Monday, May 24, 2010

Inquiry VI: Michelle Ray

Today we welcome fellow Gang-o Michelle Ray.

Michelle Ray was born and raised in Los Angeles. She attended Tufts University, where she studied theater history and literature. Michelle currently teaches middle school English in the DC area. Her debut novel Falling for Hamlet is due out spring of 2011. She is represented by the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

EEM: Did you always want to be a writer? If no, what was your initial dream and what led you to writing later?

MR: I didn’t plan on being a writer. I’ve always been imaginative and have a hard time falling asleep. When I was little, my parents would put me to bed and I would fill the time by telling myself stories. I used to pick shows or movies I liked, like “Little House on the Prairie” or “The Outsiders,” and put new characters in them to see how the story might be reshaped. I’ve never stopped doing this. In fact, that’s precisely how Falling for Hamlet came about. I began wondering, what if Ophelia didn’t go crazy? What if she was a modern high schooler? What if she could text Hamlet? But for all those years, I didn’t write the stories down because, well, I wasn’t a writer. My great love was theater. When I got to college, I took a miserable creative writing class and swore I would never share my ideas aloud again. I ended up being a drama major and focused on directing. I graduated from Tufts thinking I’d make a go of that kind of storytelling. But then I realized I hated being unemployed, I hate rejection, and don’t like convincing other people I’m good at what I do. I became a teacher instead, which, if done right, is never dull, involves great stories, and lets me be the boss (much like directing). But I missed creating something, telling dramatic stories. With writing, I get to be the boss of my own story and I get to do it on my own schedule.

EEM: When you began writing, was it instant success and riches or did you find you had to work other jobs in order to continue your dream of being a writer?

MR: My first novel, Falling for Hamlet, will be out next spring, so I have no idea what my writing life will eventually look like. As of now, I’m still a teacher, and honestly, I have a hard time imagining giving that up. I love it. Even when I get frustrated and complain (which I admit I do a lot), it’s a job I’m proud of and I adore working with young people. But who knows what the future will bring?

EEM: What jobs have you held, current or in the past, to help sustain your writing career?

MR: I’ve been a teacher for 13 years. I’ve also been a waitress (I wasn’t good at that), a receptionist (a disastrous job since I had a phone-phobia at the time), a camp counselor (made me love kids), grill cook (I was a vegetarian and didn’t know how to cook meat), and a frozen yogurt server. Of all the jobs I’ve held, the ones that are most connected to writing have been teaching, directing, and interning in the story department of a T.V. network. All of these jobs help/ed me think about what makes a story work (whether it be a play, a novel, or a script). Directing allowed me to think about actions, facial expressions, motivations, and what is or is not said between people. I think in dialogue, which is how I start each part of a story. Then I paint on the layers. That said, my friends often say reading my work is like watching a movie. I’m a film buff and a rather visual person, so maybe this has affected how I pace or describe scenes.

EEM: Which job was the most challenging or strange to you?

MR: I don’t have any cool stories about crazy jobs. I never worked on an oil rig or cleaned the shark tank of an aquarium or anything wild, so I’ll be honest -- teaching is a daily challenge and often quite strange.

EEM: How did you come across this job? Actively seeking or by chance?

MR: When I decided not to pursue theater directing, I got to talking about my future with my then-boyfriend, now-husband, and he suggested teaching. He’d been a teacher in Hawaii for a number of years and loved it. It sounded like a good life, so I got my degree and the rest is history. Of course, when I went back to my high school and told my teachers about my career choice, they all said, “That’s what you told us you were going to do when you graduated.” Isn’t that funny? I had completely forgotten my plan and ended up teaching anyway.

EEM: What was your favorite thing about this job?

MR: I love words and ideas, and I have always loved school. My teachers were so fantastic and made me love learning, so I feel like I’m giving to a new generation the great gift that was given to me. I also love that kids are so weird and honest and funny, and that each day, for better and for worse, you never know from moment to moment what will happen in a classroom. One of the reasons I hated my office and restaurant jobs so much was that they were quiet and predictable. That is not true of a school.

