Random Q&A: Jacquelyn Mitchard

Jacquelyn Mitchard is perhaps best known for her book The Deep End of the Ocean, a New York Times bestseller and Oprah’s first book pick. All We Know of Heaven is Jackie’s second YA book; currently, she is finishing up her second book in a YA trilogy. With seven kids, two dogs, and a knee surgery coming up, she is an inspiration to excuse-laden, procrastinating writers everywhere.

1) This is your second YA book. Why write YA, especially after your success as an adult writer?

Someone in publishing who loved All We Know of Heaven said, “You know you could have gotten more money if you had added a few more pages and wrote it as an adult book.” And indeed, I could have. But I believe, strongly, when you capture a kid…especially a middle schooler and teenager, that the habituation for loving reading really happens or doesn’t happen. And it isn’t going to happen with issue books that are about adult fears…or books that are sort of a compilation of pop cultural references to TV, shoes, and clothes. It’s going to happen with the kinds of books—and I’m not comparing myself to this!—like a Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which my mother gave me. That’s a really gritty book, far more so than Angela’s Ashes [an adult book]. A smart 12- or 13-year-old isn’t going to pick up an adult book and read it. But she would pick up the equivalent of All We Know of Heaven or This Lullaby or Speak or some other YA book because they feel manageable.

2) What do you want to convey in your YA books?

The love of one mildly sane adult. The most harrowing things happen in my books, but they happen in a context of a community and family who offer support and offer at least the hope of at least someday the world making sense. I think there’s a place for that. I want for books to be both a challenge and a refuge.

If there’s a take home message, it would be that–with few exceptions–to be human is to both suffer and to be enormously resilient. And long as there’s someone’s hand to grasp, there is hope. It’s my feeling that if you’ve loved another person, you’ve seen the face of God.

3) Do any of your seven kids want to be a writer?

None of my kids are making any noises in that direction. They see how hard it is or like it’s doing a term paper every day. And it is discouraging to see me getting these pages back and see “While there is much to love about XYZ, you have to take 50 pages out and then rewrite the beginning, the middle, and the end.”

4) How has your relationship been with your agent?

I wrote a nonfiction book in my 20s about infertility and my struggles to have children. That was a relatively new topic 24 years ago. I had an agent who, at the time, had just started being an agent (she used to be an editor). I’ve had the same agent for 24 years, even though sometimes we disagree about some things. I think that if [my agent] had written Romeo and Juliet, the people would’ve had a nice brunch together and would’ve worked everything out and the kids would’ve gotten married when they got old enough and there would’ve been no poison or sword fights. She doesn’t like my stories to be as harrowing as I’d like them to be.

5) What is a good writing day for you? A bad writing day?

A good writing day would always include a break from writing that would be exercise or some other head-clearing and diverting endeavor. A great writing day would be if I was at a writing residence and had my coffee and oatmeal and then would write until the first Law and Order came on. Generally, what ends up happening is I get up really early, like dawn, and we make breakfast for the kids and see the kids to the school bus and get the little kids sorted out for the day and the dogs fed and then I answer my correspondence, which warms me up, and do any interviews I have to do and then go up to my room and the reading pillow in my bed and write for four or five hours. [When the interviewer asks if she writes longhand, Jackie laughed: “Are you nuts?” Jackie has a learning disability and could barely read her own writing if she wrote longhand—the last letter of a previous word attaches to the next word, such as: He remembere dthe wal kin the woods. To clarify, she uses a Mac Book, “Which, to me, is as dear as a pet.”]

All of my writing days are good and bad, just as my human days are good and bad. I never come down to dinner at a writer’s residence and say, “I wrote 30 pages today and it was like I was taking down dictation from the universe.” It’s more like you’re walking along and see a rainbow in the oil. I like to finish ten to twenty pages a day. But I don’t always. Sometimes it’s just six or seven. Sometimes I struggle with those six or seven over and over and over. I revise as I go along. I can’t really move on to the next thing until the revision is completed. Once my book is completed, it’s a completed book. To my editors, it’s a first draft. But I try to turn in as clean a first draft as I can. I feel like if you’re building a church, I can’t see just throwing down a foundation and starting the walls when the foundation isn’t there. I don’t believe in just puking it all out and going back to fix it. That’s very discouraging to me.

Good news, Random Readers! Jackie’s started a writer’s residence. For writers who can’t conform to a traditional 2-3 week schedule, Jackie is offering a short-term residence in Brewster, MA. Stays can be as short as one week, Saturday to Saturday, or as long as four weeks. (The four-week stay can be only in November.) One Writer’s Place is free; all you need to pay for is your travel, your food, and a cleaning deposit ($150). There will be two to three people at a time, and the residency will take place in the spring and fall. Fall 2008 is filled up, but Spring 2009 is still up for grabs. All genres are welcome, including published and unpublished writers of graphic novels, YA novels, and nonfiction. Writers who are interested will need three character references along with a four-page sample and an outline.

For more information on One Writer’s Place, visit Jackie’s blog. For more on Jackie and her books, visit her website.


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