Amanda Cockrell is just one member of the impressive faculty for the 2013 Writing and Illustrating for Kids (WIK) conference, taking place October 12 in Birmingham, AL. WIK is a great place to get inspired, get tips on your craft, and learn about the business of children’s publishing. It’s also an opportunity to meet editors, agents, and an incredibly supportive network of working writers and artists. This annual conference is hosted by the Southern Breeze region (Alabama, Georgia, Florida panhandle) of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI.org). To find out more or to register, visit https://southern-breeze.net/.
Today I'm thrilled to have Amanda as a guest...
Q. Hi Amanda, Thanks so much for stopping by dulemba.com! You are an English Professor and head of the MFA in Children's Literature program at Hollins University. How did this become part of your life?
A. Oh my goodness, by complete accident. I am a textbook case of “Don’t try this yourself.” I had got my MA in Creative Writing at Hollins (in the program that later became an MFA program) and when they were starting the summer children’s lit program, Richard Dillard, who was then chair of creative writing at Hollins, and a friend and former professor of mine, asked me if I would like to be the director. I pointed out that he would not find children’s literature anywhere on my transcript, and he said, well I read it, didn’t I? I said, of course. Well then, he said. And anyway I was being hired as an administrator, and since this would be in large part a writing program, he wanted a writer to run it. I was, he said, the only writer he knew who was organized enough to run an office.
But I hadn’t really been in the job very long when it became clear to me that if I wanted to represent the program properly, I needed to start going to children’s literature conferences (the Children’s Literature Association and the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, which has a big children’s literature group) and present papers and try to get some academic work published in the field. So I started doing that. And then we introduced the MFA degree along with the MA, and I started teaching writing in the program. That has been so much fun, I would never give it up.
Q. What about the MFA in Children's Literature and Hollins University is special to you?
A. Well, all of it is, because I’m a sentimentalist. But I think the biggest asset and what keeps me so happy to be involved, is the sense of community between the students, and the faculty too. They are so supportive of each other, and they keep in touch, and mentor each other long after they’ve left the program.
Q. While these roles keep you plenty busy, you've also managed to publish almost a dozen books (under your name and a pseudonym). How do you find the time! And what is your favorite subject to write about?
A. I’m lucky that I have a job where my employer wants me to write books and get things published, so I write in the office a lot, where there are no distractions like the cat throwing up on the bedclothes or the washing machine making odd noises. It’s not like trying to sneak in writing time on the job when you’re supposed to be selling shoes or writing up insurance contracts, so I’m very fortunate in that.
My favorite thing to read and to write about is anything with a touch of magical realism. I taught a writing class in summer 2012 that was the most fun I’ve ever had. I’m teaching it again next summer and I can’t wait. My students were so good.
Note: Writing is in Amanda's blood as her mother is a writer too, and wrote one of Amanda's favorites: Shadow Castle. (To the right.)
Q. I had the pleasure of hearing you read from your latest work at the Author Reading at Hollins University this summer. Can you tell us more about it and will it be available for the general public soon?
A. That story, which is called “What To Expect,” will be in the journal Phantom Drift 3: Rewiring the Weird in October. Here’s the website: www.phantomdrift.org.
Q. I also happen to know you're an avid gardener and collector of pugs and skulls. Tell us more!
A. The pugs are the magical realist result of a novel I wrote called Pomegranate Seed about the Hollywood blacklist. It has been my least successful book because it was published by a small press which promptly folded. I think they sold maybe two hundred copies. (It is available through the Authors Guild’s backinprint.com program though.) I had given the main character a herd of pugs and life imitated art in that book in a number of unsettling ways, including pugs.
The skulls....not actual skulls. Although I did have a dog skull that I found that I photographed a lot until my actual dog chewed it up. But I am a huge fan of the Day of the Dead holidays, being from Southern California, and my skulls are all Day of the Dead sugar skulls or clay ones. We made a life-size papier maché skeleton to set up on the porch for the holiday. This year we are making another one so she’ll have a boyfriend.
I started gardening when we moved into this house, because it had belonged to an architect and the place looked like architectural drawings – all hostas and liriope and bushes sheared into cones. We started planting livelier stuff and then just kind of kept going. I even wrote a poem about it:
The new house has flower beds as orderly
as a dentist’s office, hostas and liriope
I think they cut from magazines. There is
no smell here, no scent to bury your
nose and drink deep, inhale, suck it all
in, wishing you were a dog so you could
have it all layer by layer, burrowing down
to the smell of earthworms and the garlic
of last year’s compost. I will buy marigolds
and crown imperial, dragon arum and the buttery
cones of skunk cabbage, such things as give off
a scent more muscular than roses. I will
import the fly-snapping arum of Sardinia,
also known as the dead-horse arum, although not
the corpse flower, amorphophallus titanum,
a giant shaft lifting from a skirt of red
petals, too much scent and metaphor
for this urban space. I will be content
with manageable odors, small but smelly
pushing through the ground, saying it over
and over until I believe it: we are
here, we are here, we are here.
Q. What do you plan to talk about to attendees of the Writing and Illustrating for Kids (WIK) conference in Birmingham this Fall?
A. I’m going to talk about MFA programs, what they can and can’t do for you, and ways to make a decision about that. They can be enormously valuable in honing your craft, but to my mind one of the best things that the right MFA program can offer you is a community of likeminded students and faculty who love and respect children’s books and writing for children. None of them will ask you when you are going to write a “real book” for adults, or do “real” art. Those relationships will last.
Q. Any other news or info you'd like to share with my readers?
A. Just a thank-you for reading this, and if any of them would like to talk with me directly about the Hollins MFA programs, I’d be happy to chat at the conference or any other time. They can reach me at 540-362-6024 or firstname.lastname@example.org
You can meet other members of the conference faculty by following the WIK blog tour:
Aug. 28 Author Matt de la Peña at Stephanie Moody’s Moodyviews
Editor Lou Anders at F.T. Bradley’s YA Sleuth
Aug. 29 Author Doraine Bennett at Jodi Wheeler-Toppen’s Once Upon a Science Book
Author Robyn Hood Black at Donny Seagraves’ blog
Aug. 30 MFA program director Amanda Cockrell at Elizabeth Dulemba’s blog
Illustrator Prescott Hill at Gregory Christie’s G.A.S.
Aug. 31 Author Heather Montgomery at Claire Datnow’s Media Mint Publishing blog
Editor Michelle Poploff at Laura Golden’s Just Write
Sept. 3 Author Nancy Raines Day at Laurel Snyder’s blog
Author Jennifer Echols at Paula Puckett’s Random Thoughts from the Creative Path
Sept. 4 Editor Dianne Hamilton at Ramey Channell’s The Painted Possum
Author Janice Hardy at Tracey M. Cox’s A Writer’s Blog
Sept. 5 Author / illustrator Sarah Frances Hardy at Stephanie Moody’s Moodyviews
Agent Sally Apokedak at Cheryl Sloan Wray’s Writing with Cheryl
Sept. 6 Agent Jennifer Rofe at Cathy Hall’s blog
Author / illustrator Chris Rumble at Cyrus Webb Presents