Please tell us about Alone in the Woods.
Alone in the Woods is a realistic survival story about two former best friends forced to work together to stay alive after getting lost in a remote national forest during a rafting trip gone horribly wrong.They’ll face everything from biting blackflies to black bears, poison ivy to hypothermia—and will have to overcome their fractured friendship—if they want to make it out of the woods alive.
Your 2019 novel, The Disaster Days, was also a survival story that simultaneously dealt with a strained friendship. Can you talk about how you decided to write about these topics and why you think they pair so well?
When I first told a friend in the publishing industry about Alone in the Woods, she said, “You basically wrote a middle-grade episode of Naked and Afraid!” I hadn’t seen that reality show before, but after watching a few episodes, I realized she wasn’t wrong! Like the show, the book combines a survival experience—two girls stranded in a national forest, wearing swimsuits and beach footwear, and with only a few scant supplies in a backpack to help them survive the elements—with a lot of equally challenging interpersonal conflict. I hope in my book I’ve blended strong character development and a very universal friendship-breakup story with a realistic survival adventure that is all the more harrowing because of the emotional stakes.
Speaking of the “very universal friendship-breakup story”— I have never been lost in the woods, but I did go through a best-friendship breakup as a young teen. Years later, I turned that experience into the first manuscript I ever wrote. I couldn’t quite figure out how to make that book work (maybe the story was too close to my lived experience?), so I permanently shelved it and went on to write and publish my first four novels. Eventually, I realized elements of that manuscript could be incorporated into the wilderness survival story I was starting to write—because surviving a middle-school friendship breakup is in some ways as difficult and scary as being stranded in a remote national forest!
I think that’s a great example of persistence in the writing process and proof that no writing work is ever wasted: A manuscript I had put aside for ten years ended up giving me the heart of the book I was currently working on.
It’s evident you know (and love) the Wisconsin wilderness. Can you share a bit about how you chose this setting and the research that was involved in making it come to life?
I was born and raised in Wisconsin, and although I grew up in Madison, which is a mid-size city, I spent as much time as I could out in the woods and prairies and on the rivers and lakes. I was always fascinated by Wisconsin’s ecology, and like my main character, I did a lot of projects on Wisconsin’s plants and wildlife in school and for things like Science Olympiad.
I don’t live in Wisconsin right now, but I really miss it. I travel back every chance I get. And I had been waiting for the right book to set in my home state so I could spend more time there on the page. When I first started working on a “lost in the wilderness” concept for a middle-grade novel, I was thinking of perhaps slightly more dramatic settings: national parks, desert islands, mountain ranges, caves and canyons . . . Until my agent made the observation that it’s almost scarier to be lost somewhere closer to home, because of how relatable or realistic that is. That’s when I realized I had the perfect opportunity to set this novel in the Wisconsin Northwoods—and a bonus was I could use all those years of study and personal experience in the setting. So in some ways, this book became my love letter to my home state and its wonderful natural environments.
During one of my trips home while writing the book, I drove up to the Nicolet National Forest and scouted locations in my book and also did some hiking. I stopped by the ranger station in Lakewood and got updated information on the wildlife that was in the area—that was really helpful for plotting the dangers the girls face. I always find that time spent in my settings (when possible), has a big impact on creating a strong sense of place.
One of the things I appreciate about your books is their real, relevant portrayal of middle school. How do you work this magic?
Well, I think I might actually be the world’s oldest living tween? Seriously, though, the friendship breakup I personally experienced was a really formative experience, and even decades later, I remember the details—and emotions—of it so clearly. I did also look through some cringe-worthy old journals from that time while writing, which helped me connect with the middle-school experience, too.
For writers of contemporary MG fiction, it’s equally important to observe kids in middle school now. As a running coach for a group of girls, we’ve had some conversations about how social media affects their lives. That wasn’t something I really had to deal with as a kid. Some emotions and friendship dynamics are eternal, but technology and current events are always evolving, and they have a big impact on middle-school life, too.
Anything else you want to add related to Alone in the Woods that I’ve neglected to mention?
Some Wisconsinites who read early drafts pointed out to me that Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty never stops serving its famous sugar-sprinkled buttermilk doughnuts, no matter what time of day you roll in. So my characters’ anxiety that they might get there too late and miss them is a bit of fiction to create extra tension in the first chapter. I feel like I need to tell readers that so fellow doughnut lovers aren’t misled!
What’s next for you?
I had three middle-grade novels come out in the past three years, so I took a little break to refill the well after I turned in the final version of Alone in the Woods. (That’s an important part of the writing process, too!) But I’m working on a new manuscript now—hopefully I will be sharing more about that in the future.