By ZAK GRIMM
“When I visit places like schools, one of the most common questions I get is: ‘How do you come up with the ideas for your books?’” said New York Best-Selling author, Margaret Peterson Haddix. “I know that when someone asks me that, they might actually be thinking, ‘What kind of wacko are you?’”
Haddix visited the students at Fredericktown Middle School to give multiple presentations throughout the day, on Thursday, January 26,2017. What’s more, many students had requested copies of Haddix’s popular series, and she took the time during the day to personally sign each.
To answer that particular, frequent question, Haddix said that she tries to think of the most out-of-the-box idea, “and then tap dance all around it to try and make it real.”
After graduating from Miami University in Ohio having studied Creative Writing, History and Journalism, Haddix spent time in both Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, Indiana as a copyeditor and reporter, respectively.
“I got to interview multi-millionaires, celebrities, homeless people, ride in a hot-air balloon, cover the inauguration of President George H.W Bush, and had lots of experiences I wouldn’t have otherwise had.”
However, Haddix was fairly certain she didn’t want to be a reporter for the rest of her life. Fortunately, a happy coincidence of her years as a reporter in Indianapolis provided her with a plethora of inspiration for her eventual life as an author.
One such experience came from a story she had talked her Indianapolis editor into letting her do. Haddix discovered, just north of Indianapolis, the Conner Prairie Living History Museum. The workers there, Haddix explained, had to be very good at knowing their history, but also exceptional at staying in character.
“If you asked them why they didn’t just use a computer to learn what they had to to survive, they would get this convincing, confused look on their face, like, ‘Computer? What’s a computer?’” said Haddix.
From this kind of moment, Haddix wondered, what would it be like to live in one century, and work in another? When visitors were gone for a few moments, she asked that very thing to one of the workers.
Much to her surprise, the worker said, “Sometimes, I almost forget that it isn’t the past!”
In a flash, Haddix thought, “Wait, what year is it, right now?” Then, she had an idea: What if there really were a place like Conner Prairie, where the past wasn’t really the past, and you could go there? What if you were a kid, and came across a place like Conner Prairie? What would you make of it? What if your parents never told you what’s really going on?
Just as quickly as that thought came, Haddix’s first book, Running Out of Time, was born.
As her career as an author began to take flight, Haddix’s life changed as well. She moved from Indiana to Illinois to Pennsylvania with her husband, Doug, and along the way had two children, Meredith and Connor, now 22 and 24.
As Meredith and Connor grew older, Haddix and her husband began to consider having a third child. At that time, Haddix had begun to think about the implications of overpopulation.
“This idea was really frustrating to me,” said Haddix. “I thought, ‘surely there would be a law against overpopulation if it were a real problem, right?’ But, what if there really was a law against having more than two children?” At that time, it was considered a very serious issue in China if a family had more than one, so Haddix knew there could be some vein of truth in the idea. Thus began her journey with a storyline that would eventually become the backbone of her wildly popular middle-grade series, The Shadow Children, the first of which is Among The Hidden.
As she began to dive into the idea for Among The Hidden, Haddix said she could almost immediately see everything she needed to know about her main character, 12-year-old Luke Garner. “It was like he was standing right in front of me one night,” she said. Garner, explained Haddix, was to be the third, secret child in a family of two. When Haddix finished Among The Hidden and it was given a chance to become popular, she hadn’t intended for it to become a series. But, as more and more readers insisted she write a sequel, she knew she couldn’t ignore the itch.
“I’m really a nice person,” she said to the FHS students, “so I wrote six more!”
Haddix acknowledged that writing a series was a lot of fun, and began to consider working on another. But, as with all the best ideas, it took some time. One evening in 2006, Haddix was enjoying time with her family, and they began to discuss the recent, not-so-blockbuster, Snakes on a Plane.
“Writing a sequel to it would be so easy!” said her family, as they began to imagine different animals and creatures that might be scarier than snakes. Spiders? Vampires? Zombies? No. It was Haddix’s husband, Doug, who said he knew of the scariest thing that could ever fill a plane.
“What is it?” said Haddix’s children. “Tell us!”
“Crying babies,” her husband said. From that moment came Haddix’s next book: Found, within The Missing series. In Found, a plane lands in an airport unannounced, and soon it’s discovered that the plane has no pilot, and no crew–just seats full of babies.
“Where did they come from? Where are they going? What would people do if they found them?” asked Haddix. Fast-forward 13 years in the book, and the main characters, Jonah and Chip, discover each other, and find out they’re both adopted. Not long after, they each receive letters in the mail, with a single, mysterious message: You are one of The Missing. In a second letter, the mystery deepens with a cryptic: Beware, they are coming back to get you.
As The Missing series developed, it became a time-travel adventure, sending the main characters and their friends to the Tower of London, the age of the Romanov dynasty in Russia, on an adventure to discover the truth behind why Albert Einstein hid his daughter from society for 80 years, through the story of Henry Hudson, a discovery of what really happened to the Roanoke Colony, through the mysterious circumstances of Charles Lindbergh’s journey, and into the future.
“It was really interesting to play with the idea of what might be happening in their future,” said Haddix, of the final book in The Missing series.
Within The Missing series, as has become more common through other authors, are two short stories, Sought and Rescued. These stories, said Haddix, were made at the suggestion of her publisher, and would hopefully help build interest in the stories past and those to come.
“They didn’t, really,” said Haddix. “But it was fun to fill in the experiences of characters who weren’t the main focus of the series.”
