Congratulations to Mae Respicio Koerner on her debut novel, The House that Lou Built, a warm middle grade book perfect for summer reading. What kid wouldn’t like a tiny house all their own to escape their hectic family life. Even better, ambitious #stronggirl, Lou is determined to build it herself. We asked Mae about her writing journey.
Middle Grade Mafia: Where did you find inspiration for The House That Lou Built and the diverse cast of characters?
I knew from the start that I wanted to write a #stronggirl story, so I decided to give my main character, Lou, what most might think of as an unattainable goal for a twelve-year-old—to build a tiny house! I’ve always been interested in architecture and all things DIY so somehow, between all those elements, the idea was born. Like Lou I come from a big, supportive Filipino family and did activities like Filipino folk dancing, so I tried to draw from the spirit of my childhood. I also set the book in my home of Northern California and had fun writing about familiar places like San Francisco (Lou gets to travel across the Golden Gate Bridge a few times in her adventures). This is an #ownvoices book for sure. As for the diverse set of characters I didn’t draw from anyone specific, but I tried to give each of the kids their own strengths, weaknesses and goals, even if they were minor characters. Lou is probably the type of girl I wish I had been at twelve!
It’s funny but the busier I get, the more I find I have to write every day. I’m a parent and outside of novel writing I work as a freelance writer and editor, so I’ve found that getting into the habit of writing daily is the only way I can get anything done on my book projects. I don’t aim for a word count or number of pages—I find that’s too much pressure. Instead, I try to give myself a specific but doable goal for when I finally sit down to write so I don’t waste any time. That might look like: “free write for twenty minutes” or “revise these four paragraphs” or “figure out solution to such and such a problem.” Here’s the magic part: Little by little it builds!
MGM: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received regarding writing?
Read widely in your genre. It seems like such simple advice, but it’s a wonderful master class to pour through the types of books you aspire to create, and to analyze what works (or doesn’t) in each one. I’ve read a lot of the classics but I try to keep up with what’s currently being published. Plus it’s just inspiring and keeps me motivated. Whenever my lovely local public librarian sees me coming she points to the “new books” shelf and says: “Over there!”
MGM: How long from when you started writing until it was published.
It took me about a year and a half to write this novel—at least to where I felt it was strong enough to submit to agents. From there my path to publication was fairly smooth and painless. I sent it off to a handful of dream agents and signed with Sarah Davies of Greenhouse Literary a couple weeks after. Once it went out into the mysterious world of submission, it was on sub for a little over a month before it sold to Wendy Lamb at Random House. It’s the first kid lit novel I ever wrote and I’ve gotten a few surprised reactions as to how quick the process seemed. What I always say is that my writing journey wasn’t quick at all! I spent a decade learning craft, workshopping, doing writing fellowships and residencies, and also working day jobs in different kinds of writing—all while trying to build relationships with critique partners and immerse myself in the local literary community. It wasn’t until afterall of that learning that I even attempted to write my debut, which I think paid off with a strong manuscript that luckily seemed to resonate with readers.
MGM: In your story, Lou wants to build her own tiny house. Did you have to do much research about DIY building?
The building aspect is somewhat peripheral to the book’s main themes around family, friendship and self-discovery, but I did do research to make Lou’s physical experience of building a house read authentically. And I have to say that I love doing research! It’s a fun way to connect with passionate experts—so an additional piece of writing advice is not to be afraid to reach out to others as you’re drafting—most people are happy to share information for your book. My first home was a total fixer upper so I also have DIY house experience—I’ve taken free grouting classes at The Home Depot and could potentially navigate an orbital sander if ever called upon. J
MGM: Can you share a fun photo?
Sure! Here I am with my son visiting the first tiny house built in the United States, which is sitting in a backyard in Sonoma, California. It was charming and inspiring and as soon as we stepped inside, I knew it was the perfect subject for a middle grade novel.