Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Faculty Voices with Emily Jenkins

Emily Jenkins/E. Lockhart
Hi Storytellers!  All my Inkpot posts thus far have been about some aspect of the non-writing writer’s life – professional adventures, I guess you could call them. This one is no different – I’m going to report on YallWest, which is a teen book festival.

There are not so very many teen book festivals out there – but the number is increasing I think. North Texas and YallWest started up just this year. They’re different because most book festivals are geared to a broad audience and feature a wide range of authors. These can be tough if you’re a children’s book person, though occasionally they’re lovely. Teen book festivals are all YA all the time.  That means very often teens come in enormous school groups and book club groups in matching T-shirts. Librarians and teachers organize field trips. The atmosphere is bordering on raucous. Panels can be goofy or important, but they’re nearly always relaxed. (Note: I’ve never been to it before, but this year’s
Twin Cities TeenLit Con is May 9, and I’ll be there with Hamline’s own Gene Yang, Hamline guest speaker Matt de la Pena and the insanely popular Gayle Forman. Plus more!)

Okay, the report: YallWest is an author-run festival and a spin-off of the successful YallFest. Both festivals are organized by Margaret Stohl (Beautiful Creatures, etc. ) and Melissa De la Cruz (Blue Bloods, etc.) – and there are loads of hijinks, lots of parties, and extended opportunities to sign books – all elements I associate with teen book cons as opposed to general ones.

They work you hard – and I find most authors prefer it that way. Why fly across the country to be on a single dignified panel when you could be on two panels (one while wearing a tiara), run a trivia game, sign books for a full hour, give away free cupcakes and t-shirts and sign for another hour, read aloud embarrassing juvenilia and then put on a pink wig and dance backup for an all-author rock band? That’s what my day looked like. I was in front of readers all day long at YallWest. Exhausting, but super fun and productive.

How do you get invited to these festivals? As an author, your publisher pitches you if they think you’re a good fit. Then the conference organizers decide whom to invite. You can ask to be pitched if you have a new book with that publisher and if you really want to go – especially if you can offer to make things easy. That is, if you have a free place to stay, you let them know (as I did for YallWest), or if you’re local to the area – and that reduces their costs. Of course, you can just GO as an audience member, and I recommend it if you’re starting out as a YA writer. You’ll see a lot of writers and get a sense of how people conduct themselves on panels – what makes a good discussion, what connects with the audience, how authors sign so as best to connect to their readers, and so on. 

I’ll leave you with a picture that gives you a sense of the YallWest vibe. That’s the back-up dance team: left to right, Shannon Hale, me, Leigh Bardugo, Coe Booth. We danced to “Whole Lotta Love,” as performed by Libba Bray and her all-author band, Tiger Beat. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Publication Interview with Judy Dodge Cummings: The American Revolution

The American Revolution:
Experience the Battle for Independence
Nomad Press/ March, 2015
Illustrator: Tom Casteel
Please describe the book.
Early in the morning of April 19, 1775, a shot rang out on the commons in the small town of Lexington, Massachusetts. Who fired that shot remains a mystery of history. But this single action was a catalyst that sparked the American War for Independence. At the beginning of this war, Americans were outgunned, outspent and divided. The American Revolution: Experience the Battle for Independence relates the history of how these patriots defeated the powerful British army and formed the United States of America. The book is aimed at readers in grades 4-6. It incorporates primary sources and engaging projects and focuses on helping readers think like historians.

How did you connect with the publisher and/or editor?
I found Nomad Press in the publishers guide that we get with our SCBWI membership—The Book. After graduating from Hamline, I sent queries and writing clips to lots of write-for-hire and educational publishers. Nomad Press was one of those houses. Months passed and then the editor contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in writing a book on the American Revolution. I have a history degree and have taught the subject to high school students for years so it was a great fit.
Continental Army
soldier in tricorn hat

As the work progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about?
At first the editor wanted the book to be written for 1-3rd graders. However, I have a passion, some might say obsession, about teaching people the value of historical thinking, and I knew I couldn’t write an overly simple book that told the same old patriotic myths and included a pattern for how to make a tricorn hat. (Don’t get me wrong. I love tricorn hats. I own two tricorn hats.) So I talked to Jodi Baker, Hamline alum and writer/teacher extraordinaire, about when elementary students typically study the American Revolution.
Based on Jodi’s feedback, I suggested to my editor that we aim the book at 5th graders. She agreed. After that the book came together very smoothly and systematically. Of course, I had to make every project that appears in the book. My diorama of a redoubt from the battle of Yorktown still sits on my desk. If you don’t know what a redoubt is, you should read my book.

