We are joined today by Alison DeCamp, author of My Near-Death Adventures (99% True), a middle-grade historical fiction published in 2015 by Crown Books for Young Readers.
Welcome, Alison! Please tell me a little about your book.
My Near-Death Adventures (99% True) is the story of 11 y.o. Stan who is dying to become a manly man. I also mainly see it as a story about finding family in perhaps the most unlikely places and when you least expect it. Stan is clueless and impetuous and gullible, but he’s also surrounded by (mostly) lovely people who want what’s best for him. He also is cursed with a very ornery Granny and a bossy (and smarter) older female cousin who seem determined to make his life miserable.
How did Stan, Geri, Granny, and Stinky Pete come to you? Why did you choose 1895 for the setting?
I have a picture of my great-grandmother, Cora. She looks like the orneriest person I can imagine (and even more so when I was a kid looking at the picture). My mother loved her, but she also regaled us with stories of how Cora made my grandmother, Alice, get married at 15. Alice had my Uncle Stan when she was 16 and brought him to lumber camps with her because his father was out of the picture and they needed money. Cora didn’t talk to my mother’s dad (Alice’s second husband) or say a nice word about him for 8 years until my mother was born. She just seemed mean.
Geri is based on my mother’s cousin who was a spitfire. And Stinky Pete is based on my grandfather, Ray McLachlan.
But aside from names, most of this is made up. My family wasn’t in the lumber camps in 1895, but I think I chose that time period because historically lumbering was still prevalent in Michigan at this time, I wanted transportation to be more difficult so they were all basically trapped for the winter, and I wanted the river drive to be important—later on in lumbering it was easier to transport logs in the winter.
What is your research/writing process?
For this book I had the seed of an idea (a boy spending the winter with all these rough-and-tumble lumberjacks), but I had no idea what it would be like to actually live in 1895 let alone in a lumber camp. I actually liked researching pictures and history of the late 1800s when I was procrastinating or when I was stuck for an idea. Basically, the writing and researching began to run together.
What is one thing you discovered in your research that surprised you?
I was interested to learn that originally lumberjacks preferred to be called “shanty boys.” A “jack” (like a “crackerjack,” for example) was considered someone who wasn’t a professional and they considered themselves very professional.
I love Stan, especially his habit of thinking out-loud. How did you start with an actual historical person and relative and develop him into a well-rounded fictional character?
First of all, I’m glad you like that habit! I thought it might be funny, but it’s interesting how many people get confused by this personality quirk. I really didn’t know my Uncle Stan all that well (he was twenty years older than my mother), but I do have a 17 year-old son and taught middle school for eight years. I think boys are inherently funny and I think I just absorbed their personalities somehow.
Historical fiction tends to be set during times of major conflicts and tragedies, so the stories can often be very serious. However, you brought a wonderful mix of suffering, tenderness, and humor to Stan’s life. How did you balance those qualities?
Thank you so much for saying this! I think life is hard. I think it’s hard no matter what age you are or what life has handed you, and as a person who tends to worry, I find that any time I can find humor in a situation, it makes things so much better.
I hoped to show that in Stan’s situation as well—here he is, craving a father with a mother who loves him but is dealing with her own sadness, and he just keeps carrying on. He also ends up realizing, perhaps a little bit, that he might not have a “father,” but he certainly has people in his life who care about him very much, even when they technically don’t have to.
What’s next for you?
My Near-Death Adventures: I Almost Died. Again. comes out on July 5th. It’s a sequel, obviously, set in the small town of St. Ignace, Michigan (where I grew up) and picks up where the first book left off. There are some new characters (Cuddy Carlisle, III, a 7 y.o. version of Stan; as well as Mad Madge, Stan’s personal bully) and Stan’s father does make an appearance.
I also am part of an anthology called Funny Girl, a collected edited by Betsy Bird. It should be out in 2017 and is filled with comics and writings from some incredible women writers. And I have a third book which will be announced eventually.
How did your research/writing process differ for two books?
I was entrenched in the same time period but different places—obviously a lumber camp will differ from a town. I read a lot about what St. Ignace (and the world) was like in the late 19th century. Many of the places and people mentioned in book two were real. I also researched timber pirates, the most famous of whom (Roaring Dan Seavey) is the basis for Stan’s father.
Like Stan, Alison DeCamp grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Her family history consists of stories of life in lumber camps and old scrapbooks. A graduate of Michigan State University, Alison is a former middle and high school language arts teacher. She now works at Between the Covers, a bookstore in Harbor Springs, Michigan, and spends the rest of her time with her husband and teenage children. You can find her online at alisondecamp.com.
Thank you, Alison!