Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Inside the Writer's Studio with Charlotte Agell

Today we welcome teacher, artist, mom, talented Swede, Maine resident and future Hunger Mountain contributor (look for her upcoming essay Where the Censor Hides when the new issue goes live!) Charlotte Agell the author of The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister  and much, much more. Though I only knew Charlotte from online, having been introduced by the curious Kirsten Cappy of Curious City, I am awed by Charlotte’s zest for life, for art, and for what really matters. It is my pleasure to have her with us for Inside the Writer’s Studio today.

Here are a few of the awesome reviews for India McAllister.

“Illustrated with India’s captioned drawings, the engaging first-person narrative centers on one child’s concerns, captures the emotional nuances of her relationships with others, and includes well-defined portrayals of adults as well as children. A promising start for the series.” --Booklist

Enjoyable, engaging and emotionally resonant.” --Kirkus Reviews

"A delightful addition to the middle-grade canon."-- Publisher's Weekly

Now on to the interview…

How do you stay inspired to face the dreaded blank page? Is it something you dread? Look forward to? Share a bit about your writing process.

As a halftime middle school teacher, I’m always trying to clear the decks for writing and drawing. My lack of time somehow allows me to skip the blank-page-staring-back-at-me stage. Ideas notice that I am very busy, and, perverse entities that they are, swarm around my head, taunting me to choose them, choose them – we know you only have a few minutes…. The blank page becomes a place to catch one of the ideas, to play with it for a few minutes. Who knows what will happen next?

Whenever possible, I scrawl down the freshly idea, jot down the picture notion, right when it strikes. This means I have notebooks and post-it notes everywhere…my own literary litter. Since ideas sometimes (often!) come at inopportune moments - a run, a ski, the middle of the night - I’ve developed some mechanisms for remembering. One of these is to move my ring to the “wrong” hand, thereby reminding myself that I need to write something down as soon as possible. Thinking I will remember never works. If I wait too long, somehow the physics of it changes, the fresh energy dulls.

Then, there’s the follow-through stage. I often have many things going at once. Back burner ideas, front burner ideas. I love it when I’m so immersed that time just flies, especially when I’m not simultaneously trying to cook something. (I have a big sign over my desk: Don’t cook and write at the same time, for you will burn the rice! Based on a true and acrid story!)

How important is community in keeping you inspired? What authors are a part of your virtual and/or hometown community? How do they keep you inspired? How do you inspire them?

My school community keeps me very inspired. I’m a teacher in a 5th-8th public school in Maine. Everyone is writing, writing, writing, and reading all the time. This helps me stay close to the world of kids, now that my own are grown. It also helps put the act of writing in some perspective. It’s precious, yes, but not meant for a pedestal. We’re all busy writing. It’s just writing. Kids, of course, are amazing thinkers and philosophers. I am so very often inspired by my students and their amazing writing journeys.

Brunswick, Maine is full of writers and illustrators. Newbery honor author Cynthia Lord lives just down my street. YA author Maria Padian is around the corner. Blogger and writer Sarah Laurence is only blocks away. The list goes on…. Not only that, but my chosen hometown features not only Bowdoin College, but also a fabulous longstanding independent bookstore, The Gulf of Maine. There’s always a creative conversation happening somewhere nearby! The writing community in Maine in general is very supportive. Check out Maine Writers & Publishers Association, for example. This setting feels like exactly where I want to be, - close to the sea in a place that values writing and art. I feel fortunate absolutely every day.

Charlotte, her daughter, and mother.
My husband, daughter, and son are all artists of one sort or another. Actually, that goes for most of my extended family. They understand the strange process sometimes necessary to the creative process. When I leap up from the dinner table in order to go write something down, they don’t flinch. My husband is used to the scritch of my pencil at the oddest of hours. Nobody ever asks me how many pages I have written on a particular day. Making stuff is the norm around here.

Theme can be seen as a dirty word but as writers I believe we all have something to say, something we want to share with the world. What is that something for you?

