Saundra Mitchell is a screenwriter and author of young adult novels. She agreed to let us get to know her a little better. I was already impressed with her accomplishments, but her 6 word memoir wowed me to say the least. That and the fact that she too was influenced by S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders cinched it for me. I like this lady. I can’t wait to hear her speak out the 45th Annual OWFI Conference!
How did you start your writing career?
On accident. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. All through school, I wrote stories and plays; I participated in the class literary magazine. I even sold some short fiction and non-fiction starting in high school.
Despite all that, I didn’t think that writing would be a career. I joined the military in an attempt to get the GI Bill, but got hurt and got discharged. Then I started a string of random jobs in the hopes that one would stick.
I processed checks for mail-in music clubs that don’t exist anymore. I did typesetting and lay-up for a community newspaper, back when lay-up consisted of cutting the articles into columns, then laying them on giant wax boards to be sent to the printers. Nobody does this anymore, either.
I sold cars (or, more accurately, I was supposed to sell cars and failed miserably.) And, I was a phone psychic for a while—the most depressing job I’ve ever had. No one calling a psychic at 3 in the morning really wants to talk to a psychic. They just want another human being to tell them they’re not alone
While I did these jobs, I wrote. I still submitted. On a lark, I wrote a four minute screenplay because a friend had forwarded me a call for entries. I’d written one screenplay in my entire life; I had no idea what I was doing. Somehow, my script was chosen anyway.
Dreaming Tree Films bought that script, and then another, for a student film project they were producing. Then the other screenwriter on the project bailed, and the producer asked if there was any way I could pound out two more scripts by deadline. I could; I did.
Four years later, after I’d written almost two hundred short films for various Dreaming Tree projects. I was still submitting fiction and non-fiction for publication, and I’d started to think about writing a novel—that’s when I realized this was my career. Nobody ever said I was quick on the uptake!
Has someone been instrumental in inspiring you as a writer?
Every year for my birthday, Susan Bettis gave me books. She was my best friend’s mother, an English professor with a passion for women’s literature and history that she instilled in both of us. Sometimes, the books were fiction. Often, they were folktales and fairytales, like Jane Yolen’s Not One Damsel in Distress (a book I bought for my daughter when she turned ten, so it made a big impression!)
While the books themselves helped shape my sense of self, it was the inscription that made all the difference. Mom Bettis always wrote a note in the front. And she always said, “One day, when you write a book…” Never if. When.
Even though I was growing up in public housing, even though I couldn’t afford college, I always had a destiny. One day, I was going to write a book—Mom Bettis said so. The difference between if and when is monumental. I wouldn’t have a writing career without Mom Bettis’ when.
Has someone helped or mentored you in your writing career?
I have to say that I’ve found that most people who write YA are generous, kind, and eager to help. Top among them is Cynthia Leitich Smith, who wrote Rain Is Not My Indian Name, Tantalize, Eternal and more.
I sold my first book in 2007. The economy was still booming, everybody was excited, and then 2008 came. The market crashed. Then the book market crashed, hundreds of editors laid off, imprints closed, agents disappearing. Digital books clomped onto the scene, and everybody was freaking out. Especially me—my first book was finally due to come out in February 2009, and all I could see was disaster.
Then I read a blog post that mentioned a speech Cynthia gave. She’d talked about her start in writing a decade before, when everyone was convinced that picture books would disappear onto CD-ROMs, that there would be no more fiction for children… basically, the dire predictions of a previous era, none of which came to pass.
So I wrote her and asked if there was a copy of that speech online. I wanted to watch it, because my first book was coming out, and I was afraid of the literpocalypse. The speech isn’t online. But Cynthia asked for my phone number. I was a total stranger, absolutely no one, but she took time out of her day to call and reassure me personally.
Every day, I’m so grateful for her, and I try to follow her example. It’s hard to be a new author when the sky is falling—it’s nice to reassure people that it always has been, and probably always will be.
