Saturday, April 30, 2011


My friend Rob Reid is a children’s lit maven, author, and performer. He also teaches at the university here in Eau Claire and every semester kindly invites me to speak to his adolescent literature class. The students are primarily undergraduate education majors, and a few grad students working on a media specialist degree (such optimism!). It’s always a fun Q &A.

Rob had put my novel Thin Ice on the required reading list, and the students were prepared to grill the author. One woman tossed out an especially pointed question: Why didn’t I include much in the way of Wisconsin culture in the book, which is set in northern Wisconsin? She specifically mentioned German influence.

More pertinent than no German influence, I thought as I prepared my answer, was that though the book is set in an area of the state where many Native Americans live, you wouldn’t know it from reading the novel. And this in fact may have been the unspoken point the student was really making.

Her question was a really a very specific form of a frequently asked question authors get: Why didn’t you talk about…?

Because my main character wouldn’t. Thin Ice is a first-person narrative, which by definition means there’s a narrow world view. In that situation, an author’s only obligation when it comes to world-building is to show the world in which the viewpoint character lives and/or sees and thinks about at the present moment. Therefore, certain people and things and lifestyles that one person takes for granted might not be part of another person’s story and should not be introduced into the story.

In my longwinded answer (I can really get going during a Q & A), I contrasted Arden with the protagonist of another of my novels, Cory Knutson (Revolutions of the Heart). The two novels are set in the same area of Wisconsin, but Cory’s story includes several Ojibwa characters and a plot line affected by race relations. The difference isn’t because I did a better job depicting the culture and people of the area in that book, but because the protagonist’s worldview during the timeframe of the story is a wider one.

Another version of this “Why?” question is often found in complaints about portraits of adults in YA novels. Well, same answer: My obligation as a writer is to create the character’s world, not the world a concerned adult reader prefers a child/teen sees.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

ANSWERS, INK: Questions writers might have asked

Dear Answers, Ink,

If I write a story about a New York major league baseball team that doesn’t know how to play the game, is that metafiction?


Dear K.C.,

Metafiction is defined as writing that is aware of itself as writing. If a story about a New York major league baseball team is aware that it is a story about a New York major league baseball team and calls attention to that fact, then you are writing metafiction. Some writers argue that metafiction must also have a political component, but at minimum such fiction must call attention to itself as an artifact.

Good examples of metafiction in children’s books are THE MONSTER AT THE END OF THIS BOOK by Lovable, Furry Old Grover written by Jon Stone and WE ARE IN A BOOK by Mo Willem.

Metafiction, if done badly, can lead to the reader throwing the offending book at the wall, leaving, perhaps, a hole in the plaster, but that hole will only be a metafictive hole if it calls attention to itself as a hole, a fact too creepy to contemplate.

Metafictively yours,


(Dear Inkpot readers:

If you have a question that a writer might have asked, send it to Answers, Ink. If you have an answer to that question, send the answer, too. We at Answers, Ink particularly welcome answers to questions we haven’t even thought to ask. Special thanks to NZ for submitting the above question.)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Distressing Once, Distressing Twice, Distressing Over Chicken Soup With Rice

In 1961 Maurice Sendak painted a mural on the nursery wall for personal friends in Manhattan. This wall was recently carved out and moved to Philadelphia—1400 pounds of wall. I've been teaching outside of Philly this year and read about this in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

As the end of my absolutely insane year of having no real home base (my partner is in Savannah, my house is in Maine, nothing of much is in NJ) I’ve been traveling, working way, way too much for my 44 year-old tired self—I’ve not been writing nearly as much as I ought to, I had to cancel a book-signing event at the hoitiest bookstore in Manhattan because I practically collapsed and landed in the hospital for three days (my publisher had been working on getting me this gig for months.)

And so all this leads to sharing with you my new all-time favorite Sendak quote, and maybe you’ll understand why:

"We're all orphans, and all our friends die. It's the story of life, and it stinks. You go on feeling that you failed. I don't sit here and say, 'I've got all these books, and isn't that nice?' Who cares! I don't care anymore."

