Kate O’Shaughnessy writes middle grade fiction. She is a graduate of Yale University, a member of SCBWI, and is the events and outreach coordinator at Left Margin LIT, a creative writing center in Berkeley, California. When she’s not writing, you can find Kate in her garden, eating good food, hiking, and chronically mispronouncing words she’s read but never heard said aloud. Her debut novel, THE LONELY HEART OF MAYBELLE LANE, will be published March 3, 2020 with Knopf Books for Young Readers. Kate currently lives in Berkeley, California with her husband, Chris, and Mo, their Taiwanese rescue dog.
Kit Rosewater: Kate! It’s such an honor to be interviewing you in celebration of your book birthday for THE LONELY HEART OF MAYBELLE LANE! This book tugged on my heartstrings and made me want to buckle up and take my own road trip into the emerald green beauty of the south. You have so much to be proud of in this stunning debut!
Kate O’Shaughnessy: Thank you so much! I’m very glad to be here chatting with you. 🙂
KR: Me too! The first thing we learn about your main character, Maybelle Lane, is that she collects sounds. This is such a unique and interesting hobby, and one that drew me to Maybelle immediately. Did you collect sounds at all as a kid? What’s your favorite sound to hear outside of music?
KO: I didn’t collect sounds, but I was a collector. Specifically beanie babies, though I dabbled with other collections as well (stickers were a popular currency in my elementary school). But with the beanie babies, I loved that each one had their own story written right there on their heart-shaped tags. And because I have no sense of self-preservation, here’s a picture of me and my beanie babies that made it into the local paper. I was so proud.
And as for your question about what sound I like, there are so many. At night, I love the sound of a fan whirring. I love the tumble of clothes in a dryer. And my husband and I just hung a windchime outside of our bedroom, so on nice mornings, we throw open the door that leads to our back porch and lay in bed listening to it chime and peal.
KR: Oh my goodness—this photo is EPIC! And clothes tumbling in a dryer is one of my favorite sounds in the winter. How much of Maybelle’s sweet but lonely heart reflects your own personality as a kid? In what ways are you and Maybelle similar? And what ways different?
KO: Hmm, that’s a tough question. I feel like all authors draw something from within themselves and give it to their characters. I think there are pieces of me that I gave to all my main characters. Funnily enough, I think I was outwardly more like Tommy than Maybelle as a kid—a bit all over the place and always goofing off. But I was deeply sensitive, too, and I think that’s where I have the most similarity to Maybelle. As a kid, I had trouble with friendships here and there—who didn’t, in elementary and middle school?—and I took what I saw as my personal failings deeply to heart, and tended to blame myself. That’s definitely a trait May and I share.
KR: Oof, I know the feeling of having trouble with friendships as a kid. Moving on from middle school years, how has your experience in culinary school affected the way you describe food in your writing? Your characters Mrs. Boggs, Tommy, and Maybelle all have such different tastes. Were there any meals in the book you salivated over on the page?
KO: You know, I think I gave them tastes that I felt most fit their characters rather than what I thought would necessarily be good to eat! Mrs. Boggs likes healthy food—she’s the type who grows her own vegetables, and she prefers nutritive, homemade meals. Tommy and Maybelle are sort of reflections of how I ate as a kid. The one detail I did give to Maybelle was a love of dipping salty French fries into a vanilla milkshake. I loved doing that as a kid, and, on the rare occasions I get fast food, I still love doing it now. But I do hope to one day do a MG foodie book—whether fantasy or contemporary, I’m not sure. I’ve got ideas for both, but we’ll see how it shakes out.
KR: An MG foodie book sounds amazing, especially written in your hand. All of your characters in MAYBELLE are so well-developed and have full narrative arcs of their own. Did any of the supporting characters come quickly to the forefront of this story, or did others emerge in later revisions? Do you feel a special kinship to any one character in particular?
KO: Thank you! All three of the main characters—Tommy, Mrs. Boggs, Maybelle, and even Pickle—were there for all three drafts. I really do love them all and couldn’t possibly choose!
