Nikki Loftin won the 2014 Writers’ League of Texas award for best young adult/middle grade fiction for her novel Nightingale’s Nest (Razorbill, 2014), a pretty notable accomplishment in itself — but what’s remarkable is that she won the same award for 2013 for The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy (Razorbill, 2012).
She is a back-to-back best-in-state winner for middle grade and young adult fiction, genres in which Texas is rich. We caught up with her via an email to her agent in New York, and she agreed to be this week’s featured author.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: There’s been a lot in the book media about what fertile ground Austin is for authors of children’s literature. What about Austin seems to attract and nourish children’s literature authors and illustrators? Who are some of your favorite Texas YA, MG and children’s authors?
NIKKI LOFTIN: It must be something in the water! (Barton Springs, perhaps?) Honestly, I think what is happening in Austin is similar to what occurs in other cities when a few very strong, very generous writers decide to use their energy to create a community. Their gravitational pull brings others to town, and encourages local aspiring writers to keep at it… and with enough encouragement, expert advice, and hard work, publication becomes much more likely for them as well. I have so many friends in the Austin community, but some of the most supportive have been Cynthia Leitich Smith, Jennifer Ziegler, Chris Barton, K. A. Holt, Katherine Catmull, P. J. Hoover, Liz Garton Scanlon, and Bethany Hegedus. They are all incredible friends — and writers I admire and study.
Who gave you your first break in writing, and how long did you write before your first book was published?
My first break came about two years after I started writing children’s books with the goal of publication. (Let’s not talk about the previous years I spent writing literary adult fiction, or trashy romance novels, okay?) I sent my middle grade manuscript to the Writers’ League of Texas annual contest and won. This led to meeting an agent, and drawing the attention of another agent who signed me… and like magic, only a few short years later, I was published! Yes, years… and quite a few more unpublished manuscripts down the road as well.
The group that kept me going during those years of trying and failing was the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). Austin has an amazing group, and I learned almost everything I needed to from their meetings and members.
Those two groups — the Writers’ League of Texas and SCBWI — were the keys to my success, and the reason I stayed relatively sane throughout the process of publication.
Do you think that the teen and tween readers of today are different than those of the past? What’s the key to connecting with this audience?
I think today’s tween and teen readers are at heart the same as those in the past. They want great stories to read, stories that transport them and transform them, written by authors who care. They don’t want to be spoken down to, or lectured, or chastised about the state of "kids these days” in their books. They want to be taken seriously, and I hope I do that in my work. I try to honor young readers with everything I write. They deserve that and more.
You grew up in the Central Texas area and still live there today. How did that background inform your writing?
My most recent novel, Wish Girl (Razorbill, 2015) has been called “a love letter to the Texas hill country,” and I would agree. I still live in the country, and spend as much time outside as I can. The sounds and smells and palette of the hill country became a character of sorts in Wish Girl, and to a lesser degree, in my previous novel, Nightingale’s Nest. I love Texas, and I suppose it’s natural for that love to show through in my books.
As an author, how active are you in the business side of writing — with marketing, social media, and the like?
I think most authors have to be involved these days, or risk their publishers’ ire. I am active on Twitter and Facebook, have a website and blog, and attend/speak at conferences and retreats as often as possible. I also do school visits, since that’s where my readers hang out a lot of the time! I take every opportunity to be around young readers, talk to them, and share the joy of writing and reading with them. Once a teacher, always a teacher, I suppose.
What’s your writing process like?
When an idea comes knocking, I listen, take a few notes, and then put it on the back burner for a while — sometimes for years. The hardest thing is to know when an idea is ready to be written. I take long walks, thinking about things like character names and settings, and I take longer car rides, musing about the deeper issues that arise as an idea grows. And then one day, the first sentence will pop into my head.
At that point, it’s less art and more “sausage-making.” I give myself a word count to hit each day, and write until the book is done. I adore drafting and detest revising, so I try to revise as much as possible along the way.
What advice would you give aspiring authors?
Take your work very seriously, and prioritize it over television or housework or hanging out with friends. To break into traditional publishing, you have to be able to write very well, and that only happens with lots and lots of practice. So write, above all else, write.
And when you’re not writing? Read.
What would you like readers to know about your latest book, Wish Girl?
At its core, Wish Girl is a re-imagining of the place where I felt most myself as a child. When I was growing up, my parents spent lots of summers working on a ramshackle house on a hilltop in rural Texas, and I spent as much time as I could running off and getting into mischief. Rattlesnakes, poison ivy, cactus spines? None of it scared me. When I was alone in a valley I found out there, I felt safe and wild and free. Many of the things that happen to Annie and Peter in Wish Girl happened to me and my sister when we were young, more or less, charged with magic to help readers understand the significance of that particular place. It’s fiction, yes, but Peter and Annie are based on kids I knew and loved when I was teaching, and their stories are heartbreakingly real. I hope readers will see the magic of friendship, and art, and understand how important it is to accept the ones we love while we have them for who they are, not who we wish they were.
One last question, Nikki. If you could have any superpower you wish, what would it be?
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Praise for Nikki Loftin's work
"A moving, mesmerizing story of wishing, listening and hope." —Kirkus, starred review
“It was the writing, of course, that struck my attention first. Loftin gives the book beautiful sequences filled with equally beautiful sentences. . . . As for the characters, there wasn’t a person here that I couldn’t recognize as real. I was quite taken with the fact that Loftin continually sidesteps a lot of the usual middle grade tropes. . . . Smart and beautiful by turns, Nightingale’s Nest does one thing that few will contest. Once you’ve read it, you’ll have a hard time getting it out of your head.” —Elizabeth Bird, School Library Journal Blog
"Unusual, finely crafted story of loss, betrayal, and healing." —Kirkus, starred review
"It is Loftin’s skill in depicting both the human and the arboreal characters that will engage and inspire readers. The lyrical, descriptive prose and the hopeful ending will linger long after the final chapter." —School Library Journal
The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy
"A mesmerizing read." —Publishers Weekly
"An irresistible contemporary fairy tale." —Kirkus