Let’s admit it don’t we all want to be suffering to this degree of pen ultimate success? Don’t you feel better about your own misery? I think I do.
(PS. and no sympathy, please)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Republic of the Imagination

This past Tuesday was a day of depressing writing news all around, and by evening all I wanted was to lie on my bed, feel sorry for myself, and eat pasta. But I dragged myself up to go hear Azar Nafisi speak at a local university. She is the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books and Things I’ve Been Silent About. She spoke of how books connect us to each other, to people who share our passions and our dreams. Writers and readers, she said, both have an urge to know, to go to strange terrains and become the others we have never met. In the republic of the imagination we learn empathy.

It’s good for me to be reminded of why we do what we do. When the royalty checks arrive with single digits, when the rejection letters or the remainder letters come, when I wonder what possesses me to think I have something worth saying in words, I will remember Nafisi telling us passionately that the most fundamental form of insubordination is curiosity. I will remember that we are citizens of that republic that transcends boundaries. And I will remember her answer to the question of how she finds hope. Hope, she said, is not undue optimism, it is the essence of life. Seeing life through the eyes of the imagination shows us how life could be or should be. Without hope, what is the point of life?

Although I didn't know it until she spoke, Azar Nafisi was exactly the person I needed to hear. She made me proud to be a citizen of that republic of imagination, even on the days when I just want to lie on my bed, feel sorry for myself, and eat pasta.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Skype City - Old Dog Learns New Trick

I read with fascination old dog Marsha's ventures into the world of A. books. Old dog Claire has been venturing into the world of technology, kicking all the way. But last week I learned a new trick. I held a Skype author visit with a class of sixth graders in Pennsylvania. They were reading my nonfiction book Children of Alcatraz in tandem with the novel Al Capone Does My Shirts. Their energetic teacher had contacted me, wondering if I would share my thoughts via the internet. I panicked. I'd heard all about Skype author visits, but had not entered that new world. Please. Do I have to? We had skyped with our daughter when she studied in Ireland a few years back, but not since. Yet I knew that I couldn't say no. Next September I finally have a new book coming out. Lisa and Jackie and other writer friends are doing book trailers and some even tweeting. Come on, Claire. Sure you just celebrated a big round number birthday, but you are not dead yet.

With trepidation I practiced the technology the day before and even fixed the glitch myself. Then early Friday morning (5:15 am PST) I sat up in bed, put on a fleece top over my pj's, and turned on my laptop. I looked into the screen and staring back at me was Patty Duke. I looked like the aging Patty Duke, often spotted out here in my neck of the woods. I think I even muttered that aloud. But then I told myself to get a grip. I greeted the students and began answering their questions and talking about the writing process. The hour flew by. I love talking to kids about reading and writing and the opportunity to support teachers who work with them every day.

The Skype visit lifted my spirits. I had learned something new to add to my 2011 list. It even empowered me to wade into the book trailer waters this week. Most of all, my Skype adventure reminded me to keep taking risks and exploring new options. To remember my early days of writing when everything was possible and failure just part of the mix. Technology will never take the place of writing a strong story. But in some deep way using Skype helped break through some of my paralysis about this new world of publishing platforms. So today as I write, I will try to remember that there are many ways to get my stories out into the world and people and technology to show the way. And hey, I just might be skyping with my grad students next semester, too.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

This Old Dog

I’m working hard at trying to be a different writer. Scratch that. I’m working hard at writing differently, expanding my natural voice to include some new tricks. Or more accurately, one new trick: telling.

After twenty years of writing primarily YA I’m frustrated with my writing voice: so much showing, such a reliance on scenes and dialogue. A few months back, when speaking about the difference between young adult and adult fiction, Ron Koertge (now on Inkpot sabbatical), cited “velocity” as the key. Dialogue and scene work usually has more velocity than telling, not least because of the white space involved.

Mind you, the novel I’m working on now is not a YA; it’s an A, with some serious core issues (mental illness, adult children, art and faith). The first draft is driving me nuts—so much quipping dialogue, so many short scenes. It all feels staged, moving from one set piece to another.

I just read Nicole Krauss’s The Great House. What wonderful telling! And last week I finished Ward Just’s Rodin’s Debutante. Just is a fabulous teller/writer, my favorite writer, in fact. A couple of weeks ago I finished Jonathon Franzen’s Freedom--pages and pages of telling (and some lovely scene work too). I’m not trying to ape these writers, mind you. But their work does encourage me in my efforts to slow my own down.

