age range: 9-13
genre: survival; adventure
Preller combines brave characters with vivid descriptions of the perilous mountain, grasping readers’ emotions in the same way as Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet series.
A Junior Library Guild selection
Please tell us about your book.
Kurt Vonnegut famously offered up 8 rules for writing fiction. His 6th rule: “Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them –- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” Without consciously setting out to do so, I cruelly applied that dictum in my middle-grade novel, Blood Mountain.
The glib way to describe the book: “Hatchet meets Misery . . . and there’s a dog.” You have to read that, right? A more detailed description might explain that Blood Mountain is a multiple-perspective story told in very short chapters where two siblings, Grace (13) and Carter (11), find themselves lost in a mountain wilderness. They are accompanied by Sitka, their dog. Nearby lurks a troubled hermit living off the grid, a loner who may or may not be dangerous. The children face a range of challenges and perils, including a mountain lion and a treacherous fall. By the morning of the third day, Grace and Carter separate, giving each character his and her own powerful narrative. The story also follows the actions of the young forest ranger, Makayla, who participates in the search to find them.
What inspired you to write this story?
I published my first book in 1986. Over that period, more than half my life, I’ve discovered that what first inspires a story often gets left in the dust as the research and the writing begins in earnest. New inspirations take hold. Unimagined pathways open up, as long as the writer is still open to the unexpected.
Early on I had the basic setup of siblings lost in the wilderness, along with a vague idea of a hermit, possibly a veteran with PTSD, lurking nearby. At the time, I wasn’t sure what his story would be. I wanted the book to be tense, scary in parts, tightly plotted, riveting, and beautifully written. I held onto the idea that the person who saves you, might turn out to be your worst nightmare. Somewhere along the line my editor suggested a dog. Um, okay! And around this point it dawned on me that I had an awful lot to learn in order to do justice to this story. So I read books. About trees. About survival. About the psychology of getting lost. About veterans with PTSD. About dogs and how they think (I was determined to avoid the Disney-dog cliché; I wanted my dog, Sitka, to be authentic as a dog.) I learned about mountain lions.
Along the way, I told my editor, Liz Szabla, that I might maybe miss the deadline. And I did miss it — by a full year. Liz was cool with it. When it comes to publishing, I believe that all anyone cares about in the end is the finished book. No one reads a disappointing book and thinks, “Well, at least she hit her deadlines!” It just happened that Blood Mountain required extra time for me to think and learn and daydream. I filled a journal with notes, became overwhelmed with ideas and strategies, lost my way, fumbled in thickets. Along the way, I contacted a Forest Ranger, Megan McCone, who proved enormously helpful in terms of making the actions and thoughts of the ranger appropriate and accurate. All of those inspirations fed directly into the final book. Best writing experience ever.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
I simply had so much learn. Because “kind of knowing” isn’t good enough. For example, I wanted to introduce the hermit, John, in a powerful and unsettling way. So readers first encounter him with a large knife in his hand, field dressing a squirrel. I had to learn about slingshots and hypothermia and aviation extractions. And about how people who get lost behave –- the mistakes they make, the thought processes they typically go through, and the things they do that determine whether they live or die.
Most interesting, for me, was when I reached out to Eric Lahr at the Department of Environmental Conservation, who put me in contact with Forest Ranger Megan McCone. Megan was enormously helpful across several long phone conversations. She graciously volunteered to read the first draft of the book, making comments throughout. To me, this was not only a great pleasure, Megan helped me bring truth, the verisimilitude of small details, to this made-up story.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
Okay, you stumped me. With my book Bystander, that’s a novel that has brought me into middle schools around the country, talking about being a writer, of course, but also the dynamics of bullying and issues that touch on empathy and kindness. It surprised me when I learned that teachers were including it in holocaust units, though in retrospect made perfect sense. With The Courage Test, my characters follow along the Lewis and Clark Trail, so there’s a direct link to American history as their journey mirrors and reflects the experiences of Lewis and Clark.
But Blood Mountain? I’m primarily trying to write an unputdownable book that both boy and girl readers will find wildly gripping and entertaining while, hopefully, resonating on deeper levels, too. Because there’s value in a good story, I believe. Not sure exactly how that fits into the curriculum. But if a reader is seeking a realistic story about a tough, fierce, courageous girl character, I’m sure they’ll be pleased to meet Grace Taylor.