- Watt Key talks about Alabama Moon
- Dianne Ochiltree gives us some tips on writing
really impressed by the imagination shown by modern children's writers,
and the new crop of books this fall seems to be the best yet. I
thought that Watt Key's Alabama Moon was an especially compelling
story with an extraordinary 10- year old protagonist that just won
is a ten-year old modern Huck Finn; wise beyond his years but with
much to learn about the world. He's been raised in the Alabama backwoods
by his father -- a recluse that has withdrawn from society. Moon
is such an exciting new character...I asked his creator, Watt Key,
about his new book, Alabama Moon.
Mr. Key, I would like to thank you for taking the time to answer
questions for your new fans at MyShelf.com.
Thank you for being interested in me and Alabama Moon.
I see from your web site that you grew up in rural Alabama. Tell
us about your childhood.
Watt: I am
the oldest of seven and we grew up on a swampy strip of coastline
in south Alabama. We spent time fishing Mobile Bay out front or
playing in the swamp behind our house. I always preferred the swamp.
I liked to build tree forts and hunt and trap animals. We didn’t
have many neighbors so we learned to entertain ourselves early.
Books and stories were also a big part of our entertainment. Dad
read to us a lot and we read a good deal on our own.
What were your favorite stories as a boy?
I loved all of the Tarzan books – which probably had some
influence on the creation of Alabama Moon – although
I’m the only one that seems to draw that parallel. I also
read all the Jim Kjelgaard books, Roald Dahl, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings,
Wilson Rawls, Hardy Boys, William Golding, Robert Louis Stevenson,
Daniel Defoe, Louis L’amour…
was also a great storyteller and it was great to listen to him.
What or who was the greatest influence on your writing?
My father reading to me as a child and my high school English teacher.
How long have you been writing? Tell us about your road to publication.
I wrote stories as a child and was recognized by my high school
English teacher as being talented. But I didn’t start pursuing
novels until I was in college. I wrote two before I graduated and
tried to get them published without success. I wrote about a novel
every year and a half until I was thirty-three years old. Alabama
Moon was my ninth novel of ten by the time I got published.
Once I sold Alabama Moon, the publisher was quick to purchase
my eight and my tenth novels.
thru six will probably not ever be published. They are just not
good enough. It took me a long time to hone my English grammar skills
and learn the importance of structure. I didn’t take but one
required English course in college and should have been a better
student. I think that’s why I had to write so much before
I got published – to learn on my own things I could have learned
had I been a better student. I was mostly writing in the dark all
of those years, never knowing if I was good enough, just doing it
because I liked it.
A New York
agent got some of my writing in the mail and asked me if she could
try and sell a book for me. I said yes and then we had a book deal
about a month later.
I just fell in love with Moon. Tell me about the development of
this great new character. What gave you the original idea for him
as a story character and how did he evolve?
I was looking for an excuse to write about a boy in the wild. The
Ruby Ridge situation in the press a few years ago gave me the perfect
set-up. For those that don’t know about Ruby Ridge, a family
in Idaho didn’t want to cooperate with the government and
there was shootout at their backwoods hideout during which some
of the adults were killed. I wondered what would become of the children
of parents like this if they were put back with other children living
typical lives. Then I started writing the story of the boy burying
his father deep in the woods where they have lived isolated from
society. Out of that grew ALABAMA MOON. As a character, Moon just
came alive for me. I have a strong sense of him visually and know
exactly what he would say and do in different situations. As a writer,
you always hope to come up with characters that live in your head
and heart like Moon does. And you never know when you’ll come
across them. But once you find one, they almost write the book for
Moon and his Pap live in a frontier life-style. Did you have to
do extensive research to augment your childhood lessons on living
in a remote area?
I did a lot of research for Alabama Moon. Most of it was
done spending time with the game warden in the Talladega National
Forest. I rode around in his truck with him and made notes about
the landscape and wild things you could eat in the area. I also
read a lot of survival books. But some of the things I already knew
myself from my own wilderness experiences.
