Author Feature: Laura Williams McCaffrey

Laura Williams McCaffrey on Laura Williams McCaffrey: “I grew up in Vermont. We lived across a field from my grandparents for a while, within walking distance, then moved to a house a bit farther away. My sister, my brother, and I rode bikes up and down our dead-end road. I read a lot. For a long time, my favorite book was D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths (Doubleday, 1962). Two friends and I acted out the myths, a game we called ‘Goddesses.’ I was always Athena, competing with an imaginary Arachne before I, gloating I must admit, turned her into a spider.

“I began attending Stowe schools in the fourth grade, and we moved to Stowe when I was eleven or twelve. As a tween and teen, I held a variety of tourist-town jobs. I scooped Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream before anyone had heard of Ben or Jerry. I served popcorn and drinks–yes, actual alcoholic drinks–at the movie theater. Because of the theater and because my friends almost all worked at a video store, I watched a lot of movies for free. I can still quote more than I care to admit of ‘The Princess Bride,’ ‘Willow,’ and all John Cusack teen flicks. I also read fantasy, historical fiction, and classics. Robin McKinley‘s books amazed me. They had girls, actual girls, fighting with swords, traveling to strange places, wielding magic.

“I went to Barnard College in New York City, where I discovered Margaret Atwood, as well as Sojourner Truth, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Mary Wollstonecraft, Nella Larsen, Virginia Woolf, Frances Willard, Jane Addams, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Isabel Allende, and Maya Angelou. I kept endless journals, sometimes writing in them instead of taking notes during lectures. I wandered around the Metropolitan Museum of Art and watched old movies at Theater 80 in St. Mark’s Place.

“While on a visit back to Vermont, I met a rather handsome musician, who’s now my husband and the father of my children. If we hadn’t met and eventually ended up together, I truly might not have become a writer. I wanted to write, but I was frightened and needed the kind of get-off-your-butt-and-get-to-work advice he’s so good at handing out.”

What inspired you to write for young readers?

While in high school and college, I wrote a lot of scenes and character sketches in journals. Most of them featured not-so-happy twenty-something women. They were dreary, and included much introspection and crying in bathrooms.

Then I met someone who was writing a novel for children, and I realized adults wrote books for kids. I’m embarrassed to say that I hadn’t thought much about the authors who had written books I adored. I thought of Meg Murry, not Madeleine L’Engle. Writing these kinds of stories seemed like, dare I say, fun. It’s a good thing I didn’t know how much work writing them would be, fun work, but work. I might have stayed forever stuck in the crying-in-bathroom stage.

Could you describe your path to publication? Any sprints and/or stumbles along the way?

Well, first I had to write a novel, which was more difficult than I thought it would be. I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d only taken two English classes in college, and they hadn’t been fiction writing classes. I’d never written any stories longer than five pages. It now occurs to me that I have no idea why I thought I could actually write a novel, but I thought I could.

I enrolled in Writing for Children, an overview class that the University of Vermont used to offer. During that class, and afterwards, I wrote from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. every night after my kids went to bed. Two years and many cast aside words, paragraphs, chapters, beginnings, middles, and endings later, I finished a solid draft of Alia Waking (Clarion, 2003).

I had a couple of contacts but mostly sent into slush piles. I was incredibly lucky. Thanks to Harry Potter, every house was looking for fantasy. My manuscript happened to be picked out of a slush pile by an editor who liked it. She wrote me an editorial letter. I took four months to revise the novel. I sent it back to Clarion, and they made an offer.

While I’d like to focus on your new release, let’s first talk more about your debut novel, Alia Waking (Clarion, 2003). Could you tell us about the story?

Alia Waking is about a girl, Alia, who wants nothing more than to become a keenten, a warrior woman. However, her best friend, Kay, is more adept at fighting than she is. Alia fears that the keentens will ask Kay to join them but won’t ask her. Striving to impress the warrior women, Alia and Kay capture some trespassers near their village, children from an enemy land. As Alia learns more about these children and also feels a strange magic awakening within her, she begins seeing everyone differently–Kay, the warrior women, the enemy children, and especially herself.

Congratulations on the release of Water Shaper (Clarion, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for this story?

Thanks so much.

I started with Margot, the main character. I knew she was an unhappy girl who felt she didn’t belong where she’d grown up. I knew she wanted to find a land where she did belong and she’d rush into a relationship with a boy, thinking he would lead her to that land.

Also, while Alia Waking is an adventure fantasy, its setting is mostly one small wintry village. I wanted to try and write a high fantasy fairy tale that had travel and a bit of political intrigue.

What was it about the selkie mythology that called to you? What, if any, research did you do in writing the novel?

