The M. Molly Backes Interview

Molly.jpgToday's interviewee is a testament to the awesomeness of greyhounds as pets. Sure, I probably would know her and even be friendly with her if one of us didn't own a greyhound. She's funny and smart and a YA author like myself. But when she informed me, many years ago, that she possessed not just a greyhound, but one that was my greyhound's twin, well, I had to meet her (and the greyhound) to see it to believe it:

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And now we are good friends. Her book The Princesses of Iowa, which I devoured on vacation a few years ago, is recently out on paperback and I recommend you check it (and her Twitter feed) out.

Do you think young readers as a group in general have changed since when we were young readers?
Yes and no. I think they've changed in the way we've all changed: the whole culture is more plugged-in, with shorter attention spans and much less time and space to be dreamy and quiet and bored. These days, I have to force myself to put my phone down and daydream on the train. I think it's harder to be truly present in the moment than it once was. Last weekend, my teen cousin and I were at this small-town Wisconsin waterski show that was so cheesy it was hilarious, but she missed half of it because she was texting with a boy. I said, "Put your phone down and make fun of these waterskiers with me!" and realized that I sounded exactly like my own parents, back in the day: "Put down the book and look at the Grand Canyon!" So I don't know. Maybe teens have never paid attention to the world in the way adults wanted them to.

In the important ways, though, I don't think they have changed much. No matter what's going on externally, internally I think teens still feel the way we felt: lonely, isolated, confused, hyper, in love, depressed, thrilled, like anything might change at a moment's notice, like life is about to begin for real any minute now. That's what appeals to me about writing YA. As a teen, you can adopt an attitude of cynicism and world-weariness, but you can't truly be cynical because you just haven't experienced that much yet. Everything is still new. Everything is happening for the first time. Your life is still up for grabs. Anything could happen.

What have been some of the more unusual or unexpected things your younger readers have asked you about or pointed out in The Princesses of Iowa?
A few months ago I was guest-teaching in a high school in Des Moines, and we got into a great discussion of "girl books" versus "boy books," and we were all asking big questions about gender and expectations and labels and social norms, and why "girl books" aren't considered literary, and whether boys should be embarrassed to be seen reading "girl books," and whether the conventional wisdom that girls will read boy protagonists but boys won't read girl protagonists was true, and so forth. It was the best conversation. And afterward, this totally intimidating giant linebacker of a kid came up to me and said, "I read your book my sophomore year, and I loved it. I don't think of it as a girl book so much as a human book."

 And then I died of happiness.

Have you received feedback from your readers about the creative writing lessons in the book? Did those change at all throughout the revision/editing process?
I have! I've gotten a number of emails from readers who said they wanted to be writers, that they wished they had a teacher like Mr. Tremont, and that they tried to follow his advice and they found it helpful. Those notes thrill me, because that was exactly my intention as I was writing. I grew up in a small town. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I had no idea what that meant. I had no models, no sense of what I should be doing. My teachers had no idea what to do with me or how to help me. Luckily, someone handed me a Natalie Goldberg book when I was 15, and her books became my first writing classes. When I was working on Princesses, I was thinking about kids like me, growing up in small towns without access to cool places like 826Chi or the Loft Young Writers' Program. I wanted to sneak in some writing classes for those kids, both to give them a place to start and to give them hope that someday, somewhere, they might find a writing teacher who actually knows her stuff.

How have your views on promotion/marketing have changed in the two years since the book came out?
I think I'm more laid-back about it now. When Princesses came out in hardcover, I felt like I was never doing enough to promote it. It's a little easier this time around because I have fans and friends that can help with social media stuff. I've been amusing myself by trying to come up with some unique promotional ideas. For instance, I'm giving away an annotated copy that explains a bunch of cultural references, plus background info, random Molly trivia, and jokes. It's been a lot of work, but it's been fun, and I think it will be worth it. I mean, can you imagine getting a copy of a book full of secret notes from the author, written just for you? I would freak out.

What's the value, if any, in having writers interact face-to-face (either socially or in a workshop setting) as opposed to merely virtually?
Well, I'm very much a "let's talk this through until I know what I think" kind of a person, so human interaction is always helpful when I'm trying to work through things, whether they be questions about plot and character or business issues like how to handle an editorial relationship or where to pitch a story. I also believe in the power of the group mind, and I think there's great value in a group of awesome and smart people coming at an issue from different perspectives and bouncing ideas off each other.

That said, I also think there's danger in workshopping drafts too early or having too many voices in your head. It can be paralyzing to have a bunch of people ask you questions about a story when you're still trying to find your way through the dark. I taught an advanced writing workshop for years, and I used to yell at my students when they'd bring in tiny baby drafts to be workshopped, because it's so easy to get trapped into a cycle of endlessly polishing the first chapter or two and then never actually finishing a draft. So I would tell my students, okay, you can listen to this feedback and take notes if you need to, but then tonight you're going to go home and put this in a drawer and don't pull it out until you've finished a first draft. 

