I met Mary Atkinson at Encore. We talked about her books and her writing career and then she offered to send me her books so I could read and review! Both Owl Girl and Tillie Heart and Soul are beautifully written. I’m thrilled to interview her here on Writer’s Rumpus.
Kirsti Call: What inspired the story?
Mary Atkinson: Many, many (!) years ago an artist friend, Harvey Low Simons, lived and worked in an old piano factory in Boston that had been converted into artists’ studios. Like Uncle Fred, Tillie’s guardian in the novel, he was a single parent of a young daughter, Kerry. Kerry’s “room” was a loft Harvey had built for her. For years the image of Kerry reading and playing in her loft like a regular little kid while her dad created wild and amazing art stuck with me. Gradually, my imagination took over and their situation morphed into a picture book. After many tries, it never worked as a picture book so I put the manuscript away in a desk drawer. Years later, I took another look and tried again. Tillie and her story grew and grew. It could not be contained in a picture book!
Harvey and Kerry don’t look anything like my characters, and Harvey’s art doesn’t look anything like Uncle Fred’s, but here’s their picture from long ago.
KC: Have you always wanted to write children’s stories?
MA: I’ve always written! I’ve kept diaries and journals since I was eight years old! I was inspired to write children’s stories when I was a young bilingual elementary school teacher in Cincinnati, Ohio. I took a History of Children’s Literature course at Xavier University. One day, we had a guest speaker: Lucille Clifton. What she said had a profound impact on me. She said that all children deserve to see themselves in children’s books. In 1977! Since I couldn’t find many books for my students, I decided to write one myself. (If you want to read more about the story of my first book María Teresa, click here.
KC: What is your favorite book you’ve written?
MA: Right now, it’s Tillie Heart and Soul. It’s always the book I’ve just written.
KC: What other projects are you working on?
MA: I’m revising a middle grade novel about a ten-year-old girl named Maggie whose life is going just fine, thank you very much, until her mother agrees to take in her troubled and annoying cousin, Tyler, for the remainder of the school year.
KC: What advice would you give aspiring authors?
MA: Make writing a daily part of your life and READ READ READ!
KC: Thank you Mary! To read my review Owl Girl, go here and here’s my review of Tillie Heart and Soul:
Tillie is the kind of main character that makes you long to know her in real life. She’s gutsy, hopeful, and full of flaws. She lives in a piano factory with her Uncle Fred, rollerskating every chance she gets. When a new girl moves in, Tillie feels left out and starts to misrepresent her family. (What kid wants to say her mom’s in rehab and her dad abandoned her?) Tillie’s relationships with peers and other characters will resonate with anyone who reads the book. Tillie has a tenacity and strength inside of her that helps her survive the hard times and remember that love comes in all shapes and sizes.
Mary Atkinson lives in Maine. She’s also the author of Owl Girl. She graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2008. She loves old buildings and playing the piano. She wishes she knew how to roller skate.