Kid Lit Craft: Interview with Heather Mateus Sappenfield

by Olivia Fisher
published in Writing

Hello, fellow kid lit writers! This week I have another interview to share with you from the wonderful author Heather Mateus Sappenfield. 

About Heather Mateus Sappenfield

Heather Mateus Sappenfield loves adventures, especially in the Rocky Mountain landscape that’s been her lifelong home. As part of women’s teams, she’s won 24-hour mountain bike races and road bicycling’s Race Across America—San Diego, California to Atlantic City, New Jersey. She’s also competed in the Mountain Bike World Championships, ski instructed for Vail Resorts, and loves backcountry ski touring. Her toughest adventures, though, arise in the writing of stories. 

Heather is the author of two contemporary YA novels, The View from Who I Was and Life at the Speed of Us, a Colorado Book Awards Finalist. Her story collection, Lyrics for Rock Stars, released as the winner of the V Press LC Compilation Book Prize, was nominated for the MPIBA’s Reading the West Awards, was a silver medalist for the IBPA’s Ben Franklin Awards, and was featured on Colorado Public Radio. Her most recent book, The River Between Hearts, runner-up for the Kraken Prize, is a Middle Grade novel about friendship and healing. 

About The River Between Hearts

On an ordinary Monday, Rill Kruse left for third grade with a dad, but when she came home, he’d been stolen. By a river. One year and thirteen days later—on the first morning of summer vacation—Rill still insists he’s trudging home. Her mom has become a practical woman. Her older brother, Eddy, now calls her baby and dork. Gus, the second-in-command at Kruse Whitewater Adventures, Rill’s family’s rafting company, has gone from being her dad’s “risk bro” to her mom’s guardian angel. Joyce, company secretary, arm-wrestler, and mechanic, still calls Rill a fingerling, but, after learning what a cheater water is, Rill wishes she’d stop. When Rill’s cat, Clifford, leads her to the family tree fort on the mountainside behind home, she discovers a stowaway, Perla. To help Perla, Rill embarks on an adventure that tests her understanding of the world, of loss, and of what it means to be a friend. In the end, what Rill discovers will nudge her—and all those she loves—toward healing.

Interview with Heather Mateus Sappenfield

Olivia Fisher: What made you want to write for kids?

Heather Mateus Sappenfield: Oh, that’s a great question! If you look at my publishing history, I’ve written two YA novels, an adult literary story collection, and now a MG novel! I never plan to write a genre of book. Instead, I have these obsessions, stored in the back of my mind, and one day a narrator will arrive with a story that explores it. It’s my subconscious working, I’m sure, but those narrators have voices all their own and are pretty fully formed when they show up. I listen to and observe them for weeks, months, even years, and when I feel as though I know them and their story well enough, I begin writing.

One of my joys is writing for readers of all ages. That’s probably not the best choice for me commercially, but I strive to stay true to what the protagonist/characters need the story to be. Having written for adults, YA, and now MG, I must admit that writing for this youngest group of readers was the most difficult craft-wise. MG novels are just as rich and textured as books for older readers, but they must be shaped into simpler sentence structures that peel away artifice and muddled meanings. Instances of my adult perspective needed to be yanked like weeds. It took so much time to get this book right! 

OF: I love this. As a writer of MG myself, you really have to get in the head of your young protagonist and have them say and react as they would and not how you would, and that can be difficult for our adult brains! 

What was the publishing process like for you?

HMS: I had an agent for my first two novels, and she sold my books to Flux, which at the time was an imprint of Llewellyn. I unfairly assumed that she and Flux would take care of all my promotions. I was so naïve! Agents only sell and maintain a book’s rights, and marketing departments at publishing houses are overworked and underpaid. News flash: never ever leave your book’s marketing up to someone else! 

After my agent and I mutually parted ways, I was deflated by the business and quit writing for a while. The River Between Hearts drew me back. I decided to enter contests instead of seeking another agent, and I’ve published my last two books with indie publishers this way. I’ve also hired a publicist, and both have been fabulous experiences. 

Simply publishing a book is terrific—it’s exhilarating initially—but eight months down the road, with it not selling and few people reading it, the process can feel anticlimactic and hollow. 

With this fourth book, I’m finally starting to understand the selling side of the industry. It basically consists of two vendor routes: 1) big outlets like Amazon and Barnes & Noble 2) indie bookstores. 

As you can imagine, these two paths have distribution channels that in many ways do not mingle, and to get your book out there, you need to pursue both. The big outlets are pretty straightforward—get your book listed with them, get your advance reading copies (ARCs) on NetGalley, try to get reviews on Goodreads and seller sites, and hope for the best. 

