Monday, November 24, 2008
Interview with Frances O'Roark Dowell
Today I bring you an interview with Frances O'Roark Dowell. You can visit her on the web here. One of her newest books is Shooting the Moon. It is one of my favorite, favorite books. Her previous works include: Phineas L. MacGuire...Blasts Off, Phineas L. MacGuire...Gets Slimed, Phineas L. MacGuire...Erupts: The First Experiment, Chicken Boy, The Secret Language of Girls, Where I'd Like To Be, and Dovey Coe. In January, watch for the release of The Kind of Friends We Used To Be.
Can you share with us a little bit about your background and your journey towards becoming a published author?
I am the daughter of an Army lawyer and a homemaker, attended eight schools growing up, including three high schools, have deep roots in Kentucky but have never actually lived there, and consider myself a quasi-Southerner. My love of liver mush and pimento cheese alone should qualify me as the real deal, but sadly it is not enough.
I always loved to write—it was a happy day in school for me when we were assigned an essay—but I was never much of a fiction writer. I started writing poetry at an early age and after college went on to get an MFA in creative writing in poetry. It wasn’t until I started re-reading my favorite childhood books in my mid-twenties—Harriet the Spy, The Changeling, the Great Brain books—that I thought about writing fiction, specifically for middle grade readers.
I wrote my first book, put it in a drawer, and then wrote Dovey Coe, which I also put in a drawer. I kept writing while I went on to do any number of things, including getting married, moving to east Tennessee, working as a hotel maid, a paralegal and a copywriter for Laura’s Lean Beef. A few years after I wrote Dovey Coe, my best friend from grad school, the novelist Nancy Reisman, met an editor from HarperCollins Children’s Books, told her about me, and got me in the door. It’s good to have friends! Ultimately, Dovey Coe went to Caitlyn Dlouhy at Atheneum, who initially rejected it, but accepted it later, after I’d revised.
I’ve worked with Caitlyn for ten years now. She is a genius and has taught me almost everything I know about writing novels.
What do you love about writing? What do you find the easiest? What do you find the hardest?
As a poet, I love the music of language. I love the sound of people’s voices. The joy of writing is finding really good words and sounds and rhythms. What I find the hardest is coming up with plausible plots. I would be very happy to write novels where characters just wander around and talk and think interesting thoughts, but readers (and editors) tend to like stories where something happens. Interestingly, I find it pretty easy to revise—in fact, I find it highly enjoyable--even when I’m tearing out huge chunks of the first draft and trashing them.
What is a typical day-in-the-life like as a writer?
When I’m working on a book, I get up, make breakfast for my children, drive them to school, come home and walk the dog, then sit down to work. Usually I work for two to three hours. I can’t do much longer than that, especially if it’s a first draft. I really tear my hair out on first drafts. When I’m revising and it’s going well, I can work for longer stretches.
I used to work at night, in part because my children were small and that was the only time available to me (I am decidedly not a morning person). Now I tend to work from 9 a.m. until noon.
What inspired you to write Shooting the Moon? (Or how did this novel come to be…?)
It was my husband’s idea, really. He suggested I write a book about life as an Army brat. I resisted at first, just because I wasn’t sure that anyone would be interested. But then I became intrigued by the notion of writing something so autobiographical.
It took a long time to get a workable draft, though. At first the story was set in Germany (where I lived when I was in middle school) and Jamie’s older brother TJ declares himself as a conscientious objector. But that wasn’t working, so I brought the story Stateside and had TJ decide to enlist.
Do you have a favorite character? A favorite scene?
I like Jamie’s father, the Colonel. I think he’s an honorable, flawed human being. I tend to let my characters go their own way, so I was prepared for him to be a bad guy if that’s how it played out, but fortunately his dark side wasn’t too dark. Too often in books and movies military officers are depicted as brutes and abusers. I’m not saying men (and women) like that don’t exist, but they are the exceptions, in my opinion, not the rule.
I like the scene where Jamie finally builds up the courage to ask the Colonel to keep her friend Private Hollister out of Vietnam. I thought it stayed true to both of their characters.
What songs would be on Jamie‘s playlist? Does she have a theme song?
