Sunday, June 17, 2007

One Writer's Process: Joyce Sweeney

Joyce Sweeney is a master storyteller whose novels and short stories explore tough topics such as teen suicide, dysfunctional family relationships, divorce, and gay issues, and have pushed the edges of young adult literature for years.

Center Line
, her first novel, was rejected by more than thirty publishers, but went on to win the first Delacorte Press Prize for an Outstanding First Young Adult Novel in 1984, the first year that the prize was offered.

Long before winning the award, Joyce set out to learn the tools of her craft, writing and selling stories during her student days at Wright State University, then continuing to learn her craft by studying with Daniel Keyes (the author of Flowers for Algernon) while doing graduate work in creative writing at Ohio University.

Since winning the Delacorte Press Prize, Joyce has gone on to write more than a dozen books, each one groundbreaking in its own way, and her work has earned her numerous honors, including Best Books for Young Adults (ALA), Best Books for the Teenage (NYPL), Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers (ALA), and Top Ten Sports Books (Booklist).

"I love your whole analogy of swimming and writing," Joyce wrote, when Wordswimmer asked if she'd be willing to share her thoughts on writing. "I think for me it's the idea of treading water. If you keep moving, you can stay afloat; if you hold still, you go under. That means you have to always be changing and growing as a writer, trying new things..."

Currently, Joyce lives with her husband and her cat, Phantom, in Coral Springs, Florida, where she offers writing workshops to young writers, and serves as a beloved mentor to a growing number of emerging writers (nineteen published at last count!) like Crissa-Jean Chappell, Alex Flinn, Dorian Cirrone, and others.

Many thanks, Joyce, for sharing your thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer:

Treading Water

I've been in the pool a long time. I'm not that terribly old, but I started swimming at a young age. My first novel, Center Line, was published when I was only 27, which was fabulous good luck, but it's also the equivalent of learning to swim at age 2 by being thrown in the pool. I choked, swallowed a lot of water and then, seeing that the shore was very far away, I did what I had to do. I started to swim.

That first book won a contest and got a lot of publicity which taught me to surf some big waves right away. That was back in 1984 before blogs and listservs, which meant I was out on the vast ocean all alone, trying to make sense of what was happening to me. My second book didn't do so well and I stopped swimming and went under. When I realized there were no lifeguards coming, I fought my way to the surface and tread water, trying to find that perfect path to shore.

Since then, I've published thirteen books for young adults. Three or four of them have been "big books" by industry standards. The rest have just gone out and done their best. I've seen my share of Best Books and Quick Pick and Teen Age lists, won one State Reading Award, been on two Top Ten Lists and collected my share of royalties and even some movie options. I've also had a publisher go bankrupt on me, seen a great book fail because of a bad cover and been challenged for having a book with a black cat on the cover. In all of that I became one of the strongest swimmers in the pool. There really aren't any waves, tides or rip currents that I can't navigate. It goes back to what my mom taught me about treading water...if you keep moving, you stay afloat.

My current book, Headlock, is about a boy who wants to be a professional wrestler, but his ambitions are derailed when his grandmother is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. The year I wrote it, my own mother was failing from that disease and the only thing I could write about was how the undertow was making me want to get old and stop living right along with my mom. But the other part of the novel, about the protagonist's ambition to be a wrestler, that was the survivor in me talking. Because as hard as the writing business is, there are moments....two years ago I was at a dinner at ALA midsummer. All of the authors in the room were introduced and when they said my name, a cheer went up. I heard it. I got it. All those ALA members were saying, we know who you are. And we thank you for what you've done.

I've been treading water for 22 years now and most days I feel like Odysseus. With every passing year, I feel the shore get a little closer and I dream of resting. Sometimes the sea is calm and beautiful, others it's like a tsunami. Critics sometimes throw rocks. Kids write fan letters that work like life preservers. I've been in the water so long, I'm almost afraid to get out. I don't know what it's like on shore anymore. But for the past ten years, I've also noticed that I spend more and more of my time teaching classes and mentoring other writers and less and less writing. Writers need lifeguards and I'm well qualified to be one.

I think in a few years I will have said all I have to say to my young readers, but it doesn't mean I want to get out of the water entirely. My dream is to sit in a tall shiny lifeguard tower, proud and satisfied with my accomplishments, always ready for anyone new coming along who needs a quick rescue or a little guidance through those waters I know so well.

For details about Joyce Sweeney's life and career, visit:

1 comment:

Jack said...

Joyce had an interesting, and productive career. I enjoyed her discussion here, and also her bio in the link provided. A new book every one or two years--I'd love to be that productive. Her themes were interesting and provocative, too.