Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Mary Cecilia Jackson Interview - Sparrow


Photo Content from Chelsea Sedoti

Mary Cecilia Jackson has worked as a middle school teacher, an adjunct instructor of college freshmen, a technical writer and editor, a speechwriter, a museum docent, and a development officer for central Virginia's PBS and NPR stations. Her first novel, Sparrow, was an honor recipient of the SCBWI Sue Alexander Award and a young-adult finalist in the Writers' League of Texas manuscript contest. She lives with her architect husband, William, in Western North Carolina and Hawaii, where they have a farm and five ridiculously adorable goats.

        
  

Tell us your latest news.
 I’m super excited about two upcoming book events, one with Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane on August 5, and one with Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, tentatively scheduled for August 13. It’s such an honor and a joy to be with the book-loving community – virtually, in person, over the phone – any way possible! These events connect me in such a lovely way with readers, and I’m always so happy to hear how people are responding to Sparrow. In other news, I’m hard at work on my next YA novel, and it feels wonderful to be writing again (even though my first drafts are total garbage)!

Who or what has influenced your writing, and in what way? 
This is a really, really tough question, and the answer’s going to be really, really long, so gird your loins! 

 I’ve been a voracious reader all my life, and though I’m tempted to say “Every book I’ve ever read has influenced me in one way or another,” I realize that this would probably be cheating. I also have a master’s degree in English, so I’ve read tons of classic literature, going all the way back to The Epic of Gilgamesh. Most I loved, some I loathed (e.g. The Last of the Mohicans. Barf. And please, I beg you, do not ever make me read William Faulkner again. The Bear nearly killed me.) It’s difficult for me to name authors who’ve influenced me, because there are so many. My love for reading started early in my childhood – all of Louisa May Alcott and Frances Hodgson Burnett, all the Nancy Drew books, the Lassie books, Black Beauty, etc. Reading Ray Bradbury in middle school was a revelatory experience. Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dandelion Wine combine beautiful writing with great storytelling, and I found that absolutely mesmerizing. Isabel Allende and Alice Hoffman are masters of magical realism, which I love. I’ve been influenced by the poetry of Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins and e.e. cummings, because of their beautiful, inventive, stunning use of language. Reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost in college was a game-changer for me; it’s long and complicated and extremely difficult – and also some of the most ravishing poetry in the English language. All of Toni Morrison’s work blew me away, especially Song of Solomon, with its riveting storytelling, lyrical writing, gorgeous imagery, and heartbreaking characters. William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice was the first book that haunted me; it still does. I’ve been profoundly influenced by Shakespeare and his unparalleled insight into what it means to be human, in all its glory and greed, its evil and redemption, its shining purity of heart and generosity of spirit. Reading Shakespeare taught me that evil is rarely pure evil, and that virtue is never absolute – that “there is some soul of goodness in things evil” (a quote I used as an epigraph in Sparrow). When I read Tolkien in high school, I learned what it felt like to become so completely carried away by a book that I had to ease my way slowly back into the real world. For more information on books that have played an important role in my life, I invite you to check out my website, www.marycjackson.com. There’s a more exhaustive (but by no means complete) list there.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published. 
 Oh my goodness, the biggest joy is hearing from readers! My book came out on March 17, the very day that the COVID pandemic shut down everything in my state. My launch that evening was cancelled, as well as my ten-city book tour. This happened to all authors whose books were released at this time, and it was hard. But as the weeks went by, I began to hear from people on social media. Mothers who’d read Sparrow and shared it with their daughters and sons. Adults and teens who’d been moved by the book and reached out to tell me so. I was so incredibly touched and deeply, deeply grateful to connect with these readers, and to know that my book had affected them in some way. One quiet afternoon, while I was trying to puzzle out what writing project might come next for me, a woman wrote and told me that, like Sparrow, she’d been physically abused by her high-school boyfriend. And like Sparrow, she hadn’t talked about it to anyone. She’d felt alone and afraid. She told me that my book had given her the hope that she could finally talk about it and get help to heal herself from her trauma. Her message changed the way I was looking at and experiencing the release of my first book. Sure, it was disappointing that my book tour and related events were cancelled. But that woman, that brave, honest woman who’d been so hurt, so broken when she was so young, telling me that my book gave her hope? I could not possibly have heard anything more humbling. It was such an unexpected moment of grace, and I’m so grateful to her and all the readers who’ve been in touch with me.

