Jul 3, 2023

Inspired by the World: a Q&A with Martha Brockenbrough

interview by Erin Nuttall

The thing I love most about Martha Brockenbrough’s writing is that she is unafraid. Yes, she’s imaginative, funny, thoughtful, and precise which all make her stories a joy to read, but to write bravely is a skill that few have and put Martha’s work on another plane. She slides easily between age ranges, genres, and styles. Her work explores difficult subjects in relatable and often funny ways. Importantly, she never takes her readers for granted and speaks to them as equals. —Erin Nuttall

Image of the cat who inspired Frank. A black and white cat standing on its hind legs on the couch.

KidLit Craft: What inspired you to write the Frank series? 

Martha Brockenbrough: A picture. A picture inspired the first 2,000 words. And the next, and the next…

I was in the midst of drafting Unpresidented, my biography of Donald Trump. That was a challenging book to write for many reasons, not the least of which was a tight deadline. I had to go away for a weekend for an athletic competition of one of my daughters, and I couldn’t bring all of my research with me—and I really needed a break, anyway. I saw the photo of Frank the Cat on Twitter, and he charmed me utterly. I could relate to this cat … he seemed a bit forlorn, possibly unsatisfied, but also self-assured. I decided that weekend to see how it felt to write a chapter book when I wasn’t watching my daughter compete. I had so much fun doing it that I wrote a couple more. And then I came up with a list of additional stories I wanted to write. Then I shared it with friends who’d published chapter books and they loved the stories—so I sent it off to my agent.

When I do school visits, I show kids Frank and ask them what they think he wants. And then I show them how stories emerge from distinct characters who have specific desires. It’s a lot of fun—and the kids come up with great stuff!

KidLit Craft: Frank is an adorable curmudgeon beloved by my 6yo nephew & both teen daughters. How do you make someone so grumpy be so likable?

Martha Brockenbrough: I’m so glad they like him. The key to Frank’s grumpiness is that he loves the world. He just wants it to be his way, and that can be pretty relatable for all of us. Who doesn’t like to have their ball with a bell, their feather on a stick, their Whiskies, and their window—whatever those things might be for a person? Living with others is of course a source of great joy. And it can also be a source of potential growth for us. And that is what these books are about, how we grow to understand the nature of love by figuring out how to share our lives with others, whether they’re human, feline, canine, or something else.

KidLit Craft: This is your first series. What ups and downs have you discovered in writing it?

Martha Brockenbrough: It’s hard for me to think of anything I’ve ever had more fun writing, and the third book makes me proudest of all. The first book is about loving someone enough to let go of some of your sharp edges. The second book is about romantic love and how weird it makes you feel. And the third is about discovering that you’re lovable, even when you make a big mistake. So it was fun and also meaningful to my inner philosopher. 

This is also an episodic series, as opposed to one that has an arc that crosses books. So that is an easier writing challenge (and probably a better strategy for chapter books). 
The hard part is that most series don’t get to go on forever. This one will end after three, and part of me wishes I could always write about these characters in their little world forever. But the fact that all things end is what gives love its true potency—that’s something I thought about a lot in another of my books, The Game of Love and Death.

Cover of the book Frank and the Masked Cat by Martha Brockenbrough featuring Frank the cat staring lovingly at a raccoon

KidLit Craft: You explore some of the same themes–privacy, love, acceptance–in Frank and the Masked Cat as you do in Frank and the Bad Surprise. Why did you choose these themes?

Martha Brockenbrough: I think when you’re writing from the heart, the themes that animate you in your life tend to emerge organically. We can shape them in revision. But all of my fiction is about love. Not just romantic love. Love of life, love of the self, love of found family … Did I choose the themes or did they choose me? Who’s to say. But I will never tire of reading about love.

As far as privacy goes, one of the lines from a Frank book that won’t be published is one I stole from my elder daughter. When she was very little, I was peeing, and she came into the bathroom with me and said, “We’re having privacy TOGETHER.” 

It made me laugh, of course, but it was also a hard time in life. I had no privacy, and as much as I loved that little girl, I did wish for just a few minutes, some of the time. That’s not always possible and that’s where love involves some labor. 

Privacy was also super-important to me when I was a kid. I was one of five children born in five years, and insisting on taking a private bath starting when I was about five years old was my first step in becoming an individual. I’m not the oldest kid, but I was the first to do this—and so it is very true to what I needed then and now.

KidLit Craft: You have a new character in this book, Cap’n Keith, the parrot. What is his role in the story?

Martha Brockenbrough: His role is to irritate, first and foremost. Loud eaters who interrupt and mimic. But he also teaches Frank something useful. And he is vulnerable (in part because he smells like chicken). So Frank comes to see Cap’n Keith in multiple dimensions. He’s not just the annoying possible criminal that Frank first assumed.

KidLit Craft: The illustration really adds to the story. Do you work with the illustrator–Jon Lau–to make that happen?

Martha Brockenbrough: We did work together. His first Frank wasn’t a tuxedo cat, and I thought it was important to the story. So through our editor, I conveyed that. I love leaving room for illustrators, and I never specified the gender of the humans. I was delighted to see that Frank lives in a house with two men. That felt just right. For the third book, I am leaving one absolutely key bit up to Jon. I don’t want to say what it is because it’s such a funny moment and I don’t want to spoil it. But it makes me smile just to think of it.

