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Turning Points: Guest Post by Julia DeVillers (+Giveaway)

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Julia DeVillers tells the amazing story of how a fan letter she wrote an author when she was ten years old ended up changing the course of her writing life years later…

When I was ten, I wrote a fan letter to an author and he wrote me back.

In fifth grade, I read a book by Frank Bonham called The Missing Persons League. It was about a boy searching for his missing mother and sister, set in a pre-apocalyptic world of oxygen deficiency and world food shortage.

It was an unusual choice for me because it was science fiction, and I was in a hardcore Judy Blume/Ellen Conford/V.C. Andrews phase. But something about The Missing Persons League resonated with me. The main character writes a “fan letter” to an author, and I decided I’d write a fan letter to the author, too.

“Dear Mr. Bonham,

I didn’t know I’d want to read science fiction, but I loved your book….”

And he wrote back:

“Dear Julie,

I didn’t know I’d want to write science fiction, either. In fact, I didn’t even know I’d write for young readers at all.”

Frank told how he had been writing adult books for decades (westerns and pulp fiction) before he surprised himself by turning to young adult books. As you can see from this excerpt, he also was wonderfully conversational about my hometown (Albany, NY), a possible sequel, and the dangers of smoking.

I must have asked him to tell me more because in the next letter, Frank told me how he had really challenged himself when he decided to write Durango Street, because it was set in Watts, in a world previously foreign to him, and many people at the time.

“Years ahead of its time, DURANGO STREET by Frank Bonham, like THE OUTSIDERS, shows that gang violence is, sadly, nothing new—and nothing glamorous… A starkly realistic, convincing, well-written teen novel.”—SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL

A photo Julia enclosed in her letter to Frank Bonham

Frank had continued to write more young adult books: contemporary novels about teen suicide, drug abuse, and urban life; dystopia; paranormal—genres that continued to “surprise him.”

Over the next few years, Frank and I wrote back and forth. I told him about middle school, my guinea pigs[1], and how my English teachers were sucking the life out of writing. He told me about his birds, California, and he encouraged me to keep writing.

“Writing can be uncomfortable, just like life,” Frank advised. “When writing feels uncomfortable, think about what that might be telling you.”

Frank passed away in 1988.

* * *

Flash forward to a new century. I had continued writing, and had published two nonfiction books for teens. Nonfiction was a natural fit for me. I received a master’s degree in journalism from Ohio State, where I learned to answer the Ws (whowhatwhenwherewhy) at breakneck speed. I was the go-to research maven in any office. “Ask Julia to find out,” was the refrain before Google stole my glory. Researching, interviewing people, and synthesizing what I’d unearthed. Perfect for nonfiction.

Important aside: I’m not saying nonfiction is easy by any means, lord no, and many nonfiction authors are those I respect most in our field. That’s not my point.

My point is that nonfiction was so obviously my genre, because writing it was, well, comfortable. Sure, people suggested I try fiction[2]. But writing fiction—much less trying to get it published—I realize now, meant I would lose control. Fiction was opinions, not just facts. It meant not just reporting, but interpreting. Not simply sharing others’ words from an interview but actually creating characters, giving voice to my own people who had something to say. My own voice, not others.

That was scary. And uncomfortable. So, no fiction for me, I would reply.

Then, as I was in the middle of writing a nonfiction pitch for my next book, my Turning Point happened. My twin sister had a baby. My intention was to fly out to stay with her and help out with the baby. That would be an all-consuming task, I figured, so I didn’t bring my research books or notes or even my own computer. But my sister had medical complications and with her nurses, husband, and our mom in the house, I was superfluous or in the way. I went over to my mom’s and started going through the boxes stored in her basement. I found my old diaries, photos, and keepsakes.

And the original letter from Frank Bonham[3].

“Writing can be uncomfortable, just like life,” Frank advised. “When writing feels uncomfortable, think about what that might be telling you.”

Yeah, life was uncomfortable. I was worried sick about my sister and her baby[4], I was away from home without my work to distract me. And I’d been going through childhood memories, so my life was flashing before my eyes. My emotions were raw and on the surface as I read the words from teen me from my diaries.

And I sat down at my sister’s computer and started my first novel. It wasn’t comfortable. But I thought about what that might be telling me. I knew the voice of my character, too. It was of the girl whose diaries I’d been reading. Teen me.

And I wrote the first four chapters of what would become my first middle-grade novel: How My Private Personal Journal Became a Bestseller. A book about a teen whose hopes and dreams mirrored what I had written in my own diary (but wouldn’t happen in real life. However, in fiction…).

Dutton published my novel.[5]

Dutton was the original publisher of The Missing Persons League by Frank Bonham.

I’ve been writing fiction ever since.

Dear Julie,

I didn’t know I’d write science fiction, either. In fact, I didn’t even know I’d write for young readers at all….

…Your friend,

Frank Bonham

p.s.