EEM: Least Favorite?

MR: Grading. I hate evaluating works in progress and I hate the time it takes from my writing. Another thing that depresses me is when I feel like I’m not reaching certain students. Sometimes I can’t “crack the code” for making them understand what we’re reading or even how to read better. Sometimes I get upset when I see that they’re bored because, since I’m responsible for the lesson, I consider it my fault if they’re not into the activity. And other times, I worry so much about the choices certain kids are making, and I know that the decisions they make now could affect the rest of their lives. This kills me. People tell me not to take this all personally, but all of it IS personal to me.

EEM: Did your day job(s) allow you to write regularly? Or did you have to get creative to get those word counts in?

MR: Sort of. My workday starts early, so I get out early. And I try to write every day between the time school ends and when I pick up my kids from day care. Then I pick up writing after they go to bed. When I have a tough day at school and am too tired to write, I get a little snarky. I also stop for my favorite shows, like “Glee,” but my husband has gotten used to my saying, “Yeah, I’ll be in to watch in a second,” and an hour passes. I have to set a timer to keep from losing myself in my writing. My family has to have my attention, too, and I feel badly when I want to write and they want to hang out and I have to decide what to do. I’ve gotten good at sitting on the porch with my laptop while my girls play soccer or ride their bikes. I do get frustrated when I have an idea for a plotline or bit of dialogue and they have an idea for an activity that requires me to get up from the computer. I’m not sure what it would be like to have all day to write. I’m afraid I’d just putter around all day. Knowing I have short windows of time makes me use the time well.

EEM: What other effects did it have on your writing?

MR: I spend a lot of time with young people. Watching them go through the ups and down of their teen years (crushes, conflicts at home, hating a teacher, falling out with a friend), keeps the memories of my own youth alive. I draw on hurts and joys from my past to add layers to my characters’ experiences, and working with students reminds me that their feelings are no less valid or intense than that which I feel as an adult.

EEM: Any fun stories from the job(s) that inspired your stories?

MR: I tend not to use any school stories because I think there are some moral issues there that might expose my students’ personal lives. And, even though my friends say my work stories are funny, when I write, I want to escape. But I have included people and places I’ve been. In college I lived in a co-ed fraternity. The house was filthy and reeked. I mean, smelly, smelly, smelly. The banister wiggled, the carpet was stained, people left Chinese food containers out until they molded over. And yet, I totally loved living there. (I can’t say I loved the mess, but I got used to it.) Well, that house and the kinds of parties we had made it into a scene of Falling for Hamlet. Ophelia goes to visit Hamlet in college and just loves how gross it is.

EEM: Have you ever based a loved protagonist or an evil villain on one of your co-workers? Wished you had?

MR: I had a particularly nasty boss who absolutely must end up in a story some day. She was stranger than fiction and made the boss from The Devil Wears Prada look positively tame. She made me put sweaters on her dog and called me stupid and a lot worse when I couldn’t get the wiggly mutt to sit long enough to get the job done. But no, I haven’t blatantly based any main characters on people I know. Smaller characters are modeled after good friends, and pretty much any time you see a teacher pop up in one of my stories, the character is a teacher I once had or one I work with now. And I pick up elements from people I know and add them in -- like my dad’s hat collection found its way into Falling for Hamlet. For another story, a road trip I wrote in was based on one I took with my husband when we drove cross-country before we were married.

EEM: What are you working on now and is the process any easier than your first work?? If so, in what capacity (people noticing it, the writing itself, the confidence?)

MR: My first manuscript took eleven years to complete because it was interrupted by grad school, a new career, having babies, and a lack of belief that I was (gulp) a writer. [That’s something I’ve not adjusted to yet.] That particular manuscript is still not right, but I’ve given up on it. For now. The first steps toward progress were sharing my “dark secret” that I was writing, and then having my friends read and like what I wrote. Their enjoyment of and involvement in my stories boosted my confidence as much as it shocked me. And since selling my first novel, my confidence has grown exponentially. Taking time from my family and from other things I like to do doesn’t seem like a waste of time anymore, and now I know I can tell a good story. I’ve finished two other manuscripts that have been sent to with editors (fingers crossed), and right now I’m working on a historical fiction piece for teen girls set in 1960s NYC. I’ve been mulling the story over for quite a while, but only sat down to write it this week. We shall see.

