An Interview with Novelist Kathleen O’Dell
Originally published in the May/June 2003 SCBWI-Michigan newsletter.
Kathleen, AGNES PARKER…GIRL IN PROGRESS is your first published novel. How did you “become” a writer?
My literary life started early. I wrote my first picture book when I was six. It featured a lonely little boy who couldn¹t get anyone to play with him. At the end of the book, he finally makes friends—with a four-legged duck. Let’s just say I didn’t draw him from life.
Later, my brother and I wrote a comic strip called B.O. Father. The gist of each strip was that the eponymous father gave long, boring lectures while his body odor slowly gassed his children into unconsciousness.
In high school I wrote a running monthly soap opera called All My Kidneys. After each episode, I was routinely called into the girls’ advisor’s office for warnings about inappropriate subject matter and threats of cancellation. I loved these meetings, as the girls’ advisor was very specific about what we could and could not present on stage. For instance, there could be no talk of pregnancy. However, it was okay to set old ladies on fire.
Finally, I drifted into adulthood as a public relations manager who wrote poetry on the side. It wasn’t until I had my own children that I considered writing for them. I spent some years running our elementary school library, working with kids, ordering books for our collection and fundraising. That immersion in the world of kids and books was a formative experience for me as a writer for children.
Tell us about your process: do you have a fixed writing schedule? Revise as you go? Share your work with a critique group? Outline beforehand?
I love writing the first draft. I like to write every morning, about five hundred words at a time. The rest of the day I spend submerged in daydreaming as I go about my daily tasks. The non-writing for me is as important as the writing. It always feels as if I’m living underwater during that first-draft stage, and it is very hard to get my attention. I say “huh?” a lot.
I do revise as I go. Whenever I get really stuck, I email my critique partner. Actually, calling him a “partner” isn’t exactly fair. He helps me much more than I help him.
How did you decide to send Agnes to Dial?
I queried Dial about a children¹s poetry collection I had written. I ended up working on that manuscript for about a year with two different editors before it was shelved. That experience was valuable because I became sufficiently burned out on poetry to try writing a novel. And I was extremely lucky to hook up with my fabulous editor, Cecile Goyette.
Did anything about the publication process surprise you, once you sold the manuscript?
Revisions! I didn’t know what to think when my manuscript came back with someone else’s line edits. Often, Cecile would come up with some very funny improvements on my lines and I’d wonder, “Can I use her jokes? Isn’t this… cheating?” Collaboration was new and a wee bit scary to me.
Who are your favorite children’s writers (and why!)?
I think Beverly Cleary’s RAMONA THE PEST is such a gem, the original manuscript should be on display in one of those spotlighted, plexiglass museum boxes. It should be centrally located so that children’s writers from all over can make pilgrimages. And the area around the box should be carpeted for those of us who wish to approach on our knees. Ramona is a perfectly realize character, fierce and funny without cartoonishness. Beverly Cleary understands kids and respects their integrity.
Introduce us to Agnes.
Agnes is an artistic, sensitive sixth grader who has always relied on her bold best friend for companionship and protection. She’s an introvert who realizes she dislikes being so passive. All sorts of hormonal stirrings are starting to make her feel discontented. For the first time in her life, she learns to stand up for herself and her feelings—which, strangely enough, means standing up to her best friend as much as it does facing down her enemies.
Do you have any other projects in the works that you care to share?
A PLACE FOR OPHIE PEELER, a midgrade novel, is due out from Dial in summer 2004. My Agnes sequel is scheduled for fall 2005 publication. In AGNES 2, Agnes tackles middle school. Luckily, I’m on the PTA board at my son’s middle school this year so I can do a lot of spying. I mean research. (You know what I mean.)
Kathleen O’Dell lives, and spies, in California. Vist her website: www.kathleenodell.com