Camp Wannabelikem: A Conversation with Marie C. Collins

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Marie C. Collins transports readers to summer camp in her delightful upper middle grade novel, A Brief Stay at Earth Human Camp. When homeschooled Anne and Atticus Reade’s parents need some time away for a top secret mission, the siblings find themselves in a whole new world at Camp Wannbelikem — and with the brand new understanding that their mother is from another planet. Readers will sympathize and celebrate with the half-alien siblings as they learn to navigate this new space, and will cheer them on when the same unusual talents that embarrass them at camp ultimately enable them to save their camp friends.

Who is the ideal reader for A Brief Stay at Earth Human Camp? Who did you have in mind when you wrote this?

That’s a really good question, Brandi! Of course, anyone who reads and enjoys an author’s book is an “ideal reader,” but I wrote A Brief Stay at Earth Human Camp especially for upper-middle-grade through young-YA readers, who are roughly age 11 to 15. I find this a very hopeful and optimistic age — an age that is freer than the rest of us are to think about the world in grand, wishful terms, as if it were just waiting to be molded by them. It’s a time when, for a moment, all things are possible. The idealistic side of me is still this age, and is constantly nagging more-realistic-me to do her bidding.

In addition, readers in this age-group are incredibly socially astute. One of my character agendas, if you will, was to show what the social world can look like to a person who is not comfortable or experienced with navigating it — which is something most readers in this age group can relate to (the ultimate discomfort for a young teen being social awkwardness). I wanted to steep my characters in that brew and force them to learn about themselves from within it. My young readers are hyperaware of the social interactions in the book. Many tell me they read the book in a marathon weekend. They couldn’t put it down, they’ve said, because “so much was going on.” They miss nothing. And they detect from very early in the story which things are “not right” because of Anne and Atticus’s lack of social exposure, and which things are “a whole ‘nother level of not right.” I love that about them.

Why did you set your novel in a summer camp?

I chose the camp setting for two very different reasons. First, since my two main characters are raised in isolation up until they go to camp, I needed a setting that would serve as a sort of social boot camp for them. There is a social intensity to summer camp that is a lot like going away to college; the emotional need to find allies in unfamiliar territory fuels kids’ social adjustment. For purposes of my series, I knew a summer at camp would teach Anne and Atticus most of what they needed to know about Earth human society.

Second, I knew early on that I wanted to write a series for this age group that involves mystery and suspense — and gets a bit scary. A driving idea, as I mention in the dedication to the book, was my daughter’s fear when she was young that a robot might somehow take my place without her knowing it. This idea — that true scariness involves evil emerging from the near-and-familiar — helped me settle on the villain element of the story. The fact that camp is both a haven for children and isolated made it ideal for creating this kind of feeling.

I thoroughly enjoyed the detailed description of the camp’s dining hall and its wonderful around-the-world food choices. What did you most enjoy creating when making this book?

Thank you! To me, food is central to a feeling of home, and the dining hall experience allowed me to provide that nurturing element for an international cast of characters. What did I enjoy most? I think I would have to say the energy of writing the final third of the book — the climb to the climax and its resolution. As an avid reader of suspense, I’ve always wondered how writers approach the scene shifting that occurs at this point in such novels. Do they write the scenes this way — wrenching their thoughts in different directions with a sort of “meanwhile, in character B’s world” kind of interruption? Or do they write each character’s story to conclusion, then cut and rearrange the pieces? I suspect we all do it differently. I mostly did the latter, and still got an out-of-breath feeling from creating the pacing.

What did you learn about writing and book publishing through the process of bringing A Brief Stay at Earth Human Camp into the world?

Oh my, so much! I think I’ll keep from burying you with this answer by picking a lesson learned for each category. First, with respect to writing: All sorts of landmines await when you write about things that are close to you. Some scenes I felt attached to just didn’t work and I eventually ditched them. On the other hand, things I had no attachment to turned out to be lots of fun to write. One example would be the campfire ghost stories. I have no experience as a camp counselor, but I loved imagining the counselors getting theatrical around this part of their job. For me, these scenes were like writing little plays.

And with respect to publishing: Well, the publishing landscape is in chaos, isn’t it. I’ve learned that independently published and traditionally published authors often find themselves in the same boat: Marketing their work to their readers on their own. To me, new routes to publishing create a more democratic literary environment than the gate-keeping formerly performed by big publishing houses did. The power to decide what is worth reading now falls to readers. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for readers to weed through all the books that are available to find something they want to read. I am very grateful to reviewers and bloggers, like yourself, who create conversations around books to help with this process. We all benefit from diverse curating.

What types of events do you participate in to promote your books?

I use a range of ways promote my work, but I lose sight of the need to do this at all when I am immersed in writing. Even though Kindle and ePub versions of my book are available, live venues — school visits and book fairs — get the bulk of my attention, as most readers in my target audience still read hard copy books. As an author, I love these opportunities to meet face-to-face with both young readers and other authors. And as you know, writers are starting to take a more active role in creating these kinds of events for themselves. For example, I am proud to be a part of River Reads, the live book fair you created to bring other authors along as your celebrate your own new book. See you there October 23!

You can keep up with Marie and learn more about her books here:

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