What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel? 
I hope they’re loving it! I’m hoping that they’re riveted, that they can’t wait to find out what happens next, that they’re filled with hope for Sparrow and feeling deep empathy and compassion for her and for Lucas. Mostly, I hope that readers will feel a strong connection to the characters and their stories. And I hope that when they’re finished, they’ll have great conversations about the book with their friends and families.

In your new book, Sparrow, can you tell my Book Nerd community a little about it? 
Of course! Sparrow is the story of Savannah Darcy Rose, a gifted ballerina who suffers physical abuse at the hands of her boyfriend, Tristan King. In order to heal herself, she must confront the abuse that haunts her past and work to create a positive future, in spite of her grief and pain. Also, as the mother of three sons, I’m passionate about creating loving, vulnerable, and brave male characters. And so my second POV character was born: Lucas, a boy who is deeply shaken by what happens to the girl he’s secretly loved for years. A boy who recognizes his inability to imagine the nightmare that Sparrow’s life has become or understand in any truly empathetic way how profoundly hurt she is. In the end, Sparrow isn’t a book about violence, but about finding something worth living for, even when you question everything that happened before your after. It’s about finally speaking all your terrible words, becoming someone new, and learning to follow the still, small voice of hope.

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book? 
There really wasn’t any one thing that kept me from writing; if I didn’t write, it was because other stuff was happening – we were planning a wedding, moving, having family stay for the holidays – the kinds of things that distract all working people everywhere. I am extremely focused when I write. When I start a book, I try to write a thousand words a day at the beginning, because it’s early days and it’s often tough for me to get going. After a few weeks, I increase the word count to 2,500 or 3,000 words a day and give myself little rewards, like “750 more words, and I can go to the gym, or take a long walk, or make a cup of tea.” When I’m nearing the end of a first draft, I’m working at a more feverish pace and can often do 5,000 or 6,000 words a day. I don’t write on weekends, but I will read over what I’ve done that week and make notes. And I am always thinking about my work, even when I’m doing other things. (Perhaps this explains that time I put the salt in the refrigerator and the butter in the silverware drawer – yeah, let’s go with that.) So I guess what I’m saying is that if I am pulled away from my work, it’s because I choose to be, not because there are forces beyond my control, though yes, those sometimes happen. I will always, always, stop what I am doing to talk to my boys when they call, even if I am in mid-sentence. And if there’s a dog in the room? All bets are off.

What part of Savannah did you enjoy writing the most? 
I loved writing the ballet scenes, because, well, ballet. I adore it, so naturally I did a lot of research. By which I mean I watched hours and hours and hours of ballet on YouTube. But even more than that, I loved writing Sparrow’s (Savannah’s) interior monologue, which was often completely different from what she said out loud to her friends and family. I am so fascinated by what people think and what they say, and how often the two are polar opposites. We’re complicated creatures, we humans, and sometimes we keep so much of our hearts and souls – the most precious parts of ourselves – safely hidden away, because we’re terrified of being hurt. I love writing that.

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be, and why? 
I’d introduce Sparrow to August Boatwright from The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, which has long been one of my favorite books. August is a middle-aged African-American woman who welcomes Lily, a traumatized white runaway, into her home, which she shares with her two sisters. She teaches Lily not only about love and forgiveness and grief and the spiritual world, but also about female strength and power. She is one of the most compassionate, generous, and wise characters I’ve ever read, and I have loved her ever since I read the book nearly eighteen years ago. She is unconditional love personified.

What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating your characters? 
There were many things, but I think the most surprising of them all was how quickly they became fully fleshed out people in my imagination. When I thought about them, I could see them so clearly, having lunch in the school cafeteria, or at a Fourth of July party in Delaney’s back yard. I could see and hear Lucas and Sparrow dancing in pools of sunlight on the worn hardwood floors of the ballet studio. I could see Sparrow’s father sitting on the front porch in his Adirondack chair, capping his fountain pen, then taking off his reading glasses and rubbing the bridge of his nose. There are so many parts of being a writer that I love (okay, I love all of it), but creating characters, putting flesh on their bones, and breathing life into them is probably the most joyful part of all.

What’s the most ridiculous fact you know? 
I have two. Not sure if they’re ridiculous, but they’re my favorites. First, Queen Elizabeth II is a trained mechanic. And second, otters hold hands when they sleep so they won’t float away from each other. (I know. How cute is that?)