EEM: Would you change anything if you could begin your writing journey over again?

MR: I would spend fewer hours worrying about whether or not it was worth doing. My husband’s constant refrain has been, “Are you enjoying yourself? Then it’s not a waste of time.” That’s about it. Oh, and I’d go to Paris and Venice a lot. No particular reason except that they’re amazing cities so they must be good for my writing, right?

Thanks Michelle! Can't wait to read "Falling for Hamlet" and best of luck with your new projects!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Inquiry V: CG Watson

This week we welcome CG Watson.

CG Watson is a writer, high school Spanish teacher, musician and songwriter from Northern California. She is represented by the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

EEM: Did you always want to be a writer? If no, what was your initial dream and what led you to writing later?

CGW: I’m pretty sure I was born holding a pencil. As a kid I wrote all kinds of crazy stories, then launched my own line of anti-war-slash-fashion magazines. J From there it was a short descent into bad poetry. When I was about twelve, I taught myself to play guitar and started songwriting, which I continued to do for the next twenty or so years. Took some time off to have kids and started writing fiction again about seven years ago.

EEM: When you began, was it instant success and riches or did you find you had to work other jobs in order to continue your dream of being a writer?

CGW: Sadly, no instant success and riches for me. I’m a high school teacher, and I’ve done that job for the last 24 years (started when I was 22!). So I’ve always had this day job, even before I became a serious writer. However, when I realized that the writing gig was for real, my husband and I looked at our expenses and paid off everything we could, which allowed me to go part time. I might regret that when I’m ready to retire, but for now, I consider it the best thing I’ve ever done. I approach my writing as a second career and take it very seriously.

EEM: What jobs have you held, current or in the past, to help sustain your writing career?

CGW: Just the teaching. It pays the bills, and I would feel like a negligent parent if I didn’t provide health care for my family.

EEM: Has your job as a teacher ever been a challenge or a strange profession for you?

CGW: Teaching is, by nature, a challenging and strange job. Every day is a different adventure. But I love teens, and I get a lot of great material off them. They don’t always love me when I make them work in class, though.

EEM: How did you come across this job? Actively seeking or by chance?

CGW: When I was a kid, it never occurred to me that I could pursue writing as a career, but I was really good at Spanish in school, so I knew from the age of 14 that I’d probably end up doing that, and I never wavered from that track. That said, I’m ready to transition from teaching to full-time writing, so now all I need is a fabulous opportunity.

EEM: I hear you on that. So what would you say is your favorite thing about teaching?

CGW: Talking to kids, picking their brains, eavesdropping on their conversations. Kids are way smarter than we give them credit for and FUNNY!

EEM: Least Favorite?

CGW: Apathy in the classroom, and politics outside the classroom. It’s a very different profession than when I first started.

EEM: Does teaching allow you to write regularly? Or do/did you have to get creative to get those word counts in?

CGW: Before I went part time, I’d have to write at creative times. But going part-time has been brilliant. I write in the morning before going to work, and I’m very disciplined about using that block of time because I consider my writing a job. But it’s a job that I love dearly, so the hard part is stopping. I also write throughout the day – when the kids are doing homework, after they’ve gone to bed. My husband doesn’t care if I’m writing instead of folding the laundry (which he washes), so there’s a perpetual pile o’ laundry in our house.

EEM: What other effects did it have on your writing?

CGW: The main impact of my day job on my writing is that it gives me a ready-made source of material and a built-in readership since I’m in contact with my target audience every day.

EEM: Any fun stories from the job(s) that inspired your stories?

