Monday, August 10, 2009

Meet Ruby's Mom! (Better known as Barbara O'Connor)

Many years ago, I read Carolyn See's Making the Literary Life, which so impressed me that I adopted her idea of writing the charming literary note. By writing a literary note/fan letter to Barbara O'Connor, I opened the door to a lovely on-line friendship. We are determined to meet in person someday but until then, pour yourself a cup of tea (or cold beer; see below) and join me in chatting with a storyteller who proves that writers "put little pieces of themselves into their stories-- and sometimes their stories take place right in their hearts’ home.”

Were you a flashlight-under-the covers or a run-and-play-and-collect-bugs kind of kid?

Most definitely a run-and-play-and-collect-bugs kind of kid. I was very active and independent. Loved playing in creeks and woods and riding my bike to faraway places (like, um, four blocks away).
Looking for yoohoo boats at a young age

I absolutely loved playing games – board games, yard games (Mother, May I?) and was often the bossy leader of those games.

What was the nudge/spark that set you in front of that blank paper to write for children?

I was living in Los Angeles and had been noodling around with the idea of writing for kids, when I saw a notice about an SCBWI-sponsored class. I signed up and fell in love. Then, that love turned to all-out lust when I attended the SCBWI national conference in L.A. the following summer. I learned so much and met so many authors. I like to died (as we say down South) when I got to chat with Betsy Byars at lunch. AND, get this – I had submitted a manuscript for critique. Guess who did the critique? LOIS LOWRY! Talk about jackpot! (That manuscript was very bleh, but she said nice things and made me feel like I maybe I could do this.)

Who are the writers you read to be inspired?

The one and only Cynthia Rylant. I credit my whole career to her because when I read Missing May, I had one of those light bulb moments. I finally GOT voice. And I GOT the importance of place. Rylant writes from her heart’s home (the mountains of West Virginia). That light bulb moment resulted in Me and Rupert Goody, my second novel. I found my flow with that novel. Thank you, Cynthia! (I wrote her a thank you note and she wrote me back and signed it, “Take good care, Cyndi.” Swoon….)

Do you have any special writing talismans/tokens in your writing space? If so, what are they?

I write by hand – never on a computer. (In fact, I can’t even edit on the computer. I have to print it out and edit by hand on paper. (I’m such a tree-destroyer.) I used to write in cheapo spiral notebooks, but then somewhere along the way, I decided I needed to have nicer notebooks. I found these great little notebooks on a trip to Santa Fe once and I adore them (Apica notebooks).

The paper feels great to write on and I’ve decided they make my writing better.

What do you do that helps you sustain and nourish your literary life?

Reading, of course, keeps me nourished. But other things inspire me to put pen to paper. For instance, country western music. I love how country music makes the ordinary seem important – turns the little things into big things. And I love the emotion and the humor of it.

I’m also nourished by children. I love listening to them and watching them.

What’s the worst writing advice you ever received?

I hate it when I’m told to “just keep going” rather than polish and edit along the way. That’s perfectly good advice for some people – just not for me. That process doesn’t suit my anal personality. I need to know the writing I leave behind is tidy. It makes me more relaxed and able to move forward. We have a private joke in our family that is the result of a trip to Ireland, where they award tidy little towns the title of “Tidy Town.” (Say that 14 times fast!) I need my manuscript to be “Tidy Town” before I “just keep going.”

What was the scariest thing you’ve done as a writer?

I don’t know if “scary” is the right word, but writing a multiple viewpoint story (Greetings from Nowhere) was definitely a challenge (but one I was ready for). It’s sometimes scary to challenge yourself for fear of failing, I think.

I love multiple viewpoint. Years ago, I read July 7th by Jill McCorkle. I was fascinated by the shifting viewpoints and filed that away, hoping some day I would be up for the challenge. (I ended up with 4 viewpoints. I think July 7th has about 20!)

What are you proudest of in your work?

Children’s authors face a unique situation compared to adult authors. We have to appeal to adults, who buy our books and review our books and, hopefully, encourage children to read our books. But then, we have to appeal to our ultimate audience: children.

When children like my books, that makes me proud and is the ultimate reward. I am particularly proud that How to Steal a Dog won the South Carolina Children’s Book Award for 2009. I was born and raised in South Carolina, so to know that the children of that state like my book is great.

How do you know when you have a story just right?

Oh, boy….the million-dollar question. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I almost never feel like a story is perfect. I can pick up any of my books right now and find something I want to change. So, during the writing process, knowing when to drop the manuscript in the mailbox is hard, hard, hard. Usually, I try to pay attention to my gut feeling. When I find myself constantly making teeny changes every time I read it and feeling like maybe I’m over-editing, that’s when I step away from the paper. THAT is why we need good editors. We have to trust our editors to help us know when our stories are ready.

How long was it between “I’ve got an idea” to “We’d like to publish your book”? And what happened in between those moments?

I’m very lucky. The time between “I’ve got an idea” for a book about a boy who loves music (Beethoven in Paradise) and “We’d like to publish your book” (thank you, Frances Foster at FSG) was only about 2 years. I had gotten about 8 or 9 rejections. But then a stroke of luck: I was in a critique group with a writer (Leslie Guccione) who was published by Ann Reit at Scholastic. Leslie offered to send my manuscript to Ann. Ann called me within a week and wanted to work with me on revision. We fiddled around with it for 9 months or so, but Ann eventually gave up and decided the manuscript just wasn’t right for her. BUT, she offered to help me get an agent (Barbara Markowitz, whom I adore). Barbara submitted the manuscript to three editors. One of them was Frances Foster at FSG, who was interested but wanted revisions.
Here's where Barbara does her revising

I’ve been with Frances ever since.

What typically comes first for you: the character or the story problem or???