When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish?
I had a sixth month contract to complete a draft of the book. After that I had to make only minor revisions, so all told my writing process took about nine months.

What research was involved before and while writing the book?
General Washington's HQ at Valley Forge
I did tons of research. Because I’ve been teaching American history for years, I already had a solid foundation, but I still read about fifty books and many articles. I trod the Freedom Trail in Boston and ran up and down the redoubts at Yorktown National Park in Virginia. I love research and like to experience history through the soles of my feet.

You have done work-for-hire writing before. What have you learned about the business of writing since your first contract?

The first book I wrote was a write-for-hire on Pope John Paul II. I wrote that book in five weeks. I was paid for the work, but ABDO decided not to publish it. I was never told why. That was disappointing, but the experience taught me how to write to spec, how to write quickly, and how to organize and document all my research. Those lessons have been invaluable.

Where do you do most of your writing?
I bought a walking treadmill with an attached desk last year. I walk at a turtle’s pace, but when I’m in the writing groove, I really put in some miles.

Do you remember the first book you loved?

TheFamous Five adventure series by Enid Blyton. I tagged along on many adventures with those five kids and their dog, all from the safety of the triple-decker bunk bed I shared with my brother and sister.


Judy Dodge Cummings is a July 2012 graduate of the MFAC program. She lives in southern Wisconsin. To learn more about her writing please visit her website.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Alumni Voices with Susan Stenfors:Finding Your Lost Voice or How Loss is Not an Excuse to Stop

When I was little I began telling stories. I told them to anyone who would listen. One of my biggest fans was my mom. She encouraged me. As I grew up, I continued to play with words. I didn’t become serious about my writing until I was a divorced mom of three, returning back to school with no idea how to make a new life. A professor introduced me to Alison McGhee, who guided my path to Hamline.

When I took my mom to an Alison McGhee book signing, I was beyond shocked when she raised her hand and asked, “Do you hear voices, too?” Alison’s response, “Are you two related? Yes, she’s fine, she’s just fine.” That one sentence meant more to my mom than any of my own reassurances. A simple sentence gave me permission to let my voices whisper their stories to me, and I plowed forward on this new adventure.

Fast forward to graduation from Hamline’s MFA program and my time under the care of such amazing faculty, people who understood and supported. I also walked away knowing I had the full embrace of a community that would continue to grow. This community fed my voices and my passion for the words. I kept writing, I sent my book out into the world. I received plenty of rejections but it never worried me. I garnered hope when an agent asked to read the entire novel. I waited, but never heard a thing. I even wrote to ask if they had received the novel, and still heard nothing.

My voices wavered, a bit, but my personal cheerleader kept cheering, so I plowed forward. I found a job as a teacher and shared my love of words with enthusiastic fifth graders. I talked to them about how important it was to find your voice, how to create more than just words on a page. I was living my dream. I waited for my book to be found, continuing to send it out. I started a new project, and another. I kept moving forward, doing just as I had promised myself long ago. I wrote.

When a second agent asked to read my entire novel, I was beyond thrilled. My mom was ecstatic, this time, she told me, this time someone would see my words and want to help me. However, I waited for a year, and nothing. I knew after six months to give up hope, but was there a chance? I wrote to the agent, to make sure she had received the manuscript. Still, I heard nothing.

When my mom passed away last January, it was unexpected. We thought we had three to six months but we had just one month from diagnosis to the end. When my mom passed, the voices that had been my companions for as long as I could remember went silent.  I sat in my room, staring at a computer, at a notebook, at the wall. Why couldn’t I write anything?

The first anniversary of my mom’s passing came and went. I tried writing, I wrote words but when I went back to read them, they meant nothing. I stopped reading, my teaching became drudgery, I wasn’t teaching well because I could no longer find the passion in those words.

“Could it really be the loss of my mom? It’s not that simple is it?” I asked a friend.

She had no answer for me. It wasn’t until I was driving down to a science academy that I had an epiphany. My mom, my biggest cheerleader, had never read a word I had written.

My mom never read any of my words. My mom will never have the opportunity to read any of my words. It was at that moment that I realized, that is not why I write. I am not writing to be perfect, or to be published, I am writing because I love to share words. So today, I share my words, with you. I promise to share them with my children, whenever they ask, and my students when they say “Read more”.  It is that gift, of sharing, that gives me the power and the strength. My voices have returned. I am writing again, but this time I write not to find publication, though I won’t be opposed should that ever happen, but I write to share my words and my love of words.

This summer, I will visit my mom’s gravesite in Hawai’i. I will share my words with her, the first time, of many, I hope. Share your words, you have a gift and even if you do not think they are perfect, someone will think they are perfect. That someone is me! 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Faculty Voices with Marsha Chall: REFLECTIONS ON THE AUTHOR VISIT

Marsha Chall and friends
The author visit—a heralded event for both invitee and inviter. In my two decades of visits, Murphy’s Law has sometimes defined the day’s dynamics, from hyperbolic scheduling (the worst being 12 presentations in one day), to dysfunctional room assignments (full afternoon sun for a slide show), to vomiting children (I try not to make them sick).

The reason for my continued forbearance as a visiting children’s author is that most experiences defy Murphy’s Law: What can go well, does, and sometimes eclipses even my expectations. Tired feet and weakened vocal chords do not dent my conviction that an author’s presence deepens and emboldens the connection between stories and readers, enriching both author and child, so that by the end of each visit, “I am wrapped in a sweet humility of secrets” (Isak Dinesen).

As a visiting author I have found these things to be true:
  • Authors create readers. Basal reading texts and worksheets might not. I visited a tiny school in Southwest Minnesota where the sole reading curriculum was, of all things, books. Reading class was conducted in the library where every child could freely choose literature to read daily. The school could not afford to buy a basal reading series, so it couldn’t afford not to use the library. These young readers created outstanding companion writing and art in preparation for my visit. They also achieved the highest reading scores in the state.
  • Readers create authors. If I had never been a prodigious reader, I would not write. Reading my own work to children allows me to hear it as a reader, so that I write far more with the reader in mind. By winnowing passages from my work for oral readings, I have discovered that my best writing is what I like to read over and over and that children listen to with open faces and respond to with silence, laughter, gasps, echoes, or murmured acknowledgements. Writer and readers have connected across the arc of story. We have felt and shared our humanity.
  • Authors create authors. On a deep winter day in Northern Minnesota, five middle-grade girls encircled me after my presentation. They were skipping some of their lunch period to spend time with me, hungry for something besides fish sticks. As they shared the details of their changing families—a runaway mother, a new stepfather, a smaller bedroom, horrific pet deaths, parents’ unemployment—I slowed the pace of my book signing to give them space to tell their stories. Dinesen’s words reflect the truth of this telling: “All sorrows can be borne if we put them in a story or tell a story about them.”

Author to author, we are entrusted with the sweet humility of secrets. An author visit is a compelling responsibility, but also a privilege. Humane. Humbling. Honorable.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Faculty Voices with Ron Koertge

Ron Koertge
For about 9 months now, I’ve been writing something I may not be very good at. Perhaps majoring -- as my wife advises her counseling students not to do – in my weakness. Perhaps.
About a year ago, I decided to get into the head of a school shooter. A high school shooter. Like Columbine and the others. When I see it laid out like that in black & white I wonder what in the world I was thinking.

