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Interview: Alison McGhee

June 12th, 2008 (06:36 am)

Current Mood: awake
Current Song: Another Thin Man score music

Alison McGhee has written stories for almost every age group. From her picture books to her adult novels, from her YA work to her latest book for the elementary school crowd, there's something for everyone. Many of her books have crossover appeal, such as the picture book Someday, which seems to be a favorite with grown women who are proud mothers.

You'll see many of her books on my recommended booklists. I have been following her work for years and I have enjoyed every single one of her books I've read. Speaking to the author directly was a joy!

When drafting full-length novels, do you fix on a target age group/audience, or do you simply write the book first and let the zoning fall where it may?

How I love that phrase: "Let the zoning fall where it may." Do you mind if I steal that and use it from now on? (Kidding. But not really.)

I'm something of an idiot when it comes to categorizing books, and maybe that's because my books are tough to categorize. As a grownup who loves to read picture books and children's novels, I don't know why the age range for virtually every book shouldn't read 0-Eternity. Truly, why not?

My adult novel Shadow Baby is being published as a Young Adult novel in Germany, as is my adult novel Falling Boy. My picture book Someday is really much more suitable for adults than toddlers, to me, anyway. And I just re-read all the Ramona Quimby books and Little House on the Prairie books for sheer enjoyment.

But I digress. To answer your question, I sometimes decide on a form, such as a novel, or a novel for children, or a poem, or a picture book, and start writing and see what happens. Sometimes I'll set myself a task, as in Julia Gillian, where before I set fingers to keyboard I made this decree: "Alison, you will now write a novel for children unlike any novel you have written thus far. You will write in the third-person limited omniscient point of view, you will proceed forward in strict chronological structure over the course of seven days, you will NOT use any poetic language WHATSOEVER, and your main character will have a first name for a first name and a first name for a last name." And then I'll start writing and see what happens.

Picture books are the killers for me. They're like little fireflies of ideas flitting about in my head, often for years, ghosting by me and daring me to catch but not kill them.

You don't shy away from hard-hitting subjects, and as such, your stories and characters stay with readers. What scenarios or conditions, if any, did you have to research?

It's true that I don't shy away from what I think of the deep matters of the soul, the questions that we as human beings face throughout our lives. Who am I? What is my place in this enormous world? And the essential struggles of love and loss. . . the fact that we all, if we live long enough, will suffer the loss of someone we love. That's what unites us as human beings. I've always looked around me and wondered what joys and sorrows lie beneath the surface of the faces we present to the world. Everyone has a hidden story. Everyone wrestles with the meaning of existence. I remember being a child and wondering about the same things I still wonder about. I never want to write "down" to anyone, including children. I want to respect the mystery and power that lie within us all.

Were any inspired by events in your own life?

Much of my work is set in the landscape of my childhood - remote and hardscrabble upstate New York, in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. I'm a mountain and water girl at heart, and I always return to the land for solace and renewal. I've had to research a bit for my novels, particularly the craft of metalworking in Shadow Baby and the experience of being a quadriplegic for Falling Boy. Beyond that, I depend on my powers of empathy to make something real and true.

When working on picture books, do you tend to have the artist lined up prior to completing the text, or do you finish the story first, then seek out an artist?

I've worked both ways with my picture books. Sometimes, an artist will have an idea - usually in the form of a sketch - and ask me if I can write a story to accompany that idea. More often, I'll come up with the story and then sit back and think about who my dream artist for that story might be. Sometimes, my children's agent will match the story with an artist that she thinks would be perfect for it.

Countdown to Kindergarten and Mrs. Watson Wants Your Teeth feature a curious (and easily worried) little girl and her cat. Huh. I think I just described a younger version of myself. Which of your characters is the most similar to little Alison? Why or how?

I always tell people that I don't base any of my characters on people that I actually know, or on experiences that I've actually been through. The poet Nikki Giovanni says that a writer writes not from experience but from empathy, and I would absolutely agree with that statement. That being said, I'd also have to admit that my girl characters of Clara winter (in Shadow Baby) and Mallie Williams (in Rainlight) share some soul similarities to me.

Your newest story, Julia Gillian (and the Art of Knowing), is the first in a realistic trilogy of books for elementary and middle school readers. When will the second and third books be released?

Julia Gillian (and the Quest for Joy) will be released in June 2009.
Julia Gillian (and the Art of Being Human) will be released in June 2010.

You are also a mother and a teacher. What do you hope to accomplish before this school year is over, personally or professionally?

I hope to maintain what little sanity I have left. Beyond that, I wish and hope and pray to be aware of every precious moment as I live it, instead of dreaming about it beforehand or in the aftermath. Anais Nin said, "We write to taste life twice." I aspire to taste it fully the first time around. That I'm not particularly good at this is what makes it all the more important to me.

What are your ten most favorite books?

This is a killer question for me, as I'm sure to be leaving out several hundred of my favorites. Nevertheless, I'll take a stab at it. In absolutely no order other than random, here we go:

1. Wind, Sand and Stars, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
2. Shall We Gather at the River, by James Wright
3. Outside Over There, by Maurice Sendak
4. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
5. So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell
6. Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann David Wyss
7. Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
8. The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien
9. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Volume I, by M.T. Anderson
10. The Yo, Ivanhoe blog by Brad Zellar at rakemag.com

Visit Alison McGhee's website.


Posted by: Jama Rattigan (jamarattigan)
Posted at: June 12th, 2008 02:22 pm (UTC)

Lovely interview. Thanks so much, ladies!

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: June 12th, 2008 02:53 pm (UTC)

Thanks for reading! :)

Posted by: simmone howell (simmone)
Posted at: June 12th, 2008 02:47 pm (UTC)

thanks for the IV - I loved Falling Boy - must check out her others esp ones for the littlies...

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: June 12th, 2008 02:52 pm (UTC)

If you liked Falling Boy, I think you'll like the others - and knowing your likes and sensibility from our previous conversations, I think you'll especially like All Rivers Flow to the Sea.

Posted by: emohawk9000 (emohawk9000)
Posted at: June 12th, 2008 03:38 pm (UTC)

I have a favorite Alison McGhee story. I attended a panel where she and M.T. Anderson were discussing how they'll occasionally work through writing issues with each other via e-mail. Anderson sent out an e-mail to some trusted writer friends, explaining he was having some problems with a plot. McGhee, who focuses more on character and internal struggle than straightforward plotting, wrote to him: "I've got a great plot for you. An albino squirrel."

Anderson wrote back: "A noun cannot be a plot!!"

After that, McGhee confessed she was sorry she'd given a way such a great plot.

Good times. Good times.

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: June 12th, 2008 03:41 pm (UTC)

I love it! Someone tell Melanie Watt that story and see if Scaredy Squirrel gets an albino squirrel for a neighbor...

Posted by: lizgallagher (lizgallagher)
Posted at: June 12th, 2008 03:55 pm (UTC)

I'm totally linking to this post. You know I'm semi-obsessed (Okay, outright obsessed) with crossover, and I love Alison's work. She spoke the one sentence at Vermont College that's stuck with me above all others: "Plot is nothing but character."

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: June 12th, 2008 04:11 pm (UTC)

Thanks for the link, ma'am!

Look at the comment above yours from Brian re: plot and squirrel. :)

Posted by: bright as yellow (idreamofpeace)
Posted at: June 13th, 2008 06:26 am (UTC)
cat-lively mind

I really liked Shadow Baby. I've actually read something by one of the author's you've interviewed! (I also really like her 10 favorite books).

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: June 13th, 2008 01:07 pm (UTC)

Woo hoo! :)

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