Saturday 1 June 2013

The Girl in the Basement


Dianne Bates, is well-known in the children’s book world, having published over 120 books and won the Lady Cutler Award for distinguished services to children’s literature. She lives in Wollongong NSW with her award-winning YA author husband, Bill Condon.

Di has won numerous grants and awards for her books, some of which have sold overseas and in translation. Her latest title, a YA novel, The Girl in the Basement, is released this month by Morris Publishing Australia and is now available online and in bookshops. You can find out more about Di, her books and other projects at:

Di, your new novel is very timely with the recent release of the three women kidnapped in Ohio. Where did you get the idea?

The Girl in the Basement is based on the real-life discovery in 1987 of a Polaroid photograph picked up by a shopper in a Florida (US) car park. It showed a girl around twenty, and a boy around ten who were both bound and gagged and who appeared to be in the back of a van. Disturbed by the photo, the finder took it to police.  Hundreds of stories with the picture were run in national media, including a TV program, Missing People. This resulted in the parents of both children contacting police. The boy was said to be Michael Henley, who had gone missing from a camping trip 17 months earlier. The girl, identified as Tara Callico, had disappeared 75 miles away a year earlier while out cycling. Both Michael and Tara were from New Mexico but were unrelated. For their parents, it was the first inkling of what had happened to them.

I remember being very distressed by the story and often wondered if either of the victims were ever found. As it turned out, there were numerous unconfirmed sightings of Tara in 1988 and 1989, mostly in the southern half of the United States. However, she has never been found, alive or dead. Remains found in the Zuni Mountains in June 1990 were eventually identified as Michael’s. It is believed he died of natural causes. Thus the identity of the boy in the photo is still unknown.

In The Girl in the Basement the story is narrated by a teenage girl, Libby, who is kidnapped on the night of her 16th birthday, and by her kidnapper who is a serial killer looking for a ‘family’.

It must have been difficult to get into the minds of two such different people.

Yes, it was. I must say I struggled more with the teenage voice than I did with that of the kidnapper who Libby thinks of as ‘Psycho Man’ but whom she eventually comes to call ‘Papa’. I was helped in my writing to understand the psychology of a captive by reading several books written by Jaycee Lee Dugard, Natascha Kaumpsch and Sabine Dardenne who were held by different psychopaths at different times.

Why do you think teenagers would want to read a book about a kidnap victim?

Wikipedia reports dozens of cases of kidnapped victims over the past century; some have been found alive, but many were murdered. More than any demographic, young women are likely to be victims of crime, especially kidnapping so it’s not surprising that teenage girls would have a fear of being abducted by a stranger.

The Girl in the Basement sets a scenario of how the combination of being a teenage girl, over-indulging in alcohol, being alone, being in the wrong place and being very unlucky can predicate abduction. My book also shows a young woman’s resilience in dealing with her captor and how she lives with hope of being rescued; (in the end, though, it is her own initiative which leads to her escape).

It’s good to know there is a hopeful ending to your novel!

More than anything, I think a young person reading a book is looking not just at problems but at how to solve them; life is difficult enough -- the reader deserves to arrive at a hopeful ending. Libby is like most teenage girls; she is fiercely independent, brave and resourceful.

Can you talk about the writing of the book and the drafting processes?

Finding the impetus for writing was easy enough; the first real problem was to decide on and find the narrative voice. Both Psycho Man and Libby demanded to be heard so I finished up having multiple voices, Libby telling her story in first person present tense, the kidnapper’s story being told in third person present tense. I wanted show Libby always living in the moment whereas the kidnapper, being more elusive and anonymous, needed to be presented in a cloak of mystery. The use of present tense means there is more immediacy to the story as events unfold.

There were countless drafts of this book. Before submitting it to a publisher, I not only underwent weekly copy-editing workshops, but I also paid for the finished draft to be assessed by a professional, in-house editor. She made many suggestions, all of which I followed to finish with a manuscript I finally decided was publishable.

So the manuscript was accepted by the first publisher to whom you sent it?

I wish! I submitted it to a small publisher who had published my previous YA novel (Crossing the Line) and who was extremely proactive in marketing and publicity. Unlike most commercial publishers I didn’t have long – just a few months – to get a response to my submission; three readers commented on numerous aspects of the manuscript they thought needed to be remedied. I took all of their comments on board and totally re-wrote the book. When I re-submitted it, the manuscript was rejected. I was devastated as I had followed all advice to the letter.

What did you do then?

By this time I had spent about five years writing and re-writing the manuscript.  My experience with major publishers is that they invariably spend up to (and sometimes more than) 12 months sitting on their slush piles. I wasn’t prepared to wait this long for a reply, so I took a gamble on a new publisher, Morris Publishing Australia based in Brisbane. Luckily I received a reply before too long and it was positive.

Publisher Elaine Morris has been easy to work with and has produced a book with a cover and design that I’m really happy with. Her distributor is Dennis Jones and Associates http//  

Are you working on anything else at the moment?

I always seem to be working on a book! Currently I’m about halfway through my first adult novel, a crime thriller titled The Freshest of Flesh.

My last two books are the junior verse novel, Nobody’s Boy (Celapene Press), winner of 2013 CBCA Notable Book and Erky Perky Silly Stuff (and other ridiculous verse) (Five Senses Education), so you can see I don’t restrict myself to any one kind of book, though generally speaking I write fiction for children.

So you would suggest that new writers should look at different genres?

Not necessarily. Some people are really most comfortably with picture book texts, others with YA fantasy. What I believe you should write is what you are excited -- even passionate -- about. If you as the writer feel ho-hum about your story, then that attitude becomes evident to the reader. You may as well stop writing and go walk your dog if you can’t be totally involved in your writing project.

Do you have any other advice for new writers who want to get published?

Lots of advice, but the main things are to believe in yourself and your work, and to be persistent. Finish projects! Get critical feedback, even if you have to pay for assessment of your final draft before you submit it. When (and it will happen) your work gets rejected, find extra resources of determination and either re-write or re-submit. I once had 47 successive rejected manuscripts before an acceptance. One of my (non-fiction, children’s) books was accepted by the 32nd publisher to whom I sent it. Nobody but yourself makes you write so you need to be incredibly focussed and determined.

Keep abreast with what’s happening in the publishing market. Now is a time of great change as e-book and book app publishers spring up alongside print book publishing houses. Check out publishers’ websites; see what they are currently seeking and/or publishing. Whenever you can, pitch book ideas to publishers at festivals and conferences. Network; get to know people in the children’s book industry both in person and online.

Finally, read widely and read the best of the type of genre which you are writing. If, for example, you are trying to get a picture book published, read every prize-winning picture book publishing in Australia, UK and USA in the last five years. De-construct text, analyse why the book has succeeded; learn from the masters! Treat writing as a full-time occupation. Once again, always but always be persistent.

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