My friend and critique group buddy has a debut book out! It’s called Mandy’s Song, published by Watershed Books.
Here’s the teaser: High school senior Mandy Thorpe has two great hopes: to nudge her friendship with Erik Andersen into romance, and to step up her singing dreams by winning the lead in a musical. She has other dreams, too. Since childhood, Mandy’s prophetic dreams have called her to action. When those dreams become nightmares about Erik that grow ever more terrifying, Mandy is determined to do something about it. With God’s help, she must find the courage to make a difference in Erik’s life before her nightmares become reality.
I asked Mary Ann a few questions about her writing journey, especially with this book.
Could you please give a brief overview of your writing journey?
A brief overview of 50 years is challenging!
The first book I remember making was for my older brother, who was hospitalized for traction on the elbow he broke playing basketball. A long palomino horse starred in the illustrated, 3 by 4- inch, stapled booklet. I was about eight years old. During grade school I had a lot of vivid daydreams, but didn’t write them down. In high school, for fun, I turned children’s books into plays for the neighborhood kids, and for one dressed my pet guinea pig up as Jiminy Cricket.
In college I majored in English because I wanted to become a writer. One professor noticed that when I wrote about memories, my language would simplify to the age I was in the memory. She wondered if I might be good at writing children’s books. This felt right to me, because Children’s Literature had been one of my favorite courses.
After college I took the Institute of Children’s Literature Writing Course. When my children were young, I wrote Christmas programs for our church and wrote short stories for the annual Highlights for Children magazine contests. In the middle of this, I started researching and brainstorming a novel.
I began attending Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conferences. On my third try I won a scholarship to the Highlights Foundation Children’s Writing Workshop at Chautauqua, which was one of the most joyful weeks of my life. I continued working on the novel, getting critiques from editors at SCBWI events and from a Highlights Foundation young adult novel workshop. When discouragement derailed me, I’d remember the scholarships from Highlights, and try again.
After an Indiana SCBWI conference in 2005, a group of us formed a critique group, which we later named the Taleblazers. Having writing friends helped when rejection made me despair, and the meeting deadlines helped push me into writing when no editors were interested and it all seemed pointless.
In 2007 I won a Midwest Writers Workshop Fellowship and had an intensive revision weekend that renewed my hope for Mandy’s Song. Here and there, editors began writing nice things about the novel on their rejection letters. While sending out Mandy’s Song, I began work on a middle grade novel.
After major revisions, where I updated Mandy’s Song, changed it into first person, and emphasized the Christian aspects of the story, the novel finally found its home at Pelican Book Group: Watershed Books, and was released April 3, 2020. During the Covid 19 pandemic. It figures.
Do you remember what prompted you to write Mandy’s Song?
I kept seeing headlines in the paper about how teen suicide rates were increasing. This touched a chord in me, because at a low point when I was nineteen, suicide was a tempting option. I wanted to show that there is a path away from despair to a better time, that while “weeping may endure for the night, joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)
What is your history with singing and musical theatre?
I’ve loved singing as far back as I can remember, and enjoyed church and school choirs all through grade school and high school. In 4th grade I started playing the violin, and my first experience with musicals was playing in the pit orchestra for West Side Story and Finian’s Rainbow in high school. When I was a senior, I auditioned for a singing part in Fiddler On the Roof. The drama teacher asked us to scream as part of the audition. Apparently I screamed well, because I got the part of Fruma Sarah, the screeching dead wife of Lazar Wolf. Yelling “Pearls!” into that auditorium and singing at the top of my lungs was so much fun! I also got to ride on a rolling ladder swathed with white cloth, pushed by another student, with my hair frizzed out.
In college I took five semesters of voice lessons, even as an English major, because Indiana University let you take ten credit hours outside your school.
Once I married and had children, church choir was my main outlet for singing—except that after lullabies I would continue on warbling show tunes to our daughters.
When I was almost 40, I took part in a group that studied Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way. One of the exercises helped me rediscover old passions, and I remembered how much I’d loved being part of those high school musicals. A local civic theater met less than a mile from my house, and I summoned the courage to audition for a revue they were having. I got a couple of solo parts and more fun chorus parts, and was hooked. I did several musicals with them, and a few more with other groups after that troupe disbanded. The funniest one I did was Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? as a gym teacher nun, and the last one I did was Fiddler on the Roof, again, as one of the mamas, in 2015.
Is Mandy’s Song the original title of the book? Or did you have a different working title?
For the first few years it was titled “Song of Sorrow, Song of Joy.” At one of my SCBWI critique sessions, the editor said, “No, no, no! You do not give away the ending of the book in its title!” So I came up with Mandy’s Song.
What do you find to be most challenging about writing a novel?
Sticking with it when it feels like it’s a big mess—like cleaning out the basement after years of hoarding. And like the basement, you have to choose one corner and start. I’m excellent at procrastinating on both of these projects, which is why I’m not an author with 20 novels, and why I have a cluttered basement. Somehow by tackling one scene, or one technique, like changing it over to first person, at a time, I eventually got the whole book in shape. Overall plotting strategies, like the hero’s journey, or thinking how the character’s weaknesses and strengths move the story forward, can help with untangling the mess.
Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on next?
I’m working on a middle grade novel, titled “The Secret of the Forgotten Chapel.” Twelve-year-old Deirdre’s life is disrupted by her parents’ separation and the resulting move away from her dad in Chicago to rural Indiana. She finds refuge in a deserted chapel in the woods, but struggles to discover any friends who truly understand her loneliness.
It’s currently in the “big mess” stage, so I’m happy to avoid working on it while ordering bookmarks for, or answering blog questions about Mandy’s Song. Is it primarily a family story, a friendship story or a mystery adventure? Or all three? That’s what I’m trying to sort out.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your writing?
In mid-March I planned to go to a Chicago museum to research, and be inspired by, Tiffany stained glass memorial windows, to help move forward with “The Secret of the Forgotten Chapel.” The day I planned to go, the museum closed for the lockdown, and I’d already realized traveling on the train was probably not a wise idea. The exhibition was supposed to end March 21st, but I’m hoping it might be extended into a time when travel is possible—and safe—again.
For the first week my thinking was scattered, with the usual structure of teaching school, going to choir, attending church, gone. The next week I got the email that Mandy’s Song was being released in eight days, and I had to regain focus, fast. In the middle of learning to do selfie videos and zoom meetings for school, I had to finish my website, answer marketing questions for my publisher, and ask people to help announce the release, etc. I actually forgot to eat until my stomach growled, quite unusual for me.
I still have times of being foggy, sad, and disoriented, watching too much T.V. or Facebook, but this week some hope and energy has returned, and I’m feeling more organized. Between school projects and marketing projects, it may be another couple of weeks before I return to “Forgotten Chapel,” but I’m starting to note ideas for it again, which is a promising sign.
What are some of your favorite books from your growing-up years?
Little Women. In 6th grade I knew the first chapter by heart. I was middle-aged before I realized, “Duh, Jo was a writer. No wonder I liked it.”
A Christmas Carol. My mom read it to us many times.
A Wrinkle in Time. The Lord of the Rings. Heidi. Black Beauty. The Black Stallion.
I didn’t read The Secret Garden until I was grown up, but I would have loved it. Mary Ann Steinke-Moore