Monday, August 27, 2018

Tracy Barrett Author Interview

Photo Credit: Jenny Mandeville/Vanderbilt University

Tracy Barrett has written more than twenty books for children and young adults. She’s much too interested in too many things to stick to one genre, and has published nonfiction as well as historical fiction, mysteries, fantasy, time travel, myth and fairy-tale retellings, and contemporary realistic novels. She knows more about ancient Greece and Rome and the European Middle Ages than anyone really needs to know, can read lots of dead languages, and used to jump out of airplanes.

A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study medieval women writers led to the writing of her first novel, the award-winning Anna of Byzantium (Delacorte). Her most recent publications are a contemporary YA novel, Freefall Summer, which draws on her own skydiving adventures; a middle-grade fantasy entitled Marabel and the Book of FateThe Song of Orpheus: The Greatest Greek Myths You Never Heard, a collection of little-known Greek myths; and the popular middle-grade series The Sherlock Files.

From 1999 to 2009 Tracy Barrett was the Regional Advisor for the Midsouth (Tennessee and Kentucky) with the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. She is now SCBWI's Regional Advisor Coordinator.

Tracy grew up near New York City, and went to college in New England and graduate school in California. She holds a Bachelor's Degree with honors in Classics-Archaeology from Brown University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Medieval Italian Literature from the University of California, Berkeley. She was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study medieval women writers and won the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Work-in-Progress Grant in 2005. She taught Italian and other subjects at Vanderbilt University for almost thirty years. She has two grown children and lives in Tennessee with her husband and two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.


Age Range: 12 - 17 year
Grade Level: 7 - 9
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Charlesbridge Teen (April 3, 2018)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1580898017
ISBN-13: 978-1580898010


"This classic coming-of-age story begs to be advertised for summer reading. . . Hand it to fans of Cecil Castellucci’s Don’t Cosplay with My Heart and anything written by Sarah Dessen." —School Library Journal

What’s one thing that readers would be surprised to find out about you?
Even though Freefall Summer is about skydiving, people are often surprised that I used to jump out of airplanes!

Another thing that sometimes surprises readers is that I was a college professor for years—that’s not so surprising, but I didn’t teach creative writing or English literature, which is what people expect from a writer. I taught Italian language and literature.

And I can read several dead languages.

When/how did you realize you had a creative dream or calling to fulfill?
I always liked to write and I got good grades on my writing, but I was intimidated by all the great books I read. I didn’t think I could write anything as good as the books I loved, and I also wasn’t confident that I could come up with a great story. So I started by writing nonfiction (I still love nonfiction and am planning to write more), since the great story is already there! In the process, I found that my writing was getting better by working with editors, and I also discovered that writing is a craft that you can learn. So I relaxed about it, and then the stories started coming to me. This didn’t happen until I was in my thirties, and I wish I’d learned this earlier.

Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that writing was not just a hobby, but that it would be your life and your living?
I know very, very few authors who make a living by writing, including me (even with 23 published books!). Almost all writers have a day job as well. I had a day-job as a college professor for 28 years, and it was only recently that I felt comfortable leaving it. Writing as a hobby is fine if you don’t care if anyone else ever reads what you write (except maybe your family).

Writing has never been a hobby for me. Hobbyists in creative endeavors might enjoy what they’re doing, but if they want to make it an important part of their life and reach an audience, they need to learn the craft, practice it regularly, and recognize that failure is an important part of the learning process. They also need to know the business side of their art.

If you could be a character in any novel you’ve ever read, who would you be and why?
I’d be the young King Arthur (called “Wart”) in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. He had marvelous adventures with Merlin, spending time living as a fish, an ant, a goose, and other animals, and got to live at the height of the chivalric era. Since it was a fictionalized chivalric era, White could leave out all the unpleasant parts about the Middle Ages and concentrate on the fun parts.

Did you learn anything from writing the FREEFALL SUMMER and what was it?
Although Freefall Summer was my twenty-third book, it’s my first young-adult realistic novel set in the modern world, so I had a lot to learn about how to write that kind of book! I read a lot of YA novels—I didn’t really study them, like by taking notes, but I got a feel for the rhythm of the language, the pacing, that kind of thing.

I also had to learn about skydiving in the 2010’s, so I made a tandem skydive. Years ago, when I was jumping, there were no tandem jumps. They were just starting to be tested out. Nowadays, tandem (when you’re attached to an experienced skydiver, who takes care of opening the parachute, landing, and everything in between) is the most common way for people to make a first jump. By contrast, I had to climb out the door of a small plane (all by myself) and hang from the wing strut until my jumpmaster told me to let go! Tandem jumping is a lot easier. For my tandem in 2012, I was strapped to this big guy (he probably weighed 300 lbs.) and when he said it was time to go I just went along for the ride—literally! Having the decision taken out of my hands was much less stressful than climbing out the open door of a small plane. It still makes my palms sweat to think of it!

