interview by Erin Nuttall
In real life, Mary Winn is just as quirky and funny as she is in her books. She is also incredibly thoughtful, kind, and compassionate, traits that also shine through in her writing. I have the pleasure of being in a writing group with her and love that the world gets to have her fun, frolicking, and heartfelt writing. She is also dedicated to the process, craft, and art of writing which is obvious when you read her books. —Erin
KidLit Craft: What inspired you to write Losers at the Center of the Galaxy?
Mary Winn Heider: I started writing a scene between a kid and a bear–and I just loved them. I didn’t really understand what was going on, but I knew they needed each other to survive. Suuuper inconveniently, the only way I could find out what was happening was if I kept writing the story. So the first spark was creating characters I loved and a mystery that I needed to solve for myself.
In the early phases of a project, I generate a lot of words and phrases on random bits of paper and then sift through them as I begin writing. One of the phrases I jotted down (from somewhere in the deep recesses of my science brain!) was escape velocity—the physics term that refers to the velocity required to break the pull of gravity. I taped that particular scrap of paper to my computer as I became obsessed with what this kid needed to escape from, and just what that escape would require. Eventually, I realized that the kid’s dad was missing, and that I was writing about the escape velocity for grief, and that this kid was actually one of a pair of siblings experiencing loss for the first time. That the two of them, Winston and Louise, were caught in the gravity of despair in different ways, and that they were going to have to rely on each other to break through.
And at that point, when I realized that the heart of the story was the relationship between a brother and sister, it really took off. My relationship with my brothers is so important to me—how we fight, how we look out for each other—and in a lot of ways, the story is sort of an ode to the three of us.
KLC: Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? Pantser, plotter, or plantser? Character first or plot first?
MWH: It keeps changing! My first novel, The Mortification of Fovea Munson, was pure pantsing. I was writing about a cadaver lab while I happened to be working in a cadaver lab, and every time something absurd happened, I’d throw it in there and it would change the direction of the story. It was great fun–and I hope I never, ever do it again! Now it feels like a special kind of terrifying.
Losers is my second, and I started off the same way. It worked once, why not try again? Reader, it was a disaster. I plunged into a bottomless pit of not knowing how to make any choices at all. After a frustrating amount of time spent flailing around in that pit, I started trying to give myself more structure. I’d wing it for a while and then stop to outline, so I could keep track of what I was doing–and it started helping. With four POVs, I needed to figure out a way to give myself guard rails. By the time I was settling in for revisions of the real story (as opposed to revisions where I was still finding the story), I had an elaborate outline strategy that made it all feel manageable.
I have a few projects that aren’t announced yet, and they’ve each taken their own individual plantsing paths. One was heavily outlined on index cards all over my wall. One started with a long synopsis. I now know that I need to find the balance of having a roadmap while still giving myself plenty of room to discover as I go–and the specific techniques to accomplish both of these seem to change depending on the story. And to be honest, it’s really fun figuring out what new thing I need to bring to each story–I enjoy feeling like my toolbox is just getting bigger with each book.
As far as where I start– that seems to change, too? For Fovea, it was setting–I was working in the lab and knew I wanted to set a story there. For Losers, it was freewriting that scene and needing to unspool the mystery. The story I’m working on this week came from seeing a bug swooping around a spotlight one night. It’s something I’ve definitely seen about a million times over the course of my life, but that particular night it grew into a question.
KLC: We’ve talked about side writing before, so I know it’s a tool you use in your writing. When you were writing Losers was there a specific side writing exercise that helped you really understand your characters?
MWH: When I got stuck, it was almost invariably because I didn’t know what my characters would choose to do next. So I’d go to pen and paper and–as casually and gossipy as I could– keep telling the story. It wasn’t ever well written. It was more like writing a note to a friend in class–you don’t have that much room, so it’s only the important stuff.
KLC: You balance humor and heart so well in both Losers & your debut The Mortification of Fovea Munson. Do you have a craft process you can share with other writers looking to do the same?
MWH: Thanks for saying that! It’s ultimately not quite this mathematical, but often the starting place for me is finding juxtapositions that have some oomph. For Fovea, set in the cadaver lab, there’s the very real and constant reminder of life and death juxtaposed with the absolute absurdity of having a fridge full of random body parts. For Losers, there’s the seriousness of the missing dad plot juxtaposed with the joyful wackiness of all-the-teachers-dressed-like-cats subplot. And for me, at least, middle school was all about those critical juxtapositions, especially serious vs absurd. But also feeling like a little kid vs feeling like a young adult. And the world is compassionate vs everybody is sharks and lava. There’s tension in those opposites coming up against each other and release in figuring out how they coexist.
KLC: Winston & Louise are very different from each other. What did you do to ensure their voices were distinct?
