Thursday, December 22, 2016

Meet the Grad: Ailynn Knox-Collins

On Sunday, January 15, 2017 Hamline's Creative Writing Programs will host a Graduate Recognition ceremony to honor all the students who have completed their studies and will be receiving an MFA from Hamline University. 

During the months of December and January we will be featuring our soon-to-be alumni as they look back on their time at Hamline University. Today's new graduate is Ailynn Knox-Collins.

What do you do when you’re not working on packets

During most of my time at Hamline, I also worked as a teacher. I've been a Montessori teacher for 25 years, teaching kids from age 3 up to 9. During this last semester, I decided to take a year off of work. Almost immediately after resigning, I got a Write For Hire job and that's what's been keeping me occupied in between packet writing. It's been an interesting experience, writing to deadline -- it's kind of like doing packets with the added stress that it'll be read by actual readers some day. 

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?

I was online one day, and found a Highlights Foundation Camp for SFF writers. I was so excited. I never knew there were camps for writers like me. I signed up without a second thought. I didn't even care that it would be held right in the middle of a school term. (I didn't think I'd get in -- they only accepted 8 writers at a time). Well, I got in. And I met the amazing Anne Ursu, Laura Ruby and Christine Hepperman. During the week, we also got to meet Debbie Kovacs, who was so generous with her comments and time. Best camp experience ever! So when Anne and Laura mentioned Hamline, I thought, if I could learn so much in one week from these teachers, what could I discover in two whole years? And everyone kept talking about this person, Mary the Rock, and how wonderful she was. So, intrigued (and sure I'd never get in), I applied. I'd never thought about getting an MFA before, and I didn't really do much research into other programs. I was just so enamored by Anne and Laura, and everyone else I met at Highlights, that I couldn't resist. I wanted to bask in the learning experience provided by the incredible faculty. 

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?

I've been writing for as long as I can remember. As a child, I wrote journals and made up stories (which I subsequently burned), and as a young adult I moved on to screenplays. I love the theater. Then, life happened and I didn't think about writing for years. About twelve years ago, I signed up for a Writing for Children class at a community college and met a whole community of people who thought like me. I repeated many of the classes just to stay in that community and from there, I found friends for life and critique partners. I went on to take as many classes online and in person as I could. I sent out a couple of manuscripts and began my collection of rejections. Many of these rejections were very nice -- but they were still rejections. Sigh. I joined SCBWI and learned a lot more about 'the biz' from there.

What do remember most about your first residency?

I remember being terrified. I kept asking myself, "What am I doing? I'm too old to start something new!" I remember the snow -- it was January -- and trying to get into the Bandana with my luggage slipping all over the icy roads. I remember the smell of chlorine at the front desk (because the pool was in the middle of the lobby), and how the door to my room wouldn't open because the lock had been mounted upside down. That first night was the hardest. The next morning, while waiting for the shuttle, I sat down with two other ladies. We said nothing for a long while. Then Melody (Bless her!) asked if we were Hamline students and everything flowed from there. We connected immediately, and suddenly, everything wasn't so scary anymore. Orientation united us as classmates, and friends for life. Meeting my buddy, Linda, and the other students, put me at ease so quickly. Everyone was so warm and open. It was incredible. 

The rest of residency left me starstruck. Meeting Mary and the faculty, I felt as if I was being taught by celebrities. I had to pretend not to be too impressed outwardly, while on the inside, I was freaking out! By the end of residency, I knew I'd made the best decision of my life. Doing this program was not about advancing a career (I have enough of those pieces of paper). I was here for me, and all I wanted to do was to learn.

Have you focused on any one form (picture book, novel, nonfiction, graphic novel) or age group in your writing? Did you try a form you never thought you’d try?

I came in writing mostly young adult science fiction. I have since worked on middle grade fantasy, young adult scifi, an attempt at a hybrid graphic-prose story, and am ending with a graphic novel -- something I never thought I'd try. I wish the program would go on longer, so I can try picture books and nonfiction too, but sadly, I never got to work on those. Maybe because everything I start writing ends up with a spaceship, a ghost, or an alien in it. 

Tell us about your Creative Thesis.

