Author Lynda Mullaly Hunt is known for her authentic characters in books such as Fish in a Tree, which won the Schneider Family Book Award, and One for the Murphys. Her new middle grade novel, Shouting at the Rain, features Delsie McHill, a young weather enthusiast and a native of Cape Cod, who is being raised by her loving grandmother since her parents have been MIA most of her life. As Delsie struggles with a failing friendship and a relentless “mean girl,” she befriends a kind but guarded new boy who ultimately helps her see what a family really is. PW spoke with Hunt about her latest book, her writing process, and how she develops memorable characters.
For every query letter you write or conference you attend, you are asked to give a concise biography. What is something you always include in that biography?
The first thing that pops into my head is that I am a champion for kids. I wear a lot of different hats—teacher, mom, author—but “champion for kids” is maybe my most important hat.
You started your career as a teacher. What grades did you teach and how did you end up transitioning from teaching to writing?
I taught third and sixth grades for about 10 years. Eventually, when I had my own kids, practically my entire salary was going to daycare costs, so I decided to stay home for a few years. I never wanted to be a writer. I didn’t think I had the ability to do it. But I was in a Barnes & Noble one day and saw a sign for a writers’ group. I thought, “Yes! A night out and a cappuccino.” Becoming a children’s author made me dissect why I had become a teacher in the first place, which goes back to that “champion for kids” thing. I wanted to be somebody who spent time with kids, championed kids, and taught kids. Today, I don’t teach anymore, but my daughter is a fourth grade teacher, so I can visit her kids whenever I want to.
Are there books you loved as a child that continue to be important to you?
I was not a reader as a kid. In Fish in a Tree, there is an author’s note that talks about how much I struggled in school. That book was sort of a love letter to my sixth-grade teacher—he literally saved me. That was the first year I actually read an entire novel. I remember walking up to his desk to tell him about it. He locked eyes with me and gave me his undivided attention. Consequently, I became a reader because of the connection it gave me to him. That same year, I walked into the library and took The Cay by Theodore Taylor off the shelf. I remember drawing my finger down the cover because I thought it was so beautiful. I read it 18 times in a row. It was the first book I ever owned. I told my mother that I’d lost it. She was not too happy about having to pay for it. I didn’t care. I hid it between my box spring and my mattress and read it secretly at night.
Can you describe your writing process? How and when do you write?
I don’t have a routine. However, there is something about precipitation—rain and snow—that makes these movies spin in my head. When the movies come, something happens. I can lose awareness of time. I might even smell different things, or feel changes in temperature. That’s when I try not to leave my computer. I will typically write in 14- or 15-hour blocks on rainy days. And then I’m wiped!
On your website, you discuss the “non-sequential” way you write. Can you briefly explain how that works?
I write books completely out of order. The first time I meet a character, they sort of drop in on me. I don’t know their plot or story, but I know them. I’ll sit down and write what later becomes an early chapter. Often, I really don’t know what to write next, but I’ll force myself to write something. Sometimes, it’s just gibberish for a while, but eventually the voice will take off and I’ll end up with a scene. For each of these scenes, I’ll write the title on a 3 x 5 card and put it on this giant magnetic white board in my office. Eventually, it becomes a giant puzzle. Shouting at the Rain was way more elusive than any of the others, though. I was just hoping it would work out!
Shouting at the Rain is your latest book, coming out in May. What was the inspiration for this story?
This book began when I was traveling around the country for author events. I kept meeting kids raised by grandparents and they somehow saw that as a negative thing. The teacher in me wanted to tell these kids that if someone steps in to love you, you have not been abandoned. That thought became chapter one of Shouting at the Rain. However, I don’t think that’s the biggest takeaway from the book. As I started to write, I realized it was more about connections. I began to ask myself how we find and foster those deep connections, the ones we really cherish.” How can we find the strength, even in the fifth grade, to be able to leave behind relationships that are not good for us?
As a related side note, every character’s name in this book is an anagram. If you unscramble the letters of each name, the new word relates to something in the book or something about that character you don’t know. For example, if you take the letters of Esmarelda—one of Delsie’s mother figures—and mix them up, they spell out Madre Seal. The author’s note in the book talks about this line: “It’s not what you look at that matters but what you see.” That ties into the anagrams.
You come from a big family, but Delsie is desperately looking to find a family. How did you relate to this character?
I was quite a bit younger than my siblings. To be blunt, my father was not really around. He was not a kind man. My mother also had many demons and struggled with a lot of different things. She wasn’t available to me even when she was in the house. So I learned from a young age to look for other people. For example, Mr. Daniels in Fish in a Tree was named after an elderly neighbor who often invited me into her house after school and let me tell her about my day. Throughout my whole life, I’ve learned that it’s a heart connection that makes a family more than blood and names.
You’ve mentioned that honesty is an important element of writing for middle graders. Is there such a thing as being too honest in a middle grade book?
I think honesty is one of the reasons that this book took me such a long time to write. Shouting at the Rain could have been a very dark book. I could feel Ronan’s anger and his profound sadness to the point where it would make it hard to write sometimes. I knew I wanted to show kids struggling with life’s circumstances and navigating strong emotions, but I didn’t want to elaborate on the reasons why. Kids are feeling angry and sad over so many different things, I hoped that more kids would connect to this story and to Ronan if there weren’t specific reasons attached to his emotions.
You’ve had three books published now, and a lot of recognition in terms of awards and reading lists. How has your life changed since that first book was published?
I used to hear authors say, “It’s just a job, and your life won’t change once you sign a contract.” But I was completely transformed! I’ve never actually told my editor this, but working with Nancy Paulsen has transformed me in a similar way that I was changed in sixth grade. I stand a little taller and I am incredibly grateful that I can help children. That’s really all I ever wanted to do.
What’s on your to-do list for the next year?
I have a picture book under contract called Astonishing that features the characters of Fish in a Tree as third graders. I also have another middle grade novel coming, about two 13- year-old boys who play ice hockey.
Who do you most admire?
In terms of writers, I really admire Katherine Paterson and Patricia Reilly Giff. I learned a lot about writing emotion from them. But I have to say, I really admire my sixth-grade teacher. He must have had a rule that everybody get on the bus happy every afternoon. Like if two kids were arguing, he’d take them in the hallway and they’d come back friends. So many teachers don’t even know they are saving children. I love teachers who see children and not just students.
Has there been a reaction from a reader that stands out more than others?
When I go into schools, I always look for the kids who are watching me from 35 feet away. I can see their fists balled up in their pants pockets. I’ve had so many of those kids come up to me and say, “Thank you for being honest.” Then, they turn and walk away. They don’t want a signature. They don’t want to ask a question. They just say, “Thanks for being honest.” That beats any review. Knowing that a kid has somehow changed his or her perception of themselves because of one of my stories, is there any gift better than that?
Shouting at the Rain, by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. Penguin/Paulsen, $16.99 May 7 ISBN 978-0-399-17515-2