Friday, January 8, 2010

An Interview: Maryann Macdonald

Today I am happy to be sharing an interview with the talented and wonderful Maryann Macdonald, author of The Costume Copycat, Hedgehog Bakes a Cake, and Rabbit’s Birthday Kite, just to name a few. Little Piano Girl, released only a few weeks ago, is Maryann’s latest picture book.

Congratulations on Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend. What inspired you to write this book? Can you tell us a bit about the process of writing with another author?

Little Piano Girl was a new writing experience for me in a couple of ways. First, it was my debut in non-fiction. Second, it was my first published collaboration. The two events came about in the following way: my sister, Ann Ingalls, kept telling me about this wonderful jazz pianist she had discovered who lived in Kanas City for a time, where Ann lives. “She had an amazing life!” Ann said. Ann is a great nag, so finally, I did read Mary Lou Williams’ biography, Morning Glory, and I was hooked! After that, I read everything I could find about Mary Lou, visited places where she had lived and played, talked to people who knew her, pored over photos of her and visited the Rutgers University archive where her papers are kept. I was inspired by Mary Lou’s courage, and her refusal to allow racial and sexual barriers to limit her career. After I had absorbed as much as I could about Mary Lou’s life, I was ready to write. I talked it over with Ann and we decided to write the book together.

I think Ann wrote the first draft, telling Mary Lou’s entire life story. I thought we had too much info, so cut it back to tell the story of Mary’s remarkable childhood only: she was a prodigy who began playing piano at 4 and played professionally by the age of eight! Ann and I traded drafts for a long time, working to make our prose sharper and more vivid, to reflect Mary’s music with rhythm and rhyme in our prose, and to find exactly the right (but few!) words to tell Mary’s story. Next came the hard part: selling the book. We found an agent who sent it to Houghton Mifflin, but the editor she addressed the manuscript to had left the company, so the book ended up in the slush pile, where Erica Zappy found it. Lucky for us!

Erica went over it with a fine tooth comb and Ann and I discussed her comments over the phone, making adjustments. Erica also shared illustrator Giselle Potter’s sketches with us as they became available, which we really appreciated. Together, we all worked to make the book the best it could be.

You have written more than 23 children’s books, which is impressive and amazing, Maryann. How do you keep finding fresh and wonderful story ideas?

I have to write about subjects that really capture my imagination. Otherwise, the stories fall flat. This happens in different ways. When I began writing, my children were small and I was seeing the world through their eyes. In my book, Hedgehog Bakes a Cake, a woodland character decides to bake a cake, but is hindered by the “help” of his none-too-careful friends who make a huge mess. That incident and the humor inherent in it came directly from an experience I had baking a cake with my youngest daughter and her friend. I find everyone identifies with Hedgehog’s predicament in that book.

Another habit of mine is to keep a file of ideas that interest me. Occasionally I’ll find that an idea crops up again and again…then I know it’s time to take a deeper look at it. Once, while listening to a lecture, a title popped into my mind: Fatso Jean, The Ice Cream Queen. I knew nothing about Jean, but I did know what it was like to be fat, and I had sold Good Humor ice cream off a truck when I was in college, so I used those experiences when I sat down and wrote the first page of that book. It became a middle grade novel.

An editor once asked me, “Do you specialize in emotional trauma?” She was joking, but I took her point. A plot can’t exist without a problem, and my characters’ problems often stem from emotional pain: shame, envy, fear, etc.

What advice would you give other people interested in writing books for children?

Read, read, read. Write, write, write. You will want to do this anyway if you are a writer. Build contacts with others who share your interest in children’s books and talk to them. Try to develop a thick skin when sharing work with others. Listen to their criticism and try to see how it can be useful to you. Be persistent. My first book was rejected 15 times, but stayed in print for 15 years. If you believe in your story, never give up on it.

How do you promote your work?

By sheer luck, the publication of Little Piano Girl coincides with the centennial of the birth of Mary Lou Williams. Concerts are being held at the Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian. Ann and I have made connections at all of these places and are working to introduce our book elsewhere, too. Ann will give a talk at the Kansas City Jazz Museum in February, and has organized a book party at Reading Reptile, a well-known children’s bookstore in Kansas City. I met a TV producer at a party here in NY, and told her about the book. She has suggested an interview, so I’m following up on that, even though I’m feeling nervous about it. I tell myself it’s not about me; it’s about The Little Piano Girl…and about the fact that I want her inspiring story to reach as many children as possible!

What is in the future for you, Maryann? Can you share anything about what you are working on?

I have two more picture books coming out with Marshall Cavendish: How to Hug and The Pink Party. I am really enjoying working with my editor there on these as she’s such a good listener and includes me in the process of reviewing sketches for the books as we move along. I have also just finished my first YA novel, Scavenger, which tells the story of a seventeen-year-old secondhand fashionista who goes to Paris for the summer to study French and finds herself visiting the past in the old clothes she finds there. I had a lot of fun writing that, but I’m not sure yet whether I pulled it off. Still, I’m ever hopeful.


  1. What a fun interview! It is inspiring to *meet* someone who has so much experience in this field I am just peeping into. It gives me hope.

    And, we are a musical family so The Little Piano Girl is something I would be excited to pull of the shelf at B&N.

  2. Excellent interview, Cynthia. Thanks, Maryann, for sharing so much about yourself and the writing process. How synchronistic that your book is coming out the year of Mary Lou Williams 100th birthday. It couldn't be more timely.

  3. Thanks, Tess and Bish. Interviews are always fun and inspiring, aren't they? I find it fascinating how other writers work and promote.