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Sunday, March 09, 2014

 

The Life of a Writer-in-Resident

This week my son was in his basketball playoffs – five games in four days. And since it was the play-offs, these games weren’t at the elementary school gym. Oh no, we were traveling 20 minutes to the “big” gym at the high school. So we logged a lot of car time and passed the time posing questions to each other. One of my son’s questions was: If you could have any wish, what would it be? My answer was three months of uninterrupted writing time. No job, no laundry, no walking the dog. Oh, the luxury!

In light of my wish, when I received an email from Louisa Stephens of the Associates of the Boston Public Library about their Writer-in-Resident program I couldn’t resist learning more about it. According to Stephens, the fellowship provides a $20,000 stipend, an office in the library and nine months of writing time to a children’s writer. Now, the commute from Pennsylvania to Boston would be a bear for me but for another WOW reader out there it could be a possibility. If you could see yourself as the eleventh Children’s Writer-in-Resident, applications are open until April 1. You can find the application here. And if not, why not start searching for writing fellowships in your state? I know I am!

To learn a little more about what it’s like to be a Writer-in-Resident, I interviewed Annie Hartnett, the current Writer-in-Residence and Elaine Dimopoulus, a former Writer-in-Residence.

WOW: Tell us a little about what you were doing before winning the Writer-in-Residence award with the Associates of the Boston Public Library?

ANNIE: Before the fellowship, I was studying for my MFA in fiction at the University of Alabama. Before
Annie Hartnett
Alabama, I got a MA in English literature from Middlebury College's Bread Loaf School of English, and I worked several odds jobs, including one at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston, which ended up being a big inspiration for my novel.

ELAINE: I had earned my MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College, and I was teaching children's literature as an adjunct professor at Boston University and Simmons.

WOW: How did you come to apply for the Associates of the Boston Public Library Children's Writer-in-Residence appointment?

ANNIE: During my thesis defense at Alabama last spring, there was some talk by the professors on my committee as to whether my novel-in-progress, Rabbit Cake, was for a young adult audience or not. My MFA program was not targeted at writers of young adult literature, so it was an interesting conversation, one I hadn't had before. Then I saw the fellowship with the Associates of the BPL posted on Erika Dreifus's blog and thought: why not throw my hat in? Let someone else tell me whether it's a young adult book! (And actually Rabbit Cake probably isn't going to end up as a young adult novel, but more on that in a moment…) I'd also been to a psychic who told me there was a big creative opportunity coming my way soon, which I know makes me sound totally nuts. Still, it would only be really nuts if she'd been wrong...right?

ELAINE: I had previously earned an emerging artist grant from the St. Botolph Club in Boston. My writing teacher and mentor at Simmons, Hannah Barnaby, was the inaugural writer-in-residence at the Boston Public Library. She encouraged me to apply to the residency and recommended me. I owe her a huge debt of gratitude!

WOW: Walk us through your average day as the Writer-in-Residence.

ANNIE: The fellowship requires me to spend nineteen hours of the week in the office at the library, divided however I choose. I'm also a bookseller at Newtonville Books, so I work around my schedule there.

The office is magical. It's a quiet, beautiful room, with a marble staircase and mahogany panels. And a window! Plus a computer and a desk. The resident before me (Hollis Shore) kept a bean bag in the corner, but I can't imagine bring a bean bag on the subway with me, so I just sit at the desk. No one can see me working, which is how I like it. I need absolute quiet to work. I don't even listen to music. I never write in public spaces, because I hate talking to people when I'm in the fog of my own world. Before you think I'm a big grouch, I do go into the main library often, but only to read.

Elaine Dimopoulos
As for community outreach, I am going to be holding a free workshop for teens at the library during the month of June. (if you or someone you know would like to participate, please email me: annie.hartnett@gmail.com). I am also teaching some classes this spring at Grub Street, including a six-hour course called "The Adult in Young Adult: Writing Sex and Violence for Teens." I'm excited about that one! I'm trying to incorporate more teaching into my writing life.

ELAINE: I would take the train in after rush hour -- usually around 10 a.m. -- and write until 3 or 4 p.m. I usually ate lunch in the BPL's Map Room Cafe. It's quite delicious! I changed offices midway through the year, but both were fairly secluded. I did participate in outreach, though: I met with the head YA librarian and conducted some college essay writing workshops for teens, at the main branch and at a Roxbury branch. I also held "office hours" in the teen room, so I could chat with some of the kids.

WOW: How do you feel the award has helped with your novel? Was it mainly having the financial aid or did having that title give you additional motivation to finish your novel?

ANNIE: The financial aid was great, I'm not going to lie. It's given me a lot of time to write that I would not have otherwise been able to afford. But the title of writer-in-residence was motivating, and very validating. It gave me hope that someday people other than my own mother would want to read my book. The welcome reception the Associates of the BPL held for me in October was so wonderful too. It was so fun to hear people laugh at all the parts of the book I read that I wanted them to laugh at.

ELAINE: The title was amazing -- I felt like Miss America for the year. The accountability piece, having to hand over a completed manuscript at the end of the residency, applied a gentle pressure, but the most valuable way in which the residency helped my novel was making me come in every day to get it done.