Of course it's illegal to squat on someone else's land and live,
and to keep your children out of school, (though approved home schooling
is legal). I know we do have some people in Alaska that live a lot
like Moon and his father did. How about Alabama? Are there still
people that might live that way and what is your opinion on raising
a child like that?
I don’t know of any people in Alabama that live like the Blake’s.
But it wouldn’t surprise me if there were. Alabama is a state
with lots of wilderness and places where people could hide out.
And there are some wackos in our state that might try it. I mean,
they still have KKK meetings only a few miles up the road from where
don’t have the issues with the government that Moon’s
father had and don’t raise my children like Moon. But things
aren’t always black and white to me. Obviously, Moon’s
father had some unhealthy mental issues that placed Moon in dangerous
situations, but who’s to say that a person shouldn’t
have the right to live free and clear of society?
Would it even be possible for a young boy to live alone in the wilderness?
You tried that, according to your web page...tell us about it.
I think it would be possible, but very difficult. You would have
to be trained from the time you were a small child as Moon was.
And yes, I did try it. I lived for 14 days in the swamp with not
much more than the clothes I wore in and a bow and arrows. It was
January – dead of winter – and not much can be found
foraging that time of year. I didn’t eat most of the time
and probably would have starved eventually. My only meals were snakes
and armadillos and baby wild hogs. I also had toasted acorns, palmetto
roots and pine needle tea. Once I went over three days eating absolutely
nothing. I lost 15 pounds during my stay and couldn’t keep
solid food down for almost a month afterwards because my stomach
had shrunken so much. But I did it. Which is cool.
Moon has some real issues with authority as do most modern kids.
He felt like the rest of the world just wanted to catch him and
bend him to their standards. He tackles all this head on but he
does seem to have a strong sense of right and wrong. How did his
ideas about the outside world change?
I am a strong believer that people are, for the most part, naturally
good. And given free thought, they choose right and wrong naturally.
Moon comes out of the forest with a lot of preconceived notions
about the outside world that his father had drilled into him his
whole life. But when the shadow of his father is no longer looming
over him, Moon’s conscience is allowed the freedom to act
naturally. He comes to see that the way his father taught him to
live may not be right for him.
If you were the adult, confronted with a kid like Moon, how would
you begin to civilize such a feral child?
Unfortunately, I would have probably treated Moon the same way that
Mr. Wellington did in the book. I would have tried to turn him over
to the authorities. I imagine it would be very shocking and complicated
to have someone like Moon pop out of your back yard and ask you
if he could continue to live out there. The book touches on the
fact that our “systems” are not always designed to accommodate
everyone and their special needs.
I can think of a couple of great character actors who would make
a superb Constable Sanders. (He's a mean dude, but kinda funny,
too.) I really can see this as a movie...any possibility at this
There has been talk about a movie and there are some people interested
in making it. But we have not yet signed any contracts to that effect.
I would love to see it happen and will do what I can to make sure
the right people are involved in the project.
Do you plan a sequel? Moon is just too grand a character to NOT
have a sequel.
I started a sequel, but put it on the back burner. I could do a
lot with Moon in a second book and the first book sets up perfectly
for a sequel. But right now my publisher is advising against it.
They think it will dilute the effect of the original story. Maybe
What is your current writing project?
I am editing the novel that will follow Alabama Moon. It
is called The Bone Swamp Gang and will be published in
Fall of 2008. I am also working on a new novel called Swamp
Do you have other thoughts you would like to share with us?
I hope that Alabama Moon encourages more people to enjoy
the outdoors. Although you don’t need to immerse yourself
in it like Moon, it’s healthy and good for the soul to spend
time with nature.
By Watt Key
Farrar, Straus and Giroux -- September 5, 2006
ISBN: 0374301840 -Hardcover
Fiction - Ages 9-12
by Beverly J. Rowe, MyShelf.com
Moon Blake has lived in the wilderness with his father for as long
as he can remember. They live on what they can trap and raise and
stay to themselves with just an occasional trip to the little country
general store. When Moon's father dies, Moon manages to load him
into the wheelbarrow and move him to the spot where he wanted to
be buried. Moon's father had instructed him to go to Alaska and
find others that live their way of life, but Moon is only ten years
old, and though very resourceful, he doesn't understand the ways
of the modern world. He has no idea where Alaska is or how to get
there. The attorney that recently purchased the land where Moon
and his father lived believes that he is doing the best thing for
Moon by turning him over to a boys’ home.
