- Published: 28 August 2016 28 August 2016
Monika Schröder interviews Barbara O’Connor, author of WISH (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Children’s authors Monika Schröder and Barbara O’Connor have been friends for years, brought together when they shared the same editor, Frances Foster at FSG. After communicating by email for a year or so, they finally met in person at a librarians’ conference in Washington, DC. But their bond grew closer when Barbara moved from Boston to Asheville, North Carolina, a short distance from Monika. Now they enjoy chatting all things book related while walking their dogs once a week in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Making the bond even more special is the fact that they each have new children’s novels being published just days apart.
Barbara is the author of award-winning novels for children, including How to Steal a Dog, The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis, and The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester. Her latest novel, Wish, is published this fall by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Visit her at: www.barbaraoconnor.com
Monika is the author of Saraswati's Way, The Dog in the Wood and My Brother's Shadow. Her latest novel for middle-grade readers, Be Light Like a Bird, will be published by Capstone on September 1st. Visit her at: www.monikaschroeder.com
Monika: You’re known for your novels with Southern settings. Why did you decide to exclusively write books with Southern settings and tone?
Barbara: As a new and inexperienced writer, I was struggling to find my writing voice. Then I read Missing May by Cynthia Rylant and had a light bulb moment. I adored her voice in that book and I realized how much voice and setting were intertwined in her work. That’s when I began to write books set in the South, where I grew up. My childhood memories are closely connected with the South: the kudzu, the steamy summer weather, the boiled peanuts and collard greens, the great Southern folks with their accents and phrases like “I’m fixin’ to go” and “I like to died.” By drawing on those memories, I found my writing voice.
Monika: I have a feeling that your recent move to the Blue Ridge Mountains had an impact on the setting of Wish. Am I right?
Barbara: Absolutely! I grew up at the bottom of those beautiful mountains and have many happy memories of day trips up the winding roads. The woods were lush with ferns and cool, damp moss. The creeks were icy cold with giant boulders warm from the sun, perfect for a barefoot little girl to jump on. After 26 years in snowy Boston, I headed back to the Blue Ridge Mountains. I felt so at home again that I knew I had to set my next book there.
Monika: I know that often stories start with the seed of an idea. What was the seed for Wish?
Barbara: I was teaching a writing workshop to a class of fifth graders at an elementary school in Massachusetts. The students were given a set of questions to use to interview a relative. The next day, they brought those interview questions back to class and I would work with them on writing a short biography of that person. (Many people don’t know this, but I actually started my career writing biographies for children.)
I asked the students to share with the class one of their favorite questions from the interview. One young boy had interviewed his grandmother and he chose to share the question, “What were some of your favorite activities as a child?” His grandmother had answered, “Soccer, ballet and fighting.”
I now had a character to plunk down into those mountains. Her name is Charlie Reese, a feisty, troubled child with a bad temper.
Monika: I love the character of Howard, who tries so hard to befriend hot-headed Charlie. Can you shed any light on the creation of Howard?
Barbara: Howard was actually a character in a manuscript that I abandoned (something I almost never do). The story wasn’t working, but I liked Howard so much that I snatched him out of that story and knew he’d be a perfect friend for Charlie. He is very much the yin to her yang.
Monika: Wish tells the story of a child displaced from her home due to dysfunctional parents. You’ve also written about a homeless child in your novel, How to Steal a Dog. Your books are geared toward readers aged 9 to 12. How do you handle such tough issues for young readers?
Barbara: I’m a strong believer in not sugar-coating the world for children. Some families are dysfunctional. Some children are homeless. To never write about those things doesn’t make them go away. And by writing about them, some children will see themselves and relate, while others will learn more about the world around them and perhaps gain more empathy.
On the subject of protecting children from the harsh realities of life, I like to quote Phyllis Fogelman, the editor of Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. She says, “It is generally knowledge, not a lack of it, that arms children and helps to prepare them for the world as it is rather than what we would like it to be.” To which I reply, “Amen.”
Monika: What do you see as the main difference between writing for children and writing for adults? For instance, do you ever write in order to teach a moral or a lesson? Do you make a point of keeping vocabulary more simplistic?
Barbara: I never write to teach a moral or a lesson. My main goal in writing for children is simply to entertain them. If they learn a bit along the way, that’s a good thing, too.
As far as vocabulary, I never think about it. Maybe that means my brain is stuck in fourth grade. I definitely don’t “dumb down” the vocabulary.
Monika: Any advise for aspiring children’s writers?
Barbara: The obvious: read. Read as many books as you can, particularly book written in the genre and style of your own writing. It’s important to read new books to stay abreast of the market and to see which publishers are publishing which types of books.
Also, I always recommend that aspiring children’s writers join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (scbwi.org). That organization provides a wealth of information and support. If possible, attend one of their regional conferences. You’ll come away informed and inspired.
Lastly, your writing process will very likely be different from others. Some writers write every day. (I don’t.) Some writers keep journals. (I don’t.) Some writers outline. (I don’t.) Do what works for you.