MF: Heart of a Shepherd is your first published novel! Congrats! It’s not your first book, though, is it? Can you tell us a bit about the process of writing a picture book versus a novel?
RP: I think picture book writing has more in common with writing poetry than writing novels. You have to make every single word rich and precise and useful. Which I think, in the long run, helps me write what I hope are richer novels.
In my picture book, Daddy’s Home, we ended up changing the order of events so that the action was spread out through the child’s house, which is visually more interesting. In a novel, my words carry the weight of bringing the setting to life. I think picture books work best when some of the character and setting decisions can be made by the illustrator. For example, in Daddy’s Home the text does not mention the gender of the main character, the ages of the siblings, the race or economic situation of the family or the presence of a Mommy. All of that I left to my illustrator. David Leonard did such a lovely job conveying the warmth and exuberance of the preschool reader. I love what his art added to the book.
MF: What was your initial inspiration for Heart of a Shepherd?
RP: Ten years ago, I wrote a sonnet for poetry month as I try to do every year. At the time, my son was six and my dad was teaching him to play chess, so I wrote a practice piece about that. A few years later, I got an idea for a short story about grandfather and grandson playing a game of chess which eventually became the first chapter of Heart of a Shepherd. I set that story on a ranch in Eastern Oregon because I had recently visited a friend in Malhuer County.
MF: Heart of a Shepherd is an interesting combination of things one wouldn’t think would “go” together: religion, East Oregon ranching and the Iraq war. How/why did that combination come about?
RP: I began writing about a boy and a grandpa on a ranch but there wasn’t enough energy in the two of them to sustain a whole novel, so I added the military family element and the two seemed to compliment each other well. I’ve found both the army officers and the ranchers I know to be surprisingly philosophical and to have a strong sense of stewardship for the people and animals in their care.
As for the inclusion of religion, that was a matter of being true to my characters and setting. Ranching and soldiering are not professions that attract atheists. These families are far more likely to be church-going than the general population. Malhuer County, where the story takes place, was settled primarily by Irish and Basques. These are people for whom Catholicism is not just their faith, but an important part of their cultural identification. Many stories don’t need to mention their character’s spiritual lives, but leaving that element out of this story was just unthinkable. Some people’s lives only make sense in the light of their faith and HEART was just that kind of story.
RP: Seven years is a tad misleading. I wrote a poem from which the initial scene of the book was drawn about ten years ago. I set the poem aside and did nothing with it for ages because I was working on another story at the time. A few years later I wrote the short story, which eventually became the opening scene of Heart of a Shepherd. I liked the story very much, but since I was in the middle of writing a different book, I set it aside once again.
Eventually, I wrote three more stories with Brother and his grandpa, but then I got completely stuck. Fortunately, Random House editor Wendy Lamb critiqued the stories at an Oregon SCBWI conference and was warmly encouraging of my efforts. She didn’t say what I needed to fix so much as what sparked her interest. The setting was one she seldom saw in submissions, and she enjoyed the warm and loving rivalry among the five brothers.
So I went back to the story, adding the military family element. All together, it took me two years of intensive study, research and writing to come up with a draft of Heart of a Shepherd I was satisfied with. From there I sent it to Jim Thomas at Random House and he made an offer on the manuscript in September of 2006, which was about seven and a half years from the starting point. Once the book was under contract it took another two and a half years to get it in print. It was a surprise to me that it would take so long, but I’ve since learned that it is a typical time frame. In fact, I’m very grateful to have an editor willing to give me the time I need to make my book just right.
MF: Do you have a favorite character or scene in the book?
RP: When I ask students what they want me to read out loud, they almost always choose the “boys against the girls” part. It’s a very fun scene to read aloud, especially to a group of kids. It was one of my editor’s favorites, and I can imagine that he was once a lot like Brother in this particular part of the story. For my part, I often feel like throwing things at him, so it’s a favorite for me as well.
MF: I found the book to be deeply religious, though that could be what I brought to the book. Is there anything you hope, in particular, readers will get out of your novel?
RP: I think that part of what makes reading such a rich experience and writing such a surprising profession is that people bring their whole life to every book they read so that it is a different experience for each reader. I got a lovely note from a teenager who said HEART helped her think of her family’s all-consuming ethnic restaurant business in a whole new way. Wow! I’d have never made that connection but family businesses whether it’s a farm or a store or a restaurant share some of the same stresses and benefits. It’s kind of cool to see what different readers bring to the experience.
If I have an agenda at all, it’s literacy. Young readers, and particularly those who struggle to read, need characters that speak to their life experience. Military families and ranching families are seldom depicted in children’s fiction. One of the most moving things that happened to me this year was the day I spent addressing an adult English language class at a local college. Mine was the first novel any of them had read in English, which felt like such a huge honor and responsibility. I was very proud of the team at Random House who packaged the book with a page lay out that is very inviting for a struggling reader and a cover that an adult can read on the city bus with dignity. Those details matter and I’m thrilled to have a publisher who is so attentive to them.
RP: I hated writing when I was a child, and I was not especially good at it, but I’ve always loved making up stories. When I was home full time with a house full of toddlers and preschoolers, I finally had the time to work at writing stories and I spent the next ten years learning to write like a storyteller.
MF: Who or what inspires you?
RP: The need to put four kids through college is pretty much all the inspiration I need.
MF: That certainly is inspiration! Do you have five books that you think everyone should read?
RP: Here are some books I’ve read recently which I really enjoyed.
- When the Whistle Blows, by Fran Cannon Slayton
- Marcello in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork
- The King of Attolia, by Megan Whalen Turner
- Krik Krak , by Edwidge Danticat
- Crash Into Me, by Albert Boris
- poetry by ee cummings
- Our Town, by Thornton Wilder
- The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchet
MF: That’s an impressive list! if you don’t mind telling us, what’s up next for you?
RP: Yesterday, I sent my next novel SECOND FIDDLE off to the copy editor. It will be out in the spring of 2011. It’s a story about three girl musicians living in Berlin at the end of the Cold War. They find a Soviet soldier who is being murdered by his own officers. They rescue him and run away to Paris. It has been great fun to write. I was in Paris myself almost exactly twenty years ago so it has been fun to revisit my memories of that trip.
MF: That sounds interesting; I can’t wait to read it. Thank you so much for your time!!
RP: Thanks again for the interview.