The Student Literary Journal of Northern Vermont University

Meg Kearney is an author and poet responsible for several novels and collections aimed at both adults and children. She has taught and worked in many educational settings, and is the Founding Director of the Solstice Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Pine Manor College. Her work includes the poetry collections An Unkindness of Ravens and Home by Now; the young adult novels The Secret of Me and The Girl in the Mirror; and the children’s book Trouper. The following interview was recorded on September 24, 2014 in the English Department lounge at Johnson State College.

Pamplemousse: How are you able to connect to the young adults of today?

Meg Kearny: I have a lot of young adults in my life and I have done a lot of work with them. I used to run a summer writing camp for 12 years with the National Book Foundation for people age 14 and up. I spent a lot of time working with teens through that camp. I really love to work with teenagers in self-selected situations, where they haven’t been dragged to my classroom or workshop: they want to be there, and they are really into writing.

The older we get, the more we have the editor on our shoulder saying “you can’t write that” or “that’s really stupid.” Younger people haven’t developed that horrible voice on their shoulder yet. They are so open to trying things and being really honest in their work. That is also why I like writing in that voice. It is very freeing to know you can say it as it is and be really emotionally honest on the page. That is why I connect with young people and why I like to write for them.

Pamplemousse: Can you speak more to the freedoms present in writing for a young adult audience?

MK: Part of that freedom comes from taking on another’s voice and putting on that mask. Even though this character, who I have been writing through, this Lizzie McLane, has a life based on my own life, she is still this mask I can put on. Anytime you do that, whether you are writing through the voice of a made up person, or even the family dog, I can say a lot of things I couldn’t if the “I” was really myself.

Pamplemousse: Did you go through a similar experience as Lizzie?

MK: Very similar. I am the youngest of three adopted children, and her family is [willing to discuss] how they feel. Anything related to adoption, just like in Lizzie’s family, they can talk about the facts, like what mom and dad were doing when the New York family called to say “do you want another kid?” They are very reticent to talk about how they feel or, god forbid, if you express any interest in knowing who your birth parents are. It is a holist matter of loyalty. And that is exactly my experience growing up.

Even now, when The Secret of Me came out, I thought my family was going to disown me. They haven’t, but I also thought if they don’t disown me, then we are finally going to have that open conversation about how everybody feels, but that hasn’t happened. They are very supportive, but we still don’t talk about it. I went through a whole search for my birth mother for eight years, and found blood siblings. It is completely separate world from my adoptive family. The two don’t cross.

That is why I am so interested in Lizzie’s story. She is a lot braver than I was at age 14. I was shut down in terms of talking about all that, but Lizzie just says “there are some things I can’t say to my parents, but I can write them down.” I was able to go back to when I was 14, and that is what fired me up, and still does.

Pamplemousse: How does writing for a teenage audience differ from writing for an adult audience?

MK: There’s not really a difference. I think people tend to view this writing as easier than writing for adults. I have been in the audience of Q and A’s where people say “will you ever write for adults?” and they are really asking “when are you going to write a ‘real’ book?” That makes me mad because [that process] is just as hard, maybe even harder. Teenagers will be the first ones to call you out if they know you are not being emotionally honest. You have to really watch it. In that way, you have to rise to a challenge.

Even writing that picture book [Trouper] took me a year and a half. It is hard to write something that you want kids to read and reread. It holds you to another standard when you are writing for people that age. You can also be corny in a way that you can’t be when you are writing for adults. I have a lot of corny jokes. But in the end, you have to ride that fine line between being brutally and emotionally honest without being sentimental. It is a really fun ride.

Pamplemousse: How has your young adult fiction evolved over the years?

MK: I think it is still evolving. I thought [The Secret of Me] was a standalone book. I had no intention of writing a sequel to it. That was my editor encouraging me because this character, Lizzie, has to come to terms with the fact that wanting to know who her birth parents are has nothing to do with how loyal or loving she is to her adopted family. You know by the end of that book that her family will be behind her as much as they can be in that search. I wanted to end it there, but my editor wanted Lizzie to search for her birth mother, so I needed to write a sequel. I didn’t want to do the search because it is personal to me and really tough emotional territory.

That’s why I kill off the father in the beginning of that second book. That totally derails her, as it derailed me when my dad died when I was 26. I avoided the search, but could really get back into that voice I love writing in. She is also four years older [in the sequel], and I explored the voice of an 18 year old versus a 14 year old: How does the diction and syntax change? How does her way of thinking about life change? That is really fascinating to me. I also get to go back to that place in myself. By the end of the second book I sent her off into her own life at college and she is really going to begin her search.

