Friday, January 9, 2009

Writer Profile: Mary Amato

Mary Amato is a Maryland writer who writes children’s books and teaches workshops on writing for children at the Writers Center in Bethesda (her next WC workshop, “What’s So Funny: Finding and Writing Humor in Children’s Books,” starts on January 15). Her books include Please Write in This Book, The Naked Mole-Rat Letters, The Word Eater and The Riot Brothers series of chapter books. She has also adapted “Chicken of the Family” as a musical, which premiered in Virginia in April 2008.

Mary has taught public and private school and also has worked as a dance teacher, a choreographer and a puppeteer. She also loves to write songs, sing and play the guitar and is in the duo, Two-Piece Suit.

I’ve heard Mary give presentations on aspects of creativity and spirituality to both children and adults at a local UU church, and have also heard her sing. To be truthful, I’m a little jealous of her ability to get up and perform and speak with such assuredness and grace, and of her seeming ease with moving between public and private personas as a writer/performer/artist. But that jealousy has provided me with much-needed kick-in-the-pants inspiration. She is a mother who has made time to write and has found a way to make a livelihood from her writing—a worthy goal for any other mother who loves to write.

For a list of Mary’s books, additional biographical information, descriptions of the presentations she offers to schools and libraries, and FAQs, see:

How did you decide to write children’s books? Did you write articles for children’s magazines first, or did you start out with a book-length project?

When I was eleven years old, I read Little Women and Harriet the Spy, and those two books made me want to write books of my own. Since I was reading children’s books, those are what I wanted to write! As I grew older, my love for the genre never dimmed. I didn’t know any writers, though, and didn’t believe it was actually possible. Raised to be practical, I got my undergraduate degree in teaching and gave up my dream for a while.

My desire to write kept popping up, though. I tried my hand at writing lots of short books (picture books) first and tried to get those published. I was rejected, but I often received nice rejections, which kept me going. After my first son was born, I decided that if I was going to spend any time away from him, I should spend it doing something that really mattered. I made an intentional commitment to embrace my dream of writing children’s books. I went back to graduate school in creative writing and chose a novel-length children’s book as my thesis project.

Did you have any kind of contract or interested party before you began writing your first children’s book?

I didn’t have any specific interest from an editor, but I did have those “nice rejections” from previous projects. By that time, I had also published a lot of articles, essays and some poetry in major, national magazines. Writing for newspapers and magazines taught me a lot about working on deadline and about being edited.

You said recently that you went from being a very unfunny writer to being a funny one. Was it an intentional change, since you’ve gone from writing for magazines and now write for children, or is it something that just occurred naturally along the way?

I was in graduate school, writing that thesis project—a very dark young-adult novel—when a fellow student told me that my writing lacked even a glimpse of humor. I took that criticism very seriously and began to study humor. I gave myself the task of trying to write a completely new, FUNNY, short story. I did it. Since that day, I have tried to consciously look for and exploit humor in some way in every book I’ve written. I don’t always read the front-page news, but I generally read the comics analytically—to see what works and what doesn’t.

You’re the only female in your household (two sons and a husband). Has this affected what you’ve chosen to write about? Do you think your children’s books would be different in any way if you were raising two dainty little girls?

I have four books out in a series called The Riot Brothers, which are about two wild and crazy boys named Orville and Wilbur Riot. Because I have two sons, people often ask me if the Riot Brothers are my own boys. They aren’t. I do think that my boys have had a huge influence on me as a writer. I grew up in a family of girls, so I didn’t really ever see things from a boy’s point of view. Being a mother of boys has given me much insight into the experiences and inner lives of boys. I feel my boy characters just as vividly as I feel my girl characters.

As a girl, I was a lover of dolls and making doll clothes and little things for my dollhouse. Sometimes I think that if I had girls of my own, a lot of my creative energy might be going into all those projects. Perhaps I would be writing less. Who knows?

Has being a mom influenced your writing or creativity in any other way?

Fay Weldon, an English fiction writer, once said that she refused to allow motherhood to be an excuse to keep her from writing. If she could only write one sentence before being interrupted, she would at least write that one sentence. I gave myself a little lecture when my kids were young: Don’t use them as an excuse. If I had a spare hour to write, I would write as much as possible in that spare hour. My husband would do something fun with the kids every Saturday—like take them to the park—and I would shut myself in the basement and write. (I’m no longer so tough. Now I can’t write in the basement!) The discipline was great.

Of course, seeing children grow up, experiencing all the incredible highs and lows with them has given me a lot of material for characters, for plot elements, for themes and for dialogue. To some extent, you re-experience your own childhood when you are playing with your children or getting them ready for bed, or nursing them through an illness. You are comparing your experiences with theirs. I can get into the mind of a child easily.

Tell me about how you came up with your new character, Amelia E. Hart. You’ve said she is “a great girl to balance out the Riot Brothers.”

Amelia E. Hart is the adventurous and funny cousin who comes to stay with Orville and Wilbur in book IV. The book will be out this spring, and I’m excited because she is such a strong girl character. Even though the Riot Brothers would seem to attract boy fans, I do have a lot of girl fans out there. I know they’re going to like her. The idea for Amelia actually came from a family who wrote me a fan letter. The letter was so great we ended up corresponding. In a follow-up letter, they suggested the idea of a girl cousin coming to visit. I had such fun developing the character and dreaming up surprising ways she could contribute to the Riot Brother world.

How much do you write every week? Do you have a daily schedule, or is it flexible, depending on what other things you have to do that day?

I write Monday-Friday from about 7:45 or so until 3:00 or so. I get grumpy if I don’t write everyday. I do take breaks to exercise, to cook, to do errands, etc.

What’s the best thing about being a children’s book author?

I love the letters I get from kids. They talk about the characters and the stories as if there is no question that they are all real.

One letter in particular was very touching. A teacher had asked her students to do book reports on a favorite book and to make sure and answer the question: What would you change if you could change one thing in the book? A girl wrote to me that she had chosen my book The Naked Mole-Rat Letters because it was her favorite book. This book is about a girl named Frankie who is struggling with her widowed father’s newfound romantic interest in another woman. My fan wrote that the only thing she would have changed in the book would have been to make sure that Frankie’s mother hadn’t ever died. Of course, if Frankie’s mother had never died, there would be no story. That told me that my reader was responding to Frankie’s life as if it were a real life. What a compliment to me, and a reminder of the wonder and power of story.


Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

Very cool interview. Thank you.
Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
Ch. 1 is online!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the interview Beth. It's nice to catch up with Mary. I'll be watching for that new book. Rebecca (Ana's mom)