Friday, September 13, 2019

Jo Hackl is in the House!

 Today I'm celebrating the summer publication of the paperback edition of Jo Hackl's terrific middle grade novel, Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe.

Set in an overgrown Southern ghost town, Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe takes readers on an adventure with 12-year-old Cricket, who sets out to survive on her own in the woods of an overgrown ghost town to try to solve a clue trail left by an eccentric artist, with a logic all his own, all
to try to find a secret room that may or may not exist. Cricket must use her wits and just a smidgen of luck to live off the land and solve the clues. With the help of a poetry-loving dog and the last resident of the ghost town, maybe, just maybe, she can do it.

Jo stopped by to answer some great questions. Enjoy!

What were your favorite books as a child?

My two favorites were My Side of the Mountain and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I admire how My Side of the Mountain draws readers into the natural world and makes surviving in the wild a quest of its own. Spending time outdoors also changes the main character. I love how From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler immerses readers in the intriguing setting of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and takes them into an art mystery. For Smack Dab, I challenged myself to combine those two elements—outdoor survival and an art mystery clue trail—in one novel. 

How did you go about crafting Smack Dab

I began the first draft in a class offered through Emrys, a local literary arts organization in Greenville, where I live. I attended writing workshops and read books about the craft of writing. I studied and wrote poetry. I wrote the first draft in five months and spent seven more years revising, refining and polishing. I completed at least nine full drafts. I was on at least the fourth draft and several years into the project before I started sending it out. 

What kind of research did you do for the book? 

I trained on everything from fire starting, shelter building and water gathering, to foraging for edible and medicinal plants. I camped out in the woods and recorded information about sights, sounds, and textures. I studied which edible foods are available during each part of the year. I researched the behavior and diet of woodland animals, the migration patterns of Southern birds. I reached out to entomologists and experts on human behavior and the natural world. I studied information about Leonardo DaVinci, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and used that all in constructing the clue trail. 

What kind of a response to Smack Dab have you gotten from readers?

I love to hear from readers and I’ve been thrilled with their response to the book. One reader reported that she read the book 14 times. Many others have written to say how much reading about Cricket’s journey has helped them in their own. So far, half of the readers from whom I’ve heard have been students and half have been adults. The book has layers and it’s interesting to see what layers spoke the most to each reader. 

What are you reading these days? 

I read mostly middle grade and I have about five books going at once. I’m currently reading Shadows of the Lost Sun, the latest in the Map to Everywhere series by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis, The Law of Finders Keepers by Sheila Turnage, Serafina and the Seven Stars by Robert Beatty, Grenade by Alan Gratz, and re-reading When I Crossed No-Bob by Margaret McMullan.

What advice can you give to aspiring middle grade authors? 

You can do it! Start an idea journal and use it write down ideas for things such as character names, quirks, details that help show character traits, and plot ideas. Give yourself permission to write a really bad first draft. The goal of the first draft is just to get your ideas down on paper. If you get stuck, leave a blank. You can always brainstorm with a friend and fill in the details later. Once you have your draft, you have something to work with. Go line by line and look for ways to make your work better. Try to imagine how each character would feel in each scene and give your readers details to make them feel as though they are right there in the scene with your characters. Make sure that each word is the best word and that each scene keeps the story moving. Cut any unnecessary words. Read your story aloud to make sure that the rhythm of the language feels right. Keep writing, looking for ways to make your work even better. Don’t be afraid to take risks. As my character Cricket would say, “sometimes it’s time to start taking chances on yourself.” 

Thanks so much for stopping by, Jo!


Jo Watson Hackl was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, not far from Ocean Springs, where her favorite artist,
Walter Anderson, lived and once painted a secret room. When Jo was eleven, she moved to a real-
life ghost town, Electric Mills, Mississippi. Mr. Anderson’s secret room and the ghost town were Jo’s inspiration for this debut novel. She lives with her family in Greenville, South Carolina. You can find her online at Jo is also the Founder of