Interview with Joy McCullough

YA readers might have noticed all the buzz about “Blood Water Paint,” a historical novel in verse by debut author, Joy McCullough, and with good reason. This emotional, empowering story brings the #MeToo movement to life with an inspirational heroine who refuses to back down. Read on to find out more about Joy and her incredible work.

Writing Process:

YARN:  What does your writing process consist of, from the idea to publication? If you have shelved projects like many writers do, how do you push a project you love aside to work on something new? Any tips on finding the story that demands to be written?

JM: During intermission of the first performance of my very first play, my playwriting professor asked me what I was working on next. He taught me a lot of things, but the importance of moving on to the next writing project was the biggest. It served me well as a playwright, and again as a novelist. My debut novel is the tenth novel I wrote, so I have had to do a lot of shelving projects. I guess I’ve just always wanted to keep pushing, keep trying to find the book that would finally spark and be the one. Some writers talk about their early manuscripts like they were all garbage (though still useful for learning) but I still love many of my shelved projects. I don’t know why they weren’t the ones to break through, but now that I see the big picture, I’m thrilled to be debuting with “Blood Water Paint.”

YARN:  Have you ever felt “stuck” in your writing?  What advice can you give teens who might be struggling with writing assignments and need to get unstuck before the due date?

JM: When I’m feeling stuck, I’m a big fan of stepping away from the project and filling the well. That can mean going for a walk or playing with my dog. It can mean listening to music or watching TV or reading. Of course, if you have a due date, you can only set the project aside for so long. In that case, I think the best thing is to remember that first drafts are called first drafts for a reason. I am not often stuck when drafting, because I have firmly entrenched this in my brain—first drafts are supposed to be terrible. Knowing that helps me silence the inner critic and just dump the raw materials on the page. Then it’s less daunting to go back and polish them into something better later.

YARN: You wrote several books before the one that sold. How did you stick with it? Was there anything that made you feel like “Blood Water Paint” would be the one? Will we see any of your past books soon?

JM: I was certain “Blood Water Paint” would not be the one. It was on the end of a list of pitches I gave my agent when we were trying to figure out what I should work on next. I never in a million years thought he’d go for it. I was shocked when he did. And as soon as I started playing around with it, I was having so much fun and learning so much that I decided I didn’t even care if it sold; I was writing it for me.

I have one past manuscript that may be revived (and quite thoroughly reimagined). I expect the others won’t, though. I wouldn’t be opposed to the idea, but I’m more focused on what’s ahead.

YARN: Besides being a novelist, you’re also a successful playwright. How is the playwriting process similar/different to that of a novel? Do you have any words of advice for writers inspired by the stage?

JM: Writing plays first gave me a strong foundation in story structure, character development, stakes, certainly dialogue. Plus the collaborative nature of theater helped prepare me for publishing. In terms of the writing process, it’s really the same struggle—wrestle with the creative demons, swing wildly between ego and despair, etc etc. But I immediately found my people in kid lit, which I never had before in the theater world, and that community makes such a difference.

Once the thing is written, the process is quite different. You can’t really tell if a play works until actors and directors work on it and perform it in front of an audience. Whereas one astute editor can read a book and give an author the feedback they need to improve it. So other artists are brought in earlier in the process when I write a play. I have a draft, I gather trusted collaborators, we read it aloud, we discuss. I love that. But then once a play is produced, it can only be experienced by the limited number of people who come to a limited number of performances. So unless one’s play runs forever and ever (which mine never have), there’s a much shorter reach. I’m excited that my book will (hopefully) have a farther reach.

In terms of advice for writers interested in playwriting, I think it’s important to really understand the various roles of the theater, to have respect for them through the collaborative process, and know how to use them to the best effect when writing the play. So when I went to theater school, we had to take acting classes, design classes, stage management classes, even if we knew we only wanted to direct, say, or write. And one doesn’t have to go to theater school – find a community theater and volunteer. Plenty of people want to act, but I guarantee they need technical help or design assistants. Get in there and learn how the whole process works.

And in terms of the writing, read Shakespeare. It’s all there—the poetry, the stakes, the conflict, the plot structure. Did I mention the poetry?

