a conference on the importance of pre-K education, I decided I wanted to work in that field for a bit. So I completely changed gears and taught pre-K for several years, which ended up being one of the best (and most exhausting) experiences. The creativity of the kids—the way every little thing was new and exciting for them—I don’t know, it just reignited my own creativity, which had been squelched by years of academia. I found myself wanting to write again. Since I was really into Harry Potter at the time, I figured why not write in the genre of something I loved so much.
Over the next year I crafted a middle grade adventure novel, proving to myself that I could, in fact, finish a draft. But I needed guidance on what to do next and how to get better. A mom of one of my students was a picture book author and recommended that I join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), which I did.
At a local conference, I met some people enrolled in the Masters of Fine Arts program of Vermont College of Fine Arts. I’d heard about the strength of the program before, and the more I learned about it, the more I wanted to do it. I took a big leap of faith and applied, got accepted, and began an amazing two-year journey that changed my life. I studied myriad genres and wrote everything from picture books to YA, but I really fell in love with YA fiction. The VCFA program gave me the tools and confidence I needed to eventually land an agent and book deals.
Congrats on your debut YA, THE EDGE OF ANYTHING. Tell us about the story and what inspired you.
Thank you so much! THE EDGE OF ANYTHING tells the dual narrative of Len, an outcast teen photographer who believes she's slowly losing her mind, and Sage, a popular volleyball star with a devastating secret, and the unexpected friendship that saves them both.
Volleyball was a big part of my identity as a teen, but growing up I couldn’t find a book with a volleyball main character, so I’d always wanted to write one. Len’s story was, unfortunately, inspired by my own struggle with severe, trauma-induced OCD in early adulthood. That horrific time in my life taught me many things. Some of them were terrible, like how prevalent the stigma surrounding mental health is in our society and how thoughtless people can be to each other. But other lessons were wonderful, such as the life-saving power of friendship. I knew I had to write a book that examined both of these things while also offering hope. THE EDGE OF ANYTHING is that book, the one I wish I’d had to comfort me during those dark days.
Was your road to publication long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?
It’s been pretty winding. Earning an MFA great improved my craft, but it still took a long time after that to finish projects, find an agent and then land book deals. I had three kids between my MFA and the publication of my debut YA, if that gives you some indication. But I’ll tell this story, because it shows how twisty the publication path can be and why you should always keep going. The first book my agent queried (one I rewrote about four times over five years) didn’t sell, but it DID teach me how to write and how to be a writer, ie what kind of effort and study was involved in the writing life. It also opened the door to my first book deal.
The editor who bought THE EDGE OF ANYTHING loved my first novel too, but that book didn’t get through acquisitions at the publishing house (which I learned happens to so many books.) The editor asked if I had another book, and that is what prompted me to write THE EDGE OF ANYTHING, which is honestly a much stronger book. Nothing is ever wasted when it comes to writing, even the projects that don’t sell or see the light of day.
What are some of your favorite recent YA reads?
YOU SHOULD SEE ME IN A CROWN by fellow debut Leah Johnson and RED HOOD by Elana K Arnold.
What projects are you working on?
I’m currently writing another contemporary YA. It’s set in rural West Virginia, where I grew up, and has strong socio-economic and environmental themes. But my next book coming out is a mixed genre anthology called RURAL VOICES: 15 AUTHORS CHALENGE STEREOTYPES OF SMALL-TOWN AMERICA, forthcoming October 13, 2020 from Candlewick Press. I’m the editor of the collection, but I also have a short story in it, “Close Enough.” You can preorder the book here!
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Keep going! Know that this is a long game and those who make it are those who have not only persisted, but have actively worked to improve their craft. Read as much as you possibly can and read all genres. Nothing makes you a better writer than reading. Try to attend workshops, conferences, and author events whenever possible and listen to writing podcasts so you can learn more about the writing life and all it entails. Connect with other writers in your community or online so that you can critique each other’s work.
There are lots of free resources online, too. Many authors, including me, post writing craft resources on their websites. And remember, even the most successful writers were at one time unknown and unpublished. I love Leigh Bardugo’s quote: “I think the hard part of writing is just how long a book is terrible before it’s good.” Bardugo is an incredible storyteller, and even her books begin as terrible first drafts. Your first drafts will leave much to be desired, too, and that’s just part of the process. Writing is a discipline as much as an art. You have to be willing to put in the time, effort, and study to improve your craft. If you do this and you keep going, you can make it!
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
My college roommate and I once got escorted off a Prague-bound train by armed guards. My roommate had a Canadian passport and we didn’t know those weren’t accepted by the Czech Republic at that time. We were forced off at a tiny station in the middle of nowhere and had to wait hours for another train. It was…memorable.
Where can people find you online?
I’m on Instagram @noracarpenterwrites and Twitter @norawritesbooks. My website is noracarpenterwrites.com. I love connecting with readers!
A graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts' MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program, Nora Shalaway Carpenter is the author of THE EDGE OF ANYTHING, contributing editor of RURAL VOICES: 15 AUTHORS CHALLENGE ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT SMALL-TOWN AMERICA (Candlewick, Oct 13, 2020), and author of the picture book YOGA FROG (Running Press). Originally from rural West Virginia, she currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina with her husband, three young children, and the world's most patient dog and cat. Follow her on Instagram @noracarpenterwrites and Twitter @norawritesbooks. Learn more at noracarpenterwrites.com.