Joyce McDonald is the author of both middle grade and young adult novels. The most recent, SHADES OF SIMON GRAY, has been nominated for an Edgar Award and chosen as a 2002 ALA Best Book for Young Adults. Born in San Francisco, CA and raised in New Jersey, Joyce McDonald loved books early on, both as a reader and a writer. Though at first she thought she wanted a career on the big screen, Joyce followed her love of writing and books and received a bachelor's and master's degrees in English from the University of Iowa and later earned a Ph.D. from Drew University. She also spent time traveling across Europe. Joyce has had many jobs, from secretary to library assistant, retail salesperson to publisher. Her first book published was MAIL ORDER KID (1988). Today, she devotes her time to writing wonderful books for young people. Joyce lives in New Jersey, with her husband.
On some level, I think I've always wanted to be a writer. One of my favorite pastimes as a kid was to make up stories to entertain my friends. My earliest attempts at writing were around age six or seven. What I didn't realize until years later, was that, even at that young age, I was doing what most writers do: imitate other writers in order to learn the craft. My first attempt at writing a novel was at age ten. Over the years I have lived in many places, and because I preferred to travel light, I rarely kept mementos or souvenirs. But I still have a manila folder filled with these early writings. It amazes me—looking back—that I never tossed it out.
Although I've been writing fiction for most of my life, initially I never thought of writing as a career. It was something I did, like eating or breathing. Something I've always loved to do. Yet all of my career choices have in some way been connected to writing, whether I was teaching the works of other writers in a literature class, teaching students how to write short stories, editing another's work, or recommending books to readers. I suppose having experienced all aspects of the field: writing, editing, production, promotion, teaching, and of course, the pleasure of reading, I'm able to look at my work from many different perspectives. Certainly teaching literature has given me a critical eye with which to evaluate my own work. Teaching also gave me the opportunity to be around older teens. They kept me in tune with current trends and attitudes.
I don't think it was a conscious choice. I've always been an avid reader, and one afternoon when I was at the County library, I gravitated into the children's section-not for any special reason, I was just browsing. That was the day I discovered books by Betsy Byars, Lois Lowry and Barbara Park. I came home with an armload of middle grade books. After that, whenever I was at the library, I checked out children's books as well as adult novels. Sometime later, after I had launched a literary magazine show casing the work of talented writers ages 6 to 14, I met children's book author, Penny Pollock, who introduced me to her writers group. By that time I had tried my hand at writing a few stories for children's magazines. When I joined the writers' group, I started work on my first middle grade novel, MAIL-ORDER KID (later published by Putnam). Although I didn't set out to write for middle grade readers and teens, it now seems the most natural thing in the world.
It's fun! Imagine walking down the main street of a town. People are everywhere. But all you know about them is what you see, or perhaps overhear in a conversation. Now imagine being able to become some of those people for a brief time, imagine thinking their thoughts, feeling what they're feeling. Writing from multiple points of view gives me access to the thoughts and feelings of several characters all within a single book. It's so freeing!
I think all of us at some time feel as if we're on the outside looking in, depending on the situation. It's a feeling most people—particularly teens who are establishing their individuality—can relate to. Most people have secret lives to some degree, even if it's only a Walter-Mitty-type fantasy life. I'm also intrigued by the limitations of never really being able to know another person, no matter how close we think we are to someone. Liz Shapiro believes she knows Simon better than anyone because they are best friends. They grew up together. But she doesn't really know him. All of the characters in the book have different perceptions of Simon Gray. Through them, we begin to form a picture of him, but even the reader's knowledge is ultimately limited.
Writers often go with gut instinct when they're writing. We don't always know why our characters behave in certain ways or take the paths they do. I knew Simon would be in a car accident, but it wasn't until I wrote the scene where he finds himself (although his body is still in a coma) sitting on another patient's bed, having a conversation only they can hear, that I realized Simon was going to be in a comatose state for most of the book, and that his journey home would be a mystical one.
I think there must be a little of me in most of my characters. In order to have them come alive on the page as three dimensional, living, breathing people, I need to find something in each character that I can relate to or sympathize with. Two of the most difficult characters for me to write were Hollis Feeney in SHADOW PEOPLE, and Kyle Byrnes in SHADES OF SIMON GRAY. Intellectually, I could understand their motivations, but it was almost impossible for me to find an emotional connection. As creepy as Alec Stryker is in SHADOW PEOPLE, I could sympathize with his love for Gem. It gave him the humaneness (although limited) that Hollis lacked.
I'm not big on "message" books. Some writers use fiction as a platform for moral, ethical, political, or social purposes. I write books for one reason: to entertain my readers (and myself while I'm writing them). I hope my readers find pleasure by escaping into the fictional world I've created. If, while reading the story, readers discern something of value to themselves personally, through the actions or behavior of the characters-something that moves them or inspires them—that's extra fruit on the tree.
Just about everything. Stories come to me in different ways. Sometimes it's a voice, like Quinn's in COMFORT CREEK. Sometimes it's an intriguing phrase or a question.
There are so many things that it's difficult to zero in on just one. Certainly having the freedom to do what I love is at the top of the list. And I've been blessed with many wonderful friends who are also writers, people I might never have met if I hadn't become one myself.
For me, it's being between books. I love being totally immersed in a new story, caught up in the lives of my characters. When the writing is going well, I can't wait to sit down at my computer every day. When I'm between books, I sometimes feel at loose ends. Writing gives my life structure.
If I'm writing a new book, that's my full focus. I get up, make tea, feed the cats, and sit down at the computer. Sometimes I'll write for only a few hours, sometimes I'll write for eight or more. It depends on how well the writing is going. I like to write my first draft as quickly as possible. After that, I revise until I feel the book is ready to show my agent. Sometimes that isn't until the fourth or fifth draft.
When I'm not writing, I work on promotional materials, do an occasional school visit or other speaking engagements, answer correspondence, and read, read, read! I also spend fun time with my husband and friends, and work in my gardens. I lead an extraordinarily quiet life.
At the moment I'm revising a middle grade novel (working title: NOW I WAKE) about a family dealing with racial issues in a small town in central Florida. The story takes place in 1959. I also have about a hundred pages of a new YA novel, tentatively called REINVENTING SYLVIA, that I've put on hold, but hope to get back to soon. And I have a picture book manuscript circulating.
Before I majored in English, I was an art major. I enjoy working with computer graphics. I could have hired someone to design and manage my Web site, but it was a lot more fun and challenging to learn how to do it myself.
As for using the internet, I find it extremely helpful when I'm doing research. For example, when I was writing NOW I WAKE, I needed to confirm that certain movies, songs, and other details that I allude to in the book existed in 1959. So I checked out the information on the Internet. It's great to have information right at your fingertips. I also like to keep up with what's happening in the field of children's literature. The Internet is a terrific way to do that.
Don't get hung up trying to emulate current trends. Write the kinds of books you like to read. Let your story flow from the heart. And never ever give up!