The Pressure to Be Something

I went to the same school as Stephen Colbert and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I’ll pause to give you time to look up which school they went to. (If you are a follower of this blog, you already know which school.)

You’re back? Okay good. The first thing you’ll notice is that they are celebrities and I am not. Not everyone who went there is. But while I was an undergraduate, and even after graduating, I felt the pressure to live up to the prestige of the university. During my time there, when I chose to major in writing, many people gave me the stink eye. “Major in something useful,” I was advised over and over. (Code word: more prestigious, at least in their eyes.) “In that way, you can make a lot of money and be an alumna the school can be proud of.”

   

The pressure to be something.

(Though nowadays, the latter message comes through in the frequent invitations to donate to the alumni fund. The pressure to give something.)

Ever feel the pressure to be something others have decided is the definition of success?

As a writer, I definitely feel the pressure. My grad program has turned out graduates who have won major awards and who have sold many, many books. Even the organization of children’s writers and illustrators that I belong to routinely sends emails about those who have “made it,” while extending the invitation to “Send us your success stories.”

But what if you’re the writer of some books that went out of print within two years? Or you’ve racked up 89 rejections for a book?

The pressure to be something.

Ever feel like you didn’t measure up somehow? Maybe like me you even fell into the funnel of comparison recently, and felt yourself squeezed out of the small end.

Comparison—the bane of our existence

Thoughts like that swirled through my head as I drove to Wal-Mart the other day. Yeah, I know I shouldn’t let such thoughts hold sway. I’m trying to get my mind right and defeat negative thinking. But for some reason, I thought about the sister who had died the year before I was born. I found myself crying and wondering why she was stillborn, while I lived. Not that I’m ungrateful for life. But because I lived, was I really being all I could be? Was I living up to the potential teachers and others had told me I had over the years?

The pressure to be something. The pressure to make my life count because my sister was dead and I was alive.

But after prayer (because I was really getting worked up), I realized, Wait. I could silence that nagging voice in my head—the one that caused me to feel the pressure to measure myself against someone else’s ruler. I could silence the strive, strive, strive, you’re not doing it right, make things happen and just be.

Be . . .

Content in who I am—someone who persists past rejection and failure.

Joyful regardless.

I’m not Stephen Colbert. I like the guy. I really do. But I don’t have to be him or Julia Louis-Dreyfus to be somebody. I already am somebody. I might not do life like them. But I do what I do, because I like doing what I do, whether that fits someone else’s protocol or not.

Pressure dispelled.

As Nancy Hatch of Spirit Lights the Way would say, “Aah, that’s better.”

And now, I’ll leave you with a Lindsey Stirling video, suggested by a friend who went to Lindsey’s concert the other day. It’s for anyone who needs to get out of the pressure and into joy.

Marsha Mello likes being with the Unfinished Tiger. His chill approach to life—that all of us are works in progress—soothes her.

Stephen Colbert photo from enspireusall.com. Julia Louis-Dreyfus photo from popsugar.com. Other photos by L. Marie. Marsha Mello and Donatina Shoppie dolls from Moose Toys.

Branching Out

When I first learned to crochet, all I made were granny squares for afghans and scarfs. They were easy to make.

   

Yes, this is a scarf I made. I have made Granny squares like these from Pinterest.

But I searched for more challenges as the years went by. Recently, I went through an owl phase in my crocheting. The owls below were created by a pattern designed by Sarah at Repeat Crafter Me, which you can find here.

   

But in the last month, I decided to branch out and try something different. I found a pattern online for making small lambs. How small? I placed a red ruler behind the lamb it so you can see how small it is (just under six inches seated; click on the photo to see).

This amigurumi pattern was designed by Stephanie at her All About Ami blog. You can find it here. (Wondering what amigurumi means? Go here for an article.)

