Mary Ann Rodman is the author of innumerable books: picture books and older fiction both. We like her book Yankee Girl so much that we’re using it as part of our Battle of the Books this year. She’s generously agreed to answer our questions.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer.
When did you start writing?
I started writing before I learned to write. Or more specifically, I drew my stories in page panels on school tablet paper, so when I finished I would have ” book.” I was probably three or four when I did this. I was really excited when I learned how to write, and could put words to my pictures.
If you weren’t a writer, what would your job be?
I have been a high school librarian, and I’ve also directed high school theater and local theater. I would be happy doing either or both of those jobs again.
How long did it take from starting to write to having your first book published?
There are two answers to this question. I started writing when I was six, and I sold my first book nine years ago.
Or, to be a little more encouraging…about seven years after I decided to write seriously for children.
Did you get many rejections?
Yep. Everybody does. Some people keep track of how many rejections they get; I don’t. I don’t want to focus on who doesn’t want my story; I’m too busy thinking of who might want it. However, to give you an idea, another writer friend (who is very successful and has published over a 100 books), STILL gets over 400 rejections a year.
Rejection is just part of this job, and I have to remind myself that there are a zillion reasons why this particular story didn’t sell to this particular publisher. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer.
Do you find it hard to stop editing/revising, or do you have a definite ending point?
As time goes on, I find that I have become less compulsive about endlessly revising. After a certain point, the changes you make are like switching around the pictures on your bedroom wall. It’s different, but it doesn’t make any real difference in how the room looks, (or how the book reads.) I can tell I am in my NEXT TO LAST draft of a book when I start getting sick of my characters. When I am at that point, I know I have one more go round of changes. I know that the writing is ALMOST right, but not quite. I usually rewrite my novels four or five times, beginning to end. Picture books are another story. They take an average of five years, and as many as fifty completely different versions.
For you, what is the hardest part of writing a book?
Getting rid of scenes or characters that I love, but who really drag the story off in a different direction or take attention from the main characters and plot. I save all that stuff in a special computer file, and promise those characters that they will have their own story some day.
How do you get plot ideas? Are you inspired by incidents from your own childhood? Newspaper articles?
About 90% of my ideas come from my own family. I come from a family of terrific storytellers, and I was a kid who paid attention when my grandparents and aunts and uncles told stories about their own childhoods. My mother was the middle child of eight, and as an only child myself, I thought she had the most fascinating childhood of anyone. She lived on a farm during the Great Depression,helped her mother run a boarding house, and her brothers and sisters were wildly creative and adventurous. I asked my father-in-law to tell me about growing up in the Indiana farm country, mother-in-law in a mansion overlooking Sydney Harbor in Australia, my dad and uncle about surviving a devastating natural disaster. Add to that, I have a fifteen year old daughter who I have been observing since the day she was born.
I can tell you where each of my books came from: YANKEE GIRL, as you mentioned, is based on my own childhood in Mississippi; JIMMY’S STARS comes from my mother’s family. MY BEST FRIEND and FIRST GRADE STINKS are based on things that happened to my daughter. SURPRISE SOUP came from a story my husband told me about making pancakes when he was a little boy and my own memories of my dad making soup. A TREE FOR EMMY is a story I got from one of my daughter’s friends when she was really little. CAMP-K-9, a picture book that will be out in 2011, came from my dog, Nilla. Right now I am working on two novels based on my Grandmother Rodman’s stories, and a picture book that comes from my daughter’s experiences when she was little. I am always listening for good stories, but somehow most of them seem to come from my own family.
Were you ever in a situation like that of Alice in Yankee Girl, who wants to be popular, but knows that she can’t be if she goes with her instincts and befriends an African-American girl?
Yes. YANKEE GIRL is the closest thing I’ll ever write to an autobiography. Although that book is about a sixth grader, I have found myself in the same position…befriending someone unpopular or who is an outcast for some reason…over and over. And yes, I paid the price of my decisions, over and over. As you grow older, you learn that people who won’t be your friend because you have chosen a friend of a different race or religion, aren’t people who would have made a good friend in the first place. (Yes, it still happens to me even though I am an adult!)
Do you have any subjects that you’ve always wanted to write about, but haven’t?
Are you kidding? I have a sign in my office that says “So many books, so little time.” I think it is meant to be about READING books, but for me it’s about having so many stories you want to tell, and not enough time. I hope I get to most of them. The one thing I have wanted to write and haven’t, is a non-fiction book about the unsung heros of the Civil Rights Movement. But I am so used to writing fiction I just can’t make myself stick to the facts. One of these days I hope I become disciplined enough that I can just tell their stories without having to make up stuff.
What advice would you give to young writers?
Read, read, read. Write, write, write!
You can’t be a writer if you aren’t a reader. How will you know what kind of books you’d like to write, if you don’t read?
As for the writing part, I’m not talking about class assignments, or book reports or school journals. (Down here in Atlanta, my daughter has had to write in a school journal for at least ten minutes every day, and she’s in high school now!) Write whatever it is you like…poetry, stories, graphic novels, whatever. I know it’s hard to work on big projects all the time when you have so much else going on in your life. I did a zillion things when I was growing up besides write. What I always had time to do was to write in my personal journal every single day. I have had a journal ever since third grade. This is a private thing where you write down your thoughts, descriptions of places and people you want to remember…anything you want. You don’t have to write in complete sentences or even spell things right (as long as you can tell what you’re saying) This is NOT the kind of journal where you write down everything you did that day. I’ve done those kinds of journals and most days are alike. It’s the things that make THAT day different that you want to write about. For instance, one of my all time favorite entries is from my third grade journal. We lived in Hazel Crest, Illinois, and it was February and below zero…and the school bus didn’t show up. In those days, if the bus didn’t show up, you were stuck, because in our neighborhood people only had one car…and the dads took that one car to work. I won’t tell you exactly what my friend Chuck and I did while we waited for the bus (it finally did come…an hour late) because I still think I might write a story about it. Most of it had to do with our noses dripping from the cold…and we didn’t have any Kleenex. (Disgusting, hunh?) But I thought it was funny when I was eight, and I still think it is today.
Write every chance you get. When I was a kid, I wrote for our local newspapers and the school paper. If I were a young writer today I would probably blog or maybe even try a graphic novel.
Are you working on a new book right now? If so, can you tell us anything about it?
As I said before, I am writing two novels, that take place in Southern Illinois in the early 1900’s. The picture book is about my daughter learning a skill…and what she learns besides that. I know this sounds really vague but I don’t like to get too specific while I am still writing, in caseI I change my mind about something.
Do you prefer writing chapter books or picture books?
I like both equally. I like chapter books (novels actually….I think of chapter books being for readers a little younger than the ones I write for) because I have lots of time and space to create a whole fictional world. I like picture books because they teach me to write in a completely different way…in as few words as possible. When I am stuck writing novel, I switch over to a picture book for a day. You can write a whole draft of a picture book in a couple of hours.
What are your hobbies when you aren’t writing?
I don’t suppose reading counts? I am a photographer, and I still like to mess around with art. (My daughter is a much better artist than I am.) I like cruising around antique stores and flea markets. Being around all those old things that once belonged to someone…well, it’s another way I get ideas.I also like to cycle, and am a big fan of figure skating (my daughter is a competitive skater.)
Thanks again to Mary Ann Rodman, a fabulous author and interviewee–we can’t wait to see her 2011 book!