Author Interview: Carolyn MacCullough on Drawing the Ocean

Carolyn MacCullough on Carolyn MacCullough: “I was born and raised in Connecticut. As a kid, I always wanted to travel and see far off places, but my parents had other ideas and didn’t quite agree with my dreams of moving to India or Morocco or some other exotic place. This is probably what led me to love books so much and, in turn, what probably led to writing.

“In 2002, I graduated from the New School with a Master’s in Creative Writing for Children. Shortly afterward, Falling Through Darkness (Roaring Brook Press, 2003) was published, followed by Stealing Henry (Roaring Brook Press, 2005) and Drawing the Ocean (Roaring Brook Press, 2006)[see more on these books].

“I still have not lived in India or Morocco, but I did live in other such exotic locales like Scotland, Sicily, and New Jersey! Now I live in New York with my husband and I teach creative writing for Gotham Writers and The New School.”

What about the writing life first called to you? Were you quick to answer or did time pass by?

I think I was writing before I really ever started writing. I was always telling stories–to my sisters, to my friends. Long, complicated stories involving princesses and dragons and choose-your-own adventure plots. Somewhere in elementary school, I started to write them down (along with some pretty bad poetry), but it was still something I just did for fun. For a while, I thought I wanted to be an actress and after college, I pursued that in New York City–until the stage fright part did me in. Around then, I began to realize that it wasn’t really acting that I loved so much anyway, it was telling a story to an audience. So in 2002, I enrolled in the masters program in creative writing program at The New School.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

I don’t know that I ever did make that decision. I just wrote the stories that I had and they ended up being for teens. I do know that the books I remember most strongly are all from my childhood and teenage years.

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

I got really lucky! I met my editor, Deborah Brodie from Roaring Brook Press, while enrolled in the New School program. I remember when she called me to tell me that Roaring Brook Press wanted to buy my first book, Falling Through Darkness. I was so excited that I got dizzy and literally had to put my head between my knees!

Congratulations on the publication of Drawing the Ocean (Roaring Brook, 2007)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My fast approaching deadline! Actually, I had written an entirely different book, and while waiting to hear my editor’s first round of comments, I just lost all interest in it. I wasn’t excited to start the revision process–something I usually enjoy. So one night, I was sitting in a movie theater and for some reason, the idea of a twin brother and sister came into my head–only one of them was no longer alive. I followed that idea all the way home to my computer.

Could you briefly describe the story?

It’s about Sadie, a sixteen-year-old painter, who wants very badly to fit in at her new school and make the “right” kind of friends. And she partially succeeds–but the problem is, despite her best intentions, she also befriends the town loner, “Fryin Ryan.” Soon enough, she has to choose between her new popularity and a real friend. Oh, and the ghost of her twin brother keeps appearing at will–she’s the only one who can see and talk to him.

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

It was very quick! Because of my earlier project that I had scrapped, I had less time than I normally would have had, so this was a book that was written under some serious pressure. However, I tend to work like that. If you give me unlimited amounts of time to accomplish something, I promise nothing much will get done.

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

Since I’m not a twin and don’t even have a brother, I did struggle with that a little. Also, I’m not an artist in any way–trust me, no one wants to see what I can draw or paint! But I like making my characters different from me–they’re far more interesting that way–and that’s a challenge I really relish when writing a book.

In the story, Sadie speaks with and sees her dead twin brother, Ollie. As someone who teaches MFA students, I can readily imagine someone writing a paper on the question of Ollie as a psychological manifestation or a supernatural one. What would you say to that student?

I think he’s a little bit of both. (Sorry! I know that sounds like the easy way out). But I do think of him as both–I see him as her conscience. And I also think of him as still in this world because she loves him so much. They were so connected when he was alive and, therefore, she can’t quite let that go.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Read, read, read as much as possible. It’s good for your own writing and it’s good for you in general. And when it comes time to write your own stuff, don’t worry so much about technique and finesse during the first draft. Don’t listen to the whiny internal editor voice–the one that tells you this isn’t any good and you must be joking if you think you’re ever going to get this published and please tell me you aren’t planning on giving up your day job, etc, etc. We all have the voice somewhere in us–drown it out. Listen instead to the story in you, get it out on paper first without fussing over it too much and then see what you can do with it.

What are some of your favorite recent reads?

Life of Pi by Yann Martel (Knopf Canada, 2001), Stardust by Neil Gaiman (1998), and Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin (FSG, 2005).

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Um….you mean I’m supposed to have time off from writing? Okay–I read books that I wish I had written. I try to spend as much time as possible with my family and friends. And I bake a lot of pies and cookies and cakes and dream of setting up my own bakery somewhere, some little rustic place with copper pans hanging from the ceiling and painted yellow walls.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’m working on an urban fantasy–it’s probably the most challenging book I’ve written so far (but then I say that about any book I’m working on at some point or another)!