I started off making the lambs exactly the way Stephanie instructed, using the yarn she suggested, which was in the usual lamb colors. But after a while, I wanted to branch out yet again:

Not the usual color for a lamb, but the color makes me happy.

Random flower break. Just because.

Speaking of branching out, I can’t help thinking of Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí (1904–1989). While that might seem like a random remark to you, let me ask you this: What’s the first painting you think of you when you think of him?

I think of this painting:

It’s called The Persistence of Memory. (Instead of The Melting Clocks Painting as I always called it in my head.) What do you think of it? (I think the word you’re searching for is surreal.)

I thought of Dalí as I wrote this post, because of a conversation that took place when I was a grad student. We had a guest speaker one semester—author/illustrator David Macaulay (right). If you don’t know who he is, click here to see a list of his books. Macaulay told us about his years at the Rhode Island School of Design. He didn’t start off doing his own thing. He had to learn how to paint like one of the old Renaissance masters—learning form and color—before branching out.

So that’s why I thought of Dalí. Check out this description from Wikipedia:

Dalí was a skilled draftsman, best known for the striking and bizarre images in his surrealist work. His painterly skills are often attributed to the influence of Renaissance masters. His best-known work, The Persistence of Memory, was completed in August 1931.

So Dalí too learned from the old masters, but took what he learned in a new direction.

Maybe there’s something you’ve learned that you’re now ready to take in a new direction. If so, dish about it in the comments below.

While you consider that, I’ll reveal the winner of one of Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s translated books. Go here for her guest post.

The winner, thanks to the random number thingie, is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Penny of the LifeontheCutoff’s Blog.

Penny, please confirm below. I believe you requested Queen of the Frogs. Do you still want that one? Let me know. I hope you will enjoy it!

Thank you to all who commented.

Granny square found on Pinterest. Dali painting from Wikipedia. Dali photo from wallpapercave.com. David Macaulay photo from Wikipedia.com. Other photos by L. Marie.

Check This Out: The Mo & Dale Mysteries by Sheila Turnage

Today on the blog, I am thrilled beyond measure to have one of my favorite authors—the one and only Sheila Turnage! I’ve mentioned her in this post, this one, and others.

She is here today to talk about her middle grade mystery series, the Mo & Dale Mysteries, which began with the Newbery Honor-winning Three Times Lucky (click here to read a synopsis). In September, it will end (sob!) with The Law of Finders Keepers. Penguin Random House is the publisher of this series. Trust me. You will want all of them.

 

 

Sheila is represented by Margaret Riley King at WME. Her editor/publisher is Kathy Dawson of Kathy Dawson Books (which is the imprint for the last three books of the series). Now, let’s talk to Sheila!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Sheila: I grew up on an NC tobacco farm, and live there today with my husband Rodney, a dog named Callie, and way too many chickens, guineas and ducks. Well, I guess that’s more than four, even after I left out the goats.

El Space: Three Times Lucky won the Newbery Honor in 2013. How has winning this award been a game changer for you?
Sheila: Winning a Newbery Honor was huge for me. Honestly, at the time, I had no idea HOW huge. Thanks to that award, I get to visit schools all over the US and talk to kids about my books and about writing. Plus Three Times Lucky is published all over the world, which is just amazing. It astounds me to think of my mystery involving two best friends—Mo LoBeau and Dale Earnhardt Johnson III—being read by children in China, or Sweden, or . . .

The Newbery Honor was huge for my heart, too. It’s an amazing feeling, hearing your name called and walking out in front of all those librarians to accept that award. And it’s an incredible acknowledgement of a lifetime of work.

2657El Space: Mo and Dale are some of the best kid characters I’ve read on this side of To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, all of your characters (Harm Crenshaw, Miss Lana, the Colonel, etc.) are well realized. What were the inspirations behind Moses, Dale, and their town—Tupelo Landing? Which character, if any, is like you? Least like you?
Sheila: Wow, thanks for the compliment!
Honestly, Mo’s just one of those characters who shows up, and starts whispering her story in your ear, if you know what I mean. She was just THERE one day—vivid and sassy and tender. And wearing those plaid sneakers. And Dale kind of grew into whatever space Mo left vacant, I think. They’re a great team.