CGW: Lots of funny anecdotes that I jot down for possible later use, but there was a chilling story about kids bullying each other that led me to write what became my debut novel, QUAD. That book was inspired by my observations in my own school, in fact in my own classroom, and the way certain kids figured out how to psychologically dismantle a classmate whom they considered weak. They were immune to my interventions as a teacher, parents were not helpful (because their kid would never do or say such things), and admin is often impotent unless “something happens.” So I went home every day wondering what was the worst thing that might happen to a kid who gets pushed to his emotional limit day in and day out. And then I wondered what would happen if that same kid got pushed past his breaking point. I started writing QUAD to try and process the chilling possibilities of those questions.

EEM: Have you ever based a loved protagonist or an evil villain on one of your co-workers? Wished you had?

CGW: Ha! Funny question! No, not one of my co-workers. But I’m often asked if I’ve based any of the characters in my books on specific kids at school. The answer is yes and no. I definitely look at personality types that come through my classes and borrow some of their gestures and language. I steal clothing ideas directly from kids (we have a saying that every day at my high school is Halloween, which is true). But nothing more direct than that.

EEM: Would you change anything if you could begin your writing journey over again?

CGW: Yes. I’d go back and either major or minor in the arts or creative writing – at the time, I didn’t realize that teaching wasn’t necessarily my only career option. It’s much harder to transition into a new career now, after having the same day job for nearly 25 years. But for what it’s worth, I’m ready to do the writing thing full-time.

Thanks for joining us Carrie! It was great hearing about your writing journey!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Inquiry III: Cynthia Levinson

Today we welcome non-fiction writer Cynthia Levinson.

Cynthia is a seasoned traveler, a teacher with over 25 years of experience, a mother, a wife a grandma and so much more. Her books for young readers includes: WE HAVE A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH. She has been published in countless magazines some of which include, FACES, DIG, CALLIOPE and COBBLESTONE. She is represented by the Erin Murphy literary agency and makes her home in sunny Austin, Texas.

EEM: Cynthia has a great deal of information to share :) so we will jump right in!
Did you always want to be a writer?

CL: I have a confession. I did not always want to be a writer. I call this a confession because so many other writers say that they did. They knew from the time they had imaginary friends or stuffed friends or four-footed friends, even finned friends, or, best of all, no friends whatsoever, that they wanted to write. Not me. I wanted to teach, and, in particular, I wanted to make history teaching better.

So, I became a history teacher, and I did make history teaching better, if I do say so myself, for about 200 7th- and 8th-graders, mostly by not teaching much history! I have a sieve-like memory; it would be better at draining cooked veggies than retaining facts. So I could hardly ask my students to remember the date of the sinking of the Lusitania, say, and, anyway, we hardly got to the First World War (I think it’s WW1) before the end of the school year. We fought the Civil War over Christmas vacation, which means, I’m now embarrassed to say, not at all—not even Bull Run or Antietam (I think that’s the Civil War). So, since we weren’t memorizing when things happened, we had to do other things—like learn how archeologists excavate a site and how African princes supported the slave trade.

That lasted three years. My husband and I moved. And, I started teaching nursery school. Fifteen years later, when I applied for a prestigious, high-level education job, the interviewer asked me what my favorite job was. Without even thinking about it, I said, “teaching nursery school.” Then, I said, “I didn’t know that!” I should have known then that I’d want to write for kids.

For better or worse, I got the job, which I alternately loved and loathed and which delayed my having much time for writing (that plus having two kids plus going to grad school, which I started and dropped out of twice) for the next 20 years.

With one exception. Between jobs, I decided to try free-lance writing for adults, to see if I could actually write and sell things. And I made an interesting discovery: I could write things. I could sell things. But, I was lonesome. So, I went back to work and did all my writing there and was generally recognized as the best writer at my 1000-person agency. However, I called much of my writing there “soap-bubble writing” because I spurted it out, and it had to be pretty and evanescent.

EEM: Wow, so what was the catalyst? What led you to writing for kids?

