DEEP SURVIVAL: Researching “Blood Mountain”

When I speak at schools to an audience of grades 4-up, I’ll sometimes talk about my wilderness survival novel, Blood Mountain

There’s a scary moment in the process that many writers face. After the initial idea for the book — two kids and a dog lost in the mountains! — that happy burst of boing! eureka! — I realized that I didn’t know nearly enough to write it.

It was time to hit the books and talk to experts. Which I did. 

The other day, a few years after the fact, I reread for pleasure one of the books that informed my thinking: Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, by Laurence Gonzales. It’s an amazing book, profound in many respects, and a great read. It’s very much the kind of thing I love. 

When you think about it, just about every story comes down to what a character is made of, the content of that character’s character, and survival stories are so powerful because they bring this question to the forefront. Does this character have the right stuff?

And what is the right stuff?

Rereading Gonzales’ book, I kept coming across ideas that I first encountered there, busily jotting concepts in my notebook, underlining passages, discovering ideas that I would try to incorporate into Blood Mountain. I came to his book wanting to know more about why people got lost, what mistakes they commonly made. And moreso, what attitudes best served “the lost,” and which attitudes might get a lost person into serious trouble. 

Here’s something from page 154: “Psychologists who study the behavior of people who get lost report that very few ever backtrack.”

There’s a deep urge, particularly in goal-oriented people, to keep moving forward. Our eyes look forward, after all. So I made sure to write Grace (13) and Carter (11) that way, a dogged determination to keep going (even when the expert advice is to stay calm, stay put, stay warm, stay dry).

Another bit of wisdom that true survivors arrive at fairly quickly is the ability to make peace with their environment, a clear-eyed acceptance of the new reality. This becomes Grace’s path. While both characters ultimately need to be rescued, only Carter really needs to be saved. 

Earlier, Grace and Carter, on Day 2, form a plan to climb to a summit for a better view. That’s how they will see the clear path home, as if looking down on a giant map. The mentality, described by Gonzales, is fairly sound but not without risk (p. 160): “Maybe if he just got up high . . . if he could just see the whole area, then everything would snap back into focus and he could calm down.

Unfortunately, when people are without food and water, depleted already and possibly not thinking clearly, the expenditure of that effort can exhaust or injure them, possibly leading to outright panic. 

So, yes, in Blood Mountain we see exactly that, leading to Grace’s fall (from grace). Psychologically, it has to do with a person’s intense desire to map the self, map the environment — to create a mental picture. So that the interior mind and the exterior environment sync up.

Losing that inner map is the essence of being lost. 

Also from Gonzales: “Part of the terror of being lost stems from the idea of never being seen again.

I loved that one, because that’s all any of us want in this world, isn’t it? To be seen. To be valued. Without being seen, do we just fade out of existence, vanish into nothingness? 

Again, Gonzales: “Being lost, then, is not a location; it is a transformation. It is a failure of the mind.”

To survive, you must find yourself. Then it won’t matter where you are.

The rule is simple: Be here now

In Blood Mountain, I separate Grace and Carter and give them different experiences and, more importantly, different ways of responding to those circumstances. 

Grace, though injured and alone (with her dog, Sitka, thankfully), comes to a state of acceptance. Even appreciation of the beauty around her. She begins to set small goals for herself, simple tasks: get water, make a more comfortable bed, ration the supplies, etc. 

A holocaust survivor (p. 169) described the process this way: “Rescue will come as a welcome interruption of . . . the survival voyage.”

I share all this — just a fraction of the insights (borrowed, stolen) that went into writing Blood Mountain. (I’m not an expert, but I played in the writing of this book!)

There’s an intellectual reason for everything that happens on every page. Each scene, each moment, is intentional. Again, it is Grace’s sense of wonder about the natural world around her. The trees and plants and animal life. From Gonzales (p. 240): “It is a decision not to be lost wherever you happen to find yourself. It’s simply saying, “I’m not lost, I’m right here.

All this is to say: THANK YOU, LAURENCE GONZALES. I couldn’t have written my book without you!

BLOOD MOUNTAIN is now available in paperback for only $8.99.