One of my books is called Welcome Home or Someplace Like It. It features Aggie, who has moved a great deal, and wonders what and where home is. As someone who grew up on three continents, I think the theme of home runs through much of my work. Whether it’s India figuring out her identity as an adopted girl in a tiny Maine town, Adrian fighting against HomeState for a more sane society, or picture book Dragon and friends going up a mountain chanting, “We can always go back home again,” I often seem to be chewing on the notion of HOME.

Is there anything that you are afraid/worried/concerned of tackling in your work? Genre-wise? Audience-wise? Topic-wise?

Not really, although sometimes others get concerned. Occasionally, I feel censored. In one picture book there is a mom nursing a baby (there would have been two such, but a major publisher made me change just such a picture). India has a gay father (and there is a breast on the wall of her mom’s house – a plaster cast depicted as a line drawing). Aggie’s brother is gay. Adrian swears a lot, until he’s deep enough into his mission to feel empowered. Maybe some of these things are controversial, but I hope not! They are just integral to the worlds I have crafted…and why not?

How does “place” come through in your writing? How important is place in this current novel/picture book? Is it tied to a place you once lived or are familiar with or is it a new world entirely?

I have set my current book/series in a fictitious inland Maine town. My daughter dubbed it Wolfgang, when I was trying to come up with a name. It’s an inside joke, as another novel of mine features a fictitious coastal town named Ludwig. My Maine settings are a curious mix of elements of the real Maine and those of my childhood Sweden. It’s important to me that the settings ring true, not just physically but also psychically. I’ve anchored them in my own emotional landscape, as well as tethered them to the real geography of Maine. It’s where I wander!

How do you balance the internal and external arc in the story? Which comes to you first—the external action or what is emotionally at stake? How do you weave the two together? 

The internal arc always strikes me first, since I inevitably begin with character. I have to wait to see where the characters will take me, which is often a time intensive quest (thirteen drafts anyone?!). Characters like to gallavant and roam, but if you listen to them, they will take you where they need to go. Don’t argue! This is probably the reason that the average novel supposedly takes 2-10 years. (I wish I could remember where I heard this!) Picture books happen the same way with me. I work out from the particular (character/conflict) to the more general journey and plot. Once in a while, I radically boil things down. My very first picture book, The Sailor’s Book, started life as a chapter book. When it wasn’t working, I took out 98% of it. Sweet! Almost like making maple syrup out of sap. 

Which literary character, yours or another author’s, do you most relate to? And why?
I’m very fond of Harold and his purple crayon. He creates his own world – and it sometimes gets scary and out of control, just like the creative process. But who would want to live any other way? Not I. Pippi Longstocking, fellow Swede, is another inspiration. She dares to be herself in the most ridiculous and empowering ways.

Do you have a favorite craft book? If so, what is it? And what is your favorite take away? 

Worlds of Childhood – the Art and Craft of Writing for Children, edited by William Zinsser (Houghton Mifflin 1990) is dog-eared and full of sticky notes. It features the perspectives of six very different writers for children – Jean Fritz, Maurice Sendak, Jill Krementz, Jack Prelutsky, Rosemary Wells, and Katherine Paterson. Reading their words, it becomes extra clear that telling the truth lies at the heart of the craft - even if it’s not the literal truth. I like to think about that.

In ode to Maebelle, the main character in my new book Truth with a Capital T, who keeps a book of little known facts about just about everything, please share a wacky piece of trivia that has stuck with you or please share a little known fact about YOU.

I turned an abandoned phone booth into a poem booth. It lives outside my classroom door. Each week it is filled with students’ work. This week’s theme is “nothing.” There are several thought-provoking poems, and one blank sheet, signed by the “author.”

 Thanks to Charlotte for being with us and don't miss her essay Where the Censor Hides, soon to be live on Hunger Mountain.


  1. Welcome to the blog community, Bethany! I noticed that you’re new this year. It’s nice to connect with another writer/blogger. Thanks for the link.

    Terrific interview questions and responses. I’m a big fan of Charlotte’s writing and India is a delight. I hope to see more of her adventures in print soon.

  2. Thanks, Sarah, for the welcome. I love your blog. Glad Charlotte's interview had you come on by!