I first met 2/3 of the wonderful trio known as BBH McChiller on Sept. 25, 2010. Kathryn and Lynn and I were critique group mates at SCBWI- LA’s Working Writers’ Retreat.
Of course, with Kathy and Lynn there, our group (Critique Group 4) rocked. During the course of the retreat, I became a fan of both Kathy and Lynn’s work. So when they told me they had a book out, I grabbed at the chance to review it.
It’s too bad they live all the way in the Valley, otherwise I’d have met Maria personally. But thankfully, technology has made the world a smaller place and through emails I also got to cyber-meet Maria.
When I told them about my plan for Monster Moon Week, they were ecstatic. They happily (and patiently) answered all of my twenty (Yes, 20) questions and promptly returned it to me.
So without further delay, here’s my interview with the authors of the spooky-licious Monster Moon Series– Lynn Kelley, Kathryn Sant and Maria Toth:
The Spook-tacular BBH McChiller,
authoresses of the Monster Moon Series
1. As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Kathy: Everything. At various times, I wanted to be an artist, a scientist, a writer, a world traveler, a peace corps volunteer, an astronaut, a spy, a historian, an adventurer/explorer, a doctor, a veterinarian, a genealogist, an inventor, and a mother. Probably influenced by the books I read!
Lynn: I wanted to be a teacher. I loved school and had some great teachers, but instead I became a secretary and later a court reporter. I was a clown-magician at a few kids’ parties and had a desire to go to clown college, but it wasn’t a practical career for raising a family.
(Note: It’s funny that Maria has a clown past, too. She took clowning classes and did parties.)
Maria: I dreamt of having my own cartoon TV show just like Baby Daphne. In the ‘60s, she was the grooviest, hippest witch on morning TV. My kooky dream came to fruition when Kathy and I did two episodes of “Homework Hotline” on KLCS, PBS-Los Angeles. We were the quirky “Literary Witches of Craggy Cove.” Kathy played Batsy and I was Frizzelda. We didn’t get to show morning cartoons, but we taught kids how to cook up suspense in their writing and how to brainstorm story ideas (in a graveyard with our sidekick Brain—a pet brain on a leash!) Off camera, Lynn was our cue card girl.
2. What books have influenced your life the most?
Kathy: As a child, I loved the classics. But Little Women was one of my very favorites and Jo March was my favorite character.
Lynn: I loved the Oz books, “Call of the Wild,” and sci-fi. In seventh grade we had to read “The Good Earth” by Pearl Buck. It was one of my favorites. When my kids had to read it in high school, I read it with them and fell in love with Olan and Wang Lung all over again.
Maria: On library day, my ghost-o-meter pointed me straight to the bookshelf where ghost stories beckoned. Even as a grown-up, I still love a spooky tale that keeps me on the edge of my seat!
3. When did you know you were going to be a writer? What prompted you to take your writing seriously?
Lynn: I had planned to write when my kids were grown and life wasn’t so hectic, but when Amy was in third grade and struggling to get her Accelerated Reader points, I started reading aloud to her. In the middle of “James and the Giant Peach,” I was so captivated by Roald Dahl’s amazing storytelling that I decided I wanted to write for children, too, and soon after began studying the craft of writing.
Maria: I was watching an episode of “Little House on the Prairie,” the one titled, “The Legacy,” and I began to wonder what legacy I’d leave for future generations. Then I blurted out, “Words. I’ll leave words. For children.” I’ve been writing ever since.
Kathy: I’ve wanted to create stories since I was a kid, but it has taken many, many years of reading and writing, and I’m not sure I’m serious enough about it yet.
4. Tell us how BBH McChiller got started.
Maria: It was Halloween and some of us at critique began talking about our childhood fears—monsters, witches, spiders, masks, clowns. After awhile, we knew what we had to do…write a story about a boy who is afraid of monsters, but who is also a monster magnet. In a bat’s eye, we had a main character with a problem. And once the monsters were on the loose, there was no turning back.