But I could say the same thing about the graphic novel script now languishing on some editor’s desk and probably ringed with coffee stains. I liked writing that script. I didn’t know how to do it, so I tried. I don’t draw, but Gene [Luen Yang] said that wasn’t a deal breaker. I enjoyed myself. Like Magellan and Marco Polo, I was in unexplored territory. If I got lost, well, then I got lost.
Now I’m lost again. My water supply is running low and there are ominous sounds from the underbrush. This school shooting story makes me feel stupid. It’s been one predictable scene after another. I showed an early version to Chris H. and she threw up. I’m having trouble looking at it as not a failure but just an adventure in limitations.
The limitations, since you asked, are probably these: I’m a smarty pants and this thing doesn’t play to my strengths. Coaltown Jesus was funny even though the hero is a very troubled boy. Some of the poems in Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses are witty and askew. The school shooting story is serious. My muse shows up in a simple black dress with no pearls. She sits in the corner dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief.
Or maybe I have the tenses wrong and it’s she showed up and sat. The last draft was a little sharper. I have a new angle on the whole enterprise: a question-and-answer format. A FBI criminalist and the shooter’s best friend. No wall-to-wall prose. No setting but an interview room. It’s essentially nothing but probing and sometimes evasive dialogue.
Chekov said, “My job is to be able to distinguish between important phenomena and unimportant and to be able to illuminate characters and speak with their tongues.”
Don’t you just love that?  “. . . illuminate characters and speak with their tongues.”

All right, Anton: stick with me. I’m not giving up yet.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Alumni Voices with Gina DiCiani: Amuse Me

(Author’s note: Think of this post as a Public Service Announcement for writers.)

I really like to follow rules.

So, when I hear or read advice like Jane Yolen’s oft-repeated, if you want to be a writer, get your “butt in chair,” I take it to heart. 

Okay, I sort of, kind of tend to overdo things, but I have been known to spend hours without moving significantly, sitting still while I type words into my laptop, because Jane Yolen says that’s what I’m supposed to do.

And then a study was released claiming, “sitting is the new smoking.” (Dr. Anup Kanodia, as reported in the New York Daily News, May 27, 2013.) And even worse, the same article reports that Dr. James Levine, endocrinologist at the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine says, “The chair is out to kill us.” According to the article, “[R]esearchers in Australia discovered that serial sitting slows the metabolism and increases the risk of a heart attack and stroke.”

This is not good news. With all due respect to Ms. Yolen, I now needed to do something that would get me out of the chair. But what?

Chris Hamilton posted a suggestion for overcoming this “butt in chair” issue, suggesting we stand when we write. (Florida Writer’s Conference Blog, July 12, 2013). However, elevating my laptop on a contraption is too complicated and potentially catastrophic.

I had to face the facts. I needed to do some cardio. If there was only a way to combine the workouts with writing my novel (see above, where I note my tendency to overdo things).

First, I tried studying writing while I did cardio. I downloaded craft books on creative writing, intending to listen to them while I was working out. No surprise, but this approach quickly proved to be less than inspiring. So I switched to listening to audiobooks, which seemed like a good idea at first, but I kept losing track of where I was in the story. Perhaps I wasn’t exercising often enough to remember what had happened during my last workout session.

I know music inspires a workout, but calculating beats per minute and adjusting the intensity of my workout accordingly was beyond me. But then … I hit upon the solution: 
The “amuse me” playlist. 

The playlist is not about songs that have a certain number of beats per minutes – that’s not the kind of thing that motivates a writer to move. No, my playlist is full of songs whose lyrics amuse me. They don’t just make me laugh, although there’s some of that in the selection of songs to my list. They also make me think more about some element of writing.

So, in the interest of helping my writer friends get out of their chairs for a little while, I share some of my playlist here, with a reason why I think it amuses me.

Makes Me Laugh: “Don’t Cha,” by the Pussycat Dolls, sometimes makes me laugh out loud with its lyrics, which ask, “Don’t cha wish your girlfriend were hot like me?” (Lyrics by Busta Rhymes, Cee-Lo Green, and Sir Mix-A-Lot.) Has anyone ever said this to someone? If so, let me know how it went. In the same vein, Avril Lavigne’s Girlfriend also makes me laugh.

Clever: “Fairy Tale,” by Sara Bareilles, is a song whose lyrics take on popular fairy tales and question the “happily ever after” premise? What’s not to love about a song that has lyrics like, “Snow White is doing dishes again ‘cause what else could you do/ With seven itty bitty men?”

Surprises Me: Country music is great for telling the s/he wronged me story. Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” has lyrics that made me think about how we present less-than-socially-acceptable behavior (revenge that results in damage to property) in art:  “I dug my key into the side  / of his pretty little souped up 4 wheel drive, / carved my name into his leather seats.../ … Maybe next time he'll think before he cheats.” (Written by Chris Tompkins and Josh Kear.)