CL: Yo-Yo Ma. In 1991, I think, he left his cello in New York City taxicab. The article in The New York Times about his despair was both so anguishing and so charming (since the Mayor and the Taxicab Commissioner helped him retrieve it) that I realized this had to be a children’s story. Hence, Mr. Below Lost His Cello, which won By-Line Magazine’s National Picture Book Award and which has never been published.

I say “it.” Actually, there must be 95 gabillion versions. At an SCBWI conference critique, an editor at Farrar Strauss and Giroux said one of the versions was just about right; he didn’t have any comments to make about it. But, he also said he didn’t have the energy to spend the next year, which picture books require, working with me on it. I was so discouraged, I went back to work.

The one good thing that came from Mr. Bellow is that I once read it aloud for my daughter, her husband, and her in-laws; when I finished, my daughter said, “You’ve just read your first picture book to your soon-to-be grandchild.” We all cried but not out of anguish or despair.

EEM: What jobs have you had since becoming a writer?

CL: As you can see, I rarely wrote and worked simultaneously. But, that doesn’t mean that my jobs didn’t sustain my writing.

I’m very risk-averse. What my jobs did was allow me to send the two children to college and, then, later to retire, with that life-goal having been met, and start writing in earnest.

EEM: When you began did you experience immediate success?

CL: Are you kidding?! I’ve been selling my work for three or four years and hope to have “instant success” when my first book is published in 2012.

EEM: Out of all your jobs what were you most and least favorite? Most challenging, if different?

CL: Well, I’ve told you about teaching nursery school. (I mean, what’s more fun than playing in a trough of Ivory Snow Flakes with four-year-olds?)

My least favorite was working in the Operations Office of a bank the summer before the bank computerized. Every Monday, we were inundated with all the checks (this was also before credit cards) people wrote over the weekend. Every Friday, we had to stay until our bins were balanced. I was always the last person to leave.

Most challenging—there were a couple of those. Developing Texas’ first plan for educational technology, in 1985, was challenging, especially since desktop computing wasn’t widespread. Still, we learned enough to know we had to focus on technological equity (being sure all kids have equal access), think about ownership and copyright of digitized texts (no music or video 25 years ago!), and worry about viruses.

The other ‘most challenging’ job was overseeing the development of the Texas State Curriculum in all content areas and grade levels. That was a biggie—politically, organizationally, and substantively.

EEM: Did any of this inspire your writing?

I write nonfiction. Although I write about science as well as social issues, teaching history, archeology, and anthropology definitely influenced my writing—learning how to do research and developing a sense of what interests kids and how to convey it. Memorizing lists of causes of the War of 1812 doesn’t do it but learning about The Pig Wars could. (I keep thinking I’ll write a book about wars with strange names. The Burning of the Teaser is another.)

Teaching nursery school let me read as many picture books as I wanted and play with kids. Nothing could be better for developing a sense of what tickles kids.

And, in terms of curriculum tie-ins, there’s hardly anyone who knows state curricula better than me!

Oh, yeah, I also taught teachers-to-be at Southwest Texas State University where I also learned what teachers need, both for the education and the trade markets.

EEM: Looking back on your journey to writing, is there anything you would do differently?

CL: Yes. I’d be less risk-averse, let my children find their own college tuition, and start writing 20 years earlier.

EEM: Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Cynthia! It was delightful having your insight here!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Inquiry III: Kelly Bennett

This week I am delighted to introduce a dear friend and fellow VCFA graduate, Kelly Bennett.

Kelly is a prolific writer who dabbles in several genres, but is perhaps best known for her wonderful picture books. Picture books include NOT NORMAN: A GOLDFISH STORY, DANCE Y'ALL DANCE, DAD AND POP, and YOUR DADDY WAS JUST LIKE YOU.

A native of California, Kelly graduated from Huntington Beach High School in 1976. Upon receiving an Associate of Arts Degree in Liberal Arts from Fullerton College, she continued her education at the University of California at Fullerton and CaliforniaState University at San Jose, where she majored in Communications with a Public Relations emphasis. Kelly is a graduate of the Vermont College Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. Kelly is represented by Erin Murphy of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

Let's get started!

