Monday, March 28, 2016

WISH: An interview with Barbara O'Connor

I was lucky enough to read a copy of Barbara O’Connor’s latest book Wish (out November 2016) last week.  What a wonderful surprise to open the mailbox and find an advanced reader copy.  Wish is the kind of read I was hoping it would be!  Wish is the kind of book I was hoping my friend would write.  Wish is the kind of book I can't wait to get into the hands of readers. 

If, like me, you are a Barbara O'Connor fan, you know Barbara's writing well.  You know that she invites a reader to live out a character's life through his or her story.  You know that she introduces supporting characters filled with angst and humor.  You know that she creates a setting full of allure and intrigue.  You know that she sprinkles her words with southern charm.  You know that she writes with a rhythm and simplicity that makes you stop in your tracks to ponder.  You know that her books leave a reader changed.

I think is was Socrates who said, “Be as you wish to seem.”  And, that's what I love about Barbara, she is what she seems.  She is a writer's writer.  

Wish is about Charlie, a girl with a special "wish" that she's been making every day since fourth grade (in the most unique ways).  Due to situations at home, Charlie is sent to live with her Aunt Bertha and Uncle Gus in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina where day after day she continues making her "wish," hoping it will come true.  She befriends a boy named Howard Odom (and his family*) and as their relationship unfolds, they develop a special bond.  Charlie's heart melts when she discovers a stray dog she names Wishbone.  As Wish continues, Charlie learns the true meaning of family, friendship, and love.

In anticipation of Wish's release, Barbara and I had a conversation about her new book and her writing in general.  Here's a snippet of our conversation...  

Me:  What was your inspiration for writing Wish (without giving too much away)?  It seems like you dug deeply into some familial issues that seem all to familiar to many young (and old) people.

Barbara:  I was conducting a biography writing workshop with fifth graders in a school in Massachusetts.  The students interviewed a family member and used those answers to write creative nonfiction (a short biography).  One of the questions on the interview sheet was: What were your favorite interests or hobbies as a child?

A boy in the class had interviewed his grandmother and she answered that question: soccer, ballet and fighting.  Obviously, that struck me as quite interesting and stayed with me for a long time.

So when I got ready to write Charlie’s story, I knew I wanted to start with her filling out a “Getting to Know You” paper for her teacher and listing those three things as her favorite activities.  The rest of the story unfolded from there.

As for familial issues, I’ll spare you the details of my youth and save them for my therapist, but I'll quote the author Joan Bauer, who said: "The great thing about having a dysfunctional childhood is that it never stops giving.”

Me:  You have the uncanny ability to cause your readers to fall in love with the characters in your books.  When you "go after" a character, what do you keep in mind as you develop him or her?

Barbara:  It’s kind of hard to describe my process with characters other than to say I spend a lot of time with them in my head before I start writing, so that I know them through and through.  Dialogue is a biggie for me - the way I really get to know characters and then present them to the reader.  I try to stay so focused on the character that when the dialogue doesn’t ring true, I know it immediately.

I have a harder time with their physical appearance.  I don’t always SEE the character initially.  But I definitely HEAR the character.  So I have to make more of a conscious effort to figure that out and then describe the appearance of a character.

Me:  There's southern charm in your words.  The smells, the sounds, the thoughts... the sensory images you create for your readers are so strong.  What tools or strategies do you use as a writer to create strong images?  

Barbara:  This will probably sound a little hippie-dippie, but I try to get into a sort of zen-like state when I write and then immerse myself in the setting.  Having grown up in the South, I have many memories to draw on.  I try to dredge up those memories when I write and those memories are often sensory. 

Ironically, I have no sense of smell!  A little trivia for you.  Ha haI  But I know that smells are important so I always try to include them.  I rely on trusted readers/critique partners to ensure that I’ve gotten the smells correct.

Me:  What are you hoping your readers will discover about themselves as they read Wish?  What did you discover about yourself as you were writing?

Barbara:  I don’t know if I’d call it a discovery…but rather a reminder: that sometimes what we wish for is right there in front of us all the time….but we are often too busy wishing to notice.  Does that make sense?  The old adage, “Be careful what you wish for” also comes into play.  The main character of WISH, Charlie, was so busy wishing for something she didn’t have, that she didn’t notice all the good things she DID have.  And…if she had actually gotten what she THOUGHT she wanted, things wouldn’t have turned out so well for her.

And another old adage comes to mind: Take time to smell the roses.

Me:  Describe your writing process.  What would you say to a young writer (say, 4th grade) who has a story to tell? Someone once said, "There's a writer in all of us."   What would you say to a writer who has a story to tell, but is afraid to tell it?

First and foremost, I would say, “DON’T be afraid.” I always tell kids to never be afraid to write something that they think isn’t very good. Because they can always fix it.  But you can’t fix what you haven’t written. To me, a page full of not-so-great writing is way less daunting than a blank page.

Secondly, I like to remind young writers that each of them is an individual with a unique style and voice. I could give a whole room full of writers the same storyline, but the end result would be different for each one. So I always encourage young writers to embrace their own personalities which come through as style and voice in their writing. 

Me:  One of my favorite lines from Wish is, "Maybe the Odoms' hearts were so good that they didn't care that they lived in such a sad-looking house."  As you reread Wish, what are two or three of your favorite lines?

Barbara:  Some of my favorite lines are: 

“There she was over there on the other side of the table thinking I was an angel, and here I was on my side feeling about as far from an angel as anybody could be."

“Then Jackie came outside looking like Miss America, and I thought Burl was going to faint right there in the red dirt.”

“That night in bed, I laid on top of the cool sheets with Wishbone’s soft, warm body next to me. I thought about my broken family back in Raleigh and wondered if they were thinking about me, a ray of sunshine at the end of a long, sorry day.”

And I can't resist just this one more:  “But Bertha said, ‘You know, sometimes when you’ve had a bad day, eating grits makes you feel better.’”

Me: You know my fourth graders are going to love hearing Wish and are going to devour it on their own.  What would you tell a group of fourth graders about this book?

Barbara:  I’d tell them, “For Pete’s sake, read the dang thang.” LOL

Me: What are your wishes?

  • I wish for my family and friends to stay healthy and happy.
  • I wish for readers to enjoy my books and be inspired to write their own.
  • I wish cheesecake didn’t have so many calories.
• • • • • • • • • 

Note:  Bertha is one of my favorite character's in Wish.  
As I got to know her, I couldn't get my mom, Freda, out of my mind.  
Freda would have loved Bertha!