A Horrifying Way to Kickoff Summer Reading

Good News! Here’s a horrifying way to kick off summer reading and a great gift idea.
In about two weeks, on June 25th, Square Fish/Macmillan will be putting out a 304-page compilation that brings together three of my “Scary Tales” books in one volume: One-Eyed Doll, Nightmareland, and Swamp Monster. All for only $8.99 (cheap!).
   
For this series, I wanted more freedom than I had with Jigsaw Jones (42 books!), so each story features different characters and unique settings. I love that three of these stories can now be read in one big book. Best for grades 3-5, though I’ve met many middle-school readers who’ve loved the books. This larger volume will not look at all “too young” or “babyish,” removing any stigma an older reader might experience reading what looks like an “easy” book. 
I wrote these in the tradition of the great old “high-lo” concept. Fast-paced, high-interest stories, easy to read text, amazing illustrations by Iacapo Bruno, in the hopes of appealing to those hard-to-reach reluctant readers.
Thanks!

Last School Visit of the School Year!

I was feeling pretty drained from yesterday, my last school visit of the year. A hot one! We crammed everybody into the library — four presentations, K-5 — and we all pretty much constantly thought about how nice it would have been to have air conditioning.
I longed for a cool movie theater and a box of Junior Mints.
How on earth do teachers do it?
Drip, drip, drip.
The sound of students melting into puddles on the floor.
As always, but maybe never moreso than today, circa 2024, I am beyond grateful to still be invited into schools to encourage and (hopefully) inspire a love of reading and writing.
I am very aware that a book is nothing without a reader.
P.S.  Yes, please, I am eager to schedule more school visits for 2024-2025 school year, places near and far. Please contact me at jamespreller@aol.com and we can explore how I might be the best fit for your school or school district. 

Learning to Be Gentle with Myself

Here’s a meme that resonated with me, and it might do you some good, too (more thoughts below):

I published my first official book in 1986, though I made many books with spare paper and tape as a young kid, probably starting around 1966.  So it’s been a long time of me making things.

And a very long and hard time of me beating myself up over all those times when I’m not-making-things. 

Of me being uninspired, or lazy, or too slow and dim-witted, unoriginal, shiftless, and on and on. All the hateful words.

How does one write without a generous heaping of self-loathing?

I’ll never know. 

But I am not so far gone that I can’t see my own ridiculousness. I can look on my book shelves and see that I did some work along the way, and it’s not all terrible and useless. 

Lately I’ve been in a fallow period. 

Lacking in some essential thing.

An empty vessel in need of filling up. 

And thus, the meme. 

Remembering that I’m a human, not a machine, not a bot, not an AI program. 

I’m learning — I’m trying to say — to give myself a break. Because I’m doing the best I can. That has to be enough. 

 

 

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #336: The Fate of EXIT 13

 

This one sort of stopped me cold, wondering how to reply, writing to an adult teacher and also, at the same time, 22 third-grade readers. How to tell them that the world can be a sad and disappointing place?

How to let down a reader? 

But one of my core beliefs as a writer for young people is that children can deal with anything. And they do, in their actual lives, all the time. Friends move away. Invitations are never sent. Pets grow old and die. So I just try to be authentic, and age-appropriate, and honest. 

And, of course, long-winded.

Here’s the email I received . . . 

Hello!

My name is Kaelyn D____ and I teach 3rd grade in Michigan. We have just finished the second Exit 13 book as a whole class. It has kept my students on their toes!
They were so sad to see that there wasn’t a 3rd book out quite yet, I told them I would do my best to let them know if one comes out soon. 
They have loved the mystery and being able to make theories about what happens next and compare it to what really happened. I told them I would try my best to reach out and at least let you know how loved those books are in my class. Seeing them so engaged and excited about reading is my favorite! So thank you for writing these novels!
We hope to see another book and hear about Ash and Willow’s adventures moving forward.  
Thank you so much,
Kaelyn D____ and her 22 third graders! 🙂 

I replied . . . 

