Marsha Qualey is the author of nine YA novels. A long-time resident of the Twin Cities in Minnesota, she recently moved with her husband to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where she now lives within walking distance of the beautiful Chippewa River, two libraries, a couple of good live music venues, and several excellent restaurants. She likes Eau Claire.
What were you like as a teenager (YA reader)?
I think I had several lives as a teenager. I suspect most people do because the years 13-19 cover a lot of territory. This is something I think it’s helpful to think back on when I write for teens as it serves to remind me that there’s no single model for the creature we call a teenager. There’s a shape-shifter in every teen.
During the early teen years I was so self-conscious and uncomfortable with the traditional trappings of femininity. I’d grown up with four brothers but no sisters. I had no idea how to be a girl. Make-up, hair-styling, clothes, gossip, passing notes–when I started junior high in 1965 I was way behind the curve. I’d also been dealing with acne since 4th grade, which heightened the self-consciousness tremendously. And I’ve always been shy.
What kept me from being miserable, I think, was that I was always one of the smart kids and was known as a smart kid and I was able to carve out a niche that way. I didn’t have to compete with the confident beauties and girly-girls because I had something else going on.
So, in spite of my timidity about femininity, things went pretty well those first teen years. I made some friends and had a fine time in junior high. I started going public with my desire to write about that time too. I wrote skits and plays that my friends would perform at parties.
The next couple of years, 9th/10th grade, were tougher. This would have been 1967-1968 and even in my small Minnesota town we could tell the world was changing. My world view expanded tremendously then, but at 14-15 I was too young, too shy, too self-conscious, and too constrained in that small world to know what I wanted or to make noise when I did. I turned inward those couple of years.
August 12 1969 my world changed. My oldest brother was killed in Vietnam on that day, and through that tragedy I found a voice and path. Not a strong voice always, nor was it an easy path, but I clearly grew up. I became the honor roll student and good girl who started speaking out against the war and all the related issues of the time.
What inspired you to write for young adults?
I never had an inspiration to write for them, just about them. I was a young married mother in the early 1980s and I got out of the house by doing volunteer work at a community health clinic. The clinic offered teen counseling in birth control and sex education and so I was tuned into that and had contact with teen girls I saw there at about the time I finally had some distance from my own teen life and also was starting to work seriously on my writing. The voices of those girls I heard at the clinic found their way into my writing.
Could you tell us a bit about your path to publication? Any memorable leaps or stumbles along the way?
I didn’t know much about YA fiction when I was starting out. I’m not sure I’d ever even read a YA novel–I’m just old enough to have been a teen before the genre was widespread. The Outsiders [by S.E. Hinton] was published in about 1967, I think, and that year I was probably reading Herman Hesse and Richard Brautigan. So it was a huge leap to discover the genre, which I did in about 1985 when the fiction editor of Seventeen Magazine rejected a story I’d submitted. She wrote me that the story was too adult for their readers but she also encouraged me to turn it into a YA novel. So I did, after going out and reading a few of the darn things to find out what they were all about.
The second memorable leap was in 1990 when a young editorial assistant at Houghton Mifflin found my MS in the slush pile and decided to publish it (Everybody’s Daughter (Houghton Mifflin, 1991)). She’s now a VP at Dial, btw, and has edited all nine of my YA novels. (Hello, Lauri Hornik!)
Stumbles? Daily, still. One was probably sending Lauri a manuscript about four teenagers who uncover a drug smuggling operation that’s fronted by a nudist camp. At least she didn’t allow me to stumble publicly, and that MS is tucked away safely. A more serious stumble, I think, I was to give into my chronic shyness and not reach out to other writers for support and help for years and years and years.
I’d like to focus on Just Like That (Dial, 2005). Could you tell us a bit about the novel? What was your initial inspiration?
Most of my inspiration now comes from my own writing. There might be a secondary character or theme in a novel that I want to explore further. Most of my novels are in some fashion linked to each other. Just Like That is a contemporary story set in Minneapolis, Minnesota that focuses on the upheaval in a young woman’s life after the tragic death of two people she didn’t know but whose deaths she believes she could have prevented.
The novel has its origins in my previous book, Too Big a Storm (Dial, 2004). In that story I’d created a character, Mark Walker, who has no family or even any record of family. And he’s never even seen a picture of himself as a young child. Well, when I was done with that book I started thinking, “How awful!” I liked Mark too well not to fix that. So Just Like That was borne out of a desire to give Mark Walker a picture from his childhood. He’s not at all a major character in Just Like That, however. The book takes place about 30 years after Too Big a Storm. He’s the father of the very cool romantic interest and he appears only once. Still, Mark Walker and that elusive photo are the reason I needed to write Just Like That.
What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?
As I recall now, I got going on it pretty quickly after turning in Too Big a Storm. They were published a year apart. So I suppose I wrote the first draft during 2003 and then revised it in 2004. A year’s time overall, would be a safe guess. There were two major events involved in the writing.
