On Craft: Patricia McCormick

Published 2014
The Southampton Review

Interviewed by Jennifer Brooke

Since her first novel, Cut was published in 2000, author Patricia McCormick, has encountered constant and impressive success in the Young Adult (YA) category. Her many awards include being a two-time National Book Award Finalist, and the winner of the Gustav-Heinemann Peace Price in 2008. Tackling themes from self-injury to drug addiction, from childhood sex slavery to child soldiering, McCormick’s protagonists communicate the pain all too many adolescents experience. Her writing does not gloss over harsh details, but never exploits them either.

I first met McCormick in a graduate degree memoir class. I was intrigued that an author of her stature was in a class with largely unpublished, inexperienced writers. But I learned that the crux of who she is as a writer and a person is someone who doesn’t let prior accomplishments get in the way of what she is next attempting to accomplish.

Seated in the upstairs office of her contemporary Sag Harbor house, I faced a beautiful view of the water as we spoke. Not many of the houses in the area enjoy this kind of panorama, which I offer as both metaphor and through line to understanding McCormick and her work. There is an impressive backdrop to how McCormick lives, to the work she does, and the accolades she has garnered, obscured by her quiet, bumble approach and manner. This fact is exemplified in many ways–not the least of which is the genuine concern she showed as I checked and rechecked my mini tape recorder before beginning the interview–she quietly referenced a “mechanical disaster” she had once had when she was interviewing Sandra Day O’Connor…

JB: Your first book was Cut in 2000. It was named one of the ALA Best Books for Young Adults, and The New York Public Library put it on the Best Books for the Teen Age list that year. What were you doing before you wrote Cut?

PM: I was a freelance journalist. Before that I worked at daily newspapers. And before that I worked at Parents Magazine. And that was kind of great because if my kids were having problems with sharing, for instance, I could call up the world’s leading expert on sharing and write an article on it. It was nice because my professional life fed my family life.

JB: Did you always want to be a novelist?

PM: No. I always wanted to be a writer, but I had a very vague shape in my head as to what a writer was and did. How you went about working and how you actually made any money at it. But I used to write really bad fiction and I think I went into journalism because it seemed like a stable way to make a living as a writer–and also you have visibility. I loved having a career with visibility.

JB: So what propelled you to write the first book?

PM: I read a story in The New York Times Sunday Magazine about girls who self-injure and I remember I was equal parts disgusted and fascinated. And I kept putting the think–the article–in the trash and I kept taking it out. At the time, I was in a creative writing workshop and we had to creat a monologue. So I basically wrote the first 10 pages of that book as the girl in the therapist’s office for my assignment. I realized that while I’m not actually a cutter–because I’m too much of a chicken–that I was really intrigued by that kind of self-destructive behavior. I was really lonely and wish I’d had a voice at that age–and I think as a journalist I knew that it was a fascinating story.

JB: At that time YA was an emerging category. Did you always want to write for those readers, or did you want to write for adults?

PM: I wanted to write for that YA age group.

JB: Why?

PM: I have always been interested in child development and I think that teenagers are criticized, marginalized, overlooked…and I think that they are sold to, written about, but not written for. Also, I think that it’s the most interesting yet horrible time of your life…so I wanted to get right in there, think about it, and write about it.

I was also thinking: ‘Oh, they’ll be less critical than an adult audience.’ But the opposite is true; they are really honest, and if they think you’ve missed something or gotten something wrong or they smell a phony, they put the book down–they have too much else to do. But if they love your work, they dive in wholeheartedly and become like your collaborator, so I love writing for that audience.

JB: Lots of adults are reading young adult fiction. Why do you think this is?

PM: First of all because it’s good. There’s an assumption that novels for young readers simplify complex topics or that the writing is somehow ‘less than’ adult literary fiction. I think the opposite is true. YA authors are taking big creative risks–writing in verse, writing in vignettes–because our readers are also adventurous. They are willing to try new ways of storytelling because they aren’t bound up by old notions. And YA writers are not writing about prom gowns and braces. We are tackling tough subjects–the same existential questions that our readers are dealing with in real life–so the books have substance and relevance.

Reading good YA literature is also an opportunity to understand the teenage experience–something that is far in the rearview mirror for most of us. A book is perhaps the easiest way to gain entrée into the interior life of a segment of the population that can be notoriously inscrutable. And reading a book that your child is reading can be a bridge to a conversation you might never otherwise have.

JB: For Cut, how much research did you do with girls who cut themselves?

PM: I mostly did research and spoke to experts. Then, when I had the book drafted, I went out to clinic and showed it to girls who were in programs for self-injury. At first I was terrified to show them because I thought they would take one look and say I was a fraud. But they were really, really…well, the compliment was: ‘You must be a cutter,’ which is, of course, not exactly my story, but each girl who read it said, ‘That’s my story.’

