Interview: Kim Culbertson + Figment Flash Fiction Contest!

Today I am excited to have author Kim Culbertson here for an interview, and I must say that this is my favorite interview I have done so far.
I reviewed Kim's new novella, The Liberation of Max McTrue, on Monday. Be sure to check that out; It's a great story. And after the interview, I have information about the upcoming Liberation of Max McTrue flash fiction contest, hosted by Figment.com and Kim Culbertson.

Can you tell us about yourself?
I’ve been a high school teacher for 14 years and currently I teach in a small charter school. I teach Creative Writing, English and help with the college advising program. I’ve always seen my writing as an extension of my teaching – my first big love was writing and stories and my second big love was teaching; over the years I found a way to marry the two together. I feel grateful every day for the work I get to do. My students were the ones who initially encouraged me to write SONGS FOR A TEENAGE NOMAD, my first YA novel. It came out of a writing exercise we did in my fourth year of teaching.

How did you come up with the idea for The Liberation of Max McTrue? What is it about Max's story that compelled you to write it?
I’ve been a college advisor for over ten years and one night I woke up with this line in my head: “Two significant things happened to Max McTrue that day” and then the book just started pouring out of me. I wrote this book for my students. I love teaching high school. I love teenagers. People think this is really weird and have a ton of negative opinions about teenagers, but I think so many of those notions are created by a culture that assumes teenagers are going to be a certain way. In all the schools I’ve taught in – and I’ve taught in a big traditional high school model, a small private school, a charter model – I’ve found wonderful, unique, lovely teenagers in my classroom. I wrote MAX for the hundreds (gulp, thousands) of students I’ve had over my years of teaching who have taught me that we’re all built for something – the hard thing is identifying it when it doesn’t match up to what you’re “expected” to be doing. I’ve had so many Max McTrue-type kids over the years – great, sweet kids who were just sort of caught in the steady current that is the educational system, who never really had to make any dynamic choices about their futures until, suddenly, that’s all they’re asked to do.

The hunt Clara Jane's dad sends her on in the story is both creative and fun. Where did the inspiration for it come from?
I loved the idea that she was looking for her dog. This appealed to me for some reason. And I loved the notion that her dad had her doing this alternative assessment type of thing for their homeschooling that would baffle Max a bit, make him think about things in a different way.

I found the characters in the story to be very realistic. Are any of them based on people from real life?
In all three of my books, the characters are formed from my years of teaching – no one student is any one character but my characters are certainly inspired by many of the students I’ve worked with over the years.

In the book one character attends public school, one character is home schooled, and another character no longer attends school because she doesn't believe in it. How much influence do you believe the type of schooling one receives has on a person? Do you have any experiences with home schooling, or other alternative types of schooling?
Oh wow, yeah – you don’t want to get me started on this whole concept. J I have lots of opinions about the way a school environment influences a student’s sense of self. So much is wrapped up in what we learn in school – our self worth, our notion of what it means to be intelligent, our ideas of beauty and status. Whew. I wrote my Masters Thesis in Education on this topic. I currently work in a charter school that operates on a homeschool model with site-based support classes offered one, two or three days a week, but I’ve also worked in a private school where the students were on a rotating schedule and in a large, traditional public high school. I’ve taught in rigid schedules and also in flexible programs. Here’s what I’ve found to be true. There is no one-size-fits-all educational model. It doesn’t exist. There is no perfect school you could drop everyone into and everyone would be happy. But I believe there are multiple models out there for everyone if we’d only allow for them without suggestion that one is better than the other. People’s notion of school is so odd to me – they all seem to picture the same thing. They all think there is a “best version.” But we’re such a diverse society with such different tastes and values. We want to choose where we eat, what jeans we wear, what music we listen to but the second we want to offer different models of education, people freak out. We need to get rid of the concept of ‘best’ as it applies to a school and embrace the notion that each person has their ‘best fit.’ Life seems to me to be about each individual finding his or her right place. I think it would be incredible if, as educators, as a society even, we started this philosophy out with school.

I was taken away with your writing in The Liberation of Max McTrue. What do you believe are the most important elements to good writing?
Thank you for saying that – that’s so kind. You would think I’d have an answer for this as a creative writing teacher but so much goes into good writing; it’s nuanced. It’s a process. One thing I tell my creative writing students all the time is that good writing is about being a good listener. And I’m not naturally a good listener so I’ve tried really hard over the years to work on really hearing the world around me and watching for all the small details that build a world. I also think that you have to trust your own voice and not try to write like anyone else. I know that people have to say, “this writer reminds me of John Green or Sarah Dessen, etc.,” because that helps with marketing. I know that matters. But I think the truly wonderful thing about writing is that everyone has this unique voice like a fingerprint and that’s what I hope my writers work on honing.

