Q&A with Local Author: Laura McCune-Poplin

“Fourteen-year-olds exist, and they deserve to have their stories told,” said Laura McCune-Poplin, author and fifteen-year resident of Jamaica Plain.

    She is speaking about her latest work, Fatechanger, which was recently published by Black Rose Writing.

    A fiction novel for young teens, Fatechanger tells the story of Penelope (Penn) Clark, a fourteen-year-old who finds herself having to survive on the streets in early twentieth-century Boston after accidentally traveling back through time.

    The Gazette recently interviewed McCune-Poplin about her life as a writer in Jamaica Plain.

Q: What initially drew you to writing for the tween population?

A: When I first set out to write a book, I was told to write the book I would have liked to read, and I guess I was a “tween” kind of kid. But I think there are a lot of us out there—younger readers who can handle a more sophisticated story in terms of structure or language, and older readers who are still willing to believe in a “magic penny.” Honestly, I was surprised by the amount of resistance I encountered in writing Fatechanger. Editors and agents wanted to make Penn either older or younger to land the book more clearly in MG or YA territory. Apparently, a fourteen-year-old protagonist is a hard one to categorize. But fourteen-year-olds exist, and they deserve to have their stories told too.

Q: Do you base your characters on people in your life? Or do they represent a younger version of yourself?

A: In some sense, all my characters are products of my interactions with the world—even the ones that don’t specifically reference anyone I’ve met. But my main characters are almost always based, at least in part, on real people. Penn was inspired by my childhood best friend, Heidi. She was born with a defective heart valve that required multiple open-heart surgeries, but she refused to let anyone tell her she couldn’t play basketball. Or go backpacking. Or skiing. The last time I heard from her, she was rescuing cats from the Paradise, California fire. Penn is also like me in the sense that I’ve often felt like I don’t belong. I’ve often felt invisible.Fatechager is about Penn learning how to be visible.

Q: What is most appealing to you about writing fiction as opposed to other genres?

The short answer: I love writing fiction because I love reading fiction. There’s a freedom to follow my imagination wherever it goes, even if it’s not historically accurate. (Hopefully, I’ll be forgiven for some of the liberties I’ve taken with Boston’s history!!)

Q: What do you love most about living in JP?

A: Too many things! I don’t own a car, so I love how everything I need is within walking distance. My son’s school, his Taekwondo classes, art classes, the pet store, the toy store, the post office, the grocery store, the drugstore. And of course the ice cream store. I try to shop local as much as possible. I’m also in love with the abundant green space, and the sense of community in JP. It feels like a small town, but with instant access to (and all the perks of) a big city.

Q: What are your favorite places in town to visit?

A: Franklin Park. The Arboretum. The Pond. Minton Stable Community Garden. Thursdays at Loring Greenough. JP Licks. The library. Allendale Farm. The playgrounds along the bike path. Boing. I’ve probably shopped in most of the stores along Centre/South street and eaten at most of JP’s restaurants.

Q: Have you found a community of writers in JP?

A: Yes! Although the community tends to shift and change as time goes on. When I first moved to JP, I would regularly meet up with friends from grad school to workshop our WIPs. Since having my son, I’ve been able to meet many parents who are also talented writers and artists. Not only have they supported me in my writing, they’ve also proven (much more gracefully than I) how to balance a creative life with family life and a professional life. I’ve made a lot of connections through work too. Just last week I was able to meet a writer who teaches at Grub Street. I feel really lucky to be surrounded by so many creative people.

Q: How is JP supportive of writers?

 A: So many of my conversations in JP—at the playground, the farmer’s market, the community garden—revolve around books. People love to read! The libraries are a vibrant, central part of our community. Plus, people seem to be community oriented and willing to support one another in general.

Q: What advice do you have for young people who want to become authors?

A: Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not a good writer! Not even your English teacher!! I teach first-year writing courses at Berklee College of Music, and I’m astounded by the number of students who believe they’re bad writers because of a grade they got, or something that their teacher said. Yes, there are people who are naturally gifted with language, but I firmly believe that anyone can become a good writer. The real trick is not to give up, especially when people doubt you. Don’t doubt yourself. Keep writing.

McCune-Poplin has lived in Jamaica Plain for fifteen years. She currently lives with her husband and nine-year-old son. When she’s not busy writing on her couch in front of her living room windows, she enjoys traveling, reading, cycling, hiking and gardening. She is currently working on the second book in the Fatechanger series. Read more about her on her website at lmpoplin.com.

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