Erin Soderberg Downing never wanted to be a writer when she was a kid. In fact, she didn’t really like writing all that much. But she did love the adventures books could take her on, and her first job was working at Scholastic in NYC as a children’s book editor.
It was there - working with other writers to help them make their stories better – that Downing learned more about how to create a great book. When she left that job, Downing missed helping people create their stories – and realized the only way she could be a part of making books anymore was to start writing some of her own.
Now Downing, a Tangletown resident, has written more than 50 books for kids, tweens, teens, and adults. Her most recent book, “Controlled Burn,” is out now.
How did you get into writing for kids, tweens, and young adults?
Downing: My first few books were teen romantic comedies (the types of stories that I’d loved to read and that I felt fit my skills and humor at the time), but over time, I’ve migrated to almost entirely middle-grade and series fiction for seven to 13-year-olds. I think this is the age of kids I connect with the most, and they’re the kinds of books I most love to write. Middle-grade fiction is also my favorite thing to read - so it’s where I’ve found my writing home!
How would you describe ‘Controlled Burn’?
Downing: It’s a story about a girl named Maia who is trying to forgive herself and find courage and personal strength after her sister is badly injured in a house fire that Maia is pretty sure was her fault. She’s sent to spend the summer with her grandparents in northern Minnesota while her sister heals in the hospital and her parents work on trying to put their lives and home back together. At its core, this is a book that highlights the healing power of nature, digs into anxieties, and fears, and celebrates the connection of family and found family.
How did your visits to Northern Minnesota and the nature shape this story?
Downing: Most importantly, the setting is very much based on my grandparents’ hometown of Tower, Minn. I grew up exploring the woods around Ely and Tower, and my parents now live on a lake near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. A few pieces of personal history that impacted the nature pieces of this story:
1) My mom worked for the forest service, and she actually fought wildland forest fires when I was a teenager!
2) My dad, uncle, cousins, and I used to go to the Boundary Waters every summer, which I both loved and hated. To this day, my dad still loves leading me and my kids out into the woods to explore cranberry bogs, trails, and woods.
3) My grandpa Howard worked as a lookout in a fire tower, was a wilderness guide, and worked for the DNR until he retired.
How did you bring the story from your own experiences with your grandfather to the novel?
Downing: Bottom line: it was such a delight to relive all those happy days I spent with my grandparents each year – while I was writing this book, I could even remember the smell of their house. It was fun to think about the great, not-so-great, and interesting/bizarre things that happened when I was staying with them! Most of this story is entirely made up, but a lot of the details are very much based in reality – real people, places, and my own fears and anxieties.
You have another book inspired by northern Minnesota coming out in 2024. Can you talk a bit about that?
Downing: I am so excited about “Just Keep Walking” which was a story I researched and wrote while hiking 100 miles of the Superior Hiking Trail with my then 13-year-old son. I wrote all of our worries, injuries, and hilarious moments into the story that I crafted after that adventure – and then amped things up to make the novel much more exciting. I’m calling this book “Gilmore Girls on the trail,” since it’s about a mother-daughter pair who are both utterly delightful, and also utterly unprepared for the reality of a hike like this. But despite their lack of skills, their toughness and determination and love for each other keeps them going to prove they can do it. It’s a little like the memoir “Wild,” but for middle-grade readers - discovering your strength and finding yourself while surrounded by nature! Sound familiar? “Controlled Burn” and “Just Keep Walking” definitely play off some similar themes. More about this book can be found at https://www.erinsoderberg.com/just-keep-walking.html.
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