Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Meet Author Margaret McMullan!

My guest today is Margaret McMullan, award-winning author of the novels When Warhol Was Still Alive (1994), In My Mother's House (St. Martin's Press, November 2003), How I Found the Strong (Houghton Mifflin, April 2004), When I Crossed No-Bob (Houghton Mifflin, November 2007), and Cashay (Houghton Mifflin, April 2009).

The main character in Cashay lives in what's left of Chicago's Cabrini Green projects. Reviewers describe Cashay as a "beautifully written, touching and powerful story you won't be able to put down" ... "both gritty, and inspirational" ... a "poignant coming of age story."

Margaret's essays and short stories have appeared in numerous magazines, including Glamour, the Chicago Tribune, and Michigan Quarterly Review. She is currently a board member of the New Harmony Project and a professor of English at the University of Evansville, in Evansville, Indiana, where she's working on a collection of stories and a new young adult novel for Houghton Mifflin due out in 2010.

For more information about Margaret McMullan, visit her web site: .

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

Margaret: I had a wonderful high school teacher named Alva Lowey. She was from Alabama and I was from Mississippi, and we connected there in Lake Forest, a northern suburb of Chicago. She gave these great assignments and she typed out all of her responses and comments. She was an older lady and she was very professional. She submitted my short story “Bees” to a contest sponsored by Scholastic Magazine. It won. I got a gold pen and Mrs. Lowey’s approval. I was hooked.

Q: Please describe one of your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write it?

Margaret: When I was about 16 years old, my great grandmother asked my mother to come to Washington, D.C. because she knew she was dying. She was 105 years old and she lived in a lovely home for older women. My mother asked me to come with her – to help. We spent a week at my great grandmother’s bedside. It made a huge impression, and later I wrote a short story called “Duet” based on that experience. Then I wrote the novel based on that story – the novel is called In My Mother’s House.

So many people inspire me. Each project has a person behind it. My friend dying of AIDS inspired me to write When Warhol Was Still Alive. My grandmother’s stories inspired me to write How I Found the Strong. A 15 year old girl who asked me to write about her, inspired me to write Cashay. I could go on and on.

Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Margaret: Jim Whitehead and Bill Harrison were my mentors, teachers, guides, and friends in graduate school at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Now my husband, Pat O’Connor, plays the biggest role in my life!

Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.

Margaret: I went to high school at Lake Forest High School and my mother, sister, and I did volunteer work at Holy Family Church in Chicago all during the 1970’s. My parents still live in Lake Forest and my sister and her family live in Chicago. We visit about once a month.

Q: What was easy about writing Cashay? What was difficult?

Margaret: Researching Cabrini Green and the stock market and Chicago was fascinating work and that helped get me into Cashay’s voice.  The hard part was putting her through such difficulties.

Q: Of the characters mentioned in Cashay, please choose one you would like to meet and tell us why.

Margaret: I feel I’ve met all of them because I’ve spent so much time with them. There is a lot of me in Cashay. There is a lot of my sister in Allison. I suppose I would want to be with Cashay and stay with her for a long time.

Q: People assume that research is required to write nonfiction, but many don't think about how important research can be when writing fiction. What sort of research did you do when you were writing Cashay?

Margaret: I hung around urban high schools (with permission, of course) and listened listened listened. I bought rap music, ate twizzlers and pink snow balls, read 5th grade math books, and bundled up against the cold and walked around Cabrini Green. I visited the Chicago museums and took notes at the Museum of Science and Industry. For three days I went into work and shadowed my sister who is a stockbroker. I interviewed my African American students about their hair habits and more. They asked me about mine too. I LOVE the research that goes into writing a novel. I learn so much.

Q: Your latest novel, Sources of Light, will be published in April 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. What would you like us to know about that book?

Margaret: Here’s the way the jacket flap reads: "It's 1962, a year after the death of Sam's father--he was a war hero--and Sam and her mother must move, along with their very liberal views, to Jackson, Mississippi, her father's conservative hometown. Needless to say, they don't quite fit in.

People like the McLemores fear that Sam, her mother, and her mother's artist friend, Perry, are in the South to "agitate" and to shake up the dividing lines between black and white and blur it all to grey. As racial injustices ensue--sit-ins and run-ins with secret white supremacists--Sam learns to focus with her camera lens to bring forth the social injustice out of the darkness and into the light."

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

Margaret: I think you and other authors know the key to keeping on: Read read and read some more and then ask yourself if you have your own story or stories to add. Be curious about EVERYTHING. You never know where your next big idea will come from.

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