My Debut Novel, The Dreaded Cliff

Author Terry Nichols holds The Dreaded Cliff. Release Date, March 2, 2021 by Kinkajou Press

I felt the weight of the book, flipped through the pages, ran my fingers over the slick cover. It was real. My debut novel, The Dreaded Cliff, was in print. My words, my story, out in the world. What a feeling. A longtime friend asked me a few questions about my accomplishment.

Terry, what motivated you to write your fantasy book, The Dreaded Cliff?

The story. It poked at me until I wrote it. It started with the packrat that hitched a ride in our ’79 Volkswagen van on a camping trip in southern Utah. She was living underneath the floorboard, and she made scritchy-scratchy noises at night, redecorating her nest, I suppose. In the morning cactus pieces were scattered around the van, as though she hadn’t completed her mission. Night after night we drove to the next camping spot, where she did it again, picking up pieces of the world, retreating to her nest.

The ’79 Volkswagen Van

There’s a story there, right? A children’s story. And a story for big people, too. Everyone can relate to family, home, friends, and wanting to be part of something bigger. And losing your way and finding that wise inner voice that guides you, protects you, inspires you.

Tell me more about the story in The Dreaded Cliff. It’s about the rat that went to Utah with you in your van, right?

Not exactly. And it’s a packrat, not a rat. Otherwise known as a woodrat. Sometimes called a trade rat. Anyway, the packrat hero in my story, Flora, eats prickly pear cactus pads and collects treasures for her nest in the jangly-crate—the van. Ever since she was a wee pup, she’s been warned about the dreaded cliff. One night she meets Grandma Mimi, an ancient packrat who tells Flora about their ancestral packrat home stuffed in a crack in the dreaded cliff. The home is the great packrat birthplace, the place of memories, the place that makes them who they are. The place they should remember.

Santa Fe artist Odessa Sawyer provided spot art throughout the book.

You’re talking about a packrat midden–we can see them in cracks in canyon walls all over the American Southwest.

That’s right–the ancestral home is a den that includes a midden, although in the story it’s not called that. Packrat middens helped inspire the story–researchers have found that packrats will use a midden on and off for 40,000-50,000 years.

So the packrats in your story have their own origin story.  What’s the dreaded part all about?

A creature invaded the packrat home and wiped out a litter of packrat pups. Ever since, packrats avoid the cliff and call it dreaded, cutting them off from an important part of their history.

After learning about the home, Flora’s jangly-crate with her nest moves and she becomes lost. She wants to get home, but must deal with a kangaroo rat king, a singing porcupine, and a rabbit with a special talent. And predators—a snarling badger and a great-horned owl. To survive, she must adapt, be clever, face big questions, and do things she never thought possible for a packrat. Never mind getting back to the ancestral packrat home. Which, of course, is the big question—will Flora ever confront the invader and reclaim the ancestral home?            

King Cyrus, the kangaroo rat

Guess I’ll have to read the book to find out. What was your writing experience like?

At times, difficult. Other times, lots of fun. When I started, I knew zip about writing books, especially for young readers. I had written short pieces—travel blogs, mostly—and had done personal writing and writing for my job, but never a novel. And I’d never envisioned myself becoming a published author, thanks to a few stinging critiques from my early writing years.

At first my writing was, um, not that great. But with the kernel of a story and my first few chapters, I attended a workshop on writing for children which encouraged me to continue. I read lots of kids’ books. I revised countless times, dreamed, read portions to my kid, trashed it, revamped, set it aside for a year, and so on. My enthusiasm waxed and waned. When I attended a creative writing class at the local community college, I received encouragement and critique from others writing their manuscripts. I was determined to finish. I completed the manuscript after a decade. By that time, my kid had grown into an adult.

Did your professional work influence your writing?

Some, yes. In another lifetime, I was a park ranger for the National Park Service. I enjoyed helping visitors forge personal connections with places of the past and plants and animals of the Southwest. A powerful way to help people connect is through story and writing. I wrote teachers’ guides, trail guides, exhibits, articles, and brochures. I also saw the power of place-based writing, where students write poetry and stories, create art, and read their work on site. Working directly with teachers and young visitors to help them discover their own stories helped me think about writing stories that would resonate with children.

Flora has a moment with Owl

As a park ranger I also prepared a lot of budget justifications and boring bureaucratic reports. So when it came to writing this story, I felt liberated, free to create a fantasy world where a packrat is a food critic, a porcupine sings opera, and a kangaroo rat thinks he rules a kingdom.

You must have done research on the animals that appear in this book.

I did. Even though the story is a fantasy, I based the traits of the animals and their world in reality. So, packrat Gertrude appearing worn out while nursing her litter of pups happens in the real packrat world, where motherly duties can exhaust a packrat to death. And packrats really do chomp prickly pear cactus pads, even seeking out pads that are extra spiny—they tend to have a higher protein content. And did you know that a baby porcupine is called a porcupette? And a group of porcupines is called a prickle? And their quills have antibiotic qualities so if they stick themselves, which is not uncommon, infection is less likely? I’ve always had a love for the creatures of the Southwest, and I hope to convey my fondness for them and their world to readers.

What’s next? Will you write more books?

I’m nearly finished with another manuscript for middle grade readers. It’s about a twelve-year-old girl who is determined to rescue a street dog in Madurai, India, when she goes there with her researcher mom. She must learn how to navigate a bewildering culture to save the dog. And if her mission succeeds, she’s sure she’ll attract yearned-for attention from her preoccupied mom. This story was inspired by my own experiences in Madurai, where I’ve spent a lot of time over the years. Just last year I was there and rescued a street dog, so some of my protagonist’s experiences are like mine.

After this project, who knows what’s next. As long as I’m having fun, I’ll keep writing for children. I have so much to learn about the craft. And it’s such an honor to write for children.

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