This is the blog of children's book author and elementary school teacher, Stacy Barnett Mozer. I blog about my own writing journey, the journey of other kidlit authors, my classroom, and talk about books. Thanks for stopping by. Your thoughts are always welcome (and encouraged).

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Interview with #MG and Picture Book Writer Holly M. McGhee

It’s Thursday so it’s time to interview another author. Today I talk to Holly M. McGhee. Holly is both a literary agent and a writer. At her agency, Pippin Properties, Inc., Holly's clients include Kate DiCamillo, Jandy Nelson, Doreen Cronin, Sean Qualls, and Peter H. Reynolds. In 2009, her first book was published under the pen name Hallie Durand, and this year, with her debut novel Matylda, Bright and Tender, which has a plum line straight to her heart, she decided to integrate both parts of her creative life, and is now writing under her given name. Her picture book collaboration with Pascal Lemaitre, Come with Me, will be published by Putnam on September 5.

Holly, you are a published author and a literary agent. Did one thing lead to the other? 
Not so much in a straight-line kind of way—but for sure, my work as a literary agent and as a writer are connected. I started as an editor, and I brought along that interest to my career as a literary agent, helping my clients in the early creative stages of their projects in addition to negotiating the publishing deal. I generally get right in there and roll up my sleeves on the manuscript or storyboard, long before the project is submitted—it's just part of who I am. And I think it's true that my own stories come from that same creative reservoir inside of me.

How do you balance working with your client’s books and working on your own? 
That's the hardest part. I'm kind of obsessed with my job as a literary agent and it's hard for me to step aside and be still and ponder my own stories. It was easier before my kids became teenagers because they would go to bed at 9 and I would write. They stay up late now and the house is seldom quiet; trumpet practice begins at 9:30 p.m. every night! If I'm deep into something I go away, but the breathing space it takes to get going on something new is the hardest to find. I've recently decided to honor my writing career by setting aside every Friday for my own work. It starts this week, so my fingers are crossed that this new balance will be good.

Tell us about your journey. How did you get your first book published? 
My first book is titled Dessert First, and the character came bursting into my life while I was pleasantly reading a manuscript on NJ Transit one morning. Her name was Dessert Schneider and she would not be quiet till I wrote down her story, in her words. I did it all in a spiral bound notebook, longhand, in 2007. But I was concerned that when it was submitted, an editor might be influenced one way or the other because of who I was as a literary agent. That's why we used a pen name—Hallie Durand—nobody knew who I was until the deal was done; that way I could always be sure that the book was acquired because of the writing itself. The knowledge that my story was acquired solely because of the words has helped me along my path, especially during the too frequent times when I doubt myself as a writer. Under my pen name, I wrote two more books in that series and then three picture books (Mitchell's LicenseMitchell Goes Bowling, and Catch That Cookie!). 

With Matylda, Bright and Tender, my debut middle-grade novel, I decided to integrate my writing and agenting career under Holly M. McGhee, partly because Matylda is based on the emotions from my own childhood and partly as an acknowledgement that my writing and agenting comes from the same place inside of me. (Also the original idea of having a pen name was long past the point of serving its purpose.)

Was there ever a point when you felt like giving up? 
With Matylda, I don't know if I consciously felt like giving up, but I did put the story down for a year. The book had started out as a sweet story of two best friends which I wrote over the summer of 2012, up to page 25. At that point I realized one of the friends would have to go on without the other, and I couldn't bear it. I set the pages aside for an entire year. In a way, I felt tricked by my own psyche, because it lured me into unraveling something I'd buried in my own life for decades, a fatal car accident I was in as a teenager. But as I began to give myself permission to go to the darkest places inside of me, the book ended up being such a gift—it helped me work through my own grief, and I'm so grateful for that. 

Tell us a little bit about your novel, Matylda, Bright & Tender.
Matylda, Bright and Tender is the story of best friends Sussy Reed and Guy Hose, neither of whom has siblings. They very much want something to love, all their own, and together they adopt a leopard gecko and they name her Matylda, with a "y" so it's all her own. When the unimaginable happens, on a simple bike ride to get some vitamins for Matylda, Sussy is left to go on without Guy, and she works through her grief by loving Matylda fiercely—and in so doing she is trying to keep her attachment to her friend . . . until it becomes impossible to go on . . . that's when she comes to understand that when we love someone, we can love them in death the same way we did in life / that we don't have to fight those feelings / that they become part of who we are, and that we can go on from there at a deeper level, as people who have the capacity to hold the tension of all the feelings at once, both the dark and the light. And that we can survive. That the act of going on itself is a way to honor the person who died. 

