By Kate Carroll
I sat down with Mary C. Ryan today and, over lunch, we discussed life, her family and her successful career as a children’s author. Encapsulated here are some of the highlights from one of the hippest seniors and writers I know.
Did you plan to be a writer?
I wanted to be a cowboy when I was young. Not a cowgirl – a cowboy. I didn’t like Dale Evans, I liked her husband--not in a romantic way, but he could go out and do things like ride the horse and catch the bad guys. Dale rode a horse but she had to wear a skirt.
I used to write plays as a kid and then perform them in the neighborhood… I recently found 5 or 6 pieces of writing from way back when. It was quite a surprise because I didn’t think I had saved anything. I mean they were horrible, but I was just so happy to find them.
Mary wrote for her high school paper newspaper and won several awards, including essays and fiction.
I didn’t do much in college. I was too busy socializing! When Patrick was born, I wrote him a poem. My husband hand-wrote it in his nice engineering handwriting so I could submit it. I was terrified to send it out. I think I mailed it to Good Housekeeping or Woman’s Day. Of course it was rejected, but I kept telling myself, all they can say is no.
It’s all about that thick skin we need as writers.
Yes, eventually, I did develop that. During my early career, I went on an interview for a reporter (position) for The Niagara Falls Gazette and walked out with the job. I knew absolutely nothing about what I was doing, but I picked it up quickly. For years I covered council and Board of Ed meetings.
I also did feature work and freelance work. I have record books with pages and pages of rejections, and every once in a while, there would be a little Snoopy sticker (signifying a sale.)
My first actual sale was to the Wall Street Journal. It was a poem; I never saw it in print but they sent me a check for five bucks. Then I sold something to the Toledo Sunday Blade – a humor piece. Also wrote a lot for the Buffalo News.
But, it was your son, Patrick who inspired you to write your first story for children.
There were probably a gazillion things wrong with it, but it got me writing. I still have it somewhere; I have all my old notebooks. The story, How Long is the Summer, developed after a distraught Patrick came home and announced that his favorite play area had met its fate. A developer had bulldozed the fields to make way for a housing development. My main character found happiness in the end because he met a new playmate in one of the new homes. Although the story remains unpublished, it was the catalyst that started me on my publication journey.
How did you choose the genre you often write in?
I think it chose me. I guess it was a particularly good time in my life, maybe, that I remembered. My kids figured into it too. That time period in my own life was full of good memories, so you write what you know.
You found your stride with middle grade characters and wrote another book, Blue Flyers.
That was my first real book. It was about a kid who played hockey. Why? I don’t know, because no one in my family played hockey. Geared towards middle grade, it’s now available on Amazon.
How long does it take you to write a book?
I always say about a year.
Do you work from an outline?
No. They bore me to tears. It doesn’t leave enough room for you to take those digressions. I always say the most fun part of the journey is when you hit a detour and you have to go off and find something you never found before. I usually have a general feeling of how it starts and how it ends and everything in the middle is up for grabs.
Do you have a favorite book from your body of work?
I always have to say Me Two, because it did well and it was fun.
Take me through the journey of Me Two.
It actually started as a whole different book. It started with the idea of an overweight kid whose parents sent him to what they call "fat camp" now. I’m not sure I even have the original version, but one day I was at the supermarket and they had a little kiosk with some kids’ books on there. I saw this title called, “Jelly Belly” and I picked it up and it was literally my plot! So I thought, I can’t do that, but I liked the characters and now that I've created them I just can’t abandon them.
The seed for the new plot emerged after a session with your writing group.
Something must have stuck in my brain, because the next morning, It was like, that’s what I’m going do. I’m going to clone this kid! It was a Eureka moment.
When did you know you had a winner?
I had published three books with Little, Brown prior to writing that. My editor had said those three were fine, though they are not going gangbusters, even though a couple of them were National Literary Guild nominees. She said, we would really like your next book to be a little more serious, so I handed her Me Two, which was really far from serious. But I think they must have seen the potential in it, because they took it. After a couple of years, it went out of print and I always had this feeling that it was a movie. So when it was going out of print, I thought, I’m going to see if anybody is interested in making a movie of my book. Well, I wasn’t smart enough to know that you can’t do that!
Just call Hollywood, right?
Yeah, kind of like that.
What happened next?
I called Steph Lurie, who wasn’t at Little Brown by then, and I said, "I just have this feeling that this should be a movie. How do I do this?’ She told me to call one of the editors over at Little, Brown and tell her that I suggested putting it out there. So, I did and the editor said they usually don’t do this, but that she would put out a few feelers. And a couple of weeks later, she called me and said, we’ve got some interest and one of them is Disney. Anyway, they took an option for two years and they paid me some money and the book was still in print so I got 80%. The first year went by and the second year they didn’t renew the option, so I was back to square one. I had some connections at Nickelodeon, and I was just about ready to contact them when they (Disney) called back and wanted to take another option and, by now, the book was out of print. Then there was a little more money that I got to keep. They took another two-year option and finally on a day in March of 2000, they got the green light to go.
Exciting! Were you involved in the movie making?
No, but I got to go on set and I took Pat (husband), Mary (daughter) and Joe and their three kids.
Did they keep the movie true to the book?
Amazingly, yes! They did add a grandfather who was in a nursing home, which I liked and wished that I had put him into the book.
Did you have a premiere?
