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?
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 friendship—that 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.
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.