I am always amazed at the generosity of my writing friends, both with their willingness to share thoughts here on my blog, and with making a difference in the larger community. Nanci Turner Steveson is one of those folks, having launched The Literacy for Hope Project, dedicated to getting books to the homeless. Today, however, she is here to tell us the story behind the story of You Make My Heart Swing Sideways (Harper Collins) due out next week, on May 3. And bonus! You can listen to a snippet of the audio version of the book, read by the wonderful Tara Sands here.
Two days after I sat beside my father’s bed when he died, I attended a writer’s conference in Maryland. That sounds morbid, but here’s the thing: I’d been my dad’s caretaker for three years while he struggled through multiple cancers and a suitcase full of other issues that no one should have to go through ever, let alone at the end of their lives. The night after he passed, I had a dream he was standing in the living room of the home his grandfather built, smiling at me and saying, “Go now, live YOUR life.”
My Dad didn’t live long enough to know in an earthly way that I sold the book I’d been working on during his illness, but he knew before I did that I would be published. With so many odds stacked against me, he never questioned my ability to get it done.
He died on a Thursday. On Saturday, my heart passing out of the initial “hold off on your own emotions until everyone else is okay,” and onto that path of grief we all, at some time in our life, have to walk, I drove a few miles to the MD/DE/WV SCBWI conference, specifically to hear Richard Peck speak. Even with my five siblings arriving from all over the country, I knew I was supposed to be there.
The wise Mr. Peck gave a fabulous talk during which he said two things that have stuck with me. One, I still find hysterical, the other I find over and over again in everything I write. During Q&A he was asked how he deals with writer’s block. His eyes lit up, he wagged his finger back and forth, and said, “Oh, dear, didn’t you know there is this wonderful government agency designed to help us with writer’s block?” The only noise in that room came from a hundred people leaning forward in their seats to hear his answer. “Yes, there is,” he said. “It’s called the IRS.”
Later, he was talking about character development and said, “People ask if I am my characters, and the answer is no. How could I be a teenage girl who is raped?” While he meant this literally (Mr. Peck certainly was never a female rape victim), there is something that came from him which turned into that character. Maybe the victim’s fear emerged from an experience he had as a child. Dickens troubled relationships with his own family shows up throughout his books, as well as the contrast of the pleasant parlor life he desired. My experience meeting Willie Nelson’s long time lead guitarist became not only a character, but a strong theme in Swing Sideways. In my humble opinion, there is a piece of us, of our history, in every one of the characters who dance across the pages of our books.
At the end of the day, I somehow found Mr. Peck standing alone. I introduced myself, thanked him for coming, and promptly started blubbering about my dad and his passing, and how I wished that when/if I sold my novel, he would know. Mr. Peck, kind and wonderful gentleman that he is, let tears spill down his face. I was a little embarrassed when I finished my soliloquy, self-conscious I’d taken up his time with the beginnings of my personal grief, but Mr. Peck looked at me and said, “Young lady, your father knows. I promise you, he knows.” Then he wrapped thin and bony arms around me, arms so like my dad’s at the end of his life, in a hug that has now shown up not once, not twice, but three times in three different characters, in three different books.
Thank you, Mr. Peck.
Nanci Turner Steveson grew up with a book in one hand, the reins of a pony in the other. Her debut, middle grade novel, Swing Sideways, comes out from HarperCollins on May 3, 2016, followed by Georgia Rules, summer 2017. Nanci is living proof that everyone can overcome the odds and reach their own personal dream. She lives in a historic meadow cabin in the shadow of the Teton mountains with two rescue dogs, an Arabian horse and a so-far wild mustang.