An interview with Wendy McLeod MacKnight, author of three books for middle-grade readers, who shares her habit of drafting quickly and revising painstakingly, her advice on getting to know your characters before you write them, and her delighted surprise at discovering Voldemort under Quirrell’s turban. 20 minutes. All ages.
A full transcript is available at CabinTales.ca.
[1:15] Interview with Wendy McLeod MacKnight
CA: Do you ever do object studies, either as an exercise or has an object ever figured in one of your books?
WMM: Oh yeah for sure…Probably my most intense was when I was writing about the paintings at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery … The idea was what would it be like to be stuck in the painting, you can’t get out, and then what if you made a friend who has not the greatest home life and is an artist, and wishes they could get into the paintings because wouldn’t life be easier. He can’t get in; she can never get out…. that’s one of the things that I recommend is to really drill down into the character’s internal and external struggle through it all. …
[3:50] CA: Do you have any favorite plot twists?
WMM: … I really enjoyed the moment when I discovered that Voldemort was up in Quirrell’s turban… The very ending of The Frame Up solves a problem between my two main characters perfectly. …people have come to me since then and said, “I did not see that coming.” …That’s so great.
[5:00] CA: … How do you feel about sad endings or endings where the good guy loses? …
WMM: …. I think that in middle grade, even if it’s sad there has to be hope. … I think though, once you get into YA, then I think you’ve got a lot more flexibility. … When I read too many books like that, I usually need like a palate cleanser, like give me something funny. …. But I think that we do kids a disservice when things are too easy and don’t cause pain, you know.
[6:40] CA: Will you stick with middle grade?
WMM: … I’m obsessed with middle grade. … the books that I read when I was in middle grade are still the books I find great comfort in now as an adult. … And they’re the books that you’re picking out…. And you have to see yourself in them… I think that even that’s part of the reason why the first few books I’ve written, I set in New Brunswick. …
[8:15] CA: Do you have any favorite settings from other people’s fiction?
WMM: … I love really amazing worldbuilding. So, like Phillip Pullman’s worldbuilding in The Golden Compass … I could live in anything that was kind of Dickensian. … you also have to be really careful, especially when you’re writing for kids, to not get bogged down in so much minutia that they get bogged down with you. … I really love books set in Canada. …
[9:25] CA: And do you have any favorite fictional characters?
WMM: Oh yeah. For sure Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time. … Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon. I love David Copperfield…The main character in The War that changed my Life by Kim Brubaker Bradley, that character stayed with me for so long.
[10:00] CA: And are there any setting or character exercises that you would recommend to young writers?
WMM: I always tell them that they need to interview their main characters…. And I do that a lot with settings too. … the more you can know your characters and the more you can know the place before you start…
[11:50] CA:. While you’re drafting, do you do self-editing or do you just let it out?
WMM: I get it all out. So I always have to remind myself that it’s probably going to take me 8 drafts and I just don’t, I’m not going to worry about it anymore. … Sometimes at the end of the book it’s, like somebody wrote this book and I don’t know who it was. …. There are moments when the characters on your page sometimes feel more alive than the people that are around you. … that’s the magic.
[14:00] CA: So you’ve said you spend a lot more time revising than drafting.
WMM: …I write full time, so I could get a first draft done within probably six weeks. If it’s you know, if it’s anywhere between 50 and 80,000 I can probably get that. Like usually when I’m really into writing, I’m writing like 2500 to 3000 words a day. But it’s also, they’re not good words. It’s just getting it all out, right? So very fast first drafts, very very very slow revisions.
[14:35] CA: And do you have a favorite POV to write from?
WMM: I love first person. … The Frame Up, I have dual points of view…. I think third person gives you more freedom. … I don’t think I could ever write second person. …
[15:30] CA: And have you ever written an unreliable narrator?
WMM: Not in the typical sense of an unreliable narrator. …. I think that would be fabulous. I have been toying with that, so that may be something in the future.
[16:10] CA: And you have written about siblings.
WMM: Yes. It’s a Mystery Pig-Face! is about a brother and sister… and I do not espouse, by the way, name-calling — but I did use it in this particular story because my brother, when we were kids, used to just torture me. … I think I’m in almost all of my books in some way. … I think there’s probably a bit of me in some of the parents as well. …
[17:40] CA: And what do you think is scarier: humans or monsters?
WMM: Humans… we have a lot of people who are very damaged. … Certainly in my old job and things that I saw — I would rather take my chance with a monster. … I do feel that most people are redeemable. And the human monsters I met are almost always products of situations where they needed people when they were very young and they didn’t have those people. And that’s probably the same with most of the monsters too, right? If they had a really great monster mom and dad or a really good monster friend…
[18:40] CA: Did you tell stories around a campfire as a kid?
WMM: I did. … Like you’d be on some overnight trip and you’d all be trying to freak each other out, to terrify each other before you went off to your tents… I was usually more on the receiving end of the terror though, because I am such a scaredy cat. …
[20:00] CA: Do you have a favorite scary movie or scary story?
WMM: In terms of scary books, I thought Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener was so creepy… And in terms of movies, I’m going to go really old school… The Exorcist. …I’m going to have to watch something funny before I go to bed tonight, just thinking about it….
[20:30] CA: Do you collect anything?
WMM: … I’ve always collected rocks. … And if I ever see anything while I’m out about The Wizard of Oz… because I love that movie so much.
[21:40] Wendy McLeod MacKnight introduces herself
WMM: I’m Wendy MacLeod McKnight. I am the author of three middle-grade novels: It’s a Mystery, Pig-Face!, The Frame Up, and The Copycat. The Frame Up has been published in Taiwan and is currently being translated into French and is going to be published in French in the next year. I love middle-grade fiction so much. My heart is just embedded. And I love writing about where I live, which is New Brunswick, but I also love writing about all over the world too, because this is an amazing time to be an author right now.
[22:30] Find out more about Wendy McLeod MacKnight
You can find out more about Wendy McLeod MacKnight and her books from her website at WendyMcleodMacknight.com. You can hear more great creative writing advice from Wendy McLeod MacKnight on Cabin Tales Episode 3.5, “Author Interviews about Inspiration”; on Episode 4, “Bad Things Happen,” about plotting; on Episode 6.5, “Author Interviews about Beginnings,” and on Episode 8, “The Never-ending Story,” about revision.
[23:35] Upcoming National Public Reading
If you like the spooky stories on Cabin Tales, join me for a National Public Reading on March 16th, at 9 a.m., when I’ll be telling a tale or two to some local students in a virtual visit funded by the Canada Council for the Arts and administered through the Writers’ Union of Canada and the National Readings Program. Drop me an email at email@example.com to ask for the zoom link if you want to listen in.
[24:10] Thanks and coming up on the podcast
I’ll be back next week with leftovers from my interview with Philippa Dowding, the award-winning children’s author, poet, and musician, who joins us from Toronto. Thanks for listening.
Host: Catherine Austen writes books for children, short stories for adults, and reports for corporate clients. Visit her at www.catherineausten.com.
Wendy McLeod MacKnight is the author of three middle grade novels: It’s a Mystery, Pig Face! , The Frame-Up and The Copycat. In her spare time, she gardens, hangs with her family and friends, and feeds raccoons. Visit Wendy online at wendymcleodmacknight.com .