Interview: Children’s Author, Pat Lowery Collins

By Posted in - Randomness on February 18th, 2010 0 Comments

Multi-talented author Pat Lowery Collins talks about the source of her creativity and answers questions on craft.

“Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it! For boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”  ~Goethe

Pat Lowery Collins: “Before I came across the above quotation, I somehow knew it to be true and always approached life with the belief that there’d be time for all the things I felt compelled to do. Though much of it had to wait until the last of our five children was in school, I’m grateful that I’ve been able to pursue just about all the endeavors that are still so important to me.

Today I write poetry, picture books,and young adult novels. I’m also a painter,and have illustrated my own work as well as the work of others.

For me, writing picture books was a natural outgrowth of writing poetry. Both art forms are dependent on precise,visual imagery and careful word choices. Where the two forms differ is in the fact that though my poetry for adults is usually centered on my own thoughts and feelings, my picture books and poems for children are very sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of my audience.

I began to write young adult novels because many of the main characters that presented themselves to my imagination were teenagers. Writing historical fiction for this age group is the most satisfying endeavor of all.

My stories are sometimes based on things I remember from childhood and sometimes on what I have observed in my children’s lives or my own life. I may even be inspired by something I’ve read about. Often they’re taken from many sources, some of which I’m not even aware. That’s where the muse comes in, that sprite whom a writer likes to blame for a lack of inspiration or for some mysterious input.

Though none of my books appear on the surface to be alike in any way, they share a careful attention to detail and to the sound and rhythm of words and phrases. Each attempts to connect to the reader’s own hopes and dreams. A reviewer has pointed out that all my young adult novels are about teenagers out of sync with their own culture or society. I would add to that that my characters, in fictional picture books and novels, are struggling to succeed or stand out in some way (such as the turtle who wanted to fly,) often against what seem to be impossible odds.

Sometimes I need to go to the site of my story’s action, whether real or imagined. In the above picture, I’m at the old Story Shipyard where the schooner, Thomas E. Lannon, was built and where I photographed the building activity and kept a journal of its progress.

To add believability to my recent YA novel, THE FATTENING HUT, I travelled to Anguilla, an island in the British West Indies, and studied its history, topography, plants, and animals.

While researching WAITING FOR BABY JOE, I took a course for the parents of premature babies at Nashua Memorial Hospital in Nashua, NH.

For my young adult historical novel, HIDDEN VOICES (Candlewick, 2009), I traveled to Venice, Italy, to do research on the composer, Vivaldi, and the Ospedale della Pieta, where he spent much of his working life.”

Pat Lowery Collins

Frequently asked Questions
And Tips for Writers – A Baker’s Dozen

What is the difference between an author’s point of view and a visual artist’s point of view?

“Point of view”, whether that of a visual artist or a writer, is a term used to describe the author’s or artist’s way of viewing the world he or she wants to portray. It comes from a place, in terms of thought and feeling, that is uniquely inhabited by that person. A visual artist uses tools such as color and light to help project his or her unique way of seeing; an author uses words to convey to the reader his own and his character’s point of view, which are sometimes one and the same.

How do I decide on a point of view for a particular story?

Here it’s especially helpful to be well read and have a particular model in mind. If you want the piece to have a certain immediacy and intimacy, you might choose First Person. If you want some distance from your character while still maintaining the ability to see things through his or her eyes, Third Person might be the right choice. If you’d like your reader to see the story through many sets of eyes, the Omniscient is a good (but rather difficult) possibility.

How do I settle on the tense of a story I want to tell and the voice in which it will be told?

Here again, it is useful to have a successful model in mind. From what you have observed in your reading, will past tense work best for your historical novel or will present tense give the past a jarring immediacy that you may seek? There’s nothing to prevent you from trying your work in more than one tense and point of view. I once changed a 500 page manuscript from first person past to first person present. (It still isn’t finished.)

What makes for a compelling beginning?

A compelling beginning hooks us into the story immediately and makes the reader want to know more. Sometimes our true beginning will be found well into the text at a place where the action picks up significantly. We can’t know this, however, unless we take the plunge and just begin. Don’t worry that your beginning may feel inadequate at first. After you have developed more of the text, go in search of it within the opening paragraphs or even the first few chapters.

What needs to be included on the first page of a manuscript?

