Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Sheila O’Connor

Posted on: July 29, 2014

SheilaOConnorSheila O’Connor is the author of four novels. Her poems, stories and essays have appeared in anthologies and magazines. She has also edited two collections of writing by young people.  Her work has been recognized with Bush Foundation, Loft McKnight, and Minnesota State Arts Board fellowships.

O’Connor teaches fiction in the Master of Fine Arts (MFA)  program at Hamline University where she has been honored twice with the Outstanding Teacher Award. She also serves as editor of Water Stone Review. A long-time poet with the Writer-in-the-Schools program, O’Connor has taught writing to thousands of young people. In addition to her work with young people, O’Connor is a frequent guest lecturer at colleges and other venues.

Admidst her busy schedule, she took time to answer three questions dear to her heart. Tomorrow I’ll review her Sparrow Road, a young adult novel about improbable friendships and the power of imagination. Save the date: July 29!

ALLISON: When drawing on memories for your books, do you write mostly from your childhood or that of your kids or students? How easy or difficult is it to remember your earliest days?

SHEILA: I have a fairly keen memory of my early days, but I don’t draw on specific incidents when writing my books.  Instead, I draw on the emotional experience of being young, which I tend to remember quite well. I moved frequently as a child, so the experience of relocation, or separation from home, is quite vivid for me. For example in Sparrow Road, Raine spends the summer in an unfamiliar setting, an artist colony, and learns what it means to create a second home and family. The children in Keeping Safe the Stars have been uprooted from a commune in New Mexico to a cabin in northern Minnesota. Both of those experiences are imagined, for me imagination is the joy of fiction, but what it means to move, to lose places and people you love, to make a new home, that much I have lived.

ALLISON: You teach writing as part of Writer-in-the-Schools program but also teach fiction to students enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts. How do you adapt your teaching to those different ages?

SHEILA: So much of my work is centered on helping writers find their voice, and tell their authentic truths, and that work is the same regardless of the age. I find myself saying the same things to third-grade students that I say to my adults—write from the heart, tell your story, be brave, trust the raw material of your lives. In the end, those lessons are important for us all—the young writer, the mid-career writer, the reluctant writer, the established writer.

ALLISON: You have indicated that Sparrow Road is the first book which you feel should have an audience with young people. Do you prefer writing for adults or youth?

SHEILA: I don’t have a preference, honestly. In part, I think of it as a conversation. To whom am I speaking and why? What is it I want to say, and who will be receiving it? Why would it matter in their world? In the end, I’m after the best way to tell a story. I’ve been delighted to write for young people and adults, and I hope to continue crossing between those worlds.

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