Friday, August 18, 2017

Author Interview: Dane Huckelbridge

Readers, I am so happy about today's post.

Remember this book?

If you've read it already, it's unlikely that you'll ever forget the story of Sophie and Barry. And if you haven't picked it up yet, now is the time!

Today I want to introduce you to the brilliant mind behind Castle of Water, a novel that just happens to be my favorite read from the summer (you can find my thoughts on it here). I know many of you have already read (or listened to) this novel and I have yet to hear feedback from a reader who hasn't fallen completely in love with it. This is a book that the reading community has embraced this summer, so you can imagine how excited I was when Dane Huckelbridge agreed to chat with us here on Top Shelf Text. I am so honored to be sharing this interview with you all today, and so glad to see all of you spreading the love for Dane's book!

Read on to learn more about Dane's life as an author and his inspiration for Castle of Water!

Tell us about your path to becoming an author. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

Good question! When I was growing up, I always enjoyed reading, and writing as well, although honestly, I never considered it as a realistic career path. I didn't know any writers, and it never occurred to me that it was something that a kid from Cleveland, Ohio could do for a living. But funny story—my senior year of college, I spent some time in the Cibao, in the Dominican Republic (still one of my favorite places in the world), and caught some sort of illness which the doctors couldn't figure out. I ended up going home to Ohio after graduation, because I was too sick to look for jobs, and while I was at home—feeling pretty awful, over all—I started going to the local library just to get out of the house. I think it was then that I really started to fall in love with literary fiction, and it was then that I decided I wanted to move to New York and try to make it as a writer. I bummed a ride with a friend who was headed that way, and I had my first short stories (which I was naive enough to think someone would actually want to publish) on a floppy disk in my suitcase. Granted, it would take another decade for me to publish my first book, and a few more years before I published my first novel, but that was how it began. Starting out in writing is really tough—and I'll be honest, it never gets easy—and I still have very mixed feelings about being a writer today. But if it's meaningful to you, and you stick with it, it can work out.

When did you decide to make the switch from non-fiction to fiction?

Funny you should ask, it actually was the other way around. I started out writing fiction, but quickly found, as I'm sure many aspiring writers do, that getting a novel published is not easy. At the time, I had just met the woman who would eventually become my wife over in France, she was considering moving to New York, and I realized I needed to get my act together, find my own apartment, and get something published. I did study history in college, and it is a passion of mine as well, so I tried my hand at writing historical non-fiction instead. And to my surprise, I really enjoyed it as well. So now I'm fortunate to write both fiction and non-fiction, which I think is a nice balance. One is more creative, the other is more analytic, and together, they keep me from going nuts.

Tell us a little bit about your creative process. Do you have any rituals or specific circumstances that have to be in place before you can write?

Hmmm. Well, as romantic as it would sound to say that I write in a café here in Paris, I actually prefer to write at home. All I really need is a desk and a computer (I never write longhand, which I suppose isn't very romantic either), and I usually like to have a cup of joe as well. Honestly—for me, anyway—there's nothing very interesting or crucial about the process itself. The final edits for Castle of Water I did in my underwear on an air mattress in an empty East Village apartment, because we were just about to move to Paris from New York and all of our stuff was packed. There certainly are elements to writing which are ethereal, ineffable, perhaps even magical, but the actual physical process is just like any other job. You gotta get out of bed, drag yourself to the desk, and start working.

Where did you get the inspiration for Castle of Water? How long did it take between the first seedling of an idea and the final product?

In hindsight, I think it came from three places, really. The title came to me the first time I was in Paris (almost six years ago). I was staying in the 10th, very close to Rue du Château-d'Eau, and I just loved the name. My French was awful at the time, and I translated it literally to mean "Castle of Water," not knowing that it actually meant "Water Tower." But I thought it was a beautiful name, and I remember thinking it would make a good title for a book.

As for the actual plot of the novel, it began first as a short story, about a man who gets stranded on a desert island with only a few pairs of contact lenses. A few pages in, however, I quickly realized it had the potential for a much bigger story—maybe even a novel. And it sort of just grew from there.

And lastly, I'd say quite a bit of the inspiration came from my relationship with my wife. She had just moved to New York from Paris when I started writing it, and we—as two very different people—were trying to make a life together, in a tiny little East Village apartment. It was very challenging at first, and we both had to adapt and make compromises to make things work. And lucky for us, after a few very rough months, they did work. We got married a couple years after that, and then we moved back to France. Being in a relationship always requires empathy and understanding, though, and there are always going to be difficult periods. But I think our first year together, and that process of trying to understand one another (and truly falling in love, for that matter), did provide quite a bit of material for the book.

Many, many readers are currently reading and loving Castle of Water. (It has a 4.5/5 rating on Amazon and a 4.3/5 rating on Goodreads -- that's rare!) Can you describe for us the feeling of receiving such high praise from readers?

Well, I have to say, anytime someone takes the time to read something I've written, I'm honored and very appreciative, because I know free time is scarce these days. And if they like it, and make the effort to communicate that, even more so. Writing is a pretty solitary endeavor—you spend a lot of time working without actually connecting with other people or receiving any positive feedback. So when readers are willing to connect in that way, it really means a lot.

You currently live in Paris with your wife. Was she (the original Sophie) the inspiration for Sophie's character in Castle of Water?

You won't be able to see it, but I am indeed blushing as I write this. Yes, my wife was and is the inspiration for the Sophie character. And I did feel obliged to let her read the manuscript before it went into printing to get her approval, which was extremely stressful, as I was worried she might not like it. Fortunately, she loved it, although she did have quite a few corrections and comments regarding my portrayal of a French girl from the south, not to mention my very mistake-prone French.