KR: Understandable! In your debut, Maybelle picks up the book The Wizard of Oz, which ends up providing a lovely parallel for her own journey. Maybelle also shares that she rereads the book when she’s done, preferring to read stories once she already knows the ending. What were your favorite stories growing up, and did you like to reread them over and over?
KO: I was a huge re-reader, and I think re-reading is a great way for kids to become more comfortable with reading in general. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone came out when I was just turning 11, and after reading it the first time, I was fully obsessed. I think that year I re-read it 26 times, until the cover had fallen off and the pages were peeling away from the spine. I also re-read Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, as well as The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson. I was a big fantasy reader, and one day, I’d love to write fantasy, too.
KR: Those are all great books, and definitely would inform a young future author! You’ve shared aspects of your journey to publication in other interviews, particularly that while Maybelle’s journey with querying and going on submission was relatively swift, her story came after more than a year of working on another middle grade book that wasn’t coming together. How do you know when to lean into revising a project versus when to move onto the next idea?
KO: Oh, man. I still don’t know, honestly! I think it’s all about how it feels. Like, right now, I’m drafting a WIP that’s been extremely difficult to get just right. But I still feel that magic when I show up to work on it (and re-work, and re-work, and re-work…) I think a good measure of knowing when to move on is when that magical feeling is gone, and it just feels like a slog.
KR: Very salient advice. The magic is what keeps us going despite all the “re-work.” Speaking of magic… on your website you mention hoping to one day write a book that combines your loves of both food and magic. Is that a current project you’re undertaking, or an idea resting in the eaves for much later? What types of projects are you working on now?
KO: I have an idea for a food magic book, and it’s been swirling around my brain for the past two years or so. But right now I’m working on another MG contemporary. It’s been so difficult to get the opening right, but I think I’m finally close. It’s been a reminder that every single project is really different. In my downtime, I’m also working on a fun fantasy chapter book series! It’s been a great way to blow off steam.
KR: We can’t wait to watch all sorts of books by Kate O’Shaughnessy fill up our shelves! Mrs. Boggs’s Winnebago ends up becoming a sort of character in itself thanks to all her many books piled from corner to corner. What does your own writing space look like? Do you write and read in different places, or prefer to carve out one cozy nook for yourself?
KO: My writing space definitely has books piled everywhere! I live in a pretty small house, without a ton of wall space, so there are truly books everywhere—piled beneath the coffee table, on ledges, stacked in closets, in tall, wobbly stacks on the floor. I know I should probably get rid of some of them, but honestly, I love living with books all around. As for my reading and working space, I like to vary it. We have a hammock and a deck with sun chairs, so when the weather’s nice, I like reading outside. But anywhere I can sit with a blanket, a book, and my dog works for me as a reading spot!
KR: It sounds so lovely to live in a space cocooned by books. As a visual learner and huge book reader, I’m also mispronouncing words all the time. What word do you tend to mispronounce the most when it comes to how it looks on the page versus how it actually sounds?
KO: When I say everything, I mean everything. I’m not great with name pronunciation—often I’ll watch YouTube pronunciation videos again and again to make sure I get the pronunciation down, but even then I sometimes still mess it up. I also mispronounce really simple words that I should know. Like “affiliate.” This happened a couple of years ago—I was talking with friends and I said something about an “affiliate link.” Except I pronounced it “aff-i-lat.” I still go into a shame spiral thinking about that one!
KR: Oh no! No one should be shamed for how they learn words—visually or audibly! If you could pick a favorite word based solely on how it sounds out loud and collect it on Maybelle’s tape recorder, what word would you choose?
KO: Onomatopoeia is a great one. I love the way the cadence of the word goes up and down when you say it, like waves. I also loved the word antidisestablishmentarianism when I was a kid, because it was so long.
KR: Both of those are a lot of fun to say aloud! Thank you so much for telling us more about your incredible book as well as about your own childhood and life behind the scenes as an author!
KO: Thank you for the great questions!
Congrats on the release of your debut novel, Kate! You can visit Kate’s website to learn more and follow her on Twitter and Instagram, as well as order THE LONELY HEART OF MAYBELLE LANE on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound. Lastly, don’t forget to add it on Goodreads!