Friday, February 24, 2012

Joyce McDonald On Teaching and Writing

by Donna Galanti

 Joyce McDonald is the author of several critically acclaimed books for teens and young readers, among them Swallowing Stones, Shadow People, Shades of Simon Gray, Comfort Creek, Homebody and Mail-Order Kid. Honors and awards include ALA Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults, Booklist’s Best of the Best 100, New York Public Library’s Book for the Teen Age, VOYA’s “Books in the Middle” Outstanding Title of the Year, ALA/YALSA Popular Paperback for Young Adults, and an Edgar Award nomination. Her latest novel is Devil on My Heels (Delacorte). Her books have been nominated for numerous state awards and are on several state reading lists. She has taught literature and creative writing at Drew University and East Stroudsburg University, and currently teaches in the Brief-residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University. Visit Joyce at

Donna Galanti: You conduct speaking engagements, writing workshops, author visits, writer-in-residence programs, and after-school-book-club discussions. How do you also fit writing into this schedule?

Joyce McDonald: It isn’t easy. During most of my writing career I’ve continued to teach. Currently I’m on the faculty of Spalding University’s Brief-residency MFA in Writing Program. When I wrote Swallowing Stones I was teaching four classes at East Stroudsburg University and a class in creative writing at Drew University. My weekends were consumed with grading composition papers. That left one day a week when I wasn’t in the classroom—a Thursday. I worked on my novel in my head while commuting to ESU and Drew, and on Thursdays I sequestered myself in my office and wrote for the entire day. It took a year and a half—Thursday by Thursday—but I finally completed the novel. Ever since then, I’ve learned to write, as Maxine Kumin has said, “in the interstices.”

D: Today authors need to self-promote more than ever. What promotional areas do you find you have the best success and how much of your time do you dedicate towards promotion?

J: I’m horrible about self-promotion. It’s embarrassing how little I do. The only blogging I can manage is for Spalding’s blog. But I do have plans to do my own eventually. Tweeting is another area I’ve sorely neglected. But I am on Facebook. I’m in awe of authors who find time to blog, tweet, and update their Facebook pages. I want to know their secret!

D: You write YA, Middle Grade, and have even done a picture book. How do you keep yourself knowledgeable to write for a younger audience as the times change?

J: Over the years I’ve read a tremendous number of MG and YA novels. But while I’m aware of trends, I tend to stay away from what’s currently hot. It’s a given that agents and editors will be swamped with derivative works. For me, it’s always best to write what fully engages my imagination, especially since writing a novel is a major commitment. You’re in it for the long haul, so you’d better love the story and your characters.

D: Do you have any advice for writers with a beginning interest in writing YA or MG?

J: I know you’ve heard this many times, but it’s the only way to truly learn to write: Read. Read first for entertainment. Read second to learn elements of craft from the author. There are also several good books on craft worth perusing. Janet Burroway’s On Writing (any edition) is especially helpful.

D: How does presenting a workshop for children differ from one for adults?

J: It depends on the age of the children. For elementary and middle school children, I usually do a group workshop on characterization. With teens and adults, I focus on several aspects of craft—characterization, setting, plot, pacing, and so on, depending on the length of the workshop.

D: You teach creative writing at the college level as well. What area do you find that you need to help your students with the most in their writing?

J: Every student has different strengths and weaknesses. I focus on what they’re doing well and point out where they need to improve. I find that by asking questions—many many questions—I can help them better understand what they’re attempting to do and how to make it work.

D: You also wrote a book for scholars, The Stuff of Our Forebears: Willa Cather's Southern Heritage. How did this book come about and what kind of research did you conduct for it?

J: What became The Stuff of Our Forebears was originally my doctoral dissertation when I was at Drew University. I had the privilege of taking a course with renowned Cather scholar, Merrill Skaggs, who later became the chair of my dissertation committee. The research was extensive. I made trips to Red Cloud, NE (Cather’s home for several years) and Winchester, VA (where Cather was born and raised until she was almost ten). I also read everything that Cather ever wrote, which was a daunting task. She was very prolific. When I wrote my dissertation in 1993 - 94, we didn’t have Internet access. I spent many long hours in libraries and loved every minute.

D: What are you currently reading?

J: I just finished reading Francine Prose’s Goldengrove. The protagonist is thirteen, but Prose uses an adult reminiscent narrator who looks back on a family tragedy. It has appeal for both the teen and adult audience, making it a cross-over novel. A few days ago I began reading The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I also loved his book The Shadow in the Wind. Both books are set in his home city of Barcelona, one of my favorite places.


  1. Where on the Ya scale would she place Orson Scott Card's book Ender's Game? It's about gifted children living and surviving in a harsh adult world with impossible high stakes. Are such books even in the Ya category?

  2. I loved the three-day class I took from you, Joyce, at the Philadelphia Writers' Conference, and am looking forward to seeing you again at The Write Stuff! Great interview, Donna, thanks!