Thursday, July 6, 2023

Interview: Sally J. Pla, Author of The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn

So excited to be interviewing one of my favourite authors, Sally J. Pla!

She's the author of The Someday Birds, Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, and Benji, The Bad Day, and Me, and No World Too Big.

And she's back with a fabulous new middle grade novel: The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn.

I got to read an advanced reader's copy and I can tell you this: IT IS GOOD!

What it's About

Neurodivergent Maudie is ready to spend an amazing summer with her dad, but will she find the courage to tell him a terrible secret about life with her mom and new stepdad? This contemporary novel by the award-winning author of The Someday Birds is a must-read for fans of Leslie Connor and Ali Standish.

Maudie always looks forward to the summers she spends in California with her dad. But this year, she must keep a troubling secret about her home life—one that her mom warned her never to tell. Maudie wants to confide in her dad about her stepdad's anger, but she’s scared.

When a wildfire strikes, Maudie and her dad are forced to evacuate to the beach town where he grew up. It’s another turbulent wave of change. But now, every morning, from their camper, Maudie can see surfers bobbing in the water. She desperately wants to learn, but could she ever be brave enough?

As Maudie navigates unfamiliar waters, she makes friends—and her autism no longer feels like the big deal her mom makes it out to be. But her secret is still threatening to sink her. Will Maudie find the strength to reveal the awful truth—and maybe even find some way to stay with Dad—before summer is over?

The Interview

1.     First of all, I adored this book so much! I’m a huge fan of Maudie and her dad especially, but every character in this book is three dimensional and unique. Can you tell us about the inspiration for the book?


Thank you so much, Wendy! Thank you for reading, and thank you for having me on! How an inspiration turns into a story is such a fascinating process, isn’t it? For me, usually, I start a story when I hear the voice of a new and different character in my head. But this time, it started with a setting. I live near the beach in Southern California, not far from a state campground, where many RVs and tents and trailers are parked. Walking through the campground on my many beach walks, looking at the different state license plates, hearing kids play, laugh, and cry, hearing families chatting, etc., I started imagining “what if” stories, set in this world. 


2.     I love that! Maudie goes through a lot of traumatic experiences in this book, but eventually finds her way. How hard was it to write some of those scenes?


From the safety of her summer with dad, Maudie flashes back to her life back home with her mom and new stepdad. She does NOT want to return, come August, but has been warned not to ever speak of the situation. So, all summer, she tries to figure out how to stay safely with her dad -- who’s wonderful, but in a life-crisis of his own.


Maudie’s flashback scenes of physical/emotional abuse were not hard to write. They are an everyday reality for far too many young people. They were a reality in my life, at the hands of different abusive people, when I was growing up. Certain things that happened to Maudie, also happened to me, and far worse. Mainly, my challenge, and my process, was this: Write a scene once, and let out all the feelings, just for me. Then delete it all. But while the emotions still simmered, start over in a calmer, softer way, writing to be mindful and respectful to middle-grade sensibilities. Edit, edit, edit, with young readers carefully in mind. 


3.    I love this process. It must have been both cathartic and draining all at once. Maudie's relationship with her mother is complex and troubling, but feels very real. Was it hard to write that relationship so it wasn’t completely black and white?


Such a great question. I wanted it to be clear that Maudie’s mom truly loves her. No villain worth their salt is all 100% evil. She was a teen mom, young and ignorant and with harsh parents who disowned her. To get herself and Maudie out of poverty, Maudie’s mom married someone who truly loves her and provides for their every need -- but who’s now suddenly doing daily damage to her child’s wellbeing. And she’s stuck. She can’t admit it’s happening. It would mean watching her world crumble again, maybe even going back to poverty. Plus, Maudie IS a handful sometimes, right? She’s become a bit delusional, she’s trapped herself.




4.     So true, the best villains have to believe they're doing the right thing. Maudie’s father faces financial hardships in the story, but he’s surrounded himself with good people that are there for him and for Maudie. How important was it for you to portray not only the issue of financial hardship, but to talk about the different kinds of families we can have in our lives?


“Found family” in the campground is a big part of the story, and one of its most joyous aspects. I didn’t want to downplay how grindingly hard it is when there’s financial hardship. But I did want to point out that community, and family, whatever that family looks like, is what gets us through. All the money in the world, alone, won’t do that. If there are no loved ones to raise us right, no family, no community, to support us and help us and guide us and provide all that emotional resilience, that give-and-take along the way, then we’ll be lost. 


5.     Surfing plays a huge part in this story and it is so wonderful that Maudie’s journey towards her truth starts by facing other fears. We all need mentors and she certainly finds one in Etta. Enquiring minds want to know: are you a surfer?


When I was in my early twenties, yeah, I went out a bit, but I was never good enough to feel like I could legit call myself a surfer. My husband and I were big into windsurfing for a while, but it’s been literally decades.  Now I just float around on the water. Still, I think surfing is the most beautiful, natural sport there is. You must fall in love with the ocean, read the waves, know the waves... The whole sport just swims in apt metaphors for surviving, for living! It is the perfect sport for Maudie, for helping her physically and mentally find her courage, strength, resilience, balance. 


6.     What I love about this book is that the fact that Maudie is neurodivergent is portrayed as both a difficulty for her but also a kind of super power. Letting us into Maudie’s head allows the reader to really experience both her challenges and strengths. So many kids are going to be thrilled to see themselves on the page. As someone who is neurodivergent yourself, was that easier or harder to achieve?


Way easier to achieve – Maudie’s head is my head, in many ways! And when it comes to difficulties that are also superpowers, I am so glad that came through. No weakness without strength, no crisis without opportunity, no high tide without low tide, no yin without yang, no  fire without water – and autism is also a condition of complementary contrasts. Some autism professionals divide us into “high functioning” or “low-functioning” groups, not understanding that we are ALL both high and low functioning, depending on the day, the moment , or the challenge at hand.  


Thank you for seeing and embracing this in Maudie. I hope readers will too -- and be encouraged at how much every autistic person (indeed, just plain every person) can change and strengthen and grow.


7.     Finally: please tell us more Sally J. Pla books are in the works!!!!


There are! This winter, I have a short, funny chapter book for younger readers out with HarperCollins UK’s Big Cat series – it’s about two unlikely neurodivergent friends, and it’s called Ada and Zaz. My picture book, Benji, The Bad Day, and Me, should be coming out in Spanish soon. You can look for a little novel with QuillTree/HarperCollins, Invisible Isabel, within a year or two – another autistic main character, and I hope you love her -- and I’m currently working on the novel after that: a love story set in the upper Midwest, where I lived for a long while. I won’t say any more!

Thanks Sally!

Want to learn more about Sally J. Pla and her books? Visit here