I did. It was at the Chagrin Valley Athletic Club … My friend took it over and she did a wonderful job.
Aside from this amazing work, is there one baby that you still have percolating in your mind?
There is. I actually won the SCBWI Work in Progress award for it. What was amazing, the second place winner was my friend, M.J. Auch, who was in my writers’ group. She went on to publish hers and I did not. I had psychoanalyzed myself in this book. It was about this girl who had lost her mom when she was young. The book opens with her going back to the house that she shared with her dad, who had just died suddenly of a heart attack. It was so dark and I had lost my own dad at that time of my life. I don’t think I could deal with what happened to this character. She was so mired in her grief and I couldn’t pull her out of it. I have all the pieces but never got that far in the writing.
Now that so many years have passed, do you think you could do it justice and offer something to someone who is suffering loss?
I don’t know. It would seriously take some time. And I don’t think I have that kind of time right now.
Where do you get all of your ideas from?
God only knows. I think they are floating out there. It was said by someone else that they are all floating out there and whoever grabs them first…
Who were your mentors?
I took a night course at the University of Buffalo from Margery Facklam, who was a great nonfiction and fiction author. Margery invited me to the National League of American Pen Women… these were a bunch of women who were writing and my eyes were opened. Eventually, Marge and I ended up in a critique group together.
(Margery mentored Mary, and they remained good friends until Margery’s death last year.)
What is the hardest thing about the children’s publishing market today?
Oh, I don’t even know where to start. I think there’s a lot more with the self-publishing options. Everybody thinks they are a writer now. And there are fewer "work your way up" opportunities with newspapers and magazines. There are blogs, but it takes much more effort to find them maybe.
I had a pretty good part-time job with newspapers. But then the news wire service eliminated the small contributors.
I did humor columns for many years. I still contribute humor pieces (to a local paper,) the Spirit of Bainbridge. It’s called Scrapbag. It doesn’t pay but it keeps the pen flowing.
That is something I see clearly in your writing - the underlying humor that you have that’s very comfortable - it just comes through. It’s never forced.
I love humor. Thank you.
It’s obvious that you get who you are writing for, too.
Maybe it’s my quirky frame of mind. I have always liked time travel. I’ve always liked anything with the supernatural or off-beat. I was always fascinated with that stuff.
Speaking of quirky, give us something quirky about you.
About me? Well, I decided many years ago that I wanted to play the banjo. I can strum it, but I can’t pick it. I surprised a lot of people with that. I still have my banjo and I still harbor delusions of playing.
As a children’s writer, do you need a quirkiness in your style?
I think that kids like humor. I think kids are adept at picking out the absurd in situations, including things that their parents do. I don’t know. I never deliberately tried to do that nor to I try to write down to kids, but I do try and throw things in that are not the first things you think of.
What are the most valuable assets a writer should possess?
Talent, of course, but I think determination and confidence. I can’t put it down to one thing. I think you have to believe in yourself and believe that you can do it and somehow find the courage to blast past all those people who say you can't.
I think the people who can’t do that will just fade away. They are going to give it up. It’s not going to be something they can get other people to buy into what they are writing.
As a seasoned writer, how do you keep up with the current trends?
Oh Mary, you do. Tell us about Dragonseed Press.
I had to develop that for The Secret in the West Woods and I had to learn the process of publishing. It was a local book and I didn’t think publishers would be interested in it. I still wanted to publish it. I published three books like that. This was before CreateSpace and things like that.
You are an instructor for the Institute of Children’s Literature. Which side of the page do you like to be on? Editor or author?
Oh, the author definitely. As an instructor, I was paying more attention to what everybody else should be writing, so it drained my ideas. But it was a great way to earn extra money.
If you were writing a book about your life, what would the title be?
You know I almost think I did already. They say your first book is pretty autobiographical and mine was – Frankie’s Run. And it was my favorite too because it was my first (published) one. And it was about a girl who wanted to be taken seriously. She didn’t want to have to fit into the norm of what girls were doing. She wanted to do something important with her life. While I probably didn’t consciously do that, I think it was in the back of my mind that I wanted to do that too. I didn’t want to be forced into a mold of some kind.
You know it’s funny. At my writers’ group in Buffalo, we were reading things at our meeting. M.J Auk was reading and she had just sold her first picture book, Easter Egg Farm. M.J. has published over 40 books. She’s an artist-illustrator and middle grade writer. She does it all. I was really depressed and I thought, why can’t I do that? And I came home and opened up the mail and found a letter from Little, Brown saying they were going to take Frankie’s Run the same day. I remember that so well.
Kid writers – you couldn’t ask for a nicer bunch of people.
Tell us about your newest projects?
The Aidan Pike Series came out of my “idea pile.” I have hopes for this. The second book is due out soon. Aidan Pike introduces kids to library education. It’s both serious and quirky.
What advice would you give aspiring children’s writers?
Hang around kids.
Remember when you were a kid.
Read other writers to learn structure, but then write something different.
What else makes Mary C. Ryan tick?
I love knitting and crafts. I also love water sports. Last summer at our family gathering in Georgia, I tried water skiing, and also kayaking, water-tubing and jet-skiing. Not bad for a great-grandmother!
For a complete list of Mary C. Ryan’s work and to purchase books, visit her website at www.M-C-Ryan.com. I want to thank Mary for her time and for such an entertaining and enlightening insight into her successful career!