author of When You Never Said Goodbye
Interviewed by Lee Hope
and Fiction Editor
(From Lee Hope): I am delighted to be interviewing the eminent poet, young adult and children’s writer Meg Kearney. We hear the term shape shifter, yet Meg is a genre shifter. We will explore how Meg manages such shifts while maintaining a common thread of compassion and humanity in all her writing.
Lee: In addition to being a poet, children’s book writer, and young adult author, you also are Founding Director of the Pine Manor MFA in creative writing in Chestnut Hill, MA. This program is known for its diverse faculty. Can you talk about what brought you to promote diversity and what other aspects of this program make it distinctive?
Meg: Thank you, Lee—I suppose I am one of those rare species: a writer with the Administrator Gene! Before coming to New England and Pine Manor to start the Solstice Program, I was Associate Director of the National Book Foundation—sponsor of the National Book Awards—in Manhattan. Most people know the Foundation for the Awards, which hold a great deal of cache and are pretty glitzy, but for me the soul of the organization lay in its educational outreach programs. These were all dedicated to bringing books and authors to underserved populations across the country, and overall were my responsibility. Meaning, I raised much of the money to run them and oversaw them, and directly ran two—the American Voices program, which focused on American Indian reservations; and the Summer Writing Camp, an intergenerational program for aspiring writers who couldn’t otherwise afford to attend a writers’ conference.
These experiences helped formed my belief in the fact that any MFA program should, like the NBF, nurture all of the voices of America. Thus, our diverse faculty, low tuition (relatively speaking), need-based scholarships, and the Kurt Brown Fellowship for Diverse Voices—which you’ve supported for many years now! I think the other thing that separates us, besides our Pedagogy Track, is community. I don’t think there’s a more supportive or welcoming group of writers around, but maybe I’m prejudiced.
Lee: Do you find that you must use two sides of your brain to perform both demanding administrative work yet also to write? Do you have to find a separation not only in time but in place? Does being a director for students and faculty influence your writing in any particular ways?
Meg: Ha! Yes, but luckily I am a Gemini, and though I’m a leftie I’m fairly ambidextrous, so using both sides of my brain comes quite naturally. But I do have a couple of tricks for switching from one side to the other. Getting out of my “administrator head” requires doing something wordless or something that requires total focus. I used to play my flute (quite badly), but these days have taken up the ukulele. I also have little rituals, like sharpening my pencils and reading whatever book of poems is inspiring me that day. Being a director of an MFA program doesn’t affect my writing, really—it just demands quite a bit of time that otherwise would be focused on my creative work. Still, it’s worth it.
Lee: In your writing, you have also shifted genres. You have written award-winning collections of poetry for adults, such as most recently Home By Now (Four Way Books) and also your first collection An Unkindness of Ravens (BOA Editions Ltd.) as well as an award-wining children’s picture book Trouper (the three-legged dog) published by Scholastic. In addition, you have published three novels in poems for young adults: The Secret of Me, The Girl in the Mirror and now in March of 2017, a third novel in poems, just released, When You Never Said Goodbye: An Adoptee’s Search for her Birth Mother, all with Persea. Before we turn to your latest book, could you talk about what it is like to bridge genres to this extent? What drew you to writing for children and young adults? How do you manage to be a genre-shifter?
Meg: Although I do write across genres, including some nonfiction, essentially I’m a poet. The picture book was written as a poem, and the novels are made of poems and short journal entries. So for the most part, I’m stretching one genre into several. That said, this most recent verse novel also led to my taking a shot at song writing—I should say lyric writing, as musician Chris Little wrote the melody to “When You Never Said Goodbye”—which was less like writing poetry and whole lot harder than I’d imagined!
