Sherryl Clark comes to the Hamline MFAC program from Melbourne, Australia. She's the author of several books for young and teen readers. Her newest, Runaways, was published by Penguin Books Australia in March 2013.
Please describe the book in under 50 words.
It’s a MG verse novel in two voices. Jack and Cassie are siblings – when neither of Jack’s parents seem to care about him, he decides to run away, and persuades Cassie to join him. But does running away really solve anything? And what choices will Cassie have to make?
Would you tell us a bit about the story’s development?
For a long time, I didn’t think this story was going to work. I knew how it started, and that they would run away to meet each other, but where and why? I found part of Jack’s story in Perth (the furthest city in Australia from Melbourne). Finally I went on a “road trip”, looking for a place by the water, and found Hindmarsh Island in South Australia. From there, a lot of other things finally fell into place – the fishing grandfather, the grass fire, the symbolism of the river meeting the sea. The hardest part to write and rewrite was the last scene with their mother, because I wanted hope but not at the price of “prettying up” real life. All up, the book took nearly three years.
How did it come to the attention of its editor?
Penguin has published my other verse novels, but when this one wasn’t working very well, my editors gave me some helpful feedback, especially on the two voices. At first I couldn’t work out how to rewrite Jack’s voice, but I’d written a Hamline essay on dual narrators, which helped, and finally I could see how to get inside Jack through language, line breaks and the typeface symbols. I don’t spell out that he has ADD, but I hope you sense it through his verse structure.
What research was involved?
Standing in the railway station in Perth and writing down all the train stations in the right order! A trip to South Australia, driving around on a location hunt. Taking lots of photos. Country fire fighters. Maps.
Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline?
What was your critical thesis on?
Verse novels! And to be honest, I wish I’d done all the reading and written the thesis before I wrote Runaways, but I think my next verse novel will be very different. Still, I was conscious of all the critical work I’d done on verse novels that I didn’t like much (and the ones I did), and I tried to put some of that extra, deeper insight into the final revisions.
What was your creative thesis?
A science fiction thriller. I’ve really wanted to make the absolute most of my time at Hamline, so I’ve done different kinds of writing that I might otherwise be too chicken to try on my own. I’ve learned so much and I hope my writing has improved!
Did you discover and fall in love with any books while in the MFAC program?
Definitely Helen Frost’s verse novels. They are not published in Australia so I had never heard of her before. From the reading list, some of my favorites were Island of the Blue Dolphins and Officer Buckle and Gloria. I also fell in love with Frog and Toad, and The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson. I enjoyed a lot of the nonfiction, too.
Without naming names, tell us who your first readers are.When do you share a piece of writing?
I am in two writing groups, but one is for novels, which is my Big Fish group. It makes a huge difference to have other writers reading consecutive chapters and giving intensive feedback. They’ve suffered through my crime novel! My other group workshops shorter things like poetry – they are very supportive (lots of cake!). I don’t share something until I’m pretty sure I know what I want to say with it. Comments too early can shift the ground under you so you lose your faith in the story idea, I find.
Can you briefly describe your writing life? How has it changed since you graduated?
I’m graduating this July, but already I know my writing life has changed a lot. Just the fact that I have taken a year’s leave from my paid job this year to work on my creative thesis! I never would have had the courage to do that before. I’ve been able to put writing first – not always in terms of actual hours, because I need to still pay the bills – but first in my mind and my heart. That’s what will stay with me after graduation. That, and all the craft I’ve learned (and re-learned, which is just as valuable).
What are you working on now?
I want to finish the science fiction thriller (working title: Elimination) and then I will go back to the historical novel I’m writing for Penguin set in World War I.
What would you like to say to current or prospective students?Give it everything you’ve got! The two years goes so quickly, and the opportunity to work with your advisors so closely on your writing is invaluable. You may never find this many great writers to learn from in one place again. Be adventurous. Take risks. Give up whatever you have to to make it the best possible experience. Be part of the community – connect and support and share. Everyone is generous and kind, and they want you to succeed and be the best writer you can. It’s been priceless to me.
***Visit Sherryl's website, blog, and her author pages on Amazon and Facebook to learn more about her books, her writing life, and for wonderful conversation and advice on writing.
Next Inkpot Interview: Molly Griffin, MFAC '09