Monday, May 24, 2010

Imagination and Experiences: An Interview with Author Meredith Sue Willis

        Meredith Sue Willis was born and raised in West Virginia. She is the author of The Secret Super Powers of Marco (Montemayor, 2001; HarperCollins, 1994), Marco’s Monster (Montemayor, 2001; HarperCollins 1995), Billie of Fish House Lane (Montemayor, 2006) for children, and The City Built of Starships (Montemayor, 2004) for young adults. She also has published eleven titles for adults, including three on the craft of writing. Her newest book, Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel is soon to be released (June 2010) by Montemayor Press. 
       She teaches Creative Writing at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and gives creative writing workshops to children and young people as a writer-in-the-schools with the New Jersey Writers Project and other organizations. She lives in New Jersey.
      I interviewed her about her teaching, her books, her advice for writers, and her thoughts on the themes of books.

TFI:   You teach creative writing to adults and children. Do you have a particular emphasis?
MSW:  A couple of things are striking to me. One is the similarities between the writing self-identified adult writers do and what kids do. There are obvious differences, especially with the willingness of children to see writing as a kind of play, but everyone starts with the materials of their imagination and experience: objects, physical senses, memories, dreams. I tend to emphasize the kinds of writing that begin with those common things.

So you start with an object, let’s say. What’s the next step? How do you guide your students to develop an object into to a plot?
I usually hold off on the plot (at least in writing classes) in the beginning. I like people (kids or adults) to imagine an object with all the senses—the weight of it, the texture, the smell, sound, possibly even the taste. If it's something that doesn't make its own sound, why not drop it on the floor to hear how it pings!
By exploring an object this way with your senses, you get a lot of so-called "details," but that's less important to me than the way the senses can lead you into memories and new insights, and the memories and insights can lead to new story ideas, including plot developments: "When he dropped the ring, it made a clicking noise as it struck the hardwood floor and skittered under the bureau."
Aha, I think: “The floor isn't carpeted, the boy drops the ring. What if he is accused of stealing it, and all the while it is under the furniture. . . ."
In other words, the more fully and deeply you create the world of your story, whether you are an adult or a child, the more material you have and the more possibilities you have for development.

Do you have any infallible advice for aspiring children’s authors hoping to get published? Or, if that’s asking too much, what do you wish you knew when you were first getting started?
The short answer is, no! No infallible advice for aspiring authors! They shouldn't give up, but they should also be aware of how the entire publishing enterprise is in the middle of an incredible overturning and reorganization. Personally, I’m really thankful I developed the habit of and passion for writing long before I knew about getting published. I also am glad that I didn’t know the future– because publishing has gotten harder rather than easier. The good news is that first novelists may have an advantage over writers who have published and not made a bundle of money for their publishers.

Let’s talk about themes. Your Marco books are about a boy learning to find his own power to act in the world. Billie of Fish House Lane explores prejudice and accepting oneself. Just curious—do you typically start with story ideas and discover what themes they point to, or do you start with themes and create stories to illustrate them?
I feel like the best writing begins with concrete experiences or even comes from concrete objects: a face, a place, a voice. Marco was this kid’s voice talking to me– clearly it was related to the voices of children I’d been working with in schools in New York City. I’d also been typing what seemed to be hundreds of their pieces of writing to mimeograph and distribute. So I had a boy’s voice in my head, and I also had a little one-page story I'd written about a boy knocking off car antennae. For Billie, it was a place: on my train rides from Jersey into New York, I’d stare out the window dreamily at this landscape of marshes and rivers and car overpasses and train tracks and abandoned buildings and little roads that seemed to go nowhere– and I’d think: “What if someone lived down there? What kind of family might live there?” Meanwhile, in my public life, I was working with an integration organization in my town, so the themes got wrapped into my imagining this girl in this place.

Do you have anything in the works now?
I’ve always got a few things in the works. One book I’m close to finishing is a young adult novel about a girl who discovers her mother was a terrorist back in the day.

