Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Writer's Block Interviews: Margaree King Mitchell

1. Tell us a bit about yourself and where you live and work.

I was born and grew up in Holly Springs, Mississippi and graduated from Holly Springs High School. When I graduated from high school I wanted to see another part of the country, so I applied and was accepted at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. I now live in Kansas City.

2. Describe your journey to becoming an author.

I started out writing short stories which were published in church denomination magazines i.e. Lutheran, Methodist, etc. Then I became director of my church’s drama department. At the time I lived in Memphis, Tennessee. Seeing characters that I had written come alive and have an emotional impact on the audience was awesome. It was there that I became aware of the power of the written word. In my spare time I was working on my dream of writing screenplays.

When we lived in Memphis my son started kindergarten. And his school had "Grandparents Day". My son’s grandmothers lived in other cities so he had no one to invite to school. When he arrived at school, not only had students brought their grandmothers, some had also brought their grandfathers. When my son got home he was very sad that he didn’t have any grandfathers. I explained to him that both of his grandfathers had died before he was born. But he didn’t understand. Every day he came home from school sad because he had no grandfathers. To teach my son about the lives of his grandfathers, I searched the public library for picture books that would show what life was like for his ancestors. I couldn’t find any. Then I went to all the bookstores in town. I still couldn’t find any. Therefore, I decided to write the books myself.

I wanted the books to be set in the rural South because that is where I’m from. I grew up on my grandfather’s farm in Holly Springs, Mississippi. I wanted each book to focus on an ordinary person who does extraordinary things for the time period in which they lived. I patterned the Uncle Jed character in my first book, Uncle Jed's Barbershop, after my grandfather. My grandfather owned his own farm during a time of segregation and racial discrimination. And he showed me that a person can rise above their surroundings and make their dreams come true.

I wanted to show the same things in my books.

3. Do you gravitate toward any particular genre in writing?

Picture books. When I was looking for books for my son I wanted him to see what life was like for his ancestors. I believe that being able to see pictures along with the story will have a great impact on anyone reading the book.

4. Tell us about When Grandmama Sings. What inspired you to write it?

My goal is to write historical picture books that are set in each decade from the early 1900s through the 1960s. When Grandmama Sings is the story that is set in the 1940s. In my previous books, Uncle Jed’s Barbershop and Granddaddy’s Gift, the special relationship is with a girl and a male ancestor, i.e. great uncle and grandfather. I wanted to show a close relationship with a girl and a female character in When Grandmama Sings. Plus, the character mirrors my relationship with my grandmother. Although my grandmother didn’t sing, she and I were really close. She taught me how to do the things she knew, like how to cook.

In this book I also wanted students to know that regardless of the conditions in the world, if you continue to sing your song (exercise your gift), and believe in yourself and in your abilities, then great things can happen.

5. Describe your path to publication. Has this experience met/exceeded your expectations?

After submitting the manuscript for my first book, Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, for two years I received nothing but rejection letters. However, they were personal rejection letters from editors telling me that they loved my story but it didn’t fit in with their publishing plans. Finally, frustrated about how those editors could love my story and still not publish it, I decided to submit it directly to the publisher of Simon & Schuster. Within a month I had a contract.

When Uncle Jed's Barbershop was published, I was asked to read the story during story time at the main branch of the Little Rock Public Library. This was the first time kids, other than my son, had heard the story so I was anxious to see their reaction. After I finished reading the book, parents who were fascinated by the historical aspects of the story dominated the question and answer period. And I didn’t get any comments from children. But as I was leaving a little girl was waiting for me by the door. She said, “I liked your story about Uncle Jed. I want to be a doctor when I grow up but my grandmama keeps telling me I’ll never be one. Now I know I can be a doctor.”

I knew then I had achieved my goal in writing Uncle Jed's Barbershop. Since that day I have received many letters from children all across the country telling me their dreams. They also tell me who says they can’t achieve their dreams and why. But because of Uncle Jed’s story, they now know they can be anything they want to be if they just don’t give up.

Having my books published has far exceeded my expectations. I didn’t fully realize the effect my books would have on children. I had hoped my books would be viewed positively. But the result has been overwhelming. A couple of years ago a young lady who had just finished college told me that she had become a teacher because of reading Uncle Jed’s Barbershop. She realized she could achieve her dreams if she worked hard and didn’t give up.

6. How do you promote your work? What methods have worked best for you?

I started promoting When Grandmama Sings six months before publication. I started with "SAVE THE DATE" emails. Then I sent monthly notices. And as the time of publication became near, I sent notices every two weeks. When the reviews started coming in I sent copies of the reviews to my email list.

My author Facebook page has also played a big role in the promotion of my books.

I also have friends and relatives in cities throughout the United States who actively promote my books. As a result when my new book, When Grandmama Sings, was published I had book related events scheduled through the first six months of the year. I appreciate all the support that my books receive.

7. Who are your favorite authors? What is on your reading list right now?

I read all types of books. I love the stories of Mildred Taylor, especially Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Her stories are set in Mississippi and she writes about racism, segregation and familial strength.

Currently I am reading books written by two friends: Flow by H. C. Lawrence (YA paranormal) and Destiny by Bonnie Hopkins (Christian fiction). I also love espionage books. I also love books by Maeve Binchy. Her stories are set in Ireland and focus on friendship and relationships.

8. Describe a typical day in your life.

Every morning I walk in a park that has a walking trail along the Missouri River. It is calm and peaceful there. Story ideas come to me as I’m walking. I break up my walk by periodically sitting on the wrought iron benches that face the Missouri River. There I plan my day. I return home, have breakfast and start writing. I write until about one o’clock. Then I do other book related things, like book promotion, marketing new work, email, social media, interviews, meetings, etc.

9. What projects do you have in the works?

 I recently completed a YA novel. I am doing research for another historical fiction picture book.

10. What advice would you offer to aspiring authors?

Write the stories that are in your heart. Believe there is an audience for your work. Be confident. Don’t give up when you get rejection letters. Have the courage to start pursuing your dream. And above all, have the faith to continue despite the obstacles.

About the Author

Margaree King Mitchell is the author of the Coretta Scott King Honor Book Uncle Jed's Barbershop, illustrated by James E. Ransome, Simon & Schuster, and Granddaddy's Gift, illustrated by Larry Johnson, Scholastic. An award winning musical featuring Broadway veteran Ken Prymus has been adapted from Uncle Jed's Barbershop.

Margaree is the creator of the "EveryBody Has A Dream" program, which empowers students in urban and rural areas to shoot for the stars with aspirations for their lives. Her new book, When Grandmama Sings, illustrated by James E. Ransome, was published January 3, 2012 by HarperCollins.

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