EEM: Did you always want to be a writer? If no, what was your initial dream and what led you to writing later?

KB: The idea of being a writer never, ever crossed my mind until after I was a mom. And that is the only thing I always knew I wanted to be--a Mom. I got married young--to have children. After several years in a less than blissful marriage, I reached a point where I was ready to grow up and become a person. I decided that it was time to do something for myself, so I went back to school. My thought has been to take a volleyball class. I had played volleyball in high school and college, and thought it would be great fun and great exercise. While searching through the Community College catalogue for a volleyball class (which they didn't seem to offer in Tulsa, Oklahoma back then) I came upon a class on writing and marketing literature for children taught by an editor from the Tulsa World Sally Bright. The rest, is history...

EEM: When you began, was it instant success and riches or did you find you had to work other jobs in order to continue your dream of being a writer?

I achieved immediate success--in the form of praise for my stories from my teachers and positive comments on rejection letters. Fueled by these positive crumbs, I continued to write. I supported my family, and my writing, by working as a waitress. The flexible hours were perfect for writing. I could take my children to day care at 8:00 am, return home for a few hours of uninterrupted writing before reporting to work at 11:00.

EEM: What jobs have you held to help sustain your writing career?

KB: Waitressing has been my most constant "wage earning job" while I have been writing. The flexible hours and lack of "take home" responsibilities suited my life style and my writing ambitions. I sold my first book, Sherlick Hound and The Valentine Mystery, co-written with Ronnie Davidson, about a year after I began writing professionally. Since I did need the money, Ronnie and I began writing magazine articles. Each sale meant that I could "give away" a work shift. As we sold more and more magazine articles--traveling, parenting and human interest stories to regional magazines--I began to waitress fewer and fewer days.

EEM: Which job was the most challenging or strange to you?

KB: The most challenging job was as an "order clerk" at Council Oaks Books. At a writing conference, one of the speakers said that if we wanted to be serious writers, we should seek jobs "within our field." And so, when I learned that a position in the order department at a local publisher was available, I applied for it. Although the job had nothing to do with writing, I learned so much about how the book business works, author discounts, wholesale discounts, when books are reordered, promotions for authors, etc. etc. that the job proved invaluable later...when my books were being published. From my experience at Council Oaks, I knew so much more about the publishing business--I also knew what I could and could not expect as an author.

EEM: Which job was your least favorite?

KB: Secretary in a High School counselor's office. The job was stressful and distressing. Working in the school counselors office means one deals with either the "perfect children" who have everything ahead of them and all the opportunities, and the "problem children" who, because of family and/or personal situations have difficult obstacles to overcome. And often, just when we, as the counseling office, could step in and actually work with children, out of fear or need, the families would yank them from the school and move. It was distressing to know that those young people were just being shuffled from place to place without having a real chance to learn or succeed.

EEM: Did your day job allow you to write regularly? Or did you have to get creative to get those word counts in?

KB:I am fortunate that I no longer have to work a "day job." My husband's income is sufficient to support us. However, I find that I need the deadlines and interaction working with others provides. And so, I have involved myself in writing groups wherever I live. This has included serving as program director and president for Tulsa Writers, and assistant regional advisor for the Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I have organized conferences and meeting, and have found both enlightening and beneficial as I have have the great fortune to meet many authors, illustrators, editors, art directors, agents, etc.

EEM: Any fun stories from the job that inspired your stories?

I write a lot of travel and parenting articles based on my own experience. And I have about 200 pages of stories from my days of a waitress tentatively called, "Confessions of a Waitron Dog." Additionally, my last 2 picture books are based on my observations of my children and family. Dad and Pop is about a girl who, like my daughter, Lexi, has 2 fathers; and Your Daddy Was Just Like You was inspired by my son Max's struggles and frustrations trying to grow up and do everything his father could do.

EEM: Have you ever based a loved protagonist or an evil villain on one of your co-workers? Wished you had?

KB: Not yet....but ohhh baby, I will....I sure will. Be warned....

EEM: Thanks Kelly!