I have the incredible privilege of working with Gene Yang on a graphic novel script for my Creative Thesis. I am not an artist by any stretch of imagination, so this was one form I never even considered writing. But along the way, my classmate, Daniel Mauleon, introduced me to reading graphic novels (I had him in a workshop and was so impressed by his work that I wanted to know more about the genre). I was hooked. I read and read so many graphic novels over the last two years. And Swati's hybrid novel opened my eyes to new possibilities I'd never thought about before. When it came to choosing what to do for my Creative Thesis, I had a lot of long discussions with classmates and teachers. In the end, I decided to go with what scared me the most. I had to try. This would be my only chance. I asked Gene if he would take on a brand new project for the Thesis, and he said yes!  I wrote the first draft as my Creative Thesis.

My story, Hunger, is about an orphaned biracial teen who has the ability to talk to ghosts. She works at a funeral supplies store for her aunt, who raised her. During the Hungry Ghost Month (7th month of the Chinese calendar), Cassiopea is in high demand -- contacting the dead for their living relatives. She doesn't understand why she can see everyone else's dead relatives, but her parents' ghosts are nowhere to be found. As she connects friends and neighbors with their dead relatives, she discovers the terrible reason why her parents have never appeared to her. 

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies? 

I have become very aware of my bad habits. I am so grateful for the teachers who have made me read lots and lots of craft books. You would think that 'rules' would make it harder to write freely, but for me, being aware of what I've done badly, has made me a better writer (I hope). I have learned so much about structure and character arcs, in a way that I never really understood before. I feel as if all the things I've learned are becoming a part of my thought process.  I may not always be conscious that I'm applying these concepts to my writing, but hopefully, I am. I'm also a much more critical reader now. Most of all though, I have become so much more aware of how writing influences the reader, of how I can affect change by telling my stories (not by preaching a message). Working on my critical thesis has made me think more about why I write the things I write about. And I feel a greater responsibility to be careful with how I write, and to be respectful and sensitive about representing the world as it truly is. (Does that make sense?) 

Any advice for entering students or for people considering the program?

Just do it. 

You can't know how wonderful this program is until you take that first scary step. I've never known of a program where the graduates don't want to leave. And now, that's me too.
Also, try everything. Every member of the faculty is a fantastic teacher. You will learn so much from each one. 

Take lots of notes. Get a hold of recordings of lectures. You will need all their advice for ages to come.

Be open to making friends with other students, and graduates. They are all amazing and will become your community and support structure forever.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Meet the Grad: Pat McCaw

On Sunday, January 15, 2017 Hamline's Creative Writing Programs will host a Graduate Recognition ceremony to honor all the students who have completed their studies and will be receiving an MFA from Hamline University. 

During the months of December and January we will be featuring our soon-to-be alumni as they look back on their time at Hamline University. Today's new graduate is Pat McCaw.

What do you do when you’re not working on packets?

Currently I try to find a balance between my medical practice, writing, and spending as much time as possible with my family. My husband, Ryan, has always been supportive of my writing efforts and I want to be involved in my daughters Lily, 13, and Sydney, 10, lives in every possible way. I have been my daughter's scout leaders, helped coach their teams and helped with clubs, we are the ultimate crafters, and my goal is to be the coolest mom of all their friends. Hee hee. I love to travel and photography. The National parks hold great beauty and history and our family wants to get to them all. Favorites so far are Mesa Verde, the Redwoods, and Yellowstone.

Since I love travel, photography, writing - my dream would be to take my family and travel the world and capture the images of the landscapes, hiking with my family and writing about our adventures - but since nobody has offered to fund such a life - I may stick with this doctoring thing! 

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?

I learned about Hamline MFAC from colleagues and former graduates in SCBWI and it has been like being adopted into another family. I needed direction and polishing of my writing skills and needed to know how to edit and revise my own work. 

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?

My journey to Hamline started in the last five years. I had been practicing family medicine for 16 years and then a good friend encouraged me to write a novel for nanowrimo. A middle grade fantasy came pouring out as my insides bubbled and I smiled the entire time I wrote. I knew I must return to my previous passion for writing that I had tabled many years ago. 

What do remember most about your first residency?
The best thing I learned is to look at everything you write as only one of many drafts. Now I'm not afraid to rip a novel or manuscript to shreds knowing that when it is put back together, it can only be better. My classmates are my soul mates and know parts of me better than many others - and I love them dearly.