Of course the voice is rural North Carolina—which is where I was born, and live. I’ve been hearing the poetry of that language all of my life. And readers hear it in Mo’s voice, too.

As for Tupelo Landing, there are lots of small towns in rural North Carolina, and they’re the inspiration for Mo’s and Dale’s little town. If you come to visit, you’ll find tiny towns scattered all along our many rivers and streams. The waterways used to be avenues of commerce. They’re not now, but those great towns are still here—sleepy and slow.

I think I’m a blend of Mo and Dale, probably. I’m more like Dale when I’m writing a lot. And more like Mo other times. I hope I’m least like Mo’s arch enemy—the very stuck-up Anna Celeste Simpson, aka Attila Celeste. Actually, I’m pretty sure I’m the least like her. Which is a relief.

El Space: Yes! Of the books in the Mo and Dale Mysteries, which was the most challenging book to write? Why?
Sheila: Each one presented its own challenges. But in many ways, The Law of Finders Keepers was the hardest to write, maybe because I knew it was the last and I was grieving as I wrote it. I wanted to write a book that was strong enough to end the series on. I think I’ve done that, so I’m happy with it. But honestly, it was hard on my heart. I’m going to miss Mo, Dale and Harm. All of them, really.

El Space: I will definitely miss them! What mystery books or shows, if any, inspired you as you created this series? Did you always have a certain number of books in mind for the series? Why or why not?
Sheila: When I was a girl I loved reading the Hardy Boys and so I guess they inspired me, in a way. I’ve always liked books with cliffhangers, and lots of action—and that’s what I write.

I really didn’t start out to write a series. I wrote Three Times Lucky as a standalone, and things unfolded from there. Each book is designed to be read as a standalone, or in sequence.

For kids who’ve read only Three Times Lucky, and want to know whether Mo ever finds her Upstream Mother—well, all I can say is the Desperado Detectives take up the case of Mo’s long-lost mom in The Law of Finders Keepers. Mo’s fans won’t want to miss it.

El Space: I have been waiting to find out! In rock, paper, scissors, what do you usually go for the moment you hear, “Rock-paper-scissors”? Seriously, which one? Why?
Sheila: Rock! I’m suspicious of scissors because they’re so snippy. And I get tired of using paper all day. . . .

El Space: What will you work on next?
Sheila: Thanks for asking! I’m already working on a new middle-grade book for my publisher/editor Kathy Dawson (Penguin Random House). It’s set in Eastern NC again—this time on the Outer Banks, near the Graveyard of the Atlantic. I’m having fun with it, and I hope readers will too!

El Space: Sheila, thank you for being my guest!
Sheila: Thanks so much, Linda! You rock! (paper-scissors)

Looking for Sheila? Her website’s under construction currently to add her latest book. So, you can find her at her author page on Facebook.

You can find the Mo & Dale Mysteries at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wonderful bookstores near you. But one of you will win a copy not only of the first three, but a pre-order of the fourth, The Law of Finders Keepers, which is available on September 11. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. The winner will be revealed on Monday, August 13.

Book covers courtesy of Sheila Turnage and also Goodreads. Author photo by Rodney L. Beasley. Guineas from animal-wildlife.blogspot.com. Newbery honor medal from somewhere on Pinterest. Rock-paper-scissors image from dramafever.com.

Check This Out: A Father for Bella

Today on the blog, I’m pleased to welcome your friend and mine, the wonderful Jill Weatherholt. Many of you know her through her blog, which you can get to by clicking here. Jill is here to talk about her second Love Inspired romance book, A Father for Bella, which made its debut on July 17. Click here to read a synopsis of the book. One of you will win a copy of this very book.