For those who are unfamiliar with Clancy, how would you introduce her?
Clancy is a 16-year-old girl who lives the unconventional life of being the daughter of a skydiver who operates a dropzone (a place where people can skydive). She’s smart and ambitious, and longs for the day when she can come out from under the thumb of her over-protective father and go away to college. She works at the dropzone packing parachutes to earn college money, while attending an on-line summer school class that she hopes will allow her to graduate early and save on expenses. She’s very practical and responsible—maybe too much so.

Clancy deeply misses her mother, who died in a skydiving accident when Clancy was a little girl (leading to her father’s over-protectiveness), but she has never talked about her mother with her father. Clancy’s scared to open the topic with him for fear of throwing him back into the overwhelming grief he experienced at the time.

What part of Denny did you enjoy writing the most?
I always like a challenge, so I set myself the challenge of having Clancy like two boys at once. They both had to have good qualities (because she’s not the kind of girl who only likes bad boys!) but they had to be quite different from each other. Theo, Clancy’s boyfriend, is sweet and handsome but he’s almost as bad as her father in trying to shield her from life. Denny, who doesn’t know about Clancy’s past, has no reason to be protective, and more importantly, he doesn’t assume that a girl needs protecting just because she’s a girl. So I enjoyed trying to depict him as supportive without being overbearing. I hope I succeeded!

In your novel; FREEFALL SUMMER, can you tell my Nerd community a little about it?
I love retelling fairy tales and ancient myths. My novel The Stepsister’s Tale tells about Cinderella from the point of view of one of her stepsisters, and King of Ithaka is Homer’s Odyssey from the point of view of Odysseus’s son, Telemachos.

Freefall Summer started off as a modern-day retelling of the Greek myth of Icarus: The teenaged Icarus was imprisoned in a tower with his father, Daedalus, who was a great inventor. Daedalus made wings out of seagull feathers and melted wax. He warned his son not to fly too close to the sun, but Icarus ignored his father’s warning. The wax melted, the wings fell apart, and Icarus fell into the ocean and drowned.

Retelling this myth seemed a great way to work skydiving into a novel. It’s about teenagers needing to be independent, and parents’ fear of that independence.

The main character is 16-year-old Clancy. Her father runs a skydiving dropzone, but after her mother dies in an accident, her father says she’ll never jump. Clancy is spending the summer packing parachutes for college money until college freshman Denny starts jumping at the drop zone. Denny assumes Clancy is eighteen, and she doesn't correct him. Her over-protective boyfriend Theo is away for the summer, but is she interested in Denny as more than a friend? Lies pile up and Clancy feels like she’s suffocating. She wants to prove that she can take care of herself and make her own decisions, but how can she do that?

You have the chance to give one piece of advice to your readers. What would it be?
Don’t let other people define you. Be open to considering what the people you love and trust think about you, but no one really knows you but you.

Last thing you made with your own hands?
I took a trip to Iceland last spring and bought some gorgeous wool while I was there. I knitted an adorable baby sweater. It’s tiny, so I have to wait for someone to have a winter baby, because it won’t fit anyone more than a month old!

Most horrifying dream you have ever had?
I have a recurring dream where I’m on an elevator and when the doors open I have no idea where I am or how to get back to where I started from. I have to be someplace or I’ll get left behind wherever I am, and I panic, running around to try to find something familiar. I have no idea what this dream means and I wish it would just quit!

Name one thing you miss about being a kid.
Waking up in the morning in summer break and knowing I have the whole day to do pretty much whatever I want.

Who is the fourth person on your missed calls?
An unidentified number. I don’t answer if I don’t know who’s calling.

What do you think is the single best decision you've made in your life so far?
To major in Classics in college despite people thinking it’s a worthless subject. It’s led me to almost everything good in my life since then

Can you define love in your own way?
Being there for someone no matter what. Well, almost no matter what.

What did you do for your last birthday?
I don’t tend to celebrate birthdays and holidays on the actual day. I’d rather wait until there’s something I want to do and do it then, regardless of the day. I think my husband made me a nice dinner on my birthday.

1. Freefall Summer started out as a retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Icarus (quick summary: He flew too close to the sun and his wings melted; he fell into the ocean and drowned). The story quickly drifted away from that as I got into it, but there are still some elements of the myth there: The basic theme of independence, kids not always paying attention to their parents’ rules, falling through the air, and a lot of names: Carys Edwards, Dave Edwards, Knoxton, and more.

2. I got inspiration for the setting from having been a skydiver.

3. I wrote the first draft of Freefall Summer in 2012, in the National Novel Writing Month  challenge, where you pledge to write a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. Anything you write that fast is bound to be terrible, so it took me a long time to get it into shape where I wanted anyone else to see it.

4. I kept putting Freefall Summer away to work on other projects. One book I wrote after I’d already finished several drafts of Freefall Summer was published before Freefall Summer!

5. Like most other sports, skydiving has its own terminology and traditions. A word that comes up a lot in Freefall Summer is “whuffo,” which means someone who doesn’t skydive, usually a spectator.

6. Although Freefall Summer is my 23rd book, it’s my first realistic YA novel set in the present. I’ve also written nonfiction as well as historical fiction, mysteries, fantasy, time travel, and myth and fairy-tale retellings. Most of it is YA, but some is for younger readers.

