Sunday, September 23, 2012

One Writer's Process: Augusta Scattergood

It took Augusta Scattergood almost ten years to write her first novel, Glory Be, a coming-of-age story which has received glowing reviews from such publications as School Library Journal  (“Glory is an appealing, authentic character whose unflinching convictions, missteps, and reflections will captivate readers.") and Publishers Weekly ("Scattergood's effective snapshot of the fight against segregation, one town at a time, makes personal the tumultuous atmosphere of the times.").
The middle-grade novel started, says Scattergood, as a short story for adults, then “tried to be a novel for kids titled Junk Poker. Pretty soon, fortunately, that title got tossed out the window! I submitted it way too soon. I tucked it into the proverbial bottom drawer. But I loved the story a lot, so I never gave up.”

In the mysterious way that writing works, Scattergood thought about the story for a long time. “I actually started the version that’s closest to my finished novel after hearing Ruby Bridges speak at the New Jersey school where I was working,” says Scattergood.

But that wasn’t the true start of the story, she admits. “I need to go back a bit to tell you that this story really started in 1964 when I worked for my state’s Library Commission as a summer college intern,” explains Scattergood, who worked in Sunflower County, Mississippi, in the heart of her native Mississippi Delta. “It was Freedom Summer, 1964. History unfolded while I shelved books and ran story hours. “

As a library intern, Scattergood says, she worked with a director who stood up to a library trustee who wanted to close down the library, or at least remove all the chairs, rather than allow it to be integrated. “By the end of that summer, Story Hour had turned into a remedial reading class attended by children who’d never been inside a library. That same summer, I briefly met a young, white civil rights worker from Ohio. In town to register voters and teach in the new Freedom School, she spent her off hours hanging out in the library. It’s not a reach to say I learned a lot that college summer.”

Over the years, as Scattergood worked on the manuscript, she would tuck it into a drawer while taking classes on writing at the New School in New York. She joined an SCBWI writing critique group, and turned to craft books on writing to help her continue to revise her manuscript.

Then I struggled some more,” she says. “Thought a lot. Worried, revised, rewrote. In the end, I decided to give Glory a lot more of what my grandmother called gumption than we all had ourselves.”

It was a grandmother who had helped inspire her love of reading. A fourth-grade teacher, her grandmother gave Scattergood a book for her birthday every year. By seventh grade, she was bragging to all her friends about reading Gone With The Wind, all 1,048 pages.

And it was her grandmother who may have transmitted something of the Southern storyteller’s gene to her. “I was a fill-in Canasta player for her group,” says Scattergood, “and oh could they talk! I was a good listener.”

Now, Scattergood says, she does her best work at a local community college that shares space with a public library. “I get there early and try to grab a study room. I reward myself with a walk on the trail afterwards where I think about what I just wrote, revised, messed up, and put back together. Working at home has way too many distractions.”

Scattergood, who lives with her husband most of the year in St. Petersburg, FL, returns during the summer months to New Jersey, where she used to work as a librarian. Recently, she was kind enough to take a break from her work-in-progress to share thoughts on writing with wordswimmer.

Wordswimmer: If writing is like do you get into the water each day?

AS: I'm a morning person. I usually spend a few minutes looking at my email and Facebook, then I dive right in.

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?

AS: My shorter work is mostly book reviewing. I stay afloat by reading some really great things. Books written by Mississippians or about the South, for Delta Magazine. Mostly middle-grade fiction, with the occasional Young Adult novel thrown in, for the Christian Science Monitor. And anything that strikes my blogging fancy. It's easy to kick back and enjoy this part of my writing.

But the novels? The more than 800-word-count challenges? I have to love the characters and really wake up each morning channeling the voice of the narrator. What's that kid trying to tell me today?

When that's not working--when I'm sinking fast--I'll do almost anything. Write letters to my characters, ponder their closets and refrigerators, all those tricks I refuse to start with. And later, when I'm barely treading water, sometimes wish I had!

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells? 

AS: I'm new enough at writing that I haven't had a true dry spell. I find I have too much to say. Ask anyone who knows me.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

AS: Figuring out the "What ifs" of plot. I can write myself into a situation that just doesn't have an answer. That usually comes when I jump in without first surveying the landscape, the lilies in the pond and the stuff lurking beneath the surface of the lake.

If I do enough prep work, maybe that won't happen. But I'm anxious to dive right in. Oddly, I'm much more cautious when it comes to swimming in real lakes and oceans with scary stuff.

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

AS: I get by with a little help from my friends! No, really.

I don't like early drafts, but I have one writer friend who'll read almost anything I email her at the drop of a hat. (Thanks, Janet!) Another who seems to be waiting for my phone call when I most need her. (Leslie's great at brainstorming.) And of course, my critique groups.

I may be swimming alone for long hours, holed up in my quiet spot at the public library, but I'm never really alone. Must be all those years of synchronized swimming when I was a kid.

Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?

AS: I actually love the editing, perfecting my strokes, so to speak. Finding just the right colors for the sunset or the sounds of a swimming pool in July.

In addition to being a lifeguard and teaching swimming classes when I was younger, I edited my high school newspaper, typed friends' term papers, worked on a monthly magazine.

Water and red pencils—I can't seem to escape either.

For more information about Scattergood, visit her website:

And to read more interviews with her, visit:


Augusta Scattergood said...

Thanks, Bruce! Always fun reading your interviews so I'm quite proud to now BE one of them!

Bruce Black said...

Lovely to spend some time in the water with you. Thanks so much for sharing your insights.