The Coal Elf is available now here .
***Note: *** Maria will also be on WRITER GROUPIE RADIO SHOW ON DECEMBER 6TH!!!!!
By: Maria DeVivo
I think I have to blame the whole “me-wanting-to-be-an-author” on my father. It’s all his fault. He corrupted me something awful. Not that I don’t think he minds being blamed for something like that, in fact, I would presume that he much rather enjoys it. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but it was way before I was able to read. Dad wouldn’t read stories to me, he told them to me. It was oral tradition at its finest! I soaked up every character he created, every line of dialog he spoke in his deep voice (sometimes slightly raised to portray a female), every plot twist and turn.
It was when he told me his version of “The Three Little Bears” that I had a profound epiphany related to story-telling. His version was about the Three Little Bears’ cousins who lived in a different section of the forest. Now, all his stories were twisted and fractured fairy tales, amalgamations of stories with which I was already familiar (but can’t recall for the life of me now); however, there was something about this one – Licorice, a black fluffy bear getting into some scuffle with the Big Bad Wolf – that stirred something in my brain: He’s making up his own story that’s connected to one that’s already known. You can do that? You can do that! And that was when I kind of knew that I wanted to do that, too!
When letters came together to form words that I could recognize, something very visceral happened to me. It was like an awakening, or being born. All the doors to different worlds seemed to open at once, and the rest fell into place – first the reading, then the writing; I was discovering new avenues and outlets for all my young and innocent creativity.
I was sent to Catholic grammar school for my primary education. My mother, a devout Catholic, thought it would be a wonderful way to experience religion. My father saw Catholic education as elite – I would be exposed to the better teachers, the better environment, and I would be challenged in my studies. While I excelled in English classes, I struggled severely with math. Numbers didn’t appeal to me like words did, and I couldn’t grasp certain mathematical concepts even at the most fundamentally basic levels. During math, I would sit with my knees curled at the desk and write fantastical poems about unicorns and witches. I hardly completed math homework because after school I would be too engrossed in a Babysitters Club book, or I would forget to study the times table because I was too wrapped up in Fudge. That would explain why those early crucial years of mathematical memorization are a blur to me, and why my math skills are severely below average to this day.
But I wrote. Constantly. English classes were always my favorite, and by high school, the more I could take, the better. Creative Writing, Folklore, even Speech and Debate had a writing component! You name it, I took it. By high school, my love of reading books had officially shifted to my passion for writing them. I can’t recall a single novel I read for pleasure during those four years. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the required reading list of Lord of the Flies, The Scarlett Letter, Macbeth, etc., etc., but there was something about the concept of time that filled me with a sense of urgency: reading was a waste of my time… I need to write, not read. I never had much “writing support” from my teachers. There were no grand-prize-winner contests to enter, or classroom anthologies to submit my work. My fame as the school author came from the cafeteria or study hall when the prying eyes of my peers spied my red spiral notebook and inquired as to what I was writing (and boy, let me tell ya, did I make heads turn in the most juvenile of ways!); however, I do remember my 9th grade English teacher commenting about “a good writer is a good reader.” So, I promised myself to read only what was mandatory and spend every other waking minute doing what I loved most.
Life kind of took over once I hit college. I began preparing for my career as a teacher, got into one whirlwind relationship after the other, the death of my grandmother, finding my future husband, working two jobs to pay the bills, and all the other intricate pieces that make life LIFE. My writing took a backseat, to say the least. All thoughts of my Semi-Completed Works of Poetry: Volume 1 were put on hold. The ideas for that novel I wanted to write and have published were pushed aside. There just wasn’t any time to do much of anything. Maybe had I paid better attention in math class, I would have had better time management skills…
In September of 2000, I began teaching English to 5th – 8th graders at a Catholic school (yes, I know, the irony…). Not only was I now on the other side of the educational coin, but I was on the other side of the writing coin. I delighted in opening up student’s minds to literature and the writing process. I found that teaching sparked a renewed appreciation in my soul for the written word that had been forgotten for so long. I was now turning kids on to Lord of the Flies and The Outsiders. I was now correcting and critiquing essays and journal entries, hopefully instilling a fondness for reading and writing even in the most reluctant ones.
There was something so magical in those precious “ah-ha” moments, or when the students slipped up and called me “Mom.” Throughout it all, rewarding and fulfilling as it was, all thoughts of my Thoughts from the Underworld- A Book of Poems were swept under the proverbial carpet. That vampire novel I had toyed with? What was that about again?
The years swept on… marriage, house, surgery, the weddings of practically my entire circle of friends, nephew born, etc. etc. – Life again knocking at my door. By June of 2004, my husband and I decided on one of the biggest life-changers ever: MOVE! There were some fantastic opportunities that were made available to us, and we felt like we just couldn’t pass them up. So, we sold our house, packed up, and moved in with my parents temporarily until our home in Florida was finished being built sometime in 2005.
It was Christmastime 2004 when the idea for The Coal Elf first formed. Me being the goth-weirdo-spooky kid that I am found a black velvet Santa Claus hat at one of those goth-weirdo-spooky kid franchise stores. I thought it was absolutely perfect, and wore it to the annual Christmas party I held for my students every year. My students teased me all day saying, “Mrs. DeVivo, you look like a bad elf! Are you going to punish us?” Immediately, I got into character and responded, “Yea… you’re all getting coal in your stocking this year!”
And that’s when it clicked.
Ya know, we know so much about Santa, the North Pole, the elves who make the toys for the good kids, the rainbows, the puppy dogs, the lollipops, and all that good stuff, but there’s a major part of the Christmas mythology that we know practically NOTHING about: legend states that if you’re naughty, you’ll get coal in your stocking. But, what of it? Who mines that coal? What are their lives like? Why coal? How is all that organized? It dawned on me that there was a whole other side of the North Pole that was begging to be explored – a whole other piece to the puzzle that we just sort of take for granted…
So, I wrote on a sticky note: “2004, The Coal Elf” and slapped it in a notebook. The idea stayed with me the summer of 2005 when we did, in fact move. The idea stayed with me through the next five years as we moved a second time within Florida, started new jobs, and took on the greatest endeavor of all by becoming parents.
When my daughter turned a year old, I did some serious soul searching. I had gotten to a point in my life where things were going very well. I was happy in my roles of teacher, wife, and mother, but there was one hat that I still wanted to wear, so I sat my husband down and told him how I felt – how there was this nagging void within me that so desperately needed to be fulfilled. It was a no-brainer for him; he was supportive and encouraged me to go after my lifelong dream. He coached me to stop making excuses and to stop letting me get in the way of me. The rest is history. In the summer of 2010, I finally wrote the first draft of The Coal Elf. Probably the longest pregnancy in history of the world… from conception to completion we’re talking a six year run!
Now, of course, the story of the journey doesn’t end there. There were two years of blood, sweat, and tears (metaphorical AND literal ones) before Ember and Co. became a physical-hold-in-your-hand-reality, but that’s a whole other story for a whole other time…