Please join me in welcoming back to the blog the one-and-only Mary Winn Heider. Woot woot!. Mary Winn is here to talk about her latest middle grade novel, The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy, which was published by Little, Brown and Company on March 16.
Cover designed by Sammy Yuen
Lest you think this is a novel about space exploration (some of you might be thinking of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams), click here to read the synopsis. At the end of the interview, I will discuss how you can receive a copy of The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy. Now, let’s get to gabbing with Mary Winn. (P.S. If you are wondering about the extra space between the questions and the answers, I have no idea how to fix it! If you do, please let me know in the comments.)
El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Mary Winn: I live in Chicago.
I got an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts with you!
I started the pandemic with one aloe plant and now I have eleven. They keep having babies.
I’ve played the flute, the French horn, the bagpipes, and the ukulele (but never the tuba)!
El Space: Please walk us through the inspiration for The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy. Why CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy)? Why the tuba?
Mary Winn: This book was a real puzzle. A lot of the pieces fell into place in sort of non-linear ways, and the CTE element is one of those. I wrote a scene that became the seed for the story, and that took place on a football field—but it still took me a while to understand how football actually figured into the story. When I eventually realized that a football player was going to figure prominently in the story, I knew that I couldn’t in good conscience write about players without including CTE—and in that moment, I suddenly understood the source of the grief that had been an undercurrent in the story all along.
The tuba was a lot simpler! After years and years of band, I’ve had a lot of time to consider which instruments are the funniest and which ones are the saddest, and in my weathered old opinion, I believe that the tuba has the ability to be both funny and sad better than a lot of your other typical school band instruments (the bassoon as well, which also has a brief cameo). So despite it being an instrument I’d never played, it was the clear choice
El Space: Without giving any spoilers, what was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
Mary Winn: I’d say the grief component. I was grieving some of my own losses as I wrote it, and there were periods when it was really hard to want to spend time in the story. I discovered that by outlining and giving myself more structure, it wasn’t as impossible—it felt safer, in a way. Still, there were long stretches of time where I felt incredibly disconnected from the story, and those were tough to wrangle with.
El Space: Which character’s perspective seemed the easiest for you to slip into? The most difficult?
Mary Winn: Winston’s perspective was the easiest! Like him, I can be very dramatic in my internal life, and like him, I love playing instruments, but am not particularly good at them. Louise was more difficult, because she’s a hard scientist, and as much as I love dabbling in science, I have never been as serious about it as she is.
El Space: What did writing this novel help you discover about yourself as an author?
Mary Winn: The discovery that outlining could give me bumpers for my bumper car—but not inhibit my exploration of the story—was huge. And since this is my second novel, it was fascinating to discover that my relationship to my own books isn’t necessarily the same from book to book. This one was a lot more complicated.
El Space: Not counting VCFA authors, because there are too many great ones, what author(s) inspire(s) you?
Mary Winn: Oooooh SUCH a tricky question! EVEN not counting VCFA folks, I will inevitably feel like I’ve left off about a thousand writers who were incredibly influential to me. I’m going to take this in a few different directions—the following writers inspire me with their gorgeous writing, but they’ve also influenced me in an additional authorly dimension. Dhonielle Clayton is one of the hardest, smartest working writers out there—and she took the time to help me out in a big way at my first conference when I was a bumbling newb.
Her generosity in a moment when she was the absolute biggest cheese in the room is something I’ll never forget and that I’ll spend the rest of my career trying to pay forward to other new-to-it, deer-in-the-headlight writers. I’m so, so excited about her upcoming Marvellers series. Mel Beatty, who wrote Heartseeker and the sequel Riverbound, is the queen of dialogue that absolutely crackles, and she worldbuilds like nobody’s business. But she’s also a bookseller, and has a sixth sense about what books to recommend for people—the joy she puts into the world by intuiting what people are ready for is a whole super power. And finally Chad Sell, whose books—Cardboard Kingdom, Doodleville—are so beautiful and full of heart. He’s a genius at building narrative arcs. We’re working on a project together right now, and my process has been so radically improved by the experience of learning his process.
El Space: What will you work on next?
Mary Winn: The project with Chad is a series based on an idea he had. I’m writing and he’s illustrating—and it’s just a blast. We started about two weeks before the first lockdown, so we’ve been meeting over Zoom, and those meetings have been the highlight of this last year. Working with him has turned out to be such a joy—it feels like together we make one bigger, smarter, funnier brain.
El Space: Thank you for being my guest!
Mary Winn: Thank you, thank you for having me!!!
But one of you will look up one day to discover a free copy of The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy handed right to you. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winner to be announced some time next week!
Tuba from clipart.com. Author photo by Popio Stumpf. Book cover photo by L. Marie. Cover designed by Sammy Yuen. Other book covers from Goodreads.