  

Jill is represented by Jessica Alvarez. Let’s talk to Jill!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Jill: 1. I once won a limbo contest while vacationing in Key West during spring break.
2. I have a fear of escalators.
3. When Derek and I first met, I asked him if he and his twin sister were identical.
4. When I work a jigsaw puzzle, I keep the box face down.

El Space: So lovely to see your second Love Inspired book. The cover is absolutely adorable! When you wrote Second Chance Romance [which you can get here], did you know that you were going to write Faith’s story, or were you leaving a second book open to inspiration? Please explain.
Jill: Thanks! I love what the art department did with the cover for A Father for Bella. They completely surprised me, but in a great way. No, since Second Chance Romance was the first book I’d ever written, I didn’t know at the time if I was capable of writing a second book. Obviously God had a different plan for me.

El Space: Yes! I love the setting—an inn in Virginia. Please tell us how you decided on that setting.
Jill: I’m happy you enjoyed visiting Whispering Slopes. Although I currently live in Charlotte, NC, I was raised in Virginia and it will always be home to me. The Shenandoah Valley, which lies between the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Allegheny Mountains to the west, is my favorite area in Virginia. I love the quaint small-towns sprinkled throughout the valley which make for perfect fictional settings that the Love Inspired books provide.

El Space: How is Faith like you? Different from you?
Jill: My heroine, Faith, and I are similar in that we struggle with certain fears. She’s protective over her daughter, Bella, and I’m the same with my loved ones. Like myself, Faith doesn’t open herself up to someone until she’s gained their trust. Our main difference is she has a child and I don’t have children. If I did and I were in the same situation where I’d lost my husband and my daughter’s father, I couldn’t see myself withholding photographs or other memories from my child, like Faith did.

El Space: How did you come to write for Love Inspired?


Jill: Writing for Love Inspired was a result of a last-minute contest entry. In March of 2015, I heard Harlequin had a blurb-to-book contest where the winners could possibly be offered a contract. I opened an old NaNoWriMo project titled, “Capture the Dream,” that had been sitting on my hard drive since 2010 and decided to enter. From April until July, I advanced through the stages of the contest, rewriting a horrible draft that ultimately became my first published book, Second Chance Romance. It was truly an experience I will never forget and one that I loved sharing with Derek. From the beginning, he’s been so support and encouraging. As you know, writing under contract can be quite stressful. I have my moments where I’m not the most pleasant person to be around, but he loves me despite my occasional meltdowns. And that’s why I dedicated A Father for Bella to him.

El Space: I enjoyed getting to know Joshua, the hero of the story. Thinking of your own books and the books to which you’re drawn, what are the ingredients of a good hero? Why?


Jill: When I created Joshua’s character, I wanted a man who had a wounded past and struggled with trusting women. Since his wife had left him for another man, I journaled a lot from his point of view in order to connect with his pain and the feelings of abandonment not only because of his wife, but also his father. When he’s in a position where he and Faith have to work together to keep the inn open, he realizes he’s developing an attraction for her, but he must resist, because he equates relationships to heartache and suffering. I love a hero with protective instincts, so I enjoyed developing the relationship between Joshua and Faith’s daughter Bella, too.

El Space: You also write stories for Woman’s World magazine. Why is a happy ending important to you?
Jill: Yes, over the years I’ve probably submitted twenty or more short stories to Woman’s World, all resulting in rejections. Finally, last December they bought a story inspired by my mother. I recently sold another that will be published in late August, also inspired by my mother. I have so much fun with these stories. There’s definitely a formula that the magazine looks for, but once I come up with an idea, I can usually get it written in a couple of hours. I can’t imagine ever writing anything that didn’t have a happy ending. At my day job, I see and hear a lot of the not-so-happy things that take place in and around my city, so as a writer and a reader, I need to feel good at the end of a story.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Jill: Currently, I’m working on book three, also set in the Whispering Slopes community. I also plan to continue submitting stories to Woman’s World magazine as well as venturing into writing women’s fiction.

