When did you first start to write, and why?
My first memories of writing stem from third grade. For a class assignment, I wrote a poem about a cheetah that both my teacher and parents praised. Around this time, I also received my first diary, one with a lock and key. I don’t remember what I wrote, and I know I didn’t write every day, but those pages offered me privacy (hard to come by in a large family), sanctuary, and freedom to create and express myself as I saw fit. I also enjoyed making up stories for my younger siblings. I crayoned pictures and stapled the pages together. During visits to our grandmother’s, all five of us kids shared a bedroom. At night, while the adults were still up talking and watching TV, I would entertain my brothers and sisters with short tales and skits that I acted out in the dark. From the slivers of light shining beneath the bedroom door, they could discern my silhouette and watch me perform. Why did I start to write? Because I took pleasure in playing with words and writing down thoughts I didn’t feel free to express out loud. I also read a lot and imagined one day writing my own book.
What is the reward for writing? Why do you do it?
I write to create, to play with words and rhythm and language. I write to learn what I know and to discover what I don’t know. I write because I feel compelled to write. Like a kettle heating on a stove, I feel words building up inside me and, at some point, must release them onto the page. I cannot not write. I feel more serene and more like myself when I am writing regularly. The best reward is when my words accurately and, thus beautifully, capture the image or mood in my mind, or when I create a character or place I believe in yet never realized existed. Writing is recovery of the lost and discovery of the new. It provides a playscape for my imagination, a garden, a maze.
What have you learned in writing classes, or other classes, that has impacted your writing?
In grade school, my social studies teacher, John Wukovits, a WWII historian who’s published several books, assigned projects (e.g., building a medieval castle, covering a debate between the British monarchy and the American colonists, and reporting on the Trojan War) that inspired my creativity and made writing fun.
One of my high school English teachers, Karl Knoll, shaped my writing in two significant ways. First, for all our essays, he limited us to three linking verbs per page. Consequently, I developed a proclivity for action verbs and still shy away from linking verbs. Second, he provoked me into writing my best. At the start of my junior year, he showed us exemplary models of student writing and declared that no one else could hope to emulate them. I vented about this outrage to my mom, who spent many hours proofreading my papers and laughing out loud at my grammar mistakes. Our final essay required we take a stance on the Vietnam War. Mr. Knoll was a Vietnam veteran, which made the task even more daunting. After he’d graded our essays, our class met in the library. Mr. Knoll reminded us how he’d asserted that no one could write as well as his previous students. “I am here to tell you that one person has proven me wrong.” He then read my essay aloud. I’ll never forget my surprise and gratitude, my pleasure and pride not only in having risen to his challenge but also in hearing my writing shared with others.
At the University of Michigan, I enrolled in an essay-writing class. I was the youngest, the only sophomore, in a group of third-year students and, at first, I felt daunted, but the instructor, Gilda Povolo, was nurturing and made me feel welcome. Her wonderfully constructive comments helped me improve my writing. She encouraged me to submit three of my personal essays the next year for the undergraduate Hopwood Award. I won first place and a cash prize, the first money I’d ever earned from my writing.
Finally, during my MFA program, the excellent writing instructors at the Bennington Writing Seminars pushed me to read even more extensively than I already was, to analyze others’ and my own writing, and to develop my craft.
How would an outside observer describe your writing?
An outside observer might describe my writing as richly detailed with vivid imagery and spot-on dialogue. Like tea, something to be sipped and savored, not gulped down.
What do you write about and why?
When I’m writing fiction, I don’t consciously choose a subject or theme. I’m more likely to start with a line of dialogue or picture a scene and explore the characters who show up. However, topics that engross me and that may emerge in my writing include feminism, issues of gender and class, Catholicism, faith, alcoholism and addiction, loss, grief, the natural world, language, identity, and travel.
What about the picture book writing?
Our picture book, Sophia and Sinclair Go on an Adventure!, grew out of imaginative play with a pair of stuffed animals and a desire to share these stories with loved ones. When the pandemic struck and life darkened for many, our small project felt hopeful. With the help of a talented illustrator, Marcy Tippmann, our characters sprang to life, and as the story developed through revisions, my husband and I realized we wanted to share its good cheer beyond our family. I enjoyed our first project so much, I decided to follow Sophia and Sinclair on another adventure. Writing a picture book feels somewhat akin to writing poetry. Each word must carry its own weight yet connect to and serve the whole story. Picture book writing also entails thinking about two different audiences: children and the adults who read to them.
What might picture book readers appreciate knowing about Sophia and Sinclair?
Although Sophia and Sinclair are fictional characters, they inhabit a realistically natural world. Because I grew up in Michigan, their forest is in the Midwest. Wildflowers, such as Queen Anne’s lace, clover, and aster, fill the meadow near Charlotte’s pasture. In Sophia and Sinclair Get Lost!, Timothy and Titus, the deer mice, drum their paws on a hay bale to try to get Charlotte’s attention. When they feel disturbed, real deer mice do drum their front paws up and down against hard surfaces as a warning signal to other mice. The family of beavers is also illustrated with realistic detail. Young beavers’ teeth are white, but as beavers age, their teeth turn orange from the iron content in the food they eat. Consequently, in the picture books, Hattie and Eugene, the parents, have dark orange teeth; Betsy and Beatrice, the oldest kits, have yellow teeth; and Anastasia and Bernard, the youngest kits, have white teeth. The realistic illustrations of the picture books celebrate the beauty of the flora and fauna of our world.