Author Alison McGhee will share her love of language and writing with area residents during a free noon presentation at Pine River-Backus School, Thursday, Nov. 15. Lunch is available for $6.
McGhee, a Pulitzer Prize nominee and New York Times bestselling author, was chosen as the featured author for this year’s PR-B Community Read.
McGhee’s books – “Mrs. Watson Wants Your Teeth,” (elementary); “Julia Gillian and the Quest for Joy,” (intermediate); and “Shadow Baby,” (high school) – were chosen for this year’s event.
In “Shadow Baby,” McGhee’s 11-year-old protagonist is Clara winter (spelled with a lowercase ‘w’) who befriends an elderly man she interviews for an oral history project at school. Clara is an unusually thoughtful girl with an impressive vocabulary who is determined to find out more about her father and grandfather, whom she has never known, and her twin sister who died at birth. She invents stories to fill in gaps in her life as she seeks answers.
McGhee drew from her own fascination with language when developing the character of Clara.
“I think I was somewhat like Clara in my obsession with words. It was less intellectual, but more (about) loving the sound and the feel of them in my head,” McGhee said. “I would say things and use words without really knowing what they meant. I liked the sensory feel of them.”
Clara spends a lot of time thinking about language and storytelling in the book. She insists on spelling her last name with a lowercase ‘w’ because of her fear and dislike of winter.
McGhee doesn’t recall exactly why she came up with the idea of Clara’s insistence on a lowercase ‘w’, but thinks it comes from her obsession with words. Some of McGhee’s favorite poets, like e.e. cummings, also write with lowercase.
The character of Clara was so strongly envisioned by McGhee, that she felt she was channeling her, in a sense.
“I feel that in all ways that I was the transcriber of the book, but that she wrote it – she’s so clear in my mind,” McGhee said of Clara.
In “Shadow Baby,” Clara pronounces “a girl of 11 is capable of far more than is dreamt of in most universes.”
When asked about her childhood dreams, McGhee responded that she had always wanted to be an artist of some form. “I first dreamed of being an actress, and then I wanted to be a singer/songwriter, then a ballerina,” she said. When she learned to print as a child, she wanted to be a writer.
She intended to become a writer, but chose to major in Chinese at Middlebury College in Vermont. Even with the desire to write, she didn’t enjoy her literature classes very much. McGhee felt the books were picked apart a little too much, and she far preferred to write and create rather than analyze others’ work.
It took her many years before completing her first novel. McGhee rented a tiny room in Boston and began typing papers to make a living. She’d get up early to write short stories and gradually transitioned into writing novels. “I think I wrote pretty much everyday for 13 years before I published anything,” she said of her persistence. Now she has around 20 books to her name along with numerous essays and poems.
McGhee teaches part-time in the fall at Metropolitan State University (Mnpls/St. Paul), and is a disciplined writer, but not prescriptive in her writing or her teaching.
“I think you develop whatever works for you and go with that,” she said of her philosophy.
In “Shadow Baby” Clara struggles with challenges that McGhee faced in her own life. Both grew up in the country near the Adirondack Mountains in upstate, New York.
Clara encounters a bully at her school: C.J. Wilson. The character C.J. is based on a bully McGhee knew. “The school bus was a tortuous journey,” McGhee recalls of her childhood bus route. “There were a lot of mean kids being mean to each other. It’s always haunted me,” she said.
Not all childhood tormentors came in the human form.
Clara has a bad experience with roosters clawing and pecking at her in the book. McGhee had the exact same experience and maintains her dislike of roosters to this day.
There are more similarities between the book and McGhee’s life. Clara was a great storyteller who – as Mark Twain would say – “Never let facts get in the way of a good story.”
McGhee grew up with a storytelling family. Especially when her grandparents were alive, they did a lot of sitting around the table after dinner just telling stories. “They were always very simple stories about the past, or the neighborhood, or the people in their lives,” McGhee recalls.
She, too, shared the same sense of story and curiosity about people’s lives.
She even incorporated some of her grandfather’s experiences at Ellis Island into her book.
Clara puts great importance on reading, and McGhee loves reading, too. Some of McGhee’s favorite writers include Frank McCourt and Alice Munro.
McGhee typically writes fiction, but she is working on a memoir-of-sorts currently: an adult novel, set in North Stearns, New York. She’s also revising a children’s novel.
As far as aspiring writers are concerned, McGhee recommends that they “read what you love to read; write what you love to write.
There has to be a sense of great happiness and freedom and joy (in writing).” “If what you love to do is read and write, then throw yourself into it.”