Thanks, Jill, for joining me on the blog!

If you’re looking for Jill, you can find her on her website, blog, Twitter, and Facebook.

A Father for Bella can be found at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Wal-Mart, the Harlequin Love Inspired website, and Christianbook.com. But one of you will find a copy of this book in your mailbox just for commenting. This giveaway is U.S. only though. Sorry. The next giveaway will be international, however. Look for that interview next week. Winners to be announced on August 13. 

Author photo courtesy of Jill Weatherholt. A Father for Bella cover from Goodreads. Second Chance Romance cover courtesy of Jill Weatherholt. Jigsaw puzzle image from pixabay.com. Shenandoah Valley map from virginiashenandoahvalley.com. Woman’s World image from magazineline.com. Hero image from pluspng.com. Love Inspired logo found atbestreads-kav.blogspot.com.

What Is a “Real” Job?

I’m a freelancer. Under my given name or other names, I have

• Proofread books, articles, legal material
• Copy edited books


• Line edited books
• Written short stories, books, and curriculum
• Ghostwritten books


• Helped other authors develop their books
• Reviewed manuscripts
• Written standardized tests used in various states

For years, I worked in an office as a part-time or full-time editor. But as a freelancer, I work at home. For all of the above tasks, I have been paid by publishers or book packagers working with publishers. Yet, I can’t tell you how many times people have hinted at or even said outright that I don’t have a “real job.” By that I infer that people mean a job you do away from your home, one that pays benefits.

  

Is this (photo at left, representing someone working in the food industry) a “real” job? So, working on a computer at home isn’t?

I know people who have jobs outside of their homes but lack benefits, because their companies chose to avoid those. Would their jobs fall under the umbrella of “real”? I have also heard stories of people working in the food industry who complained about their jobs. They leave home every day to go to their places of employment. Does that mean their jobs aren’t real, if they say on social media, “I’m not gonna work here forever. Someday, I’m gonna get a ‘real’ job”?

When I searched for images to use with this post, I found a meme that discussed YouTubers. I chose not to use that image because I was not sure about copyright issues. Suffice it to say that some YouTubers make a large amount of money working at home making videos. Apparently, some people take issue with that.

Many writers are well acquainted with this sort of comparison. Some don’t think they can call themselves “real” writers because they either aren’t compensated for their work or are not compensated to the degree that authors like John Grisham or J. K. Rowling enjoy.

Still others have been told that they aren’t “real” writers, because they write books for children or teens. “Real” writers, according to those naysayers, write for adults.

Suddenly, I’m reminded of a conversation from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. You know the one.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day. . . . “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

The comment that really struck me was this by the Skin Horse:

Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.

When I struggle with being labeled as not having a “real” job or being a “real” writer, this conversation from The Velveteen Rabbit helps me move past the negativity of those who deem what I do as “less than” based on a subjective standard.

How about you? Ever been told, “You’re not a real [fill in the blank]”? What did you do?

Editing illustration from clker.com. Ghost writer image from seoblog.com. Chelsea Cheeseburger Shoppie and Petkin by Moose Toys. Pinkie Pie Equestria Girl doll by Hasbro. Photos by L. Marie. Velveteen rabbit illustration by William Nicholson found at commons.wikimedia.org.

Making Friends with Failure: Guest Post by Sarah Aronson

As I mentioned in Monday’s post, today on the blog is a guest post written by the marvelous Sarah Aronson, author of the Wish List series, published by Scholastic, and other books. (Check out her website for a list of her books.) If you have read this blog in the last year or so, you will remember Sarah from this post and this one. And now, take it away Sarah!

If you know me in real life, you know I love a good graduation speech. This is partly because I grew up in academia, so I’ve heard a lot of them.