Have you focused on any one form (picture book, novel, nonfiction, graphic novel) or age group in your writing? Did you try a form you never thought you’d try?

I don't focus on one form of writing. My voice tends toward middle grade, and I can hear and feel my daughters and the stories we told at bedtime. I lean toward fantasy most often. I also enjoy writing a first person YA voice with angst and sass, my inner smart ass tends to shine on those pages. Picture books allow my fun imagination and ideas a place to explore as well. 

Tell us about your Creative Thesis.

My creative thesis, The Witch on the Wall, is a MG fantasy about Payton, a science geek who battles her logic against her imagination, as she discovers the new portrait her mother bought at an estate sale contains a 16th century witch. 

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?

My Hamline experience has shaped me into a MUCH better writer than I could ever have imagined. I cringe looking at some of my previous work and will always refer to it as pre-Hamline. 

Any advice for entering students or for people considering the program?

Anyone wanting to find their inner writer and develop their skills should go to this program, and the most appreciated aspect is the respect for one's individuality and input. I don't want to leave the program and feel part of me will be left in Minnesota after I'm done. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Meet the Grad: Ann Karazeris

On Sunday, January 15, 2017 Hamline's Creative Writing Programs will host a Graduate Recognition ceremony to honor all the students who have completed their studies and will be receiving an MFA from Hamline University. 

During the months of December and January we will be featuring our soon-to-be alumni as they look back on their time at Hamline University. Today's new graduate is Ann Karazeris.

What do you do when you’re not working on packets?

I think about working on my packet. And when I’m not doing that, I work in the Office of Graduate Admission at Hamline helping other writers realize their dream of becoming a published author. By the way, we’re currently accepting applications for Summer 2017. 

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?

If I’m not mistaken it was Google.

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?

I was an advertising Copywriter in my former life but always dreamed of taking the leap to become a “real writer”.  It was a very emotional decision for me to leave the world of salad dressing and semiconductor chips but I think I made the right choice.

What do remember most about your first residency?

Wanting to quit. I had just finished one of the three-day intensives on making a living as a working writer and it scared the bejeesus out of me. I was convinced I couldn’t do it. But a very wise woman sat me down and told me to stay the course. She said the program would keep me anchored and give me a sense of purpose. By golly, she was right. That wise woman was Mary Rockcastle, the Director of the MFAC program.

Have you focused on any one form (picture book, novel, nonfiction, graphic novel) or age group in your writing? Did you try a form you never thought you’d try?

I’ve focused primarily on YA fiction, mostly novels and short stories. However, in my third semester I tried writing a nonfiction picture book biography and horror picture book. Tried being the operative word. I think I’ll stick with making stuff up.

Tell us about your Creative Thesis.

My thesis is a novel I started as a second semester student. It’s YA contemporary fiction about a girl who loses her short-term memory due to a horrific trauma. She tries to figure out what’s happened to her so she writes herself Post-It notes and sends herself texts/videos. I’d tell you the ending but I don’t want to give it away.

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?

Aside from becoming a more confident writer, my writing seems to be more on the dark side now. I embrace the macabre. I love horror fiction. The creepier the better as far as I’m concerned. But, I don’t think I would have had the confidence to pursue this type of writing had it not been for the MFAC program and the wonderful, supportive Hamline community.

Any advice for entering students or for people considering the program?
Yes, and here it is: be a sponge. Soak up everything you can from as many people as you can – faculty, fellow students, alumni, guest speakers and writers.  You’re in a literary mecca with some of the most creative minds in the industry. Be porous. There’s a lot to learn. And for heaven’s sake WRITE. That’s the only way to realize your dream. Believe me, if this small town girl from Detroit can do it, anyone can.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Meet the Grad: Tasslyn Magnusson

On Sunday, January 15, 2017 Hamline's Creative Writing Programs will host a Graduate Recognition ceremony to honor all the students who have completed their studies and will be receiving an MFA from Hamline University. 

During the months of December and January we will be featuring our soon-to-be alumni as they look back on their time at Hamline University. Today's new graduate is Tasslyn Magnusson.

What do you do when you’re not working on packets?

Sometimes I secretly help people raise money for good non profits but I'm trying to quit that habit. Mostly I write, read, and parent.

