The moment I sat at Amanda Cockrell’s desk to discuss the MFA in Children’ Literature program, I knew I needed to enroll. It wasn’t just the beautiful campus where Margaret Wise Brown once walked, the incredible list of classes, and the outstanding faculty and staff. Amanda has a genuine love for her students, and pride in them that burns deep within her. A pride well earned, as she founded the program with Ruth Sanderson! This interview could not begin to encompass Amanda’s incredible journey; or what she means to me as a mentor, author, and fellow reader of Children’s Literature. To learn more about Amanda’s works and to read her blog.
- The number one question I enjoy asking: what is your journey of becoming an author?
My parents were both writers so it just seemed like the family business. Pretty much every job I have had has been writing something – newspaper copy (in the days when they would only hire women for the “women’s pages”) advertising for a rock radio station and an ad agency, freelancing writing historical series fiction for a book packager. And occasionally getting to write what I wanted to write, and occasionally getting that published.
- You often speak with fondness of the love and respect your parents had for each other, and how their own professional careers inspired you. Please share with us the creative and loving environment of your childhood.
I was lucky. I was an only child, and very much wanted. My mother tried for 17 years to get pregnant and never managed to do it but once. So I had their complete attention. My mother did go on writing after I was born. She used to pay me to babysit myself. If I would leave her alone for half an hour, then I could come in her office for five minutes and chat and pick a small toy from a box she kept supplied for that purpose. I found it a very satisfactory arrangement. I was also lucky in that my parents adored each other. They were intelligent, open-hearted people, with a wonderful group of friends and siblings of their own who let me hang out with them and listen to stories. Some of them may not have been suitable for children but they were wonderful material for a writer. (Pictured: Amanda’s parents and their puppies.)
- While your works vary in story and characters, there remains an element of the spiritual or other-worldly throughout. Where do you find these inspirations, and where does the desire to have this element come from?
I don’t honestly know. I just think there is something out there, that is bigger than we are, and very mysterious, and that once in a while we make contact. I find it hard to believe that we are the best the universe has to offer.
- You told me Angie from your thought-provoking and wonderful novel What We Keep is Not Always What Will Stay is your favorite character. Tell us a little more about her and any of your other characters, and why they became endeared to you.
I like Angie because she is the teenager I wish I had been. She has much more confidence in herself than I did. And I like her family. It is modeled largely on my parents’ friends, most of whom were also writers and screenwriters. We knew a few who had been blacklisted in the McCarthy era, and that kind of thing sticks with you. Most of my characters are looking for something, and pushing against something they want to change. Ayala in that novel is a thinly disguised version of my hometown of Ojai, California, and I think that the town is a favorite character in itself. I also set my novel Pomegranate Seed, which is partly about the Hollywood blacklist, in “Ayala” just because I love the place. And it certainly provides material.
- You have found a variety of writing opportunities, not just novels. Tell us how you entered the world of writing for commercials, ads, book reviews, and many other projects. Do you enjoy having these other writing projects?
Those were pretty much jobs of necessity, in that I needed to make a living. I did love the radio station. It was a mad place to work, and if you ever saw the old series “WKRP in Cincinnati,” it was far more like that than you would think. I do like writing, in that it is pretty much the only thing I am good at. I like writing novels more than ad copy. But I like writing anything more than I would like anything else.
- Would you recommend hopeful authors who are trying to make a name for themselves to search for opportunities like these? Why or why not?
Oh that is so hard to answer. You won’t make a name for yourself writing ad copy, but you will make a living, and you do need to do that. I think you do what you need to do in order to eat and then you write your books, and you see what comes of it. The only time I ever made a living doing nothing but writing books, I was writing under a pseudonym for a book packager, doing historical series fiction. It was fun but I had a lot of restrictions as to plot, etc. But it was better than the ad agency, and I got to do it at home. It’s always a trade-off.
- You attended Hollins University (then College). Tell us a little about your education background and how this transitioned into founding an entirely new program!
I went to Hollins in the late sixties and I was a Russian Studies major, so not much connection there, although I did take as much creative writing as they would let me and got to study with wonderful people like Richard Dillard and George Garrett. I had big ideas about working for the State department or something, but honestly, I was terrible at languages and I discovered that I liked medieval Russian history but the Soviet Union bored the bejeesus out of me. After I graduated I went to work for a newspaper instead. Then in the mid-eighties I was working for Hollins in the development office, a job that I honestly loathed (they are lovely people there but I am awful at things like fundraising), but I got free tuition and I got my MA in Creative Writing, studying with Richard again and with Jeanne Larsen. That was what put me in line so to speak when they were starting the Children’s Literature program. It was supposed to be a small part time administrative job at first, and Richard Dillard, who was in charge of setting it up, wanted a writer as the director. He informed me that I was the only writer he knew who was organized enough to run an office.
- Hollins University continues to develop certifications and degrees that encompass the differences in illustration versus writing versus both. What advantages or disadvantages do you think an author and/or illustrator has in working towards a degree or certification?
That’s hard to say. A degree is more useful if you don’t already have an advanced degree and want to teach at the college level. A certificate requires fewer courses and if you already have the degree you need for your profession, your union card so to speak, then the certificate gives you something extra to add on, a new skill to bring.
- Who are some of your all-time favorite authors?
Russell Hoban, Barbara Kingsolver, Terry Pratchett, Rudyard Kipling, Philip Pullman, Ian MacDonald. I know I’ll think of more as soon as I send this off.
- What are some of you all time favorite stories of Children’s Literature?
First and always, the Jungle Books. I wanted to be raised by wolves. I adored my parents, but wolves are so cool. Then Hoban’s the Mouse and His Child.
- Why do you think Children’s Literature is important?
What we read as children affects who we become as adults. The future of the planet depends on children’s literature!
- Tell us something fun about yourself!
I used to be a dog. Seriously. When I was about three or four I really wanted to be a dog, maybe under the influence of the Jungle Books. And we had a big Dalmatian that I loved, and I wanted to be one too. My very indulgent mother let me wear a collar and a ribbon tail pinned to the back of my pants, and was even willing to let me be on a leash when we went out in public. She was hard to embarrass.