Sunday, February 21, 2010

Margaret Willey: An Interview with the Author

I'm delighted to welcome Margaret Willey, award winning author of A Summer of Silk Moths, as my first official blog guest.

Margaret writes picture books as well, including the adventures of Cleaver Beatrice. The first in the series won a Charlotte Zolotow Award. If you aspire to an enduring writing career with an all-ages audience, Margaret proves it can be done. Her blog Moths and Metamorphoses: One Writer's Process includes an ongoing series about moths--both scientific and symbolic—and a trove of good writing advice, like how to manage a difficult chronology.  
The interview starts after the jump...

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First things first, congratulations! A Summer of Silk Moths has just been recognized with an Honor Award from the Green Earth Book Awards. The award is given to books that inspire appreciation, respect, and responsibility for the natural environment. 

You describe A Summer of Silk Moths as a tribute to A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter, which was written almost a century ago. (I love how timeless good book are....) What other books shaped you first as a reader, then as a writer?

Because I was an avid (obsessive) reader and because I grew up before there was an actual Young Adult Genre, I was starved, absolutely starved, for books about teenagers who were miserable and confused. Whenever I found one, it was like a religious experience. Among the books that "saved" me were Girl of the Limberlost (Nora has an awful, really insane mother—something I had never read about before—thrilling!); Rumer Godden's Greengage Summer and The River—gorgeously written and narrated by British girls who are both bookish and heroic; and Catcher in the Rye, a searing read for someone as disappointed by adults as I was at fifteen. Carson McCullers, Francois Sagan. The books I needed were out there, but I had to scour for them-they weren't a constant deluge like today. And because they were rare, as I grew older, and I was drawn to a writing life, they became the sort of books I wanted to write.  

The two central characters, Nora and Pete, are prickly: jealous, cranky. . .sometimes spiteful. They also felt like real people worth caring about. How do you create characters with that sort of depth—and rough edges?

It's interesting that you should mention that because the earliest draft of Silk Moths was narrated by Nora, and several editors said she was completely unlikable and wanted me to soften her character, make her nicer. Which I simply couldn't do. I know why she was so bitchy and I knew she was RIGHT to be bitchy. But I did have to rethink this issue as a problem in the telling. Eventually (it took years), it occurred to me that Pete could be a more calm and objective, yet still emotional, narrator. I rewrote the novel with him at the helm and it felt right. And of course he gets really angry at Nora. She's really pushing his buttons. I enjoyed letting them hate each other at first. The tension made the dialogue such fun to write.

In A Summer of Silk Moths, the environment felt like a character to me, not a backdrop.... 

Your comment that the setting is almost like a character is right—exactly right. It was important for me to pay tribute to a very real and very beautiful nature center from the area where I grew up—between Buchanan and Niles, Michigan—a place called Fernwood Botanical Gardens, one of hundreds of gorgeous and precious nature center all over the country that need out attention and support. This is one of the reasons I am so thrilled my novel has received an Honor Award from the Green Earth Book Awards. 

What is your relationship with Nature?

My relationship with nature? Confession time. I am not very "outdoorsy." I don't sleep in tents. I hate mosquitoes. I take walks but not with a backpack. I don't kayak or mountain-climb. My love of nature is visual and cerebral. I am actually fascinated with the language of nature—its natural poetry—and its symbolism. The symbolic importance of creatures large and small. I love bears, but I am not Grizzly Woman. I love moths, but I have never stayed up all night beside a sheet with a fluorescent light behind it like Pete does, or Paul before him. I have relatives who do things like this and I did very, very careful research in the creation of my naturalists. But truly, I am a book lady and I like to sit in a lawn chair and read books.

The moth journals weave factual scientific information into the story. When did you decide to include the journal? Why?

I am glad you asked me about the journals because my agent really wanted me to take them out. Said teenagers would not be interested in them. It was another suggestion that I just couldn't take, not even to make a sale. I just couldn't do it—for me the creation of the journals was a huge part of the journey of writing this book. Making it both scientific and mysterious. Luckily, the editor who did acquire the book (Andrew Karre) loved the journals and loved all the scientific information about moths.  

Pete, a character in A Summer of Silk Moths, is an artist with a gift for scientific illustration. Do you draw or paint?

I was very involved in the visual arts as a young woman—I had a fine arts minor. My artist self receded as I focused more and more on writing, but as I grow older, I'm thinking I will come back to it in some way. Many of my characters are artists. In my first YA novel, The Bigger Book of Lydia, the main character keeps a journal of notes and drawings-a survival testament. I did this as a teenager.

I've described my own writing process as "bricolage and duct tape"—and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. What is your process" Do you find that you use essentially the same method as you craft different books?

I did use the same method of writing for my first five YA novels—a linear narration, wherein the narrator struggles with and ultimately solves a problem of identity over the course of a year. But that is all out the window now. I am writing more and more comfortably with the duct tape thing. Plot has become more important—as well as interconnected perspectives that are sometimes in conflict. Now I love telling a story with a mix of narrators—I piece together the plot and the reader has to piece together the truth. It does create more work for the reader. But I want to write books that challenge young readers. Very different from where I started. But that is as it should be.

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