Beck McDowell, former AP Language teacher at Huntsville High School, has just received some incredible news. Her latest literary endeavor, titled ‘THIS IS NOT A DRILL,’ has been picked up by Penguin Books and is set for publication in Fall 2012. McDowell graduated from The University of Alabama and spent most of her adult life in Huntsville, though she grew up in New Orleans and parts of Mississippi. I had the privilege of chatting with McDowell about what she calls ‘the book biz,’ and once again learned so much from this inspiring writer!
Anne Wood: I'll start with the most over-used question authors get: Did you always know you wanted to write?
Beck McDowell: I actually always wanted to teach – so I did. But sure, it’s true most English teachers wonder if they have a book in them. It was always in the back of my mind, but I honestly didn’t think about it a lot until recently because I loved what I was doing.
AW: I was lucky enough to be in one of your last AP English classes my junior year of high school. How did being a teacher for so many years affect your path to being a published writer?
BM: My teaching had a huge influence on the decision to write, especially my AP Language classes. We spent so much time picking apart good writing, analyzing style and technique, and discussing why a sentence or paragraph worked or didn’t work. Those exercises reminded me why I love language. I’d have to say I was challenged to dive into my second career by those wonderful authors we studied and by the creativity and insights of my students. Even though I was more focused then on guiding their writing, I was unconsciously honing my own skills and that has played a big role in writing professionally.
AW: I think writers, regardless of whether or not they have actually taught in a classroom, are teachers. A good book inspires thought, growth, discussion, and emotion. So, what do you hope to teach through your books? Did teaching make you a better writer?
BM: I’m so glad you feel that way because, while I never want a book to be focused on some didactic moral, I’d like to think each reader will come away from my books with some kind of insight into its characters and the various worlds they represent. In writing LAST BUS OUT, I learned so much about the people who were “left behind” in Katrina, about the quiet dignity people like Courtney and his grandmother exhibit in the midst of poverty and adversity, and about the temptations desperate young people face in an environment where there are limited educational opportunities, few jobs, and easy access to drugs. In writing THIS IS NOT A DRILL, I spent a lot of time talking to friends in the military and researching PTSD. The gunman who holds up the kindergarten classroom was really difficult to characterize because he’s in the midst of this heinous act, of course, but I had great sympathy for the way war had changed him and for the “invisible wound” he’d suffered. The new book also includes characters grieving over the loss of a loved one, recovering from a betrayal of trust, and overcoming a bad reputation in a small town – all larger life issues that hopefully will connect with readers with similar problems. And of course, you know me, there will always be a literary allusion or two in every book because those are the analogies that help me make sense of the world; it’s the way I think as a former English teacher and lover of literature.
AW: I remember having to read "On Writing" by Stephen King in your class. I loved it! I recall King saying that to be a writer you also have to be a reader. What are you reading right now? What book could you read over and over again?
BM: That second half of King’s book is one of the most concise and entertaining writing guides I’ve found; I love it. And Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD is the best resource on the emotional aspects of writing, especially her chapter on “Shitty First Drafts;” so many people never begin because they’re afraid it won’t be good. Of course it won’t be good. My first drafts are terrible. It’s during the revision process that the craft enters in. Just get it down on paper first and then make it pretty.
Unfortunately, I don’t have as much time to read now, but recent favorites are A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD by Jennifer Egan and ROOM by Emma Donoghue – both very creative in completely different ways. ROOM is one I had to put down, then come back to because it’s so dark, but I read a pretty wide variety of styles – especially if the writing is beautiful, like in these two books.
AW: Your newest book, "This Is Not A Drill," has been picked up by Penguin Books. Congratulations! Tell us a little bit about the book and how it came to fruition. What was the inspiration behind it?
BM: I can’t really say there was a moment of inspiration. Who knows where stories come from? There are always several unfolding in my head, so it’s mainly a matter of choosing which one to develop. In the “write what you know” mode, the classroom setting and the teen protagonists made sense for me, but I don’t know much about kindergartens, so I had to talk to elementary teachers for that part. I never spent time worrying about a gunman entering my classroom, even in the midst of school shooter episodes in the news, but maybe that sense of huge responsibility for my students played into this story in a subconscious way. Mostly, I wanted to write about real world, relatable characters trapped in a dangerous situation that could happen to any of us. And I wanted to leave out the parts my students would find boring, so my prose is pretty lean and dialogue-heavy, which is what I like to read, too.
AW: The publishing industry is intimidating. Tell us a little bit about your road to publication. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
BM: The toughest task for me and for all beginning writers is “butt in chair, fingers on keys.” Writing professionally is such an intimidating task. Putting words on paper holds us accountable for our thoughts in a way speaking them does not . I started by just taking stories other people had told me, assigning made-up characters to them, and changing plot details to suit me. For me that worked because it was so much less personal than memoir-type writing. From there I was able to move on to writing my own stories after the process became more natural. So my advice is – do it. Set aside some time each day, or even each week, and just commit to pounding on some keys to see what will happen. Once you do that for a few weeks, you may find you’ll miss it if you don’t write. (Road to publication covered in next question.)
And don’t let anyone tell you that only those with connections get published. Both my former and current agent pulled my work from the slush pile – just a cold submission from an unknown writer. How do you figure out which agents to approach and how to write a query letter? There’s TONS of info online now, particularly through blogs like Nathan Bransford’s and Kristin Nelson’s. I learned most of what I needed to know through online research and attending regional SCBWI conferences (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.)
