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.

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Check This Out: The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle

Today on the blog, you can help me welcome the awesomely splendid Janet Fox. I met Janet in a workshop during my first semester at VCFA. Janet is here to talk about her middle grade historical novel, The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, which includes an element of magic.

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Janet is represented by Erin Murphy. The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle will be published by Viking on March 15. Go here to read the synopsis and to watch the book trailer.

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Janet: I love gardening and hiking in the mountains. Once upon a time I thought I would be a musician. I’ve been to the bottom of the sea floor in a submersible several times while researching my MS degree. I write every day, including weekends.

El Space: You’ve written a number of young adult novels. What inspired you to write this middle grade story?

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Janet: Great question. This story was inspired by a picture of an odd piece of jewelry, which then ignited the premise. In fact, I was so inspired by that picture and premise that I began to write in a fever and had forty pages—most of which are still in the novel—written in five days—a record for me. The story came out in a younger voice, because the premise that grew in my mind slanted younger. I really had no choice in the matter!

But as with all my work, I had to write an ugly first draft before I understood who my protagonist was, and then I had to “find” her through revision and a lot of effort. In the end, only 12-year-old Kat could have told this particular story.

El Space: Congratulations on your starred reviews for Charmed Children! What was your process for bringing this turbulent time period to life in the twenty-first century?
Janet: Thank you! I’m thrilled, and so much credit goes to my agent, Erin Murphy, who made me polish to a shine before she subbed, and my incredible editor, Kendra Levin. Once I’d established the premise and the characters, I knew it had the feeling of a story set in another time, a time of turmoil. And by the very nature of the jewelry that inspired the story—a chatelaine*—I felt it had to be set in a castle. I chose the start of World War II because the Blitz would give me a reason to send children away from home and away from helpful adults, and because the war itself provided opportunities for additional threats to them and to those they loved. And, of course, the war was much more strongly felt in the UK than it was here in the US.

The London Blitz aftermath

The London Blitz aftermath

I do love research, and I tend to research a topic as I go. When I’d decided on the UK in 1940, I focused on all the details necessary to bring that time period to life for kids. Specifically, I wanted to focus on spying, because Kat’s father is a spy missing in action.

The main thing about bringing history to life in any book is to focus not on the history but the characters, because it’s the characters that readers relate to. Yes, getting the historical details right is important. But having the characters right is crucial.

Homeless children in London after the Blitz

Homeless children in London after the Blitz

El Space: I agree! How have your travels been a help to you in your writing?
Janet: I’ve been to Scotland three times—the third while the novel was in edits. I think having a feeling for a place is important—the smells and sounds, the food, the weather, the habits—there are so many little things that we take for granted that don’t exist elsewhere and vice versa. How would I know how water is such a factor in Scotland if I hadn’t seen the number of small streams and driven along the coast and hiked in the pouring rain? And I love learning about how other people in the world think and feel. Plus, travel is fun.

El Space: A drafty castle in Scotland is a great setting for a spooky story. But what’s the scariest place you’ve ever been?
Janet: Here’s an interesting tidbit, since readers seem to think this is a pretty scary story: I don’t do scary! I can’t watch scary movies, I don’t visit haunted houses, I avoid dark alleys. When I was a kid, I slept with the lights on and a huge pile of stuffed animals around me, like a fortress. Now, I did once live in a house I’m sure was haunted, and had several haunting experiences there. And the basement of that house gave me the creeps. Needless to say, I spent as little time as possible in that basement. But as to scary places in general? I avoid them!

Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland

Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland

El Space: I do too! I understand you also make jewelry. Please tell us about that.
Janet: I don’t make jewelry as a rule. But I did make some with charms that relate to the novel to give away to readers. Once you have the right tools and the right “ingredients,” jewelry-making is very satisfying and relatively easy. Etsy is a great resource, but I also found things in my local shops. Normally, my relaxing craft of choice is knitting.

I do think doing something with my hands—knitting, jewelry-making, piano playing, whatever—is a great way for me to relax the right brain and let it stew on a thought, and putting the left brain, which demands productivity and is a relentless editor, to sleep.

El Space: If you could recommend any book to your main character, Kat, to keep her encouraged during the time frame of your book, what book would you recommend? Why? What children’s story has been a help to you when you needed to be brave?
Janet: Interesting question! My favorite books, ever, are C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. I must have read them a hundred times each when I was young—and even now, for inspiration. I’d definitely recommend them to Kat because they feature children who brave pretty scary things alone and who succeed, even when some of them slip up. And if they’d been available, I’d recommend the Harry Potter books, because, like Kat, Harry faces some awful and even deadly trials, and, like Kat, he’s not perfect and makes mistakes; yet in the end he prevails.

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El Space: What are you working on next?
Janet: I have a few things cooking that I’m excited about. First, another middle grade that’s a fantasy but also quite different from Charmed Children. Then a young adult contemporary with magical realism. And I’m playing with a possible sequel to Charmed Children—just for fun, because nothing’s settled there. My agent is also shopping a picture book, and a speculative YA, which you actually saw a bit of in workshop at VCFA! I like to have a bunch of things going at once.

El Space: Thanks for being my guest, Janet!
Janet: Thank you so much!

*If you want to learn about chatelaines, go here. If you’d like to check out the reviews of this book, go here.

You can catch Janet at her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. You can also preorder a copy of The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle at these sites:

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Indiebound
Country Bookshelf

But one of you will win a preorder of Janet’s book from Country Bookshelf, plus some sweet swag. Comment below to be entered into the drawing. You might tell us a book that helped you when you needed to be brave. The winner will be announced on February 8.

Author photo and book cover courtesy of Janet Fox. Other book covers from Goodreads. London blitz photo from peanutonthetable.com. Children after the Blitz photo and caption from Wikipedia. Eilean Donan Castle from worldfortravel.com.