I sent that manuscript to my editor, and she calls me up saying “I really love this book and we are going to publish it, but obviously this is a trilogy.” Now I have been working on that last book where she is a freshman at college and is actually doing the search because I had been forced into that situation. I went into it kicking and screaming, but now I am just about done with that, and I am so glad [my editor] made me go back there. The good stuff is going to come from the things that are the most emotionally difficult. I mean, none of this was planned, but now I am not going to give up writing YA. I love it too much.

Pamplemousse: How is writing a novel in verse different than writing a traditional book of poetry?

MK: There is a huge difference. With a book of poems you still have a thread, and you want all the poems in that collection to be speaking to each other. You know when a poem doesn’t fit, even if you really love it, and you have set it aside for and hope it fits in a different collection somewhere down the road. That’s a whole different process from creating a narrative arc through poems where you have a beginning, middle, and end. You are developing characters and plot twists. Sometimes there are little holes [in that development] you have to go back and fill. Those are things you don’t think about when you are putting together a collection of poems.

You really are writing a novel, but in short little spurts. When you are writing prose, there is a lot more connective tissue. A novel in verse is, in some ways, one big poem where you are leaping within the arc. That is much more interesting to me than having to write all the stuff that comes in-between.

Pamplemousse: How would a budding author break into the young adult market?

MK: Read as much young adult literature as you can get your hands on. There is a lot of really great stuff out there. I would avoid the series where there are 30-plus books. Those are good when you are 12 and excited about reading, but if you really want to start writing serious young adult literature, you need to be reading it like crazy. I probably read as much young adult literature as I do adult literature, even picture books. Just stand in a store and read all the picture books. People will just think you are buying for a baby. [As you read], you will find the books that you keep going back to and that you admire most. They are the camp you want to be in.

Look in those books and ask: Who is this person’s agent? Who’s the editor? You might find that in that group of people, there might be one or two agents that keep popping up. Contacting those agents is a great place to start. When you start getting into YA literature, you are going to need an agent. That is also a way to see what editors might be interested in your work because you are writing something in the same vein as other people they are publishing. Go to their website see what they represent. They will often say if they are taking unsolicited manuscripts or not. Some say they don’t take on anybody, while others are very interested.

In a lot of MFA programs, you have the chance to meet agents and editors like that, which is another great way to break into that market. Your mentors, who are writing in the genre you are interested in, can also help introduce you to people.

Pamplemousse: How does the Solstice MFA program at Pine College help with those types of meetings?

MK: We always have agents and editors coming in for students to meet and talk with. That is part of it: building a community of peers you are sharing your work with and also making connections within the publishing industry. When you’re ready, a lot of them will say “because I met you at Solstice, I’ll look at your manuscript.” We have had that happen with several of our students.

There is a really diverse faculty in every sense of the world. Every race, religion, creed, and sexual orientation is represented in the faculty, and that’s how you draw a diverse student body. People have so much to teach each other when they come to the table from all these different places. As long as you’re setting a tone of respect for each other as individual artists, so many cool things can happen and you find yourself stretching and growing in ways that you never thought you could. It’s an amazing group of people, but all have this thing in common where they can spend all night talking about line breaks in poems and nobody thinks they’re nuts. You find your tribe. That was really important to me as a writer coming up, so I want to be able to create that opportunity for other people.

Pamplemousse: Can you talk a little bit about the affordability of your program?

MK: I keep tuition and fees as low as I can. I don’t want finances to be the reason a writer of promise can’t go to grad school. When I ran that writing camp for the National Book Foundation, it was completely free. I raised a quarter of a million dollars every year to run these programs so people who didn’t have access to books or couldn’t pay for other conferences could have that same quality writing experience and support.

I found this college who really believes in diversity. A lot of the undergrads there are the first ones in their families to go to college. You come out of undergrad, and you are already in debt. Let’s not add on to that any more than we have to. We’re not really a “cash cow,” we pay our expenses and the school is real proud of what we are doing. Just in the last year and a half we’ve had fourteen of our graduates publish books. [The school] loves to hold that up and say “look, this is really an amazing place.” It’s not all about the money, and I really believe in that.

Pamplemousse: How did you become involved with this program?

MK: I had been in the National Book Foundation for 11 years at that point, and I just knew it was time to move on and look for something different. Dennis Lehane

was instrumental in shopping this idea around of a MFA program that needed a director. One of the people involved with Dennis, a poet, recommended me and I thought it was a really cool opportunity to create my own program from nothing. They found Pine Manor and I went to talk with the board about all the ideas I had and they said “let’s try it.”

