Let’s welcome, Cameron Kelly Rosenblum https://www.cameronrosenblum.com/, author of The Stepping Off Place. Released in July 2020, her book has already earned high praise from Booklist and a starred review in Kirkus. Given the book’s passion and unforgettable characters, I predict it will receive many more accolades.
The Stepping Off Place deals with shifting friendships and romances, grief and mental health, with profound realism. When Reid’s inseparable friend Hattie leaves for her family’s private island in Maine the summer before their senior year, Reid isn’t sure she can navigate the dynamics of her new position in the popular crowd alone. Reid is devastated when, days before Hattie is due to return, she learns Hattie has drowned. As she uncovers the circumstances surrounding her friend’s death, Reid is forced to reevaluate everything she thought she knew about her friend.
I’ll be raffling off a copy of The Stepping Off Place to one of the lucky people who leave a comment on this post.
The Stepping Off Place is your debut novel, Cameron. Can you tell us about your journey to publication? Did you have mentors along the way?
Mine is the Aesop’s tortoise of publishing journeys. But, like the tortoise, I’ve enjoyed the trip! For eight years I worked (and reworked) the same middle grade novel. I remember speakers at workshops telling us that first novel attempts often end up in a drawer, that they’re a sandbox for honing your craft, and I thought, "Nope, not mine!" But that MG currently resides in a Staples box in a closet.
Through rejections and painfully close calls, I’ve been buoyed by wonderful mentors and writing friends, most of whom I met through SCBWI events in New England. During one Nashua conference, I met a pre-published woman named Lynda Mullaly Hunt at a peer critique roundtable. She read her first page and I remember the whole table going quiet. We all looked at each other, like, “You can go next.” “Oh no, you. I insist.” Lynda and I remain great friends, and she got me hooked on the Whispering Pines Retreat, which inspired me and my writing pal Julie Kingsley to start a small retreat on Squam Lake in NH.
The novel’s settings of Scofield, CT and a private island in Maine are palpably real. So are the characters who inhabit them. You grew up in Connecticut and now live in Maine. How much of this novel is taken from your own experience?
Scofield is an enhanced version of my hometown in Connecticut, because this book is a highly fictionalized tribute to a dear friend of mine from childhood. My friend died by suicide when we were adults, but we were so close in our formative tween/teen years, her loss remains very powerful to me. I wanted to write about that kind of friendship. I also wanted to address mental illness in a nuanced, respectful way that encourages healthy conversations among readers. As for the characters, writing The Stepping Off Place was art therapy for me. I was processing a loss and I wanted to give myself distance. By exaggerating Reid’s dependence on Hattie, and also taking Hattie away from Reid when the girls are still in high school (not adults, as in my personal situation), I was able to tackle my subject with a clearer eye. I imagined totally different backstories for both of them, including adding Reid’s brother, Spencer, who has autism. My son has severe autism, so I felt comfortable imagining how that would shape Reid’s outlook on things. As for Maine, I moved here with my husband in 1999, and I continue to appreciate the bold beauty of the landscape every day. In The Stepping Off Place, liked how the dual settings ended up working as metaphor— Reid is groomed rosebushes and clean sidewalks; Hattie is wild sea roses and waves crashing on cliffs.
Love that metaphor!
You didn’t write The Stepping Off Place in linear sequence. Instead you shifted back and forth between Reid’s current experiences and her memories, until sometimes the two seemed to bleed together. Why did you choose this format? What challenges did you face and how did you manage to keep your timeline straight?
In the first draft I wrote by instinct, focusing on alternating emotionally raw scenes with fun, carefree ones. In the process, I found this back-and-forth created its own tension, simply by the juxtaposition. The “before” scenes were built as Reid's memories, which came whether she was ready or not; I wanted the structure to reflect the chaos of a grieving mind. In revision, I nailed down Reid’s character arc. She grows from being a sidekick to a person ready to stand in her own light. As such, Reid’s story starts where Hattie’s life ends. So, for me, this format worked on a bunch of levels.
Challenges? Oh, yes! But mostly during revisions. The trickiest part was moving scenes around. I had to make sure all the details matched where the scene fell in the story. In a linear narrative, that isn’t so hard. Think: Goldilocks can’t sit on Baby Bear’s chair before she sits on Papa Bear’s chair. But without the traditional timeline of events, we needed to triple check all the details. Foreshadowing hints had to be traced through three timelines. It’s the difference between a domino effect and an echo effect. Thankfully, I had wonderful editorial co-agents (Brianne Johnson and Allie Levick of Writers House) guiding me, and later my awesome editor Karen Chaplin at HarperCollins.
Hattie appears to Reid after her death. Is that her ghost?
On a deep level, I was grappling with big questions through writing this story: Why would my friend take her own life? And more universally, what happens to a beautiful soul after its corporeal vessel ceases to exist? For Reid, it’s simply impossible to believe that Hattie is gone, poof. Maybe Reid is imagining Hattie’s appearances to cope with the shocking loss. Or maybe the essence of Hattie stays to help Reid. I don’t know the answer myself, but wouldn’t dismiss either possibility.
The Stepping Off Place tackles the topic of mental illness and you provide a number of resources where people can get help in the back of your book and on your website. Can you talk a little about this issue and why it is so important to you?
As I said, this book is a tribute to my friend. It’s true I saw myself as a bit of a sidekick to her superhero in real life; that’s why her loss remains difficult to wrap my mind around. I thought she had it all. But mental illness doesn’t discriminate.
Initially, I shied away from the teen suicide topic— it’s so important to do right. But I very quickly realized that the suicide is the story. And that for suicide loss survivors, there is often no answer to why, other than simply, she or he succumbed to depression or another mental illness. The deeper into the story I got, the clearer my mission became: To stoke constructive conversations about mental illness and its stigma so that we can address the alarming trends in suicide rates.
Originally you thought you’d like to write middle grade novels. What made you pivot to writing for young adults? Do you think you’ll write middle grade books in the future, or have you discovered your true audience in teens?
When I finally surrendered my middle grade novel, it was because I had turned it into a Frankenbook. I made the mistake of listening to everyone’s advice over the years and choosing their ideas over my own. The narrative got all out of whack. It’s definitely important to listen, but I know better now when to trust myself. Our novels are our own, first and foremost! I was a more skilled and informed writer by the time I started The Stepping Off Place, so it may be a coincidence that I executed it better than my previous work. Or maybe I should have been writing YA all along. In any case, I’m staying with it!
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers? Do you have a new project in the works? I certainly hope so! The world is eager to hear from you again.
I’m working on a second YA for HarperCollins, due out in winter 2022. This time I’m going after sexual assault in a #MeToo aware world, and the boys are coming in for the conversation.
To learn more about Cameron Kelly Rosenblum and The Stepping Off Place, visit her website at https://www.cameronrosenblum.com/
And to be entered in our raffle for a copy of The Stepping Off Place, just leave a comment on this post. Good luck, people!