|Kathryn Fitzmaurice||Interview with Kathryn Fitzmaurice, May 2009|
The Year the Swallows Came Early
Eleanor "Groovy" Robinson loves cooking and plans to go to culinary school just as soon as she's old enough. But even Groovy's thoughtfully—planned menus won't fix the things that start to go wrong the year she turns eleven—suddenly, her father is in jail, her best friend's long-absent mother reappears, and the swallows that make their annual migration to her hometown arrive surprisingly early. As Groovy begins to expect the unexpected, she learns about the importance of forgiveness, understands the complex stories of the people around her, and realizes that even an earthquake can't get in the way of a family that needs to come together.
ETC: I understand you were inspired to start writing because of your grandmother, can you tell us a little about that, and specifically, how you came to write The Year the Swallows Came Early?
Kathryn Fitzmaurice: The summer I turned 13, my mother sent me to New York City to visit my grandmother, who was a science fiction author. This was in the 70's, when science fiction was becoming very popular. My grandmother led a very eclectic lifestyle. I remember we never did anything until late afternoon, and then we stayed up until 2 or 3am. Sometimes, we went to dinner as late as 11pm. Then when we returned, she'd sit down to write until very early in the morning. She told me she did this because the middle of the night was when people said and did things they normally wouldn't. She helped me to write my very first story that summer, and stayed up all night typing it so I could have a real story like she had. It was my first real writing lesson.
We met her agent for lunch, and after listening to them discuss how my grandmother could make her characters into whomever she wanted, I decided that someday, I'd like to be a writer, too. So after I announced my decision, my grandmother proceeded to send me books about writing techniques, books by classic authors, and literary essays for every birthday and Christmas holiday after. One of my favorite books she sent me when I was deep into a teenage poetry stage was a volume of poetry written by Emily Dickinson.
When she passed away, she left me a big box with all of her unfinished manuscripts in it. The box of manuscripts has been a huge inspiration to me.
So because of all of the encouragement she gave me and to honor her, I decided that when I sat down to write my own novel many years later, that I would name my main character after her and give her a grandmother very much like my own. I gave the grandmother in my story the same characteristics and even had her give a box of manuscripts to her granddaughter. In fact, because I remember her revising Chrysalis of Death the summer I visited, I decided to include it in The Year the Swallows Came Early. So on page 148, my main character and her best friend find this manuscript and talk about it, along with a few of her others stories. I included her book, Chrysalis of Death inside my book.
When I started working on my novel, I knew just two things. I knew I wanted to write about my grandmother, and how she left me a box of manuscripts which later shaped my life. But also, I wanted to write about the swallows and their annual migration back to the mission every year. Their return reminds me of a promise which can never be broken. It's so touching and hopeful to me. I am there every year, waiting for them, amazed that they somehow know the way home.
The other parts came to me while I was writing. I am not the kind of writer who uses an outline. I have a general sense of where the story is going, but mostly, the story comes to me as I'm writing it.
ETC: If you had to sum up your book in one sentence, what would you say?
Kathryn Fitzmaurice: I'll use the one they have on the copyright page in the front of the book. It reads, "After her father is sent to jail, eleven-year-old Eleanor "Groovy" Robinson must decide if she can forgive the failings of someone she loves."
ETC: What was the most challenging aspect of writing The Year the Swallows Came Early? …the most rewarding?
Kathryn Fitzmaurice: The most challenging part was getting the main character's voice right. The most rewarding was that in the first draft, my main character, Eleanor, didn't come to a place of forgiveness by the end, but in the final draft, she finally did. I couldn't push her, it had to come naturally. I had to give her time to come around to it on her own.
ETC: You've woven a lot of food into your story; did you ever attend or want to attend cooking school?
Kathryn Fitzmaurice: Well, here is where I admit that I completely can't stand to not only make out a grocery list, but go to the market! I cook because I have to. I have two teenage boys who are always starving, but really, I don't enjoy cooking that much.
ETC: What is a typical writing day like for you?
Kathryn Fitzmaurice: A typical writing day for me starts at 9am and ends when my boys return from school, usually around 3pm. I sit in my home office, drink strong green tea, which I heat up several times, and try to remember to let the dog out at least once. Usually the day flies by. I try not to answer the phone unless it's my mother, then I usually answer.
ETC: Do you spend more time writing on the computer or with pen and paper? What's your process like?
Kathryn Fitzmaurice: I always write the first draft on the computer, then print it and make revisions in pencil. I need to see it on the floor all layed out so I can cut and paste sections together. Then I retype it back on the computer, print it again, make more revisions, etc., until it is done. This usually takes SEVERAL times before it is ready to be read by my agent, who usually (luckily!) sends it back again for another draft. Then, once the editor sees it, she will also have suggestions to make it better. There is the copy editor, who looks at it after the editor and helps me find the discrepancies I may have overlooked. On one page of the manuscript, there could be up to ten sticky notes from the copy editor suggesting changes.
ETC: What kinds of books do your children like to read, and have they influenced your writing at all?
Kathryn Fitzmaurice: I have two boys, one age 12 and one age 16. They read a combination of assigned classics from their literature classes, and free choice books. My 16 year old just finished reading The Lord of the Flies. My 12 year old just finished two books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid (the third book, he's read them all). Every book influences me somewhat. There is at least one brilliant part in each book, and some are brilliant from beginning to end.
ETC: Who are your favorite authors, and what's the best writing advice you've ever received?
Kathryn Fitzmaurice: The best writing advice I've ever received was from my grandmother. She told me to write what I know. I have so many favorite authors. A few are Kate DiCamillo, Deborah Wiles, Ann Martin, Emily Dickinson, Sharon Creech, Susan Patron, Harper Lee. My list could go on and on.
ETC: What are you working on next?
Kathryn Fitzmaurice: I am working on two middle grade books. One is a historical fiction book about a baseball team and the other is a companion book to The Year the Swallows Came Early, as told from Groovy's friend Frankie's point of view. I'm still revising it right now. He is more difficult to write about than Eleanor/Groovy because he's much more complicated.
ETC: What are you dying to talk about that no one has ever asked?
Kathryn Fitzmaurice: I hope someday to write a book of poems. I adore poetry. I love the economy of text that makes up its structure. I have a couple of my favorite poems framed and hanging in my home office.