What books have most influenced your life?
All of them, but there are four in particular. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson was the first time I read a book where bad things happen for no reason. When you grow up in poverty, in a bad neighborhood, lots of terrible things happen. And this book comforted me—it was a relief to have a book say you didn’t do anything wrong. Sometimes bad things just happen.
Then, when I was a little older, it was S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. This was the first book I read where the neighborhood looked like mine. Where crime happened, where kids sometimes crashed on your couch because their dad was too drunk to go home to. Where people jumped you for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was a relief to realize it wasn’t just my neighborhood. Other people lived in these places, too.
Still a little older, I realized while reading Stephen King’s IT, that it was possible to talk about the horrors around you without naming names. With a safe film between you and the real monster, because it was dressed up as a hideous clown, a monster in the sewers, a giant spider: whatever frightened you most. The real story in IT is about kids like I was, confronting the things that poisoned them as children. And yeah, a hideous clown, which completely justified my fear of clowns, mimes, and anyone wearing a giant character head.
Finally, Annette Curtis Klause’s book, The Silver Kiss, told me it was okay to love something and to let it go. It’s hard for a poor kid to get out of the neighborhood. And when your friends and family are all you’ve had, it sometimes feels like you’re betraying them by trying to get out. Yes, The Silver Kiss is about a girl and a vampire, but it’s a love story that ends when they leave each other. And that reassured me that I could love my history, but still leave for something new and hopefully better.
Do you have any suggestions for beginning writers? If so, what are they?
I think it’s important for all writers to remember that there’s a difference between making art, and being published.
If you decide you want to go into business, you should know that, at various points in your career, you’re going to be afraid, demoralized, rejected, angry, frustrated, overlooked, underestimated and underappreciated. There’s never enough money, never enough marketing, never enough of anything. Getting an agent and getting published doesn’t end the struggle, it just changes it.
If you decide you don’t want to go into business, you’re still a writer.. At various points in the practice of your art, you’re going to be afraid, demoralized, rejected, angry, frustrated, overlooked, underestimated and underappreciated. You still have your words and your art. Your stories still matter; your voice is important
Every writer must write, but no writer has to go into business. Knowing that you can walk away from the pursuit of publication helps make you a stronger writer. Remember always, it’s the words that matter.
What are the most important attributes for remaining sane as a writer?
Whatever works, works. There’s no one thing that keeps every writer sane. Some authors refuse to read reviews; others need to study them obsessively. Some write only at night; others only during the day.
Some require a hard word count, some just a period of time. Maybe you have to send 7 query letters every three days; maybe it makes you feel better to touch the oven knobs three times before you start working for the day.
You can drive yourself crazy comparing your methods to other authors’. And there’s enough lunacy in crafting words and trying to sell them anything. SO the most important attribute is flexibility. It’s knowing that what works for you is what works for you.
Your way is the right way. You should never feel small, or like you’re doing it wrong. As long as you’re putting words down (in your head or on the page,) you’re doing it right.
What’s your 6 word memoir?
Afraid, but she kept going anyway.
Saundra Mitchell is a longtime screenwriter and author. Her debut novel was SHADOWED SUMMER– winner of The Society of Midland Authors Book Award for Best Children’s Fiction and was an Edgar Nominee in 2010 for Best YA Mystery.
Harcourt Children’s Books published her next novel for teens, THE VESPERTINE, which was followed by THE SPRINGSWEET in Spring 2012. Next will be THE ELEMENTALS in June 2013 and MISTWALKER, Fall 2013. Also in June 2013, her YA anthology, DEFY THE DARK, will debut from HarperTeen.
Her short story “Ready to Wear” was nominated for a Pushcart in 2008. In her free time, she enjoys ghost hunting, papermaking, and spending time with her husband and her two children. She lives in Indianapolis and welcomes you to visit her on the web at www.saundramitchell.com.