Suzanne Crowley wrote the wonderful book The Very Ordered Existence of Merilee Marvelous. She keeps a blog where you can read about her signings. I haven’t reviewed her book, but it is fabulous!

What are you currently working on?

I just turned in a rough draft to my editor for a YA novel set in Elizabethan England. Surprisingly, I think it shares a lot in common with Merilee Marvelous in terms of the rhythm of the voice. And there is lots of folklore, legends and magic!

What are some of your favorite books?

As a child I absolutely adored the Frog and Toad Books by Arnold Lobel. When I went to visit my publisher, HarperCollins, I saw posters of the books in the hall and realized I shared the same publisher. That was a special moment. Chapter books I enjoyed included Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes and The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. I especially loved getting books through the Scholastic Club program. I remember bugging teachers everyday to see if the much anticipated package had arrived. And then I couldn’t wait till we got to order again. I also adored the Scholastic Book Fairs. As an adult I’ve read all of Tracy Chevalier books. A Girl with A Pearl Earring is my favorite of hers. I also enjoyed Geraldine Brooks A Year of Wonders and am currently listening to the audio of People of the Book. I just finished reading the Stolen Child by Keith Donohue which was fabulous, not like anything I’ve ever read. A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly is one of my favorite YA books. I’ve belonged to book clubs in every state I’ve lived and really enjoyed the fellowship and reading books that sometimes would not be my cup of tea. And I always have a huge stack of books to be read. If I only had the time.

Did anyone inspire any of the characters?

My oldest daughter Caitlin used to be obsessed with dragons when she was younger. She is now a senior and about to go off to college and study creative writing. She is a very talented artist and writer in her own right, better than me I truly think. She’s won some short story contests and has had a poem published. She was the spark for Merilee, but somewhere along the way, Merilee very much came into her own. Other characters have hues and hints of realtives but are drawn largely from my imagination. Especially mean ole Grandman Birdy – she was completely made up, I promise! The town of Jumbo is fictionalized Marfa which I’ve visited several times. I’ve seen the Marfa Lights myself, and they are indeed magical. I knew when I saw them they would make an appearance somewhere in the book and they did, becoming a symbol for hope and magic in the world.

How long did it take you to write Merilee Marvelous?

I wrote the first draft in a quick spurt of three months then put it away for a year while we went through a move. Then Caitlin started writing a fantasy novel at age 14 (completed a year later at 550 pages) and I decided to pull my draft out, dust it off and polish it. I joined the SCBWI and sent out 25 query letters. Over the next several months I heard from seven publishers who were all interested in reading my manuscript. Eventually I picked up an agent because of the interest (and on the rec of a fellow writer friend) and we settled on Greenwillow, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s. And I’m so thankful where I ended up. I love my imprint and my current editor who is a genius. Over the next couple years, and another move, and two editors, I worked hard on revising my first draft. On March 17th 2006 I got the news I’d received a two-book contract, one of the happiest days of my life.

What was your publishing journey like?

Five years of hard work, but well worth it.

How do you balance writing and being a mother with three kids?

This is a question I still haven’t found an answer to. When I wrote the first draft of Merilee Marvelous, my youngest was only 18 months old. I wrote when he napped and I stayed up late at night to write more. My children are now all in school during the day and this is when I snatch my time to write. Some things still go by the wayside though like frequent homecooked meals and a clean house. And I always feel guilty. But a writer needs to write every day whether it’s 100 words or 5,000 words.

Most children’s books deal with one or two hard situations. Merilee Marvelous confronts alcoholism, bullying, a girl with asperger’s syndrome, and a neglectful parent. Did you ever worry this would be too hard on a young reader?

Actually I didn’t. I feel kids are much more sophisticated these days and can handle it. And ultimately, I feel that Merilee Marvelous is an optimistic tale – really a fairy tale with a hopeful ending. It’s even made an “Optimistic Reads” Library list in Wisconsin. And if it makes one child feel not alone in this world I have hit my mark. I’ve heard from several Asperger kids who were very touched by Merilee for different reasons. This moves me much more than the critical praise I’ve received for Merilee Marvelous.

If you could be asked any question, what would it be?

My favorite question to ask readers is what is your favorite scene or moment? One of my favorites is when Merilee see the finished hand of Uncle Dal’s unfinished statue, “the perpetual foot.” It’s a majour turning point for her – that miracles large or small can happen. One reader told me her favorite was when Merilee finally let someone hug her. Other favorites are the poetry reading and the stand-off scene between Grandma Birdy and Veraleen in the kitchen.

Did you always want to be a writer?

Absolutely. Always. I think I was writing stories down as young as kindergarten, maybe before I stapled pages together and wrote stories in them. I remember starting a trend in thrid grade with these stapled books. Later I made hardback picture books and illustrated them and then later when I had a typewriter I made chapter books – mainly about good witches and fairy tales. Sadly they are all yellowing now – we didn’t have archival paper back then.

What were your favorite subjects in school?

Language arts and history. I was terrible and still am, at the maths and sciences.

How did you find the voice of Merilee?

Her southernness came naturally as I was born and raised in Texas. The bumps, rhythm and cadence of the voice was a breeze for me as I grew up listening to people like her my whole life. But the autistic side of her, that was something I struggled with through the revisions. At first I had Merilee talking in full sentences and handing out advice to everyone in town like she was Gandhi. I had to go back and dramatically cut her words. It became important for the reader to know Merilee’s words were trapped inside and this is something you learn on the first page. It really is one of the most important elements about her – that her words are inside, but she has a rich inner theater, as all kids with Asperger’s have. I want the reader to know that – that they have stories and voices too no matter how deeply buried inside they are.

What changed throughout the drafts in Merilee Marvelous?

Many, many things, almost too many to list. Characters and relationships were expanded. Chapters were cut and chapters added. Themes and symbolism expanded on. Scenes fleshed out. Language pared down. It was very painful in the beginning to dissect and rearrange my precious words. But I have to say, now looking back, it made the book ten times stronger. And almost without a doubt, whenever anyone tells me about their favorite part of the book, it is something that was birthed from the the revision process.

Where did you get all the odd facts in Merilee Marvelous, such as elephants can’t jump?

Many sources – News of the Weird, just googling “weird facts” or “trivia,” reading the newspaper everyday. “Cheeto” came from listening to the radio. People were calling in and relating oddly shaped food they found and one caller called in and said they had found a giant cheeto the size of a drumstick in their cheeto bag. I remember pulling over and writing this down on a store receipt, and of course it made it into the book – the first paragraph in fact.

Thanks for the interview!

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