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?

I knew the amazing Anne Ursu and saw her passion and dedication to the program and sharing kid's literature with the world.

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?

I wrote as a kid and through high school and a bit in college. But in the past couple of years before MFAC I wrote short incredible creative passionate pieces to ask people to give me their money which were a mix of fiction and creative essay. I much prefer writing for kids. It's a lot more honest.

What do remember most about your first residency?

Feeling like I belonged. That suddenly everything made sense in my world. That I never wanted it to end. And it was cold. And I live here. 

Have you focused on any one form (picture book, novel, nonfiction, graphic novel) or age group in your writing? Did you try a form you never thought you’d try?

I came into the program claiming I wanted to write non fiction for YA and worked with Claire Rudolf Murphy. After the first packet she and I agreed that I really was writing fiction and I should be happy about that - which I was. And probably loved middle grade. Everybody in workshops suggested I turn what I had written into a novel in verse and so second semester I worked with Ron Koertge. I was a poetry baby and had to look things up all the time - what is a sestina? Sonnet? I wrote a novel in verse and fell in love with poetry and the whole verse novel form. So much that I examined white space in verse novels for my critical thesis with Phyllis Root. And wrote two horror picture books. Everybody should work with Phyllis for their critical thesis. She is amazing. I continued to work on the verse novel and got Ron for round two of verse novels. Or so I thought. Then promptly (or not so promptly or not so willingly) I turned that verse novel into prose. I really miss my verses but there is always time for more. Plus, the story works better this way.

Tell us about your Creative Thesis.

It's a story about a boy, Joey, who lives with mom and little sister Else. Life is going okay, not great, but not too bad. He finally gets permission from his mom to learn minecraft - all his friends have played for over six months. Else lives as a dog about half the time which is just about all he can take. But then his mom starts to get even weirder than normal, stops cooking, stops going to work, stops really taking much care of them. Or good care of them. And Joey's forced to figure out what to do next at home, at school, for Else, and for himself. That journey involves a few challenges, particularly in the kitchen, but a part that I love - Joey makes friends with the butcher at the grocery store. What middle school boy wouldn't want to hang out with the knives and other cutting implements? 

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?

I work harder than I ever thought I would. And love it even more than I could imagine I would. 

Any advice for entering students or for people considering the program?


Be willing to try anything in front of you - any writing exercise, any adviser. You never know how they or it will transform your world.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Faculty Voices with Ron Koertge: Make Every Word Count

As some of you know, Chris Heppermann and I wrote a trilogy for young readers. Basically aimed at pre-teen girls featuring -- wait for it -- three pre-teen girls. Oh, and a witch. Backyard Witch, as a matter of fact. But don’t leave your seats while the blog is in motion. Afterwards, you may rush to Amazon.

Writing with Chris was fun; writing for younger kids was fun. I’d never done anything like that, but Chris knows the kid-business and is great at structure. I like to just sit around in my smarty pants and emit evenly-spaced bars of irony and jest. (And that’s me emitting, okay. Not my pants.)

Now she wants to work on something even shorter. For even younger readers. Sure, I’m game.

So we think of some characters and some problem-to-solve. Wendell as a bored, over- sheltered little bear and Goldy as the fearless daughter of avant-garde artists.

Chris told me what to do -- Punchy. Short sentences. Not much description since an illustrator will do that. Here’s my opening:

*    *     *

“Wendell, are you all right?”

Wendell looked into his empty bowl. “Almost finished, Ma.”

“But you’re all right.”

“I’m just on the patio.”

He made his spoon clink against the blue bowl so he could stay outdoors a little longer. So his mother would think he was occupied. And safe.

Not even twenty yards away, stood the woods. Tall trees making the usual dark canopy. A familiar path leading toward the sun-dappled clearing, then circling back toward his house. A path he walked every day with his parents while the porridge cooled. Every day. Day after day.

He could see other paths, dimmer ones. Where did they go? And who made them?

With a sigh, he carried his bowl indoors and put it on the sink.

“Such a good little bear,” said his mother patting him on the head. “Time for a nap now?”

“Mom, I just ate breakfast.”

*  *  *

And here’s Chris’s:

On the wall of Wendell’s bedroom was a map that showed all of the places he could never go:

Up north to the bridge. “You might fall off,” said Mama.