So how am going about it? When I work on student manuscripts I often comment when something should be shown “As it happens,” in other words, as a scene. Now in my own writing I’m taking scenes and writing them after the fact as a recap, but from a different vantage: 1. Hour later 2. Week later and 3. Five years down the road. I also create a childhood incident that somehow connects to the contemporary scene and I allow my POV character to reflect back.

So far not a lot of this offstage work is showing up in the revised scenes—they are still sounding very Marsha Qualey-ish. But doing the exercises has allowed me to slow down, I think, and widen the emotional scope and perspective on what’s happening in the story. And I believe that, along with velocity, is another distinction between YA and A.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Winsor McCay- Animator/Cartoonist

I am enthralled with the early twentieth century cartoonist and animator, Winsor McCay, especially Little Nemo in Slumberland. (Sendak admits he stole much of his imagery from McCay.) Without McCay we would not have had Felix, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Buzz or Woody. It is the 100thanniversary of the first Little Nemo animation. You can read more about McCay in this article. What I connect with most is the following quote:

“The principal factor in my success has been an absolute desire to draw constantly. I never decided to be an artist. Simply, I could not stop myself from drawing. I drew for my own pleasure. I never wanted to know whether or not someone liked my drawings. I drew on walls, the school blackboard, old bits of paper, the walls of barns. Today I’m still as fond of drawing as when I was a kid — and that’s a long time ago…”

Now, replace “draw” with “write,” and you get the idea.

And check out one of the first animations of Gertie, the dinosaur. He drew ALL those images by HAND in 1914!! Thousands and thousands to get a five minute segment. That’s gotta hurt the wrist!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Of Lost Notebooks and Kansas Conferences

Like Dorothy and Toto, I’m not in Kansas anymore, but I was this past weekend. Here’s how I came to be at a writer’s conference in McPherson, Kansas.

A year ago I got an email from Jim, someone I’d known casually in college forty or so years ago. He had found, among his own college papers, a notebook with my name on it from a semester I had spent in Germany, and he wanted to return it if, indeed, I was that same Phyllis Root from Valparaiso University and if I wanted the notebook back. I was and I did, so he sent it, although it took me months to look inside at what I knew would be a lot of bad poetry scattered among notes about German verbs. There’s something profoundly scary about meeting your younger self in writing.

Jim also told me that McPherson College sponsored a writing conference each year and would I be interested in coming to speak? I was. I went. And I learned more of the story of how he came into possession of that notebook, rescuing it from the trash where someone else (who knows why he had the notebook?) had tossed it when he graduated. Jim, a writer himself, had too much respect for the written word to see any writing so casually and publicly discarded, and his acts of rescue and return are how I came to see two documentaries by Haydn Reiss shown at the conference, both about William Stafford, Kansas poet and World War II conscientious objector. I had known of Stafford, but now, having seen him on film reading from his work, talking with Robert Bly, taking a stand against war, I have immense new admiration for him, and I want to read everything of his I can get my hands on including WRITING THE AUSTRALIAN CRAWL. I’m hopeful I can learn from him both about writing and also about how to live a thoughtful and courageous life.

Dorothy was right—there’s no place like home, but from a college notebook in Germany to a conference in Kansas to falling in love with William Stafford, you just never know where your writing might lead you.

Yard Work

Warning: yet another writing/gardening metaphor kinda thing ahead. Spring is here at last in Wisconsin (I'm ignoring the weekend forecast which includes snow) and I've been cleaning up my flower beds. And I started thinking about one of the bits of advice that gets passed along (guilty!): Plow ahead on that first draft! Don't double back to revise! I confess that most of the time I don't practice what I preach. I revise along the way. Yes, there are times when pushing through to get the story down is the goal. On the other hand, cleaning up can also make it easier for the new stuff to bloom. (Warned ya.) Of course, the stuff would bloom anyway, but who knows? I'm not talking wholesale revision--just tidying up, fixing typing errors,consistency issues, weeding out the dreadful metaphors that present themselves early on. But the first draft revising has to be done with a light hand, otherwise you might just toss the hidden little green things out with the moldy leaves, and then they have to try again. And I'll stop with that now. Metaphor was never my strong suit. Still, I wanted to come clean. I'm MarshaQ, and I'm a first draft reviser.

