Amanda Cockrell

Selected Works

Young Adult Novel
Saints and soldiers and the Untied Church of Dog
Novels
The Hollywood blacklist and a delayed funeral
Historical novel of a Roman legion in Britain
The Horse Catchers trilogy
Mythological novel of the coming of the horse to the American Southwest
Volume 2 in The Horse Catchers trilogy
Volume 3 in The Horse Catchers trilogy
The Deer Dancers trilogy
Mythological novel of the beginning of art
Volume 2 in The Deer Dancers trilogy
Volume 3 in The Deer Dancers trilogy
Children's books
By my mother, Marian Cockrell, the story of an enchanted castle on the edge of Fairyland

What We Keep

MFA?

August 28, 2013

Tags: Hollins, SCBWI, writing and illustrating for children

I’m pondering my words of wisdom for October’s Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators conference, “Writing and Illustrating for Kids,” sponsored by the Southern Breeze SCBWI folks in Birmingham, October 11-12. Topic: Is an MFA Program for You?

Well, obviously I think it is, mostly, since I direct one at Hollins University, so it’s really a matter of articulating why. Community is the first thing I think of – a readymade gang of writers and artists who know that children’s books are literature and book illustration is art. No one at Hollins is ever going to ask you, “So, when are you going to write a real book? When are you going to make real art?” If you write or illustrate children’s books, a children’s book MFA program is where your craft will be taken seriously. A lot of the faculty will feel the same way incidentally. Outside of the children’s lit MFA they may not get to teach children’s literature, or teach it much, or teach it to students who are actually interested in it.

Then there’s the motivation factor. Do you want to make stories and art? Then get going -- hit that keyboard, lock yourself in the studio. You will have supportive faculty to push you to do that, and to teach you how to polish your craft.

You’ll learn to really think about writing. I can’t say it better than this blog by Sarah, one of our soon-to-graduate students.

Books as decoration

August 19, 2013

Tags: children's books

Everyone has their guilty pleasure. Well, if you don’t, you should have. Mine is interior decorating magazines, particularly of the “what you can make with that thing you found at the flea market” variety. It’s cheaper than shoes and it keeps me off the streets, although my husband runs the risk of another fine idea about converting the kitchen window seat to a storage cupboard. Lately though, being a bookish type person, I feel the need to express Deep Disapproval over the idea of using books as decoration. Choosing and shelving them by their jacket color, for instance. Or shelving them with the spines facing in so “the marvelous texture of the pages can show.” Shelving books spine inward or by color makes a statement that is probably not the statement the designer is aiming for. This statement says, “You are an idiot who does not read books. Otherwise you would shelve them so you could find what you are looking for.”

I’m not against using books that are not particularly rare or valuable to make art with. My toaster lizard (see photo) sits on two Reader’s Digest volumes and a book by Dan Quayle. But my other gripe with books as decoration, as long as I am on my soapbox, is taking apart old children’s books that are in perfectly good shape. As someone who makes her living with children’s books, the fact that someone would rather decorate a lampshade with pages from Alice in Wonderland than read it makes me suspect that person was deprived of suitable reading in her own youth and this is the tragic result. Her children will grow up obsessed with sticking clichés on their walls with craft shop lettering instead of what they ought to be obsessed with, which is when is the next book in Ian MacDonald’s Planesrunner series coming out?

Stacking tchochkes on books to make “tablescapes” falls in the same general category. Yes, you can get at the book if you actually want to read it, but you can’t get at your bedside table because it is artfully draped with a scrap of old lace, two spineless molting books with marvelous texture, the spigot from an outdoor faucet, and a rusty baking soda can from 1935.

And now I have to go read Romantic Homes, which just arrived today, so I can disapprove of something else and find that piece on pressing flowers. I have some Queen Anne’s Lace and the OED all ready.

The Vernacular

August 13, 2013

Tags: Hollins, writing, language

It’s quiet at Hollins this week, with my grad students gone and the undergraduates not yet arrived, which means that thinking can be done, and possibly writing. One, alas, does not necessarily lead to the other. When you make your living with words, one way and another, writing, teaching, editing, it becomes a lovely time-waster to ferret out what things actually mean, and why. And lord knows the South is fertile ground for that.

