The Thing with Feathers is McCall Hoyle’s debut young adult novel. It’s about a girl named Emilie who lives in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Since elementary school, she’s been homeschooled as a way to help her cope with the unpredictability of epilepsy. When we meet her, she’s preparing for her first day of “regular” school. Her doctor believes it’s time for her to start leaving the house and living a more social, active life. Emilie’s mother agrees, and so despite her protests, Emilie is enrolled.
Emilie’s epilepsy has dogged her since she was diagnosed. She never knew when seizures would hit, but when they struck, they left her humiliated. Her greatest fear is that her new friends—and love interest—will find out about her illness.
What follows is a heartfelt, optimistic, yet honest portrayal of the struggles Emilie has. She must decide who’s a “real” friend, determine which side of herself to show different people, and figure out how to be vulnerable in such an exposed position.
Mary Sullivan: What inspired you to write about epilepsy?
McCall Hoyle: As a teacher and mom, I see so many teenage girls hiding their true selves from their peers. So I wanted to write a hopeful story about a girl learning that true acceptance always starts on the inside and works its way out.
A few years ago, I taught a student who struggled deeply with the stress and worry caused by her sister’s epilepsy. At about the same time in a lucky twist of fate, my family inherited a golden retriever who was bred to do therapy work. The dog was more human than many humans. I began working with this amazing dog, training him for agility and obedience.
I became fascinated by golden retrievers and assistant dogs and did lots and lots of research and reading on the subject. I was especially intrigued by seizure alert dogs as seizure alerting cannot truly be taught and is greatly affected by the bond between the owner and dog.
I knew I had to write a story about a girl with epilepsy learning to love herself unconditionally the way her golden retriever did.
MS: Emilie’s spent a lot of time alone, reading. When she gets to high school, she’s an English-class ace. Emily Dickinson comes up frequently in the book, and each chapter begins with a quotation of hers. What was the Dickinson connection? Why is this writer so important to the character of Emilie and to this novel?
MCH: Emilie loves reading and movies—things that she can do alone and that also allow her to escape the stress of her own life. The Thing with Feathers has lots of poetry and film tie-ins, but Dickinson receives lots of page time because she and Emilie have a lot in common, mainly their preference for nature and isolation over the material world with its crowds of people. Ultimately, Emilie’s story is about learning to follow Dickinson’s advice and “dwell in possibility.”
MS: Emilie’s had her share of hard knocks. Her dad passed away from cancer, she has a chronic disease, and her neighbor has a home-life problem. Still, this is not a depressing read. How did you keep the tone buoyant, despite Emilie’s luck?
MCH: I have enough years under my belt to realize that some of the hardest seasons in my life are exactly the ones that shaped and molded me as a mom, a teacher, and a human. As a teenager, my life always seemed to be stellar or abysmal. There wasn’t a lot of in between. I notice that with many of the kids I teach as well.
I had lots of regrets about poor decisions made during my teenage years. As an adult, when I finally learned to forgive myself, I realized that all the things that caused the most hurt and regret were the same things that made me more patient with students and more forgiving of others.
I tried to capture that with Emilie—the ups and downs and downs of being a teenage girl—but also to deliver an overriding theme of hope. Emilie has epilepsy, but her story is about so much more than that. It’s about acceptance, hope, first love, and friendship too.
MS: You’re a teacher too. How has being in the classroom and working with teenagers inspired your writing?
MCH: Every single word I write is either inspired by the struggles of my teenage years or my time spent with hundreds and hundreds of teenage girls in classes I teach. What I’ve learned is that no matter how put together we look on the outside, we all feel sort of broken on the inside. I want girls to know that we can be hopeful in spite of those broken feelings and that often times the very things that make us feel broken lead to personal and emotional growth and make us kinder gentler human beings.
MS: How did you get your start in the publishing business? Why did you choose young adult fiction?
MCH: I am a huge fan of Romance Writers of America. I learned everything I know about the business of writing at Georgia Romance Writers and/or RWA. I entered lots and lots of contests. Eventually, a published author who judged one of my entries referred me to a new agent at her agency. It was truly a dream come true and a happily-ever-after. I absolutely adore Amanda Leuck at Spencerhill Associates as a human being and respect her as a businessperson.
As far as choosing young adult fiction, I never really wanted to write anything else. As a teacher, I spend more time with teenagers than I do adults, and I have a natural tendency to be drawn to the high emotions and drama of those years in our lives.
MS: What advice can you share with other aspiring writers?
MCH: Hang in there. The road to publication is rough and paved with rejection. What helped me was when I realized, the rejection wasn’t personal. It didn’t mean my writing was bad or my manuscript was bad. Frequently, the rejection meant I wasn’t in the right place at the right time. An agent or editor didn’t need a sweet contemporary in her lineup at that moment in time.
You cannot give up. Be persistent. Persevere so that you’ll be there waiting when the stars align. I would also say focus on the craft of writing and story structure and don’t get sidetracked by all the millions of other things everyone says you must be doing in order to sell a book.
Meet McCall: “I’m a high school English teacher who loves purple Pentel pens and Peanut M&M’s. My students are a wee bit concerned by my addiction to the chess app on my phone. For a better snapshot of the craziness that is my life, follow me on Instagram @McCallHoyleBooks.”
The Thing with Feathers can be found here or where ever you buy books.