AW: "Last Bus Out" started as an e-book, how is that process different from your current one?
BM: My experience is a pretty good example of the changes in the industry. When I saw the iPad for the first time, the teacher in me realized what a great tool it was for documenting non-fiction. My agent hadn’t been able to sell LAST BUS OUT in the current economic slump, so I told him I wanted to publish it as an e-book. This wasn’t a part of what his agency offered, so I spent months figuring out how to publish and market the book with all the links to news broadcasts, videos, websites, etc. that helped tell the story. I never intended to publish a print version, but I started getting emails from strangers saying, “I’ve read about your book and I want to read it, but I want a ‘real’ book,” so I decided to do a print-on-demand version too. I know there’s a lot of buzz comparing the two methods of publication, but there’s validity to both. Publishers can only print so many books and there are talented writers out there who’ll really benefit from this new easy access to readers. However, I do hope writers don’t jump into this process without perfecting their work to the absolute extent possible. If the market becomes glutted with poorly written, half-baked fiction, people will pan all self-published books, which would be a shame. I think we’ll see the emergence of some type of vetting system that will add to reader tools like online reviews, which I use a lot in finding good reads.
AW: In a recent interview, Ray Bradbury was asked what he thought about e-books. His response: "BRADBURY: Those aren’t books. You can’t hold a computer in your hand like you can a book. A computer does not smell. There are two perfumes to a book. If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt. A book has got to smell. You have to hold it in your hands and pray to it. You put it in your pocket and you walk with it. And it stays with you forever. But the computer doesn’t do that for you. I’m sorry." Where do you stand on the e-reader debate as someone who has published an e-book? What would you say to Bradbury?
BM: I understand paper purists, but I don’t agree with them. It’s really all about the content, isn’t it? E-books are just a new way to access stories. I read both - and I always will. I love the convenience of ordering a book in bed at midnight when I finish another one and getting it immediately - and of always having a book with me for unexpected “down time”. (I read about 20 books on my phone before getting an iPad, and you get used to the small screen faster than you’d think.) Also the sample chapters have really saved me money, I think. But Ray, you’re right about the smell and feel of hardcovers. They’re like old friends on my bookshelves and I can’t imagine life without being surrounded by them.
AW: "Last Bus Out" was written about Katrina. What inspired you to write about that event? I've heard rumors that you're writing a similar book about the tornadoes that recently hit Alabama. True?
BM: When I heard about Courtney’s stealing the school bus, there were SO many things I loved about the story – the idea of an eighteen-year-old boy as a hero, the resilient spirit of the people of my hometown, the notion that we may all have to take initiative in the event of a national disaster because our government may not be there for us in the way we might expect. I tracked Courtney down through his basketball coach, explained that I was unpublished but I’d love to write his story if no one else had acquired the rights (they hadn’t, surprisingly), and made an appointment to meet him (at a McDonald’s) during an upcoming trip to California to see a friend. We “clicked” right away, but there were a number of months of building the kind of trust that eventually led to the really personal parts of the story, like his mother’s abusive behavior to him and his girlfriend’s betrayal. Courtney and I remain close and we still have hopes the story will eventually be made into a movie. It’s kind of perfect for the big screen, really.
I got a call from a former student asking if I’d help edit stories from students who lived through the disaster. I was thrilled to be able to do anything to help the people I loved heal from the terrible emotional trauma of that experience, and I was touched that they understood the catharsis of writing. I understand that doctors in the affected areas are seeing a LOT of PTSD depression. (Please seek help from your GP or a specialist if you’re having trouble or have friends who are having trouble.) I haven’t heard back yet from the students who were compiling stories, but I think they’re working on them, and I’m happy to help them in any way I can.
AW: Anything else we should know?
BM: There is some truth to the rumor that I break plates in my backyard. I started doing this as an antidote to rejection in the early submission process (with big rocks I brought in and cheap-o clearance-rack plates.) Friends found out and now they come over to break a plate when there’s a romantic break-up or a job loss or just general angst. I’ve wondered what the neighbors think, but there’s a high fence so they just hear the crashing. I’m not crazy – yet. I think it’s the sanest thing I’ve ever done. I realized I was carrying around that gut-kicking rejection of my writing, and it was weighing me down. It’s amazing how this simple act of harmless aggression lifted that burden, and the idea of turning those shards into paving stones for my garden – well, isn’t that the perfect metaphor?
And the only other thing people should know is that I am incredibly lucky to have taught over 3,000 of the coolest people on the planet. I’m so grateful for the impact they’ve have had on my life and feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to stay in touch with so many of them through Facebook and Twitter. My students have enriched my writing and elevated my understanding of the world and its inhabitants in a way I could never adequately describe. I love you guys!
AW: And now for a few silly ones! Hemingway or Fitzgerald?
AW: Kindle or Nook?
AW: Coffee or tea?
BM: Coffee, but with lots of Pet milk, which is a New Orleans thing.
AW: Harry Potter or Twilight?
BM: Is there a non-fantasy choice? I’m a real-world kinda girl.
AW: Dogs or cats?
AW: PC or Mac?
AW: Modern or Romantic?
BM: How about modern AND romantic? Wait, did you mean THOSE Romantics? ‘Cause you know what a fool I am for Byron, Shelley, and Keats.
For more information, follow Beck McDowell on Twitter @BeckMcDowell or check out her blog, www.BeckMcDowell.com.
--Anne Wood, Features editor