Moon doesn't want to be in this strange and confining place, so
he and two other boys manage to outsmart the system and run away.
Moon's survival skills keep them one step ahead of the constable
and out of jail. Moon has a chance to learn first hand about what
friendship means and to interact with boys his own age for the first
time. The boys are very sympathetic characters...even the bloodhound
sent to track them down decides to join them.
When one friend becomes terribly ill, Moon realizes that he must
get him to medical help. Moon begins to question the lessons his
father taught him about how bad the government is and to question
his father's lifestyle.
Watt Key has certainly found his niche in his first novel. Moon
is a character that I'll never forget. This action-packed story
is filled with chases, captures and escapes, with a bit of revenge
against an abusive constable who is fully committed to capturing
the boys. If you want to encourage reluctant readers, this can't-put-down
story should do the trick. I highly recommend this book.
books for children would be a great accomplishment. It's something
I would love to try my hand at, but I'm sure it would take a lot
more talent and imagination than I have, and is no doubt, a lot
harder than it looks. I talked to Dianne Ochiltree about what it
takes to write a book for children. Her children's picture books
are written in rhymed verse that is such fun to read aloud. She
has some ideas to share with anyone who would like to break into
writing for children.
Bev: Tell me about the process of writing a picture book
for very young children. How does a book evolve from ideas to finished
product: Lull-a-Bye, Little One, for instance?
Dianne: The first challenge in writing for a child of
any age is to structure your story from the reader’s (or in
this case, the listener’s) point of view. While my initial
motivation to write Lull-a-Bye, Little One, came from fond
memories of all the warm, fuzzy and fun things shared at bedtime
with our now-grown sons when they were ‘little ones’,
I knew this adult-oriented viewpoint wouldn’t be the right
one for a bedtime book. Therefore, I got into the toddler mindset!
I asked myself, “What would a busy toddler like about bedtime
routines?” and let the brainstorming begin. Toddlers live
in the present moment, so I focused on sensory details---the fuzzy
blanket, the foamy bath bubbles, the squeaky toy, etc. ---and tried
to infuse it all with a sense of love and caring from the grownups
in this little one’s life. My ultimate goal was to create
a book that parents, grandparents and other caregivers would want
to share with the special children in their lives, to create bedtime
memories of their own.
Bev: I love your wonderful rhyming stories---they are so
much fun to read aloud. Is your process of creating these stories
different from writing a book without rhyme?
Dianne: The creative process, for me, is very much like
that used to write non-rhyming fiction or nonfiction….it just
takes longer to finish a rhyming manuscript! First, the research
and brainstorming. Then, the plot development and characterization
All this is done in prose at first. As I work on the story, a natural
rhythm usually arises. Which is wonderful, because the rhythm is
just as important as the rhyme in any read-aloud book. The rhyme
takes months of thought and time at the keyboard, trying out different
combinations of words. It’s somewhat like piecing together
a quilt, trying to balance all the elements into a pleasing pattern
for the ear.
Bev: I know that you don’t do your own illustrations.
How does that work? Do you work together with the artist, or do
you do the text and then the publisher farms it out for illustration?
Dianne: Although the words and pictures in a book for
young children must work closely together, the writer and artist
do not! Typically, the writer’s work is 99% done before the
artist does the beginning sketches. My job as a writer is to create
lots of action and unique characters---not only to tell the story,
but to serve as a springboard for the illustrator’s visual
creativity. Once an editor has acquired my manuscript for publication,
he or she works with the art director to find just the right artist
to bring the words to life. A writer’s primary communication
with the chosen illustrator is via the words on the manuscript pages.
Bev: If an unpublished writer has a manuscript that they
think is worthy of publication, what is the best way to get it into
the right hands?
