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

When I Was a Dog

September 9, 2014

Tags: writing, Hollins

Last week we met our creative writing tutorial students, always a dicey proposition: will they decide I am nuts, incompetent, otherwise peculiar? I never ask if they will be normal. They never are; writers just aren’t. And as always they prove to be a charming bunch, frighteningly talented, and seem to find me acceptable.

We began the evening with introductions: all grad students and tutorial faculty were instructed to tell one thing about themselves that no one knew. Well, that’s an invitation to...something. I cast about for something not too intimate, not likely to get anyone arrested, not too braggy. Free association led to the student from last summer whose daughter claimed to have been a rabbit, and then I remembered that I was once a dog.

I was four or thereabouts and my role model was our Dalmatian. I had my own collar, and a tail made from a ribbon. I had a leash too, which I insisted on wearing when my mother took us shopping. That got her yelled at in public a lot, but she was an indulgent mother and just smiled sweetly at the horrified shoppers. “She likes being a dog,” she said in that disarming Birmingham accent. I would pant happily and they would edge away.

I don’t remember how long I was a dog, but I do remember that there was enormous satisfaction in the companionship of our Dalmatian. I would nap on the living room rug curled against his warm flank, listening to his breath rise and fall. I was an only child and I think I sensed the need of a pack.

It wasn’t until I got to college and fell in with the students in my first creative writing class that I found a pack again. At Opening Convocation last week, the president quoted Oscar Wilde in her address to the newest students: “Be yourself,” Wilde is supposed to have said. “Everyone else is taken.” The academic in me can’t keep from noting that he probably didn’t say that, but it’s a fine sentiment anyway, if difficult to do. I think that until I was around forty, the strongest sense of being myself that I had was when I was a dog, except for those hours in writing workshop when we could come at it sideways, be ourselves by being someone else. To this day my writer friends are all a little mad. I have one who says her spirit animal is a buzzard. When we write we are allowed to be dogs and we will wear our tails proudly.

Just up the road...

January 28, 2014

Tags: Hollins

One of the joys of having an office at Hollins is its location along Route 11, the old mother road from north to south that, bypassed by Interstate 81, is now the road trip highway for anyone looking for antiques, junk, food, and a foam copy of Stonehenge.

Go right out of the Hollins gates and you will find the wonders of Williamson Road, beginning with Happy’s Flea Market, a warren of shops and outdoor stands selling everything from biker jackets to live ducks. Farther down there are multiple middle eastern and Latino markets tucked among the used car lots, pawn shops, and other dicier establishments.



If you go the other way, turning left, you will find Kelly’s Real Deals antiques, marked by a lifesize horse on the roof. So far I have bought a sombrero and a headless doll (with really good clothes) there. Farther along is Foamhenge, really. A somewhat smaller scale reproduction, pieces occasionally blow over in the wind, but it is usually repaired promptly.



A little farther still is the Pink Cadillac Diner with pink Cadillac and better yet, a giant gorilla holding a biplane. I recommend the Happy Waitress grilled cheese sandwich, and not looking too closely at the truly frightening Humpty Dumpty statue.


Turning the Sun Around

December 30, 2013

Tags: Hollins, children's books

Among the pleasures of the holidays, we found candy and poems on our doors in the Hollins English department, just before the students left, offerings from someone unknown who nevertheless knows that a poem and a chocolate bar are just what you need to grade those last three exams.

We are making every effort to turn the sun around, lighting up trees and houses, but as soon as the lights come down I will start dreaming of spring, and especially of summer, when the grad students come back. Summer’s pleasures are many and sometimes surprising. Last summer the video for the annual student conference featured a cameo by Neil Gaiman, which an enterprising crew of grad students talked him into by lurking at the end of the book signing line at the Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. That conference rolls around again in March and we are already packing our bags for this year’s event as there are always a score or so of Hollins students and faculty in attendance.

Come summer we will have our writer in residence, the wonderful National Book Award-winning Han Nolan (and in 2015 Terri Windling!) who will read student manuscripts and give individual sage advice. Accompanied by our scholar in residence, the learned but compassionate Lisa Rowe Fraustino, who will read students’ scholarly work and give advice on turning that term paper into a conference submission or that conference paper into a journal submission. And for the artists and art-lovers, Judy Schachner, creator of Skippyjon Jones, will lecture and give a workshop.

Outside of academics, we look forward to the wild things: families of rabbits romping on Front Quad and the ducks who sometimes nest outside the faculty lounge in Turner. The great blue heron who fishes in the creek. And if you hang about on the bridge between campus and the student apartments you might see Ratty in the water. So far we haven’t spotted a boat or a picnic basket, but we are sure they are there.

Down South

October 16, 2013

Tags: children's books, Hollins, Birmingham

A fine weekend in Birmingham with the Southern Breeze SCBWI for their Writing and Illustrating for Kids conference.

My mother was from Birmingham and my childhood summers were spent there with my mom, grandparents, and a large cast of aunts, uncles, and cousins, acquiring a Southern accent and a loathing for grits. My grandmother’s front lawn had tree wells, rock-lined columns surrounding the tall pines that had been there when the house was built and the ground leveled. We regularly lost badminton birds down them and had to crawl gingerly down after them, batting spiders from our hair. We slept in one of the two spare bedrooms (my mother and my aunt in the other) in an assortment of cots, a double bed, and a youth bed that still had rails on it, arguing about who got to sleep next to the fan (no air conditioning) and listening to the squirrels bowl acorns up and down the attic floor above us. One summer we packed up the Arkansas cousins and the Mobile cousins and went to Panama City for a week, probably just to get us all out of my grandmother’s hair. My cousin Lucy, the eldest of the lot, was given the job of letting us get in her hair instead. As a teenager I drove my grandmother in her ancient black and aqua Plymouth from her house to the grocery store in English Village every day and was rewarded with limeade from the drugstore.