7. Sometimes people ask me if the characters in Freefall Summer are based on real people. I used some names of skydivers I know and some stories about them, but there’s no one who’s just like a real skydiver that I knew (or know).

8. Skydiving is actually a very safe sport. I’ve known some jumpers who’ve been injured, but in all the cases, it was their own fault—they were being lazy or weren’t concentrating or were showing off. It’s kind of like downhill skiing: people get sprains and bruises once in a while, but serious injuries are rare and fatalities are extremely uncommon.

9. The original title of Freefall Summer was The Icarus Complex, and then My Freefall Summer, which my agent came up with (I’m terrible at titles). The artist who made the cover thought it looked better without “My” and I agree, and I also like the title better the way it is now. The cover designer made an interesting post about the process of coming up with the cover, which I love!

10. When I was trying to think of a name for Clancy’s father that sounded vaguely like “Daedalus” (Icarus’s father’s name), “Dave Edwards” popped into my head. I thought I’d made it up until I took one of our dogs for a checkup and realized that our vet’s name is David Edwards! I told him about it and he thought it was funny and said it was fine to use his name as long as the character with his name wasn’t a bad guy. I gave him a copy of the book and he liked it—phew!

Freefall Summer had a different journey to publication from any of the other books I’ve written! There were lots of paths that all led to the final book. Let’s see if I can reconstruct it (bear with me, Book Nerds!).

Path 1: My major in college was Classics—the study of the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean (mostly Greece and Rome, but Egypt, Mesopotamia, and other civilizations get tossed in too).

Path 2: While I was in grad school (studying Medieval Italian Literature—I hope I’ve established my nerd credentials by now!), I had a skydiving boyfriend, and I was talked into making a skydive. In fact, I made seventeen.

Path 3: I began writing while I was a college professor. Teaching is a creative occupation, no doubt about it, but it doesn’t allow for a lot of self-expression, and I found that in writing books. One of my favorite things to write were retold fairy tales and Greek myths. Eventually I couldn’t handle both teaching and writing, so I quit teaching in 2012. I had always heard about National Novel Writing Month but I’d never had the time to participate in it. It’s a challenge to write a 50,000-word book in a month, especially while holding down a full-time day job! Now that I wasn’t teaching, I had the time, but what did I want to write? Another Greek myth? I’ve always liked the tale of Icarus (quick summary: He flew too close to the sun and his wings melted; he fell into the ocean and drowned) and I thought it would be fun to try to set it in the modern day, which I’d never before done with a retelling. The others were all set in the past.

So that’s how I wound up writing Freefall Summer.

I had to do lots of research for it:

· I read every version of Icarus that I could find, including some other people’s retellings (I wanted to make sure I didn’t do something that had already been done before).

· I made a tandem skydive, since between the time I had been jumping and now, tandems had become the most common way to learn to jump: You’re attached very securely to an experienced skydiver, who opens the parachute, steers you to the right place, and lands. This was very different from the way I had done it, which was to climb out the door, hold onto the strut holding the wing to the aircraft, look back in the plane, kick your feet up, and let go when your jumpmaster tells you to! So I knew I had to get first-hand experience of a tandem.

· I asked two skydivers who were still active in the sport to read the manuscript to make sure I was using up-to-date terminology, methods, etc.

· I had a doctor read the medical passages.

Since I wrote it so fast, the first draft was terrible. I had to rewrite it several times. I worked on Freefall Summer only between other projects. This is why although I wrote the first draft in 2012, it didn’t get published until 2018!

Sixteen-year-old Clancy Edwards has always been "the good girl." Ever since her mother died in a skydiving accident when Clancy was young, Clancy's father has watched her like a hawk. Between her dad's rules and her boyfriend's protectiveness, she's longing for an escape this summer. Then she meets Denny.

Denny is a new skydiving student and college freshman. Clancy lets Denny think they're the same age--and that she's old enough to make decisions for herself. But the lies snowball, relationships are damaged, and suddenly Clancy isn't the person she wants to be. If only making choices were as simple as taking a leap out of a plane. Before Clancy can make things right, one last act of rebellion threatens her chance to do so--maybe forever.

You can purchase Freefall Summer at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you CHARLESBRIDGE for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of FREEFALL SUMMER and Swags 
(signed bookplate and a silver skydiving pendant) by Tracy Berrett. 
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  1. My most memorable summer job was smoke testing the local sanitary sewer system.

  2. My mother paid me to wash all of the windows inside and out. Worst boss ever.

  3. Great interview! Freefall Summer made me consider, for a nano-second, try skydiving. I'm glad that Tracy Barrett kept going back to this manuscript so we all get to read it!

  4. "Most memorable summer job?" Working in the city parks with a very disparate group of people.

  5. My most memorable summer job was working as a nurse's aide and taking care of kids with whooping cough. The little ones had an oxygen tent/canopy that was clear and I would carry them around and they would hold onto my braid and try to take the glasses off my face. It was on summer break and I became a nurse.