YARN: In relation to the previous question, how was the process of adapting your play “Blood/Water/Paint” into the YA novel in verse “Blood Water Paint.” What compelled you to tell this story in more than one medium?

JM: Part of me thought the adaptation would be easy—or as easy as writing a novel can be, anyway—because I already knew the plot and the world and the characters so well.  But then I figured out that plays are entirely external, dialogue and action, while verse novels are largely internal, with very little dialogue. So there were some big new challenges.

The play version of “Blood Water Paint” had an extremely long development process. I first wrote it in 2001, and while it went through several readings and workshops, it was not fully produced until 2015. It was produced in Seattle by a very small (but mighty!) theater company, and it was an amazing process. I saw the young women in the cast deeply impacted by the process, and we talked a bit about how to engage young people to come out to see the show. That didn’t really happen, but that was when I started to think how relevant this story was for teenagers. It wasn’t a big leap from there to envisioning it as a YA novel.

Your Books:

YARN: “Blood Water Paint” is getting a lot of buzz, and it’s a novel in verse about the seventeenth-century painter, Artemisia Gentileschi. Historical! Poetry! Set in another country! And yet it’s about so much more than the life of this incredibly talented painter—it’s her story of #MeToo, and thus surprisingly relevant for today’s readers. What does it say about our world that we see these unfortunate themes both currently and historically? How would you pitch this book to a teen who doesn’t like historical fiction or poetry?

JM: When I first spoke with my editor on the phone, the main reason he wanted to acquire the book was because of how relevant the story is today. When we talked about the cover, the only thing I knew was that I didn’t want it to look obviously historical. Because it is a historical novel, but the story is 100% now. As for the poetry side of it…I don’t actually even think of it as poetry! Whenever I see that word in a review or description of the book, I’m genuinely a little startled. I’m not a poet! But really, I think verse is amazing for reluctant readers. For one thing, all the white space on the page gives them time to breathe and process. And also, I think teens connect really well with the stripped down emotion and rhythm and sparse language of verse.

YARN: We hope portrayals of strong young women like Artemisia standing up in the face of abuse and assault will go a long way in inspiring others. Would she have any advice for teens who see themselves in such a situation? What’s the one takeaway you would like readers to have after finishing your book?

JM: It’s important to me not to push survivors to tell stories they’re not ready to tell, and so I think that would be important to my fictional version of Artemisia as well. But when they are ready, when they have support, I think she would want to them to know how important, how healing telling one’s story can be. It doesn’t mean you have to press charges and go to court like she did. It might mean talking to a friend or a therapist or a parent. But that act of honoring your story as worthy of being told and being heard is huge—it was huge for Artemisia, it was huge for me. And I think she would want them to know that whatever happened, it wasn’t their fault.

I don’t want to state one takeaway, because I feel like reading is deeply personal, and I hope each reader will take away what they need from the book.

YARN:  This book is so stark and powerful, but at the same time filled with such lovely, lovely words and images. How did you settle on the tone and voice of the story? Do you have sources you return to, sources that help you dream up or create stories?

JM: I have no idea. Ha! Tone and voice are not something I can articulate a process for. It’s trial and error, experimentation and revision. I think my background as a playwright means I hear a character’s voice like an actor might perform it, which helps with voice on the page.

I guess the main source I return to is my own life. My kids don’t help me dream up stories, as in they don’t brainstorm with me. But raising kids is a hugely creative endeavor, and they are so incredibly creative themselves, so while motherhood is very draining, I feel like it also gives me a lot of fuel for my storytelling.

YARN: Do you have favorite poems or plays or other works that particularly inspire you? Any plays you could recommend that might especially appeal to teens?

JM: No specific plays, but I’d recommend that teens seek out smaller theater companies in their community, which are often doing edgier new work. And teens should know that most regional theater companies have programs where teens (and usually patrons under 25) can get steep discounts on tickets.

I’d love to recommend poetry that might appeal to teens. If they haven’t already discovered her, Amanda Lovelace is a fiercely feminist young poet with two collections – “the princess saves herself in this one” and “the witch doesn’t burn in this one.” Her poetry is deceptively simple, very raw and honest, and I so wish I had had it when I was a teenager.

