At VCFA, the Writing for Children and Young Adults program is famed for its ability to open doors in the world of kidlit. For Kelly Dyksterhouse and Callie C. Miller, an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults opened two different doors which led to two different paths: those of literary agent and author, respectively. These paths converged when Kelly signed Callie as a client and sold her debut middle-grade fantasy novel, Hunt for the Hollower, which will be released on June 13, 2023. Today, we have the privilege of delving into their shared educational background, their collaborative process, and the inspiration behind Callie’s enchanting debut!
1. Kelly and Callie: You are both graduates of VCFA’s Writing for Children and Young Adults program and now you’re working (together!) professionally in two different areas of publishing. How has your time at the Vermont College of Fine Arts’s Writing for Children and Young Adult program influenced your work now as an agent (Kelly) and as an author (Callie)?
Kelly: There is so much of what I learned at VCFA that I rely on every day. I so often hear the voice of Betsy, or Mary, or Mark and Tim in my mind as I evaluate a text. Or refer to notes from a lecture or workshop from Rita, Na, Susan, Sarah, or Amy or Amanda or Martine or Tom (the list goes on and on) as I look for ways to explain something in an edit letter to a client. But I think the best skill that VCFA taught me was evaluating craft through writing all of those critical essays. Interestingly, those critical essays caused me the most trepidation initially and they became something I looked forward to by the end. It seems to me that VCFA’s commitment to developing a critical eye is what sets their students apart as writers upon graduation–it creates a habit that all successful writers need, and that’s to constantly be looking for ways to pursue their craft.
Callie: There is no way I would be the writer I am today without VCFA. As Kelly said, to this day I still hear the faculty whispering to me as I write or revise, and I have a deep understanding of how to approach craft. And to further add to Kelly’s answer about the critical essays: studying craft so thoroughly has not only equipped me to tackle particular snags I run into during projects, but it has also allowed me to recognize when I’m running into an area I need to better understand and study. I still have my blind spots (which is where critique partners and having a fabulous editorial agent come in!) but being able to identify areas that need improvement, whether overall in my writer toolbox or on a project-by-project basis, has been not only crucial but empowering.
2. Callie: How does it feel to have your middle-grade debut novel, Hunt for the Hollower releasing soon? Can you tell us a bit about the book?
Callie: I am overwhelmed in the best possible way! I started thinking about THE HUNT FOR THE HOLLOWER right after graduating from VCFA in 2014, and it’s publishing in 2023, so it’s the culmination of nine years of work. THE HUNT FOR THE HOLLOWER is a fantasy adventure romp about a wizardess who is terrible at magic, but must learn to come into her power in order to save her brother, who has been kidnapped by the mythical, magic-stealing Hollower. She sets off on a quest with her best friend (who longs to be a knight), a wandering musician (who is fleeing from his past) and her brand new familiar (who yearns for a taste of funnel cake). Ultimately HOLLOWER is about Found Family, and learning to embrace who you are and be true to yourself.
3. Kelly: As Callie’s literary agent, what drew you to Hunt for the Hollower?
Kelly: No matter what the genre or target audience age, I am drawn to books that kids will want to pull off the shelves, but that also say something important so that they demand a place on the shelf in the first place. Books that add to the conversation. THE HUNT FOR THE HOLLOWER is exactly that kind of book. It’s enormously fun–full of action, high stakes and grand adventure. Great characters that make you laugh out loud and also feel deeply. And important themes of friendship, loyalty, sacrifice, forgiveness, and learning to be who you are meant to be.
4. Callie: What inspired you to write Hunt for the Hollower? What do you love most about writing middle-grade fiction?
Callie: This book has been quite the process! I nearly always start with character, so this began with Merlynda: a wizardess, descended from Merlyn, who is terrible at magic, but has a charming wyvern familiar who enjoys being wrapped around her wrist like a bracelet. I’ve always loved Arthurian myths and stories, and did a lot of research into the Middle Ages for inspiration about the time period Merlynda might live in, if this story took place in our world. As I started drafting, things snowballed in a wonderfully zany way.
