Author Feature: Sharon Darrow

Sharon Darrow is the author of Old Thunder and Miss Raney, illustrated by Kathryn Brown (A Melanie Kroupa Book/D-K Ink, 2000); Through the Tempests Dark and Wild: A Story of Mary Shelley, Creator of Frankenstein, illustrated by Angela Barrett (Candlewick, 2003)(excerpt), and a young adult novel, The Painters of Lexieville (Candlewick, 2003). Her poetry has also been included in Lee Bennett Hopkins’s anthology, Home to Me: Poems Across America, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn.

Old Thunder and Miss Raney was a finalist in the Western Writers of America‘s 2000 Spur Awards’ Storyteller category and was featured in the Kentucky Derby Museum’s exhibit “Picturing Horses.” The Painters of Lexieville was winner of the 2005 Oklahoma Book Award (YA division).

Sharon is the incoming faculty chair of the Vermont College M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. She also has taught in the English department at Columbia College in Chicago. She received her M.F.A. in Writing (Fiction and Poetry) from Vermont College in 1996.

She looks forward to the release of her second YA novel, Trash (Candlewick, 2006).

I’m a huge fan of your picture book Old Thunder and Miss Raney, illustrated by Kathryn Brown (DK Ink, 2000). In fact, I’m just sure your protagonist is somehow related to my Cassidy Rain Berghoff from Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001). What was your initial inspiration for this book?

Thank you; I’m glad you like it. I’m pretty sure those two young women are related, too. What set me off on that story was hearing the beginning of a story my Great-Aunt Thelma told after church on Sunday while dinner was being prepared on the farm in Oklahoma near where I was born. My rowdy cousins and I couldn’t go outside and play because of the weather and she tried to keep us from jumping on the bed in the back bedroom by saying, “Kids, did I ever tell you about the time my horse and buggy and I got picked up by a tornado and blown all the way to town?” Before she could finish, we were called to the table, then my family had to leave and I never heard the end of the tale.

What was the timeline from spark to publication?

Ha—that was sometime in the late 1950s and the book was published in 2000.

What were the challenges in bringing it to life?

You might say that first I had to decide to become a writer, which took the most time, and then I had to begin trying out various ways of telling the story after eventually making up the middle and the end. I thought for a long time that I had to have children in the story, but that never worked. Miss Raney, it turns out, is childlike enough to carry it on her own–and it is her story, after all.

You followed up this charming, light-hearted tale with a sophisticated picture book biography, Through The Tempests Dark and Wild: A Story of Mary Shelley, Creator of Frankenstein, illustrated by Angel Barrett (Candlewick, 2003). How did Mary Shelley begin speaking to you?

Oddly enough, in a dream. I dreamed about an old library where I found a book authored by Mary Wollstonecraft. At the time I didn’t know who she was and woke up thinking the name Mary Shelley. After doing some research, I learned that Mary Shelley was Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter and my interest grew from there.

Why did you decide to bring her story to young readers?

She wrote Frankenstein when she was only eighteen! I was interested in her for my own writing and reading life, but I also wanted to share what I had learned about her with the young writers out there in hopes that they wouldn’t have to take as many years “deciding” to become writers as I did. Besides, it was so intriguing to see how the events of her own early life led to the writing of such a groundbreaking book, certainly the sort of book society wouldn’t have expected from a woman of any age in those days.

What advice do you have for those writing picture book biographies?

Discover how the subject’s life intersects with yours, how her story is somehow also your story, and tell that story.

In 2003, Candlewick also published your first young adult novel, The Painters of Lexieville. How would you describe the novel to readers?

It’s a story of a family told through the points of view of Truly the mother, Jobe the son, and Pert, the daughter who wants to move beyond their life of poverty and dependence on welfare to a life of her own making. Obstacles to her goal are mean or passive relatives, oppressive religion, death, and rattlesnakes.

What did you learn over the course of working on this manuscript?

First of all, that I was a writer. And that being a writer means being patient with yourself while you discover the story through revision.

What about it sang to you?

The characters, some of whom were very like a father-and-son team of painters I encountered when I worked the summer after my senior year in high school as a receptionist in an Arkansas county welfare office. The main character, Pert, well, she arrived in a dream nearly twenty years later. I knew I had a story when I could see her in a wooded setting and when she started talking. I loved her voice and felt the need to try to capture it on paper.

I have a tendency to think of you as a Southern writer. Is this on mark? How would you describe yourself in this regard?

I think so. When I began writing, I lived in Texas and thought of myself as a Texas writer because I’d lived there most of my life (we left Oklahoma when I was three). I read the works of all the Texas writers I could get my hands on, and then I kept reading and tried to read as many Southern writers as I could.

Can you tell us about your upcoming YA novel?

The title is Trash (Candlewick, 2006) and its main characters are teenaged Boy and Sissy Lexie who appear in The Painters as very young children, Raynell’s youngest siblings.

If so, could you give us some insights into how this book(s) came to be?

Trash was a challenge I posed to myself as a poet. I decided to try to write a long narrative made up of one page poems whose styles would somehow mirror the emotional journey of the character, Sissy Lexie, as she and Boy run away from Arkansas in search of Raynell and in search of a means and a place for their art. I ended up having a few longer poems, but I stuck to the plan until it didn’t work well for the story. What a lot of fun it was!

In July 2006, you begin a term as faculty chair of the Vermont College M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Could you tell us about your path to this position?

I studied in the [adult] writing program at Vermont College just prior to the beginning of the new program in children’s and young adult writing. I came to that program as a graduate assistant and new writer. I’d been working on Painters and on poetry in my program and had already begun to work with an editor on Old Thunder and Miss Raney so when an opening came along on the faculty, I was fortunate enough to be given a chance to teach. I’d been teaching at the College of DuPage and had begun to teach at Columbia College Chicago as well. Now, after nine years on the faculty and after a brief stint as the interim director this past winter, I’ll begin this new adventure this summer.

Why should writers consider getting an MFA degree?

For me, it solidified my desire to be a writer into dedication to my craft. It gave me so much in knowledge, but even more in confidence and determination. What I see happening with our students, too, is inspiring. Many arrive with that same yearning and emerge with a set of skills for their writing lives and some pretty darn good books on the way to publication. In a way, I think it can be a bit of a shortcut to the working writer’s life for the new writer and for the already established writer, a broadening of their horizons in both writing and teaching. With the MFA degree, one can teach on the college level, something that I have enjoyed a great deal.

What about teaching calls to you?

I love seeing students enter the classroom or the lecture hall with all their different attitudes and hopes or fears, and then emerge being more themselves than ever. I like facilitating the self-making process and I believe writing is a fast path to the growth of self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-actualization.

How do you feel that it informs your own writing?

As I watch the writing process work in individuals, I learn more about it for myself. I’m inspired by the writers around me, by their persistence and by the need we all seem to have to do this work.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Get together with other writers, share your work and your writing questions and discoveries, and be open to criticism. Allow the revision process time to work and don’t give up (or if you do, like I did at least three times, don’t be afraid to begin again).

Is there anything you would like to add?

The books aren’t the only products of the writing life. We also gain life skills and friendships. We learn new things about the world all the time, we get to travel both in reality and in imagination, and we get the chance to do what we’ve dreamed because it’s what we were meant to do. What joy!

Cynsational Notes

Meet the Pros: Sharon Darrow from SCBWI France.

Picturing Horses: Original Art from Children’s Literature: An annotated list of books with art in the exhibit from the Kentucky Derby Museum.