WOW: What is your novel about? Can you tell us how the idea for this novel evolved?

ANNIE: Rabbit Cake is a darkly comic coming-of-age novel. It is narrated by Elvis Babbitt, a very precocious ten-year-old girl obsessed with animals. The book begins as the Babbitt family copes with the strange and tragic death of the mother, who recently drowned while sleepwalking. Elvis’s older sister, fifteen-year-old Lizzie, is a sleepwalker as well, with tendencies towards nighttime violence. When the father sends Lizzie away to a mental hospital, Elvis find solace at the zoo where she volunteers. Lizzie is released from the hospital three months later, her wild spirit seeming broken. With Lizzie on the couch all day, Elvis tries on the “bad sister” role, until the day Lizzie reawakens, emerging badder than ever. The novel ends two years after the mother’s death, when Elvis is twelve. It is a novel that plays with the concept of a “normal grieving period” after a loss.

Some of the novel came from my own obsessions, with animals, and with Elvis Presley. When I was little I used to say my prayers to Elvis. I don't know why my mother didn't have me locked up then.

ELAINE: Eco Chic is told from the points of view of two characters – Ivy Wilde, a Miley Cyrus-type manufactured pop star, and Marla Klein, a talented fashionista who has been elevated to being an arbiter of taste and trends for the masses – the story explores high fashion and the cult of celebrity, in a world where staying young and trendy are the keys to success.
The novel's title is now Material Girls. The idea originated observing fashion trends at a private girls school in Pennsylvania where I taught... and watching a lot of Project Runway!

WOW: Was your novel started before you began the writer-in-residence program? Where are you in the writing process?

ANNIE: Rabbit Cake was my MFA thesis at Alabama, and when I defended last April, I had 40,000 words completed, and a rough narrative arch. Last year it was a finalist for the McSweeney's Amanda Davis novel-in-progress award, which was another big motivator for me to keep working on the book. As it stands now, the novel is 80,000 words, and it's been rewritten and overhauled several times. I signed with an agent this January--Katie Grimm at Don Congdon Associates--and she helped me revise again and now the book is nearly ready for submission. I feel a little sheepish about this, but my agent hopes to sell Rabbit Cake as literary fiction, and not as a young adult novel. I trust she knows what she's doing, of course, but I certainly am hoping it will have crossover appeal to teens. I think I would have loved this book when I was sixteen, and I hope other sixteen-year-olds that share my weird, dark, sense of humor will love it too. Rabbit Cake is sort of similar in some ways to Carol Rifka Brunt's "Tell the Wolves I'm Home," which is a great novel for either teens or adults. I think teens should read adult books, and adults should read young adult books. The categories are not exact prescriptions, just a shelving category in the bookstore.

Truly, one of the best things the fellowship has done for me is that I've read so much young adult fiction this year, which I wasn't doing during my MFA. One of my favorite recent reads was "No One Else Can Have You" by Kathleen Hale. It's so dark and funny and smart. It's about the murder of a teenager girl in Friendship, Wisconsin. Five stars.

Oh and as for the question if would I be at the same place in my writing process without the fellowship? No way! Finding an agent in itself was a full time job. Anyone who is querying agents right now, my heart is with you.

ELAINE: I had written six chapters before I started the residency. I finished the draft in March or April of my term, revised it, and submitted it to agents. I was offered representation, and the novel went through two further rounds of revision before being picked up by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for publication in Spring 2015. I'm thrilled. It's hard to say whether I'd be in the same place had I not earned the residency, but the confidence of knowing that esteemed writers and editors believed in the project was a huge boost.

Now I’m preparing for my book launch! And writing and teaching, still. I primarily teach courses in writing for children and young adults at Grub Street, Boston's nonprofit creative writing center. I'm working on a picture book and a middle grade novel, which I'm hoping will be published after Material Girls!

WOW: What did you learn during the writer-in-residence program?

ANNIE: I can write a book! That was a great surprise!

ELAINE: I would say the best benefit was that the award taught me how to be a writer. I had to come in and write even if I wasn't in the mood, even if I had no idea how to begin a scene, even if I would rather have stayed in bed. Because of this training, I don't fear writing the way I used to, and I don't procrastinate as much. I know if I sit down in front of my computer, I can find my way around problems in my writing projects, and I know that I will, eventually, finish them. It's empowering.

Jodi Webb is still toiling away at her writing in between a full-time job, a full-time family and work as a blog tour manager for WOW-Women on Writing. You can contact her at jodi@wow-womenonwriting.com. For Jodi's take on reading and writing (no 'rithmetic please!) stop by her blog Words by Webb.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Margo Dill said...

This has to be one of the most awesome programs ever. Jodi:thanks for finding Annie and Elaine and interviewing them for us. This makes me wonder if there are other programs like this out there--like in the Midwest--like in St. Louis. . .;)

4:25 PM  
Blogger Jodi Webb said...

Margo,

I just put "Pennsylvania writing grants", Pennsylvania writing retreats" and "Pennsylvania writer in residence" in the search engine and tons of stuff popped up. Of course so many were for "emerging writers". do I still count as emerging even if I'm over 40:)

4:46 PM  

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