Posted by: nancyisanders | April 16, 2008

Author Interview: Terri Hoover Dunham

Meet Author Terri Hoover Dunham!

Web site:

Terri Hoover Dunham is the author of The Legend of Papa Noel: A Cajun Christmas Story, released by Sleeping Bear Press in 2006. She has also published articles, essays, book reviews and poetry in many local and national magazines and newspapers, including The Louisiana Review, Louisiana Literature, 2005 Jubilee Anthology, 2006 Jubilee Anthology (Nicholls University anthology), Mississippi Magazine, Backwood Homes, St. Anthony’s Messenger, The Annals of St. Anne De Beaupre’, Victoria, Whispering Wind, The Baton Rouge Record, Grit, and Cappers. Ms. Dunham has also written book reviews for the Baton Rouge newspaper, The Advocate, for the past fifteen years. Terri is a wife and the mother of two sons and has worked as a substitute teacher, secretary, receptionist, title clerk, cashier, office manager, orthodontist assistant, hostess in a seafood restaurant, assistant to a college professor, jewelry party planner, Avon lady, baby sitter and most recently as an assistant at “Potteryworks.” In addition to writing, Terri is pursuing a degree in Liberal Arts and enjoys gardening, drawing, making jewelry and of course reading.

Featured Book:
The Legend of Papa Noel
by Terri Hoover Dunham
Illustrated by Laura Knorr
Sleeping Bear Press, 2006

You may know Dasher, Dancer, Prancerand Vixen. But have you heard of Etienne, Emille, Alcee and Alphonse?

Around the world Santa Claus has many names. But in a deep, swampy bayou of Louisiana, he’s kown as Papa Noel. In such a hot and humid place, there can be no sleds or reindeer, so Papa Noel rides the river in a boat that’s pulled by eight alligators, with a snowy white one named Nicollette in the lead.

Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing a regional book?
A: The main advantage of writing a regional book, which to me means a book set in the region where you live, is the enormous amount of promotional opportunities you will have. Local newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations are more than happy to promote a regional book. They love to elaborate on the setting, dialect and local history or landmarks mentioned in the book. Likewise, books stores, gift shops, etc. are always excited to host a local author. Readers also enjoy books with a local flavor. (My bookshelf is a fine example of this.)

Another advantage of writing a regional book is that you are following the advice, “Write what you know.” If you live in a particular area or are of a certain culture, you have the inside scoop. Also, you will get the dialect dead on. And you know what kinds of flora and fauna to include in your story. Some of the plants and animals mentioned in The Legend of Papa Noel are cypress knees, stumps and logs, moss, squirrels, frogs, nutria, snakes and of course alligators. Now, doesn’t that paint a picture in your mind?

In addition, I think it is fun to research and write about something I am a part of. In The Legend of Papa Noel, the Cajuns along the bayous and river go out and build huge bonfires along the Mississippi river to light the way for Papa Noel. Digging more into the history of this tradition was fascinating, and all the more so because it takes place in my own back yard. Also, you will find when you are researching an area, if your contacts know you are from that vicinity they are more willing to help.

Now for the disadvantages: When writing a regional book, you have to be careful not to have such a narrow focus that the book only appeals to a very small demographic. Too narrow a focus limits your promotional efforts, i.e. book signings, appearances, book reviews, publicity and of course would also limit sales and royalties. You must be sure your book will have a wide-ranging appeal. Publishing companies of course look at the bottom line, that is, if they think the book will make a profit. I must admit, I didn’t think about marketability while writing The Legend of Papa Noel. Nobody was more surprised than me when Papa Noel was reviewed in The New York Times, or in newspapers all around the country. I really thought only people in Louisiana would be interested in a book about the Cajun Santa Claus. But I’m sure my editor and publishing company knew all along that it would have a wider audience. Ah, live and learn. Now when I have a book idea, I do think, “Who will be interested in this book?” Another thing I want to emphasize: If you are writing about a particular region or culture, you must get your facts straight, which of course is easier if you are familiar with that area or culture. What I mean is don’t place a crocodile in the middle of the swamp or an alligator in the bush in Australia.

Q: Describe part of the research process it took to write this manuscript.
A: Before beginning the writing of The Legend of Papa Noel, I googled “bonfires, Christmas Eve bonfires, Papa Noel, Cajun Christmas” and anything else I thought might mention the tradition of lighting the bonfires to light Papa Noel’s way down the mighty Mississippi. I printed everything I found. Then I visited my local libraries, looking for books on Christmas traditions, anything to do with Cajuns, Papa Noel, bonfires, etc. I checked out every book I could find on my subjects. I also purchased books, which will no doubt come in handy again. (I’m sure this is not my last Cajun book.) And then I read and studied all of the information I’d collected. I made copies of the pages from the books (and magazines) that mentioned anything which I might could use in my story and made a bibliography of my resource material. I highlighted the pertinent info on the copies. And I read and reread my research, and then I did more research. After I started writing the story, I found more things to research, like what the Cajuns would have eaten on Christmas Eve. Of course, you never use all of the info you find, you don’t need all of it, and even if you did, you would not want your story to read like an encyclopedia.

Another part of my research was finding names for the alligators that pull Papa Noel’s pirogue down the river. For this, I called my mom, my aunt and my great-aunt (the Cajun side of my family) and found wonderful French names from my family tree, which gave me an even stronger connection with the alligators, which are named after my uncles and grandfathers.

Q: What information would you like to share about writing a picture book with a holiday theme?
A: I’d like to mention that writing a Christmas book in the middle of July can feel a little strange. But, whatever you are writing, you just have to focus on the task at hand whether you are writing during the holiday season your book is set in or not.

Probably the biggest thing to consider is that your marketing is totally different with a seasonal title. I didn’t think about it before the fact, but almost all of my promotions are in November and December, which means I am working my tail off for a couple of months, doing book signings and promotions, but then after Christmas, I am doing nothing promotion-wise. Also, it limits school visits. Nobody really wants to have an author come and read a Christmas book to their students when it’s not Christmastime. I do really enjoy book signings during the Christmas season though, because people are generally in good spirits and children are excited. It’s fun doing Christmas story-times and such. And after Christmas, I have plenty of time to focus on my writing.


  1. Nancy – Thanks for posting this interview. There is so much useful information. I’m looking forward to the next shoemaker installment…a girl can’t have too many shoes!

  2. Yes, isn’t this great for Terri to share all this wonderful insight! (And tomorrow, the shoemaker story will continue…I promise!)

  3. Thanks for the interesting information on Terri and her book. Papa Noel is such a fun read. Children all over the country will be entertained by this wonderful Cajun folk tale. I hope Terri has many more Cajun stories to tell.

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