Wow, sounds intriguing, and I don’t have to even ask where you got the idea for that. Or do I?
The idea for this new book was again from some kids I taught in New York City, especially one experimental school I visited, plus some people I know a little who were involved in political bombings and other activities. I personally did a lot of protesting in the past, but never saw any up-side to violence against people or even against property.

Do world issues open up new topics in middle-grade/YA? For example, with all the turbulence in the world today, do you see a market existing or emerging for novels with themes of conflict resolution, solving problems between groups, or transforming “us vs. them” mindsets?
I think we could use a publishing house, probably small, for kids and young people that actually publishes books of the type you’re speaking of. If this publishing house existed, it would, in my opinion, over time find readers and buyers, especially among teachers and librarians, but also in the general public. I believe we’re moving into a time when the biggest success will be for so-called niche writers and publishers: there are niches for religious novels– and also for erotica. Gay and lesbian publications have a niche. My Appalachian fiction for adults usually has a decent number of readers. So if teachers and librarians knew they could depend on a particular publisher for books that were both well-written and idea or issue-oriented, I absolutely think they would buy them.

What do you see as the power of story? Can you think of any stories that influenced you in a direct way, either as a child, or now?
I was deeply influenced as a child by comic books– which I never found very funny! One holiday season my parents bought me a set of something called “Classics Illustrated,” comic book versions of everything from Macbeth (now there’s a scary story) to Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. I can still see in my mind some of the images and remember the thrust of those stories, distilled down to their essence for the comic book format.

How did they leave their mark on you?
I think those comic books of famous works fixed in my mind the trajectory of story-- in a comic, only the high points are illustrated, so without studying or analyzing, you get a sense of how a story builds and comes to a climax. You also have these vivid illustrations of moments of intensity, frozen like a snapshot. The story trajectory and the vivid stop-actions (along with the child's voice, of course) are how stories for children come to me. Adult work is more reflective, slower, focused on memory or even language.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and advice with us, and good luck with Ten Strategies to Write your Novel, and your YA!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Secret Super Powers of Marco

I will be interviewing author and teacher Meredith Sue Willis for my blog in the near future. She has written fifteen adult and children’s books, including several books on the craft of writing. Stay tuned! In the meantime, here is a review of two of my favorite children’s books of hers.

The Secret Super Powers of Marco (Montemayor Press, 2001; HarperCollins, 1994)

Marco believes he has secret powers ever since the night he was out twanging car antennas and one broke off and spiraled so high into the sky that it seemed to turn into a star. He’s not sure what his powers are exactly, but it’s nice to know he can fall back on them if ever his regular abilities are lacking. His powers give him the confidence to befriend Tyrone, the class bully, and retrieve his kidnapped dog from the scary homeless man on the next street. When Tyrone gets in trouble, Marco uses his Mental Sight power (he can see two possible futures in any situation) and prompts the best outcome to happen.

Marco is an eminently likable character who will charm young readers and demonstrate they have the power to act in the world, even in a tough neighborhood.

In the sequel, Marco’s Monster (Montemayor Press, 2001; HarperCollins, 1996) Marco doesn’t get the starring role, the Main Monster, in his fourth grade play—his best friend Tyrone does. Marco, chosen to be the Narrator, is disappointed and not a little bit mad. Then he creates an unusual scene for the narrator that makes it all worthwhile. Now his big task is to make sure Tyrone doesn’t get “three strikes and out”—of the play, including when Tyrone leaves school to help Marco find his missing little sister.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Mother's Day for Peace

Julia Ward Howe is credited with first putting forth the idea for Mother’s Day in the U.S., which she called Mother’s Day for Peace. Appalled by the carnage of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, she proposed a women’s conference for peace. In her words, “We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

I was amazed several years ago to learn of this original vision for Mother’s Day. It is exactly what I desire as a mother and as a human being, and it’s a beautiful way to celebrate Mother’s Day.

Here is the text of her Mother’s Day Proclamation, widely circulated in 1870.

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,

Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly:
"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country

To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.

It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."

Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.

As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,

Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.

Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means

Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,

But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask

That a general congress of women without limit of nationality

May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient

And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,

To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,

The amicable settlement of international questions,

The great and general interests of peace.