I’m from Southern California, but my mother was from Birmingham, and clearly there was something latent in the blood that came out when I moved to Virginia. Occasionally it’s a matter of outlook, but mostly it’s a figure of speech — lots of them, acquired from Mama, who I had always assumed to be speaking a private language of her own, until I went South.

In Virginia, however, when my husband, exasperated that I call the refrigerator an icebox, says, “An icebox has a block of ice in the top; no one has had an icebox in seventy-five years!” more faces than mine will give him a wide-eyed stare. They all call it an icebox too, because their mothers did.

Mama also used to say that it was cold as flugens, on the rare California days when it was cold. I assumed it was a made-up word of her own, until I read Eudora Welty, and there it was, in Delta Wedding. What’s more, it’s not just a Southernism, it’s a Deep South Southernism. No one in Roanoke knows what it means. Mama probably got it from her mother, who was from the Delta.

Now I know why I was the only one of my California childhood friends who called her father “Daddy” and why no one else had relatives with names like Aunt Sis or Uncle Sonny. I know what “sorry” means when used as an adjective, and what a branch is, as in bourbon and branch water. In my youth I assumed it was water with branches in it. I never asked why. I know that acting ugly has nothing to do with your looks and everything to do with your behavior (see “sorry,” above). I know what a bottle tree is, and what’s more, I know what it’s for. I know why you should always paint your porch ceiling sky blue. I know what it means to snoot someone, and why my mother thought I needed a deviled egg plate. A raft of phrases and traditions from my childhood suddenly make sense. The first time I heard someone say “bless her heart” with my mother’s intonation, I knew exactly what was meant — as in “She likes a little drink, bless her heart,” which means, “The woman is falling down drunk by two p.m. and last week she set the biscuits on fire.”

Even my grandmother’s story about the yard man who shot the town bootlegger makes sense. This yard man had a way with roses, and four hours after he was arrested, he was out on bail. The judge’s mother, my grandmother assured me, and every other woman in town with a rose garden had called their husbands and made sure the fix was in. No one minded about the bootlegger (well, the men did) but the spring rose show was in two weeks and that was another matter. That is not how they do things in California.

When we teach fiction writing, we teach world building, but really all you have to do is look around, and eavesdrop.

Life imitates art, so watch out

August 2, 2013

Tags: writing, Pomegrante Seed, Hollins

No one can gauge the power of a story while they’re writing it. My mother once published a serial in the Saturday Evening Post that made her little sister notorious because everyone knew where she’d gotten her material. I believe it took monetary considerations and something to do with a set of rhinestone earrings to smooth that over.

My least financially successful novel has had the greatest effect on my life. I write this in a household that arrived straight from the pages of that book.

It was (and is, reissued through the Author’s Guild’s backinprint.com program) called Pomegranate Seed, and it was published by a small press which promptly went out of business. But I had set it in my home town, thinly disguised, and written into it the character of an old boyfriend, also thinly disguised. I gave my main character, Liza Jane, a herd of pugs, and wrote an earthquake into the plot. The boyfriend reappeared before the book was finished (we have been married over twenty years now), as did the earthquake (I felt bad about that). It took longer for the first pug to arrive, but the numbers shortly got out of hand, as these things do, and now there are four, snorting at me to indicate that it is dinner time. Liza Jane had five, and we wonder if we ought to set some sort of spell on the door to ward off another one.

Having just finished another summer of teaching writing at Hollins University to a fine bunch of young adult novelists, I wonder how to warn them, or whether I should. Life will find you anyway, I expect. If you write about it first you are probably just pulling some mysterious thread of knowledge out of the weave of the universe. So go ahead, tug on it. You don’t know what’s on the other end.






























Chocolate novios for Day of the Dead


Noon Whistle at the Lizard Works

Back yard bottle tree



The last hurrah


Delia Sherman and Ruth Sanderson, summer Children's Lit faculty

Children's Lit faculty Brian Attebery and Ellen Kushner at the end-of-term party