Dianne: The best way is to spend time figuring out which,
of all the myriad publishing houses, might be the ‘right hands’
for the story you’d like to sell. I always recommend the purchase
of The Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s
Market, published yearly by Writer’s Digest Books and
ably edited by Alice Pope, because this provides a comprehensive
database of up-to-date contact information for all the major children’s
publishers as well as notes on ‘who’ is interested in
buying ‘what’. A targeted submission has a far greater
chance of being acquired, and this one book can help a writer figure
out which publishers are the good bets for a particular manuscript.
Most libraries have the current edition of Literary Marketplace
on their reference section shelves, and that’s a good resource,
too---because it contains literary agent information along with
the publishing houses. Of course, if you’re writing for children,
you should join the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators
right away! (Check it out at www.scbwi.org.)
SCBWI offers their members a yearly report on the marketplace, a
directory of children’s publishers and their imprints, plus
all sorts of useful information about how to network and promote
your work. Through the years, I’ve asked editors what the
beginning writer’s most common mistake is and the answer is
always, “submitting a manuscript to a publisher that doesn’t
publish that genre or age level.” So, using the guidebooks
cited above along with ‘writers guidelines’ that every
house offers for the cost of the postage---or better yet, can be
accessed easily on the publisher website---will help target submissions
to a house that is eager to acquire just what you’d like to
Bev: Are writers conferences valuable to the novice wanna-be
Dianne: Absolutely! They are key to writing success in
several ways. First, they offer the chance to attend workshops by
published writers and illustrators, where you can learn how to improve
your craft. (Because the truth is, even a well-targeted submission
will not succeed if the writing quality isn’t up to a high
standard.) These mini-classes in writing or editing techniques are
vital to making your prose or poetry the best it can be. The second
benefit is the opportunity to meet editors who are also giving workshops
(usually on market trends) because this gives you the kind of detailed,
in-depth information impossible to find in any guidebook or publisher
website. It’s a good time to ask questions about submission
needs, and many times being in an editor’s workshop may enable
you to submit to an otherwise-closed house. The third reason is
to network with fellow writers who are just beginning the same journey
as you are. Writers need support systems, and this sort of networking
helps you begin building your own safety net for the ups-and-downs
of the writing life. Again, your SCBWI membership will come in handy
for finding all sorts of helpful conferences in your region!
Bev: Where could a budding writer find a critique group,
and how much help do you think they are?
Dianne: Again, SCBWI comes to the new writer’s rescue
by offering a ‘critique-seekers’ service, usually at
a regional level, in which a coordinator tries to match people who
want to join a critique group with writers groups which have openings.
On the national level, SCBWI tries to match up people who would
like to exchange manuscripts for critique with other beginning writers
via mail. But this isn’t the only way to find or form a critique
group. Many writers have found success by posting notices in local
libraries and bookstores, which often are gracious enough to offer
the resulting group free meeting space. Many colleges and adult
education programs conduct ‘writing for children’ courses.
This is a great way to meet local folks who want to give, and get
Do I think critique groups are helpful? Yes, yes, and yes! It’s
not just the critiques exchanged that make a group like this so
important----it’s also the professional and personal support
possible in a group of writers working together. My current writers
workshop just celebrated 30 years together, and a good number of
the group are original members. This tells me that after all those
years, and hundreds of published books, they certainly believe there’s
a lot of value in meeting together to help one another write!
Bev: Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share
Dianne: Only that writing for children is the best career
choice I ever made! It’s so rewarding to write for budding
readers. I take this responsibility seriously, too. These ‘little
ones’ deserve stories that will inspire in them a lifelong
love of reading…and maybe even give them the bug to write
a few stories of their own!
Check out these links to some exciting writing tips from
Away at Writer's Block
Tips for Building "Character"
3 R's: Rejection, Revision and Re-Submission
New Ways to Connect with Fellow Writers
3 R's for Writers: Read, Read, Read
Dianne has a contest -- You could win one of her signed
New contest winners will be drawn in December
American Education Week is November 12-18.
National Education Association’s Annual Celebration
Spotlights Importance of Great Public Schools for All
Children For more information about American Education
Week, visit www.nea.org/aew
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