Who will you be and where will you go? And how will you know?”
So, here’s something I’ve always wanted to do: Chat with author Alison McGhee. And she’s here today to help me realize that goal. Alison is the author of a whole slew, to be precise, of really wonderful picture books I’ve admired over the years, but she also writes for all ages. And I mean ALL, and this I love. She is, in point of fact, a former Pulitzer nominee and a #1 New York Times bestselling author.
If, by some wild chance, you don’t recognize her name, you very likely will recognize some of the books she’s penned for children and teens. Here are just a few, in no particular order. Call it a random sampling of Alison-McGhee greatness:
Alison’s newest title, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo—who visited 7-Imp in November of last year—is called So Many Days, and in the words of Publishers Weekly, we see in this title “meditative linocuts ground abstract poetry” and “earnest depictions of small miracles that emphasize the magic and adventure that life offers.” It’s also Alison’s and Taeeun’s second collaboration, which Alison addresses below. The book is a contemplative, open-ended wonder for children, as you’ll see below in several of the spreads from the book. (We have Taeeun to thank for sharing those this morning.) It really is a lovely title, and—as Alison mentions below—it truly is for all ages, though the speaker in the book is an unnamed adult speaking to a young child, offering encouragement, acknowledging struggles.
I thank Alison for stopping by this morning over some cyber-coffee to discuss the book, what’s next for her, and what she’s been up to lately. And another expression of gratitude to Taeeun for sharing art and early sketches from their new title…
7-Imp: Perhaps authors dislike being asked about “inspiration,” but can you talk about the genesis of So Many Days? It’s a really beautiful book.
Alison: Maybe I’m wack, but I don’t mind being asked about inspiration. Why else would I write, if not out of a spark? Two separate conversations inspired So Many Days. The first—and this is going to sound cheesy, but I don’t care—was after my daughters and I saw The Incredibles. There was one line in it that I loved, in which the mother told her daughter that “You know more than you think you know.” Such a powerful, true line. Don’t we all know more than we think we do, in our heart of hearts? And when we came out of the theater, my older daughter turned to me and said, “Mom, there was a line in that movie that I loved.” Same line, same effect.
A couple of years later, a publisher at Atheneum asked if I was interested in writing a picture book with the theme of “doorways.” I couldn’t quite imagine this at first, but I began playing with it, and eventually I saw it as a book about transitions — those times when, like it or not, you’re leaving one phase of your life for another. To be fully alive means being one with the changes you go through, ones you choose or ones that are chosen for you.
It was at that point that the power of the “You know more than you think you do” line came back to me, and I gathered together some lines that felt right to me. You are braver than you know. You are stronger than you know. And my favorite: You are wilder than you know.
7-Imp: What was it like to see Taeeun’s art for the first time?
Alison: Taeeun Yoo’s art is so magical to me that by extension I regard her as a magical human being. I first saw Taeeun’s art at a party, where some picture books were displayed on a table. I hadn’t met her yet, but I picked up her first book, The Little Red Fish, and began to leaf through it. I couldn’t put it down. Her art transfixes me — the delicacy of her line and touch, which belie the huge underlying strength and understanding of both place and emotion. I was thrilled to work with her on our first collaboration, Only a Witch Can Fly, and doubly thrilled that she was the artist for So Many Days.
7-Imp: How does your teaching inform your writing?
Alison: It doesn’t, really. Teaching and writing are very separate things to me. Both are callings, both are vocations. While writing is my first vocation, teaching is a way of connecting on the deepest level with other human beings. It’s a sacred art, teaching is, and one which humbles me every time I step into the classroom. The art of teaching is non-specific to me (I used to teach Chinese in one of the Minneapolis public schools); that I happen to teach creative writing part-time is about teaching, not about writing. I don’t really understand why so many writers seem to feel that teaching is the only, or best, way to pay the bills as they write.
7-Imp: Did the Pulitzer nomination for Shadow Baby inform your writing in any way — as in, did it put tremendous pressure on you, by chance? Or was it merely the thrill it sounds like it was?
Alison: You know, pretty much anyone can be nominated for a Pulitzer, but hardly anyone wins one. I was honored and thrilled for sure, but I didn’t feel any pressure from it.
7-Imp: I love love love that you write for all ages. Is there a particular age for whom you like to write the most?
Alison: I love love love to write for all ages, too! I began writing only novels, for adults, and it was a dare from one of my sisters that launched me into also writing for children. Honestly, I don’t have a favorite age of reader — and I think of most books as being written for whoever is reading them. Someday and So Many Days both seem like picture books for all ages, maybe even more for adults than for children.
Having said that, I have a special affinity for children ages nine and eleven. When you’re either of those ages, you’re on the cusp, about to launch yourself into a whole new way of being.
I also love teenagers. Magical beings, so full of passion, whether revealed or not. They’re wondering about the huge, profound issues of life: Who will I be, and how will I change the world, and what is the work of my soul?
You are a star trailing fire at night. You are a bird urgent for flight.”
7-Imp: This might sound cliché, but I do think it’s an interesting question: What is your best advice for picture-book author wannabes?
Alison: It’s an interesting question, for sure. Picture books are devilish little challenges to me, which is probably why I keep trying to write them. (Shouldn’t it get easier?? So far, it hasn’t.) I offer you this advice: Remember that you’re half the equation, and let go of the idea of controlling the art. Write with hazy images in your mind, but know that the artist will bring her own talent and devotion to that side of things.
7-Imp: When did you first know you wanted to be an author?
Alison: When I first learned how to print, so probably around age six. That’s when I began writing books, too: Pencil on lined notebook paper, folded and cut and stapled, and saved by my mother to this day. My earliest memories are of wanting to be 1) an actor, 2) a dancer (ballerina), 3) a singer/songwriter, and finally 4) a writer. I think I could have been very happy being any of the first three. What I wanted, at heart, was to be an artist — to translate experience into art, whatever the form. I still do.
7-Imp: If you could have coffee or a glass of rich red wine with three authors (or even illustrators) you haven’t yet met, who would they be?
Alison: I’d like to sit down with Wendell Berry and M.T. Anderson (cheating; he’s a good friend, but still, he’s endlessly brilliant and fascinating and funny). And can we bring back people from the great beyond? Because I’d love to sit down with the unknown poets who wrote the Book of Job, from the Bible, and have a chat with them.
Who will you be and where will you go? And how will you know?”
7-Imp: What are your school visits like, and how do they vary, depending on age?
Alison: My school visits are tailored to the school—whatever they’re interested in—and I’m happy with any size group and any age, from kindergarten through university.
7-Imp: What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
Alison: I’m a bit claustrophobic. (Don’t book me a room in a capsule hotel!)
7-Imp: What’s next for you?
Alison: I’m working on a novel for children, inspired by the beautiful artwork of Christopher Denise.
SO MANY DAYS by Alison McGhee, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo © 2010. Published by Atheneum, New York, NY. Spreads and sketches used with permission of illustrator. Spread from ONLY A WITCH CAN FLY also used with permission of Taeeun.