In the Palace Chronicles series, Haddix wanted to build on her thoughts of typical fairy tale stories that always bothered her: the famed, perfect prince comes across a princess, and the two instantly fall in love.
“Girls, if you meet a guy, and he immediately asks you to marry him? Don’t just say yes!” she exclaimed to the enthralled students at Fredericktown. In the first Palace story, Just Ella, it was Haddix’s goal to present a different take on the Cinderella story, with a young female protagonist who is really able to determine her own destiny.
In Under Their Skin, Haddix returned to the strange and mysterious, imagining what it would be like for a brother and sister to unwillingly be thrust into a blended family after a second marriage. But, in true Haddix fashion, there’s much more going on. Drawing upon her experiences while watching her daughter play soccer and listening to the triumphs and struggles of a fellow parent whom had recently gotten remarried himself, Haddix began to wonder, what if the kids in the blended family were just too different to get along? What if what sets them apart affects the fate of the whole planet?
Under Their Skin sees main characters Nick and Erin trying to come to grips with having a new stepbrother and stepsister. But, as their mother said, they’re never going to meet their new family members, and she won’t answer questions. It’s up to Nick and Erin to discover the truth, and they begin to do so, throughout the developing series.
As art imitates life, Haddix most recently explored a strange time in her life while on a business conference held at Disney World–usually the perfect place to be a kid. While most people experience Disney World as a family on vacation, this was not the case for Haddix, and the atmosphere felt significantly weirder.
People in the hotel where she was staying would often approach the front desk, asking for things like towels.
“They’d get their towels or whatever they needed,” she said, “and the staff would have to reply with “Have a magical day!” But, what if they didn’t want to have a magical day? What if they just wanted their towels?
“It was like they were living in two different worlds,” said Haddix. Granted, she said she was in the middle of reading a very sad book, and perhaps wasn’t in the best frame of mind, but that didn’t stop her mind from beginning to create the framework of her newest series, Children of Exile.
In this series, the children of Fredtown, raised by adults known as Freds–a particularly amazing coincidence for Haddix to talk about while surrounded by real-life Freddies–find themselves together without their original parents, with whom they are told it is not safe to be. But then, suddenly, when one of the two main characters, Rosi, turns 12, all of the kids are sent home to their original parents–but have no idea why, or how–and no one will tell them.
As the Fredericktown students came to listen to Haddix’s journey with her novels, a multitude of questions came up.
How are her book covers designed? “They’re not my idea, most of the time,” said Haddix. “They usually reflect the tone or the mood of the book, and usually create some mystery, which makes readers want to find out why something is on the cover.”
Has being famous affected her life? How so? “My two kids got annoyed by it, at some point–probably when they were your age,” said Haddix. “Kids would come up to me and be excited by who I was, and my kids usually just turned away and pretended they didn’t know me.”
“But, I’ve also enjoyed getting to travel around, and meet interesting people with interesting lives.”
Many authors don’t come into their lives as such by accident. Often, they are readers themselves, and the same is true for Haddix. The first books Haddix remembers reading are the Dick, Jane, Spot and Puff stories to introduce reading. As for her own novels, Haddix reluctantly chose The Missing as her favorite. “Really, if I chose one series or one book over another, I feel like I’m choosing one child over another, and I only have two,” she laughed.
Like many kids in the small town of Fredericktown, Haddix grew up in a similar way. On her family’s hog farm near Washington Court House, she gained an appreciation for 4-H, in which she spent 10 years showing animals and doing other projects like creative writing and cooking.
“Growing up in a small town gave me the chance to do a lot of things, like track, choir, and marching and pep bands,” Haddix said. A piece of her life on a hog farm even made it into Among The Hidden, as character Luke is shown to live in a similar way.
Like so many kids, Haddix was most heavily inspired and influenced by her teachers, favorite authors, and her parents. Despite being influenced by the adults around her, it was indeed a younger crowd on which Haddix wanted to focus through her writing career, and has thus not ventured into writing for adults.
“I feel like I’d have to start over learning how to write,” she said.
Haddix added that it takes a lot of patience to write a whole novel and not give up on it after 20 pages, or a similar point. Haddix said she writes in scenes or chapters, and that really helps break down a project, instead of staring down a goal of thousands of words.
Haddix herself typically takes 6-8 months, sometimes a year, to write and edit her novels, and has gone through her fair share of rejection, as all authors do.
Sometimes, Haddix said to students, the words just won’t come. What happens then? “I have a two-tiered approach to writer’s block,” she said. “If I know what I want to happen but just can’t find the words, I just keep trying to write. If it’s much worse and no matter what I try, the story just isn’t working, I walk away to do something else, like fold laundry or exercise. Eventually, the words come.”
But, Haddix said, it’s important to choose a topic that you’re interested in. “At some point, it becomes work. But, I feel l owe it to the idea to try my best to make it work. Deadline pressure, or fear used properly, helps a lot,” she laughed. “The idea of the Roanoke Colony always fascinated me, for instance. In Sent, I didn’t know much about that time period–like the War of the Roses. But as I worked, I found out that that time period was definitely not boring, like I thought.”
“You have to really love books to start writing them,” she said. “It’s important to read and write a lot, start as soon as possible, and simply give yourselves time to think.”
“You can get as many chances as you want when you write,” she said.
To learn more about Haddix and her books, please visit http://haddixbooks.com/. She can also be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/HaddixBooks/, Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/haddixbooks/, and can be followed on Twitter at @MPHaddix.
Thank you, Margaret, for visiting with our students at Fredericktown!