I’ve long been a fan of Margo Sorenson’s work and I’m thrilled to interview her on the book birthday of her latest picture book: Calvin Gets the Last Word (Tilbury House). Let’s get right to it!
Marcia Strykowski: How did you come to be a writer and has it been difficult to get your work published? Do you have an agent?
Margo: I became a writer by accident—and a lot of my writing looks like an accident 😉. As an English teacher who taught writing, I was fortunate to have many talented students who won national and regional writing contests, and a few of their parents asked me why didn’t I write, as well. I didn’t have a good answer for them, so I began writing! As so many of us writers know, yes, it’s always difficult to get work published. The “overnight success” story is truly a myth, although it does happen to a lucky few. It’s more of a slog journey at times, persevering through highs and lows and exhilaration and hope—always hope! Yes, I am so fortunate to be represented by agent Dan Cramer of Flannery Literary. He is a stalwart encourager and supporter and extremely creative, resourceful, and conscientious. He has my back 24/7. The bonus is that he has a great sense of humor!
MS: Could you briefly share your writing process with us? Do you write every day and/or have a schedule? Do you outline?
Margo: It usually begins with an incident or a comment someone makes that provokes a “what if?” question in my head, and that creates a need for a main character. Getting to know your main character is key, and then you need a plot: a goal, obstacles, black moment, character transformation/arc, and a satisfying ending—surprising but not unexpected. I don’t physically sit down and write every day, but I do at least ruminate about writing every day, tossing ideas around in my head, and oftentimes tossing them out. 😉 Then, I’ll take pencil to paper. I outline novels, but picture books are more fluid, more of a jotting down of scraps of ideas that can strengthen the character and the plot. Once I have an idea, you couldn’t keep me from writing every day! All are subject to extensive revision, of course. I love the First Commandment for writers: “Thou Shalt Not Fall In Love With Thine Own Words.”
MS: Calvin Gets the Last Word is such a fun book! What inspired you to write it?
Margo: I’ve always loved words and wordplay, especially as a retired English teacher and Speech and Debate coach. Sadly, I must admit that in 9th grade, I secretly wanted to be voted “Best Actress,” but was voted “Walking Dictionary,” instead. Sigh. For CALVIN GETS THE LAST WORD, I imagined a character who loved words and always was looking for the right word in every situation, especially to describe his super-annoying older brother. Calvin popped into my brain, and I thought, if he was working that hard to find the right words, just think how worn-out his dictionary would be. Then, it occurred to me that the dictionary should be the one to tell the story, since he was working so hard, with his pages dog-eared and spine bent, not to mention all the stains he endures on his pages, like grass stains and clots of broccoli. Luckily, my wonderful publishers found the perfect illustrator in Mike Deas, who really brought the characters to life with just the perfect, whimsical, and humorous illustrations. His pictures make you want to giggle!
MS: What was the hardest part in writing CALVIN?
Margo: The hardest part was writing a satisfying ending that was both a surprise but still prepared for. It changed several times in the revision stages, but once Calvin found the right word, I knew that was the answer. He discovered it himself; I just had to give him the freedom to do it. To loosely paraphrase Faulkner, “It all begins with a character, and once he gets up and moving, all you need to do is follow along behind him, writing down everything he says and does.”
MS: What do you hope readers will take away from reading CALVIN?
Margo: It would be a total spoiler if I told you the main takeaway! Other than that, I hope readers will want to have fun with words and find the perfect words they need for any situation.
MS: What advice would you NEVER give an aspiring author?
Margo: Don’t worry about revising or having other people read and critique your work; it’s perfect the way you first wrote it. *squeezes eyes shut and runs nails down the blackboard*
MS: Is there a good reason people should become writers?
Margo: No. Just kidding. 😉 But, I do love Dorothy Parker’s quote: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do for them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” On a more serious note, writing is thinking and thinking is writing, so, even if we don’t want to be published writers, writing down our thoughts or observations is good for our brains and helps clarify our thinking. Well—speaking for myself, here—as much as my thinking *can* be clarified, that is.
MS: Ha ha, good answer. You’ve had many successful school visits. Any tips?
Margo: As a retired speech and debate coach, my favorite tip is to know your audience. Another tip is to use self-deprecating humor. Kids always seem to appreciate that. My last tip is to have fun—and then the kids will, too!
MS: What’s next and where can people follow you online?
Margo: I have a second picture book being published this fall, LITTLE CALABASH (Island Heritage, Fall, 2020). Because we lived for ten years in Hawaii and return each year to visit our old friends (well, sadly, not *this* year, because of the virus lockdown), I am really excited to have this book published there; it will be available on all the usual retail channels, too, so even Mainland readers can find it. Back cover copy: “It seems as if everyone in the kitchen has an important job to do—everyone except for Little Calabash. But, even though he’s little, he wants to be a big help, too!” There are references to favorite Hawaiian foods and bits of culture that may evoke fond memories of visiting Hawaii for you, or may encourage young readers to find out more about Hawaii. The illustrator, Anneth Lagamo, did a perfect job of bringing Little Calabash and the kitchen tools to life with a Hawaiian flavor. You’ll never look at a can opener in the same way again! Other than that, my agent is submitting several of my picture book manuscripts to editors, and I’m working on a new picture book or three.
MS: Sounds wonderful, I can’t wait to see LITTLE CALABASH! Thanks for joining us here on Writers’ Rumpus, Margo. Your answers are fascinating and inspiring.
Margo Sorenson is the author of more than 30 books for young readers. A National Milken Educator and Minnesota Book Award finalist in YA fiction, Margo’s newest Young Adult/crossover adult novel is Secrets in Translation (Fitzroy Books, November 2018). What seventeen-year-old girl wouldn’t want to return to Italy and meet a handsome, young, Italian university student? For Alessandra, the answer is more complicated—and dangerous. Her latest picture book is Calvin Gets the Last Word, (Tilbury House, October, 2020), in which Calvin wants to find just the right word to describe his super-annoying older brother, and readers will be surprised by the word he chooses!
Online, you can find Margo here:
Margo’s website: www.margosorenson.com