Beck McDowell is a high school teacher and New Orleans native who spent two years interviewing Courtney and others and retracing the bus route. She wrote LAST BUS OUT to honor those who, like Courtney, fought depression, fear, and anger to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Katrina. In the words of Euripides, “There is no greater loss than the loss of one’s homeland.”
PBD: What made you decide to write Courtney Miles’ story? Why his story in particular?
BM: After my adult daughter told me the story she’d heard about a boy who stole a bus after Hurricane Katrina and drove hundreds of people to safety, I couldn’t let go of it. I went online and found out there were two boys – one who was arrested later for selling drugs and one who was playing college basketball on scholarship in California. I wound up tracking Courtney down and talking with him by phone; then I flew to California and met him in a McDonald’s. I loved the story because it was about a teen hero (I wanted my students to see that someone their age could take initiative in a crisis) in a city I loved – New Orleans, and because Courtney’s humility and optimism inspired me from the first minute I met him.
BM: I won’t say never but I’m having fun writing fiction now. With Last Bus Out I felt a HUGE responsibility to get it right. Recreating the true story of someone else’s life was hard work, so I’m loving the freedom of making stuff up.
PBD: The story reads both like a dramatized description and a minute by minute report of the events – with links to youtube and news stories – why add all the links etc…?
BM: I had this OMG reaction when I saw an iPad for the first time, because I KNEW I’d found the perfect format for Last Bus Out. My research had led me to all these fascinating newscasts and videos and websites; an “enhanced e-book” allowed me to share them with the reader. The new technology is kind of a teacher’s dream – to be able to document a true story with links that let the reader SEE one of the actual buses they stole driving into the Astrodome and HEAR the panic in Mayor Nagin’s voice as he begs for help for people dying on rooftops. I’m so grateful to the FEMA photographers who captured the devastation of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast so graphically; their images tell the story in a way words alone can’t.
PBD: How did you get started writing professionally?
BM: I was actually writing a 200 page document about my teaching for national board certification, so writing creatively was my mini-rebellion against that kind of structure. I wrote stories late at night to unwind after teaching AP English all day and then writing all those required documents. I’d always “written” but got serious after hearing R.A. Nelson (who lives in Huntsville also) talk about writing TEACH ME, which was a book I loved. When I told him I’d always wanted to write a book, he asked me why I didn’t and I didn’t have a good answer, so I sat down with the some of the stories I’d written and began to see how they fit together.
PBD: How many books did she write before being published?
BM: Like most writers, I have that first novel in a drawer. There’s always one you “practice” on. It takes a LOT of work to learn the craft! That first book teaches you SO much; each page is a stepping stone. It’s never wasted effort.
PBD: Are you aplotter, pantser*, or combination?
BM: Courtney’s story was very much plotted – from pages and pages of notes from interviews, a trip to New Orleans to retrace the route, etc. When I write fiction, it’s more organic. I have an idea of where I’m headed but sometimes the characters surprise me. I don’t know where I’m going until I see what I say.
PBD: Who had the most influence or encouraged you to write?
BM: My early influence was my dad, who read beautiful books to me in his rich preacher-voice and wrote poetry to celebrate big moments in our lives. Later there were so many writers whose words spoke to me – poets like Yeats and Eliot, essayists like Capote and Dubus, novelists like Harper Lee and Salinger. And I love writers who help teach others – like Annie Dillard and Stephen King and Anne Lamott.
PBD: What is the biggest drawback to writing?
BM: I guess I’d have to say self-doubt. Words are, by nature, limiting and the vision you have in your head of a story can never be completely translated onto the page to your satisfaction, so you have to learn to focus on the parts you felt were most successful.
PBD: As a teacher yourself – who was your favorite teacher and what subject did they teach?
BM: Bill McInerney, now at Purdue, who taught me English as a senior and later was assistant principal at the school where I taught. He showed me how to help my students see reading as a choice, not a chore – through giving them a list of optional books and then talking with them individually about what they’d read. (Written book reports and mandated selections can KILL enthusiasm.) There is NO greater gift a teacher can give a student than a love of reading.
PBD: What is the best thing about writing?
BM: Creating worlds. Imagining the people in them. Hopefully making people think about life. Writing can be so mentally draining and frustrating – trying to find just the right word or phrase. But when you finally find it, there’s nothing like that feeling!
PBD: What would you like people to know about you?
BM: Yes, the rumor is true that I break plates in my back yard. I found it’s the perfect way to deal with rejection – and you’re going to face it in this business. I brought in two big old rocks and a stack of cheapo plates from yard sales and clearance racks, and I take out all my frustration there. Word is out and now friends come over when they have a love-life crisis or a job disappointment. I’m not sure what the neighbors think, but I highly recommend it as a stress buster. (I’m saving the pieces to make pavers for the garden – a good way to turn angst into art, don’t you think?)
PBD: Love it! We’re soooo coming over!
PBD: What next for Beck McDowell?
BM: I’ve just turned in my next project – a fiction work – to my agent, and I’m waiting for his reaction, which is one of the hardest parts of this business. I don’t wait well. Cross your fingers, everyone!
PBD: *Cross fingers*