Down south to the lake. “You might fall in,” said Papa.

Out west to the cave. “Full of scorpions,” said Mama. 

Out east to the meadow. “Who knows what’s over there,” said Papa.

“I’ll be careful,” said Wendell.

“It’s time for breakfast,” said Mama.

“How am I supposed to be an explorer when I grow up if you never let me explore?” said Wendell on the way downstairs.

*    *    *

I looked at hers and thought, Oh, yeah. So that’s what you meant. Harder than it looks, but aren’t most new things? I’m not giving up. I’ll think haiku. Make every word count.

Stay tuned.

*Ron Koertge is a faculty member at Hamline's MFAC program. He writes poetry for everyone, fiction for young adults, and recently co-authored a young reader series. You can discover Ron's literary work by visiting his author's website or visit his faculty page to learn about him as a professor at Hamline University.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Alumni Voices with Ellen Kazimer: Writing and Revising While Building a House

An unexpected job relocation landed us in Georgia and, rather than rent or buy; we decided to build a house. A fortunate set of circumstances indeed, but it has eaten up my precious writing time. I usually write in the morning, when I am fresh with ideas. Lately, however, my early morning ideas have more to do with my house-in-progress than my work-in-progress. The two endeavors are rather similar in some ways.
Both building and writing need a basic structure upon which to create. A novel requires a basic plot structure, setting, characters, and a theme. A house needs a foundation, load-bearing walls, plumbing, and insulation before it turns into a home.
Along the path to writing a story and building a home, there are so many choices to be made. It is almost paralyzing. Many days, I have felt unable to make a decision on my house-in-progress or my work-in-progress. In her book, Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, Lisa Chron writes, “Myriad studies have shown that the more choices we have, the less likely we are to choose anything. Not only that but limitless choice tends to trigger anxiety.”
I am constantly revising my house-in-progress and my work-in-progress. Like cutting out a darling sentence that no longer works, I’ve had to let go of items I loved that no longer go with the house-in-progress. I’ve also had to strike out my vague, overused nouns from my vocabulary like “whatcha ma call it” and “thing a ma jig” for precise builder nouns like “newel” and “corbel.” Then I wake up at two in the morning with the dreaded realization that a small change I made means a complete overhaul throughout the house. It may even cause a delay in the house being completed. But it must be done. This too, has happened in my “work-in-progress.”
Despite my doubts and anxiety, I move forward one step at a time focusing on what is important to me, to my house, and to my manuscript. What I value is a comfy home and a compelling story that invites you to pull up a cozy chair, sit a spell, and read.

Ellen Kazimer is a 2014 graduate of Hamline MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. She writes picture books, nonfiction, and middle grades novels. Her full bio can be found on her website

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Publication Interview with Marsha Wilson Chall and Jill Davis: The Secret Life of Figgy Mustardo (by Mark Ceilley)

Today I have the honor of interviewing Marsha Wilson Chall, the author of the new picture book, The Secret Life of Figgy Mustardo, and her editor, Jill Davis.

Marsha Wilson Chall grew up an only child in Minnesota, where her father told her the best stories. The author of many picture books, including Up North at the Cabin, One Pup's Up, and Pick a Pup, Marsha teaches writing at Hamline University's MFAC program in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lives on a small farm west of Minneapolis with her husband, dog, barn cats, and books.

Jill Davis has been an executive editor in children’s books at HarperCollins since 2013. A veteran of children’s books, she began her career at Random House in 1992, and worked there at Crown and Knopf Books For Young Readers until 1996, after which she worked at Viking until 2005. After that, she held positions at both Bloomsbury and FSG. She is the author of three picture books, editor of one collection of short stories, and has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University

Mark: The Secret Life of Figgy Mustardo came about in a different way. You were asked to write a story based on illustrations of a character. Could you tell us about this process and a little about the story?

Marsha: You're right that this story evolved differently than my others. My amazing editor, Jill Davis, sent me Alison Friend's thumbnails of an adorable canine character she had named Figgy Mustardo in a variety of human-like poses and costumes. For me, it was love at first sight! So I set about the process of creating Figgy's story based on my impressions of him through Alison's art and then, via Jill, Alison's written notions of his characterization and story ideas.

