Thursday, February 27, 2014

Alumni Voices: Barbara Herkert

What I Learned on My Way to a Master’s

I entered Hamline’s MFAC program in January of 2007, a member of the “Big Class.” At the time, I’d had one book published, a nonfiction picture book that I’d written and illustrated. When the book came out in 2001, I’d foolishly thought, “All right! I’m in!” And then the dry spell hit. Rejection after rejection. Six years passed. My heart sank. My confidence waned. I considered giving up.

One day I saw an ad for Hamline. What a faculty! My mind was made up. I’d apply to the program and try my hand at writing novels. I’d been chasing the wrong genre. That was it!

I worked on a contemporary middle grade with Kate my first semester, and again with the Marsha Q my last semester. I completed a draft of a YA historical fiction under the guidance of Jane. I am forever grateful for the time I spent with these wise and wonderful mentors.

When it was time to write a thesis, the unexpected happened. My advisor was Jackie, whose picture book biographies (and other works) are shear inspiration. I decided to explore the world of picture book biographies in my thesis. And why not try to write one, too? I’d discovered a quilter by the name of Harriet Powers while researching anonymous women artists. Her photograph haunted me. Her artwork resembled Matisse. I wanted to know more.

Finger puppet
I fell in love with the process of writing picture book biographies—searching for gems, walking beside someone you admire, finding just the right words to paint a person’s life. Since graduating, I’ve written three more pb biographies and acquired a dream agent who has found publishers for two. One of them is the manuscript I worked on with Jackie, Sewing Stories: The Life of Harriet Powers. My agent says picture book biographies are my “true calling.” Go figure.

The finger puppet is a gift from Jane. I keep it next to the place where I write. Inside the puppet, she’d slipped a tiny piece of paper on which she’d penned the word “Play.” She knew exactly what I needed to do.

While you’re in the program, experiment. Try new genres. Play. You never know where it might lead. Will I get back to those novels? More than likely. But for now I’m going to travel down this road, a road illuminated by my time at Hamline.

Barbara Herkert is a January 2009 graduate of the MFAC program. Sewing Stories: The Life of Harriet Powers, will be published by Knopf in the fall of 2015. Glimpses of Life: The Story of Mary Cassatt, will be published by Christy Ottaviano Books (Henry Holt) in the spring of 2015. She is represented by Karen Grencik at Red Fox Literary. She lives on the Oregon coast.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Faculty Voices: Ron Koertge

I’ve been unfaithful to poetry. Poetry with a capital P.  I’ve been careless and indifferent. Taking Poetry for granted. Now I’m paying the price. Poetry has given me the cold shoulder.

I try and explain that I have to make a living, even a meager one, and there’s more money in Prose. Poetry just stares out the window. I say that I wouldn’t write as well as I do without my affection for Poetry.

Poetry scowls, “You come home late smelling like Fiction. That’s just rude.”

I apologize all over myself. I say that I’m back if Poetry will have me. The checks are so small it wasn’t worth it. I don’t know what came over me. It was spring and I’d had a couple of mojitos. Poetry should understand intoxication. Poetry is intoxication itself.

We eye each other warily. “Well," Poetry says, “what are you working on now?”

With a sigh of relief I say, “Take a look at this opening. It’s promising, don’t you think?”
My Grandmother

 cut the chicken’s head off
 and the body ran amok.

Poetry nods. Slightly. “I like amok.”

 “Me, too. So far, so good, right?”

“What’s next?”

“Well, umm, well, that’s why I came by. I thought you might have an idea.”

“I just keep picturing you tooling around with Prose in that big red car.”

“But that’s all we did. Drive around. Nothing happened.” I reach for Poetry’s hand.

“So how about a little inspiration. Just a spritz.”

Poetry sighs. “Try something having to do with yellow feet.”

“The chicken’s, right? Not mine.”

Poetry stares at me. “Can you hear yourself? Lie down with Prose, get up with a tin ear.”

I opened my notebook. The words came easily.
           The boy I was cried. The man
                        I would become noticed the yellow
                        feet, the stagger and twitch,
                        my grandmother’s leer.

Poetry nods. A little. “Leer is nice.”

“Great! Thanks. It doesn’t seem done, though.”  I looked at Poetry imploringly. “Or is it?”

“You know what,” Poetry said. “I’ve been helping young poets who love me and only me, but they’re poor. You, on the other hand, can afford to take me out for dinner. I know I could think clearer by candlelight with somebody pouring a chilled California chardonnay.”

“And then we’ll finish the poem?”

“We’ll see.” Poetry started for the door. Then turned. “But are you really going to wear that shirt?”


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Alumni Voices: Molly Burnham

I write funny stories…or at least I try. I don’t think of myself as funny and I don’t think most of my friends do either. I’m a pretty sincere person. I get easily caught up in the plagues of the world: civil rights, poverty, education, global warming. And all through the lens of children, which makes me even more depressing to hang out with, and basically means I have to work hard at my funny stories.

For Christmas my kids were given the cast recording of Matilda, which is absolutely amazing. But it’s up there with all the plagues that melt my heart. I can’t say it’s funny. There’s certainly a lot of humor in it, but there’s lots of sadness, even more than the book. The music is brooding and tragic and builds to these outrageous crescendos that break my heart (Miss Honey really brings tears to my eyes). The whole thing is too brilliant for words. My kids play it over and over and over again, and no matter how many times I hear it, I listen happily.

As fun as it is, I started to become even more brooding and tragic than usual, and my writing followed along like a good little dog (not like my dog Pepito who pulls terribly when he’s on the leash but some imaginary, well-behaved dog I like to call Josie). Anyway, after repetitive listening to Matilda my main character ended up in the hospital with memory loss, all his bones broken, and his marriage in ruins, and he’s only ten! You don’t want to know what happened to the rest of the characters.

I admit, I had not realized until this moment the power that outside influences had over my writing and in turn, over me. Luckily, besides being fairly morose, I am one of those people who like to have touchstones beside them when they write. My touchstones are books that have some magical essence that is similar to what I am working on. Not exactly the same but close enough to give me a little pick-me-up when I need it the most, like when the box of chocolates is empty.

For the series I’m working on now I always have a Junie B. Jones book (doesn’t matter which one because they’re all hilarious), any of Louis Sachar's Wayside School books (because they’re all brilliant), and any Roald Dahl book because even though the musical version of Matilda is brooding and tragic, that book and all his books have a bounce that is unmatched by anyone else (in my opinion).

These books are beside me so that when I forget I’m writing humor, and get lost in my brooding and tragic side I can open them, read a sentence or two anywhere, and be brought back to the place I need to be. I don’t copy them, but I draw some remarkable strength from them.

I’ve learned that other authors are my touchstones—teaching, guiding, and helping to tell my story through all the distractions of the world (and I know there are lots of those, and most of them really stink!).

I’ve also learned that I need to be bloody careful about what I listen to or take in when I’m writing a book. The good news is this realization totally cuts down how much I watch General Hospital or The Voice, which totally breaks my heart. And I’ve finally learned to listen to Matilda only on weekends when I know I’m not going to get any writing done anyway, so I can cry my little vocal chords to their hearts content.

Can’t help asking: What books do you keep on your desk? How do they help you?
Molly Burnham is a July 2010 graduate of the MFAC program. Teddy Mars Almost a World Record Breaker, the first of three books she has under contract, will be published by Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins in December, 2014. Molly lives in western Massachusetts.