November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Sailing Through Time: Heidi Heilig on Her YA Debut, “The Girl from Everywhere”

Heilig_Adrian Buckmaster

Photo by Adrian Buckmaster

Pirates, time travel, and Hawaii—these are some of the seemingly unrelated themes that come together in Heidi Heilig’s The Girl from Everywhere (HarperCollins, 2016; Feb. 2016). Following the adventures of Nix, a biracial teen whose father has the ability to time travel in his pirate ship via old maps, this genre-bending debut YA novel has already garnered much buzz, including a starred review from SLJ. Heilig shared her inspiration for the work, her thoughts on diversity, and how she juggles between writing YA fiction and theater musicals.

What inspired you to write this genre-blended YA novel?

It all started with a newspaper article I read about an act of piracy in 19th-century Honolulu. A group of pirates—led by a mysterious man who seemed to know the city very well—sailed into Honolulu, stole three million dollars’ worth of gold and silver, and escaped without firing a single shot.

Having grown up in Hawaii, I was surprised I’d never heard anything about it. Where had these pirates come from? Where did they disappear to? History had no answers for me, so I decided to make them up for myself.

Together with my love of myth and legend and the soft spot I have in my heart for time travel, The Girl from Everywhere started to take form.

There’s something for every reader in this title: history, swoony romance, time travel, lush locales, action, pirates, and family drama. How did you manage to make all of these different plotlines come together in one cohesive novel?

It took a lot of work! Not just my own but my editor’s—she is amazing at whipping everything into shape—and also my husband’s. He’s my first beta reader/critique partner/collaborator and will always tell me when something doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Ultimately, though, I really enjoy mining and polishing a story for deeper meaning. I know a plot is on the right track when everything starts weaving together tightly. And usually by the time I’m on the fourth or fifth draft, I’m finding new connections between various story lines, and I strengthen them on each consecutive pass. [This novel] went through about 20 total drafts.

What inspired your “time travel via map” concept? Did you work closely with the book’s map illustrator?

This was One of Those Things—the reason I love procrastination and research rabbit holes—where various bits and pieces combined magically in my head. I was somewhere on the Internet reading a story about Sandy Island, which had just been “undiscovered.” The island was pictured on several old whaling charts (some noting it as “Existence Doubtful”), but when an official survey ship found no sign of it, Sandy Island was officially struck from Google Maps.

A similar story, about a hoax called “Crocker Land,” came across my desk a few weeks later in a natural history magazine. A man named Robert Peary had sworn he’d seen a land mass off the coast of Ellesmere Island. He even drew a map of the place. Both stories reminded me of those mythic giant turtles which were mistaken for islands and would eventually submerge and drown everyone. I wondered what it would be like if these places had actually existed somehow, at some point, and whether you could use those old maps to find them.

My editor did most of the work with [finding] the illustrators, although she did ask me for my own version of one of the mythical maps so that the illustrator had something to go from. I did my best, but I’m definitely better at painting pictures with words than I am at painting pictures with actual paint.

The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi HeiligWho is your favorite character? Which character do you identify with the most?

My favorite character is Kashmir—he’s funny and clever, and he works so hard to make things look so effortless. What’s not to love? But the character I identify with most has always been Captain Slate. He’s everything I’ve ever been afraid I might become, poor thing.

Nix and her ragtag family time travel from modern-day New York City to 19th-century Hawaii. What kind of research did you have to do for each time period and location?

Modern-day New York was pretty easy—I spend much of my free time walking around the city. Hawaii was tougher—though I grew up there in the 1980s, it was not the 1880s. But I did a lot of reading (this [article] in Honolulu Magazine features wonderful old pictures), and I looked at quite a few maps from the era. I also went to the Bishop Museum and Iolani Palace while I was visiting family there. And I still remember my mother’s stories from her time in the State House in the 1970s, when some of her constituents were old enough to remember the lowering of the Hawaiian flag after the overthrow of the monarchy.

The ship also visits 18th-century India very briefly. Contemporaneous art helped me there, since this was predaguerreotype, and I looked into import/export records as well, to find out what might be sold at the local markets. As for the final location Nix visits—I won’t spoil it, but the ancient historian mentioned in the book was a real person, and I used his descriptions as well as modern reports from archaeological digs and ground-imaging technology.

What’s been the most difficult experience for you as a debut author? What has been the most (positively) surprising?

The most difficult thing has been accepting that the book will actually be published. There will be a “finished copy,” and I won’t be able to tinker with it anymore. I’m the sort of person who prefers the quest to the grail, and so the idea of this part of the journey ending feels a little strange to me. But what a journey it’s been! True to any good quest, the most wonderful part of it is all the friendships I’ve made along the way. I’m not always the easiest person to get along with, so I was surprised by how quickly the community has accepted my quirks and foibles. It’s such a welcoming and friendly place, and I’m amazed every day that I get to be a part of it.

You’re super active on Twitter, advocating for diversity in children’s literature and honest talk about mental health. How do you think social media has changed the role of the author, and how do you think that activism affects your writing?

I do spend a lot of time on Twitter—probably more than I should. I love being an active, accessible part of the writing community there. But despite all my ranting and raving, the thing I love most about social media is actually listening. Twitter is an amazing place to politely listen in on conversations, especially those between people from traditionally marginalized groups. Some of today’s greatest minds are on Twitter, giving timely and free education on topics ranging from dealing with racism to living with a disability to cultivating body positivity. I learn so much by just listening, and I think one of the most important things a writer must do is to always [be willing to] learn.

I love seeing the outfits that you create inspired by the covers of the books published by your fellow 2016 debut authors. How do you come up with these ensembles, and are you keeping track of them on Pinterest or your website?

In real life, I am every coffee-stained, rumpled-pajamas, messy-haired writer stereotype, so it’s kind of amazing to me that these outfits are even a thing. But I find book covers so beautiful and inspiring, and Polyvore makes it easy to search for pieces to throw together. And sometimes there’s even a little detail in the Goodreads blurb that I can use as inspiration for a bit of jewelry or a bag. It’s a fun way to celebrate my fellow debuts! I collect them all on Pinterest—and I hope to do every 2016 debut author’s  cover. Then, on to  2017!

You’re also a musical theater writer. How do you balance the two writing styles?

Musical theater has a little bit in common with novel writing—act structures, for example, and, of course, good dialogue. But one big difference is that a lot of the things that on stage would be expressed by music, lighting, or acting need to be written on the page in a novel. It was an exciting challenge to find new ways of scene-building. Another difference is that a novel feels very solid—very real. You can hold it in your hands, reread it again and again—but you can never rewrite it. What’s done is done. Theater is more liquid and ephemeral—the peculiar alchemy of actors and audience ensures that you can never truly see the same show twice, and once the lettering on the marquee comes down, the show is gone. There’s a beauty and a tragedy to both forms.

What are some of your future projects?

Right now I’m working on a new fantasy series that draws a bit on my theater background, as well as my love of travel and history, and also a musical set in the world of a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Very different!

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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