The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Caroline McAlister
I have not taken a straight path to becoming a children’s writer,
but when I look back I realize that’s what I always wanted to be.
~ Caroline McAlister
Caroline “started writing for children after having [her] own and being struck by the beauty and creativity of modern picture books for children. It took many false starts and rejections before [she] got published.
Now, as a part time instructor, [she takes her] wonderful Guilford College students to Oxford, England to visit some of Tolkien’s haunts: The Eagle and Child, The White Horse, and Pembroke College.”
She lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with her “philosopher husband, and a big slobbery Labrador retriever. Her fourth picture book, Finding Narnia: The Story of C.S. Lewis and His Brother, released November 19th.
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing?)
I started writing for children when my daughters were young, and I was reading to them. They are now 22 and 24 years old (it happens fast!) so I would say I began about eighteen years ago give or take a year or two, but I have always been involved with books and literature.
I have a Phd in English Literature and teach part time at Guilford College. I teach three days a week and try to reserve Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays for writing. I tend to have bursts of creative energy as the semester ends. I celebrate turning in my grades by doing my own writing.
I have a little home office set up in the guest room next to our kitchen, but the desk is in the closet and it is kind of dark, so I end up moving my computer to the kitchen table, which is bathed in light. I can see birds and squirrels through the picture window.
Being a laptop migrator myself I totally understand the draw of birds and nature from outside the window. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
As a child, I used to have temper tantrums that involved sitting under the table and kicking it because words were not spelled the way they sounded. Probably my mom and my older sister are the only people who know that. Maybe my sisters’ kids also know it because my sister is good at telling family stories.
And now, you get to play with those crazy words. Thank you for sharing that tidbit. As a child, who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book?
I have wonderful memories of my mother reading us T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. I thought it was very funny that Merlin’s owl pooped on his shoulders. I also remember my father reading us The Hobbit. I loved the way Bilbo Baggins’s name sounded and I remember giggling with my sister about his hairy feet.
Such wonderful memories to have. What inspired you to write Finding Narnia: The Story of C.S. Lewis and His Brother?
Guilford College gave me the opportunity to teach a class on children’s literature and take students to Oxford, England. We visited C. S. Lewis’s house in Headington. The docent showed us a typewriter and informed us that C. S. Lewis didn’t use it. He never learned to type. He wrote using an ink pen and his brother typed his manuscripts for him. I loved learning about the mechanics of Lewis’s writing, the fact that he hated the sound of the typewriter because he was listening to the sounds of the words in his head. The typewriter also got me to think about the brothers’ relationship and the importance of Warnie to the creation of his children’s books.
I love the way you showed the personalities and connection of the brothers in your book. You’ve written 3 other books, J.R. Rolands’s Dragons: The Story of J.R.R. Tolkien (2017), Brave Donatella and the Jasmine Thief (2010), and Holy Molé (2006). Do you see any similarities between your books?
Gosh—I started out with folktales because I love folktales and I enjoyed finding them and researching different versions. Then the market changed, and editors were looking for non-fiction, and I was teaching a class on Tolkien and Lewis. All of the books involve research. I love research, disappearing down a rabbit hole and surfacing sometimes years later. Then there is the task of finding the narrative thread and working, knitting, shaping it.
I think it's fair to say you've found your niche. How does Finding Narnia differ or compare to your other books?
Finding Narnia was really hard for me to write. I began with the alliterative name for Lewis’s childhood home, Little Lea, and the first lines that popped into my head were poetic, full of rhythm and rhyme. For a long time, I tried to tell the whole story in rhyme. No one could even tell what I was writing about! I think it may have taken a whole year, or year and a half, to come up with something that made sense. There was a lot of editing involved in the final product. My other books were easier to write.
I'm glad you persisted. This is a wonderful book. Did you visit Oxford during your research for Finding Narnia? What was the hardest part of the research to conduct?
As I mentioned above, I did visit Oxford as part of my teaching job, and visiting was important to the book. The research was fun, fun, fun; the writing was hard, hard, hard. A lot got left on the cutting floor. I researched the docks of Belfast where huge ships were built and which the Lewis boys could see from their house. I wrote up a whole beginning describing the sounds and sights of that ship building, which must have been magnificent, but I had to end up cutting it.
It helped you create this story. and who knows, maybe you'll need it for another book. What do you want readers to know about Finding Narnia?
I am interested in how a writer or artist’s childhood connects to their later life. I hate the words creativity and inspiration because they are so overused; they hardly have any meaning anymore, but I wanted to capture the creativity of children’s play and the way that can translate into later creative endeavors. So, let your children play. Give them the space for unfettered imaginative play.
I totally agree with you. What caused you to decide to write this story alternating between their joint story and individual stories (tracking their personalities and growth)? How many tries did it take to figure out the formatting?
I would say many, many tries. I think I always had the idea of focusing on the joint story, but my big problem was beginning with rhyme.