Lynn: I’m not sure who came up with the pseudonym of BBH McChiller. “McChiller” sounded like a kid-friendly name for a spooky mystery, and BBH is an acronym for Books Born Here, the name of our critique group.
5. What inspired you to write “The Monster Moon Series”?
Maria: During our brainstorming sessions we’d toss out so many great, fun, spooky ideas, we soon realized we had a series.
6. How do the three of you go about writing the books in your series?
Maria: Just like any mad scientist, we concocted a formula. We plot each chapter/scene, then each of us writes an assigned chapter. The rule is to write no more than five pages. The chapter must include the plot points and end with a page-turner hook. We also have a green light to fill in the gaps. We come up with some pretty crazy stuff that sparks more ideas. How many times did I say “chapter” in this paragraph?
Lynn: We meet at restaurants and coffee shops. Once the skeleton of the whole manuscript is done, together we comb through it line by line and weave it together into one storytelling voice.
For “Curse at Zala Manor,” it took about nine months to finish the first draft. Then we locked ourselves in a suite at the historic Mission Inn in Riverside, CA, and revised and tweaked our little monster from sun-up to midnight.
Kathy: We tossed out complete chapters, wrote new ones, punched up sentences, picked stronger verbs.
A private late-night tour of the catacombs beneath the Mission Inn gave us a realistic and spooky atmosphere for the dark tunnels and recesses under the fictitious Zala Manor.
7. Which character in “Curse at Zala Manor” did you enjoy writing the most and why?
Lynn: It’s a toss-up between AJ and Aunt Zsofia. I loved getting into AJ’s head and relating to all the scary situations he had to face. Poor kid had to deal with one pickle after another. On the other hand, Aunt Z is eccentric and oblivious as to what AJ has to deal with. She’s just “out there,” so it’s fun writing about her. I have to add that it was a hoot writing about the bullies, especially at the end!
My favorite character in “Secret of Haunted Bog” is AJ’s prankster friend, Freddy ‘Hangman’ Gallows. Oh, and Dr. Fu’s voice is always popping up in my mind—Ah-ha!
Maria: For me personally, I love all of the characters, but I especially have a soft spot in my heart for Vlad, the pirate rat. And the school bullies in “Curse at Zala Manor” because they are so darn mean, we wanted our readers to leap out of their chairs and cheer when Calvin, Dirk, and Runt get what they deserve in the climax of the story. Here’s a hint—RATS, lots of ‘em. YIKERS!
Kathy: I love Vlad, who is in every book of this series. I enjoy his quirky antics, his pirate dialect, his singing, his arrogance, his smarts, his snarkiness, and last but not least, his sensitivity. He truly is a well-rounded rat.
8. Where do you get ideas for your books?
Maria: Most of them come from our three cobwebby brains. LOL!
Lynn: I get my ideas from real life people and events, then add the “what if” aspect. With Kathy and Maria, we bounce ideas off one another, which leads to another idea, and another, seemingly into infinity, infinity, infinity. Honestly, we’ve come up with so many ideas that we’ll never find enough time to write all of them. Dang!
9. How long did you work on your first book? How many rewrites did you do before you finally felt it was ready?
Maria: Coincidently, we completed the first draft of “Curse at Zala Manor” in nine months. Only instead of a baby, we gave birth to our first book in the series—well, at least the first draft of our manuscript. We lost count of the revisions, but let’s just say oodles and poodles of rewrites.
10. Tell us about your path to publication.
Lynn: We submitted to Stargazer, a small, independent press in Corona, California. Stargazer focuses on books for the educational publications market, both fictional and nonfiction. Our manuscript was acquired with the stipulation that we’d write a teacher’s manual to accompany the book.
11. How has your life changed since you got published?
Kathy: I was first published before going to medical school, so I didn’t change what I was doing. My life became classes, lots of reading of medical texts, exams, and clinical rotations. There’s probably a book idea hidden somewhere in that experience. Probably among the corpses in the anatomy lab.
Maria: Not much. I’ve been involved with our local “Reading Buddies” program, so I’ve been doing school visits for years. The only difference is that I have a published book to take along with me to school visits now, which is quite nice!
