Striking a Happy Chord with Readers
An Interview with Margaret Willey
by Amy E. Brandt
Margaret Willey is a versatile writer whose novels for young adults have garnered several distinctions, including listings as American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults and Recommended Books for Reluctant YA Readers. She published her first novel, The Bigger Book of Lydia, in 1983, and has since published novels and picture books to enthusiastic reviews. She received the 2002 Charlotte Zolotow Award for her original folktale, Clever Beatrice. Ms. Willey received a B.Ph. and B.A. from Grand Valley State College and an M.F.A. from Bowling Green State University. She currently works on her many writing projects in Grand Haven, Michigan, where she lives with her husband.
AEB: Your author’s note in Clever Beatrice alludes to the Canadian origins of the story, as well as to the storytelling expertise of your French-Canadian mother-in-law. After writing several contemporary young adult novels and a picture book in verse, what inspired you to write this original folktale? Also, you have mentioned previously that your characters often appear first, and your challenge is to “write the novel or story around that character.” Was this the case with Clever Beatrice?
MW: My interest in all things French-Canadian comes pretty directly out of my marriage to a French-Canadian, Richard Joanisse, born in Sault Ste. Marie, with French-speaking grandparents on either side. I had the character-building experience of marrying into a different culture at a young age, although now I realize that anyone who marries into a family with a strong ethnic identity has a similar challenge. I had to find my own place in this new world, but fortunately I was already a writer and I was not unused to the role of outsider/observer; it is a fertile perspective for me. I have written several young adult novels and many short stories and a novella on that theme.
With the birth of my daughter, Chloe, I came to a deeper appreciation for certain qualities my Canadian in-laws had, qualities that I began to see in her — not only in her appearance, but also in her style of communicating, her love of talking and performing and her sense of humor. She seems very French-Canadian to me and she looks strikingly like pictures that we have of my late mother-in-law as a young woman. I became all the more interested in these qualities and their origins and I slowly found my way into a cachet of wonderful folktales from Canada, some of them from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The character of Beatrice emerged from all of this, a little gremlin of a girl, very persistent and hardy. She was my own contribution to the folktales. It seemed fitting and fun to actually name her after my mother-in-law, Beatrice Joanisse, to make the book a kind of celebration to the Canadian side of our family.
AEB: Clever Beatrice is written in a subtle dialect that gives flavor to the story without overwhelming it. Was this a difficult balance to achieve?
MW: The dialect that I used in Clever Beatrice came from listening to my husband’s relatives — his mother and several of his aunts in particular — who would probably protest that they talk just like everybody else, but in fact have these deliciously rhythmic and sly patterns of speech. I had apparently really paid attention, for it was easy for me to slip into the dialect with Beatrice. At the same time, I didn’t want to mock Upper Peninsula and Canadian dialect. I have a deep appreciation for these dialects and speech patterns and their origins. They reflect a love of hyperbole and repetition and an awareness of the undercurrents of humor and manipulation that occur in ordinary conversation.
AEB: In writing short stories for adults, young adult novels, and picture books, you have written not only in different formats, but also for different audiences. Do you write with a particular audience in mind? What do you hope readers of all ages take away from your stories?
MW: People have actually been telling me since graduate school days that I write in too many areas and I need to settle down into just one or two. I used to fret about this, but now I know that I can’t change my work patterns; they are simply mine and so I hop from project to project — novel, essay, picture book, poem — always with a vague awareness of the different audiences and their different needs, although this audience awareness is never where a project originates for me. Rather, it’s my own curiosity about what I am doing — one character’s dilemma or some essential metaphor, or a plot line that occurs to me — these are the sorts of things that pull me into a project, regardless of the age level of the audience. And I’ve always liked doing many different, and sometimes dissonant, things at once. It’s hard to say what I want readers to take away from my stories and essays and such, because I often lose the sense of audience entirely as I work. I know that I do sometimes write things that have no audience, but then something like Clever Beatrice comes along and strikes a happy chord with readers and balances it all out.
AEB: Several book reviewers and critics have commented on your convincing characters, as well as your accurate portrayal of complicated issues and situations. How do you achieve this authenticity in your writing?
MW: I think it’s all in the writing for and about teenagers. The task requires a kind of immersion into a completely different and long-past phase of life — a different emotional focus, a different physical reality, different fears and hungers and concerns. And it’s just so essential that the characters be real and alive to the reader — for who can sniff out a false, preachy perspective better than a literate teenager? I think that writing for teenagers has trained me to really think hard about the emotional lives of my characters in general.
AEB: You are quoted as saying that writing poetry “is the closest I’ll ever come to making music.” Music and musicians also appear frequently in your novels; characters sing, play the piano, and learn the oboe. Why is music such a recurring theme in your work?
MW: Although I am not a musician myself, the entire middle section of my large birth family is quite musical — I have four brothers in various bands and a sister who is a singer and my father plays the traditional Irish drum. Thanksgiving With Me [a picture book written in verse] is a tribute to how important music was in my birth family. I grew up observing the significance of musical outlets for my siblings. As a mother, I noticed how important my adolescent daughter’s music was to her evolving sense of self. I think that music is really important to teenagers — the most democratic and accessible form of self-statement they have. Even the non-musical have their favorite musical artists and keeping close to music helps many kids survive emotionally.
AEB: All of your novels take place in southwestern Michigan, mostly in small, lakeside towns. Lake Michigan itself is often a backdrop to your novels. In Clever Beatrice, the geography of northern Michigan is central to the story. Why is this sense of place so prominent in your stories? Is there a reason that your stories are written so close to home?
MW: My parents moved from Chicago to southwestern Michigan in the mid-1950s, raising a family of eleven children there. Although my adolescent years were full of dreams of the day when I would finally escape small town Michigan, once I seriously started writing, I completely claimed the town and the landscape of my childhood and found it very rich in memory and significance. Now I live in a town very much like my hometown, only eighty miles away from where I grew up. I love to travel, I love Chicago, New York and European big cities, but in my creative soul I am absolutely a small-town girl with a lifelong fondness for Lake Michigan sunsets.
AEB: What are you working on currently? Will we read more folktales?
MW: I am working on too many things, naturally. A second Beatrice story — which has been so much fun and which I am thrilled to report will also be illustrated by Heather Solomon. In addition, I have other children’s book manuscripts in submission and a young adult novel in progress, as well as a half-finished collection of essays about girls. Too many projects. Every so often, I finish one. It’s actually kind of wrenching for me to finish something I’ve kept around for years and send it off into the world. I certainly felt that way when I sent off little Beatrice. But there will definitely be more folktales.
Books by Margaret Willey
The Bigger Book of Lydia. Harper, 1983.
Finding David Dolores. Harper, 1986.
If Not For You. Harper, 1988.
Saving Lenny. Bantam, 1990.
The Melinda Zone. Bantam, 1993.
Facing the Music. Delacorte, 1996.
Thanksgiving with Me. Illustrated by Lloyd Bloom. HarperCollins, 1998.
Clever Beatrice. Illustrated by Heather Solomon. Atheneum, 2001.
Read More about Margaret Willey
“Margaret Willey.” Something About the Author, vol. 86. Gale, 1996.
Saari, Peggy. “Margaret Willey.” Authors and Artists for Young Adults, vol. 27, Gale, 1999.
Tyler, Jan. “Margaret Willey.” Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers, St. James Press, 1994.
Reprinted from Friends of the CCBC Newsletter 2002, Number 2 with permission of Amy e. Brandt and the Friends of the CCBC, Inc. ©2002 Friends of the CCBC, Inc.