As for writing for young people, back in the days when I was running the National Book Foundation’s Summer Writing Camp, I had a phenomenal faculty: YA fiction writer Norma Fox Mazer, poets Cornelius Eady and Kimiko Hahn, and genre-crossing rock star Jacqueline Woodson—though this was before Jackie was famous! Norma and Jackie always urged me to write for young people, as poets naturally think in images. But it wasn’t until Jackie sent me a manuscript to look at titled Locomotion—a middle-grade verse novel that went on to be a NBA Finalist and winner of the Coretta Scott King Award—that it dawned on me that I could write a novel made of poems. So I blame Jackie.
Lee: Please tell us about your most recent book, When You Never Said Goodbye. The same scrappy protagonist, Liz McLane, appears in this third young adult novel in poems. How does Liz develop from one book to the next? How does When You Never Said Goodbye manage to stand alone? I mean, we can read it as the third book or a trilogy or we can read it as an independent novel. One critic called this novel fast-paced. How do you manage plot and pacing in prose poetry?
Meg: Right, I’m not supposed to call this a trilogy, as each of the books really does stand alone. Honestly, I wrote the first book, The Secret of Me, with no intention of writing any more about Liz McLane. In that book, Lizzie is 14 and trying to come to terms with being loyal to her adoptive family while longing to know where she comes from—she especially wants to know why her birth mother gave her up. It was my editor’s idea to write a “sequel,” as she wanted Lizzie to search for her first mother. So I wrote The Girl in the Mirror, in which Lizzie is 17.
At that point, I wasn’t emotionally ready to join Lizzie on the emotional rollercoaster of a search—I was still dealing with that in my own life—so I managed to find a way around it. When my editor Karen Braziller read that manuscript, she called me up and said she loved it, but “obviously this is a trilogy.” And so I knew I had to write book three, which became When You Never Said Goodbye, in which Lizzie finally does search. At that point, she’s a freshman at NYU. That book is really a sort of mystery novel—I hope the ending is a surprise—and so it needed to be a bit of a page-turner. I was thrilled when Kirkus called it “fast-paced”! As for managing plot and pacing, that’s done using a mix of formal poems, free-verse poems, and short journal entries, which helps balance out emotions, develop characters, and—I hope—keep the reader’s interest. Pretty much each poem or journal entry serves as a scene, or reveals character and motivation.
Lee: Can you elaborate more about the special challenges in writing a novel in verse? I would imagine only a poet could manage such a feat. How does a novel in verse differ from a long narrative poem? Do you pitch your verse for young adults on a more accessible level than your poetry for adults?
Meg: The main challenge, I suppose, is the same as it is for any other genre—writing well. But the verse novel does demand good poems combined with the necessary elements of fiction, meaning plot and setting and character development, rising and falling action, etc. These same elements are found in most long narrative poems as well, although those traditionally are written in metered verse. One strength of a novel in verse is that—just as in a singular poem—there is no extra “fat content” weighing down the story. The reader “leaps” from one poem to the next; the imagination fills in what might happen in between. Each poem represents a scene and/or emotional state that moves the story forward, as a chapter in a novel does. In long narrative poems, I suppose this might be accomplished in sections or from one stanza to the next.
What is essential for people to understand is that young readers can be just as discerning as adults, and writing for them is just as hard as writing for any other audience. Perhaps it’s even more difficult, as children and teens tend to have shorter attention spans than adults; if you don’t keep them hooked, they’re gone. Just take my picture book, Trouper, which is what—450 words or so? That took me a year to write. As for accessibility, well, I hope my poems for adults are as accessible as anything I write for kids, even if some of my “adult” poems might be a bit more mysterious.
MEG KEARNEY is author of two books of poems for adults, An Unkindness of Ravens and Home By Now, winner of the 2010 PEN New England L.L. Winship Award, as well as three novels in verse for teens: The Secret of Me, The Girl in the Mirror, and When You Never Said Goodbye. Meg’s award-winning picture book, Trouper, is illustrated by E.B. Lewis. Her poetry has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s “A Writer’s Almanac” and Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry” series. She lives in New Hampshire and directs the Solstice MFA Program at Pine Manor College in Massachusetts. For more information: www.megkearney.com.