Early on there was a horrible, horrible tragedy in the Minneapolis area that I lifted and put into the book–the accident on the not-quite-frozen lake that results in the death of the two teens. The details of the girl’s death were especially horrific, and I chose to use them–not without some soul-searching. I’d already plotted the book around a death-through-ice, but a less dramatic one. And when this real tragedy hit I knew I needed that level of horror and nightmare to make Hanna’s upheaval realistic.
The second major event is less dramatic. Routine revision work, really. Well, routine when you’re lucky to work with a gifted editor. Briefly: Lauri guided and nudged into realizing what the story was really about. The story you begin to write usually reveals itself as something different. That happened with Just Like That.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?
Letting go of the story I first wanted to tell, which had to do with Hanna wanting to know more about her own family background, especially a runaway grandmother.
Too Big a Storm (Dial, 2004) is set during the Vietnam era. How did you get in the midset of the period? What about this story called to you?
I’d written about the time period before in my third novel, Come in from the Cold (Houghton, 2004). These two novels share a lot–they both kick off with a wild beach party and have characters with brothers in Vietnam and much more. In Come in from the Cold the protagonist, Maud, has an older sister who was radicalized by the events of the 60s. She takes extreme action, finally. I was haunted by her, and wanted to dig deeper into how that radicalization happened. In its earliest draft, the narrative in Too Big a Storm was split evenly between two girls, steady Brady and radical Sally. It evolved into primarily Brady’s story.
It was easy enough to get into the mindset. I think the drama of the 60s is perfect for YA fiction–the whole country was going through a turbulent adolescence. And so was I personally. How could I not write about it?
Twentieth century historicals are fairly rare. Why do you think this is?
Maybe there are too many shades of gray and too much ambiguity connected to some of the experiences. The 20th Century historicals that are written often focus on subjects and times which evoke a common response (for the most part), e.g. the Depression, Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, WW II and the Holocaust.
On your website, you say that One Night (Dial, 2002) is a story about the difference one night can make in a person’s life. Could you tell us more about that? Was there ever one night that changed your life, and if so, would you like to fill us in?
I think I wrote that little blurb in response to one of the few lukewarm reviews One Night received, a review in which the writer sniffed, “If you’re the type of person who believes that a single night makes a difference, than you might like this book.” Okay, it was pretty close to that (I don’t memorize reviews, really I don’t).
Of course a single night can make a difference! Ironically, One Night has less of an actual dramatic turn in a single night than, say, Just Like That does. In One Night, Kelly Ray comes to realize how much her life has changed. Those changes, however, have been incremental, the result of her doing the very hard work involved in staying sober and drug-free. But the realization of what she’s accomplished happens during one night, and it is a powerful thing.
Was there a “One Night” for me? Well, sure. My life was changed the instant I heard about my brother’s death. As I mentioned earlier, that experience catalyzed the emergence of a young woman who needed to speak out. And, eventually, tell stories.
For those new to your novels, could you briefly fill us in on your earlier work? Are there any themes you revisit again and again in your work?
I realized–or admitted–not long ago that everything I write about now can be traced to my first novel. All my novels have their origin in that book. Weird? I don’t know if it is or not. The themes that show up again and again are community, self, identity, political action, art. A beloved niece, Anne Richardson, also thinks I have an obsession with lakes, water, ice and drowning.
How has your writing changed over the years?
Recently my focused has changed. I’m now working on my first novel for adults. The last few years I began to realize that the mothers in the books I was writing were becoming more and more interesting to me. So I decided it was time to run with it.
What advice do you have for beginning YA novelists?
Read, read, and read.
How about those working to build a career?
Connect with other writers. Join appropriate organizations: SCBWI, Children’s Literature Network, Author’s Guild. Take a breath and make yourself ask for things. Be prepared to spend money on your career, even when you’re not making much. And finally, find a community and be of service to it.
As a reader, what are your favorite recent YA novels and why?
Our oldest daughter lives in Canada now and when we go to visit her I always stock up on Canadian writers. I’ve really been enjoying these writers lately: Diana Wieler, Ted Staunton, Karen Rivers, and Paul Yee. And I’ve just reread one of my all time favorite YAs, True Confessions of a Heartless Girl by Martha Brooks (HarperTempest, 2004), who is of course Canadian.
What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?
Professionally, I also work part-time for Winding Oak, a literary services firm that does web design and marketing and booking for children’s book creators. We just launched a monthly e-newsletter, Quercus. I like working on web sites and I just built a site for my sister-in-law, who is a terrific painter: www.saraqualey.com. I also volunteer with Children’s Literature Network and with Old Arizona, a non-profit that provides free arts classes to teen girls. And then I deal with the mundane things that arise when you have four children, even four grown children.