When a mudslide destroys her home and kills her parents, fifteen-year-old Cara Talbot is sent to live with a distant cousin, his wife, and five sons on a dairy farm in Indiana. The stink of cattle, a tiny bedroom loft, and two brothers who resent her intrusion make life a bitter struggle. As she copes with her grief, she finds solace caring for an autistic child, who helps her see the softer side of Nicolas March, another family misfit.
And today I'm excited to be chatting with Barbara Stremikis about March Misfit and about her career as a writer.
Welcome, Barbara! Please tell us about March Misfit:
March Misfit is meant to heighten experiences of being an outsider. I once asked my Psychology students if they had ever felt personal prejudice or bias. All hands went up. Parts of March Misfit are autobiographical. I didn’t lose my family as my heroine did, but she symbolizes human loneliness. My hope is that she will be an inspiration for those occasions when we all feel like a misfit. When Cara is sent to live with a distant cousin, his wife, and their five sons, she is forced to deal not only with her grief, but with a total change of environment and lifestyle. She moves from a comfortable home in Virginia to a remote dairy farm in Indiana; in place of her loving sister, she copes with malevolent boys; rather than her nurturing parents, she is thrown into the struggles of a household under stress with a special needs child. The family dynamics are strange. David is the favored son. Nicolas, the eldest, is tough and sullen. Cara is afraid of him, yet he is gentle with his autistic brother. An underlying theme is why the family wanted her. In Cara’s mind--and hopefully the reader’s--she wonders if Mr. and Mrs. March desired the extra help, wanted access to her trust fund, saw the benefit of a caretaker as they aged…? I intended the story to reflect a simpler time, yet include the complexities embodied within families. For those who love dogs, Shep, has a healing role.
Where did the inspiration for March Misfit come from?
The inspiration for March Misfit came from a story I read as a child. I don’t recall the title or the details, only the tale of a young girl thrust into challenging circumstances. The loneliness of her situation evidently made an impact. Once I set March Misfit in motion, it became a series of the usual “what ifs.” What if a young girl loses her entire family and is forced into devastating turmoil. What if the dwelling is crowded and lacking in privacy? What if she is teased and ridiculed by the boys? What if she becomes a misfit at every turn? What mischief would be likely in the 1950s? What trials can she endure, while she learns and grows, so she deserves the happy ending?
Your story includes an autistic character. Did you have a particular inspiration for Alan?
I included an autistic boy in the story because I understand the stress a special needs child places on a family. I had a Down Syndrome brother. Like Mrs. March, my mother received little support or understanding. Mr. March expresses much of my father’s frustration. Except for behavior patterns, an autistic child can appear normal. Little information about autism was known to the public in the 1950s. I felt Alan would be a more puzzling character than a Down syndrome child, who can be identified by appearance. Alan’s role as a catalyst for Cara and Nicolas was an event that developed as the story progressed.
Why did you want your story to take place in the 50s? and why Indiana?