Lynn: I wish I could say I’m making a living at writing, but that’s not the case, and I knew all along that I wasn’t going to get rich as an author. For me, the rewards of writing for children come in doing school visits and interacting with the readers, promoting literacy, receiving fan mail, and doing book signings.
12. What’s your typical day as a writer like? Do you have any writing-related rituals or quirks?
Kathy: I usually write in a comfy chair in a quiet place, using my laptop, with my dogs sleeping on one side and a Coke Zero on the other side.
Maria: Quirky is my middle name. Since I love spooky stories and Halloween is my ultra favorite holiday, I keep my Halloween stuff all around my work space. My screensaver is the Haunted Mansion from Disneyland! And our dogs’ names are Jack and Sally from “Nightmare Before Christmas.”
Lynn: Sometimes I think I should have followed through with my clown aspirations because my life is a three-ring circus. I don’t have a strict writing schedule. I write when I can. At times I’ll only get a paragraph or a page written. On a good day, I can produce twenty pages. I work on more than one project at a time. Life events like weddings, births, illnesses, and funerals take precedence over writing, of course. It’s quite a juggling act (pardon the cliché).
13. Do you encounter challenges in your writing life? What are these challenges and how do you overcome them?
Maria: My biggest challenge is finding “balance.” I can get so involved in writing that I sometimes neglect friends and housework. Dishes can wait, but relationships are important, so I’m working on that, and so far so good.
Kathy: For me, getting an idea is easy, but putting it down the way I visualize it is much harder. It takes revision after revision after revision! And then some! It’s hard to get it right! But, working together in a writing group makes it much more fun, especially when we’re throwing out wild, crazy ideas for scenes and characters.
Lynn: I tend to use the same old blah words over and over again. I call them my “training wheel words.” After spending hours in the thesaurus, which interrupts the flow of writing, I learned to leave the training wheel words alone for the first draft and revise later.
Another challenge is “creative tension,” where I worry about being able to write the next story as well as or better than the last one. With Kathy and Maria, creative tension is minimal. I’m confident that whatever problems crop up, we’ll come up with a solution, especially once we start joking around and brainstorming together.
14. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Lynn: When I’m not writing, I like to read, work on altered art books (a type of scrapbooking), garden, do school visits, and hang out with family and friends.
Maria: Recently, I’ve discovered scrapbooking. I’m having a ball tapping into that creative side of myself.
Kathy: Anything I can! Ha! Actually, I’ve always loved travel, reading, gardening, exploring bookstores, and spending time with family.
15. What have you learned from writing “The Monster Moon Series”?
Maria: I learned to stay out of graveyards at midnight! And in “Secret of Haunted Bog,” I now run the other way when I see signs that say, “DANGER: Do not enter!” But, seriously, working on both books was better than any writing workshop we could have taken!
Kathy: Working together on the series with such talented co-writers has been like a professional writing course. I learned so much by our discussions. The more we discussed our writing, the better the scenes became!
Lynn: Writing with my ZomBuddies (a term coined while working on Zala Manor), I’ve learned from their strengths. For example, Kathy taught me to set up the beginning of each chapter to reorient the reader where the prior chapter left off. She also stresses that words with the most punch or intensity should be placed at the end of a sentence, and, likewise, at the end of a paragraph.
We call Maria the Queen of Metaphors. She’s trained her brain to think in similes and metaphors. So, I learned how important figurative language is from her. Unfortunately, we can’t use all the great descriptions she comes up with because too much gets distracting, but just the right amount enhances a story. She also has a great sense of humor and is a kid at heart. She reminds us how important it is to get in touch with our inner child when writing for children.
I’ve also learned that when we work together, I can be my silly, goofball self and not hold back on expressing wacky ideas. When your inhibitions are gone, the creative spirit is free to soar. I guess that’s why creative tension isn’t a problem when we work together.
