Tuesday, September 11, 2012

An Interview with Author Michelle Houts

Welcome to Up Around the Corner, Michelle. Please, tell us a little about yourself and your writing.

Hi!  Thanks for having me here. I’m a transplanted suburbanite living the farm life in West Central Ohio. I grew up near Columbus and attended The Ohio State University where I met TFOMD (That is, The Farmer of My Dreams). We’re now raising three kids, goats, cattle, hogs and crops on our farm.

Michelle Houts at Applefest 2012
in Sidney, Ohio
I started writing in first grade with a story that sounded suspiciously similar to Jack and the Beanstalk but featured my two best friends. I’ve been writing ever since, but only got serious about it a few years ago. In 2009, my first book, The Beef Princess of Practical County was released by Delacorte Press, a division of Random House Children’s Books. My second middle grade novel, Winterfrost, was (recently) purchased by Candlewick Press.

Can you tell us a little about your first novel (I’m guessing your farm life experience had some influence) and maybe, as a transplanted suburbanite, which you find more interesting: goats or cattle—and why?

The Beef Princess of Practical County is about 12-year-old Libby Ryan, who is following in her brother’s footsteps showing steers for the first time. I was inspired by my own children, who have all shown steers, and their 4-H and FFA friends who work tirelessly year-round to raise their show animals. But it was more than the hard work that convinced me this was worth writing about. It was the courage these young people exhibited at the end of their projects – those tearful moments before, during and after the auction, when they had to part with their animals. This was a story just waiting to be told.

Oh, well, the second part of your question is easy. Goats win, hand down. (Or hooves down?)  Really, both goats and cattle are sweet creatures. They’re both smart and gentle. But goats have the advantage to this suburbanite simply because of their size. I admit it – my heart still pounds and I stay very, very close to the gate when I’m in with the steers. They are just so darned massive!

Yes, there is certainly a size difference between a steer and a goat.

With respect to writing and being an author, what have you found to be the most difficult or challenging thus far in your career? On the other hand, what has turned out to be easier, or less of a challenge, than you expected?

The publishing world is an enormous, complex industry, so it’s not surprising that navigating it can be a rather daunting experience. I found almost immediately that, as with many of life’s challenges, if I narrowed things down a bit, it got easier. So, I intentionally focused on children’s lit conferences, websites, blogs, etc.  I found that if the sponsor catered to the lit world in general, I was likely to get lost before I located the children’s lit information I needed. All writers for children, picture books to Young Adult, should know about SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Their local and national conferences, critique groups and publications were, and still are, a valuable resource to me.

So, what was easier than I expected? I would have to say the writing itself. I find that if I make myself put my rear end in a chair, the words come easily. They may not be brilliant at first (or even after several revisions) but I can usually manage to get a lot on a page in a fairly short time.  If I just get myself to that chair. (Maybe THAT’S my biggest challenge!)

Did family and friends know one of your goals was to become a published author? Whether they did or didn’t, do they ‘look’ at you differently now that you’re a published author? What, if any, misconceptions have you observed the average reader (young or old) has about authors?

My closest family and friends knew I was working on a children’s book. After I announced I was to be published, the two reactions that were priceless were those of my students and my fellow teachers. My students asked – in this order – are you going to be rich? Are you going to be famous? Are you still going to be our speech teacher? I told them the answers –also in order – were No, No, and Yes. And my colleagues were very supportive when my book first came out from Random House. But when it came out in paperback in the Scholastic Book Order, they really cheered! It seems the book order was the benchmark for real success.

Did your agent and editor ever tell you what in your novel captured their interest? From what you know, is it the same thing that that catches readers’ interest? 

For The Beef Princess of Practical County, my editor at Random House said that she felt the whole county fair premise was unique and that interested her first, but it was the sympathetic main character that she felt readers would connect with. Similarly, for Winterfrost, my agent adored the idea of a Christmas story steeped in Danish folklore, but was sold by her ability to connect with Bettina, a likeable young girl who finds herself in desperate circumstances. I guess that speaks to the necessity to have a winning combination: a good story idea paired with strong character development.

A good story idea paired with strong character development. Makes sense. While we’re on the topic, is there any advice you might have to share with aspiring authors?

I know I’m not the first to say this, but there are two bits of wisdom I’ve clung to these past few years. First: don’t write for the market, or for what some editor says they’re looking for, or for what you perceive as the “hot” topic of the day. What you write today will potentially be sold in a market that is 2-3 years off, a market that doesn’t even exist yet. So, write from the heart. Write what you are passionate about, what you know or want to know. What you write for yourself will ultimately be better than what you write for others. And, second: Write. It sounds simple, but if you want to be an author, you must write. Don’t talk about what you want to write someday. Don’t store “great ideas” for when your children are older, or you retire, or when you have time.  Time for writing must be carved out, set aside, and honored.

Solid advice, Michelle.

We’re closing in on the end of the interview. Is there anything you’d like to add?

I’m often asked how I feel about the world of literature shifting toward the digital age with e-books and Kindles and the like. While I’m a traditionalist – I love the feel of a book, the smell of pages old or new – I believe authors must embrace digital formats. And we must not lose sight of the fact that ebooks are indeed just that – a format. A different way of presenting the material.  And it’s the material that matters. The story, the poem, the characters, the setting, the words – these are what matters. When it comes to music, I’m a fan of many genres. I enjoy listening to some of the same classic rock songs I grew up with. Back then, I listened on vinyl record albums. Today I listen on CD or ipod.  I can’t recall the last time I said to myself, “Wow, I sure miss changing the need le on my record player.” Formats change. It’s the material that matters. So, as a writer, I know I need to spend less time worrying about the way my writing is presented and focus on what matters – creating the best material I can, regardless the format.

Thanks for the opportunity to chat, Terry!  It has been fun!

You’re welcome, Michelle! Thank you for taking the time to be interviewed.

If you want to know more about Michelle and her writing you can visit her website:
Author and Educator Michelle Houts


  1. A strong story and a great character are always a winning combination! Thanks for an interesting interview.

    1. Yes, Angie, it is. Thanks for stopping by and reading.