Bloggers Note: Heather Mackey will be speaking on the topic of Where Ideas Come From at the May 14th 2016 meeting of the Mt. Diablo branch of the California Writers Club. The meeting will be at Zio Fraedo’s Restaurant at 611 Gregory Lane, Pleasant Hill. Cost is $25 members and $30 for guests. Paypal and credit card requires additional fees. Sign-in is at 11:15 am–12 pm, luncheon at 12–12:45, and program at 1:00 –2:00 pm. Reservations required. RSVP to Robin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. In one paragraph, can you give us some highlights from Dreamwood?
Dreamwood is the story of Lucy, a young girl who ventures into a haunted forest to save her father—an expert in the supernatural who’s gone missing. Along the way Lucy has to solve puzzles, question her own beliefs, and learn to work together with people she might otherwise discount. I filled it with things I love: ghosts, spooky landscapes, American history and folk tales, odd and forgotten scientific theories, and stubborn, brave children who make terrible mistakes but still somehow manage to set things right. I set it in the Pacific Northwest, because I was inspired by the old-growth redwood forests of Northern California. But it’s a Pacific Northwest of a strange, alternate past.
2. Tell us about your muse, Bell.
When I get stuck (which is often), I do all kinds of rather goofy visualization exercises to get unstuck. A while back, I was having trouble figuring out a plot element. I knew the answer was in my subconscious, but no matter how hard I thought about it, I couldn’t get it. I wished I had a mental agent who could go into that subconscious muck and pull out what I needed. So I imagined my own personal muse. The name Bell came to me, along with her appearance (kind of a steampunk superhero). I made her as real as I possibly could, and I have complete confidence that when I ask her to solve something for me, she’ll go do it. Right now, I’m working on my new book. Whenever I doubt myself, I picture Bell in some fantastical setting, and I imagine her sitting down and reading this book I’m writing. I see her pick it up, look at the cover, and turn the pages where the story is already written. So I know I can write this. And if there’s something about the story I don’t know, I ask her to find it for me. Maybe it sounds a bit woo-woo, but I have to say, having her around removes a lot of the stress and anxiety that can get in the way of writing.
3. List five of your all time favorite books.
It’s really hard for me to pick a list of just five books. But here are five that I’ve loved fiercely and find myself returning to again and again.
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust
The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler
The Golden Compass (Northern Lights) by Philip Pullman
Regeneration, by Pat Barker
4. Describe your path to publication.
How far back should I start? I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and I worked for a while as a journalist, I went to graduate school to get an M.F.A. in creative writing, and at various points I’ve tried my hand at short stories, essay writing, screenwriting, and so on. I started writing Dreamwood without consciously thinking of publication. Then a friend told me about SCBWI—the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I went to one of their conferences and submitted the first ten pages of my manuscript for a critique. The editor who read it was interested in seeing the whole thing and then made an offer. After this seemingly overnight success I worked for nearly seven years to revise the manuscript. It was in rough shape when I sold it, and I didn’t really know how to write for children. So I rewrote it laboriously while holding down a job and being a mom. Halfway through the process my editor got laid off . Luckily, my publishing house gave me a fabulous new editor. But she zeroed in on weaknesses in the manuscript that I’d been avoiding, and she forced me to work on the story in a way I hadn’t before. Three more years passed until it finally came out in 2014. It’s been quite a long journey, but I learned a tremendous amount along the way.
5. What is your best advice for an aspiring novelist? If different, what would your advice be for a teen or pre-teen writer?
There are so many things I wish I’d know when I first started writing. But I think the piece of advice that would have made the biggest difference is about rejection. At some point, when you try to write for publication, you’re going to get rejected. I took rejection really hard, and let it get to me. What I realize now after years and years of writing is that everyone suffers through some form of rejection. You can experience rejection from external gatekeepers (agents, editors, and publishers) or you can reject yourself when you write a draft and get upset when it doesn’t come out the way you thought of it in your head. Either way, you can’t give up. Just keep writing, keep submitting your work, and keep getting feedback. The people I know who are published writers are the people who have kept going. Really, we should call it “training” instead of rejection.
6. Why did you select fantasy as your genre?
I loved fantasy as a kid, and I gobbled up books like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. As a parent, I see how my children have loved fantasy series like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. Fantasy is often called escapist, but I think it’s very useful in illuminating aspects of the real world that can be difficult to tackle head-on in fiction. The child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim famously argued in his book The Uses of Enchantment that fairy tales provide an invaluable way for children to come to terms with difficult emotions and navigate their inner lives. Of course, it’s also fun to think of cool things and invent stuff—that part of writing fantasy is pure pleasure!
7. What is a free-range reader?
I call myself a free-range reader because I roam far afield in my reading habits. I’ll read adult literary fiction, mysteries, fantasy, nonfiction, history, natural history, biography, and, of course, middle grade and young adult because those are the genres I’m writing in. I consciously try to read books that get me out of my usual reading habits and I try to support diversity in publishing by buying and reading books from authors with diverse backgrounds. In late 2013, a study came out showing that reading literature increased empathy—I can think of no better reason to read widely.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Heather Mackey. To learn more visit her website: heathermackey.com, her books can be found on IndieBound, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble. She is also on Twitter at @heathermackey