Interview with C. Lee McKenzie

CLeeIn my other life–the one before I began writing for teens and younger readers–I was a teacher and administrator at California State University, San Jose. My field of Linguistics and Inter-cultural Communication has carried me to a lot of places in the world to explore different cultures and languages. I can say, “Where’s the toilet?” and “I’m lost!” in at least five languages and two dialects. Go ahead. Pat me on the back.

My idea of a perfect day is one or all of the following: starting a new novel, finishing writing a blockbuster novel, hiking on a misty morning trail in the Santa Cruz Mountains, saying Namaste after a great yoga practice, sipping a cappuccino topped at a bustling café, reading in front of a fire with snow outside, swimming in an ocean someplace.

I’ve just set out my perfect life. Day after day after day.

Read below for an interview with C. Lee McKenzie


Double Negative is your fourth published novel. Does it get any easier to write and publish the fourth time around? What were the biggest differences?

No, it wasn’t easier. This book was challenging for me. I had to back track a few times and take a new path each time before I sorted out how to tell Hutch McQueen’s story. I had trouble getting his language down. I didn’t have this kind of struggle with my other books, so that’s the biggest difference.

What inspired you to write Double Negative?

A couple of things, but I was reading about illiteracy and I suddenly asked myself the question, “What if I couldn’t read?” The answer made me ill. I couldn’t imagine a world without access to all the books I love, let alone not being able to follow simple written directions. That was what started me making notes that lead to Double Negative.

Do you have a favorite line or scene from Double Negative?

I like this one when Nyla starts to stand up for herself:

“You’re a creep.” Nyla pokes me in the chest with her finger, and I back up some more. “I know what you call me. Not to my face, but when you talk about me to other kids.”

I try for one of those neutral looks, like I don’t know what she’s talking about.

“Let me refresh your memory.” She’s squared off in front of me with her hands on her hips. “Fat Nyla! That’s what you call me. That’s what Mona Knows calls me, and she got it from you.”

“Mona who?”

I don’t expect her to sock me, so when her fist comes at me I take the full wallop on the left side of my jaw. One minute I’m there with the sidewalk under my feet and the next that sidewalk is pressed against my cheek.

“Hutch! Are you okay?” She’s on her knees, grabbing my arm and shaking it.

Can you tell us if there is something else you are currently working on?

I’ve finished a fourth novel titled Old and Terrible Secrets. It’s out to my readers now, so I’ll probably have some tweaking to do, but I hope to have it ready by the end of the year.

What are your top 3 locations to write?

I work where I feel comfortable. I read that some writers love to play music and lie on the floor while writing. Others prefer the quiet space with their computer in front of them. I fall into that latter camp. Quiet. Light and airy in summer, snug and warm in winter. Windows that look onto my forest of redwoods that I often stare at for inspiration. They don’t fail me. When I’m ready to print out, I usually take the pages onto the deck, sit in my glider (I wouldn’t part with that for anything.) and sip coffee or something cold while I shred what I thought I’d perfected shortly before.

Such fun.

But location is important to me when I’m really writing. When I’m jotting notes about ideas, I do that anywhere: grocery lines, ATM machine, trails or at 3AM in bed.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

“Get over it!”

I have a tendency to hold on to slights or grievances for a long time. My sister-in-law, who never held on to these things, gave me that advice and it was excellent. Very freeing.

What are the Top 3 skills to hone for people just starting in your business?

If I’d written this when I first started out, my response would be very different from what I’m writing today. I would have said, master your craft, learn to be an excellent writer/editor, and above all, learn how to work with a group of writers who will give you honest feedback.

I still say these are very important skills, but at the front of all of these I’d now add: Learn about social networking. You can write a dynamite book, you can edit it so it’s word perfect, you can work well with the best critique group on planet earth, but if you don’t know how to network, you might as well stand on the street corner and sell your books one at a time. Well, that’s a bit drastic, but it’s close to true.

How do you take an idea and grow it into a whole novel, full of subplots, twists, and three-dimensional characters? Any writing-process secrets you can share?

Well, my family would tell you that I daydream a lot, so when I’m writing a story it’s better if one of them drives.

Seriously, I listen to my characters, let them tell me about who they are and what they want. I often put down notes in a spiral notebook that’s more of an appendage than my arm, and when I’m ready to write a scene, I can refer to those notes. They are my small seeds and I grow them into scenes. Gradually, these scenes come together to create my book. . .that’s if I’m lucky. Not all my notes become books.


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