Friday, April 8, 2011


Do you mind a little horn-tooting? The Children's Book Committee of the Bank Street College of Education has released its One Hundred Best Books of 2011 list, and on the list are titles by several Hamline faculty AND by two of our graduate assistants (Ricki Thompson, Nancy Bo Flood) AND one by one of our grads (Cheryl Bardoe). And a shout-out to Swati Avashti, who has taught in Hamline's other MFA program and was a guest speaker in ours--she has a book on the list too.

Marsha Chall, ONE PUP'S UP
Swati Avashti, SPLIT
Jackie Briggs Martin, THE CHIRU OF HIGH TIBET

According to its website, "the Committee reviews over 6000 titles each year for accuracy and literary quality and considers their emotional impact on children." Then a list of 600 is made and announced. The 100 Best List is culled from those titles.

Hats off to all!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Getting it as right as we can

Last Saturday afternoon at The Loft Second Story Reading Series in Minneapolis Ricki Thompson and Donna Jo Napoli both read from their historical novels, transporting us first to Elizabethan England in Thompson's City of Cannibals, then to medieval Italy in Napoli's The Wager. And both writers said in the question-and-answer afterwards that they knew, no matter how much research they did, they wouldn’t get everything right. There’s no way to know, for instance, exactly how people in the lower classes talked in Elizabethan England because we have no record of their speech.

This was both a revelation and also a reassurance to me: no matter how hard we try as writers (and we do try as hard as is humanly possible), we will still get something wrong. A non-fiction writer told me once that as soon as you write anything about science or the natural world, you probably have something wrong simply because our knowledge is constantly changing or because experts don't always agree.

As someone who has recently dipped a toe in non-fiction waters, I found this a great comfort: do your research (and both Ricki and Donna Jo stressed the huge amount of research behind their novels), try your best, and know that you can’t get it 100% right.

The Big Bog State Recreation Area is opening an interpretive center in June, and they’ve invited me to the opening. Ah, I thought, that must mean I got things right in Big Belching Bog. My next thought was, Or else I got things horribly wrong and they will be throwing me in the bog as punishment, and my preserved bog body will be found centuries later.

I’m sure that the invitation is sincere, and I’m honored to be invited. But on the outside chance that they take hold of my arms and legs and prepare to throw me off the boardwalk, I’ll quote Ricki Thompson and Donna Jo Napoli to them: as writers, we do our best to get it right, but even at our best we can’t know it all.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Magical Negro

I just finished an interesting and wonderful YA novel—The Shadow Speaker, by Nnedi Okorafor. The novel has a fabulous setting, in all meanings of the word. The events take place in the near future in Niger, West Africa, but the physical reality of the world has changed as a result of nuclear bombs being used during some unnamed war.

After finishing I wanted to know more about the author and started roaming about the Web. I came across a fascinating article she wrote, “Stephen King’s Super-Duper Magical Negroes.” I confess I’d not known the label for this particular trope, but I sure as heck was aware of its use in movies and stories. The main reason I did not like the otherwise admirable Million Dollar Baby was, once again, there was Morgan Freeman being the wise man.

The Magical Negro has its own version in children’s literature, of course: The magical grandparent or eccentric adult neighbor whose presence is essential for the moral lesson. These characters show up less now than they used to, but they are still with us. And yes, I know I’ve embraced the trope in my own writing though I hope I’ve shaken the habit. After reading Okorafor’s article I will be even more vigilant.

Friday, April 1, 2011

News Flash

Good news--great news, in fact. Gene Luen Yang is joining the faculty of our Hamline low-residency MFAC program. Gene was a guest speaker last January, and we all knew then that we wanted him to join us in a formal role. Now it's happened. He'll begin teaching at the Summer 2012 residency. The two best things about this: 1. We'll add a terrific teacher and writer, and in doing so expand the program's reach into writing for graphic novels and comics; 2. We now have three very nice guys on the faculty. Welcome, Gene.