Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Author Interview: Robin Merrow MacCready on Buried

Robin Merrow MacCready on Robin Merrow MacCready: "I grew up in the 60s and 70s in Kennebunk Beach, Maine. My father was a realtor and we had a hotel and later an inn. Lots of people doing lots of things: fuel for great stories! After the summer was over, Kennebunk reverted back to a quiet town, but during the July and August it exploded with families from all over. I always worked as a chamber maid or a house cleaner or baby sitter. I also taught arts and crafts at the beach club. I love the contrast between the townies and the tourists. It's rich and it's infuriating, but it's ripe with stories.

"I'm the oldest in my family. My brother is a musician, and my sister is an art director. My mother is a writer, and my father is a realtor and an avid reader. I have him to thank for my love of things that are a little bit creepy. I say a little bit because it doesn't take much to scare me. I remember reading a scary paperback at the kitchen table and Dad jolting me and I screamed. I considered my ability to zone out a gift. Compared to my friends I was quiet and shy. I watched people, and daydreamed a lot, and although my report cards were not perfect, I loved English and reading and art. I even loved diagraming sentences although I can't remember how to do it now!"

What about the writing life first called to you? Were you quick to answer or did time pass by?

I was the kind of kid that played school. I read and wrote all the time. I thought everybody made homemade cards with poems inside. In high school, I made up stories, mostly romances, and kept a journal. The journal was only half true. I embellished the events to my satisfaction. It wasn't until I began teaching that I considered being a writer. I was lucky to be a student at the New Hampshire Writing Project where a new writing philosophy reigned. That is: if you want to write go ahead and try! Everybody's a writer!

What made you decide to write for young adults?

When I first wrote I imagined being the new Arnold Lobel. His Frog and Toad and Owl at Home are my favorites. I tried, but failed and put away my dream for ten years. When I tried again I thought I was writing an adult book and almost gave it up because the voice was that of a teenage girl, but I didn't because I heard her story as clear as I bell and I believed it.

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

When I decided to become a published author I manned myself with every book and any course I thought I needed. The plan was that if I had all the information and followed the directions perfectly I'd make it. It partly worked that way. I worked my butt off! I listened to my critique partners when they had a point to make because they were usually right. I wrote down some goals to reach, tasks to do, and I didn't let anyone get in my way. I was single minded in a way I never had been before.

I sent three chapters of Buried to Julie Strauss-Gabel after she spoke at a national conference of SCBWI, and she wanted to read the whole manuscript. She loved the first three chapters but said as the story progressed it wasn't what she'd hoped. She wrote a kind of thanks-but-no-thanks letter. I wrote back and asked more questions about the problems she had with the manuscript and that began our nearly two year pre-contract relationship.

We passed the book back and forth. I valued Julie's insight and light touch, but in the late summer of 2004 I felt it was time to send Buried. I sent it to Julie and two other major houses that had shown interest during SCBWI critiques. I teach and the summer was quickly winding down--I had about two weeks of summer left. I spent a week researching agents in a big way. I finally got it down to 10 and queried them. Wendy Schmalz [scroll for bio] phoned me and said she was interested in representing me and Buried, but first she scolded me about the way I went about the process. Buried was already sitting in three houses. For her it was probably not the way she'd planned to sell it. But for me it was a relief. Now I could go set up my classroom. Within the week I had a sale with Dutton, and I'm very happy I could continue with Julie.

Congratulations on the publication of Buried (Dutton, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

The climactic scene came to me one day when I was writing with my sister. We were just fooling around, but I saw Claudine in her horrific situation and it was clear like a movie. That was my initial contact with Claudine, but the inspiration for her comes from a girl I knew growing up. I was her sometimes babysitter. Her mother was a guidance counselor and an alcoholic. Whenever I sat for the little girl it was like hanging out with a peer. She was older acting, a little rough around the edges, and competent. Too competent for age seven. One night she took care of me while I had the flu and later her mother came home drunk, so she cared for her too.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

The challenge was to let myself go deeper and deeper and not lose the storyline. It sounds simple but it's a fine line to walk. When Claudine's OCD was aggravated my instinct as a friend/mother was to turn it off, not let it rip. When I let it get out of control it was sometimes scary. As far as the addiction model goes, I wanted it to be real. Buried is a story. It's not true, but I would argue that Claudine's pain, her shame, and all her feelings are shared by children of alcoholics.

You're an Edgar nominee. Wow! That's great! What does the nomination mean to you? How did you react when you found out?

Julie left a message on my machine saying that she had some great news for me. I had no idea what it could be. I'd been talking to my agent that day because I was worried about how sales were going. When Julie told me I was a nominee I said, "Oh, really?" I didn't know what it meant. I'd seen the list of submissions and there were a lot of books, so it still didn't register as a big thing until she said I was one of five in the Best YA category. I'm thrilled! I'm up against some big competition, but I'm bursting with pride. It's especially exciting because there are five writers from Maine and Stephen King is one of them. It'll be a great night.

What advice do you have for beginning novelists?

If you want to be published you have to be willing to take some heat. Listen to your critiques and make changes if there is validity, but don't listen to the people who want to discourage you. Politely ignore all those that think you're wasting your time. Also, I think SCBWI is a great organization for beginning writers. I know I wouldn't be published without it.

What do you do when you're not writing?

I teach reading and writing to 4th-6th graders. I write on the weekends and sometimes at night.

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