Alison McGhee writes for all ages in all forms, from novels to poems to books for children. Her Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel Shadow Baby was a Today Show Book Club pick, and her picture book for adults, Someday, was a #1 New York Times bestseller. Her work has been translated into more than twenty languages, and she has won dozens of fellowships and awards, including four Minnesota Book Awards, the Geisel medal, state and Loft artist fellowships, a Christopher Award, a MacDowell residency, and several American Library Association awards. She grew up south of Old Forge in the foothills of the Adirondacks and has three grown children. She lives a semi-nomadic life in Minneapolis, Vermont, and California.
“The best advice I have for those struggling with self-doubt is: Accept it. Be Buddhist about it. Acknowledge your feelings of self-doubt, recognize them, sit with them, and observe them. And the whole time you’re doing that, just keep working. One of my mantras is: Write a little every day, without hope and without despair”
Julia Shelton: Do you have a favorite genre that you enjoy writing more than the others?
Alison McGhee: That’s a tough question for me, because I truly enjoy the challenges of each form. While I cherish poetry more than any other form of literature, it’s hard to write a beautiful poem. It sometimes takes me years. Novels also take me years, and I infuse my prose with poetry. So, I guess you’d say that while I most enjoy writing the ends of the spectrum –small poems and large novels—they feel like the same kind of writing to me.
JS: What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
AM: I adored The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White. Charlotte’s Web gets all the love, and it’s wonderful, but White’s other works are simply beautiful.
JS: What do you find the hardest to write and how do you overcome that?
AM: I find it hard simply to sit down and start writing. Every. Single. Day. You’d think I’d have gotten over it by now, but nope. The way I overcome it is by dividing my tasks into manageable chunks. Usually, if I’m writing a novel, I give myself a word quota per day, something like 2000 words. That’s manageable. And when I’m finished I get to go for a long walk, which makes me happy.
JS: What do you think are some of the realities of being an author that a lot of aspiring authors don’t consider? Were there some aspects of the business that surprised you when you first started out?
AM: It’s incredibly hard to make a living as a writer or as any artist. That’s something that no one likes to talk about because it’s not fun, and it doesn’t have to do with “the muse” or the love of making art that draws most of us into. You almost always have to have a few side hustles to bring in money while you’re putting most of your creative energy into your art.
JS: Do you ever doubt your writing ideas in the beginning? What advice do you have for readers to keep them from getting discouraged and to power through the self-doubt?
AM: I doubt my writing ideas in the beginning, in the middle, in the ending, in the revising, in the publishing, and in the post-publishing. ☺ I think that’s pretty standard for most artists. My boyfriend, who’s a painter, and I always laugh about how many times a day we think of ourselves as failures. The best advice I have for those struggling with self-doubt is: Accept it. Be Buddhist about it. Acknowledge your feelings of self-doubt, recognize them, sit with them, and observe them. And the whole time you’re doing that, just keep working. One of my mantras is: Write a little every day, without hope and without despair.
JS: Do you have any tips for aspiring editors and writers?
AM: Write, edit, and live with your heart on the line. When someone is being half-assed about their work, whether it’s cooking or doing laundry or writing or editing, it always shows. Whatever you do in this world, put your whole heart in it. That always shows, too.
JS: What did it look like writing a book with another author? Were there challenges or advantages that stood out to you?
AM: I loved working with both Kathi Appelt and Kate DiCamillo. The challenging part of collaboration is that you’re not solely in charge. You have to compromise, you have to struggle toward solutions together, and you have to write a book that’s neither of you alone but both of you together. The advantage is that you’re not alone! You have someone else to depend on. It’s a huge relief.
JS: What advice do you have for switching between multiple points of view in a story?
AM: Do it carefully and with great intention. By far the most natural way to do it is to tell chapters in different voices. Switching it up mid-chapter is really rough, and usually doesn’t come out well.
JS: Are there certain themes that you are passionate about writing?
AM: Absolutely. I am passionate about connecting with readers. I want to tell the whole truth of what it’s like to be alive, for different people, in different voices, at different times of life and in different ways of living, so that no one feels alone. Books were a way out of loneliness to me— they still are— and I want my books to be a profound source of comfort to others.
JS: You’ve written an impressive number of books. If you could tell your younger writing-self anything, what would it be?
AM: Dear Allie, if I could go back in time and tell you something, it would be this: Whatever you do in life, you will do with your whole heart. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Love, your older self.
JS: Do you enjoy playing with foreshadowing in your stories? Are there any other elements of writing that you enjoy including in your stories?
AM: I do enjoy foreshadowing. It’s a cool challenge to weave in little bits and pieces that will all come together in the end, but the reader doesn’t know it. I also love poetic language, language that sings and flows and becomes almost its own character. Something else I enjoy is hidden structures, frameworks that give shape to my books, but that only I know about because I’m the one who just randomly made them up. For example, my forthcoming young adult novel What I Leave Behind is made of precisely 100 100-word chapters.
JS: What inspired Tell Me A Tattoo Story? Do you have any tattoos?
AM: I don’t have tattoos myself, but two of my children are multiply tattooed, and tattoos are everywhere these days. They’re so lovely and interesting, and there’s always a story behind them. Some of the stories are so moving that I almost weep when people tell them to me.
JS: How do you decide what you are going to write next? Do you plan out if your next book will be a picture book, middle grade, etc., or do you get the idea first and just go with it for whatever age group fits best?
AM: I’m a randomizer. I tend to go with whatever’s beckoning me in my heart. Usually an idea will come to me and it will seem to be already formed in terms of its final shape –picture book or poem or novel or essay or novel for children—so I just start writing it.
JS: Does the publishing process change for each of your books?
AM: It stays very consistent, actually. The publishing process is very similar no matter who your publisher or editor is. Write the book, revise the book, sell the book, revise the book again, revise the book again, revise the book again, go through the copy edit and revise the book again, go through the second copy edit and revise the book again, go through the page proofs and revise the book again, publication. (Did you sense a theme here at all? ☺)
JS: What animal do you think you would be reborn as in the Maybe A Fox universe?
AM: A bird. Absolutely a bird. I’ve dreamed of flying my entire life long. Wouldn’t that be fabulous?
JS: What’s your go-to piece of advice for when you teach students creative writing?
AM: The only reason to make art is because you have to.
JS: If you could spend time with a character from one of your books whom would it be? What would you do during that day?
AM: I’d spend a day with Birdy, from Pablo and Birdy. And we’d fly across the ocean together while she told me stories about all the people I’ve loved and lost in my life.
Don’t miss our review of Maybe a Fox, illustrated by Alison McGhee!