As an author, what has been the toughest criticism given to you? What was the greatest compliment?
In some ways, I think my toughest criticism and my biggest compliment are the same thing. I’ve been told so many times that I’m “too sensitive” and this sensitivity bleeds into my work, but it’s also the foundation of my work. My sensitivity can create work that some people find too angsty or too emotional (I think I once got a review that just read ‘blech’), but then other people will tell me, “I love how emotional you are.” You have to just be who you are and know that some people will hate it and some people will love it and you write for the people who connect with it.

What do you enjoy doing when you're not writing?
I spend as much time as I can with my family and friends. My seven year old daughter attends a program for elementary kids in the same charter school I teach in. Part of the time she’s in class, and part of the time she’s doing other stuff. It’s a hybrid homeschool model. Diet homeschool. J She has this amazing teacher but she also gets all this time to explore her own interests. She gets to have this super cool little community of kids where she does projects and art and such and then we can really focus on her specific stuff – reading lists, math, her self-selected passion projects, etc. My husband (who is the director of the school) and I really want her to see her education as something that exists all around her, not just as a building where she “goes” to “learn” things. As a family, we love to hike and cook and go to museums and travel and we don’t see any of those things as separate from “education.” Every day, I feel blessed that we found our “right fit.”

What project are you working on now?
I’m working on another young adult novel. This one deals with Hollywood and celebrity, and small town choices and what it means to love something. My work ultimately always seems to be about what it means to love something – a home, music, travel, education –and a teenager finding his or her way.

Just for fun: Who is your favorite fictional character, and why?
Hermione Granger. She’s a total know-it-all but she loves learning and her friends most of all. She has her priorities straight and she’s never afraid to stand up for her own ideas.

Thanks so much for answering my questions, Kim! I love the passion you have for teenagers and education. I'm also excited for that new YA novel. :)

Website  /  Twitter  /  Facebook

Kim Culbertson technically writes for teenagers, but some grown-ups like her work. Sourcebooks Fire published her award winning first YA novel Songs for a Teenage Nomad (2010, originally Hip Pocket Press, 2007) and her second YA novel Instructions for a Broken Heart (2011) which was named a Booklist Top Ten Romance Title for Youth: 2011. Kim's short fiction has appeared in Cicada, Canary, and The Smoking Poet. When she's not writing for teens, she's teaching them. She's a college advisor and teaches creative writing and English at Forest Charter School in Northern California. Kim wrote her eBook novella The Liberation of Max McTrue for her students who, over the years, have taught her much more than she has taught them. Kim lives in the Northern California foothills with her husband, daughter, dog and rabbit, and drinks more coffee than perhaps she should.

The Liberation of Max McTrue Contest

Brought to you by Figment.com and Kim Culbertson

Kim Culbertson is joining Figment for a whirlwind weekend of Flash Fiction to celebrate her new ebook, The Liberation of Max McTrue!

Enter the Max McTrue Flash Fiction Contest!
There will be a Total of three prizes: Each winner gets a free download of The Liberation of Max McTrue as well as a custom-made “beautiful things” journal. The first place winner will also receive a 30 minute manuscript review by Kim Culbertson.

All you have to do is write a super short story under 500 words that follows one of the four prompts below. Submit your entry between 11:00am on February 3rd, 2012 and 11:59pm on February 5th, 2012. The Figment editorial staff will choose the top ten entries as finalists, and Kim will choose the winners from those finalists.

The Prompts:
(1) Write a story set against the backdrop of a scavenger hunt.
(2) Write a story confined to the periods of a school day. The character can be in school or out of school.
(3) Write a story in which a character is deeply afraid of something.
(4) Come up with a totally ordinary character and then set him/her up to have an extraordinary day.

How to enter:
1. Go to www.figment.com and sign up.
2. Once you have received your confirmation email, go to your Figment profile page, click “My Writing,” and “Create Something New.”
3. Before you start writing, read the full rules on the Max McTrue contest page, which you’ll be able to find under the “Contest” tab on Figment on February 3rd, 2012.
4. Write an original story, under 500 words, that follows one of the four prompts above.
5. Go to the “Details” tab of your story, and put maxmctrue in the “Tags” section.
6. Wait the 2 hours it sometimes takes to see your story appear on the contest page.


  1. Fun contest!

    I went to www.figment.com, but didn't see Max McTrue under the contest page.

    1. It does sound fun, doesn't it? I can't wait to see all the stories that come from it.

      About the contest page: it says the page won't be up until Feb. 3rd, so you'll have to wait a few days before you can see it. But at least you have a bit of a head start! :)

  2. Great article, can't wait to read the book.

  3. I loved Songs for a Teenage Nomad!

  4. Neat interview. I definitely envy Kim for her access to teens--how better to make your YA protagonists sound authentic than be surrounded by real world teens all day long!


    1. I very much agree! It's a great position to be in.


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Please note: The Reading Fever is an award-free zone. I am very flattered, but comments are all the thanks I need.


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