Friday, June 22, 2018

Author Interview: Alison McGhee

Today I'm stoked to have Alison McGhee on the blog, author of many children's books including What I Leave Behind, a story of trauma and healing through one hundred chapters only a hundred words long. You can find my review of What I Leave Behind here. This book really touched my heart in a way that only words can, and so I'm really stoked to have Alison join us today to talk about her craft and writing for children.

Alison McGhee writes novels, picture books, poems, and essays for all ages, including the forthcoming novel Never Coming Back (out in October 2017) and the #1 NEW YORK TIMES bestseller SOMEDAY, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds. Her work has been translated into more than 20 languages. She lives in Minneapolis, California and Vermont.

You can find her at her website here, follow her on Twitter, or check out her Goodreads page to see her incredible list of works.

1) What inspires you to write? 

The experience of living, just being alive in the world and seeing and experiencing everything that goes on, is too intense for me. There’s so much sorrow and joy and love and loss, and it’s almost too much to handle. Writing is my way to translate and transcend what I see and feel in daily life. It’s a way of reflecting on the things that happen, and of trying to figure out how best to live in the world.

2) What draws you to writing for children? 

I began my writing life as a novelist who wrote only novels for adults, and I came later to writing for children. At this point I write all kinds of books for all ages. I think that writing for children is, arguably, the most important writing we can ever do. Children are just beginning to navigate their way in this confusing and enormous world. The books that they read are like blueprints, helping them map their way forward. It’s both a huge honor and a huge responsibility to write for children.

3) You have such a variety of writing credits under your belt, from poems to memoirs to novels to picture books. How do you decide which medium to use? How does changing styles so frequently affect your writing? 

This is a great question. Some might call me flighty, always zipping from one form to another, rarely settling down on one kind of book for very long. I think of myself as restless and driven. As a reader, I’ll read anything – memoirs and essays and poems and novels and nonfiction –and my own writing reflects those eclectic tastes. Great writing is great writing, and I seek it out wherever it can be found, no matter the form. In my own work I try to divine the secrets, or some of the secrets anyway, of each different kind of book. I love to challenge myself, and writing in all forms is certainly one way to do that.

4) Along with all your writing, you also teach writing workshops to fellow writers. What's the most important thing you believe all writers should know? 

Don’t hide. Put your heart on the line, in both words and life. When you do, your fellow human beings will respond in a profound way.

5) Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you outline beforehand or just see where the story takes you?

Oh, I’m a pantser. The word pantser was invented specifically for me! (Not really, but it sure feels that way.) I’m pantsing my way through writing and life.

6) What's your favourite part of writing?

My favourite part of writing is before I’m actually writing. When that beautiful, imaginary book is shimmering in the air before me, just waiting to be written. The reality of actually writing it is much, much different.

7) How do you balance writing and life to be so productive?

Another great question, and one for which I don’t have a good answer. The most important things in life to me have always been family, friends and my writing. I try hard to intertwine all three in a seamless way. When my kids were little I used to clatter away at my keyboard while they played/argued/whined around me, and I trained myself into a sort of “have laptop, will write book” mentality. Consequently, I can and do write anywhere – on a plane, in a hotel room, at dawn on my living room couch, at midnight with a whiskey by my side. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to write, or have kids, or be a loving and available friend. I’ve never closed off one part of my life to another. Which is kind of an exhausting way to live, but since I’m not about to give up anything I love, I make it happen.

8) What was the most difficult part of writing What I Leave Behind? 

The most difficult part of What I Leave Behind was writing about such painful subjects –suicide and rape—and figuring out how to do so in a way that left the reader (and me) filled not with despair and sorrow but with hope and love.

9) When did you decide to become an author? What influenced you to take this path?

My earliest memories are of wanting to be an actor. Then a ballerina. Then a singer/songwriter. When I physically learned how to print, at age six in first grade, I instantly wanted to be a writer. Looking back, I think what I really wanted was to center my life around art. The actual form of it –writing or music or dance—probably wouldn’t have mattered much. But I’m glad I chose writing.

10) What kind of feedback have you gotten from fans? Any stories? 

I treasure the notes I get from fans, both adults and children, and I keep them all. What an honor, to have a book resonate so strongly with a reader that they actually sit down and write to you. One of my favourite stories came from a librarian I met a few weeks ago. She told me that one of her students had withdrawn my novel from the library and flatly refused to return it. “I can’t,” the student said. “I just can’t.” Makes me want to put my arms around her and give her a hug.

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