Many of the books I read during my own middle grade years have stayed with me! Middle grade is such a wonderful age, and has the potential to be filled with magic. Kids this age are starting to figure out who they are, and trying to sort out where they belong, but are also very willing to embrace and come along for the story’s journey.
5. Kelly: What do you think sets Hunt for the Hollower apart from other middle-grade novels in the market?
Kelly: The voice and the themes. Callie writes with a remarkably consistent, humorous narrative voice that permeates the entire story. It invites the reader into the story as a participant in a way that is very unique for an omniscient narrator and shows a lot of respect for the reader. That in turn, I think, allows the themes to hit home in a more powerful and personal way. So, for instance, when a character feels betrayed and needs to forgive, the reader also feels betrayed and is invited to consider the cost and the benefits of forgiveness themselves.
6. Callie: How did being part of the Vermont College of Fine Arts community support and inspire you as you worked on Hunt for the Hollower and your other writing projects?
Callie: Writing is inherently isolating, so belonging to a writing community is essential! When I started at VCFA I had no idea just how crucial this community would become, and am so so SO grateful every day for it. Even though I started HOLLOWER after I graduated from the program, I was armed with the echoing cheers of my advisors, the encouragement of my cohort, and the resources that come from being an alumnx. I continue to listen to lectures on the Alumnx Commons and look up Critial Theses that are relevant to areas I’m trying to grow in or study or that I’m just curious about. I am fortunate to write professionally in a number of areas, but engaging with the kidlit community and VCFA in particular always feels like coming home.
7. Kelly: How do you think attending the Vermont College of Fine Arts’s program sets you apart as a literary agent and enhances your ability to advocate for authors in the children’s and young adult market?
Kelly: Agents wear lots of different hats. On any given day, I’m an editor, a sales person, a negotiator, a market analyst, a career/project manager, a networker, a a strategist, an advocate and a cheerleader–and I am probably forgetting something! No day is the same and no day is predictable, which is actually why I love what I do. It’s never boring! There are skills I’ve developed through training under fantastic mentor agents and agencies and that I also picked up in law school (long ago). A skill that VCFA has given me that undergirds so much of what I do is being able to think like a writer, and in particular, a writer for children and young adults. This allows me to connect with my clients on a level that I believe elevates our partnership and helps me to work with them to achieve their vision for any given project.
8. Callie: What challenges did you face while writing Hunt for the Hollower, and how did you overcome them? Any memorable moments you’d like to share from the writing process?
Callie: Nine years is a long time to face challenges! For me personally, I am MUCH more of an outliner now, and do my best to understand the broad strokes of a story before drafting. Another huge takeaway is to always work on your craft. I absolutely am a better writer for all of the time spent on HOLLOWER, and I see that reflected in my other projects. A key moment after I was several drafts in (and, if I’m being honest, feeling pretty discouraged about the querying trenches) was realizing how to make the stakes more personal for Merlynda and apply a greater sense of urgency. It required a significant rewrite, which felt daunting. But I still loved this story and these characters, and I thought they deserved me trying at least one last time to do them justice. That revision is what got me my amazing agent, Kelly!
9. Kelly: As a literary agent, what do you find most rewarding about working with middle-grade authors and their stories?
Kelly: I love all kidlit, from board books to YA, fiction and nonfiction, but I do think that middle grade holds a special place. I think because these years are so formative in the life of any person, and it’s when kids start getting some agency in choosing what they want to read. And they will remember the books that make an impact on them at this age–and return to them over the years. I think being a small part of bringing such books into existence is really a true honor.
10. Kelly and Callie: Finally, what message or key take away would you like readers to have after reading Hunt for the Hollower?
Kelly: Wow, this is hard. There are so many. Maybe that sacrifice for those you love is an act that will never return void, that forgiveness is something we all need at times, and that each of us has unique purpose and worth that no mistake we make can negate.
Callie: Awww Kelly, I’m blushing! I’ll add to that with: embrace all of you with your whole self. Many people will try to write the narrative of You, but ultimately you are empowered to decide who you are.