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.
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: 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.
A: 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 childrens writer and the steps you are taking to achieve it.
A: 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.