If you were off to live alone in solitude for an extended period of time (which I know you did when you lived in New Mexico), what would you bring, and what would you hope to do?
My situation in New Mexico was close to perfect, in fact. I had a house in the mountains that was remote enough that I had a huge yard and gorgeous view, but close enough that I could walk down into the village (population 547) and get my mail at the post office and books from the library. My friend Dawn owned a coffeeshop about five miles up the mountain from me, and it was this great community gathering spot. It was a favorite stop for motorcyclists, too. So I'd be there with my laptop or notebook and at the next table would be two women reading tarot cards for each other and then a bunch of old motorcycle dudes in leather chaps, and Dawn's fat dog Chico lying in the sun on the front porch. I was a teacher, so I had summers off. I didn't have a TV or internet access or even a functional radio. I just read a lot, wrote a lot, hiked with my dog Zeke, and when I needed human interaction, I'd go up the mountain to hang with the motorcycle dudes. And that's how I wrote the first draft of The Princesses of Iowa.

You used to try to get me to teach at Story Studio and I always put you off because I think teaching is too scary. What advice do you have for people like me who find the concept of relaying information to potential students intimidating? (I'm always worried they're going to say "I paid money for this?!" and storm out.)
It's okay to say "I don't know." When I taught middle school, I rarely answered a question directly--instead, I'd say, "I don't know, what do you think?" This is harder with adults, of course, because you feel some pressure to prove that you're the expert and you belong in front of the room. But when you're teaching writing, there are no definitive answers anyway, and anyone who tells you there's one way to do something is probably trying to sell you a copy of their e-book "How to Quit Your Job, Write Your Novel, and Get Rich!" or whatever. As a writing teacher, I think of myself as less of an expert and more of a person who's a little farther down the path than my students. I'll say, "I struggle with that too, and here are some strategies that have worked for me." So much of being a writer is figuring out how your own brain works, so what works for me may not work for someone else. That's okay. We're all on our own paths.

You caught a squirrel? Why? What happened after you caught it?
WELLLLL. The why is that Grinnell's campus is overrun with fat orange squirrels and I was nineteen and bored and dumb and probably a little crazy. My friend Kevin had this thing where he was trying to be the squirrel pied piper, so he always had peanuts in his pockets and was trying to get them to come when he called. I made fun of him constantly but then I got weirdly invested and was like, "I'm going to one-up you! I'm going to catch one!" I wasn't organized enough to keep peanuts with me, so instead I used this old tube of Strawberry-Kiwi Comet LipSmacker lip gloss and let the squirrels sniff it. Eventually, I had one squirrel that was so used to me shoving lip gloss in its face that it just let me grab it. It was mid-afternoon and I was in the courtyard outside my dorm. I held the squirrel aloft in triumph, total Rafiki holding Baby Simba moment, and yelled "I GOT HIM!" in the creepiest hillbilly voice ever. The only other person in the quad was a prospective student, who took one look at me and started fast-walking his way right out of the yard and all the way to Carleton, probably, because there was no way in hell that kid was going to a school where girls catch squirrels.

I think I would be generous if I said I had a quarter of the love for my alma mater that you have for Grinnell. Why are alumni from that school so into it? Is it the people or the place?
Haha, other than the squirrel hunting, you mean? It's a very small school--like 1400 students--and very isolated, in a town of 10,000 people. Everyone lives on campus, studies on campus, eats on campus, parties on campus. It's academically rigorous, and the students tend to be high achievers, so it's pretty intense. It was just this totally immersive experience, so I think there's a little bit of the feeling of having been in the trenches together. And then we have a secret social media site that pre-dates Facebook by about a decade, and that's been a huge part of what holds us together as an alumni network. I don't know. It's just kind of a magical place.

We're both greyhound owners. One of the things new greyhound owners get told is how special greyhounds are: they have special blood and delicate skin and they're scared of everything and basically are made of bone china. Do you think they're really that special or we just tell ourselves that because our dogs look like a skeleton and a bundle of sticks had a baby?
Have you already forgotten about the time my delicate greyhound ripped part of your fragile greyhound's face off with her teeth? He didn't seem to mind though. I think they're tougher than they look, but ugh, they do bleed easily. A few months ago, Zia's tail got caught in the door and somehow she managed to get blood on my ceiling. Don't tell the greyhound people.

F/M/K: Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois.
Claire, there is no way I can answer this without getting into trouble. (But I would totally marry Iowa.)

What's more irritating; when people tell you what your next book should be about, or that a story you're telling should be a blog post?
Ha! It's not always bad. Every time I hang out with Megan Stielstra, she interrupts me and says, "Write that! That's a story!" and I love it so much. She's like a water witch of stories. She can find them anywhere.

How does it feel to be the 394th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
It feels like flying!