I think Creedence Clearwater Revival would have loomed large on Jamie’s playlist. When my dad came home from Vietnam, he was a huge Creedence fan. She might have been listening to Sly and the Family Stone, since Sly was an Army brat, too. I suspect the Colonel was a Tom Jones fan, so Jamie would have been as well.
Don’t know about a theme song. Something by Creedence. John Fogerty was a Vietnam Vet, and to me, songs like “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” and “Fortunate Son” are a part of the war’s soundtrack. (See my post here.)
Why photography? What do you think pictures can say that words can’t express?
When I was in seventh grade and living in Bad Kreuznach, Germany, I used to go to the Rec Center on post and develop film and print photographs. So it was something I knew a little bit about (and my husband is a documentary photographer, so I had his expertise to rely on as well) and it gave Jamie something interesting to do while she volunteered at the Fort Hood Rec Center. From the necessity of giving Jamie an interesting job came the idea that TJ could send her film to develop.
With photography, there are no filters. It’s visceral and immediate. If I write a story in which I describe a wounded soldier being carried to a helicopter, you may or may not be affected by it. My words might move you, or they might bore you. You might get bogged down in my endless description. But if I show you a photograph, even if it’s not the greatest photograph in the world, through the mere act of looking, you will be affected and perhaps even changed.
I loved the first sentence. “The day after my brother left for Vietnam, me and Private Hollister played thirty-seven hands of gin rummy, and I won twenty-one.” Did this line come easily or did you struggle with getting it just right?
Oh, I played around with it for a long time to get it right. I really care a lot about rhythm and sound and cadence. It’s the poet in me. I’m glad you think it’s a good first line.
What was your first impression of the cover art for Shooting the Moon?
I thought it was a beautiful piece of art. It looks just a touch old fashioned to me—more Great Depression era than Vietnam era—but I trust the art department folks and the marketing folks to know what they’re doing.
What would you say (if anything) to critics who would label the book as anti-war or propaganda?
There is a scene in which Jamie’s father, the Colonel, explains the rationale for the US’s involvement in Vietnam and why he agreed with it. He doesn’t think the US was wrong to go to Vietnam, but he acknowledges that it’s turning out to be an unwinnable war. He doesn’t suddenly become antiwar—that would be propaganda. I’m not sure that ultimately Jamie is anti-war. I think she finally realizes that war is not a game or a romantic situation. It’s real and it’s ugly. But a lot of people recognize the ugliness of war and still see the necessity of it. I consider myself a Christian pacifist, but I’m hard pressed to say what we could have done about Hitler except send over troops.
I’ve actually wondered if anyone would see Shooting the Moon as pro-military propaganda simply because the soldiers—including the officers—aren’t bad guys.
Can you tell us anything about your current work-in-progress? Do you have any upcoming releases?
I just finished the second draft of a book that’s very different for me. My editor is calling it a light fantasy—a girl falls through the closet in the school nurse’s office and finds herself in a completely different world. It’s in the third person and was incredibly fun to write. Not easy, but definitely fun.
The sequel to The Secret Language of Girls is going to be published in January 2009. It’s called The Kind of Friends We Used to Be.
How do you find time—do you find time—to keep reading? Do you have any favorites of the year?
It’s hard! I’m busy in the mornings, either writing or running errands or volunteering at my sons’ school. When I try to read after lunch, I inevitably fall asleep on the couch. I try to sneak in reading in the early evening, while the boys are taking their baths or playing before bedtime. I’m almost done with The Adoration of Jenna Fox, which is fascinating—what a great book for discussion! And I’ve just started The Underneath by Kathi Appelt and can’t wait to pass it on to my fourth grader. It’s wonderful. A book I love for its art and its story is We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson.
If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?
Yikes! There are tons of folks I’d want to time-travel to meet—everyone from Jesus to the first Queen Elizabeth to Walt Whitman. I’d like to go to Monticello while Thomas Jefferson still lived there. I’d love to hang out with all those radicals in Greenwich Village in the 1920s (“Reds” is one of my favorite movies). I’d march in the Selma-to-Montgomery march and go to D.C. to hear Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech live. It would be fascinating to walk (climb?) back through my family tree—especially to meet the women. I’m very interested in domestic history—the day to day of how people have lived through the years.
But could I do all that in twenty-four hours? Hmmm …
With my limitless supply of money, I’d buy art, books, quilts and yarn, and a house built by Frank Lloyd Wright.
© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews