5 Questions for Cece Bell

In preparing the exhibit and book launch of Cece Bell’s Newbery Honor Award-winning El Deafo for the Salem Museum (now a virtual exhibit, which you can see here), I asked author Cece Bell a few questions to help me prepare a press release. She was kind enough to share her frank and thoughtful answers.


1. When writing El Deafo, you had to dig deep into events of the past. How did you go about finding the truth of your memories?

Some of my friends have told me I have a freakish memory…but I think it’s more likely that I have a freakish ability to tell tall tales about the past. Seriously, though, I was aiming at capturing the feelings of that period more than the absolute truth of that period, so I do tend to exaggerate my own personal story a bit. To make the story flow, I had to slightly readjust my personal timeline (for example, some of the things that happened in the third grade occur in the fifth grade in the book); I also developed a few characters by making composites of the people I knew, because otherwise there would be too many characters in the book and it would get confusing.

I didn’t have to dig very deep to get to those memories and feelings, however. My hearing loss was quite traumatic, and adjusting to the hearing aid in school caused so much embarrassment and personal agony, that the memories and feelings from this period of my life have pretty much been accessible to me forever. I’m glad they were easy to get to—it made writing and illustrating the book that much easier.

2. Tell me about your process in approaching and writing the book. What did you have to go through to draft and draw El Deafo?

It was brutal work that took a lot of time, and a lot of brain power, too. I started with a detailed outline, which I wrote and rewrote I don’t know how many times. Then, each chapter of that outline became a chapter in the book, with drawings and speech balloons and panels. Each chapter went through many, many drafts (evolving from rough to polished) before I even showed a chapter to my editor, Susan Van Metre. Susan read each chapter, and made suggestions—all of which were useful. But making even one change in a graphic novel is difficult—a change to one panel means other surrounding panels—and even other pages—must change, too. It’s a domino effect, and very labor-intensive.

Once the chapters were finally the way Susan and I wanted them, I then had to go through the long, long process of inking the book. Fortunately, Susan was willing to hire someone else to do the coloring. My good friend from college, graphic novelist David Lasky did a wonderful job with this. When he finished coloring the pages, he passed them back to me. I fine-tuned the work David had done, and after about three intense years of work, the book was done. Whew!

3. What was the most difficult part (emotionally) in writing this book? Did you have any reservations or worries along the way?

Chapter 9, the chapter about sign language, was the most difficult chapter to write. I had a bad attitude about sign language when I was a kid, and so I struggled with how to show this without being disrespectful to all the people who use sign language as their primary means of communication. I also struggled with a few less-than-complimentary depictions of friends from that period. Do I put these representations—which are probably unfair, since they are based solely on my feelings, and not on my friends’ feelings—out in the world? Is it worth taking the risk of hurting these people’s feelings? Or do I stay true to my own childhood feelings and tell a better story? I chose the latter, mostly because I think the story will resonate more with the kids who might benefit from reading stories about surviving difficult friendships. I’m a little worried about the repercussions of this decision, though.

4. What are you most excited about in getting El Deafo out in the world?

I’m excited about today’s deaf kids reading it, because they’ll get to see that even though the technology has changed, a lot of the struggles are the same…and hopefully a lot of the fun things you can do with the technology is similar, too.I’m excited about hearing kids reading it, because they’ll get a better understanding of what their deaf classmates are going through (and this, in turn, will help deaf kids in a way that I would have loved when I was a kid). I’m excited about kids with any disability reading it, because even though the physical struggles might be different, the emotional ones are the same.Everyone deserves a chance to see themselves in books and television and movies. I think all kids, deaf and hearing, will understand that first crush, and that quest to find a true friend, which are both featured in the book. I’m especially excited for teachers, and adults in general, to read it, too—perhaps the book will serve as a reminder to treat all kids the same way, regardless of their abilities. But I’m mostly excited about making people laugh. In spite of its sometimes heavy subject matter, it’s ultimately supposed to be a funny book.

5. Say something (if you haven’t already) about the local connection to El Deafo. (Basically, why should Roanoke Valley people be particularly interested in this book?)

Roanoke Valley folks should be VERY interested in this book! Most of the book takes place in Salem, since that’s where I grew up. There are lots of Salem landmarks in the book: Academy Street School, GW Carver Elementary School, downtown Salem, the interior of Brooks-Byrd Pharmacy (no book about Salem, VA is allowed to exist without this location in it!), my house on Broad Street and Broad Street in general. If you taught in the Salem schools between 1976 and 1982, you might see yourself in the book somewhere—and sometimes in unflattering situations (sorry about that). If you were a kid during this period and remember going to school with me, you might see a few characters that you recognize…and maybe you’ll even see someone who looks like YOU! Who doesn’t want to see themselves portrayed as a cute rabbit? No one, that’s who! I’ve always thought it was very enjoyable to see someone or something I recognized in a graphic novel, so I think this book will give the local folks who read it a lot of pleasure for that reason alone. Hopefully they’ll enjoy the rest of the story, too.


Note: These questions were asked and answered before El Deafo was awarded the Newbery Honor Award. Since that time, Ralph Berrier of the Roanoke Times has spoken with Cece. I’ll post a link to his interview with her when it’s available.

In the meantime, you can check out this video showing Cece’s reaction to the news:


What the Frick is Norm MacDonald Up To? Big Pete and the 82 Tweets

Norm MacDonald took to Twitter this weekend and posted a story (or maybe two stories?) in a whopping 82 tweets–most coming in rapid fire.

Reactions have varied from “pure genius” to “the Faulkner of Twitter” (hurled as an insult) to “textbook… on how to get unfollowed” to “I want to have your children.” (Okay, no one actually offered procreative services, but there was a good bit of lusty slobbering going on.)

Some of the livelier reactions are included at the end of this post. But first — so you can decide for yourself if this is a new form of flash fiction, an Andy Kaufman-like punk, or something entirely its own — I offer here Norm’s 82 tweets. (You’re welcome!)



To me, the coolest part is seeing people responding to bits of the story as it unfolded.

All in all, the reaction was mixed:

Which leads to my ultimate theory, that Norm MacDonald’s spirit animal is the honey badger.

A Final Step Down the Cemetery Trail

An enthusiastic EEEK! goes out to all you Halloweeny readers out there! There are many prizes to be had on this cemetery trail.

I’m so excited about being part of this tour. While my coauthored novel DREAM BOY has lots of humor, romance and suspense, there’s a good dash of horror in there too! (Yep, a comic horror story. Go figure.)

How does it work? Simple! Check out the ten Halloween-themed posts along the Cemetery Trail, take the quiz, and you could win TEN awesome prizes! Signed copies, a manuscript critique, a Skype author chat and more! All this could be yours, my lovely ghosties!

So, get reading! Here’s my interview with the fine folks at the Halloween Book Trail.

HBT: Do you believe in ghosts?

MC: Both my mother and brother saw a ghost—the same ghost in the same house, about 10 years apart. So I guess I have to believe in ghosts. Either that or call my dead mother a liar.

Maybe it’s a southern thing, but our ghost wasn’t particularly creepy. She’d play tricks sometimes (like turning all the paintings crooked when we went out on Halloween), but mostly she was just there—an invisible someone in the rocking chair, an altered air in the hallway, a kindly presence by my bed at night.

I think she loved children and worried about my sisters and brothers when we were little. Both of the times that she let herself be seen, it was to care for a lonely child.

After my parents brought their first baby home, my mother and father would take turns getting up in the night to bring the crying infant to bed. It was my father’s turn to get the baby, so when my mother, half-asleep, heard little Laura wailing across the room, she didn’t rouse herself. My father didn’t either, and the wails keep coming.

After a few minutes, my mother felt hands on her shoulders, shaking her awake. “Robin?” she mumbled, but when she opened her eyes, she saw not my father, but instead an old, gray-ish lady. Bolting upright, my mother said she went through the lady, who instantly disappeared.

What did you do?” I remember asking her.

Her answer pretty much sums up my family’s laissez-faire attitude toward the supernatural: “I got up and took care of the baby, of course.”

The second sighting came about nine years later, when I was the baby. In my mother’s tellings, there are many complicated explanations for why she, my father, and five of their six children were in a van barrelling toward the nearby city while my three-year-old brother Edgar ended up left at the house alone. I will save you those details and cut right to the moment when, after realizing Edgar was absent and demanding my father turn the van around, she finally arrived home. I’ll finish the story in my mother’s own words:

I imagined every conceivable horror, but when we finally got back and I raced inside, I found Edgar quietly coloring a picture.

‘Are you okay?’ I asked him.

‘Oh, yes,’ he told me, calm as you please.

‘But weren’t you scared?’

‘I was, but the Gray Lady came. She told me you’d come back.’

”What gray lady?’ I asked, looking around the room. ‘There’s no gray lady here.’

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘she went away. She went away when you came back.’

HBT: If you were in a horror film, what number are you to die and how?

MC: I’d love to say I’d be the last one standing, but the truth is that I’d probably die somewhere around the middle.

I’m pretty sure I’d be preceded by the gorgeous young couple indulging in rambunctious sex, the non-believer, and the stoner.

That said, I’d almost certainly be followed by the woman who twists her ankle, the snappy one-liner, and the survivor’s best friend.

How? Nothing so exciting as an ax to the forehead. I’m thinking I’d trip and fall in a well.

HBT: If the zombie apocalypse happened (and it will), what would be your weapon of choice?

MC: As a mega-fan of The Walking Dead, I’ve considered this question a good bit. I think I’d go with a sword. It’s quiet, doesn’t require ammo, and you don’t necessarily have to have good aim to use it.

HBT: If Annabelle from DREAM BOY went trick or treating, what would she dress up as and why?

MC: Annabelle loves music, so she might go for something old-school like David Bowie or Gwen Stefani. Or she might do something with a twist—a zombie Taylor Swift. Maybe a cross between Lorde and Wonder Woman.

Now, one last stop before you take the quiz! Go check out what spooky tales Heather Marie, author of THE GATEWAY THROUGH WHICH THEY CAME, has to share!


The Dream Journal for Writers

"Famous While You Sleep - Dream Journal" by Ravenelle / TORLEY on Flickr
A while ago, Cassandra Page invited me to do a guest post for her blog. I used the title of her work-in-progress, Lucid Dreaming, as a springboard for my topic–the dream journal. Below is what I had to say about using the dream journal for inspiration in writing.
(The image to the side, by the way, is “Famous While You Sleep” by Ravenelle / TORLEY on Flickr. Dreamy!)
Aboriginal art showing the dreamtime story of the attempt to catch the deceased's spirit, from Wikimedia Commons.

Aboriginal art showing Dreamtime.

onDreamsI’ve always been obsessed with dreams—not surprising for someone whose upcoming co-authored novel is named Dream Boy, right?

1freud-dreams1.jpgBut it’s not just me who’s obsessed. Fascination with dreams is as old as dreams themselves. Ancient Egyptians looked to dreams for portents of the future, while Australian Aborigines saw dreams as the secret to understanding the past. There’s Aristotle’s On Dreams, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, the Biblical representation of dreams as God’s cosmic telephone, the zillion weird dreams that figure in folklore and fairy tales, the zillion more books that interpret the symbolism of dreams…

inception-GIF-inception-2010-14288153-272-124And of course let’s not forget Leonardo DiCaprio going all dark and broody as the lovelorn dream thief in Inception.

As a writer, though, I’m perhaps most interested in how we can allow our dreams to inspire and shape creative works.

That’s where the dream journal comes in.

One of the characters in Dream Boy keeps just such a journal. Drawing a line down the middle of the page, she writes everything she remembers about a dream on one side; on the other, she jots notes about real life events that may have triggered her subconscious.

In the notebook, reality goes in one place and dreams go in another; a clear line is drawn between the two. Of course, very little in life is quite as tidy as that—certainly not our creative processes.

So, why keep a dream journal in the first place?

For one thing, it’s fun. Much like this gif dance party.


For another, all the weird stuff that floats around in your subconscious (also like this gif dance party) can be a good place to go when your work-in-progress gets blocked up.

Make a game of it: choose some random element from a recent dream and work it into a scene you’re writing. It will keep you going—and in writing, if you just keep going (somewhere… anywhere!), you often end up headed in the direction you genuinely needed to go.

(Plus, here’s a secret: the random element you select is probably not that random, even if it seems downright absurd. What happens when you dream and what happens when you write is not so different, really. They both connect to the subconscious. And the images that feed the subconscious have a way of making their own sense, regardless of your intentions.)

Perhaps most importantly, however, using a journal to map out the chaotic terrain of your dreams can feed your over-all imaginative life in very rewarding ways.

Dream Map by Various Brennemans, Flickr

Dream Map by Various Brennemans, Flickr

As you go along—recording your dreams—you are essentially trying to make sense of something that is by its very nature senseless. That process inevitably opens you up to contradiction. (Real world says X and ONLY X is true; Dreamworld says Y and Z and X’s second cousin Arnie is true. On Tuesdays. On other days, it says that baseballs turn into feathers when you sneeze on them. And your favorite dog never really died, but was just trapped all this time in a bomb shelter with elves.)

Contradiction, as you can see from the above, is pretty noisy. But it is also (at least in my experience) inspiring.

Think of it this way: the tension between two opposing ideas is often the wire on which good writing balances. So, exploring the boundary between reality and dream allows us to perch for a moment on that wire. When we return to our work of fiction, we see more. We see better. We see connections we might have missed otherwise.

But what about those who don’t even remember their dreams? How can any of this help them?

Unexpectedly, I have found that the very act of keeping a dream journal stimulates the recollection of dreams. So the more you plan to remember, the more you remember. Weird, but true.

Here’s how it works in two super-easy (super-cheesy?) steps:

  1. Put a notebook and pen beside your bed. Before drifting to sleep, remind yourself that you intend to remember and record your dreams. You might even say something as socially uncomfortable as “Hey, you are going to dream, and you will remember your dreams! They will be interesting dreams! Enjoy!”
  1. In the morning, before you get up or start thinking about your day, write down whatever scraps of dream you remember.

And at first they may be just scraps. But as you go on, exercising both your memory and tolerance for awkward conversations with yourself, you may find that you can build up to a pretty impressive recall. And remembering your dreams is a good thing—not only for the creative advantage—but also because your dreams can be an important shaping influence in your life.

Journal by Sammie Harding, Flickr

Journal by Sammie Harding, Flickr

I recently tweeted my two-year-old’s dream: “The cat was in my dream, and he was happy to be with me.” (Of course in real life, the cat barely tolerates my son, so this was pure wish fulfillment.) I was amazed at how many people tweeted back to share their own dreams—from the workaholic who dreams only of work to the woman who dreams of resuscitating zombies with a friendly Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Dreams are something we take with us into our day. Whether we entirely remember them or not, they are there, an essential part of us—telling us who we are. (Maybe in some ways even making us who we are.)

So listening to dreams—paying attention to wildness of the mind at moments when it answers to no master—is a worthwhile endeavor. And a dream journal is a great place to start.

About DREAM BOY (coauthored by Mary Crockett and Madelyn Rosenberg)

Annabelle Manning feels like she’s doing time at her high school in Chilton, Virginia. She has her friends at her lunchtime table of nobodies. What she doesn’t have are possibilities. Or a date for Homecoming. Things get more interesting at night, when she spends time with the boy of her dreams. But the blue-eyed boy with the fairytale smile is just that—a dream. Until the Friday afternoon he walks into her chemistry class.

One of friends suspects he’s an alien. Another is pretty sure it’s all one big case of deja vu. While Annabelle doesn’t know what to think, she’s willing to believe that the charming Martin Zirkle may just be her dream come true. But as Annabelle discovers the truth behind dreams—where they come from and what they mean—she is forced to face a dark reality she had not expected. More than just Martin has arrived in Chilton. As Annabelle learns, if dreams can come true, so can nightmares.

Pre-order DREAM BOY today: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Add DREAM BOY to your Goodreads list.

About Mary

A native of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Mary grew up as the youngest of six children in a family of misfits. She has worked as everything from a history museum director to a toilet seat hand model. In her other life, she’s an award-winning poet, professional eavesdropper, and the person who wipes runny noses. If you tweet at her @MaryLovesBooks, chances are she will tweet back.

Connect with Mary: Website | TwitterFacebookGoodreadsTumblrPinterest

Related: Check out my post of 14 Firsts at The BookYArd (including my first dream).

In the Event of Cynthia Atkins

Poet Cynthia Atkins (photo by Fancher)

Poet Cynthia Atkins (photo by Fancher)

When poet Cynthia Atkins published In the Event of Full Disclosure earlier this year, she tackled topics of mental health, family, and culture at war. I’m talking to her today about her latest work, the public/private boundary in writing, and where her poetry is headed next.

Thanks also to Cynthia for sharing two of her wonderful poems with us here: Family Therapy II and In Plain Sight.

Mary: Tell me a bit about the process you went through to write and publish In The Event of Full Disclosure. Continue reading

The Beauties and Beast of Writing with a Friend

Last week (at the very moment my friend Madelyn Rosenberg and I were announcing to the world the good news that our young adult novel DreamBoy will be coming out next summer from Sourcebooks Fire), a friend shared with us this New York Times article,”On Writing with Others” by John Kaag.

Having just finished a young adult novel with the awesome Madelyn (and begun another with the awesome Jenny Bitner), I have found the experience to be full of surprises–almost entirely the good kind.

Here’s my take on five reasons that having a co-pilot on that long trip across a novel is a good thing… and one reason it’s not. Some are echos of Kaag’s excellent insights; others are my own.

The amazing Madelyn Rosenberg

The amazing Madelyn Rosenberg


1 ~ a committed relationship ~

Perhaps the most encouraging part of collaborative writing is the commitment I bring to the project. When I work on my own, it’s easy for me to convince myself (after 20 or 30… or even 120 pages) that what I’m writing is crap. When I write with a friend, however, I am committed for the long haul,whether or not it seems crappy during those horrible spells of self-doubt. I can’t help thinking of all the time and work my friend has put in on the project, and that makes me push through the muck, even when I’m not sure where exactly we’re headed.

2 ~ instant editor = better risks ~

I am, as Kaag suggests, much more likely to let loose with some half-baked notions in early drafts when I know my co-writer is there. These risks are usually huge fails, but every so often, they work fantastically.

When I write fiction on my own, I may take the same risks, but I worry much more over them. On my own, a serious misstep could head me down a long and fruitless path. Since I don’t have an instant editor, I may not be convinced of my mistake until I’ve already pounded out another 50 pages or so. And we all know there’s nothing quite so sweet as trashing a huge stack of pages just start over where you were a month before! Yippee!

When I write with a friend, I know I have an instant editor who can shake her head and point me in a better direction. Yippee, for real!

The astounding Jenny Bitner

The astounding Jenny Bitner

3 ~ operation UNblocked ~

There is nothing so amazing as getting stuck with a scene, sending it off (sometimes mid-sentence) to a trusted friend, and having it return a day or so later with that scene successfully finished and another started.

Gone is the head-pounding!

Gone the endless trips to the kitchen’s candy jar!

Gone the long walks full of mulling and wondering and wishing I knew what came next!

4 ~ surprise! ~

The surprising things that happen when you write with a friend are beyond fun. I’ve created structures that I thought were headed one way, only to find out when Madelyn returned her editions/additions that there was a whole other dimension to the scene if I just tilted my head one way or another.

Sometimes it’s a matter of a fortunate misunderstanding. For example, when I first named the character Talon for DreamBoy, I intended for her to be a male. Madelyn read the name as a female and used a female pronoun for her. So I’m easy… and here’s proof. I just rolled with it. Now Talon, the girl, may be my favorite character in the novel, and calling her a boy would probably prompt her to reach through the pages of the book and whack me on the head. (Yeah, she’s got that kind of spunk.)

5 ~ balance ~

Let’s face it. I have obsessions — those go-to things that give me energy and make me glow. I would write about rivers and earthworms and clouds all day if someone would buy me food and cover my mortgage for doing so. But a book about nothing but rivers and earthworms and clouds is… well, I was going to say boring, but since I’m obsessed, I actually find that idea pretty intriguing. Maybe I should write a book about nothing but rivers and earthworms and clouds? Hmmm… But I digress. Back to point: I have obsessions, so do my my co-writers. And sometimes those obsessions, being as they are obsessions, get to be a bit much.

I mean, what is it about the canned peaches in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? And I’m pretty sure Nora Roberts was watching way too many of those cook-off shows when she wrote Angels Fall.

So having two different writers with two different sets of obsessions gives a bit of balance to the work. Or at least I like to think so.


There are some projects that are not good candidates for collaborative writing because co-authorship requires you to let go. And letting go of something extremely close to you can be difficult and scary… and quite frankly, unnecessary. Here are the facts: The final writing will not reflect your solitary vision nor be subject to your solitary control, and there are some things that won’t come out right without your solitary vision and control.

So choose wisely when considering a project. Are you willing to let go of your idea and allow it to become what it becomes? Do you have a friend whom you respect enough to work with? If you can answer yes without reservation, you might want to give collaboration a try. If not, keep it to yourself until you’re ready to publish. And then let it go the old-fashioned way.

(… oh, and the waiting… sometimes the waiting can be be a drag…)

The 3rd, 2nd & 1st Best Thing Kiera Cass Said @ the Blacksburg Public Library / PART 4

(These last three are short so I’m just clustering them together.)

3. “I knew there was something a little off about me; I just didn’t know what it was… but now I own it. I’m okay with being a weirdo.”

If that isn’t the journey through young adulthood, I don’t know what is. Everyone is off, and everyone feels that it’s only them. And then they get over it.


Ok, this one was really odd and funny, but I’m editing it out. For those of you in attendance: no, this was not Keira’s comment about “soft core porn.” It was better than that. But after some reflection, I couldn’t recall with 100% clarity whether or not this was one of the “hushhush secrets not to leave this room” or not. To be on the safe side, I’m just cutting it. One might ask why I didn’t go with FIVE Best Things in the first place? Well, that would have made sense of course, and in a perfect world I would have planned better. Sorry! For now, I just need a placeholder… or a math tutor… or something.

KieraCass (1024x656)1. “Maybe I can be there for your next baby, too.”

This has nothing to do with Kiera Cass the writer, but a good bit to do with Kiera Cass the person. Earlier in the evening, Kiera had mentioned how she was tweeting in the delivery room after the birth of her daughter. When I got my book signed, I told her I would follow her on twitter so I could be there for the birth of her next baby. (Not that she’s pregnant, people… don’t get excited! I mean in the far future, whenever that day should come.) As I walked away, she called, “Maybe I can be there for your next baby too!”

And as unlikely as that is (I have four kids already, which is, let me tell you, a LOT of kids), I thought it was so sweet of her to make that gesture—in essence to say that there might be a world in which we could be actual friends.