Interview with Laura Williams McCaffrey

by Solstice MFA Intern Tiara Marchando

February 2008

  1. What inspired you to begin writing?

    I always wrote, but for a long time I didn't consider myself a writer. I wrote character sketches, brief stories, my impressions of events, and a lot of truly dreadful poetry. I never showed my writing to people. I thought they’d laugh at me.
    Then I met someone who wrote for children. Something about the idea of writing the kinds of stories I’d loved as a child and a teen freed me. Though still terrified I wasn’t good at writing, I started wanting to write more than I feared failure.

  2. Did you have a favorite writer when you were younger? Who was it? Why?

    As a kid, I loved Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, as well as Robin McKinley’s The Hero and The Crown and the Blue Sword. When I was slightly older I read several books over and over again: Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Allende’s The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time.
    I can see rational reasons why my teenaged self loved these books: their vibrant female characters (in most cases); their half-familiar, half-wild worlds; the promise they made that awkward adolescents can hope to grow into accomplished adults, and that difficult circumstances can be survived. But like all kinds of love, the love for particular books is partially irrational. I also loved these stories because I loved them, for reasons I don’t completely understand.

  3. You worked as an elementary school librarian and you are a mother. How does your interaction with children shape your writing?

    I like talking about books with kids, and I like hearing what kids think and feel about their reading. They’re part of my literary world, and I plan to ensure they always are. What they say certainly influences what I read. It also influences the words I choose to use when I write, as well as the ways I use words to create characters and stories. Despite this, I think my writing is more shaped by the child I was. I write most frequently about my childhood preoccupations, rather than those of children I know.

  4. An Na, who also writes for children and young adults, mentioned that children today have more choice in what they read. Do you feel that authors who write for young adults adequately fulfill the obligation of representing the audience they write for?

    I think authors are far more aware than they once were that their audience is diverse: socio-economically, ethnically, racially, religiously, politically. I also think they’re far more aware that they need to develop a multifaceted eye, one that sees rather than stereotypes. As they craft stories, they need to use what they’ve observed with this multifaceted eye.
    Does this mean that children’s literature adequately represents its audience yet? No, I don’t think it does, for many reasons. Because of what I said above, I have hopes that it will someday.

  5. What pushed you to begin teaching? Was it a childhood dream - like writing - or did you realize later in life it was what you wanted to do?

    My father is a high school social studies teacher, and I’ve always respected his passion for and his commitment to his vocation. For a long time I thought I’d become a social studies teacher. I fell into librarianship, then later mentoring homeschoolers and high school students in writing. I also fell into teaching at Solstice, largely due to An Na. I didn’t plan on becoming the kind of teacher I am; I’m very lucky to have ended up where I have.

  6. In your online journal, on livejournal.com, you said, "There are moments while writing a novel when one thinks one simply can't go on...and then does anyway." Do you believe in writer's block? If so, what is your advice on coping with it?

    When I wrote that comment, I was speaking more of the utter exhaustion one can feel after working on a novel for years. I suppose this exhaustion is a kind of writer’s block. I also write very little when I’m dismayed by the quality of my writing, or when I can’t seem to fully imagine my characters. I go to my office every day, anyway. I write scenes I tear up, or nothing at all. I pace. Eventually I start writing again.

  7. In and interview with Cynthia Leitch Smith you expressed an interest in people who feel "betwixt and between;" is this why you chose to write for children and young adults rather than for adults, and fantasy rather than any other types of fiction?

    Probably so. A major theme in fantasy literature is the character who, usually because of some highly-visible trait, is not accepted by his or her community. Often this trait ensures the character won’t ever be entirely accepted. This kind of character, like this kind of person, intrigues me.
    Most children and young adults will become part of the adult community, but they are hyper-aware of peer groups, as well as insider and outsider status. Many feel they are and always will be outsiders. This interests me, too.

  8. Do you feel that writing fantasy, rather than "traditional" fiction or creative non-fiction, for young people allows more freedom in your writing? Does it create any obstacles?

    I don’t know that it allows me more freedom, but fantastical metaphors are the ones that always have made the most sense to me. I’m not sure why. When I was growing up, no one in my family and few of my friends, particularly the girls, read fantasy. Yet I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read it. I actually don’t consider writing fantasy to be so different from other kinds of writing. In a fantasy story, parents may abandon their children in a cold, dark swamp rather than leave them alone with matches in an art deco kitchen, but both stories are still about abandonment, danger, fear, and loneliness.

  9. Your husband, Colin McCaffrey, is an accomplished song writer, performer, and teacher. What are the benefits of being married to an artist? What are the challenges?

    We understand each other’s artistic needs. We discuss art and the creative process, our students and teaching. We’re both primarily self-employed, so getting by financially can be a challenge. It keeps life interesting.

  10. What is your definition of a perfect professor? How closely do you mirror that image?

    I think the kind of professor I’d like to be expects more from her students than they think they’re capable of, and pushes them to strive for that more. She’s honest, but in a gentle way. She knows when to make demands, and when to celebrate what’s been accomplished. She doesn’t try to force her students to mimic her voice and thoughts; she helps them better cultivate their own. I don’t know that I’ll ever perfectly mirror this ideal.

  11. What expectations do you have of your students?

    I expect them to work as hard as they can, creatively and intellectually.

  12. In your journal, you mention that a Masters in Fine Arts is not needed in order to grow as a writer, but instead provide “rich mentor/mentee relationships”. How have the relationships you have formed while working with the Solstice MFA Program enriched your life as a writer?

    I always learn something new about writing while I’m mentoring students. Commenting on their work forces me to think deeply, not only about the pages they’ve offered to me but writing generally. It also forces me to clearly articulate my more abstract or impressionistic thoughts.
    I know how difficult sharing writing-in-progress can be; it often makes writers feel intensely vulnerable. I respect my students for taking the creative and emotional risks they take. Their risk-taking pushes me to do the same.

  13. What is your philosophy on teaching?

    Teaching creative writing, valuing artistic experimentation and craftsmanship, can be a kind of activism in a society that so highly values financial status.

  14. Is there anything about you that you think people should know that can’t be found in a biography?

    I may actually love chocolate more than writing, though I’d prefer never to have to choose between the two.