JB: Your next book, My Brother’s Keeper, wasn’t published until five years after Cut–what took you so long?

PM: I know–it took maybe four years to finish it. Partially because I went through a change of editors and partially because I went through a personal issue…my husband and I separated during that time–we eventually reconciled, but I just couldn’t get my act together at the time to write and to live my life.

JB: But you always knew you had another book coming…you knew Cut was not going to be a one-off…

PM: I hoped for that, for sure. But you never really know…you always somewhat think that your last one was a fluke. At least I do.

JB: So you next book was My Brother’s Keeper, about a boy whose brother is a star athlete and also a drug user. Why was that your next–what was it about the idea?

PM: It was a lot closer to home. We have a lot of substance abuse issues in our family–and I thought I could tell the story well of someone in the family who is affected by someone else’s substance abuse issues. Because of course the person who gets all the attention in a family is the one who creates the chaos, I thought it would be interesting to write about the person who is affected by all the chaos. And, honestly, I eavesdropped on my son a lot during the writing because the narrator is a 15-year-old boy as well.

JB: Did your son feel his privacy was invaded?

PM: No–I don’t know–I don’t think so–it really was so not about him. I mean, I feel pretty confident that had he felt invaded he would have told me– [pausing thoughtfully] but you could ask him…

JB: Never Fall Down is the true story of an 11-year-old Cambodian boy who experiences unthinkable cruelties and devastation, yet survives, after the Khmer Rouge take over his village. Tell me how you got the idea for this book.

PM: Um–people always come up to me and say ‘I have an idea for your next book’ and I usually say–’Oh, you should probably write that story yourself…’ But I met this guy, Arn Chorn-Pond, who is now in his 40s, but he couldn’t tell the story himself of what happened to him when he was 11. He would, in trying to tell it, become that 11-year-old boy and he would get confuse and start to cry and jump around in the telling. He was unable to recount it chronologically. People were hiring him to come and give inspirational speeches, but he couldn’t get his story down from beginning to end, so he was becoming ineffectual because the story overwhelmed him. We spend months together just going through it. And sometimes it was so much I would have to cry…he was forced to play music in a temple while the Khmer Rough slaughtered people right in front of him multiple times each day. He was told if he showed any reaction at all, they would kill him, too, so as a coping mechanism he would force himself not to smell the blood…but mostly I wouldn’t cry because my point was to show him that he could tell me absolutely anything and I could take it in–that was the point for me. We went over to Cambodia together and toured his childhood home, the Killing Fields, the places where he was a child soldier, and we even went up to a part of the country still controlled by the Khmer Rouge and interviewed some of his former…um…I guess you would call them ‘leaders.’ These were the men who routinely shot thousands of children in the head–they killed most of Arn’s friends, and threatened every day to kill him if he didn’t follow exact orders or if he tried to escape or even showed any emotion as he watched others die in front of him. To interview these men I promised that I would not portray them as having done ‘anything bad.’ They looked me right in the eye and said openly ‘Oh, we have not done anything bad…’

JB: Was that Arn Chorn-Pond’s first trip back to Cambodia?

PM: No, he goes back all the time. He has a foot in both cultures, and he’s really interested in reviving Cambodia’s original music because he was a musician there–an accomplished flute player.

JB: Tell me what your writing day is like.

PM: Drink coffee, Gnash Teeth. Repeat until words appear on the screen.

JB: What gets in your way as you’re writing? How do you deal with obstacles?

PM: My inner critic is the biggest obstacle in my writing day. I deal with her by doing what Julia Cameron called daily pages: three page of stream-of-consciousness journaling. I write in unintelligible longhand and don’t lift up the pen from the page until I’ve gotten all the doubt and self-loathing and worry out of my system.

In the process of critically examining my work, I raise questions. Why is this scene so flat? What are these characters hiding? What if one of them inadvertently let his true feelings slip out? Next thing I know, I have some answers, some ideas, some what-if scenarios to try.

Sometimes, during the writing process, my mind cramps up. I find that I get physically ‘tight,’ too; my shoulders are hunched, my brow is furrowed, my teeth are clenched. No good creative flow can come from a body in that position. So I get up. I get a glass of water. I do some yoga. I eat a brownie. Usually, the simple act of standing breaks the spell and an idea occurs to me before I can even eat the brownie.

JB: I’m reading Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? right now, about her trying to tell her mother she’s writing a book about her–and how it jeopardizes her writing the book itself as she takes the emotional risk of showing the first pieces to her mother. Would the writing about your life be like that for you?

