Southwest Children's Literature

Sun Logo

Gullywasher Gulch

Interview with Marianne Mitchell:

This is a photograph of Marianne.

When did you decide to be a writer and what inspired you?

I had never thought about being a writer until one of my college professors (in graduate school) commented on an essay I had written for a final exam. "You should write fiction," she suggested. Well, that sounded like a lot more fun than writing essays. I was teaching college level Spanish at the time so I wrote some skits and kid stories for my Spanish students. They had fun with my stories and skits and I had fun writing them. So the proverbial light bulb went off in my head and I thought I'd try writing for kids. I realized that writing for kids was way different from the essays and reports I'd done in college. There was a lot to learn. I took a "writing for kids" correspondence course and read every how-to book I could find. I went to conferences and workshops, and joined a critique group. Even after a dozen years doing this, I'm still learning the ropes.

What gave you the idea to write Gullywasher Gulch?

I had so much fun writing my cowboy Cinderella tale, Joe Cinders; I wanted to try another one set in the desert. The idea came to write about a gullywasher storm like we get here in the summer. Then the phrase my dad used to say, "I'm saving for a rainy day," came to mind. So I began to play with a character who kept saving stuff for some rainy day (just like Dad used to do) and wondered what would happen if a huge, gullywasher-type rainy day came along. That's how it goes. You get a couple of ideas, play with them, and ask what if?

I think it's great that you read to students in classrooms still. But do you ever miss teaching?

Writing for kids has actually given me the best teaching job! I don't just read my stories when I go to schools. I talk to the kids about being a writer, getting ideas, story structure, the Six Traits of Writing, what are some great books to read, and where they can have some of their writing published. I have also taught mini-workshops on writing. So I'm still teaching, just in a different way.

I noticed that someone else has done your illustrations. Have you ever thought about or wanted to illustrate?

No, no, no! I have no talent for art and have never been to art school! Words are my "tools of trade." I leave the artwork to those who are real professional artists. Besides, publishers want to choose the illustrator for their books. They know who is who in the art world and they know what kind of "look" they want for their books. I like seeing the special "extras" my illustrators have brought to my stories.

Can you say anything about your newest book, Firebug, coming out in 2004?

Firebug is a mystery for readers 8 and up. It's set in Sedona, Arizona on a ranch my family used to own. My main character, Haley, has come to her uncle's new guest ranch to help with chores. She soon becomes involved in solving a case of arson, finding out who is sending her uncle threatening post cards, and if there is really buried treasure on the land. So it's like three mysteries woven into one.

Do you have any tips for new young writers nowadays?

Read, read, read, especially recent publications. If you're into fiction, read all you can in different genres: mystery, adventure, humor, romance, fantasy, historical, sci-fi. See which kind of fiction interests you the most and then read more of that. If you like poetry, read lots of poetry. Nonfiction, read that. Just read and learn how others did it.

By reading, you'll get to know what's being published today. Books published 50 years ago may still be popular, but styles have changed and editors are looking for fresh voices. When I decided to write a mystery, I read lots of kids' mysteries. Not the old Nancy Drew books. The new authors: Bruce Hale, Wendelin Van Draanen, Mary Downing Hahn, Bruce Coville. I didn't want to copy their style (couldn't do it if I tried!) but I wanted to see how they wove stories, planted clues, used words.

Next tip is to write. You learn so much just by DOING it. Sometimes it's fun. Sometimes it's agony. Sometimes you write junk - sometimes it just flows!

Get a critique of your work from someone who understands writing. Not your parents, or your friends (unless they are also talented writers). Join a critique group of fellow writers or take a class on writing.

Then revise - many, many times. (sigh!) It never comes out perfect the first time. Next, research. If you want your work published you have to find out who publishes the kind of work you wrote. Market research is very time-consuming but worth the effort if you can weed out the inappropriate markets. For example, don't send a novel to someone who only publishes picture books. Don't send fiction to someone who only does non-fiction. If you're writing a magazine piece, which magazine is best suited for your work?

Last tip: If you don't already have tough skin, go borrow a rhino's skin. Writing, getting critiqued, submitting to editors, going through revisions can be bruising. You must take your punches (rejections, criticism) and get up swinging again. Writing is not a job for anyone timid or thin-skinned. Finally, if you decide to write for children, don't do it because you think it's easier. It's not. Writing for children has special demands, different from the demands of writing for adults. Every kind of writing has hurdles and challenges so it's important to write what you enjoy.

This interview was conducted online in November 2003.

You can visit Marianne Mitchell's Web site at:

to mainpage

About the Book | Book Review | Children's Voices | Interview | About the Reviewer