Check This Out: The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy

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.

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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?

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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

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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.

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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.

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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!!!

Looking for The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy? Look at Bookshop, Indiebound, and Barnes & Noble.

Looking for Mary Winn? Then head to her website, Instagram, and Twitter.

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.

Speechless

I debated about whether or not to post at all in such a time as the one in which we find ourselves. But when I thought about this illustration, I had to post.

You may wonder what this is all about. Mel Blanc provided the voice of many, many Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters (Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, etc.). Consequently, he was known as the man of a thousand voices. After his passing, this illustration was done as a tribute. The title was perfectly chosen. And it describes how I feel these days. Maybe you feel the same. I would add outraged, full of grief, sad, overwhelmed, and struggling to the mix as well in the wake of recent events. Yet in these speechless days, I take comfort in these words:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me . . . to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. Isaiah 61:1-3

Illustration found on Pinterest.

String-Pulling Bees and Other Things I Didn’t Realize I Needed in My Life

I don’t know about you, but I crave a bit of normalcy, a bit of adorableness. And what’s more normal than scientists getting some bumblebees to pull strings? (Those bumblebees must have some influence if they’re pulling strings. Am I right? . . . Okay, I’ll stop.)

Anyway, I ran across this video at the SciNews YouTube Video and a follow-up—scientists teaching bees to roll balls—and was mesmerized. If only they could teach wasps to be kind. (If somehow the video disappears, click here for it.)

See? You needed it too, didn’t you? (For more info on the bumblebee experiment, conducted at Queen Mary University of London, click here.)

Recently, a friend sent photos of her newest acquisitions, which turned out to be something else I needed:

  

As I looked at the photos, I could feel my blood pressure drop and something broken within me starting to mend. Maybe you feel the same way.

This also made my day (photo below). Chalk art courtesy of the kids who live in my apartment building.

Also, I saw these at the grocery store. Maybe they’re not as essential as water or toilet paper, but they’re essential in a soul-building sort of way.

  

What have you seen this week that helped lift your spirits? Please share in the comments.

Farm animal photos by Colleen Yang. Other photos by L. Marie.

Talkin’ About the Car Wash

If you’re familiar with old songs from the 1970s, you’ll know that the post title is a line from a song by Rose Royce—the titular song of the 1976 movie, Car Wash. (Go here if the video is not below. Some YouTube videos I’ve posted have disappeared in other posts.)

When I was a kid, I loved going to the automatic/tunnel car wash. Loved watching the big brushes on the sides of the car and the huge blowers. And just when I thought the car wash was over, other services my father asked for (like wax or an undercarriage wash), would begin. The more time in the car wash the merrier, I always thought!

My younger brother, however, was terrified of the experience. He would cover his eyes and sink low in the backseat. My older brother and I made fun of him, because we were exercising our sibling right to torment him. Yet as I look back on that today, I feel bad for mocking him for something he genuinely feared.

It’s interesting how as kids, our first response to someone else’s fear was often to laugh, especially if the fear is not one to which we can relate. “Fraidy/Scaredy Cat!” “What a baby!” Ever hear those phrases? I’ve said them. It’s what kids do.

There are some fears we grow out of. But others linger longer than childhood.

Awhile ago, someone told me that more people than ever are suffering from anxiety. It is certainly on the rise among teens as this article mentions. Many people have had debilitating panic attacks. But instead of empathy, some have been given advice along the lines of, “You need to get over it.” I wish I could pretend that these words weren’t uttered to someone I know. But they were.

That’s why I think of the car wash and the empathy I withheld from my brother. I didn’t understand the fear, so I didn’t offer support. Even into adulthood, sometimes I thought a push in the form of a platitude was enough to motivate someone whose situation I didn’t really understand. I ignorantly assumed that emotional obstacles could be readily surmounted in a short time span. That is, until I went through a period of grief myself.

Sometimes a kick in the pants is necessary to motivate someone who has the power to move on but procrastinates. But some emotional seasons go beyond a pat answer. Grief, anxiety—neither has a preset limit. Just when you think you’re out of it, like a car moving along a conveyor belt at the car wash, another stage begins. It’s over when it’s over.

So from now on, I’m giving pat advice the brush off. Daily I’m reminded to be quick to hear and slow to speak* when someone shares his or her pain.

Car wash image from clipartmag.com. Grief image from the Ridge Meadows Hospice Society.

*From James 1:19.