PM: Not really–I mean I’m all grown up and my parents are dead–but I would also just try to be as generous to them in the telling of my story as possible.

JB: Bechdel references the concept of ‘family be damned, the story must be told’ in memoir writing, although she also says her family was so fucked up, she doesn’t experience the same ‘sense of loyalty or decency that perhaps a person with a more nurturing or close-knit family might have.’ Does thinking about your story in the way help with your conflict over telling it?

PM: [Long pause] No–[speaking slowly and carefully] I’ve written a lot of first-person recounting…[voice almost inaudible] but never anything with this gravity.

McCormick is currently crafting the story of Malala Yousafzai, who, because she spoke up for female education in Pakistan, was shot by the Taliban. She is now 16, fully recovered, and was a frontrunner for the Nobel Peace Prize. She addressed the U.N. General Assembly this past fall.

JB: Patricia, do you write with a deadline in mind?

PM: Usually I do not–but with the Malala book I’d been working on, I had to work with the dealine that was 41 days away. But normally I’m lucky–I have a great editor who gives me a deadline, but says–’it’s just a date, of course. Take as much time as you need.’ That’s just luck.

JB: You traveled to Birmingham, England, to meet with Malala–what was that like?

PM: Like being with Mother Teresa when she was a sophomore in high school. Malala is so cool and so smart and so compassionate–but she ‘s also really a 16-year-old girl, too. She’s in Birmingham because her parents had to move her there for her safety, but she is isolated and somewhat lonely in her new setting. It was a privilege getting to know her and to be part of the process of bringing her story to young people.

JB: Does she think of herself as a celebrity?

PM: She knows she’s a world figure, but she’s really humble in a way that does not feel at all put-on to me. She says, ‘They can kill Malala–they can kill my body–but they cannot kill my cause.’

JB: Archbishop Desmond Tutu called your book Never Fall Down ‘one of the most inspiring and powerful books he has ever read.’ Pretty big impact, no?

PM: Well, he knows Arne, so it was not out of the blue. And Arn knew somebody who got the manuscript to him and arranged for the quote–so while amazing, it isn’t like Desmond Tutu came upon my work and was impressed.

But that’s not as intimate or powerful as hearing form a young person who has read one of my books and says: ‘You know I have nothing in common with the man in the book. but it made me want to be a better person.’ Or the girl who says, ‘You know, I self-injure and I read your book and it really helped me get help.’

JB: You published Cut in 2000–more than 14 years later kids are still self-injurious, discovering even more ways to self-injure. When you wrote the book did you think this would still be going on, or did you think, or hope, with growing awareness, we could help our young people to stop before the trend became more prevalent?

PM: You know, when I wrote the book, I thought it would be a flash in the pan…that girls self-injuring…I mean, we would figure it out and the book would be completely outdated in two years. The really sad thing is the point you just made, that not only are kids still self-injuring, but that it’s gotten worse, much worse, with more way than ever that kids are hurting themselves. I’m sure Cut is dated in some of its cultural references (although, I was careful at the time not to include pop songs or fashion or slang or profanity). But kids still happen on it as if they just discovered it–so they don’t tell me that it’s dated.

JB: How much do you think writing to an audience of teens is not just about speaking to them but also speaking to yourself, as the child you used to be?

PM: A lot! so much of what I do is reaching back to the child I was who was helpless and without a voice and feeling hurt and betrayed…there is such a through line in all the books about ordinary kids under extraordinary pressures trying to find a voice to speak about their problems. They don’t solve their problems in the books. They just find a way to speak about them.

JB: Where did you grow up?

PM: I grew up in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. Middle class–my dad was a CPA–it was very important to my mother that we knew our dad was a CPA. It helped her define for us a stature within the community she imagined we had due to his profession. So we had a Cadillac…umm, and we went to Catholic school. But my experience of us was not that we were rich. We were sore of what’s called ‘lace curtain Irish.’ To the outside world things looked really great, but while we didn’t struggle financially, a lot of bad stuff went on behind the lace curtain.

JB: How much older are you than your siblings?

PM: I’m the oldest by 7 to 10 years. I’m the black sheep, the troublemaker, the outcast. My siblings are more conventional, and to be fair, they lived a much more conventional life than I did growing up.

JB: This was during the ’60s when the rest of the world was becoming less buttoned-up. Were you unaware of the Summer of Love in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania?

PM: I was unaware it was the ’60s, if that’s possible. We weren’t a political family. I saw Woodstock once on PBS and thought, ‘Wow–I need to get THERE.’ We were so stuck in suburban propriety that I was suffocated. I ran away at one point, but basically I stayed the course. I figured it was better to have my education paid for and my parents were willing to do that. It was their way of pretending to the outside world like I was not a fuck up.