I’ve always loved selkie stories, as well as the related swan maiden folktales. I first saw the movie “The Secret of Roan Inish” when I was in my early twenties and have watched it several times since then. I also encountered Franny Billingsley‘s The Folk Keeper (Atheneum, 1999)(author interview) when I was in my twenties and just falling in love with children’s literature again. The Folk Keeper, though, made me wary of telling a selkie story. I knew I’d have to approach seal tales in a different way than Ms. Billingsley had.

I started searching out folklore collections about seals and oceans. Several books inspired Water Shaper’s fairy tale mood or tone. David Thomson’s The People of the Sea (Washington D.C.: Counterpoint, 2000, rev. ed. c. 1965, 1980. Original copyright, 1954.) is this lovely half-memoir half-folklore collection, which the author wrote after revisiting places he’d lived as a child. It also has an ache to it, an unfulfilled desire for acceptance that I’m sure influenced my writing of Margot.

Also, Duncan Williamson’s collections are very wonderful: The Broonie, Silkies and Fairies, illustrated by Alan B. Herriot (New York: Harmony Books, 1987. Original copyright 1985.), Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children, illustrated by Alan B. Herriot (New York: Harmony Books, 1983.), and Tales of the Sea People: Scottish Folk Tales, illustrated by Chad McCail (Brooklyn: Interlink Books, 1992.).

Why do these stories call to me? I suppose because they depict borderlands–in this case the place where land and ocean meets–which always fascinated me. They are about longing; a man longing for his seal wife to stay and the wife longing to return to her seal family. I’m also interested in people who feel betwixt and between, like the seal maiden who has children on the land and in the sea.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

The timeline? Forever. Is this an appropriate answer? I once heard someone say writing a novel is like embarking on a marriage. Apparently, I am not a one-or-two-year marriage kind of girl. I took two-and-a-half years to write a solid draft of Water Shaper, then, after my editor gave me comments, I entirely rewrote two major characters and the story’s middle, roughly 150 pages. Which of course meant I had to substantially revise the beginning and ending, too. This re-write took a year.

Then the process zipped right along. Another year-and-a-half of revision, line editing, copy editing, proofreading, etc., and Water Shaper was out in the world.

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

I actually avoided selkie story retellings while writing this book, because I didn’t want to accidentally grab ideas from other writers. I invented, rather than retold, some of the storytellers’ tales in the novel. I wanted to be careful of copyright issues.

I hoped to ensure the novel would be seen as a fairy tale, not a representation of a real historical place. So I read folklore and medieval histories, especially Barbara Tuchman’s social history of fourteenth century Europe, A Distant Mirror (Ballantine Books, 1979), but then put everything aside and just wrote.

Also, I found creating the second narrator’s piece of the book difficult. I’d never written a second narrator before, and he had this really bad habit of giving too much away.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Write. It seems simple advice, but many people who want to write don’t sit down and do it regularly.

How about those building a career?

A lot of writers probably should learn to become more savvy marketers of their work. However, I think to truly build a career, to grow as a writer, you have to strive to make the story you’re currently creating better than the ones you’ve finished.

How about fantasy writers in particular?

Well, my advice is the same. Oh yes, and try leaving the Middle Ages. Read Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer (Harcourt, 2003), Philip Pullman‘s The Golden Compass (Knopf, 1996), The Conch Bearer by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (Roaring Brook, 2003), Tithe by Holly Black (Simon and Schuster, 2002)(author interview), Jonathan Stroud‘s The Amulet of Samarkand (Miramax, 2003). They might inspire you to write in unusual directions.

As a reader, what are your favorite recent children’s and YA books? Your favorite authors?

Excluding books by friends, about which I’m not entirely objective, Feed by M.T. Anderson (Candlewick, 2002)(author interview) and Jennifer Donnelly‘s A Northern Light (Harcourt, 2003) are my two current favorites. I also love The Schwa Was Here by Neal Schusterman (Dutton, 2004) and Craig Thompson‘s Blankets (Top Shelf Productions, 2004, 2003), although this wasn’t published as a YA book, was it? Still, Blankets is very YA. DiCamillo‘s The Tale of Despereaux (Candlewick, 2003) is a fabulous read-aloud. If you don’t have a child to read to, find one. I discovered that reading it to myself truly didn’t provide the same experience.

This list doesn’t have any up-to-the-minute recent favorites, does it? I’m always terribly behind in reading. Also, to really qualify as a favorite, a book has to haunt me long after I’ve finished it.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Read. Watch movies and British import TV. Cook dinner, wash dishes, drive my girls to ballet and gymnastics. On a good day, sleep.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’m working on another older MG/YA. Its setting is more contemporary than those of my other books. I wish I could say when I’ll be finished. I am in the middle, otherwise known as the mire, the point at which I’ve lost both shoes in the mud and I’ve misplaced the lantern. The good thing about writing a third book is I’m now a little more confident that I eventually will find solid ground again.