From the lovely middle grade novel, Caterpillar Summer by Gillian…
Frances O’Roark Dowell and her publisher, Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, were kind enough to share The Class with me this summer. I devoured it, enjoying the multiple perspectives and the mystery and I knew it would be a popular read among my sixth graders. I am so thankful that Frances also agreed to an interview about herself and her book. Enjoy learning more about Frances and her new book, The Class, which you can order now!
Introduction: About You
3 Little Known or Interesting Things About You
1. I make quilts, and several of my quilts have been in national quilt shows.
2. I’m an Army brat, was born in Berlin, and went to three elementary schools, one middle school, and three high schools.
3. My childhood nickname is “Missy” and there are still some people who call me that.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Social media. When I’m working on a first draft, I’m always finding an excuse to check out Twitter or see the latest thing on Instagram. So distracting!
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I’ve been fortunate to have lots of author friends over the years. Locally, it always makes me happy to see John Claude Bemis, Kelly Starlings Lyons, and Sarah Dessen (who lives five miles away from me, but who I mostly run into at the airport). Central North Carolina is a treasure trove of amazing writers! My online friends include Barbara Dee, Kerry Madden Lunsford, Kate Hannigan, Augusta Scattergood, Ann Braden, Nora Raleigh Baskin, and many more. They’ve all helped me by supporting my work and by writing great books themselves–writers learn a lot by reading!
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
One of my favorites is All Alone in the Universe by Lynne Rae Perkins. She’s such a wonderful writer, and this book spoke to my heart. It’s a quiet story about the end of a friendship–right up my alley!
How do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader?
I make demands on my readers by playing around with narrative forms (multiple POVs in The Class and Trouble the Water, an intrusive narrator in Falling In, reality mixed with fantasy in The Second Life of Abigail Walker, linked stories in The Secret Language of Girls trilogy). I believe these approaches enrich the stories, but I know that they can be disruptive to the reader who’s used to straightforward storytelling.
I try to take care of the reader by doing my best to keep the story moving! Even my books that play around with form have fairly conventional plots–the protagonist is confronted with a big problem that has to be resolved by the end of the story. And while sometimes I’ll leave some unanswered questions at the end of story (which everyone hates, and yet I can’t seem to stop myself), I always make sure the big picture conflicts are all dealt with. The other thing I try to do that I hope makes my readers feel at home is to create characters they’ll care about and want to spend time with.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot or avatar?
My dog, Travis!
About Your Book-The Class
Tell us about your book-length of time it took to write, journey, publishing, release dates, etc.
I love writing short stories, and some of my so-called novels, such as those in the Secret Language of Girls trilogy, are really collections of linked stories. The Class started out as a collection of linked stories as well. I liked the idea of writing a short story about each member of one sixth grade class. They’re all experiencing the same classroom situation–they have the same teacher, the same classmates, the same homework assignments–but the way they feel about these things, the way they react to situations, what they’re thinking–well, that depends on the individual. It was fun showing how people’s insides can be very different from their outsides.
My editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy, was interested in what I was doing, but she felt like there needed to be a stronger plot. I had several narrative threads running through the stories, but there wasn’t one big problem that needed to be resolved. It took a couple of drafts to come up with a conflict that affected everyone in Mrs. Herrera’s sixth grade class–and that they had to work through together.
It probably took a year to get the story in shape. I always do a lot of revisions, and Caitlyn and I do a lot of back and forth, both over the phone and via email. I’m so happy for an October pub date–October is my favorite month, and a great month for school stories!
This book is so unique in that it gives 19 perspectives! Describe the character that is most like you.
Oh, Ellie, for sure! She’s a writer and an Army brat, and she likes to observe people, which is one of my favorite things to do. If only I had her hair (she’s the girl on the fabulous cover, which was illustrated by Amy Marie Stadelmann)!
Do you have any suggestions to help me become a better writer?
Aside from the usual advice–write daily, read a lot, get feedback, revise, revise, revise–I’d recommend finding a writing group or a writing partner. Learning to give constructive criticism as well as receive it has immense payoffs.
I took a lot of workshops in college and grad school (I have an MFA in Creative Writing), and I learned as much from giving feedback on other people’s work as from getting feedback on my own, possibly more. In a workshop or a writing group, you can’t just say, “I like this” or “I don’t like this”; you have to talk about why something works or doesn’t work. It forces you to analyze the nuts and bolts of a story, essay or poem. Why are some opening scenes effective while others lie flat on the page? What makes a character come to life? How do you make dialogue sound like real people talking? You have to offer solutions to the problems you identify.
The longer you do this, the better you get at it. And this is maybe the most important thing–you’ll start applying these questions and insights to your own work. Your writing becomes stronger as a result.
The other great thing about being in a writing group or having at least one trusted reader to respond to your work, is that you learn how to take criticism. You learn that getting feedback is an essential part of the writing process. I used to feel defensive when it was my turn to listen to what others thought about my work-in-progress, but now I crave constructive criticism (emphasis on constructive). It’s always disappointing when Caitlyn isn’t crazy about something I’ve written, but it doesn’t upset me the way it used to. Now I’m delighted to have the chance to try again, this time with some guidance about how to make my book stronger.
Leave us with some wise words. What advice would you give the readers of this interview?
Perfection is impossible–in life as well as in your writing. Work hard, stay true to yourself, and keep in mind what William Carlos Williams’ wrote in his poem “The Descent”:
“No defeat is made up entirely of defeat—since the world it opens is always a place formerly unsuspected.”
Wow, what an amazing interview!
I will leave you with my journal notes on The Class and a link for you to buy your own copy from IndieBound!