16. Your books deal with frightful and scary monsters. Can you share with us your scariest experience?
Maria: Oh, did I mention eccentric is also my middle name? Years ago, a writer friend and I decided to write a book about haunted houses. Imagine Lucy and Ethel meet the ghoulies. One of the haunted houses we stayed at was a three-story, renovated bed and breakfast from the prohibition era. At midnight, we followed a woman who claimed to be a medium up the staircase to the third floor. No flashlights. Just a flickering candle. Did I mention that we were stupid, too? During the séance, the medium began to speak in a gruff male voice. I giggled and the spirit or whoever yelled, “Why are you laughing at me?” My friend’s eyes grew wide. I froze and replied in a Scooby-Doo/Shaggy-type voice, “I’m not laughing.” I pretended like I was coughing. The spirit must have bought it, because he went on telling his story. Oh, did I mention, it was a foggy night and our car’s engine cut out as we arrived at the mansion? Talk about a red flag! By the way, we never wrote the book.
Lynn: I was a teenager. One night my friend took off with some guy and left me alone in the back seat of a car in a vacant parking lot with the guy’s friend, a Charles Manson-type dude. He flipped out when I wouldn’t kiss him and put a curse on me, predicted terrible things that would happen in my life, and said he’d always be watching me. He even kicked me in my back once I got out of the car and was leaving with my friend. I’m fortunate that’s all he did to me.
Kathy: I don’t really have a scariest experience, but as a child I always imagined something was under my bed. Also, back when I was a little kid visiting grandparents, everyone had to use an outhouse on the old family farm, and once again, I imagined something creepy lived inside the outhouse hole. Now, if you’re a kid, alone, at dusk, and gotta go, that’s pretty scary! Funny what our imaginations can do!
17. Are you currently working on any other projects? How many more books do you have planned in the series?
Lynn: We’ve just started the next Monster Moon book, “Trapped in Pirate Time.” After that comes “The Legend of Monster Island.” Another five titles are planned, plus more ideas on the back burner.
As for my own projects, I just sent out a chapter book, “The Curse of the Double Digits,” and am in the middle of the first revision of “The Pink Bus,” a YA novel.
Kathy: I’m always working on other projects, but not all of them are writing. Like many writers, it is hard to find time to write as much as I should, but, actually, I’m working on a couple different middle grade novels inspired by my travels. And, of course, we’ve started the next book in the Monster Moon Series.
Maria: Aside from working on the series, we each work on our individual projects. I recently completed my middle grade novel, “Butterfly Hollow,” and just started a new project about the RMS Titanic.
18. Who designs your awesome book covers?
Maria: Greg Martin. He’s ultra talented and has a long list of credits to his illustrating career, including Disney Studios and Hanna-Barbera. Greg has also taught at the Pasadena Art College of Design. You can visit his website at www.gregmartinstudio.com
19. What advice would you like to give to aspiring writers?
Kathy: NEVER give up! Tell the stories you HAVE to tell!
Lynn: Learn to be thick skinned and be open minded to constructive criticism. If you’re writing to get rich, you might be in for a big letdown. If you’re passionate about writing for children, continue to study the craft of writing, practice refining your skills, and make perseverance a priority.
Maria: Read as much as you can. Find a good critique group, then commit to it. I’ve learned the most from all of the great writing that comes from the talented members of our Riverside critique group. We’ve been meeting every other week for eight years. And most of all—don’t ever, ever give up.
20. What would you like to say to your young readers? Is there any advice that you would like to give them?
Kathy: READ! READ! READ! It will open the world up to you and to your imagination.
Lynn: Read what you’re passionate about, even if it’s comic books. The more you read, the easier it gets. Kids are able to listen to someone reading to them at a level a couple grades higher than their reading level, so get your mom or dad to read aloud to you. Also, try taking turns reading to each other. There are so many great stories out there, so I hope you don’t miss out!
Maria: Believe in your dreams—and never stop reading!
For more information about the authors, you can click on their websites:
Thank you to the fabulous witches of Craggy Cove for the interview. Stay tuned this Saturday for a surprise ending to Monster Moon Week!
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