MWH: Well, I cheated a little bit. In early drafts, Winston was the only POV. When I eventually realized it had to be a story they told together and then started writing Louise’s POV, I’d already been writing her from Winston’s perspective for a long time. I already knew her and all the ways she was different from her brother. If I’d tried to start with them both from scratch, I think it would have been a lot tougher. But generally speaking, it always helped to remember that, at least to start, Louise deals in absolutes and Winston lives in the in-between.
KLC: How did you choose the emotional outlets of the tuba and science for Winston & Louise?
MWH: The tuba was easy. I played the French Horn in band, and I have strong opinions about the comedic potential of different instruments! The tuba had the perfect range of goofy to mournful. I also like how the sousaphone is basically hugging you all the time–poor Winston really needs a hug.
And then Louise’s science bent came as a foil to the tuba. Where the tuba is all curves and feelings, I felt like Louise’s take on science was all sharp edges and hard answers. It (of course) gets more complicated, but I wanted to position them at odds in their emotional outlets from the start.
KLC: Some of the events in Losers are hilariously wacky and unexpected. Did you think of these plot points first or did the characters lead you to them?
MWH: For the most part, the characters led me to those moments. An advisor of mine at Vermont College of Fine Arts once very sagely suggested I be careful that I wasn’t just piling quirky detail on top of quirky detail in an effort to have enough stuff, so I try really hard to ground the fantastical moments of my stories and earn them. Practically, what that means is that I have to make them necessary. For example, Kittentown Dynamo and the halftime show started out solely as a way to overwhelm Winston (who needed a little external overwhelming to match the internal overwhelming that was going on), and then it all developed into its own plotline.
KLC: How has craft study informed your writing?
MWH: My first deep dive into craft was in an MFA program (sidebar: I definitely don’t think everyone has to go to school for writing, but it was great for me). It was like discovering a hidden world of intention and meaning and mapping, and I loved it. My writing became more energized and intentional, and I laid a foundation that I try to keep building on with each book.
But also, my dark secret is that I have a really hard time with craft books. I love listening to lectures and panels and conversations because the idea of the craft feels alive and personal and like a breathing thing. Craft books so often feel like someone is handing me some dusty manual that I have to follow just because. Fart to that.
KLC: What one piece of advice would you like to give to aspiring Middle Grade authors?
MWH: Haha– is this a trap after my last answer?! Just kidding. That’s very fair to ask! As much as I reject one-size-fits-all craft advice, there are a couple of things that I do think generally hold true.
The biggest leap for me in my writing life happened when I got comfortable with failure. I wrote some disastrous things in grad school. But before that, my writing had gotten stagnant because I was too anxious about getting it right all the time. Allowing myself to fail gave me the freedom to take risks and make mistakes. Those mistakes, in turn, taught me how to write the way I want to write. It’s the whole Samuel Beckett thing: “Fail again, fail better.” (It works despite the fact that I’m both paraphrasing and taking it out of context!) So my one piece of advice is try things. Swing big. Let yourself off the hook. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be the start of something fabulous.
Aaaand if I get runners-up in this category, I also advocate for reading a lot of Middle Grade and having a writing community, even if it’s online or tiny–find yourself some writer friends!
KLC: What do you feel you’ve gained from being a part of the KidLitCraft community?
MWH: Oh wow– that’s a question I could answer for a long time. There’s all the concrete things: the beta reads, the book recommendations, the industry advice. And then there’s the intangibles: the commiseration when things are rough, the celebrations when things go well. Getting to share the joys and the heartbreak of this weird, wonderful job with people who really understand. Writing can be so insular and I’m infinitely grateful to have a work family.
KLC: What’s next on the horizon for your fans?
MWH: It hasn’t been officially announced yet, but my next project is a collaboration with Chad Sell (Cardboard Kingdom; Doodleville). We started working on it in March 2020, and it’s been so much fun to work on together–and an absolute life raft over the last year!
Mary Winn Heider is the author of two Middle Grade novels: THE LOSERS AT THE CENTER OF THE GALAXY and THE MORTIFICATION OF FOVEA MUNSON. She is currently working on a theatrical adaptation of FOVEA for The Kennedy Center with the composer Justin Huertas. Her picture book THE UNICORNS WHO SAVED CHRISTMAS, illustrated by Christian Cornia, is out now. Mary Winn has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she lives in Chicago, where she teaches creative writing residencies with PlayMakers Lab, performs at theaters around the city, and sometimes helps out at The Mystery League.
You can find her at https://marywinnheider.com/
Check out our Sidewriting Interview with Mary Winn Heider, including an excellent writing exercise: GOSSIP YOUR WAY THROUGH THE STORY WITH MARY WINN HEIDER
Erin Nuttall holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI and ALAN. She lives outside of Chicago with her family where she writes stories for middle grade and young adult readers that offer a humorous take on friendship, identity, feminism, and romance.