Author Interview: Liz Gallagher on The Opposite of Invisible

From the Class of 2k8: “Liz Gallagher grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and was an English major at Penn State. She worked on the editorial staff of Highlights for Children. She is a graduate of the University of Denver Publishing Institute and the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Her home in Seattle is within chomping distance of the Fremont Troll.” Learn more here.

What kind of teenager were you?

I was the kind who has friends across different groups, but isn’t really part of any one clique. I loved to go bowling and shopping (still do!). I was New Kids on the Block‘s biggest fan. I played softball. I watched way too much TV, but now I think that experience prepped me for the pop-culture prowess that I enjoy today. I know that I read a lot as a kid and teenager, but I can’t remember exactly what I read except for Kurt Vonnegut, late in high school.

Could you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer?

I’ve been so lucky. I’d have to say that my apprenticeship started with my amazing kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Niccolo; she taught me to love writing. At Penn State, I took three fiction workshops with the same professor; that’s the point at which I started reading like a writer. Later, I worked at Highlights for Children as part of the editorial team; reading submissions helped me think more critically about writing. Then, I went to Vermont College and got to work with Lisa Jahn-Clough, Ron Koertge, M.T. Anderson (author interview), some lady named Cynthia Leitich Smith, and the rest of the faculty there; that’s where I gained the power to believe in myself as a writer.

I had the honor of being one of your advisors at the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Why did you decide to get an MFA? How would you describe the experience?

And I had the honor of being one of your students! I thought, correctly, that being in an MFA program would give me permission–in my own mind–to prioritize writing. I wanted the structure and the feedback.

I was led to Vermont after falling head over heels for Feed (Candlewick, 2004) by M. T. Anderson and finding out that he was faculty head at Vermont. Then it seemed as if every book I was reading and enjoying was written by a faculty member or grad of the program, so it was a no-brainer to apply.

I would describe the experience as school that doesn’t feel like school because it’s so much fun and you get to read and talk about reading and write and talk about writing. I learned from all of the faculty and from many of the other students, and I grew so much as a writer.

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

It wasn’t very stumbly, actually. I think I managed to meet great mentors along the way, so that when I was ready to submit my manuscript, it went smoothly. Lara Zeises (author interview) has become a close friend and she’s the one who guided me through the submission process.

We’re both students of Lisa’s (me at Vermont; Lara at Emerson). Toward the end of my time at Vermont, I started submitting to agents. Rosemary Stimola (agent interview) signed me right before graduation, and I think it only took her two weeks to sell Opposite to Wendy Lamb [Wendy Lamb Books at Random House]; I’d call that a sprint.

Congratulations on the release of your debut novel, The Opposite of Invisible (Wendy Lamb, 2008)! Could you tell us a bit about it?

Thank you! I wrote most of it during the Vermont program. It’s set in Seattle–I live here and it’s my love letter to the city. It’s about a fifteen-year-old girl, Alice, who’s coming out of the cocoon she’s (metaphorically) lived in with her best friend, an artist boy named Jewel. Her world is getting bigger as she makes new friends and tries new directions in art. She’s figuring out the difference between a crush and love, and love and best friendship.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I love Halloween time and wanted to set a story then. While walking past a big junk shop in Fremont (the neighborhood of the book, and the one where I live now, though I didn’t at the time), I realized that it was the perfect setting for a Halloween story. The original first line–“It all started with this dress.”–came to me on the page, and I just kept going.

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

I started writing this story as a short story for my first Vermont workshop, so that means I started writing in the late fall/early winter of 2005. It was published in January 2008.

The whole ride seems like a major event! Having feedback from Lisa, Ron, Tobin, and then you, Cyn, was always amazing. My first rejection from an agent, over the phone, was a major event; it was disappointing but I knew that even getting a phone call was a big step forward.

Once sold, I’ve loved attending ALA conferences and meeting librarians. I’ve also enjoyed meeting lots of Seattle’s booksellers. And I became a member of The Class of 2k8 (co-presidents’ interview)–I get to celebrate 27 releases this year, not just my own!

Actually, seeing Vermont friends’ books come out while waiting on my own — especially Sarah Aronson‘s Head Case (Roaring Brook, 2007)(author interview) and Carrie Jones‘ (Flux, 2007)(Tips on Having a Gay (Ex) Boyfriend (Flux, 2007)(author interview) and Love (and Other Uses for Duct Tape)(Flux, 2008), and Zu Vincent‘s The Lucky Place (Front Street, 2008)–has been so wonderful.

Early on, Vermont grad Andy Auseon was a big role model for me. I love his Funny Little Monkey (Harcourt, 2005), and I think he has another one coming out soon [Jo-Jo and the Fiendish Lot (HarperCollins, 2009)].

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

A lot of my roadblocks are psychological. I’m the type of writer who can type and type but not be sure what I’m saying. I need someone who I trust to reflect it back to me–to say, this is what you’ve got on the page. I’m much more talented with character and voice than I am with plot. So it takes a lot for me to feel as if I’ve succeeded in making something happen in the narrative and seem like it isn’t too mechanical or forced.

Logistically, having deadlines for Vermont really helped me. The whole “butt-in-chair” thing can be hard for me when I’m only beholden to myself.

What has surprised you most about being a published author?

That I’m still just me! I honestly forget that I’m a published author sometimes. It’s a dream come true and I love it and I’m proud, but on a day to day basis, I’m just Liz. I don’t feel any different–which I see as proof that a writer is a writer, published or not.

It also surprises me how often people who aren’t in the YA book world ask why I write for teenagers, as opposed to adults.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

Read a lot across genres. Read constantly! Keep a notebook for ideas that hit you add odd times. I still need to start on the notebook one.

What do you do when you’re not in the book world?

I used to work at a Montessori school. For the past year, I’ve been freelancing for magazines (mostly Seattle magazine) and a web site called Red Tricycle. I also worked on writing with seventh graders this year through Seattle Arts and Lectures’ Writers in the Schools program. Now, I have a full-time job as a product copywriter, writing about shoes all day. I still write and edit for Red Tricycle. I watch a lot of reality TV, ride my Vespa, go out to brunch, read, and hang out in coffee shops. Sometimes, I knit.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’m working on a companion to Opposite. Then I hope to get back to work on the manuscript that I started during our semester together, Cyn. It’s the story of a girl who’s dealing with the tragic death of her best friend, an artist who pushed everything to the edge until he fell off.

Cynsational Notes

Visit Liz Gallagher’s official site, read her LJ, and visit Liz at MySpace!