YARN:  Can you share a little snippet from the book? Favorite line or paragraph? Or did you have a favorite snippet that wound up on the cutting room floor?

JM: Sure! I know I’ve found a wonderful critique partner when their notes make me super excited to dive into revisions. I felt the same click when I first spoke with my editor on the phone, and as soon as we hung up, I immediately wrote three new poems for the book. They sprang from my editor’s observation that I had written this super feminist book that even had blood in the title, yet I had somehow managed to avoid the topic of menstruation. This is one of those three new poems I wrote, and it is a rare instance of a poem that burst out and I never changed a word of it again.

Before I can paint the blood
it’s creeping down my thigh,
both razor-sharp reminder
and relief so deep
I’m on my knees
to the patron saint
of women who do not wish
to pass along their wounds
to one who may be innocent
but still would bring to mind
with every breath and kick and heartbeat
how much different life would be
if they had never been conceived.

YARN:  We would love to hear what else you’re working on these days, besides the forthcoming debut of your newest play, “Smoke and Dust” in Seattle.  Do you have any other new novels in the works?

JM: I do! But nothing I can really talk about yet because publishing?

Other Books/YA stuff:

YARN: You’ve been a great mentor for other writers in contests like #PitchWars, successfully helping them navigate their paths to stronger stories, agents, and book deals. Do you have any specific advice for writers struggling to find the best format to tell their stories? (plays, verse, prose etc.)

JM: I think trying new forms—or new categories or genres—is a great tool when you’re feeling stuck. I started writing fiction when I needed a change from playwriting. I’ve switched things up by trying MG, then YA, then chapter books. Trying verse was a big shift for me. But no matter what I try, each of these add to my writing toolbox.

In terms of figuring out which format is the best for a particular story, it’s usually an instinct thing. I just have a feeling whether a story would fit better as a play or a novel, as verse or as prose. But when I’m not sure, I just try it. Writing well involves a willingness to write really badly. So maybe something doesn’t work in one form, but you may not know until you try.

YARN: What are a few resources you’d suggest to writers who feel they want to grow, but they aren’t sure where they can get some help and support? (These might be books, articles, online classes, writing groups, blogs – whatever/whoever you think offers great support for writers.)

JM: For those seeking an agent, Pitch Wars is really an amazing contest, and even if you don’t get selected by a mentor, the weeks leading up to the selections offer tons of opportunity to connect with other writers and learn from the mentors. I found my own critique partners in a variety of ways—through CP match-ups on blogs, at Absolute Write, through Twitter. The thing is to approach it as a relationship. Get to know the person. Be prepared that you won’t click with everyone. And be patient. No one knows anyone in the beginning. But if you stick around the writing community for a while, sooner than later you’ll have more CPs than you know what to do with.

YARN: What writers or books would you say have influenced you most as a writer? What books helped you become a writer or helped you realize you wanted to be one?

JM: “The Chronicles of Narnia” opened up my imagination as a child. Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Ibsen laid my foundation as a playwright. Reading aloud to my daughter for hours on end was my first education in kid lit – Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume and EB White. Some of the books that made me love YA and see that there might be a place for my voice include “Speak,” “Ask the Passengers,” “Hold Still,” “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks,” and “Boy Toy.” And some of the novels that helped me love verse: “The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary,” “Forget Me Not,” “Love That Dog,” “The Crossover,” “Inside Out and Back Again,” and “May B.”

YARN: When it comes to feminism within YA literature, what do you think can be done better? What do you think has not been discussed yet?

JM: There’s an amazing body of feminist YA, which I’m so proud to join with Blood Water Paint. I think as with feminism in general, YA could do more to support diverse and intersectional feminist voices.

YARN: If you would write an YA novel with any author, dead or alive, who would the author be and why? What would it be about? Any titles in mind?

JM: Oh wow. I would love to co-write a novel, or be a part of an anthology—the collaborative nature of the playwright runs deep. But as for who … ack! The paralysis! I have no idea! Don’t make me choose!

Joy McCullough writes books and plays from her home in the Seattle area, where she lives with her husband and two children. She studied theater at Northwestern University, fell in love with her husband atop a Guatemalan volcano, and now spends her days surrounded by books and kids and chocolate. “Blood Water Paint” is her debut novel.

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