We're celebrating heart and soul with Mary Atkinson, whose new middle grade novel Tillie Heart and Soul is out now from Maine Authors Publishing! Tillie's polishing a shiny new starred review from Kirkus, and Mary is here to chat!
Ten-year-old Tillie practices roller skating wherever she can—even in the old Franklin Piano Factory where she lives with her guardian Uncle Fred. She has to be in the Skate-a-thon with her friends Shanelle and Glory. Surely Mama wouldn’t miss it! But skating in the city is tough, three-way friendships are tricky, and the stupid rules in Mama’s rehab program could mess up all her plans.
Welcome, Mary! So, tell us . . .
What was the spark that ignited this book?
Many, many (!) years ago I had an artist friend, Harvey Low Simons, who lived and worked in an old piano factory in Boston that had been converted into artists’ studios. Like Uncle Fred, Tillie’s guardian in the novel, he was also a single parent of a young daughter, Kerry. Kerry’s “room” was a loft Harvey had built for her. For years the image of Kerry reading and playing in her loft like a regular little kid while her dad created wild and amazing art stuck with me. Gradually, my imagination took over, as it does, and their situation morphed into Tillie Heart and Soul. Kerry wasn’t a roller skater. That spark came from my feeble attempts as an adult to learn to roller skate while my then 8-year-old daughter whizzed around me.
Harvey and Kerry don’t look anything like my characters, but here’s their picture from long ago.
What's your writing superpower?
Persistence. Persistence in holding onto a spark of an idea for years, persistence in slogging through shitty first drafts and a gazillion revisions and critiques, persistence in believing in myself as a writer with self-doubt always knocking at the door, persistence in showing up to do the work. And trust in and respect for the artistic process.
That's a fantastic superpower! Tell us about something special you keep on your desk/wall as you work.
This tile sums it up!
Who were your advisors at VCFA?
Rita Williams-Garcia, Deb Wiles, Marion Dane Bauer, David Gifaldi, and Kathi Appelt (picture book semester). Quite a line-up, eh?
Absolutely! How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?
It got me in the habit of making writing time a priority in an already busy life. And reading! Reading and annotating all those books. (Rita W-G had us read 100 books the first semester!!!) I loved reading on the couch thinking, “I have to do this. It’s for school. Don’t bother me.”
What is your favorite VCFA memory?
Leda Shubert doesn’t remember this moment, but she gave me permission to tell it. Sharon Darrow was giving an excellent, serious, heart-felt lecture on “going deeper” in our work. I was just beginning to get a grasp of what this meant when I heard Leda blurt out, “I can’t go any deeper. I’m on antidepressants!”
Ha! What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?
Stay away from the cookies.
If only we could. Thanks so much for visiting, Mary! Welcome to the world, Tillie Heart and Soul!
Mary Atkinson lives in Maine. She’s the author of Owl Girl. She graduated from VCFA with the Dedications in 2008. She loves old buildings and playing the piano. She wishes she knew how to roller skate.