Being an elementary teacher puts me front and center for every aspect of the middle-grade world. I know what TV shows the kids like. I know what games they play. I know what their favorite snacks are. I know what colors they like to wear. I’m there to see how they react to the highs and lows in their lives and witness all of the interpersonal dynamics from a “fly on the wall” perspective. Because of this, I have a pretty good filter for testing whether or not my characters speak with dialogue that rings true and if they behave authentically. I don’t have any kind of formal journal, but I keep my phone in my pocket at school to write down quick shorthand notes and ideas so I can develop them more when I have time.
During the school year, how do you carve out time to write?
It’s a matter of prioritizing and finding a balance that works. Ever since Carrie took me on, I’ve thought of myself as having two careers (even if one of them is just getting started). If you look at writing as a job, the first rule has to be that you show up and do it. Sometimes that means getting up early, or setting a schedule during evenings or weekends, and still doing it even when you aren’t inspired, as well as giving yourself permission to be flexible when it’s necessary. I can always pull back from the writing for awhile if things are particularly busy at school, as long as I return to it later.
Are any of your work acquaintances your writing supporters?
People at school have been curious about my writing when they first learn about it, and then generally supportive and encouraging. Some have even been kind enough to Beta read for me over the years. Two of my closest school friends were the first people to find out when Carrie made her offer, since I was in my classroom after school for The Call. I shared the news with them right away because I figured telling someone else about it was going to make everything seem more real, but I also knew they’d understand what a huge milestone it was for me and would be eager to celebrate that.
Why do you enjoy writing for the middle-grade audience?
Middle grade covers some very transitional years. There’s so much about life being discovered at that time, so I think my teacher brain pushes my writer brain to develop ideas that will make kids think and wonder. Besides, for me at least, those middle grade stories are the ones demanding to be told.
Would you ever give up being a school teacher so as to write full time? If so, what would you miss about being in a school setting?
Short answer: I’d walk in a heartbeat.
Longer answer: If I count back to when I was in kindergarten, I haven’t known a life that wasn’t defined by the school year since the 1970s, so to walk away from teaching would be a huge step for me to take. However, writing has been a dream for almost as long. If I ever reached a point where I knew I’d be able to live as a working writer, I’d be ready to explore that as a second professional act. There are certainly things about school that I’d be okay not having to deal with anymore, but I’d miss the time I get to spend with the kids and being involved in how they learn and grow. I’m sure that seems like a predictable teacher response, but I don’t think anyone pursues this career to indulge their passion for spreadsheets.
Tom Mulroy is a middle grade author and award-winning elementary teacher. He contributes to the blog Middle Grade Minded and writes his own blog, What I Did on My Summer Vacation. Some of his earliest attempts at writing fiction can be traced back to book reports he wrote in junior high for books that didn’t actually exist. Tom is a SCBWI member and lives in the greater Minneapolis area. He is represented by Carrie Howland of Donadio & Olson, Inc. You can follow him on Twitter at @Tomulroy424.
It's funny--I've always been very aware of how much I have in common with my mom. She and I are both very verbal and interested in language, and we have similar personalities; we're both big planners. I'm not sure what led me recently to start noticing my dad's influence, which I blogged about this past Father's Day. That influence is less direct, but it's definitely ingrained. My dad, who has a beautiful singing voice (unlike me), also has a tendency to make puns and to put phrases to music or at least in rhythm. I think I've inherited his tendency to notice aural connections, whether they lead to a joke or a mental musical interlude. I also write some poetry and song parodies, which are very related to that impulse.
How has your upbringing influenced your writing, your characters, the setting of your books?
Mostly, that happens in subtle ways. Some of my early writing ventures were fairly autobiographical or at least had significant autobiographical elements; I've moved away from that as I've become more comfortable creating new (realistic) worlds for my stories. But summer camps, which were a big part of my childhood and adolescence, have popped up more than once, and if something from real life seems like it will help a story, I'll use it; I just have to check in with myself first and make sure that I'm not too attached--I absolutely have to be willing to change it or eliminate it if that turns out to be best for the story. More directly, a future project (which is early enough in its development that anything could change) features a Conservative Jewish family, and though the characters are fictional, a lot of details about, say, their Saturdays are drawn from life.
I also think that growing up in the '90s influenced my reading taste and therefore my writing taste. I'm more inclined toward realistic fiction than fantasy, and I was in elementary school when series like The Baby-Sitters Club were all the rage. (But then, Goosebumps were also really popular at the time, and they just weren't my thing, so I guess there was only so much impact the '90s could have on my natural interests.)
Does your name have a meaning? (I LOVE your name!!)
Thank you! Shoshana is Hebrew for "rose" or "lily," and I was named in the Jewish tradition of naming after someone who's passed away. My paternal grandfather's name was Shlomo, or Solomon, and my parents chose a name that started with the same letter. He was the only grandparent I didn't get to meet, and I think the name connection did make me wonder more about him than I otherwise might have, and remember whatever details I learned about him. (He loved root beer, and he loved to read mysteries, both according to my grandmother.)
As a writer who loves the sound of words, how important do you think it to read our work aloud before calling it finished?
I should be better about doing this. I do it regularly with poetry and, especially, song parodies, but I don't often think to do it with fiction unless I know I'm going to be reading it aloud publicly. (I've been lucky enough to find myself in a few settings that encouraged unpublished writers to do readings.) I will say that pets make great test audiences. Even when I don't read aloud, though, I tend to "hear" my writing in my head.
Whose writing do you admire and why?
This is a really big question, as I'm sure it is for a lot of people, especially other writers. So I'll just pick a few examples and trust people to understand that there are many, many others. Great characters are the most likely thing to draw me in, and humor is a bonus. I'm always talking about my love for L. M. Montgomery's work, particularly Anne of Green Gables (my blog's name, Walk the Ridgepole, is a reference to that book). Although that's partly for sentimental reasons - I loved it as a kid, so I love it now - the characterization holds up. More recently, Sara Pennypacker's work comes to mind. I've heard her say (and I'm paraphrasing) that she won't move from the planning phase to the writing phase until she feels like she would take a bullet for her main character, and that shows in her Clementine books. I'm also really excited about the We Need Diverse Books movement; it's not a new conversation, but I'm so glad it's taken off the way it has. So authors like Jacqueline Woodson, who writes so honestly and so lyrically about the complexities of her experience, definitely have my admiration. So do authors like Adam Rex, who includes characters from underrepresented groups in stories where race isn't a major focus. Everyone deserves to be represented in fun stories! Funny stories! Stories about saving the world from goofy aliens!
Shoshana Flax is a middle-grade writer represented by Carrie Howland. By day, she's an editorial assistant on The Horn Book Magazine. A former bookseller with an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College, she lives and breathes children's books. She's found online at Walk the Ridgepole and on Twitter @ShoshanaFlax.