Besides a compelling beginning which makes the reader want to learn more, the first page should set the scene, begin to craft the tone, establish the time frame, introduce the protagonist, and pose some kind of situation to be solved or question to be answered. If other characters are mentioned, they should be described sufficiently so that we’ll recognize them when we meet them again.

What is a theme and how will I know it when I see it?

Theme can be defined as the overall topic of a piece. My Webster’s pocket dictionary describes it as the “main melody.”

Theme may be very clear to a composer when creating a musical composition, but my personal feeling is that the theme in a story or novel does not reveal itself immediately, and if you have a theme in mind from the beginning, it will be apt to change. Sometimes I haven’t really known what the theme of a book was until I’ve read a review of the published book and can see it through the eyes of the reviewer.

What is the difference between tension and suspense?

Tension is stress that is introduced into a manuscript at various points in the narrative to keep the reader intrigued. It takes many forms and comes and goes and is not constant. Suspense is a growing sense of uncertainty that keeps us on the edge of our seats and pervades the entire piece.

Are writing groups useful. Do writers outgrow them?

I find writing groups essential to my process and have belonged to one or more over the years, sometimes concurrently. It helps immensely to have other writers comment on your manuscript, either piecemeal or when it is completed. Sometimes I profit from a little of each method. It also helps to be in a group in which at least some members have expertise in your genre of concentration. It’s definitely important that everyone in a group is supportive of one another.

Why did you write “The Fattening Hut” in verse?

I did not intend to write “the Fattening Hut” in verse. I actually wrote the first three chapters in prose. But then it took on a life of its own and started setting itself up as a verse novel. One reviewer claimed the form softened a difficult message, and I believe that must have been part of my subconscious motive.

Where do your ideas come from?

Sometimes I don’t really know. Often something in the news will spark my interest; sometimes a place or historical detail will set me off. Many of my picture books have been inspired by something from my own childhood or that of one of my children.

How do we know when it’s time to end a story and how do we do it?

When you feel you may be nearing the end or have written what seems to you to be the ending, ask yourself some questions: 1) Have I come to this place logically and progressively? 2) Does it answer whatever question I asked at the beginning or complete what I have promised the reader? 3) Is everything tied up too neatly or have I left something to the reader’s imagination? 4) Does it convey a feeling of satisfaction and inevitability? Sometimes we write past our true ending and must go back into the text to discover it. To facilitate this search, a writing group is often especially helpful.

What is Pace?

In the field of writing, pace might be described as the rate of speed of a given segment, scene, or entire manuscript. Most writers use a varied pace that is dependent on the kind of story being told and the action and tension of a particular scene, and they shift the pace in order to maintain interest and suspense and provide variety. A book that is described as being slow-paced overall will still employ some very real but subdued changes of pace throughout.

My Life

Pat playing marimba on her first radio gig

Most of my childhood was spent in a part of Hollywood, California, where many old film stars and movie moguls lived. Cecil B. DeMille and W.C. Fields were our neighbors. I worked in the radio industry as a child actress and attended Immaculate Heart High School, a local school for girls.

After high school,I commuted to the University of Southern California as a day student and received my degree in English.

My father was auditor-comptroller of Los Angeles County and my mother eventually wrote radio plays. There were three girls in our family and all of us were interested in writing. I was always working on poems and plays and drawing pictures of the people around me.

During my earliest years, my grandfather was retired and would drop anything he was doing to read to us during the day. Everyone else in my family told stories. Bedtime stories rarely came from a book. We expected them to be original. Since my grandmother could never think of original characters, her tales always starred Mickey and Minnie Mouse. But these mice had amazing adventures on the high seas. My staid father’s stories were rare and the ones we loved most. They always featured two brothers named Jan and Willy and an old sea captain. There was an annoying chant my sisters and I devised to beg for “Jan and Willy” stories when we felt we had been deprived of them for too long.

Most of my adult life has been spent in New England where my husband, Wallace, and I have raised five children. During some of that time I also studied art at the DeCordova Museum School and Brandeis. I began writing children’s books and poetry for publication about twenty five years ago.

We now live in Gloucester, MA, in the house we built for the family many years ago at Wingaersheek Beach.This is where our six grandsons come to visit and where I maintain both a writing and painting studio.”

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