  1. I certainly got more out of these exchanges than he did, but he did say I had a “unique girl voice.” He only had sons, so I hope I was a focus group of one and somehow helped him, too.
  2. Shout-out to my first editor, Roy Carlisle.
  3. The original typed letter is currently in a safe in a storage pod since I’ve been living overseas, but I took this picture before I moved.
  4. My twin, Jennifer Roy, is my co-author on a middle-grade series. Yes, fiction! And her son is doing great.
  5. The book was adapted into a Disney Channel Original Movie called Read It and Weep. Kay Panabaker, the star, looks like a fabulous version of teen me.
  6. Writing this blog entry (nonfiction!), I went into journalist mode and ran across an interview with Frank Bonham that asked about his genre switch:

“While observing the problems [in urban culture], I had been vacillating between writing an adult fact book or a book for young readers. I finally decided that the book should be addressed to youngsters, for older minds too often have already set hard within their forms. Children’s minds, on the contrary, are as sensitive as sea anemones. Drop an idea in them, and they enfold and consume it, or else reject it. But at least they taste it.”

—Julia DeVillers


Julia (on the right) with two fellow Dutton authors: Gayle Forman (left) and ME! (center)

Julia DeVillers writes nonfiction and fiction, including: the TRADING FACES identical twins series with Jennifer Roy, the LIBERTY PORTER, FIRST DAUGHTER series, and LYNNVISIBLE. She currently lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, after her year in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.

Her website is www.girlwise.com.

Follow @juliadevillers on Twitter.


EDITED FEB. 8: WINNERS OF HOW MY PRIVATE PERSONAL JOURNAL BECAME A BESTSELLER AND DOUBLE FEATURE ANNOUNCED!

Thanks to everyone who entered and to the author for giving away her books. I’m now here to announce the winners of this giveaway!

Lisa Proskin won a signed copy of  How My Private Personal Journal Became a Bestseller by Julia DeVillers… And Lena Marsteller won a signed copy of Double Feature by Julia Devillers and her twin sister, Jennifer Roy! I will email the winners for their addresses. Congrats! —Nova


Want more in this blog series?

The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.

Here are the posts in the series so far:

You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!

Series images by Robert Roxby.
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24 thoughts on “Turning Points: Guest Post by Julia DeVillers (+Giveaway)

  1. That is a FANTASTIC story, Julia! And proof positive that writers truly can affect the course of a young person’s life in a profoundly meaningful way. Thanks to both of you!

  2. Julia, a fan letter I wrote at age 13 changed my entire life, too – not only leading to a writing career Of over 35 books but resulted into a marriage for my brother. I still have all the fan letters with my Favorite Author (she called me her Favorite Fan) altho she’s passed on, too. And now we have our own fan letters to answer (g).

    Love your books!! Would love to win your latest one!!

  3. I wrote a letter to Carolyn Keene (of Nancy Drew), not realizing that Carolyn Keene was sort of like Lassie–not a real person. Or not just one person. I had a dream I got it back with all my mistakes corrected in red ink. Ouch.

  4. What a nice story! I wonder if he had any idea of the influence he would have on you. I guess one of the messages here is to take time for others because you never know where it will lead.

    • Amen sister! I try to remember as adults that every interaction we have with our children or others can make a profoundly good or bad impact in their lives. You just never know know whats going on in their heads and how one small comment can build them up or tear them down… Why not choose to build them up!?!

  5. I wonder if authors who interacted with their young fans before the internet had any idea how amazing it was for us. When I was in elementary school I met and talked with Paula Danziger several times and it meant so much to me.

  6. I enjoy reading your blog and the guest that you have. I really enjoyed reading this story. When I feel uncomfortable about writing I am going to remember to learn what it might be telling me. What a great quote. Also I love the power of your diaries as you re-read and then wrote a book based on them.

    Hope I win a copy.

  7. What a beautifully honest description of our experience. Although not a twin I do understand that deep connection with your sister even though we are so different. Thanks for sharing your story! My daughter begs me every night to read together with her and I have to remember that the dishes will wait and taking the time to read with her is what will leave lasting impressions for the rest of her life! I forget how much the little things mean so much when you are young.

  8. a great story – I love his quote about the sea anemones. I was a big fan letter writer (still am) – back before the Internet (eek!) there used to be a big fat reference book at my local library that had all the authors addresses in it. Barry Gifford wrote back – he sent me a postcard of fat ladies. I sent Ken Kesey a mixtape but he never replied …in a way those letters I sent were also to myself …thanks for post!

  9. OMG, I LOVE this so much! It never occurred to me to write my favorite authors when I was a kid and now I wish I had. It thrills me just when my favorite authors TWEET me- imagine whole letters? So inspiring. And wonderful advice on top. I’m grinning from ear to ear.

  10. This post made me all kinds of smiley. First, I love the fact that you wrote a letter to an author you liked. I think things like that are so important, because so few people take the time to do that kind of thing. Plus, that correspondence seems pretty awesome.

    I love this post, and I’m really glad to have read it.

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