Thursday, September 13, 2012

Conversation with Carolyn MacCullough

For a nice change of pace, here is a conversation with my friend, acclaimed writer Carolyn MacCullough, author of two fantasy books: Once a Witch and Always a Witch, as well as three contemporary YA novels Falling Through Darkness, Stealing Henry, and Drawing the Ocean. All Carolyn’s novels have received much deserved critical praise, and I can’t wait to see what else she has on the drawing board!

Since Carolyn and I are both parents of very young children, we’re discussing the challenges of being a writer who parents, and a parent who writes. Enjoy the read!

A: Hi Carolyn, and welcome! Life got in the way for me even before I had kids. For the longest time I had to work a day job to pay the rent, and would have to spend my off-time writing. Once I could leave the day job permanently, there were a few years of blissful writing time when I had all day to write. But then life got in the way once more when I started my family. I love being a mommy more than anything, but it sure does compete with my writing time! I know your situation is similar. I'm wondering how you carve time out to write, and when you do have that time, how do you clear your mind so that you can really focus on your work?

C: Focus?  What exactly is that again?  I had a great response ready on focus and then my 18 month old wandered by trying to shove a grape in his ear and I lost track of what I was saying. 

Anyway, carving out the actual writing time itself is hard enough--but doable--with my extremely supportive husband always willing to jump in.  But....for me, I miss the 'dreaming time' that I had (pre kids).  That's when I had hours and days and weeks to just /eat/sleep/think/dwell in the universe of my book and its characters.  That's when I got to listen to the characters’ voices in my head and let the story slowly develop.  I feel like plot elements that were tricky and/or unresolved suddenly got resolved as long as I had enough time to unwind them.  Now, my head is so crammed full of baby world details (I fear that Wheels on the Bus is permanently stuck in my head) that I have very little time and head space for myself.  That's the challenge that I'm currently working on.  Keeping a journal before bed every night seems to be helping.

What about you?  Do you have any magic rituals that help you to focus?  (Please tell me you do so I can copy them!)

A: Oh, boy, I wish I had wisdom there. Honestly my "ritual" is to leave my children in the capable hands of my fabulous nannies for about three hours every weekday, and I go to a coffee shop, or Whole Foods where I can have coffee AND do grocery shopping after I write. I begin each session with a little Facebook time, and I answer emails, (my hundreds and hundreds of fan emails... yuk, yuk,) and I also do a little professional web-based stuff like comment on blogs, that kind of thing. Then I settle into writing, after about thirty minutes, sometimes more like forty-five. When I'm drafting I have a quota of five pages, which I usually meet. When I'm revising I try to get about three chapters done. And then I rush back home. The truth is, some days I’m just not very focused, but having a daily goal helps me get the work done despite my shaky concentration.

You know what I miss the most from my pre-child writing life? Time to READ! God! I used to be able to stick with a book for hours and hours at a time! Now if I get about 45 minutes of reading a day, I'm lucky! How about you?

C: Yes, time to read!  I miss reading in bed in the morning--just waking up, reaching for my book, starting where I left off the night before.  Instead I wake up with two toddlers crawling all over me, burrowing under the covers, kicking me, and turning on the light.  And it's usually about 6:53 AM.  But the really nice thing is that my two kids like to start out their day with books, too--so I guess I am reading first thing in the morning--just not exactly my choice of reading material.  But fun all the same.

45 minutes a day!  I'm jealous.  I usually manage about 26 minutes if I'm lucky.  Right now I'm reading Mary and O'Neil by Justin Cronin--man, it's so good.  And amazing to read since it's a heartbreaking look at this couple and their entwined lives.  The same Justin Cronin who wrote that post apocalypse government created vampires in a science experiment gone horribly wrong book called The Passage (also really good in a different way).  What are you reading?  Oh, and do you find that you read differently now that you're a mom?

A: I'm in a slump with reading right now. Finished a Stephen King novel called Desperation recently, which was thought provoking and interesting, but kind of a downer. So I'm taking a break from reading and going to my second love: movies. I have to watch them with the volume turned down for fear of waking our kids, so they're not as much fun, but I do like the escapism they're offering. As far as whether I read differently? I think I’m far less willing to spend precious reading time on a book I only kind of like. If I’m not totally addicted to it within the first twenty pages or so, I throw it over my shoulder and move on to the next!

To finish up, care to tell us a little bit about your most recent novels, and what you're working on next?

C: I'm too scared to read Stephen King.  (But I think he's really good).  Whenever, I'm in a reading slump I start working my way through Foyle's War episodes--they're so good.  And written/created by young adult author Anthony Horowitz--I'm so impressed.

My latest two books were Once a Witch and Always a Witch--about a 17 year old girl, Tamsin, who comes from a long line of witches and yet she herself has no magical Talent--or so she thinks.  It's takes a sinister NYU professor, a hunt for a lost family heirloom through time, and a reunion with her childhood best friend/love interest to persuade her otherwise.  What I'm working on now would also be considered a YA paranormal set in a seaside city and the shadow city just beneath the waves.  (That's a bit vague, but it's all so new still).

A: I love the idea of a shadow city! Sounds wonderful! And thanks for the recommendation for Foyle’s War. Sounds like books that might get me reading again. I’m already getting bored with movies. Thanks for chatting, Carolyn, and good luck with the writing!

C: Thanks for chatting with me!


  1. Carolyn, I love the book cover art, particularly for Once...
    I've been through the experience of raising kids and trying to keep true to my craft. It's no easy task, but you both seem very organized despite the juggling act. Looking forward to Carolyn's next work. It sounds like a very cool alt environment.
    Catherine Stine’s Idea City

  2. What a great conversation to listen in on! I love hearing other writer mammas' experiences. I'm with Carolyn on missing the day-dreaming-- what a luxury it was to lose yourself completely in your book-in-progress for days and weeks on end... ahh.

  3. As a father of three, and a writer, this quote from Katherine Paterson has become an all-time favorite:

    "For as I look back on what I have written, I can see that the very persons who have taken away my time and space are those who have given me something to say."

    James Preller, Carolyn MacCullough fan

  4. Thanks, Catherine!

    And that's an inspiring quote, James--one I needed to read right about now!

    Interesting side note--within the first five minutes of meeting James Preller he called me a "dummy" (in response to some question I answered)--I've been truly fond of him ever since. :)