 

Dear Kaelyn D____ in Michigan, and to your 22 miraculous students,
Thank you so much for your kind letter. For reasons that I’ll explain, it made me both happy and sad.
I appreciate that you read and enjoyed both books. I loved writing them and I’m very proud of EXIT 13. There’s a section in Book 2 where the chapters alternate between Ash in the woods and Willow in danger back at the motel. The book jumps back and forth between those two characters and I thought it worked really well, building tension and suspense. As a writer, I felt like yes, this is exciting. After writing all these years, I’ve finally learned enough to pull this off. Real adventure and mystery. A page turner!
You might know my Jigsaw Jones books. In those mysteries, all 42 titles, I stay with Jigsaw’s point of view all the way through. The camera, so to speak, never leaves Jigsaw. But in the EXIT 13 books, I was able to shift the focus from one scene to the other, back and forth, and it was exciting to toggle between them. I hoped that it would be exciting to read, too.
I worked a similar trick — or literary device — in my book Blood Mountain. There’s a sister and brother, Grace and Carter, who get lost in the mountains. Once they became separated, I was able to do that same thing as in EXIT 13, where I leap from one scene to the next, keeping the plot moving but also building suspense.
I think of it as a magician trying to keep a number of plates spinning in the air. Have you ever seen anything like that? Maybe you can find an example on Youtube. There’s a little video titled “Plate spinning routine by Henrik Bothe” that gives you the idea. You want to keep all the plates spinning before they come crashing to the floor.
That’s what it’s like to tell a rousing story!
By the way, I have three children. Nick is the oldest. But my two youngest, Gavin and Maggie, are only 18 months apart and grew up more tightly together. I guess I like that dynamic between a brother and a sister. There’s friendship and rivalry. 
Where do we get ideas? From our own lives, of course. That’s the beginning, anyway. Then you add imagination. Make stuff up.
(I wonder if you’d like my “Scary Tales” books? You might want to check those out from the library.)
When I started the series, I was hired by a publisher, Scholastic. The editor asked me to write two books, though we both hoped there would be more. I planned for more. I certainly had enough ideas for at least six overall. After all, I got these characters into the motel, I had to find a way to get them out. That was the job. But at the beginning, I had to get the ball rolling.
Anyway, here comes the sad part, because it’s about the business of publishing. I wrote the first book, The Whispering Pines, and it was offered on Scholastic Book Fairs. While that was happening, I finished the second book, The Spaces In Between. But before the second book even came out, before anyone in the world read it, Scholastic had already decided that sales were not strong enough for the first book. They did not want a 3rd title. 
It didn’t matter if the books were good or not. The only thing that mattered was how many people bought the first one in those first two  months at the Book Fairs. When sales were not robust enough, they pulled the plug. It was not a home run. No more books, gone, goodbye. 
The series was over before it ever got a chance to catch on. 
Unfortunately, that’s publishing these days. It’s also true, I guess, of television shows and songs on the radio and the arts in general. Instant success or they move on to the next thing. We are forever moving on to the next thing.
It’s hard and disappointing. A writer puts so much into his books. Heart and soul. Sigh. 
I had notes for a 3rd and 4th book. Ideas I wanted to pursue. The alien visitors. The strange, somewhat damaged animals in the forest that needed rescuing. I had the notion that the McGinns were brought to EXIT 13 for a reason. That there was a mission to complete. And that once Ash and his family understood the mission, and succeeded, once they figured out the deep mystery, they’d be “allowed” to leave EXIT 13. 
I so much wish I could write those books for you. But without a publisher, there can be no book. Hopefully you were able to enjoy the first two in the series. I know it’s a true bummer that I was unable to finish the larger story. I’m really sorry to disappoint readers. Believe me, it’s the last thing I ever wanted to do. 
Publishing is a tough business. As someone once wrote, “It’s a bunny eat bunny world.”
But summer is almost here. There’s so much more to do in this life — more to read and write. I’m grateful to you, Ms. Davis, for sharing my work, and this letter, with your class. They are lucky to have a teacher who loves books, who reads out loud, who shares that enthusiasm for the written word. We’re both book lovers, you and I, and that will always connect us. Thanks for everything. 
Forever your friend,
James Preller