What, according to you, is your most treasured possession? 
The “official” wedding portrait of my husband and me. It’s a little unusual – we’re on an empty beach, and we’re holding hands, walking away from the camera towards the sea, my husband in his tuxedo and me with the train of my wedding gown draped over my arm. It’s like we’re walking toward our future together, and I love that. Also: The oil portrait of my firstborn son and me, painted when he was six months old. My kids’ baby books, a picture of me and my father on a ski trip to Colorado, all the photographs of my beautiful, wonderful family.

Best date you’ve ever had? 
Hmmmm. Too bad you didn’t ask me about the WORST date I’ve ever had! (I still have nightmares.) HOWEVER, you didn’t, so I’ll tell you about the best, most wonderful date. I met my husband sixteen years ago on E-Harmony. This was back when that was pretty new and considered kind of weird, so naturally my family was completely wigged out, convinced that I’d meet a serial killer or an identity thief or some other unsavory character. We’d been writing to each other, and he was a wonderful writer. (That was kind of key for me; no bad grammar for this girl). Anyway, there came a time when he asked the dreaded question: “Should we meet?” I was terrified, but I agreed (and almost changed my mind a thousand times). He was in New York on business, and I was living in Virginia at the time. So he took a little detour when he finished his work and flew down to see me. We met at a beautiful restaurant in Richmond, and it was exactly like a movie. He had yellow roses sent to the table, we talked for hours and hours, and I swear I fell in love with him that very night.

What event in your life would make a good movie? 
My husband proposed to me in Belize. He loves to fish, and I’d never been, so he was all excited to take me fishing for the first time. (Narrator: “She was not excited.”) As we prepared to get on the tiny, tiny, TINY boat, I noticed some dark, threatening clouds on the horizon. I said, “Hey, honey, is that a storm out there?” “Nope,” he said, looking for affirmation from the fishing guide. “Nope,” said the fishing guide. “It’s just some rain.” (Narrator: “It was not just rain.”) We were out for six hours. Six hours, people. It poured – I mean a torrential downpour - all six hours. I was so cold that my lips were blue, and I dove into the ocean just to get warm. When my teeth wouldn’t stop chattering, the fishing guide brought out a blue tarp and laid it over me, but it was covered with fish guts and slime, so in retrospect, it probably would have been better to freeze. Did we catch fish? Of course we did. Two HUGE barracuda. HUGE. With many sharp and snappy teeth. On the way back, the wind was so fierce that it blew the metal and canvas canopy of the boat straight into the back of my head. That was fun. That night, at dinner at our small hotel, the chef assured us that barracuda are absolutely delicious, and he happily grilled some for us. He was right; it was wonderful. The next day, we left beautiful Belize, and at the airport in Belize City, my brand-new fiancĂ© and I started feeling a little “off,” a little queasy. (Okay, a lot queasy.) To take my mind off the fact that I was likely to hurl in the very near future, I went to the gift shop to browse. There was a book about fish, and I looked up barracuda. Guess what? They’re poisonous. Especially the big ones.

Which incident in your life totally changed the way you think today? 
There really isn’t just one incident that changed the way I think, but there was one turning point that was important. I started out as a psychology major at Virginia Tech, because I thought I would be good at helping people with their problems. Little did I know that helping people would involve so much math. In the middle of my sophomore year, when I talked to my father about how much I hated all my classes, how my professors were deeply weird and unapproachable, he asked, “What do you love more than anything else?” I said, “Reading and writing.” He said, “Honey, study something you love. Life’s too short to spend working at something that will never make you happy.” So I changed my major to English and never looked back. While that conversation with my sweet dad didn’t exactly change the way I think, it did change my life’s direction.

What is one unique thing that you are afraid of?
Elevators. I hate them – that moment when the doors begin to close – shudder.

What was the best memory you ever had as a writer? 
This is weird, but when I got the first-pass galleys of Sparrow and saw the page that has all the publishing information, like the ISBN number and the copyright and “all rights reserved,” and the publisher’s address – OMG. I cried and cried and cried, because after all the years it took to write and revise the story, my book was finally real.

Where can readers reach you? 
On Twitter @marycjackson. On Instagram @mceciliajackson. And through my website www.marycjackson.com. I would love to hear from you!

