Steve Watkins is an award-winning author living in Fredericksburg with his wife, Janet, and is the father of four daughters—Maggie, Eva, Claire, and Lili. He is the 2009 recipient of the Golden Kite Award for Fiction from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for his young adult novel, Down Sand Mountain. In addition to writing young adult books, he has written non-fiction and short stories. Steve has been a contributing writer to the Freelance-Star and taught journalism, creative writing and Vietnam War literature at the University of Mary Washington for 22 years. Most recently, he has written a middle grade series, Ghosts of War, which takes place in Fredericksburg.
You are no stranger to the Fredericksburg area. Tell us about your community involvement.
SW: My biggest community involvement has been raising my four daughters in Fredericksburg, all in the city schools, which are wonderful. Janet, and I are big fans of the public school teachers our children have been blessed to have. I don’t know of any more dedicated and hard-working and caring people than our children’s teachers. Over the years I’ve served on a variety of school advisory councils and done quite a bit of volunteer work in the schools, from bringing in my guitar and playing children’s music, to teaching yoga, to giving talks about my books.
I’ve been an active volunteer for several years with Tree Fredericksburg—as have my daughters Claire and Lili. Lili is a crew chief whenever she can make it to tree plantings. I’ve been very active in our church, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fredericksburg, and I’m director of the nonprofit Yoga Foundation of Fredericksburg, teaching and scheduling free yoga classes at the juvenile detention center and various other youth facilities, as well as a weekly class for military families and free and donation-based classes at some area schools and pre-schools.
I’m also co-founder and co-manager of Dragonfly Yoga Studio of Fredericksburg. I worked as a volunteer for a number of years at CASA—Court Appointed Special Advocates—advocating for abused and neglected children and teens in the juvenile courts. Janet is now the director of CASA and doing important work there for children who are at greatest risk in our area.
How were you drawn to write middle grade and young adult novels?
SW: My agent, Kelly Sonnack, who is with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, saw the YA potential in my first novel, Down Sand Mountain, a coming of age story set in the rural, segregated South of the 1960s, and put me in touch with Candlewick Press, who also saw the potential. I loved working with my editor at Candlewick—Kaylan Adair—so much so that we’ve had her down to visit and stay with us, and I’ve gone on to work with Kaylan on three more books after DSM. It helped that DSM won the Golden Kite Award, and my other Candlewick books have also had great reviews and various literary honors and recognition. One thing that keeps drawing me back to YA and MG—besides the contracts and royalties—is the hopeful nature of the genre. Not necessarily neat and happy endings—rarely those, in fact—but almost always forward-looking, hopeful resolutions. Even a book like Jerry Spinelli’s Milkweed, a powerful story about the Holocaust, manages to find and hold out elements of redemption and hope. Guess I’m not too big on post-modernist nihilism, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
In your middle grade series, Ghosts of War, your contemporary setting is Fredericksburg. What made you choose this location?
SW: I thought my daughters would get a kick out of it, and they have. It’s cool for them to read about downtown Fredericksburg, and various landmarks and people they know. I manage to work in a few familiar names here and there in the books. It’s also helpful to me as a writer to develop my own little postage stamp of native soil, to use William Faulkner’s phrase, to anchor and help identify my contemporary characters as they dive into these historical war mysteries. And of course Fredericksburg is steeped in history, starting with the Native American communities that thrived here, and the arrival of the Europeans, the Colonial era, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War. The book I’m writing right now for the series—book number 4—is actually about the first Battle of Fredericksburg.
Will local readers recognize any area references in the series?
SW: Oh absolutely. City schools, the battlefields, downtown, Chatham Manor, the river, I-95, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Sunken Road. The list grows longer with each book I write in the series.
The fourth book in the Ghosts of War series, slated for release next year, is about the Battle of Fredericksburg. Tell us about the local research that went into writing this book.
SW: I’ve read a number of books on the Battle of Fredericksburg, and a great note of thanks here to the Rappahannock Regional Library and the great librarians we have downtown and in all the branches. They have tons of material for anyone who wants to learn more. They also have all my books on the shelves, a definite plus. Being able to walk the battlefields literally every day has been an enormous help in visualizing everything that happened in the battle. The revisionist histories—much sounder than the romanticized and politicized versions of the battle that held sway for a long time—have been excellent. Some of my research I’ll have to keep secret because there’s a very big surprise in the book and I don’t want to give anything away.
What do you have in the works that readers can look forward to down the road?
SW: My next Candlewick book is called Great Falls, and it’s a YA book that deals with post-Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and their families. There are so many families in this area who have struggled with issues such as PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries—something I’ve researched extensively and written quite a lot about—and I wanted to explore those issues and themes in fiction by focusing on the experiences of one family, and two brothers in particular, who for complicated reasons find themselves on the run—from everything and everybody. Great Falls is also set in Fredericksburg, and western and northern Virginia, and it, too, has landmarks that local folks will recognize. I’m also working with a director who’d rather I not mention his name at this point on a treatment and screenplay of one of my books, and it will be interesting to see how that goes. And if all goes well with the Ghosts of War books, I’ll look forward to writing more of those, too.
Want to learn more about Steve Watkins and his books? Visit http://stevewatkinsbooks.com/