Two favorites were John Irving reading a work-in-progress, and Millicent Fenwick’s message to the Rutgers College Class of 1983: Be careful who you marry. (Great advice that was largely unappreciated.)

 

But mostly, like many writers and artists, I love a great perseverance story—a story that details someone overcoming years of rejection and failure and self-loathing, to finally get a lucky break and succeed.

This year, my favorite message of perseverance comes from Abby Wambach at Barnard College. (Note: she was the inspiration for Parker in Beyond Lucky—so in general—I’m a BIG FAN!)

   

She said,

Here’s something the best athletes understand, but seems like a hard concept for non-athletes to grasp. Non-athletes don’t know what to do with the gift of failure. So they hide it, pretend it never happened, reject it outright—and they end up wasting it. Listen: Failure is not something to be ashamed of. It’s something to be POWERED by. Failure is the highest octane fuel your life can run on. You gotta learn to make failure your fuel.

You can read the whole speech here.

I like how she puts this. Failure is a gift. Not something to fear. That’s because when we fail, we learn. We make connections. We grow. And thus, we should feel good about it. We should celebrate our failures. We don’t have to feel alone. And yet, we need to talk about it all the time.

Social media is packed with threads on perseverance and the struggle to succeed. Most of these messages are pragmatic. And hopeful. Successful creators offer the struggling artist hope: if you keep failing, someday, you will succeed.

For what it’s worth, I’ve written many times about my writing journey, my tangle (or perhaps tango) with failure and success. I have shared the moments when I hit rock bottom, when I promised myself I would find another path. I have shared how I challenged myself to write without expectations—to write for writing’s sake alone.

But this is what I’ve come to understand. When I was failing, talking on and on about how hard it was, I already knew what success felt like. The truth is, most people who write about failure only talk about it after they have succeeded. I rarely see anything about written about failure, while the failing is happening.

This was one of the reasons I wrote The Wish List series. In The Wish List, Isabelle seems to always be on the brink of failure. She does not like to study—because she has some learning issues. She has a hard time concentrating. Just in case that’s not hard enough, she has a high-performing sister. She is the daughter of the biggest failure of all, the worst fairy godmother ever.

  

Because of these books, I have spoken to lots of kids about kindness, determination, gusto, and failure. I’ve told them about my childhood failures (I came late to reading), and about the many drafts I always need to get the stories right. I tell them about the manuscripts that line my desk drawers. About what it feels like to hear no. To not know if YES is ever going to happen.

I will never forget the young reader who waited until everyone else was gone to ask me, “What if I’m not good at anything?”

She came to mind as I read Abby’s motivating speech. I opened up a discussion about failure on Facebook, in preparation for a session on Making Friends with Failure at nErDcamp Kansas.

Very quickly a few things became clear: Failure is not so easy in the present tense. Many of us need to experience a period of mourning—some time to get beyond it. (So if that’s you, don’t feel bad!) More important, fear of failure holds us back. It can keep us from taking risks that would pay off! It keeps us from envisioning greatness—from striving for more.

Although many acknowledged failure and its usefulness, many writers were privately grateful that they did not begin their journeys in this age of social media, where all of us are inundated with distractions that can make us all feel low, worthless, and overlooked.

This is what scares me: in a life surrounded by stories of success, many of us are feeling anxiety. And sadness. We feel out of control. Not safe. We don’t celebrate the process as much as we should.

In Kansas, I shared this feedback. Then I asked the teachers how they approach failure with their students. Right away, I was filled with hope.

Compassionate teachers talked about responding to failure by specifically and meaningfully talking about what went right.

They talked about using humor to quash sadness, but at the same time, knowing that everyone is different. Sometimes, humor doesn’t work. Sometimes we simply need to feel it.

And of course, we talked about the power of community—about how much better we feel about risk taking when we feel supported and safe. Creativity—and great books are born—when TRYING is celebrated—when it is actually rewarded.