I wish I had had the time to drive by and see that house again. I only spent one month a year there, but I remember it as well as the house I grew up in.

This trip to Birmingham, I gave a workshop on “Is an MFA for You?” and obviously hope it is. Four of our Hollins Children’s Literature graduates were conference participants, including the SCBWI regional advisor, the redoubtable Claudia Pearson, who not only did a lot of the conference organizing (and introduced me to shopgoodwill.com, to my husband’s dismay) but hosted the faculty and volunteers at her house for dinner afterward, and sent me on the road with coffee in the morning.

If you want to write for children or teens, there is no more supportive organization of writers. You’ll find them at scbwi.org and be very glad you did. And for anyone contemplating an MFA in writing for children, the text of my talk is here:
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A fall meditation for the classroom

September 9, 2013

Tags: teaching writing, Hollins

My first fall class meets tonight. It’s not a writing class but I keep thinking anyway about a poem I read last month in The Sun, by Ellery Akers. In it she mentions the professor who wrote “crap” on her first poem for his class. Disconsolate, she decided that it must be crap. Obviously she didn’t take it entirely to heart since she has published regularly. But I’d like to find that professor and ask him how many other writers he imagines he did destroy. The ones not as thick of skin, not as resilient. The ones who decided that their work was crap. And who does he think he is, I would like to inquire in my imagined conversation, to decide what is crap anyway? Most of us aren’t very good at the beginning. Most of us regularly aren’t very good now, and only with considerable biting and chipping and tearing of hair and revision after revision do we approach good. Sometimes we approach and it takes off into the bushes.

The idea that writers need to toughen up in order to survive rejection is true if you don’t want to spend all your time as a puddle. But it is not the job of your teachers to do it for you by browbeating you. Being able to withstand bullying does not make you a better writer, as I once heard a well-known writer insist that it did – he was going to cull the sheep from the goats among his students by sheer meanness in the guise of critique. Sheep who fled baa’ing weren’t meant to be writers after all and didn’t deserve to be. I imagine the goats who stuck it out might have become pretty good writers, or at least thick-skinned ones, but I hate to think what their marriages are like if they took his approach to heart.

Personally, I’ve found that kindness and useful suggestions go a lot farther. You owe them truth, of course, but the package it comes in matters a lot.

Next summer at Hollins

September 3, 2013

Tags: Hollins, children's books

Already in planning mode for next summer at Hollins! The wonderful Han Nolan will be returning as Writer in Residence.

Han is the winner of the National Book Award for her young adult novel Dancing on the Edge, and author of other acclaimed novels for young adults, including Send Me Down a Miracle (a National Book Award nominee), If I Should Die Before I Wake, A Face in Every Window, Born Blue, When We Were Saints, A Summer of Kings, Crazy, and Pregnant Pause. She’ll meet individually with students to read their manuscripts and give feedback and critique.

We will also have a Scholar in Residence again this year. The equally wonderful Lisa Rowe Fraustino, wearing her scholarly persona (as opposed to her novelist alter ego) will meet with students, read their scholarly papers and give advice on turning those into polished conference or journal submissions.

Lisa is associate professor of English at Eastern Connecticut State University and has a Ph.D. from Binghamton University. Her newest book, the middle-grade novel The Hole in the Wall, won the 2010 Milkweed Prize for Children’s Literature. She is a past president of the Children’s Literature Association, and is also the author of I Walk in Dread: The Diary of Deliverance Trembley, Witness to the Salem Witch Trials; The Hickory Chair; and Ash. As Lisa Meunier she is the author of the poetry chapbook Hitching to Istanbul.

Guest post on Elizabreth Dulemba's blog

September 3, 2013

Tags: SCBWI, Hollins, writing for kids

I have a guest post on artist and writer (And Hollins summer faculty member) Elizabeth Dulemba’s wonderful blog.

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.

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.

In the garden

July 29, 2013

Tags: Hollins, writing, revising, gardening

At the end of another summer term at Hollins, I am always sad to see the Children's Literature students and faculty leave, but light of heart that now I can get into the garden or the flea market or whatever else has been calling my name over the last six weeks. But it was a fine summer. We had the usual student/faculty potluck gatherings at our house, with fireworks left over from a rained out Fourth, and the summer campers from Hollinsummer’s pre-college creative writing program. One of my tutorial students left me a bumper sticker that reads LIVE. LAUGH. LOVE. REVISE. HOLLINS MA/MFA CHILDREN’S LITERATURE, appropriate since we had spent the whole semester doing just that with their thesis novels. They were one of the best classes I’ve ever traught and I don’t say that lightly.

Back in the garden I am struck by how much time I spend trying to get things to grow.

The lilies of the Nile that I planted last fall and can’t remember where I put. Is that them, over by the poppies? And if it’s not, what is it? And for that matter, what is that thing by the clothesline?

My hair, which has reached an odd length. And an odd color as I try to get rid of the last of the natural herb-based dye whose only drawback was that it turned red in sunlight.

A novel manuscript, which instead seems to be shrinking. Every time I go at it, it shyly sheds another 10 pages. Soon it will be a short story.

How very satisfactory to see students grow. Personally they look just like they did when they got here, but their manuscripts – ah, those have expanded and solidified and acquired a whole new look.

Last Class Day!

July 25, 2013

Tags: Hollins

Last day of classes for Summer 2013!

End of Summer Term at Hollins

July 25, 2013

Tags: Hollins

We wind down the summer term tomorrow with the annual student/faculty potluck dinner at our house.






























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