In the fall of 1984, I joined UNC Charlotte’s English Department with the understanding that I would focus my teaching and scholarship on children’s literature. During the early years of my career as an English professor, I took a lot of pride and satisfaction in my successes in publishing articles and books. I remember, for example, when I sold a piece to the New York Times Book Review, I used the honorarium to throw a party for the entire English Department. I started the invitation by saying, “This party is being brought to you by the New York Times.” Nowadays, however, much of my sense of satisfaction comes from the successes of our students and former students.
Given my interest in children’s literature, I am particularly pleased that two recent graduates of our M.A. program—Lora Beth Johnson and Susan Diamond Riley—have found success writing books for children and young adults. This summer, Razorbill, a Penguin imprint, published Lora Beth’s Goddess in the Machine, a YA fantasy novel. Also taking place this summer, Koehler Books published Susan’s The Sea Turtle’s Curse, the second book in her Delta & Jax Mystery Series for middle-school readers. Both Lora Beth and Susan honed their writing skills while pursuing their M.A. degrees. I contacted these authors and asked them to provide me with information about their books and to comment on how their experiences as graduate students in UNC Charlotte’s English Department contributed to their successes as published authors.
Here is what Lora Beth sent to me:
Goddess in the Machine is my debut novel and the first in a duology from Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Random House. In it, a girl wakes from cryonic sleep on a planet she doesn’t recognize and must team up with the mysterious soldier who woke her to navigate a future world where technology is considered magic and its practitioners revered as Deities. Goddess received a starred review from the School Library Journal and was selected for the American Bookseller Association’s Indies Introduce list. The Nerd Daily calls it “exhilarating and gripping,” and that it “reinvents one of the most beloved genres of fiction and leaves you wanting more.” I describe it as The 100 meets Jupiter Ascending, with a little bit of a linguistic twist.
When people ask me where I got the idea for Goddess, I always start by telling them about my experience at UNC Charlotte. I wrote the first draft of the manuscript that would become Goddess in Dr. Beth Gargano’s YA Fantasy course. It was a very different book then, with a different title, characters, and plot. But I had the opportunity to explore the themes and worldbuilding elements that I wanted to weave into the narrative. I did the next few revisions during the following semester, learning to work on deadlines and turning in multiple drafts to Dr. Gargano, who was my creative thesis committee chair. At the end of that semester, I put a 400-page, unbound manuscript into the boxes of Dr. Gargano, Dr. Balaka Basu, and Dr. Paula Connolly. They passed me anyway.
Since the first few drafts of Goddess were written while I was at UNCC, it was inevitably shaped by the courses I took, most notably by a linguistics course I had with Dr. Pilar Blitvich. Goddess is told from the perspective of two different characters who speak in different dialects. Depending on which character’s point of view you’re reading from, you’ll either be reading a science-fiction story or a fantasy. What one character calls technology, the other calls magic, and that difference in language is all it takes to put these two characters sharing a narrative into alternate realties. This is an idea that germinated from our studies in Dr. Blitvich’s course and grew into the entire crux of the novel.
Graduating wasn’t the end of my journey with Goddess—there were still revisions to be done, and queries to be sent, and editors to submit to—but my time at UNC Charlotte inspired and directed what would become my debut novel and continues to shape my writing. I’m currently revising the second and final book in the Goddess duology and plotting my next series. You’ll be able to find information about future work on my website: https://www.lorabethjohnson.com/.
Here is what Susan sent to me:
My novels The Sea Island’s Secret (University of South Carolina Press, 2019) and The Sea Turtle’s Curse (Koehler Books, 2020) are the first two books in the Delta & Jax Mystery series, with a third book currently in the works. While set in the present day, each book takes place in the Carolina Lowcountry and has the sibling duo solving a mystery from a particular era in our country’s past. In The Sea Island’s Secret, for instance, Delta and Jax find a skeleton and a mysterious message in a bottle in the salt marsh, sending them on a quest for a forgotten Civil War treasure. In their second adventure, the kids discover an ancient carving of a sea turtle on the beach, but soon find that the relic has magical powers that send them back nearly 500 years to the time of Spanish explorers and Native Americans. And did I mention that the turtle carving has apparently put their sea island home under a curse, with a hurricane hurtling their way? You can find more information about my novels on my website: https://www.susandiamondriley.com/
I am not exaggerating when I say that neither of these books would have existed if I hadn’t decided—at age 50—to enroll in UNC Charlotte for my M.A. degree in English. Up to that point, I had spent my professional career primarily writing nonfiction pieces for newspapers and marketing departments, as well as editing other writers’ works. If I was ever to achieve my dream of writing a fictional novel for children, though, I needed the structure and accountability that I believed a graduate program would provide. What I received was so much more. I found mentors in the field of Children’s Literature, instructors and published authors who graciously shared their insights and experiences in both the writing process and the world of publishing itself. My M.A. thesis consisted of an early draft of my first novel, and I admit that I would have been satisfied with that manuscript alone. After all, my bucket list item had been to write a novel, and I had done that. But my mentors would not let me leave it at that. Even after I graduated and moved out of state, the members of my thesis committee continued to check on me regularly to ensure that I was pursuing publication of my book. Without their encouragement, I don’t know that I would have ever seen my books on the shelves of bookstores and libraries, let alone in the hands of eager young readers asking, “When will the next Delta and Jax book be out?”
My life has completely changed since my days at UNC Charlotte. I now live on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and have become part of a dynamic network of authors and artists who include me as one of their own. I regularly attend book launches (sometimes my own!), lead writing workshops for adults and children, and speak to groups of all ages—all via Zoom these days, of course. You might say I’ve started a whole new chapter of my life, and I can’t wait to see what happens next!
The successes that Lora Beth Johnson and Susan Diamond Riley have achieved as published authors are of their own doing. Their novels are the products of their fertile imaginations and their hard work. Still, I like to think that the time they spent as graduate students in UNC Charlotte’s English Department helped in the launching of their writing careers. As graduates of our M.A program, Lora Beth and Susan are alumni of UNC Charlotte and are part of the community of readers and writers that make up Storied Charlotte.