Dear writers,
Can we do that?
Can we use humor? Can we embrace sadness? Can we set measurable goals and celebrate them? Can we help each other feel safe?
Can we make friends with failure?

This is what I work to foster in my Highlights retreats and classes at writers.com. I set out to lower the bar, to let writers take risks. I want them to fail gloriously. Because when we do, in fact, only when we do, we succeed.

In those failures, we see seeds. Seeds and glimmers of what will be a foundation for a better draft. A deeper story. A more authentic character.

Take it from Teddy Roosevelt.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Writers, get into the arena. Be curious. Make trouble. Strive for what you want, but along the way, don’t cower, because failure is part of the process. You have to get used to it. If we stick together, we can all embrace it.

L. Marie here. Sarah just released the third book in her Wish List series, Halfway to Happily Ever After.


Book four of the series will debut on January 29, 2019. By the way, a picture book by Sarah, Just like Rube Goldberg, will debut on March 12, 2019.

I’ll be giving away a copy of Halfway to Happily Ever After to a commenter. The winner will be revealed on June 21.

Wish list book covers courtesy of Sarah Aronson. Beyond Lucky cover from Goodreads. Abby Wambach photo from gossipbucket.com. Teddie Roosevelt photo from commons.wikimedia.org. John Irving photo from sites.google.com. Millicent Fenwick photo from greatthoughtstreasury.com. Failure sign from teachertoolkit.me. Failure cartoon from clipartpanda.com. Other failure image from hownottodosocialwork.wordpress.com. Risk-Failure image from brucecoaching.com. Man in egg image from stevenaichison.co.uk. Success-failure image from livingwithtrust.com.

Check This Out: The Mortification of Fovea Munson

This week, the amazing Mary Winn Heider, another of my fab classmates from Vermont College of Fine Arts, is here on the blog to talk about her middle grade novel, The Mortification of Fovea Munson, which was illustrated by Chi Birmingham.

 

Mary Winn is represented by Tina Dubois. The Mortification of Fovea Munson was published by Disney-Hyperion Books, and as of today, is available to the world.

I have good news! One of you will be mailed a copy of this book next week. Details to follow. Now, let’s get to gabbin’ with Mary Winn!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Mary Winn: 1. I grew up in South Carolina and Indonesia.
2. I now live in Chicago.

At the Chicago River

3. I don’t know how to type.
4. I played the bagpipes when I was a kid.

El Space: Your book is about a kid whose parents work in a cadaver lab. Your main character, Fovea, has to do a favor for some disembodied heads. (That’s not a spoiler by the way. The book jacket tells you that much.) How on earth did you come up with this premise?
Mary Winn: It was an accident! I got a job working in a cadaver lab—as a receptionist, the same job that Fovea gets stuck with on her summer break. I didn’t start working there for research—I started working there because I needed a job—but I quickly realized it was a fantastic place to set a story about struggling through middle school and figuring out who you are. The stakes are pretty much the same, you know? Everything feels like life or death. So then once I had the setting, I sorted out who the other people might be in the world—and the most interesting ones turned out to be these disembodied heads. Then when I realized what they needed, and that they couldn’t solve their problem on their own, I knew what Fovea was going to have to do.

Marty Feldman as Igor in Young Frankenstein

El Space: You made me laugh out loud throughout this book. But I was also touched by Fovea’s longing for friendship. How did you balance humor with the more poignant aspects without resorting to bathos?


Mary Winn: Thanks! That’s lovely to hear. When I set out, I definitely wanted the story to be weird and funny and secretly full of heart. Like not just hearts, but also heart. You get me.

I didn’t know outright how to do that—there was a lot of trial and error to make the balance work. But my guiding principle was that as ridiculous and absurd as things got in the story, I could never forget what was really at stake. If a bit didn’t somehow serve the needs of the characters or the scene or come justifiably out of an emotional arc, then I cut it. I cut so many bits. So I didn’t have a map starting out, I really just always had one eye on it.

