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Interview with Molly Beth Griffin and Jim Heynen

Posted on Wed, Sep 19 2012 9:00 am by Rebecca Schultz

On Thursday, September 20 (7 p.m.), Milkweed Edition authors Molly Beth Griffin and Jim Heynen will be reading from their new publications at Open Book. Molly Beth Griffin will be reading from Silhouette of a Sparrow (2012 recipient of the Milkweed Prize for Children’s Literature), and Jim Heynen will be reading from his novel, The Fall of Alice K. I had the pleasure of connecting with both writers to learn a little bit more about their writing processes and rituals.

Interview with Molly Beth Griffin (MBG)

RS: The voice in Silhouette of a Sparrow is unique; it’s written from the first-person perspective of a sixteen year-old girl in the mid-1920s. What’s your strategy for creating voices other than your own? Was there historical research involved in the writing process?

MBG: Two things happened with the voice of the novel during the early drafts. First, the character’s age shifted up from 10 to 12 to 16 as I tried to focus the piece on her and find the heart of the story. (In the earliest scenes I wrote, everything interesting was happening to the girl’s mother!) Garnet’s voice, as she grew up, became more sophisticated. 

Secondly, as I did more research to ground myself in the setting of the novel, the voice became less old-fashioned. We think of the 20s as ancient history, but in many ways the teens of that era were very modern. Even in the final stages of revision, my editor was pointing out phrases that sounded too fussy or Victorian. 

But despite all of this, I have to admit—all of my character’s voices are my own. I slip into them and they slip into me and at least while I’m working on their story, we are one and the same.

RS: Silhouette of a Sparrow is a Young Adult novel, but it explores mature themes such as courage, adventure, youth, and sexuality. How do you write so that multiple age groups can benefit from and enjoy the same novel?

MBG: I think that if a story is carefully crafted, it can be enjoyed by anyone. The age and gender and interests and occupations of the character don’t have to match those of the reader. Our job is to try to write fiction that addresses the human experience through a character and a plot. Then come the questions about how the publishing house could market it and how the librarians could catalog it so that it can reach the most possible readers. I love reading YA, and middle grade, and picture books, and, for that matter, adult fiction about middle-aged man lawyers and fusty old lady detectives, none of which were really written for me. I wrote this book primarily for myself at age 17 or so, but I hope it speaks to all kinds of people.

RS: Where’s your favorite place to write?

MBG: I write in a busy little café in my neighborhood.  The bustle of the place keeps me energized and the coffee is fantastic.  When I try to work at home (even without my toddler in the house) I end up doing dishes or laundry, and when I try to work in an actual studio the quiet makes me crazy.  There’s nothing I love more than sitting in a café with my laptop, sharing a table with some stranger, listening to the hum of conversations all around.

Interview with Jim Heynen (JH)

RS: You’ve published works in almost all forms: short stories, poetry, nonfiction, and now, with the publication of The Fall of Alice K., a novel. How does the writing process change for you with each work? Do you have different rituals associated with different types of writing?

JH: My first love was poetry. For me, it started with word-play, the art of the sparrow with a flitting mind that gathered bits and pieces and tried to fit them together. When the scraps of imagination and memory became something bigger than bits and pieces, it was the happy accident of accumulation. And always—both when I was writing mostly poetry and now when I am writing mostly prose—I listen for the music, the wingbeats, and the songs.

My short-shorts featuring farm boys followed easily from years of writing only poetry, though with these short tales, the simplicity of the oral story telling tradition played through me. I tried to keep the surface clear and to let the reader (or listener) discover the mysteries. If there was a goal in the presentation, it was to become a virtuoso on the penny whistle.

In writing nonfiction, like One Hundred over 100, which featured 100 American centenarians, I experienced something quite different from a flitting sparrow—more like an earthworm making its way toward light. It was still a process of discovery, but it was different. The original idea may have been an impulse, but the real inspiration came from the outside as I interviewed and researched and made my way through the material—rather than from the inside, with a passion seeking a metaphor to give it meaning.

In writing longer fiction work, culminating now with The Fall of Alice K., I sensed that everything I have done and learned is called upon: some flitting, some burrowing, and many long hours of patient waiting.

Writing Rituals? I guess I have rituals to get started and different rituals to get something finished. I like to get things started in anonymous public places (yes, coffee shops!)—in longhand in my cheap writing notebook that has a space to say what grade I’m in on the cover. To finish major writing projects I need the time and seclusion that I find in writing retreat centers, like the Anderson Center or the ranch hand’s house on my friends Vickie and Greg’s horse ranch near Brainerd; or in one of the writers’ studios at the Loft.

RS: This is the first book you’ve written that prominently features a female protagonist. How did you approach this? Are there any other aspects of this novel that were new and challenging for you, even as an experienced writer?

JH: I do think crossing culture lines is a lot harder than crossing gender lines. When I first started an early draft of this novel, I tried it from the point of view of a young man. For some reason, it was a bad fit for the story that wanted to emerge. Of course, I have a daughter and knew her friends well; I’ve also had hundreds of bright female students—and I’m sure many of them collectively inspired the character of Alice; but as I started writing, Alice and her friend Lydia took over and went their own way. With my blessing. The bigger challenge was integrating Hmong culture into the Dutch Calvinist culture where the novel occurs. I did lots of listening and observing, but I also asked my Hmong friends what negative attitudes they have to deal with from the greater white culture. Some of the things they told me shocked me (“They say we sound like cats meowing!”), but I tried to integrate some of those negative, and often naïve, attitudes into the views of some of the white characters in the novel. Of course, the real long-time residents of my fictional Dutch Center may think I’m misrepresenting that culture! Who knows? Maybe they’ll think I’m stuck in an obsolete image of that community, one that is no longer true. But, hey! This is fiction!

RS: What are you reading right now?

JH: In fiction, I recently reread Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (and was reminded what a fine book it is), Eric Goodman’s Twelfth and Race, and a fine debut novel by Minnesota writer, Mindy Mejia, titled The Dragon Keeper. I’m reading Sherry Simpson’s The Way Winter Comes: Alaska Stories. In nonfiction, I recently read Jeremy Jackson’s I Will Not Leave You Comfortless, Mary Clearman Blew’s Balsamroot, and Timothy Noah’s The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis And What We Can Do About it. In poetry, I’m reading Linda Bierds’ selected poems, Flight; Kevin Goodan’s Upper Level Disturbances, and Lola Haskins’ The Grace to Leave.

Molly Beth Griffin is a Loft teaching artist. She graduated from Hamline University’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Silhouette of a Sparrow is her first novel for teens. 

Jim Heynen has published over 20 works, ranging in everything from poetry to short prose collections, and his well-known stories about “the boys” have frequently been featured on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered”. The Fall of Alice K. is his first novel.

Rebecca Schultz is the Loft's marketing and communications intern.