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!