Posted by: nancyisanders | February 20, 2013

Author Interview: Martha Bennett Stiles


Meet Author Martha Bennett Stiles!
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I grew up in Virginia on the 7-mile wide James River estuary, around a bend from the location of my first book, One Among the Indians. I graduated from Smithfield Virginia’s high school two years early, which I do not recommend, then worked my way through college, beginning at William and Mary, which I loved, finishing at the University of Michigan, to which I owe even more. I majored in chemistry and worked for DuPont until I married Martin Stiles, a post doctoral fellow who became first, a UofM chemistry professor and editor of the Journal of the American Society, then a Bourbon County, KY Thoroughbred breeder. My MG, Sarah the Dragon Lady, and YA, Kate of Still Waters, were two of my rewards for the latter phase.

It was at my husband’s urging that I signed up for writing classes at UofM. It was his Guggenheim Fellowship that enabled me to write my third historical novel and most earnestly intended book, Darkness Over the Land, which is dedicated to our late son, John. Now a widow, I live in Lexington, Kentucky.


Featured Book:
Sailing to Freedom
by Martha Bennett Stiles
Henry Holt & Company, 2012

Twelve-year-old Ray’s in trouble from the moment he & his monkey, Allie, board The Newburyport Beauty. But when bounty hunters come looking for a runaway slave, it’s Ray & Allie who must save hideaway, crew, vessel, and all. Meanwhile, the runaway’s 11-year-old brother, Ogun, makes his desperate way from South Carolina to Canada on foot.

Q: Do you ever base characters in your books on people you know or have known in your past?
A quick mental check of my books turns up no specific portraits. Here and there a character will behave in a way that vividly recalls something about someone, but by the next page or even paragraph, the two are otherwise unlike. The way Captain Ingle teaches Sailing to Freedom’s Ray to tie knots is taken straight from my impertinent younger sister Elizabeth Leal’s lesson to me on how to truss a chicken. In The Strange House at Newburyport, the first written of my books but the second published, the heroines’ Grandmother was originally my Great-aunt Martha Bennett, but my editor (Jean Vestal) was so dismayed by her effectiveness relative to her granddaughters’ that she persuaded me to shift that balance, one of the urgings for which I will always owe her.

Other matches are more elusive. Lonesome Road’s Lorena is based on a girl in the next older group at the Girl Scout camp I attended for two weeks–how she looked and sounded. I never exchanged words with her, but I vividly remember a skit she performed for everybody in which she played a hero climbing a tower. She ran round and round nothing, giving the illusion of an exhausting climb. I remember her voice and diction from her lament, which no one took seriously, that her parents didn’t love her, were going on a trip so she had to spend some more time in the camp.

In The Star in the Forest, my heroine’s sweet, sensible friend Brunehaut is based on my sweet, sensible schoolmate Spencer Haverty, who sat beside me on the school bus and listened to me with saintly patience. Spencer shows up again in Kate of Still Waters’ friend Hetty Anne Engle. Lonesome Road’s detective looks and sounds like a man who ran, successfully, I’m glad to say, for Ann Arbor, Michigan’s city council. I went to a Candidate’s Tea for him once, and I spoke to him once in the market, and that is my total exposure to him, as I never attended a council meeting. Island Magic’s grandfather was inspired by UofM’s Professor Roy Cowden, and my narrator is named for his grandson, but the character suffered a sea change after my sensible editor, Jonathan Lanman, pointed out that as my intended audience was David’s age, maybe I should give David some of the good lines.

Q: Describe the journey you’’ve taken as a writer to experience breakthrough to land a contract with a big publisher.
My first sale was a story about a duck who learns, of necessity, to ice skate: “Serena’s Surprise,” Humpty Dumpty’s Magazine, November l957 (later anthologized by Ginn Textbooks, who never sent me a copy but paid me as much as I had been paid by Humpty Dumpty). I read the original acceptance letter at the mailbox and did not run but bounded all the way to the front door. Acceptance was conditional on my cutting my manuscript in half. I did not argue.

