Recently, I had the honor of asking Megan Jean Sovern, the author of the highly-anticipated novel The Meaning of Maggie a few questions about her writing process. The following interview holds a host of insights into the way in which Sovern develops characters, brings themes to the fore, and plans plot trajectory. Suffice it to say, I came away more than a little inspired.
AGC: Maggie is quite a complex character. Did you know exactly who she would be before you began writing, or did she change along the way?
MJS: I knew she would be smart and funny and tenacious and have a penchant for snacks. But I didn’t know she would have so many layers. And I didn’t know the story would change her as much as it did.
AGC: Describe your character development process. Do you make lists of personality traits, likes and dislikes, motivations and fears? Or something else entirely?
MJS: I really got to know all of the characters as the story unfolded. I’m not good with rules so I didn’t set a lot for each character upfront. But I did have a basic idea of who they were as people. I knew Layla was nice and Tiffany was sometimes not. And I knew Mrs. Mayfield was really strong and Mr. Mayfield was hopeful. But they really all evolved over many drafts and revisions and middle of the night notes I jotted down in a book next to my bed.
AGC: If you were introducing Maggie at a party, what would you say? (In other words, what are the most important things about Maggie you would like readers to know?
MJS: “Introducing Maggie Mayfield. Future President of the United States of America. She’s strong in spirit, mighty in heart and always has a pocketful of butterscotch.”
And then I would play Hail to the Chief on kazoo.
Themes and Lessons
AGC: Maggie learns some huge lessons throughout the course of the story that readers learn in turn. Did you first plan the lessons that the book would teach, or did the lessons unveil themselves as you wrote?
MJS: It’s curious because while I knew the big scenes I wanted to write, I didn’t know the lessons they would teach. And that’s what’s great about having an amazing editor like Ginee Seo and her right-hand girl Taylor Norman. They sent me back over and over again and guided me to dig deeper and deeper. I tend to shy away from big emotional moments in my own life. I’m uncomfortable with revealing too much. But I couldn’t do that to Maggie. We had to go all in together. And she came out so much stronger for it.
AGC: When you get ready to write a story, do you start by planning the plot or by developing the characters?
MJS: I start by assembling an arsenal of thoughts. Some are character thoughts. Some are plot thoughts. Some are random words that never make it on to any page. But I keep them close because you never know.
I had a note about Layla the entire time I wrote the book that said: Layla loves tap dancing in the kitchen.
And even though there was never a scene with it, I always loved what it said about her character. No matter what is happening, she’s the kind of girl who loves tap dances in the kitchen.
AGC: What are your favorite plot development strategies (storyboarding, outlining, etc.)?
MJS: I get everything wrong the first five times.
I wouldn’t say it is so much of a strategy as it is an obstacle course of mental torture that I put myself through :).
AGC: Finally, many readers welcomed The Meaning of Maggie as a refreshing change from dystopian YA literature. What are your top tips for those who would like to write realistic fiction?
MJS: Lester Bangs said it best to William Miller in Almost Famous: Be unmerciful.
It’s something I demand of myself and of my editor. Just be really, painfully and horrifically honest in every single word. No matter how much it makes you want to give up or cry or rock back and forth in a deep dark corner.
When there’s no fantasy to get swept into, you need every scene to feel real. Real in its intention. Real in the reactions of your characters. Real in what you take away.
And remember that the most beautiful moments don’t come in grand gestures or overtures or monologues. They come from a squeeze of a hand, a drop of a chin, a slow blink or the offering of half an Oreo. The cream side.
After talking with Megan Jean Sovern, I vow to the following:
- I will let my stories change the characters from the way in which I first imagined them.
- I will dig deeper and deeper into characters to the point of discomfort.
- I will collect random words and loose thoughts and keep them close, just in case.
- I will strive to be horrifically honest in every word.
I wish you and your students much writing inspiration.
Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).