That being said, though, there are some profound differences as well, and the Sophie character is an individual in her own right. But yes, I would be lying if I said there wasn't a strong resemblance.

Living in Paris sounds like every writer's dream. Can you tell us your favorite thing about living there? And what do you miss most about the midwest?

As one might pick up from the book, I do love Paris, and for me, being able to live here is a dream come true—as was living in New York City. But there are always some downsides as well, and being far from home in a foreign country does pose challenges. Not being able to see friends and family as much as one would like is of course an obstacle, and simply being a foreigner—or I suppose even "immigrant" might be the right word, because that's what I technically am—can sometimes be tough. My French has gotten a lot better, but I miss being able to make jokes and obscure cultural references in my own language. And while I love French culture and being a part of it, there is something I miss in the mannerisms and banter of the Midwest. It's fun to have a glass of armagnac with Jean-Luc, but it will never be quite like grabbing a beer with one of my buddies from back home. But overall, I feel very fortunate. I can't complain about a thing. And the food is dynamite—I've never eaten so much cheese in all my life.

For the readers who have already picked up and fallen in love with your first novel, can you tell us about your next novel?

Well, I have a couple novels in the works, and I'm honestly not sure which one I'd like to do next, as I like them both. One is set in Cleveland, and the other in New York. I'll have to get back to you on that!

If you could give any advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?

Oh, geez. I suppose you have the obvious platitudes like "stick with it" or "never give up," but even those somehow don't convey the immensity of the challenges (and heartache) that come with this profession. And I also think many writers today are reluctant to communicate that, as if that admitting that this is a long and messy and heartbreaking process somehow diminishes their "brand."

So instead I'll say this: when I began my first attempt at a novel fifteen years ago, I didn't know what the tab key was. Every time I started a paragraph, instead of hitting the tab key, I hit the space bar ten to fifteen times. Then, at the end, I had to go back and even out all the paragraph indentations so they didn't look funny. It took me hours. Maybe even days.

So in short, if a goofball from Ohio who doesn't even know what the tab key is can write a novel, anyone can. But, at the risk of sounding platitudinous, you do have to stick with it.

We love to share recommendations here on Top Shelf Text. Can you tell us three books you've read and loved that you'd recommend to other readers?

West with the Night, a memoir by Beryl Markham about her days as a bush pilot in the 1940s is an old favorite of mine, as is Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian, although it is a more challenging read. I'm a sucker for Cheever, and I just finished Bullet Park, which I really enjoyed. And for something more contemporary, I thought the Spurious Trilogy by Lars Iyer was hilarious.


Thanks Dane, for sharing such great answers to our questions! I know I can't be the only reader already impatient for the release of your next novel.

P.S. You can follow Dane on Instagram @huckelbridge , on Twitter @huckelbridge, and via his website at

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review: Wishtree (with Kid Lit Exchange)

Note: Top Shelf Text received a copy of this text from the Kid Lit Exchange network, provided by the publisher for free in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own!

Katherine Applegate is one author that middle grade readers adore, and for good reason. She brought us The One and Only Ivan, a Newbery Award Winner in 2017 and one of my top three children's books of 2015. She also made a wonderful Newbery Medal Speech that had me teary and inspired to share great literature with my students. Wishtree is Applegate's newest novel for middle grade readers, and it's one you'll see on just about every teacher's wish list for school this year.

 The novel is told from the perspective of a Red oak tree -- a wishtree, to be exact. This tree, aptly named Red, begins by telling readers that most people don't know that trees can talk -- and that if they weren't introverts, they'd have quite a lot to say. Red's roots are firmly planted, and every year on the first of May, the locals come to hang their wishes on her branches. Some wishes are silly, some are serious. Red doesn't have the power to grant any of these wishes, but still, it's a tradition that she cherishes.

Being a tree, Red spends a lot of her time quietly observing the people and animals around her. Across from her sits two houses, and when a new neighbor moves in, Red is surprised to find that the family's child, a little girl named Samara, comes to her right away to make her wish -- that she could have a friend. Samara's family is Muslim, and while Red sees that the divide between cultures and religions is pointless, the people in the neighborhood aren't as wise. Normally, Red wouldn't take action -- it goes against nature's rules to speak to humans, but after a hateful incident leaves her new neighbor with hurt feelings and fear, Red knows that something must be done.

Readers, I fear I'm in the minority today. I found myself feeling slightly disappointed in this novel, but before I tell you why, I want to tell you that this is still a good novel. It's worth reading, and it's worth recommending to children. I fear that I'm disappointed because my expectations were so high -- that I hoped for the same, powerful reading experience as I had with The One and Only Ivan.

Here's what I loved about the book: the message. Islamophobia, prejudice, and hate should not be welcome in the places where we live and learn. True neighbors welcome each other, and I was genuinely touched by the kind gesture of one character in this book. For that reason, I'll put Wishtree on my shelves this year, with the hope that it will inspire some students to speak more kindly, be understanding, and show empathy with their actions.

What I didn't love was the plot. Or the characters. Aside from the moment that left me teary, I thought the characters fell awfully flat. Compared to the depth of previous characters that Applegate has brought to life, these ones just didn't convince me to feel invested. And the big moment? It happened too fast. There was a lot of talking and barely and action, so I felt that the best part came and went too quickly. It took me almost an entire week to read this book, a sign (for me) that it just didn't have my attention in the way that I'd hoped. As a story, I feel it has less to offer than Applegate's other works. However, as a message, I feel that it's incredibly timely and important for both children and adults to hear.

This title will be released on September 26, 2017.

Bottom-Line Rating: 3/5

Title: Wishtree
Author: Katherine Applegate
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends, 2017
ISBN: 1250043220
Format: Paperback
Source: Kid Lit Exchange