Your latest book, Come with Me, opened a lot of conversations in my classroom. How did you come up with the concept for Come With Me
My long-time friend Pascal Lemaitre and I had been playing around with the idea of the Native American fable of the humming bird and the forest fire, in which the humming bird, the tiniest of all birds, doesn't think the amount of water she can carry will make a difference in extinguishing the fire. But then there is the epiphany that if all the hummingbirds each carried a drop of water, together they could put out the fire. Watching the news of terrorism over and over in the Spring of 2016 with my three children, and feeling so helpless, not knowing how to go forward, I realized that we are like the hummingbirds, and that a simple act of connecting in the face of tragedy and fear, if multiplied by thousands, can make a difference. 

And Pascal had actually connected with me, sixteen years prior, after 9/11. I lived in Manhattan. My husband and our baby, 18 months old. I remember that day so clearly; my husband worked on Wall Street—and our lives, everybody's lives, New York itself and the world as we knew it, changed forever that day. We were scared; immobilized with fear. Then a package arrived in the mail, from my friend in Belgium to me, with a painting of a frightened grieving man planting a flag at the World Trade Center sight, the flag bearing a big red heart blowing in the wind. This act of love, and caring, and connection, in such a time of fear, touched my heart and gave me strength. And the idea that if we all each reached out to one another in our own way, how different the world might be, is at the core of Come with Me

My students are always surprised to hear that authors don’t always get to approve their illustrator and some don't even see the pictures until the book releases. What was that process like for you? Did anything surprise you when you saw the illustrations? 
Well in this case since Pascal and I are friends and since I work in the business, we all collaborated, and so I was involved along the way. Pascal is married to a French Cambodian woman, and so he used his daughter as a model for the little girl. I'm not sure whose dog it is though, but it's very cute! I was surprised that Pascal found a way to work his ladybugs in :-) The jacket was a challenge; do we curve the type or leave it as a straight line? Big discussions! We ended up going straight across and I think that made a big difference. There was a lot of talk about the color of the paper too and I'm really happy with what was chosen. Just like the history behind the book, we worked as a team; I know that's unusual but it was amazing!

Is there anything about being a published author that has surprised you? 
One of the most surprising things about being a published author is the direct connections that are possible between writers and teachers and librarians. As a literary agent, which is what I do as my full-time job, I don't often have direct relationships with educators. It has been incredible to be able communicate with teachers and librarians through twitter. It has been so exciting to see how many people there are out there who are dedicated to creating lifelong passionate readers. I have loved connecting to teachers of every subject who are eager to read books and share them with students. Seeing how seriously these teachers take their reading material has made me think even more carefully about the books I want to bring in to the world, the ones I want to invest my time in, both as a writer and a literary agent.

Any advice you would give to a writer just starting out? 
Write every day. That's an easy one to nod yes to, but it takes commitment and passion to show up every day and actually write something. Even if you only have ten minutes, show up & honor your dream.

Is there anything else about you or your books you would like to tell us? 
I'd love to share a few events I'm doing with Pascal Lemaitre for Come with Me, which pubs on September 5. (Lucky for us he is here from Belgium until 9/15)

New York Times Facebook Live Illustration with Maria Russo, August 9 at 3 p.m. (join in on New York Times facebook page)

Rizzoli Bookstore, NYC, our launch: September 7 at 6 p.m.

Albertine Bookstore, NYC: September 9 at 11 a.m.

Maplewood Memorial Library Community gathering for Come with Me, with sidewalk chalk: September 9 at 3:30 p.m.

And I'll be at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Saturday, September 16.

Good luck with all of your events, Holly. Thank you so much for stopping by.
Thank you for inviting me to your blog, Stacy!

For more information about Holly and her books, visit her online and on twitter. Don't forget to leave a comment and check back next week for a new author interview. Here's a video to enjoy before you go:

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