Elements of Good Storytelling: Taylor Swift is known for telling a good story in her songs (and she’s incredibly popular with the audience we’re aiming to reach – just ask my 12-year old niece). In “You Belong With Me,” Swift totally captures characterization so easily in just a few words: “She wears high heels, I wear sneakers / She's Cheer Captain and I'm on the bleachers.” (Written by Liz Rose and Taylor Swift.)

Elements of Poetry: Walking on Sunshine by Katrina and the Waves – well, enough said. (Written by Kimberly Rew.) And it has a good beat.

(Thank you, free downloads from Starbucks, for introducing me to songs I’d never otherwise hear of.)

Please share your “amuse me” songs in the comments.


Gina DiCiani is a January, 2014 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. She lives and writes and moves in the Chicago, Illinois area.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Faculty Voices with Claire Rudolf Murphy: Writing Past Dark (The Transformative Success)

Claire Rudolf Murphy
Hello, Inkpot Readers. In the conclusion of Phyllis’ touching post last week she said, “I will tell those younger selves (and the self I am now), “Darlin’, you’re going to be all right.”

In her February post Jackie asked us what we writers do “to feed our spirits and our creative selves.”

Reading has “fed” me and made me feel “all right,” since I was a young girl. I needed some books in the last weeks to pep me up when I returned from our January residency. My bronchitis dragged on and on, and Claire was a glum girl, lying on the couch instead of writing. I loved reading my dear Alaskan friend Deb Vanasse’s first adult novel
Cold Spell, especially since I know the backstory of her writing life and the Alaskan setting. But I could only skim her other one: What Every Author Should Know: No Matter What You Publish. It’s chock full of helpful information. But learning about the changing world of publishing didn’t help to get me writing.

While searching online about writers and procrastination, I came across a quote from this book: Writing Past Dark: Envy,Fear Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life. Like most writers my shelves are filled with craft books and books about the writing life. But I’d never seen this one by Bonnie Friedman. A quote from our fiction guru Janet Burroway convinced me to get a copy: “If you think writing is a lonely task and you can afford one book, buy this one.”

I was so taken with Friedman’s introduction that I started underlining it (until I remembered it was a library book.) Her introduction and ending chapter featured the meatiest material:
“Successful writers are not the ones who write the best sentences. They are the ones who keep writing. They are the ones who discover what is most important and strangest and most pleasurable in themselves and keep believing in the value of their work, despite the difficulties.”
Get thyself to the computer, Claire, and write some sentences, any sentences.

About how her graduate writing students are waiting for an outer sign that they are “brilliant,” Friedman writes:
"Because they are waiting, they do not write as hard as they can. And because they assume someday writing will feel different from the way it does now, they squander many true gifts. . . . that when they are successes they will be entitled to take time from family or take more risks, their doubts will be rinsed away, they will know their work’s importance . . . When they are successes they will deserve to be happy.”
So writers at any stage of their career need to find happiness/satisfaction in the daily work. If we don’t, if we keep waiting for that outer sign of success and recognition, we’ll always be unsatisfied and anxious. And that state hardly produces the best writing or any at all.
“I live in dread that the story I am currently writing resembles those that have been rejected . . . it feels as if my new writing comes from the exact same place. . . Yet our finest writing will certainly come from who we already are and how we already write.” (p. 146)
Oh, that trust issue again. Trusting our voice and our unique talents.
Friedman concludes the book with these words:
“To love our lives right now – that is the transformative success. To see what is already beautiful – that is what is the astonishing strength.”
Of course it’s not as easy as that. We have to relearn every day how to love the work. Rereading and thinking about Friedman’s insights finally got me off the couch, and back to my work. But if all if this is just too heavy to think about right now, try this fun and brilliant book: WildThings! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature (Bird, Danielson, Sieruta).