I read a book about creativity and collaboration by Joshua Shenk called Powers of Two. Like many people, he mentions the friendship between Tolkien and Lewis as being important to their creativity, but it seemed to me that for the Narnia Books C.S. Lewis was going back to the kind of world building he did as a child with his brother. They were very close throughout their lives, even kind of co-dependent. Warnie struggled with alcoholism and Jack looked after and protected him. Their relationship was the key relationship throughout Jack’s entire life.
For me, the real key to their collaboration, but also their differences, was the typewriter. Warnie always liked mechanical things and technology while Jack was focused on mythology. I have close friends whose two sons built a Lego world in their basement. It struck me that this kind of fantasy play was something many brothers must share and that the story had universal appeal.
Having built many such worlds with my younger brother & sister, I know that this fantasy play can be a bond for any combination of siblings (boys &/or girls). Do you have a favorite type of book to write?
I find the constrictions of the picture book format incredibly comforting. I also like that you can use long words because the adult reads to the child. Finally, I like seeing the illustrator’s interpretations of my words. I have been trying to write a middle grade novel. I feel like I am wandering around in a vast uncharted territory without rules or directions.
Good luck with it. What most surprised you in the illustrations by Jessica Lanan? Do you have a favorite spread?
Text © Caroline McAlister, 2019 . Image © Jessica Lanan, 2019.
I like the spread she made for the page when the boys’ mother falls ill. She tells the story with silhouettes of the different characters in different windows in the house. I thought this was a clever device. She allows the characters a certain privacy in their moment of grief. I also really like the research she did for the boat picture when the boys go to school. Boats were incredibly important to C. S. Lewis, and he would have appreciated the research she did to get the kind of boat they were on correct.
It is a very poignant image and your text conjures the smells, worry, and pain associated with illness. You made an excellent team. Who/what is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child, now as a writer, or both.)
I belong to a Quaker Meeting. We worship in silence. During these moments of silence my mind wanders, and ideas come to me. As a child, we did not have a television in the house. I grew up with a lot of silence. I think it is important to leave space in your life—whether it is vacation time, silent time, unprogrammed time—space for the mind to wander.
Maybe that's why so many ideas come in the shower! What is the hardest thing, for you, about writing picture books? Do you have any advice for beginning authors?
My advice is to read, read, read lots of picture books. If you don’t have a child at home, volunteer at a school so that you are reading the books out loud and hearing what they sound like and so that you can experience the kids’ reactions. Begin to keep a notebook and for each book you read, jot down how it begins, how it ends, how many words per page, whether it is in first person or third person. What is the arc of the story? How many characters are there?
Having gone through a few book releases, associated readings, and school visits, do you have any advice for those just learning their book is to be published? (What will you do/try differently this time?)
I do not in any way feel like an expert. I learn with every book. Relax and have fun. Try to bring friends and family along so you’ve always got your crew with you. Sometimes people show up. Sometimes they don’t. I just had an incredible reading at The Story Shop in Monroe, Georgia. They really advertised and they had Turkish Delight for the kids and coloring pages and snowflake making. I had a really disappointing reading at the local Barnes and Noble when John Ronald’s Dragons came out. They wouldn’t put my reading in the children’s part of the store because they didn’t think Tolkien was a children’s author and didn’t think of my book as a children’s book. They just seemed clueless and boxed in by corporate headquarters.
Wow, what different experiences. Great advice to bring friends. But I also think the flip side is "Be the friend." Show up to friends and fellow writer's launches and readings. Any new project(s) you are working on that you can share a tidbit with us? Are you working on any more picture books?
I have a picture book coming out that I am incredibly excited about. It is a picture book biography of Ruth Asawa, a sculptor, who studied art at Black Mountain College, which was near Asheville, North Carolina. We don’t have an illustrator yet, but I have lots of pictures in my mind. Ruth Asawa’s work is stunning, and it is important to tell her life story right now. She was separated from her father and incarcerated in an internment camp during World War 2. She embodies creativity, hard work, and resilience.
Much too relevant today, but one I will keep an eye out for. Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or something you are glad you did not know in advance?
I think I am glad that I did not know how hard it would be, or how long it would take. I have taken a lot of classes along the way, many of them through SCBWI. I would recommend to others starting out to go ahead and invest the time and money in workshops and classes.
What is your favorite animal? Or one that you are enamored with. Why?
I had a heart attack last spring, which was very scary. Our last dog had died a couple years ago. When I was in the hospital, I kept thinking about how much I wanted to go on a dog walk, so when I got home, we got a new Labrador retriever puppy. My daughter named her Edna St. Vincent Millay. She has a terrible habit of climbing up on tables. Here is a picture of her on the living room coffee table. You can see from the picture that she has chewed the corners of the table to shreds.
I am so glad you are better and I hope Edna learns some manners.
Thank you Caroline for sharing with us a bit of yourself and your new book.
Be sure to stop back by on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF post on Finding Narnia: The Story of C.S. Lewis and His Brother
To find out more about Caroline McAlister, or get in touch with her: