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Interview with David Macinnis Gill

by debbi michiko florence

David Macinnis Gill is the author of the debut novel, Soul Enchilada, from Greenwillow/Harper Collins. His short stories have appeared in several magazines, including The Crescent Review and Writer’s Forum. His critical biography of young adult author Graham Salisbury, Graham Salisbury: Island Boy, was published by Scarecrow Press. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English/creative writing and a doctorate in education, both from the University of Tennessee.

He is the Past-President of ALAN (The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents) and an Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His non-fiction, book reviews, essays, and academic work have appeared in a variety of publications, including The English Journal, Teacher-Librarian, and many others.

David’s teaching career began in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he was a high school teacher at Brainerd High School and briefly at the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences. He later joined the English Department at Ohio University as an assistant professor. Currently, he is an associate professor of English education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

David has been a house painter, cafeteria manager, bookstore schlepper, high school teacher, and college professor. He now lives on the Carolina coast with his family, plus fourteen fish, two rescued dogs, and a nocturnal marsupial. 

Did you always want to be a writer? Please tell us about your journey to published author.

Well, I was born, then I learned to talk, and I've been telling stories ever since (where I grew up a "story" was another would for " a whopping big lie.") I wrote a novel in high school, along with a couple of short stories that were later published in my college literary magazine. I started writing in earnest during grad school, where I studied with writer, Ken Smith. My first professional stories were published in the mid-nineties and attracted the attention of an agent who told me I should write a novel. Seven completed novels, hundreds of rejections, and fifteen years later, here I am, an instant success!

SOUL ENCHILADA is your debut YA novel, and what a smashing debut it is! Bug Smoot is full of attitude yet very vulnerable, too. As writers, we hear a lot of the importance of a character’s voice. How did you get Bug’s character and voice down so well?

Bug's voice was never a challenge. It was the first thing that came to me when I started writing this. I used to teach English in an inner city high school. The odds were stacked against my students--race, poverty, and an institutional belief that they couldn't succeed. But many of them did succeed, largely because of their tenacity. With that tenacity comes a fighting spirit and a very specific way of expressing of it. So that's Bug, a compilation of all the smart, funny girls I used to teach and admired.

The story opens with poor Bug about to be evicted from her apartment after losing her job. But nothing compares to that trouble when she discovers that her recently deceased grandfather not only sold his soul to the devil for a Cadillac (the one she drives) but defaulted on his agreement. Now hell is real a possibility for Bug when she learns her soul is up for grabs instead. This story is true page turner! How did this idea come to you?

Last week, I got my first ever 'write the author homework' letter (a rite of passage I've be eagerly anticipating for, oh, decades), and I answered that same question. So with apologies to S. for pasting from her letter, here's what I said:  Soul Enchilada was originally a  short story that I wrote for a contest. I belong to a writers group, and every year, we have a contest to see who can write the best Halloween-themed short story. To inspire (and sometimes, mess with) one another, we pass around “story seeds,” which are images or phrases that the writer has to include in the story. Two of my seeds were "a chocolate crucifix" and "blistered roses" (both of these ended up in the final novel). My story didn’t win that contest, but it did win a second contest that I entered it into. At that point, I decided to make it a novel. That was, by the way, in 2005.

There’s lot of fun stuff in this story, including a budding romance between Bug and Pesto, who has connections to help her thwart the devil. (I, myself, am a sucker for romance.) How did you develop Pesto’s character and their relationship? Did you know from the start he would be a part of the story? And what of his interesting connections?

I knew Pesto would be an integral part of the story from the moment he appeared outside Bug's door at the car wash. His physical appearance changed a little, along with the ever-evolving slogan on his T-shirt, but he was always going to be that one guy who loved Bug unconditionally. Let's face it, every other man in Bug's life had failed her. She needed a male to stand up and be counted. I also knew that Bug's personality might overwhelm Pesto, so he got some extra Hero sprinkles along the way. There's really more to Pesto than the novel delves into. Maybe someday, we'll find out more.

What was the most fun about writing this novel?

Taking the most outrageous thing that could happen in any given situation and making it even more outrageous. Then ever MORE outrageous. Luckily, my editor encourages this behavior. That's how the canned cheese spray ends up on the demon's horns in the convenience store. The second most fun thing was planting literary references for English teachers to find.

What was the most challenging?

Making all of those outrageous things believable within the context of the story. Definitely, that was the biggest challenge. It was also hard keeping all of the various mythologies in my head. I, like Pooh bear, have a very small brain.

Basketball, cars, food (your descriptions made me hungry) and the supernatural play heavily in the story. Are you interested in all? Did you have to do research?

I like to eat. That's about it. Kidding. Like Bug, I love to drive late at night on an open road. It does wonders for my soul. I'm too light-hearted for the supernatural and too uncoordinated for basketball (note my first sentence above), although I grew up in cultures where both were subjects of frequent arguments. Southern Baptists, the church I belonged to as a child, believe that moral struggles are an ongoing choice between listening to angels and devils. Also, the high school I attended (and where I later taught) won four state championships in less than a decade. I did most of my research on mythologies, looking for places where certain stories or entities were found in a variety of cultures.

Which character are you most like in SOUL ENCHILADA and why?

My teen daughters, aka The Locusts, would swear that Beals is based on my personality!  Really, I'm not like any of the characters, except that I share some traits with Bug. Both of us are too mouthy for our own good, and we are tenacious and loyal to a fault. Physically, I'm more like one of the NADs. Or Pooh bear.

Are you working on anything new? Can you give us a hint?

I've just completed the second draft of a sci-fi dystopia set on a terraformed Mars. It's a very different novel from Soul Enchilada, except that there is lots of action.

What is your work schedule like? You are also an associate professor of English at a university. How do you juggle your day job, writing, and your personal life?

Does dropping the bowl pins and quickly picking them up count as juggling?  

I'm very lucky that writing is one of the requirements of my job. Not writing fiction, per se, but we are expected to carve time out of our schedules for artistic and scholarly activity. My personal life, especially exercise, falls victim to my writing more than anything else. It helps that I've always been the quiet guy in the corner. Now, I have an excuse.

What does your work space (for writing) look like?

My lap.  I'm lucky in that I can write anywhere, even in crowded, loud rooms, as long I have a laptop don't have to talk. I don't need a writing space or long stretches of quiet time, although those are nice.

What’s the most surprising thing that’s happened to you so far since selling SOUL ENCHILADA?

Two things, really. The first is the huge number of librarians, readers, and teachers who have adopted Bug and her story. They have championed this book better than I will ever be able to. Their kindness and generosity have blown me away. The second surprise is how terrifying the last few weeks before launch have been. After months of revising, marketing, getting ARCs out, getting reviews in, constant contact with my publisher...it all stops, and everything gets quiet as the house moves on to its next project, and we wait for readers to find the book. Think of it as the Christmas that would never come! But it's a good kind of terror, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

What advice can you give to writers starting out in this career?

Read widely, but also, read deeply in your chosen genre. Practice your craft. Find writers and editors whose work you respect and listen to their advice. Join SCBWI and form a critique group made up of people who write in your genre and are better than you at it. That's what I did, and it's made the difference between personal rejections and personal acceptances.

How can fans/teachers contact you?

My website has a contact page at: http://davidmacinnisgill.com/contact-us

Anything else you’d like to share?

Just a package of melted Twix bars. Want one?

Yum! Yes, please! And thank you for letting me interview you!

 

interview © April 2009 by debbi michiko florence

 

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For more about David and Soul Enchilada, see his website:

David Macinnis Gill's Official Site

 

You can also read his blog on LiveJournal:

I Am Chikin, Hear Me Roar