An imaginative, spirited fellow, Alison visualized Figgy zipping through many adventures on his scooter. In the book, I took the liberty of changing the scooter to a race car and also cast Figgy as a rock star and a pizza chef who organizes and stars in a neighborhood rock concert, pizzeria, and stock car race with his animal friends. Lots of Figgy fun, but this did not a story make. I needed to know why these activities mattered to Figgy and how he grew as a character.
I also had to think about the nuts and bolts of how Figgy might transform from dog to dilettante. I was fairly certain of my own dog's boredom and loneliness while our family is away, so I started my story exploration there. We all know that dogs, as social creatures, dislike being left alone and are often fraught with anxiety leading to certain not-so-flattering behaviors and/or the escape of sleep. A story with a sleeping dog would not be too interesting, so I chose the much more exciting, destructive route. What if Figgy ate things--any things--in his frustration, fell asleep, and dreamed about himself as a manifestation of what he ate? We all know "you are what you eat," so in Figgy's case, for example, he eats Mrs. Mustardo's Bone Appetit magazine, falls asleep, and dreams of being Italian Pizza Chef Mustardo serving Muttsarello and Figaro pizzas to adoring gourmands. When he wakes, he knows his dream is a sign, so he makes a real one of his own, "Free Pizza," and serves his entire animal neighborhood at Figgy's Pizzeria.

Most importantly, I needed to develop a motivation for Figgy's adventures; how were these events connected to him? What did they mean? How would they affect Figgy's world outside and inside? The answer arrived in the form of loss; every animal neighbor came to Figgy's concert and pizzeria and car race except Figgy's family, the Mustardos, especially George (his boy). In desperation, Figgy creates the sign "Free Dog" to find a family who will talk and walk and play with him like all the other families he sees through his window. Where are the Mustardos? The family Mustardo arrives in time to show Figgy how much they care with a promise to take him wherever they can and to provide him companionship when they can't in the form of new pup named Dot. Figgy and Dot go on to enliven the neighborhood with Free Shows nightly.

Mark: What kind of revising/editing process did you and Jill go through?

Marsha: Once I knew my character and his problem, I dashed off the story, sent it to Jill who loved it at first sight, then sat back satisfied with a good day's work.

Ha! Not the way it happened, but I did write a first draft within a few days that Jill found promising. So many drafts later that I can't even recall the original, Jill exercised plenty of patience waiting for the story she and Alison hoped I could write. I know she'll protest my tribute, but I have never worked with an editor so open to my trial and error. Her abundant humor carried us through the process that I think would have otherwise overwhelmed me.

      Mark: Will there be any more books with Figgy and his further adventures?

Marsha: Figgy hopes so and so do Jill, Alison, and I.

For now, I hope Figgy wags his way into the hands and hearts of many human friends where he belongs.


Mark: How was this project different having a character first and then having to find a writer to tell his story?

Jill: It was kind of hard. The illustrator had invented this little dog who she wanted to be an adventurer—yet she wasn’t sure how to make the story happen. When I saw the dog, I thought of Marsha’s One Pup’s Up—and I knew how talented she was. Seemed like a slam dunk! But all of us—Marsha, myself, and the illustrator, Alison Friend had to share plenty of feedback, edit, and revise a bit before Marsha was able to tell both the story she envisioned as well as the story Alison had in mind. Marsha pictured Figgy at home, and really loved the idea of using signs. Alison seemed to feel Figgy was some kind of James Bond. So how were those two visions going to meet? They finally did when Marsha realized that Figgy would go to sleep and dream about his exciting alter-ego. And we all loved the idea. The book may seem a little bit sad because Figgy is always being left at home, but Marsha told it in such a great way, that Figgy showed his grit! If he’s hungry, he eats what’s there—but then the magic happens and he goes to sleep and dreams of something related to what he ate. It’s so fun and so imaginative. I love what Marsha did with Figgy’s story, and Alison did, too.

      Mark: What was it like to work with Marsha in this new role as editor after being her student in the MFA in Writing for Children program at Hamline University?

Jill: It felt very wonderful and natural. Marsha does not use intimidation as a tactic in general. She’s the rare combination of brilliant and super silly. That’s one reason she’s so loved at Hamline and in the continental United States, generally speaking.