KidLit Craft: Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? Pantser, plotter, or plants?

Martha Brockenbrough: Plants, for sure. I like knowing generally what the shape of my stories are. When you know what the character wants in the beginning, you can sort of figure out the end. The process of getting there is where most of the magic happens, and I don’t like to plot everything for a few reasons: 1) I never come up with all the best ideas in order or at once; 2) I have found that makes me likely to have the plot wag the dog rather than the character drive the story; 3) I love being surprised by what emerges when my mind is enmeshed with the characters and also unclenched. It’s always so exciting to make those connections, and they are very likely to happen on the fly for me.

KidLit Craft: Character first or plot first?

Martha Brockenbrough: Plots alone aren’t interesting, for the most part. Like, if I type: “The dying sun swallowed the earth,” you are not going to feel it or burst into tears even though that is the biggest possible plot imaginable. It’s the characters that make something matter. So, character first. And that’s hard, because how do you get to know your character, TRULY, without putting them through the paces of plot? These are inseparable elements of a story. The plot gets its meaning from the character, who is transformed by the plot. 

If you don’t really have the character in hand (and in heart), then you will have plot holes. Plot holes are actually character gaps. That’s what I mean by the plot wagging the dog–you can tell when you’re reading something that the writer knew it needed to happen for the story, and they’ve maybe taken a shortcut or a weird narrative contortion to get there. This is where stories sometimes take thinking, and why it can be hard for people to write as quickly as they type. What does your character want? What do they fear? What settings and situations might they encounter to optimize their suffering and growth? That is very often something a character will AVOID, so getting them there can be tricky.

KidLit Craft: What is your revision process?

Martha Brockenbrough: I’m not afraid to throw something out and start over. I don’t love doing that, but my goal is to have the best possible book. The thing you need to revise well is to be able to see your manuscript. So, depending on the type of book, I might use a spreadsheet to track various elements. This helps me see a lot of moving pieces at once. I might also, with a novel, use an A.I. tool to assess the shape of the plot and the pacing. I of course get feedback from friends. I read out loud—this might be the best tool yet (and if you really don’t want to read your work, you can have it read to you by various tools). You want to 1) see what you have; 2) see what it wants to be; 3) identify steps you need to take to turn 1 into 2.

KidLit Craft: You write a wide variety of books both in age range & genre. From non-fiction to fantasy to mystery & YA to MG to Chapter Books. What skills have you found work across boundaries? What skills have you had to develop?

Martha Brockenbrough: Strong writing chops work across boundaries. What voice do I need to tell this story? This is where reading a lot, and reading like a writer, is essential. There are so many ways to write and so many ways to tell a story, and having the dexterity to choose the right vocabulary and syntax for the story is something that comes with permission and practice.

KidLit Craft: Please share a little about your new MG mystery, To Catch a Thief.  Did you write it at the same time you were writing Frank? How do you balance multiple projects?

Cover of the book To Catch a Thief by Martha Brockenbrough published April 2023. The cover shows a girl picking a lock in the rain with a dog standing guard.

I wrote the Frank books much earlier, although I did some revision at the same time as I was working on To Catch a Thief. Again, that book was a break for me during another challenging nonfiction project, a YA work called Future Tense: How We Made Artificial Intelligence and How It Will Change Everything.

Sometimes when you’re feeling burned out, it’s because you’ve been deep inside a project for too long and need a break. Sometimes, it’s because of other life things. If the burnout comes from spending too much time inside one project, taking a break for another one is useful. I don’t like to go from one YA novel to another. That feels like work avoidance. But if I’m exercising a different sort of story mind, that’s a very productive break! It’s like going from squats to bicep curls. Both important, but not things you can do forever.

KidLit Craft: What’s next on the horizon for your fans?

Cover of the book Future Tense by Martha Brockenbrough. This book will be published in March 2024

Future Tense, as I mentioned. This will be out in March of 2024. I wish it were sooner, but publishing is a slow process for good reason. If you’re wondering about how AI works, where it came from, and where it’s likely to go (places wonderful and terrible), then this book is for you. I also have two nonfiction picture books coming from Knopf, one on Charles Darwin’s love of orchids (but really a book about the symbiotic relationship of living things, human and otherwise), and one on the Saharan dust stream and the connections between the driest place on earth and the wettest—and all the life forms in between. 

I have a new middle grade novel underway, a few picture books on submission, and an idea for my next YA. There’s always something asking for my attention, even when I am most definitely BUSY. My ideas have no respect for privacy, apparently!

Martha Brockenbrough (rhymes with broken toe) is the author of more than twenty books for young readers, including YA fiction and nonfiction, picture books, a middle grade mystery, and a chapter book series.

Photo of author Martha Brockenbrough.

A faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts, she’s also the founder of National Grammar Day (every March 4), and she’s written game questions for Cranium and Trivial Pursuit.

The former editor of MSN.com, Martha has interviewed lots of celebrities, including the Jonas Brothers and Slash. Her work has been published in a variety of places, including The New York Times. She also wrote an educational humor column for the online encyclopedia Encarta for nine years.

She lives in Seattle with her family. Her favorite kind of food is Indian, although Thai runs a close second. Besides writing, she likes dogs, cats, cooking, weight-lifting, and laughing. 

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