El Space: How did your training as an actor prepare you to write this book?
Mary Winn: Ooh—there are a lot of big picture ways that theater has helped my writing; for example, I have a lot of experience staging a scene with an ensemble and being part of an ensemble in a scene. I like playing with focus. I totally held blocking rehearsals for my characters using action figures. And my training has definitely been good for getting in the heads of my characters. Including . . . well . . . the heads.

The girls want to dress up as Fovea and the disembodied heads for the next Halloween. There’s just one obvious problem. . . .

As far as the day-to-day influence, for the last ten or so years, I’ve been a member of this theater company in Chicago—Barrel of Monkeys. We teach creative writing residencies in Chicago Public Schools and then perform what the kids have written for them. And so in a perfect confluence of the things I love, my theatrical life has me working with a lot of student authors. And they just never stop being inspiring.

  

Left photo: Yes, that is Mary Winn. Photo from The Marshmallow by Isabella—Loyola Park Program. Right photo: Mary Winn with Michael Turrentine in Episode One: The Blowup of Underwear Planet: The Amazing Blah Story by Richard W—Skinner North Elementary. Photos by Evan Hanover.

El Space: Without giving any spoilers, if you can avoid them, which character in the book did you identify with the most? Why?
Mary Winn: Ha! Parts of me are definitely in all of them, even the lovesick cremator. Who doesn’t want to be loved?! That said, I identity most with Fovea. That feeling of being unmoored by a lost friendshipthat was how I kicked off my middle school years. And having to tangle with the uneasy feeling that everybody changed the rules when you stepped out for a moment. I still feel like that sometimes. I wasn’t as funny as she is, but I aspired to be.

El Space: How did you come to write for children and young adults? What books or movies inspired you?
Mary Winn: It was a long, meandery path! And oh, I’ve been inspired by so much along the way! I was a serious reader as a kid, but struggled with writing. I turned to theater, and eventually wound up going to Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I finally made the connection that drafting isn’t too far away from rehearsing. That’s when it started being fun. And I really never got as excited about writing for adults as I did for kids. Kids are the coolest. No offense, grown-ups.

If we’re talking specifically about this story, I’d say some of the books that are deep in Fovea’s bones are Outside, Over There by Maurice Sendak, the Snarkout books by Daniel Pinkwater, Fat & Bones by Larissa Theule, Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo, The Princess Bride by William Goldman, The Faraway Tree books by Enid Blyton—though I haven’t reread them since I was a kid and I’m not sure I want to. Also, on the movie side of things, definitely Young Frankenstein.

 

   

El Space: What will you work on next?
Mary Winn: My next project is another middle grade due out next year! It starts when somebody throws all the tubas off the roof of the school.

Thanks, Mary Winn, for being my guest. Your next book sounds like a hoot (or rather a toot, since it is about tubas).

Wondering why the name Fovea sounds familiar? Click here. 

If you’re looking for Mary Winn, you can find her at Highlights, Twitter, Instagram, and Barrel of Monkeys.

The Mortification of Fovea Munson is available at a fine bookstore like The Book Cellar, and online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indiebound.

One of you will be given a copy of this book just because you commented. So,  think of something to say! Winner to be announced on June 11.

Author photo by Popio Stumpf. Book cover art by Chi Birmingham. Book birthday image from romancingrakes4theluvofromance.blogspot.com. BOM pics are by Evan Hanover. Kids’ Next photo by Nora Carpenter. Bathos definition from dictionary.com. Marty Feldman photo found at theaceblackblog.com. Young Frankenstein movie poster from morganrlewis.wordpress.com. Other book covers from Goodreads. Photo of the Chicago River and the Shopkins Shoppie dolls and Shuri photo by L. Marie. Shopkins Shoppie dolls by Moose Toys. Shuri action figure by Hasbro.