There were times when she should have been frustrated or wanted to spit at me, but she was cool as a cucumber in the freezer in the North Pole. So professional and what I loved also about working with her is how much I learned: a lot. I learned how she makes use of repetition, alliteration, and very careful editing. I can be sloppy, but Marsha walked straight out of Strunk and White. She’s exact and wonderfully detail oriented. She was also involved at the sketch stage. Actually at several sketch stages. We worked on the phone, we worked at Hamline, and we worked until we thought it felt perfect. And she loved it because she could use it in her teaching! And I just loved working with Marsha!

Mark:  Thank you, Marsha and Jill for taking the time to tell us about your collaboration on The Secret Life of Figgy Mustardo.   The book is now available at your local independent book store.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Publication Interview with Jane O’Reilly: The Secret of Goldenrod

Author and MFAC alum Jane O’Reilly* talks about her debut novel, The Secret of Goldenrod. Learn about her writing process for this mysterious new middle grade masterpiece.  The images bellow are from the sold-out launch party at the Red Ballon, held earlier this month.

Tell us about your book.
The Secret of Goldenrod is a little bit of everything—mystery, fantasy and coming of age. The main character, Trina, almost eleven, travels the country with her dad, picking up odd jobs and house remodeling projects. When they are given a year to fix up an abandoned Victorian mansion named Goldenrod, in the town of New Royal, Iowa, Trina is excited. This will be the first time in her whole life she has ever lived anywhere long enough to make friends.

Do you have a favorite part of the book or a favorite character?
I love the chapter in which Trina goes to the library. It’s a massive, elegant library way too big for the town. But that’s part of the mystery. In addition to meeting wonderful Mr. Kinghorn, the librarian, Trina learns some secrets about the New Royal townspeople. Plus, something very special is in her pocket the whole time.

Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline?
I workshopped the first chapter at an alumni weekend at Hamline. I remember that Kendra Marcus, of Bookstop Literary, sat in on that workshop. I felt like Trina that morning—excited and nervous. Kendra made a suggestion that ended up in the book.

When did you first begin working on it? When did you finish?
I began working on the story in the winter of 2011 and felt I had a reasonable draft within a year and a half. Revising it, sending queries to agents, landing the marvelous Sarah Davies as an agent, revising twice for her, waiting as she found not one but two publishers (Egmont, the book’s first home, closed its doors just after I finished the first revision) and revising again for Alix Reid at Lerner, over a period of six months, added four more years to the process.

As the work progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about?
Oh, man. The first draft had a prologue loaded with backstory. On top of that, because I always knew that the house was a character, the first draft handled the story in alternating perspectives—Trina’s and Goldenrod’s. Fortunately, I couldn’t keep that up. Better yet, very few people saw that draft. Once I started working with Alix at Lerner, all my effort to get an inciting incident into the first chapter went out the window and a major happening moved from page 12 to page 60-something. Alix suggested we see Trina more firmly in her world, dreams, problems, etc., before we saw her world change. I think her advice was spot on. Although that change was deemed by some as a “slow beginning,” plenty of stuff happens if you don’t know what’s coming.

What research did you do before and while writing the book?
Because of my real estate background and my childhood, I know a lot about old houses. Still, I was forever researching stuff from Victorian design elements to growing seasons— building codes, lights, radiators, girl’s clothing, and, of course, goldenrod. I also researched small towns in Iowa and distances between them and bigger cities. The first name of the town near Goldenrod was simply Royal. When I discovered there really was a Royal, Iowa, I changed the name to New Royal.
Where did you do most of the writing for this book?
In my writing room at the time—overlooking the garden. The revisions took place in my son’s old bedroom. So much time has passed from start to finish, our house has changed.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
The biggest, most rewarding lesson has been this: Don’t ever give up on your dreams. But sometimes you have to be prepared to change them.

*Jane O’Reilly grew up in a very old house in Fort Snelling on a Mississippi River bluff. She is the recipient of a McKnight Fellowship in screenwriting and holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University (MFAC 2009). Today she lives with her husband, cat and dog in a very old house in the Tangletown neighborhood of Minneapolis. The Secret of Goldenrod is her first published novel.

You can learn more about Jane on her author's website.  If you want to know more about The Secret of Goldenrod, check out this Kirkus Reviews post.