For indies, you must recognize that indie bookstores are run by people, and this means establishing relationships. Attend their regional conferences, make acquaintances, and swim the uphill battle of getting your book into their store. 

Be sure to put your ARC on Edelweiss, and encourage folks to review it there. Edelweiss is one of the main ways booksellers and librarians learn about books! And again, hope for the best.

OF: Yes, I feel like this is something important for all writers to take away. Publishing is a difficult industry no matter if you are self-publishing, publishing through an indie publisher, or aiming for one of the big four publishers. It can take A LOT of work, and doing your research beforehand is so important! These are some great insights into how writers can prepare for this. Thanks, Heather!

What’s the hardest thing about writing a book?

HMS: When I was a little girl, I always knew I’d live in the mountains and be an author. I guess it’s what I’m meant to do. I love the entire process of writing a book, from drafting the initial pages with my ears ringing from how hard I’m listening, to tweaking the polished copy so that nuance, refrain, and thematic elements sing. 

The hardest part, though, is noticing, and then stepping back, when I’m getting in the way of the story. We all have things we avoid, places we don’t want to go, and it’s not always easy to catch those moments and then step aside so the characters can complete their journey.

OF: What’s the best thing about writing a book?

HMS: Ah, there’s two things. First, I love when I’m at the very end of the revision process, the writing is ultra-polished, and I’ve worked with the story so much that it’s as though I’m effortlessly juggling a hundred balls. I know where all the story elements reside, and how they all link. It’s an amazing sensation. 

Second; I love, love, love connecting with readers—hearing how they interacted with the book, and how the story resonated with them. That, truly, is why I write.

OF: What do you hope readers will take away from your books?

HMS: One reviewer stated (paraphrasing here) that my books are deceptively simple yet layered with meaning. I hope that each of my readers—no matter their age—takes from my books exactly what they need in their life right then. That it sustains them, helps them heal, or makes them laugh.

OF: How did you develop your writing craft?

HMS: I’ve always been a voracious reader. I especially loved science fiction and fantasy for the escape they provided. Though I have mild dyslexia, writing has always been something I excelled at. I was an English major in college. I taught high school language arts. Along the way, I wrote a bit, but not seriously. 

Then, when my daughter was a year old, she started talking with the Australian accent of her daycare provider. I love Australian accents, but…paradigm shift! I resigned from teaching. While she napped, I began to seriously pursue writing. 

I had some bad habits, though, mostly from being on the teaching end of literature. After a few near misses with getting stories published in magazines, I decided to pursue my MFA in Writing at Pacific University’s low residency program. Boy! Did they ever strip away those habits and hone my craft! I was able to study one-on-one with some incredible writers! 

In my third semester, one of my stories was runner-up in a contest. Then another story won a contest, and another was accepted for publication. 

Here I’d like to say, however, that not everybody needs an MFA. They’re costly and don’t fit with every life or learning style. What it really boiled down to for me, I believe, was the intense, focused, open-minded intentioned time dedicated to the craft.

Post-graduation, my craft has continued to evolve in a steady unfolding and unfolding and constant learning about how to write stories in ways that most directly connect with readers. Every day, I learn something new.

OF: I love this. Writing and honing a craft can be a varied journey, and one approach doesn’t fit every writer as you said. You mentioned that what it really came down to for you was the intensely focused time, and really, that’s what I feel like is both the biggest obstacle and the pivotal point of success for writers: making the time to write. But not just write, write with dedication and focus. It’s something I’ve certainly struggled with as a young mom, but that time isn’t impossible to make. It just takes work and intentionality.

OF: What’s next on your author-journey?

HMS: I hope to soon announce some good news about a finished humorous literary/women’s fiction novel! I’m in the final one-hundred pages of drafting another humorous novel. After that, I’ll start a new MG novel, I think. At least, right now, the narrator indicates it will be MG.

OF: I love it! It’s so fun that you are juggling multiple genres and relishing each one! I’m excited to hear more about your next book.

Heather, thank you for taking the time to interview with me and sharing your insight into the world of being a kid lit author with us! Congratulations on your latest book The River Between Hearts. You can find Heather’s book and follow along with her author journey on her website.

Tell us in the comments: What were your big takeaways from this interview with Heather Mateus Sappenfield?

Olivia Fisher

Olivia Fisher is a children’s lit writer and freelance editor with an English degree from BYU-Idaho. When she isn’t dreaming about living in a treehouse or chasing down her two young boys, she enjoys curling up with a book, watching Star Wars, writing her next adventure, and trying to live in the state of child-like wonder that we all secretly, or not so secretly, miss. Follow her adventures on Twitter or Instagram, or hire her for your next editing escapade on Fiverr.

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