Now that I’ve got my inner writing life all figured out and happiness reigns, I’m working on inserting more mischief in life and writing. But first I am cheering for my Gonzaga basketball teams – both the women and the men’s teams made it into the Sweet Sixteen during March Madness, along with MFAC alum Elizabeth Schoenfeld’s Duke Blue Devils and MFAC alum Randall Bonser’s Michigan State team. All three of us have been inspired to put in good writing time before every game. According to our beloved Kate DiCamillo that means two hours or two pages a day. We can do that, right?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Faculty Voices with Phyllis Root

Phyllis, second from left.
Click to enlarge.
In the past few weeks two events have converged. I bought yet another book on getting rid of clutter, and I had my sixty-sixth birthday. I don’t have sixty-six years of things to sort through, but I am finding bits and pieces of my life I had squirreled away and completely forgotten about.

Take this photo of a friend’s wedding in which I was a bridesmaid. I almost didn’t recognize myself in a long pink dress with long hair and a wreath of flowers, and I had to rummage in my memory to recall the bride’s name.

And these grade school pictures: here I am in sixth grade, fifth grade, fourth grade. In Talent is Not Enough Molly Hunter wrote about seeing a picture of her young self and thinking, “Warn her! Oh, for God’s sake, why did nobody warn her?”

Looking at these younger selves, I wonder what I’d say if I could send a message back in time. I had already lost my mother, so I knew about the uncertainty of the universe and the black hole of loss. Would I warn my ten-year-old self of more deaths ahead? Of the dark despair of depression? Would I tell her to find a good-paying profession with benefits and a pension plan? Would I whisper a few words that would allow her to develop the Internet or back a spectacularly winning horse?

I could tell her, “You will fall in love and out of love. You will have babies who grow up to be self-sufficient young women. You will have friends of the heart to see you through tough times and good times.”

And if my younger self pressed me for more, I might say, “You’ll go to South Africa and Vanuatu, you’ll raft down the Zambezi river and dogsled in 20 below weather and stand on the rim of an active volcano, you’ll sail and canoe and kayak and grow vegetables and wildflowers and hear whales breathing around you in the darkness.”

But mostly I think I’d tell her, “You will be very lucky, because you will live among words. Words to tell your daughters that they are strong and beautiful and can do anything they put their minds and hearts to. Words to write books that, amazingly, other people might read. Words with which to try to give a voice to the world you will inhabit.”

Most of what I’m finding now in basements and closets I’ll let go. The pages of old stories can be recycled into new paper for new stories that someone, somewhere, will write. The clothes in the back of my closer will keep other folks warm. The books I’ve read and loved will be read and loved by someone else. But I’ll keep those pictures somewhere where I can see them once in awhile, and when I look at them, I will tell those younger selves (and the self I am now), “Darlin’, you’re going to be all right.”

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Publication Interview with Diane C. Mullen: Tagged

Charlesbridge Publishing
March 10, 2015
Timothy Tang, cover illustration
Please describe the book.
TAGGED is a contemporary novel about Liam O’Malley, a fourteen-year-old graffiti artist living in the projects of Minneapolis with his mom and three younger siblings. When Liam’s estranged older brother coerces him to tag a graffiti symbol over a rival gang’s tag, Liam’s life is threatened. Afraid that he might turn out just like his older brother, Liam’s mom sends him to a small town on Lake Michigan for the summer to live with her best friend, Kat, a sculptor and art teacher. Liam soon delves into the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Pablo Picasso, Claes Oldenburg, and his own personal aesthetics. He’s encouraged to consider his art seriously and how it might contribute to a greater community. Having to decide between staying with Kat to pursue his dream and returning home to his siblings who need him, Liam’s story inspires him to reinvent himself for the better.

As the story progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about? When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish?
The biggest change during the process was the title changing from PIECES OF A WRECK to TAGGED. That happened when I first began working with my editor, Julie Bliven, at Charlesbridge. There were also some changes made during a couple of rounds of revisions with my agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette. I first began the work on this novel during my final semester in the MFAC program, and the first eighty-five pages became my Creative Thesis. I was inspired to begin a brand new novel in my fourth semester because of the work I did with Kelly Easton during my Critical Thesis semester.

What research was involved before and while writing the book?
TAGGED was extremely research heavy! Here are a few topics – graffiti art; Pablo Picasso; baseball; gangs in Minneapolis; abstract expressionism; Minneapolis housing projects; art camps and boarding schools; Jean-Michel Basquiat; the fine arts of sculpture, painting, printmaking, and dance; Lake Michigan; gang hand signs; the Southie neighborhood in Boston; Claes Oldenburg; small resort towns; contemporary art; and handguns used by gangs and drug dealers. Most importantly I had to figure out what it was like to be a fourteen-year-old boy.

Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline?
I workshopped earlier versions of this novel during a couple of Alumni Weekends at Hamline.

Did you discover and fall in love with any books while in the MFAC program?
During my time in the MFAC program I fell in love with many amazing books, but three novels stand out above the rest - The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier because of the characters and the story, and because Cormier refused to make everything tidy at the end of the novel; I was moved by Carolyn Coman’s story and unflinching portrayal of domestic violence in What Jamie Saw; and I was blown away by Chris Lynch’s use of second person narration in Freewill. I’m certain that the work of all three have had an influence on my own work.

Without naming names, tell us who your first readers are (e.g., live-action writing group; online writing group; editor; agent). When do you share a piece of writing?
My first readers are a good friend who has an MFA in Writing, and my agent. I share new work with my friend when I feel like it makes enough sense for her to understand what I’m trying to do. And I usually send new work on to my agent when I feel like it’s ready for submissions. But sometimes I’ll send her a bit of something new just to see if she thinks it’s worth going forward with.

Where do you do most of your writing?
I do all of my new work writing at home, sitting at a table next to ten-foot tall windows overlooking my urban neighborhood. But when it comes time to revise I always go to a café/restaurant named Barbette down the street. I seem to be able to read my work much more closely when I have some commotion going on around me
Do you remember the first book you loved?
The first two books I loved where The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton which my mom used to read to me over and over; and My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George which I read over and over by myself.


Diane C. Mullen is a January 2009 graduate of the MFAC program. She lives and writes in Minneapolis. To learn more about Diane and her work, please visit her website

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Faculty Voices with Jane Resh Thomas: A Super-Hero Grows Up: “Jack and the Mad Dog,” a Novella by Tony Earley

Jane Resh Thomas
In Mr. Tall: Stories and a Novella, by Tony Earley, the author of Jim the Boy and The Blue Star presents a hilarious and dead serious new version for adults of the tale about “that Jack,” the one of Beanstalk and Giant Killer fame. As he waits for the farmer to go to sleep, so he can bend the farmer's wife over a plow for the price of four dollars, Jack sips a colorless liquid from the mason jar he found in the middle of the road. The drink is not moonshine, however, but “seeing juice.” Jack will never be the same.

Earley has given the priapic youth of folklore a conscience. Never again will his belief in his own powers enable him to seduce and rob and hoodwink and cuckold every passerby without cost to himself. When he sets out for Yonder and meets a sweet young virgin, he will never again be able to roll her in the hay with no thought of consequence and then set out again without remorse. He won't be able to keep aloft the flying bottom-rotted rowboat and white-oak contraption in which he and his friend Tom Dooley escape the snarling black dog that blocks Jack at every bridge he encounters.

The old man who has “spen[t] all those years and spells and truck helping [the boy] out,” when the old man “could've boodled up all the treasure for [him]self...,” “could've been the one [who] diddled all the maidens and flummoxed the giants and stole the gold and soared around in the flying boat”—that same  old man is the one who left the seeing juice in the road. He sounds like a worn-out father at the end of his son's exhausting adolescence. Now he has run out of gifts:

“Jack, you ain't going to understand a word of this, but being a king didn't
 interest me none, and I never developed a taste for treasure. But making sure no harm come to you once you set out? That there made me rich as I ever cared to be.”

A nameless cry laddered up the inside of Jack's ribcage toward the light. “But I'm ethically challenged,” he said.

“You are that.”

“And I never think about nobody but myself.”

“You do not.

“I don't deserve a single thing you give me.”

“No, sir, not one. You always have been, and continue to be, a most unworthy vessel.”

“Then why—”

            “Because, honey, that's what makes it count.”

In this gloss on assorted folktales, Earley makes fun of everything and everybody, including the “pointyheads” who write glosses on folktales. The novella curls back on itself and comments on 
Earley's own literary techniques. Jack winds up in a double-wide at the top of the hill with a pail of water, Jill, and a baby, having discovered responsibility as a tornado bears down on them.

Just as happens every day to grownups in the real world.