Heather Vogel Frederick: Charlotte Bronte For The Internet Age

Heather Vogel Frederick is the Charlotte Bronte of our times. She writes big books that make girls fall in love with reading, and many of those girls fall in love with writing, too.

Frederick, author of the seven-volume Mother-Daughter Book Club series, of which Mother-Daughter Book Camp, the final installment, has just been published in hardcover by Simon & Schuster, frequently finds herself asked by her fans how she got started and how they can get started as writers.

She shared her answers to those questions on a recent afternoon in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Michael: What's the first work of fiction you ever wrote?
Heather: I was 12, and we lived in England. That's the year I first went to summer camp, and I was miserable, homesick beyond belief. To cheer myself up, I started writing. And that's when I wrote my first novel. Never got published. Never saw the light of day. Obviously, it was terrible. But I was so thrilled by the fact that I'd written this 60-page book by the end of the summer. Or, you know, not a book, but it was just--a yellow legal pad.
Michael: Do you still have that book?
Heather: I wish. I wish. No.
Michael: Did anything ever become of it?
Heather: No. It was called "Lighthouse Summer," and it was about three sisters who went to Nova Scotia to visit their grandmother who lived near a lighthouse. And I'm one of three sisters who went every summer to visit our grandmother who lived in Nova Scotia near a lighthouse, so I didn't stray too far from reality.
Michael: What advice do you give new writers?
Heather: My advice to young aspiring writers is not to worry so much about being published. Just enjoy the process. Just enjoy growing as a writer. You know, just the same way as if you were a dancer. You just love to dance. And you're out there dancing. And, yes, you might have this ambition to be in the ballet or on Broadway. But it's a lot of learning, trial and error, growing, not being so good, and then suddenly you break through, and you're a little better. It's the same thing with writing.
Michael: How have you seen yourself grow as a writer?
Heather: It goes back to confidence. Today there are maybe not quite so many false starts. I still don't know how to plot. I cannot plot to save my life. I just sit down and start writing. That's the way it works for me. I could use a little more skill in the shaping of the story, knowing when to start a scene and end a scene. You know, the nuts and bolts of it. I still feel like I have a long ways to go. Maybe every writer feels that way.
Michael: How much of the plot do you know when you sit down?
Heather: Very little. Sometimes there's a title. There are some main characters. And there's maybe a conceit or a couple scenes. A general idea. With Absolutely Truly, my last novel, it was, a very tall 12-year-old girl moves to a little teeny town in New Hampshire, and that was kind of it. I knew she came from a big family. And I had a name: Truly. I knew that her great-great-grandmother had come over to this country as Trudy from Germany, and the people at Immigration got it wrong, so it was Truly, and she was stuck with that name. That's about all I knew. The mystery element came later.
Michael: Do you ever sit there and say, "I wish I had more structure; this would be easier for me"?
Heather: I keep thinking if I could just become a plotter, somebody who knows how to plot, it would all just be so miraculously easy. Nope. Can't do it. Cannot do it. I've had to do a little bit more of it with the Mother-Daughter Book Club books, because there are so many characters, and it's like this grand opera on the stage. I've got the moms and the daughters and the sisters and the brothers and the dads and the uncles and the whatever. So I've had to force myself to do a little bit more plotting, but it still would be unrecognizable to anybody. It's just a sheet of paper where I'll say, you know, "Okay, this first quarter of the book, these are a few main scenes. Second quarter of the book..." And then it changes, because the story will go off--take a wild left turn that I wasn't expecting.
Michael: What else do you tell new writers?
Heather: Somebody gave me good advice years and years ago. They said their number one piece of advice for writers is to turn the phone off. And today you have to turn the phone off and the iPad off, the computer off and the TV off and everything else off. So I have to force myself to do that. I mean, it's just so easy--you hear the ding on the phone. Well, who is it? Could be something interesting. Could be something important. What if it's one of my kids?
Michael: How do you keep from getting distracted?
Heather: There's an app you can install on your computer. It locks you out of the internet for a set period of time. You can tell it, "I want to be off the internet for 45 minutes," and it'll lock you out for that amount of time. Of course, it's very easy to get around it if you really want to. You can just reboot your computer. Or you can go across the room and pick up your phone, which is stashed in a drawer so you wouldn't look at it, but there it is.
Michael: You would never go across the room and get the phone out of the drawer.
Heather: Oh, no! Of course not! Never. Of course I do! Who am I kidding?
Michael: And despite all that, the writing gets done.
Heather: Honestly, I don't know how the whole thing happens. It's just what I was put here to do. People ask you about your process, and you try to analyze it. Then you try to analyze why people want to meet you, when it's the book they like! Margaret Atwood said, "Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté." The process is inexplicable--and often painful--for the duck! In the end, it's just you and the page.