Now a Published Author, I was able to acquire an agent, who sold my historical novel One Among the Indians to Dial Press. Dial was just beginning to publish for children, which increased their availability to beginners like me. The book appeared as my husband and I sailed for his Guggenheim year, and on our ship was a German publisher, who suggested that I submit my book to his firm. I signed their contract, but after my return to Michigan, my first letter from them was not the promised copy of said contract now signed by them, but the news that their firm was not going to produce any more children’s books.

While in Munich, we had been introduced to a writer who urged me to submit my book to her Swiss publisher, Schwabenverlag. I explained that Allein Unter Indianern was already bespoken. Apparently my German was rotten, because she submitted her own copy, and scarcely had the first firm written me their Dear John, than I got an offer from Schwabenverlag. It seems that Swiss and German boys have been fans of Native Americans ever since they began reading James Fenimore Cooper. During Jamestown’s celebration of her 400th year, Authors Guild-iUniverse reprinted One Among the Indians as a paperback, so it is again available, mirabile dictu.

Q: What is one word of advice you received as a writer that you would like to share with others?

Q: Share one goal you have as a children’s writer and the steps you are taking to achieve it.
I would like my books to be honest and, without getting caught at it, helpful. Sarah the Dragon Lady, for instance, handles some things well that at her age I really muffed.

The steps I take to approach my goal are to keep at it and to keep at it.


  1. Lovely interview, Martha and Nancy. I enjoyed learning about you and your book.

    • Grateful for all these comments, I feel honor-bound to say that as soon as I got an agent I sent her my accummulated short stories and she rejected every one..

  2. Thank you, Martha, for sharing these interesting tidbits about your authoring journey. You made the path to getting an agent sound easy (simply publishing one magazine story), but I’m sure your excellent novel writing was the basis for that agent’s decision. Congratulations again on SAILING TO FREEDOM! I loved reading it. An exciting, fascinating story–perfect for Black History Month. And thank you, Nancy, for hosting this interesting interview.

    • Easy then doesn’t translate to easy now. The times they have a’changed.
      If my current products were as useful as Evelyn Christensen’s forty (40) published puzzle books, I’d sit back and smile.

  3. Nice interview. Thanks for posting it.

  4. Thanks, Martha, for sharing your writing journey with us. What an inspiration you are. And congratulations on your amazing new book!!!!

  5. Lovely interview and interesting to read about your new MG, Martha. Thank you, Nancy, for featuring this fine author.

  6. Martha, even your interviews are amazing. Don’t ever stop writing.

    • Thanks, Ben. If you think my interviews are amazing, you should see my attempt to do the income taxes (which is what I am supposed to be doing this minute but but but… I’m as much up a tree as your Flies With Eagles Naa’ki.

  7. Hi Nancy. Thanks for this interesting interview with Martha.
    Hi Martha. It’s wonderful that you’ve managed to publish your novels and get an agent. Best wishes for your new book.

    • I confess I’m still wonder-ing how I got so lucky myself. But I enjoyed the work, even if I hadn’t managed to sell (and indeed, I’ve written a lot that I DIDN’T manage to sell)

  8. Great interview, Martha!! Hope the new book does fantastic. It’s a rip-roaring adventure yarn.

  9. Enjoyable interview Martha and Nancy. It’s always nice to hear other authors journeys as they inspire us all. Congratulations on your new book!

  10. Oh, I love it! As your “impertinent sister” I remember well the lesson, just as Mum had taught me! I remember the look on your face as well!! Atlas humbled, if you will. As someone already noted, even your interviews are so interesting! I have always been in awe, not only of your beauty and your talent, but of your chutzpah in getting your work published! It has been such an honor every now and then to provide a snippet of usefulness to you. And I laughed out loud!

  11. Fantastic interview. Just confirms how amazing you are and have always been.

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