TEN QUOTES FROM SPARROW
  • “It always surprises me, how life can change in an instant, how everything can turn upside down on an ordinary winter day.”
  • “For one panicky minute I think about staying home, right here in this kitchen, where it’s warm and safe and I know the pattern of every day, every night. I think about the moment when I step off the front porch with Tristan, walking into the darkness, into everything unknown.”
  • On rehearsing Swan Lake: “Lucas makes it look like he aches for me, as though when I dance away from him, the space where I’d been moments before has gone cold. With my entire body, with all my heart, I dance the panicked fear of never being human again, the agony of imprisonment, of having no power over my body’s form or shape. I dance, my heart breaking open, filling with love.
  • “When I was thirteen, my dad told me that if he could get away with it, he’d send me to a convent until I was thirty, then arrange my marriage to the rich, impotent son of some obscure European noble family. He said the Benedictines would be a good choice, because I look nice in black.”
  • Sparrow at a party, asking why her best friend, Delaney’s, boyfriend isn’t there: “Where’s Justin?” I ask.
    “I kicked him to the curb last night. He was so freaking handsy all the time, completely uninterested in, you know, actually talking to me like I was a real person. I always felt like I was on a date with a sea creature. All arms and mouth, small gelatinous brain. It got boring.”
  • Tonight will be like every high-school party in the history of the world, the air suffused with beer and bourbon, cinnamon gum and toothpaste, candles that smell like cookies. Someone will be locked in a bathroom, sobbing about being dumped or their parents’ bitter divorce or a friend’s terrible betrayal. Charlotte will throw up.
  • “I’m so tired. All the way down in my bones. It exhausts me, walking around filled up with words I cannot, will not speak. Sometimes I imagine them overflowing, leaking out of my eyes and ears, lifting the skin from the palms of my hands, roaring out of my mouth like a tsunami, muddy and filled with debris.
  • Sparrow’s Aunt Sophie, who’s worried about her:
    “Sometimes in a relationship, especially one that’s so new and intense, it helps to take a step back . . . and it’s okay to walk away if you feel uncomfortable or anxious or disappointed.
    “But, sweetheart, here’s the most important thing. It’s also okay to walk away just because you want to. You don’t need to explain or justify anything. You don’t have to have a reason. You can just want out.”
  • Lucas’s Granny Deirdre:
    “I’ve known so many good, sweet boys just like you who’ve gotten themselves caught up in dreadful things, things that were bigger and more complicated than they could possibly understand. They convinced themselves that they were doing good in the world, righting terrible wrongs, and maybe they were. It was hard to tell, because they left so much destruction behind.
  • 10. Dr. Seraphina Gray:
    “Nobody deserves to be hurt, Sparrow. Not little girls and not grown women. Not boys or men. No one ever ‘has it coming,’ no matter what they say or do.”

In the tradition of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, a devastating but hopeful YA debut about a ballerina who finds the courage to confront the abuse that haunts her past and threatens her future.

There are two kinds of people on the planet. Hunters and prey
I thought I would be safe after my mother died. I thought I could stop searching for new places to hide. But you can’t escape what you are, what you’ve always been.
My name is Savannah Darcy Rose.
And I am still prey.

Though Savannah Rose―Sparrow to her friends and family―is a gifted ballerina, her real talent is keeping secrets. Schooled in silence by her long-dead mother, Sparrow has always believed that her lifelong creed―“I’m not the kind of girl who tells”―will make her just like everyone else: Normal. Happy. Safe. But in the aftermath of a brutal assault by her seemingly perfect boyfriend Tristan, Sparrow must finally find the courage to confront the ghosts of her past, or lose herself forever….
You can purchase Sparrow at the following Retailers:
        

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you MARY CECILIA JACKSON for making this giveaway possible.
5 Winners will receive a Copy of SPARROW by Mary Cecilia Jackson.
PART ONE - REVIEWS & INTERVIEW
JULY 27th MONDAY A Court of Coffee and Books REVIEW
JULY 28th TUESDAY Wishful Endings EXCERPT
JULY 28th TUESDAY Emelie's Books REVIEW
JULY 29th WEDNESDAY A Bella Fairy Tale REVIEW
JULY 29th WEDNESDAY JeanBookNerd INTERVIEW

PART TWO - REVIEWS & EXCERPTS
JULY 30th THURSDAY Nay's Pink Bookshelf REVIEW
JULY 30th THURSDAY Kait Plus Books EXCERPT
JULY 31st FRIDAY Here's to Happy Endings REVIEW
JULY 31st FRIDAY Twirling Book Princess EXCERPT
JULY 31st FRIDAY Enthralled Bookworm EXCERPT
AUGUST 1st SATURDAY BookHounds REVIEW 
AUGUST 2nd SUNDAY Casia's Corner REVIEW

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