Monday, February 4, 2013

Interview with Author Barbara O'Connor

Barbara O’Connor is the author of over a dozen books for intermediate readers, including the award-winning Moonpie and Ivy, How to Steal a Dog, and The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester.

She’s here today to talk about her most recent novel, On the Road to Mr. Mineo’s, which was named one of the best children’s books of the year by School Library Journal and won a Parent’s Choice Silver Award.

You open your book with a description of Highway 14 in South Carolina. Then you pull off the highway, following a small green sign to Meadville. There are no characters in sight until you get to town. Stella, the young main character doesn’t show up until page 5. Isn’t this a risky way to start a novel for kids? What made you take this approach?

Yes, risky. Kids usually want to jump right into the action. But I wanted to create a mood. More importantly, I wanted a sort of panoramic view of the town so the reader gets a sense of it right away. Then when the characters are introduced, they will “fit” in their places. The first chapter is very quiet, I know. That’s why I added the last “cliffhanger” sentence so that the reader will know that the pace will pick up in the next chapter.

A one-legged pigeon launches the plot. Stella wants him. So does her brother, and a number of the town worthies. Each chapter revolves around someone’s relationship with this pigeon. How did you come up with such an unlikely plot?

I knew from the get-go that I wanted multiple viewpoints. Once I decided on the homing pigeon (originally Sherman was a racing pigeon), then I needed a thread to tie all of the characters together. Wanting to catch Sherman was the perfect thread.

It’s unusual for a children’s book to feature so many adults. How did you make that work so well?

I’m glad you think it worked well. Thanks. That, too, can be a risky move. But since I had so many points of view, I definitely didn’t want them all to be children. I needed a balance. And I used Sherman to add interest to the adults. Giving an adult a pet always helps to make them more kid-friendly, too. (For instance, in my novel Greetings from Nowhere, one of the main characters is an elderly woman. I gave her a cat named Ugly, who helped make her more kid-like and, thus, a character whom kids could connect with.)

Actually, my favorite characters in On the Road to Mr. Mineo’s are the older couple, Amos and Ethel. I gave them the little brown dog so that their story would be more appealing to kids.

Each character in this book is unique and memorable. Can you tell us a little about how you developed your characters?

Character development in multiple viewpoint stories is critical. Each one has to be identifiable and distinct from the others. I try to establish their uniqueness immediately, to reinforce that distinction periodically, and to stay consistent. For instance, Gerald is meek, nervous, and not a risk taker – the complete opposite of Stella. So his actions and dialogue needed to reflect that. Mr. Mineo is a bit cranky. I used his dog, Ernie, to help me establish that because he could talk to the dog, expressing his aggravation over Sherman to Ernie.

So, bottom line, the trick is to give each character a specific personality trait that the reader will recognize throughout the story.

Many of your books feature animals, from the dog in How to Steal a Dog, to the frog in The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester. Do animals hold a special place in your life? What role do they play in your fiction?

I love animals! I’m a big dog lover. And as for frogs, I was one heck of a good bullfrog catcher back in the day. (I lived in Louisiana for a few years as a child and once caught a giant bullfrog using a birdcage in a drainage ditch.)
I use animals often in my work because kids love animals. And as I mentioned in an earlier answer, animals often help make an adult character more kid-friendly and attractive to young readers.

You live in New England, yet most of your books are set in the south. Why does that setting resonate with you?

I was born and raised in the South. I didn’t leave the South until several years after finishing college. My heart’s home will always be there. I love everything about it: the people, the food, the landscape. And because that’s where I spent my childhood, that’s the setting that helps me feel like a child again and helps me create stories about and for children. If I tried to write a book set in New England, I don’t think I could conjure up the feelings I need. And it would be harder for me to add the rich details that make a story special because the details of New England don’t speak to me the same as the details of the South: the dialogue, the weather, the businesses, characters, trees, food, etc. All of those things are vital to the story as a whole.

Your books make delightful read-alouds. I love Mr. Mineo’s daily roll call of his pigeons:
Edna, Frankie, Martha, Samson, Leslie, Taylor, Amy, Joe, Christopher, and Martin.
But not Sherman.
Do you pay special attention to the sound of the words as you write? When does this happen in your process?

Definitely!! The rhythm of the writing is critical to my style and writing voice. For that reason, I use a lot of short, incomplete sentences. (I drive copy editors crazy.) I also love repetition, as in the example you cited. Kids enjoy that. It establishes a familiarity with the story for them.

As for when in the process this happens, I’d say right away. The rhythm and sound of the words set the tone for the book and that needs to be established very early on. Also, I’m a polish-as-I-go kind of writer. I never leave anything messy behind me. It’s too distracting to me.

What are you working on now?

I’m in the very early stages of a middle grade novel. I’m hoping to try something new (for me) but it’s tricky and I’m not sure I can pull it off. I’m not going to divulge what it is in case I DON’T pull it off. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Just a thank you for stopping by this terrific blog and reading my interview. Thank you, Linda.

Thank you so much for talking with us today!