Alison McGhee’s fiction spans an impressive array of genres and formats, from picture books (Someday) to early readers (the Bink & Gollie books, written with Kate DiCamillo), to middle-grade fiction (the Julia Gillian series), to YA (All Rivers Flow to the Sea), to novels for adults (the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Shadowbaby). Her most recent book, Firefly Hollow, is a middle-grade novel about a lonely boy and a vole, cricket, and firefly, kindred restless spirits who first find each other – and then try to find where they belong. Due out next month from Atheneum, the novel features illustrations by Christopher Denise. It has received four pre-pub starred reviews (including one from PW) and has evoked comparisons to Charlotte’s Web, The Wind in the Willows, and The Tale of Despereaux. McGhee talked with PW about her story’s unusual genesis, and the rather tortuous process of bringing the story to life.
Where did you find the inspiration for Firefly Hollow?
Actually, the inspiration wasn’t mine. About five or six years ago, my sister Holly McGhee of Pippin Properties, who was then my agent, asked me if I’d be interested in writing a picture-book story based on some paintings that Christopher Denise had created. When I saw the images, I could only stand looking at them in awe. They were so very beautiful that I said, “I am absolutely signing on to this project.”
Had you ever before written a story based on existing art?
Never – but I was very excited to try. The process was quite backwards for me, since it’s the first time that the pictures came first. The question wasn’t whether the illustrator captured what I had envisioned as a writer. The question here was whether I captured the emotions Christopher had put into his characters. The painting that became the cover was one of the initial ones I saw, and there was so much tenderness and gentleness in Vole’s face. I tried hard to keep that feeling throughout the book.
Did the story come to you easily?
Absolutely not! I must have spent a year and a half trying to write a picture book that would do the illustrations justice, but what I came up with were boring and predictable stories. My ideas kept spiraling out of control, and I told my editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy, that I was very sorry, but I just couldn’t do a picture book – but that I probably could write a novel from the pictures. And Christopher was fine with that idea.
So did the story flow more readily then?
No! I thought surely this would come more easily, but I wrote three entirely separate novels about the characters in the paintings, and I didn’t like any of them. I think I tried to muscle into the novel the sadness and angst about these tender creatures that might belong in an adult novel, but not in a children’s book.
But you persevered?
I abandoned the old drafts and started anew, but I was so filled with a sense of failure that it was very difficult. I had no self-confidence, so when I finally finished a new draft, I gave it to Caitlyn but warned her that it wasn’t going to be one of her great books. She was so busy with other projects that it was probably a year before she could get her editor notes to me, and when they arrived and I went back to the book – with a very heavy heart – I could barely even remember it.
But as I began reading, I said to myself, “This is not that bad a book after all!” Christopher finished the paintings, which were so entrancingly beautiful, and I worked with Caitlyn on a revision, and it came together. I felt exhausted at the end, but was happy that something good had come out of all my suffering and anxiety.
Is this the first book you’ve written with animal characters – and was that a different challenge?
In fact I hadn’t ever worked with any character that wasn’t human, and it was a complete challenge for me. I invented the human boy so that he and the animal characters could play off one another. But I found that even when characters are animals, it’s still really all about humans. I had fun imagining their world, and for inspiration I had beside me a little wooden cricket with a carved wooden stick. If I struck the wings with the stick, the creature made a cricket sound. And then I placed beside the cricket a copy of the film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, which I find heartbreakingly beautiful, and a poem, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall.” All provided inspiration for this book about longing, loving, and loss.
You touch on many complex human experiences and emotions in Firefly Hollow. Was it challenging to interweave so much into a middle-grade novel?
It was a huge challenge. I am in some ways an adult writer – that’s where I began my career and of course I still write adult novels. When I explore adult themes in my children’s books and translate them into a child’s world, I have to go back to my own childhood to get it right. I clearly remember how deeply I felt and thought. Firefly Hollow is a lonely book, and I realized that it needed some humor. So I added that in the relationship between Firefly and Cricket. They are very funny together, which was a lot of fun for me!
What, in a nutshell, do you hope that young readers take away from the story?
No matter how lonely and misunderstood you may feel, there is a place for you in this world, and there are people who will love you.
Given the broad spectrum of your oeuvre, can you say which genre you’re most comfortable with?
I would say novels for children and adults, as well as picture books that are on some level aimed at adults. Picture books in general are hard for me, but it’s easier for me to write one if it has elements that appeal to adults. I have a picture book coming out from Chronicle next April, Tell Me a Tattoo Story, with pictures by Eliza Wheeler, about a dad with lots of tattoos, each of which has a story behind it. I think it will be fun for kids, but in a way I consider this a book for parents, too.
Do you have any other new books on deck?
Yes! I’m on a wild streak of writing—I can’t seem to stop. I wrote Maybe a Fox with Kathi Appelt, a novel about a girl and a fox, which Atheneum will publish in March as one of the first releases under Caitlyn Dlouhy Books. And I wrote another novel, Pablo and Birdie, about a boy and his parrot, which will be published by Caitlyn’s imprint in summer 2017. I guess you’d say I’m on a novel streak. It’s been a wild ride of a year – the ideas keep flowing, and sometimes I can’t even sleep. All I can do is write, write, write!
You might make your author colleagues jealous with statements like that!
Oh, I know. But be sure to mention how very, very difficult the process of writing Firefly Hollow was! I feel very grateful that so many people stuck with me for so long.
Firefly Hollow by Alison McGhee, illus. by Christopher Denise. Atheneum, $16.99 Aug. ISBN 978-1- 4424-2336-7