How Giant Pumpkin Suite came to be…. by Melanie Heuiser Hill
The first time I heard about giant pumpkins (North American growing season 2008) I knew I wanted to write a book about them. As in the hair on my arms stood up at lunch every day while my co-worker told me about his son’s adventures growing giant pumpkins in the backyard. They just seemed so preposterous—so enormous and weird and fascinating. And they are so much work! I thought it was the perfect topic for a novel for kids. I thought about how perfect it was all the time, in fact. Without putting a word on paper for over two years.
Eventually, I got to know my co-worker’s pumpkin growing son, Alex. He is a generous man and he brought his giant pumpkin in his pick-up truck—after all of the competitions and weigh-offs—to a late fall event I was in charge of at work. He let kids climb all over it. At the end of the evening he used a chain saw to cut a hole in it and he got the kids to pick out the seeds. And then he let them climb in the pumpkin. I stood there and thought: I have GOT to write a book about giant pumpkins!
I finally started the fall of 2010. I submitted the first couple of chapters in my portfolio to apply to the MFA program at Hamline University that is dedicated to learning to write for kids. For the two years I was in school, I worked on Giant Pumpkin Suite with four teachers and lots of fellow writing students. I researched. I added parts. I trashed parts. And I started all over again several times. The book is 434 pages now, but I bet I wrote 2500 pages to get to those 434. (And no, I’m not exaggerating—that’s a conservative estimate.)
Early on, one of my teachers said I needed something besides the growing of giant pumpkins going on in the story. I couldn’t see why—I still thought giant pumpkins were utterly fascinating and should be able to carry a whole novel’s worth of interest. However, I could not deny that I was writing chapter after chapter in which not much was happening…. My teacher suggested I give my growers (they were always a brother-sister pair, though not always twins) some other all-consuming interest.
What I picked was totally and completely different from giant pumpkins. It was something I loved but knew little about. Something I thought maybe kids might not know much about….. The Bach Cello Suites!
In 2002, my son’s elementary school had a school-wide talent show. My son was in kindergarten and I went to help “chaperone” his class there in the gymnasium. Not many kindergarteners performed, but one small boy in his class did. He played the prelude to Bach’s Suite no.1 (Rose’s “theme song”) in the gym that day. It took my breath away. I’d loved the Bach Suites for a long time, but to see and hear this six-year-old play that famous prelude on a tiny little cello…and play it so well…. While my son came home from school and played outside and with his Legos®, this child obviously logged a lot of time with his cello.
And so I gave my main character, Rose—who is older than that boy (12) and a girl—the life of a kid who is particularly talented on the cello. And I gave her a twin who is particularly talented in having fun, doing things his own way, and bringing people together etc. They are opposites in every way, but they’re good friends, good to each other, and good for each other.
Once I had two contests going—one for the Cello Suites and one for the giant pumpkin—I was off and running. I knew two things: 1) the book would end up at the Minnesota State Fair, and 2) this would not be a book about winning what the characters set out to win—I wanted them to be surprised at where they ended up. Life is often like that, after all.
So many people helped me with this novel, because with the exception of one thematic detail, I was writing about things I knew nothing about. I had to learn about growing giant pumpkins and cello playing. Also about Japanese tea ceremonies and how cellos are made. I needed to know about tap dancing and hand surgery, compost and physics…. I’ve found that people are very kind in sharing their expertise. (I’m writing about things I know nothing about in the novel I’m working on now, as well!)
The thematic detail I knew something about from personal experience was what it’s like to grow faster, earlier, and much taller than your peers, as Rose does in Giant Pumpkin Suite. I was 5’10” when I was ten. Nobody else in my elementary school was that tall—including the teachers! It took me a long time to enjoy my height. I am now 6 feet tall and I love being tall; but during that time when everyone is growing at different rates and in different ways….those were hard years for me. And music—piano, not cello—was a refuge. That was a part of Rose I understood and could write from my heart.
It’s been a good recipe for novel—pick a few things very different things you know nothing about, find some folks to help you, write the “heart parts” from your own experience, and then write and write and write until the story you’re trying to tell is told.
Melanie Heuiser Hill lives and writes in the Minneapolis area. Giant Pumpkin Suite is her first novel. She and her family have tried growing giant pumpkins for three seasons now, but the biggest one they’ve managed is about the size of a medium-sized yoga-exercise ball—not quite “competitive.” She hopes someday to learn to play the cello, and better than she grows pumpkins.