This might sound really strange, but for most of my books, the title comes first. I usually have a hazy story idea. But the title is often the catalyst for me. Characters are the next vital ingredient. I don’t write a single word until I know the characters perfectly.

What, if anything, in the writer’s life has caught you by surprise?

The amount of marketing and promotion we need to do. I struggle with that a lot because I don’t particularly like marketing. I’m not very good at it. And it takes a lot of time away from writing. But I understand that it’s important for the success of a book, and that writers should be active partners with their publishers with regard to marketing.

A series of questions about work habits:
  • Computer or long-hand? Long-hand
  • Coffee or tea? Coffee (and I only drink General Foods International Coffee, CafĂ© Francais flavor. I know, I know… My family still teases me about the time I was convinced they were going to discontinue it so I bought about a gazillion cans of it.)
  • Quiet office or music going? Quiet
  • Desk: messy or tidy? Tidy (I always get the “Tidy Town” award.)
  • Essential writing snack food: Goldfish crackers and cold beer (but only after 10 a.m.)

About your new book:

I know from stalking your blog that The Small Adventures of Popeye and Elvis got some momentum from learning about making Yoo-Hoo boats. Can you tell us about that?

I knew the story was going to involve boys playing with boats in a creek. I originally thought they would make the boats and send them down the creek. But then I realized it would be much more fun if they found them. Then I read author Tamra Wight’s blog and she posted a photo of a boat her son had made out of Yoohoo drink carton. Eureka! I emailed her and asked if I could use that idea and she said I could and even had her son send me directions how to make the boat. (Starting with: First I put in the straw and drink it.)
YooHoo boats

Your characters are perfectly named. How did you come up with the names, Popeye and Elvis?

I wish I had a clever answer but the truth is – those names just popped into my head out of nowhere.

What was the trigger for you to write this book?

I sometimes walk my dogs through this fantasically funky trailer park near my home. I always love imagining the families who live in them. Those trailers, combined with the Yoohoo boat, were the triggers.

You’ve said elsewhere that the sound of your stories is a big focus for you. Can you give one example of how you revised a bit of this story to “amplify” its sound? Can you share a favorite read-aloud passage from it?

Yes, rhythm is very important to me. I suspect I drive copy editors crazy with some of my intentional repetitions and use of ellipses to separate phrases, etc., to get just the right sound and rhythm to the wording.

I have a great example of rhythm that also illustrates one of the many rewards of a great editor. In The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis, the boys find little Yoohoo boats with notes inside. The notes are on strips of paper that have been folded. They unfold the notes:

Three times.

I use that spacing intentionally, like poetry. I repeat that wording throughout the book, which adds a strand of the familiar. Children like familiar and expected elements like that.

At the end, Popeye sends a note of his own down the creek. I don’t know why in the world I didn’t think of it, but Frances Foster (my editor) suggested, “How about adding your ‘once, twice, three times,’ refrain….?”

I love that she refers to it as a “refrain,” because that’s just what it is (but I never knew it until she told me. Ha!) And, of course, it was so perfect to add it there at the end – a satisfying, familiar bookend.

Below is another example of rhythm, as well as a favorite read-aloud passage. I worked hard to create certain phrases and sentences in groups of three and also used repetition intentionally.

“Let’s go check on our minnow trap,” Elvis said.
So Popeye and Elvis and Boo trotted through the weeds and jumped over logs and ducked under branches until they got to the creek. The cool, clear water flowed through tree roots and tumbled over mossy rocks, settling into a pool formed by the dam of branches and mud the boys had built. About a dozen tiny silvery minnows darted around in the pool.
Elvis cupped his hands and scooped some up.
Popeye cupped his hands and scooped some up.
Elvis put his hands in the creek and let the minnows swim away.
Popeye put his hands in the creek and let the minnows swim away.
Then they sat on the mossy bank beside the creek.
The birds chirped above them.
The water gurgled below them.
Boo snored beside them.
And then . . .
. . . a small adventure came floating down the creek.

Is there anything you wish I’d asked you? If so, what is it?

I always like the question “what are your pet peeves?” because a) I love that word “peeve” and b) I love to gripe about small stuff (haha).

One of my biggest pet peeves is rudeness. But then to get more specific, my current rudeness pet peeve is people who use cell phones rudely. (Take your dang conversation outside, people, and spare us!!) Okay, I feel better now.

Prior interviewees have shared secret talents with us (for example, Susan Patron shared her recipe for making a flaming dessert). What secret talent do you have that we might not know about?

I’m a pretty good tap dancer. I started lessons as an 8-year-old and continued into my adulthood. At one point in my life, I owned a dancing school down in South Carolina (Greer Dance Academy). When I moved to L.A., I took lessons from some terrific teachers. Then I moved to the Boston area, where there is a fantastic tap community. Alas, these days, I don’t have the time (or patience) to go into Boston like I used to. But every few months I dust off my shoes and take a class in a church basement nearby.

My husband and son are also amazed that I know the words to so many old songs and show tunes. (I watched a lot of Lawrence Welk when I was a kid.) I am multi-talented, aren’t I? (Of course, don’t ask me to sing and tap dance at the same time unless you’re serving margaritas.)

Barbara, thanks for spending this time with us. I promise not to tell Ruby you didn't mention her once in the interview!

If you want to learn more about Barbara, go to her website or follow her blog.


  1. Wow, what a fabulous interview -- one of the best I've read all year! Love the rhythm in Barbara's writing, and can identify with the Tidy Town thing :). Thanks so much, ladies!

  2. Once. Twice. Three times. That's how many times I'm going to read this fantastic interview. :)

    Oh, and goldfish crackers and beer? Gonna try that (after I Tidy Town my desk, of course.)