The reasons for the Indiana location are both personal and technical. My father was born in Indiana. He moved to California when he was eleven. Similar to William March, his father died leaving two boys to run a farm. My maternal grandmother’s family moved to California from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. A relative still owns Silver Lake Mill, now an art gallery, which belonged to my great-great grandfather, Daniel Bowman. Family names, Yoder, Volk, and Bowman appear in the book. I have coincidentally retraced the steps of my ancestors. I was born in California, but lived in Indiana before moving to Virginia. In my book, I wanted to use familiar settings and chose Virginia as a starting point. I researched disasters that might realistically destroy my heroine’s home and family. Hurricane Able of 1952 became a tornado that touched down in Franconia, Virginia. This set the time in the 50s. To avoid any misinformation, I changed the name of Franconia to Dracena. Willsford resembles my husband’s home town in Wisconsin where the house and dairy are located. He was my consultant on cars, motorcycles, and the birthing of calves. When a Wisconsin relative saw the book cover, he wanted to know how I got a picture of Abe Fredenburg’s barn. I didn’t, but it shows what a tremendous job Kim Mendoza did with the cover art. The hay loft and long swing, the separator building, and the outhouse were on my family’s original property in California. I conveniently moved everything to Indiana, the advantage of writing.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I’m probably like most writers. It is something I always wanted to do. My mother thought I was going to become a writer when a sixth grade teacher encouraged my work. My class performed a play I wrote. In college, I majored in music and elementary education. As an adult, most of my writing has been academic. I’ve had a varied career, but there was always an underlying desire to be an author. After I completed a dissertation in Psychology, I noticed an extension class about getting published. I’ve discovered that research journals seek papers to publish, but I didn’t know that at the time. The same instructor had a class on writing a novel, so I enrolled. When he showed his binder of pictures, I was hooked. As a child, I looked up countries to visit and made a list of the tourist attractions, such as the Louvre in Paris. I wrote travel descriptions and drew the clothes that might be worn. Now I put together a scrapbook for each novel I write, which is both nostalgic and useful.
Why do you write YA?
Writing a YA novel wasn’t intentional. I decided to write books with titles named after the months of the year and use the calendar as a metaphor for aging. The heroines in the beginning months (January, February, and March) are younger women. April to September reflect early to mid-life. The heroines in the October, November, December books will be older women. The March heroine is the youngest of the three completed books. My critique partner suggested I seek a YA publisher, and I found Climbing Rose.
What fictional character did you most want to be when you were growing up?
I don’t recall a desire to emulate a fictional character while growing up. I wanted to be like my older sister, whom I adored. I’ve had my Psychology classes do an exercise, which I always found fascinating. I asked for fairy tale characters they admired. Cinderella was most often chosen by the women. To my surprise, it was not because of Prince Charming, but because Cinderella rose above her abusive environment. I have consistently chosen Little Red Riding Hood. She symbolizes the adventurous little girl who leaves home and sets out into the woods to explore the world, where she meets life’s challenges represented by the big, bad wolf. I grew up in a small town with strict religious parents. When I left home, most experiences were new, huge, exciting, and sometimes frightening.
What's next? Any projects you'd like to share with us?
I have several projects going. I’ve written January Journey, about a young woman who is determined to enter the Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Alaska. February Folly is a valentine story set amidst Virginia vineyards. The state motto, “Virginia is for Lovers” seemed appropriate. I’m working on April’s Fool, about a psychologist whose husband leaves a message that she is not to accompany him on their planned trip to Europe. Certain he is not going alone she is determined to discover the identity of “the other woman.”
If you were going to a costume party where you were supposed to dress up as your favorite movie character, what would you wear?
If I were going to a costume party, I would be Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. I would wear a black dress, red spike heels, and a silver wig. I have a love-hate relationship with the fashion industry. I wanted to be a fashion designer, but in doing research, I was consistently discouraged by retail buyers who said the business was cut-throat. I tried modeling for a while. I love clothes and coordinating outfits. I’m still fascinated with fabric, design, color, and the glamour involved, but I became disillusioned with the industry. Not surprising for anyone who has seen the movie or read the book. My experiences weren’t quite as drastic, but I couldn’t understand why the male shop owner had to walk through the models’ dressing room to leave the store. With my insular background, I didn’t trust photographers who promised to take me to parties to meet celebrities. I worked with young women who gave up everything to move to Los Angeles and were running out of money with no potential job in sight. Like Andrea in The Devil Wears Prada, the experience helped discern my priorities. I enrolled in graduate school Psychology, maybe to figure it all out.
Fabulous answers, Barbara! Thanks for giving us so much insight into your wonderful book.
Only four more days until the digital release of March Misfit, but if you just can't wait, check out this Early Bird Special on our publisher website! And speaking of sneak peeks, be sure to check back tomorrow--and for the rest of the week--when we'll be posting the first three chapters of March Misfit!