Published August 20, 2019 by Tom Porter

A Lifelong Ambition Realized

These are exciting times for Josephine (Vodicka) Cameron ’98. Earlier this year she published her debut novel, Maybe a Mermaid, a work of contemporary fiction aimed at elementary school readers (known in publishing circles as the middle grade audience). It’s the first in a two-book deal with publisher Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux (FSG). As Cameron says in this interview, this is the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition to be a professional writer.

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Cameron at a book signing in Brunswick, Maine, March, 2019

What was your major at Bowdoin?

English.

Did you always want to be a writer?

Always! As a little kid, I had a yellow “writing desk” where I kept all my pencils and paper. I would write mini books, staple them together, and give them to my family members as gifts.

How did Bowdoin help you prepare for this?

Academically, I came to Bowdoin very unprepared, and I feel lucky that I found so much support in the faculty there. A visiting professor, Carol Martin, noticed my struggles and tutored me in grammar every week for a whole semester. I got tough but extremely helpful feedback and encouragement from professors Frank Burroughs, Elizabeth Muther, and Marilyn Reizbaum.

I studied creative writing with Anthony Walton and learned most of what I know about structure and revision from him. In my senior year with Professor Walton, I wrote a collection of poetry and short stories for my honors thesis, and it was such a valuable exercise in writing, revising, and compiling a book-length body of work. Bowdoin really pushed me to improve and grow, and it gave me the time and space to take the craft of writing seriously.

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What is Maybe a Mermaid about and what inspired you to write it?

The central character is an eleven-year-old girl named Anthoni Gillis, who has always wanted a “true blue” friend (TBF). It’s been hard for her to find one, moving from town to town helping her mom sell “Beauty & the Bee” cosmetics. When the two end up for a summer at the run-down Showboat Resort, Anthoni decides to do whatever it takes to make her dreams of a TBF come true. But, as she gets caught up in rumors of a mermaid in Thunder Lake, becomes acquainted with the ex-vaudeville star owner of the resort, and learns that her mom has been keeping secrets, Anthoni has to rethink her plans and decide what it really means to be a true friend.

This book was inspired by so much of my childhood in the north woods of Wisconsin—the lake, the waterskiing, the multilevel marketing schemes all our moms seemed to be involved in during the ’80s. There was a resort near my town that had a boat-shaped lounge where famous ex-vaudeville stars used to perform. By the time I was a kid, it was run-down and empty, but it always captured my imagination.

Mostly, I wanted to write a story about an intergenerational friendship, and that piece was inspired by an elderly friend I had growing up. Jane Caldwell-Letherman was a summer resident, and her cottage was small, rustic, and filled with books. I would ride my bike to Jane’s, and we would listen to public radio, play educational board games, swim, and drink cups and cups of chamomile tea. At home, I had lots of rules about what I could and couldn’t read, and I will never forget the day Jane waved her hand toward the bookshelves around us and told me that when I was at her house, I was allowed to read any book in sight. Jane was a TBF!

How do you go about writing a book? Do you have a routine?

I write on my laptop, and I am very ergonomically incorrect, which I need to do something about. I teach music lessons in the afternoons and evenings, so I write in the morning, assisted by a strong cup of tea or coffee, depending on the mood.

What’s your next book?

My next book is another middle-grade novel, titled A Dog-Friendly Town. It’s due out with FSG Books for Young Readers in 2020, and it is an over-the-top mystery involving a TV-celebrity Saint Bernard (no talking animals, just canine actors). I’m currently in the revision process, and while keeping track of the mystery element has been challenging (I have spreadsheets, post-its, character lists, maps, and to-do lists scattered all around the house), it has been so much fun to write that I regularly find myself laughing out loud at my keyboard and marveling at the fact that someone is actually paying me to do this!