I found myself moving from Manhattan to New England and starting this thing that [in hindsight] I really had no idea what I was saying “yes” to. I knew how to run a conference, but to create a curriculum for a MFA program was something else entirely. I had a lot of help along the way. I am really glad that part’s over. It was intense, but now we are really established.

Pamplemousse: What would a successful candidate for that program look like?

MK: We have you write a five page essay, and you submit your creative work with three letters of recommendation. We look at the essay just as much as the creative work because we are looking for somebody who is really serious about their art, and really passionate. We can tell that they’ve been reading beyond what they had to read in high school and what they have been assigned. They are able to talk about what they have taken from that reading applied to their own work. They are as passionate about reading as much as writing. That manuscript should be showing some polish, we’re not going to hold you to the same level as we would once you’re in the program for a year.

[We want] somebody who shows promise but is also really dedicated: they eat and drink books and they are always writing. Those are the kinds of candidates that we are looking for: people who are going to get along in a community of writers. I keep the program small because community is so important. You need to feel you are in a safe creative place in order to take creative risks. You have to know that when you show up to workshop with something that feels really risky, you’re not going to be shot down and there are not going to be other people who are so envious that they’ve got to tear you down. That happens enough in the outside world. You are going to get that from editors or agents, and you don’t need that in a place where you are trying to grow as an artist and learn your craft as an apprentice.

You need to be in a place where you can do that and know that people are going to support you. You are going to get a lot of positive criticism, but people are also going to be holding you up. When you do have a success or a breakthrough, people are just going to be like “Yeah. Go for it.”

Pamplemousse: What is your writing schedule like? How do you find balance between work and writing?

MK: I have always had a full time job and had to balance that with a writing life. You are always just trying to figure out, day-to-day, where your writing time is. I tell students that you have to have a regular date with your desk. The time and place of that date may change day-to-day or week-to-week, but you have to get to the point where you wouldn’t break that date with your desk any more than you’d break a date with your best friend to go to the movies. So if that friend calls, you have to say “sorry, I have a date already.” The writing doesn’t get done unless, as Norma Fox Mazer said, your butt is in the chair.

You make it happen anyway that you can. I have to make it work. [There are] a lot of weekends and a lot of early mornings. I am not a late night writer. There are too many voices in the day; I like to write fresh, when I haven’t heard anybody else’s voice yet. You figure out what works for you and come up with all these tricks. You always have a book in the car or a book on tape, because you have to be reading all the time too.

That’s what you learn in grad school too. You have to balance your life in a low residency program. We keep in really close touch with our alum and keep trying to support them after too. Having other writers in your life to get you through the crap and to cheer you on is very important.

Pamplemousse: Are there any books, or authors, that you feel everyone should read?

MK: There is probably one book for each genre, and everybody has a different opinion about what that book is. We are apprentices to this craft, even if you have your master’s degree; we are all still students forever, and you read about your craft. One of my bibles is Babette Deutsch’s Poetry Handbook. It goes through every bit of terminology you can find poets talking about. I still go back to that when I am writing form. There is something like that for every genre.

In our program, the faculty develops a reading list of some craft books you absolutely have to read in this program. There is also your life-long reading list: Don’t go your life without reading these books.

When you leave [our program], you are never flailing around for your next book. We all have those lists. As a writer, you start to create your own. I found that as I go along, at different times in my life there are different writers who are speaking to me. Virginia Woolf makes me run to my desk and want to write a poem, even though she was a fiction writer. You just find people like that. They speak to you and you want to have that dialogue, a response. That is one of the reasons reading is so important. You find the people who energize you and make you want to write. That list is going to be different for everybody.

Pamplemousse: What writers are most important to you?

MK: Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, a lot of the Irish poets. They have such a great sense of sound. That sense of music is very important to me, the emotional sense you create just through the sounds of the words. It is amazing that so many writers came from this tiny little island. I love reading Irish and Scottish writers, and I am falling in love with different writers every day.

There are many contemporary poets whose work lights a fire in me, Gerald Stern and Heather McHugh for example. I also love to go back to Keats and Yeats, and Emily Dickinson though half the time I don’t know what she is saying, but she is a great musician with those words. It makes you want to go back and reread her. I love some mystery in anything, just enough to suck you in and make you want to read it again. Those are the kinds of writers I am drawn to.