Caroline Carlson writes MG fiction, and her trilogy THE VERY NEARLY HONORABLE LEAGUE OF PIRATES has been published around the world. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA.
Caroline Carlson is an MG author who has a delicious taste for the quirky and the fun. Her trilogy, THE VERY NEARLY HONORABLE LEAGUE OF PIRATES, is published in several countries, and her latest novel – THE WORLD’S GREATEST DETECTIVE publishes in 2017 with HarperCollins.
She has worked as a paraprofessional children’s librarian and as an editor at an educational publishing company where she wrote, edited and developed English Literature and psychology texts for children of all ages. She is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. She lives with her husband and baby daughter in Pittsburgh, PA.
When and how did you start writing?
I’ve wanted to write children’s books for nearly as long as I’ve been reading them. In elementary school, I entered Cricket magazine’s writing and illustrating contests every month, and one of my poems was printed in the magazine! It was about a seafaring rat, and I can still recite it upon request.
I kept writing through high school and college, although none of my work was as wildly successful as the seafaring rat poem. I enrolled in lots of writing workshops; I studied poetry (which I learned to love) and screenwriting (which is completely impossible). But more than anything, I wanted to write the sorts of stories I loved to read: stories full of magic, mystery, adventure, and heart.
After college, I worked as a textbook editor and wrote on the weekends, but I realized pretty quickly that if I wanted to be a professional writer, I had to make writing a priority in my life. I had to give it the respect it deserved. So I headed back to school, this time for a master’s degree in writing for children at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I learned an enormous amount about the craft of writing, I wrote more than I ever thought I could, and maybe most importantly, I started to call myself a writer.
Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?
One of my heroes is my hometown librarian, who has excellent taste and always knows the perfect book to recommend. She introduced me to books like THE DARK IS RISING by Susan Cooper and CHARMED LIFE by Diana Wynne Jones—books that I love now as much as I did then. Other favorite authors were Lois Lowry, Madeleine L’Engle, and (a little later) Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman.
I come from a family of book lovers, and some of my nicest childhood memories are of reading with my parents. It took us a few years, but my dad and I read all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s LITTLE HOUSE books together. (To be fair, Dad did most of the reading.)
Can you talk us through your career so far? What were the key moments?
When the most exciting moment of my writing career arrived, I was dressed as a penguin.
It was Halloween, and because I’m a fan of penguins, I’d decided to dress as one. I have a crocheted penguin hat, complete with eyes and a beak, and I was feeling very sophisticated and professional in my costume as I sat in my living room in front of a giant bowl of candy, waiting for trick-or-treaters to arrive.
Then the phone rang. It was Sarah, calling to tell me that HarperCollins wanted to buy my first book. At least, I think that’s what she said—it was a little hard to hear through the penguin hat’s earflaps. I clasped my hands to my beak, said a few incomprehensible things (like, 'I’m dressed as a penguin!'), hung up, and danced around a little in the living room. Then I ate several fun-sized Butterfingers from the trick-or-treat bowl to celebrate.
Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organise your time? Where do you look for inspiration?
I write best in the morning, before all the world’s distractions have wriggled into my brain. I usually get out of bed, have a cup of tea, and shut myself in my tiny office—the only room in our house where my computer can’t connect to the internet. I stare out the window. I watch squirrels run across the neighbors’ yard. I wonder if it’s too early to take a nap. I get more tea. And then I write.
I usually work until lunchtime, and then I take a break to read or catch up on e-mails and errands. If the weather’s nice, I like to take a walk in the afternoon, and sometimes the snags in my writing untangle themselves a little bit over the course of the walk. If the weather is grim and snowy, I hide indoors and read some more and bake far too many cookies.
Although I shut myself off from the outside world as much as possible when I’m writing, I find that it’s helpful—both to my writing and to my sanity—to read the newspaper, listen to the radio, spend time with friends, and travel as much as possible. Those are the places where story ideas live.
Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?
Write for the joy of it. Write the books you love to read. Don’t worry too much about the aspects of publishing you can’t control. Instead, focus on what you can control: writing the best book you know how to write, working hard, and having as much fun as possible in the process.
Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?
Plotting a story comes fairly easily to me, but it took me a while to learn that characters should be more than tools in service to a great plot. In fact, characters should have emotions! They should make decisions! They should have goals! This is hardly a revolutionary concept, but my writing became much stronger once I stopped tugging my characters through the story and let them pursue their own needs and desires.
In graduate school, I studied with the very wise Franny Billingsley, who taught me to think of a story’s climax as a crossroads: the place where the main character’s external journey meets her internal journey. Characters don’t always have to resolve their internal and external conflicts at the same moment, but when they do, the result is a satisfying and emotionally charged climactic scene that ties the whole story together.
One of the most important things I’ve learned to do recently is let go. Sometimes a scene, or a chapter, or a character, or an entire draft just isn’t working. Sometimes it can be patched up and fixed, but sometimes it can’t, and that’s okay. The things you learn from writing a messy, unfixable story will make your next story even stronger.
Which favourite authors would you invite to a dinner party? What fictional character do you wish you’d invented?
In addition to my favorite childhood authors, whose books I still read and reread, I’d love to meet some of the authors I’ve discovered as an adult. I’m a huge fan of books by Michelle Cooper, Jaclyn Moriarty, and Elizabeth C. Bunce, so I’d like to grab a coffee with them and ask them if they’d be willing to lend me some of their collective brilliance.
My all-time favorite protagonist has got to be Cassandra Mortmain from Dodie Smith’s I CAPTURE THE CASTLE. I’d like to write while sitting in the kitchen sink, like Cassandra does, but I’m not sure my landlord would approve.