We’re thrilled to have Alison Cherry on the blog today! Alison grew up in Evanston, IL, before going to Harvard to earn a photography degree. After spending three years as a freelance lighting designer for various theaters throughout the Northeast, she “eventually got tired of hanging out on ladders” and began working as a photographer for the Metropolitan Opera. Alison now lives in Brooklyn with her kittens, Vivian and Sophia, and is a full-time writer. Read on to learn about her latest project, Willows Vs. Wolverines!
1.Your most recent book Willows Vs. Wolverines came out in April 2017—Congratulations! What was your inspiration? Do you relate closely with any of your characters?
Thank you! I’ve always wanted to write a sleep-away camp book; my favorite thing to do is to trap a character in a place she can’t leave and then throw a bunch of difficult problems at her. (That’s probably why I’ve also written books about being on reality TV and working at a remote summer theater festival.) I got the initial idea for this particular story from a talk Lois Lowry gave at a conference I attended years ago. I don’t remember the point of the story she told, but I do remember her talking about how she tried to impress the other girls in her cabin at camp by pretending to have a cool, good-looking older brother who went to an Ivy League school. Izzy is quite a bit more devious in how she makes use of her fake older brother, but it’s the same general idea! Izzy and I are very different people, and I don’t relate to her at all—I don’t think we would’ve been friends if we had met as kids. I’m a lot more like her best friend, Mackenzie.
2. Your work plays with perspective and points of view—how do you choose a story’s POV? In your opinion/writing, is the POV character the “main character” or an “observer”?
Middle grade books about friendships falling apart are quite common—I’d venture to say that nearly everyone experiences a friendship breakup in middle school. But I realized that every single friend-breakup book I’d ever read was from the point of view of the friend who was left behind, not the one who left. After being dumped by my best friend in eighth grade, I spent a lot of time trying to get inside her head and figure out why she’d acted the way she did, and trying to see her perspective helped me come to terms with what had happened.
I hope this book brings other middle school girls some perspective, too, and helps them see that there are two sides to every fight. Izzy is definitely the main character of this story and is not in any way an observer—in fact, she’s pretty bad at observing what’s going on around her unless it affects her directly. But it would’ve been easy to write this story from Mackenzie’s side as well; she experiences a great deal of character growth over the course of the story, even though she does it off the page.
3. What is collaborative writing like and how have you come to work with other authors?
Collaborative writing is really different from writing solo books! In some ways, it’s much easier—there were times I went to sleep and woke up to find that my book was 6000 words longer—but it comes with its own slew of challenges. When I’m writing alone and decide not to stick to my outline, the resulting avalanche of things that have to change affects only me. But when other people are relying on me to set up pieces of their narratives, I have to be much more careful with each piece I move! I also tend to be fairly private with my writing; I don’t like to show anyone my drafts before I’ve polished them as much as I possibly can on my own.
But when I’m writing with collaborators, there’s not time for that, and I have to share my work in a much rawer state. Though that forced vulnerability was difficult for me at first, I think it’s made me a stronger writer and made me less precious about my words. The thing I liked best about writing with other people was that I had built-in cheerleaders and motivators—it’s a lot harder to slack off if you have someone else waiting for your chapter before she can write hers! Having immediate positive feedback on my work never hurts, either.
All of my co-authors for BEST. NIGHT. EVER.—Jen Malone, Gail Nall, Ronni Arno, Dee Romito, Rachele Alpine, and Stephanie Faris—are also published by Aladdin. The book was Jen’s brainchild, and she pulled us all together and acted as our leader. We put together a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline to work from and a schedule of who would turn in what chapter when, which was necessary for a group that big, especially because most of us didn’t know each other very well.
THE PROS OF CONS was totally different—my co-authors, Lindsay Ribar and Michelle Schusterman, have been my critique partners and close friends for years, so we’re used to helping one another build stories. We had a nebulous outline for our book, but we mostly ended up writing the story in three-chapter chunks, meeting after each to reassess where we were headed.
4. Can you tell us about your degree in Photography? What is it like to be a freelance lighting designer?
Getting a degree in photography was fun and weird and nerve-racking! I was lucky to go to a school that had visiting artists every semester, often from abroad, so I got to work with photographers from all over the world. Classes were small—never more than ten—and every week we’d each pin up all of our work and listen to the class and the professor critique us. At the end of each semester, we’d have an exhibition that was open to the public, and I actually sold some work that way! I would’ve done a double major in photography and theater if that had been an option, but there wasn’t a theater degree available, so I learned to do lighting design on my own time by working on 20+ productions during my time in college. Lighting design felt kind of like photography in motion to me, so it was a very natural extension.
Though it seems like photography, lighting design, and writing are three pretty different careers, all three are about storytelling, and that makes them more similar than you’d think. Taking a photograph is like writing a poem; you choose one moment to capture, explore it in a beautiful way, and leave your audience feeling like they’ve been let in on a secret they may not have discovered on their own. A lighting designer’s job is more subtle—the lighting of a show should guide the audience’s emotional journey in a way that supports the director’s vision, making them feel the right things at the right times. If you do it correctly, your audience doesn’t even realize the lighting is a factor in what they’re feeling (which can make the lighting designer feel like a secret agent… or like their work has gone totally unappreciated.) I feel like I have the most control as a writer—I can shape my audience’s entire emotional journey in a way everyone can see, and I don’t need a theater/a crew/a director/expensive equipment/a darkroom/someone to model for me in order to do it!
5. What are some similarities and differences between writing Young Adult and Middle Grade?
While my plotting and writing processes are exactly the same whether I’m writing YA and MG, the two are definitely different in tone. One explanation I’ve heard a lot and that I really like is that MG is often more internally focused—about figuring out who you are and how you relate to your family and friends—and YA is more broadly focused—about figuring out where you fit into the context of the wider world. I love writing middle grade because I can get away with being much goofier, and I also love not feeling pressured not to write a romantic subplot; while you CAN get away with that in YA, it’s a lot harder to interest publishers in a book that has no focus at all on love/romantic relationships. I love writing YA because I can spend more time delving into the minutiae of feelings, and having more mature characters means they’re more independent and can feasibly be in a lot more situations. I like to alternate writing MG and YA books so my brain has lots of variety and never feels stuck!
Bonus! Describe your road to publication.
I started querying the first manuscript I wrote in 2010. After about eight months of querying, I heard back from one of my dream agents, Holly Root, who said, “I can’t stop thinking about your book, but I don’t think I can sell it. If you write me something else, I’ll save a spot for you.” I was in the middle of writing another book about a fictional small town where the redness of your hair determined your social status, so I finished that and sent it straight to Holly, who signed me four days later.
RED sold to Delacorte Press in a two-book deal three months after that and was published in 2013. My three solo YA books—RED, FOR REAL, and LOOK BOTH WAYS—are all published by Delacorte, and all my middle grade novels—THE CLASSY CROOKS CLUB, WILLOWS VS. WOLVERINES, and a collaborative book called BEST. NIGHT. EVER—are published by Aladdin. I also have a collaborative YA called THE PROS OF CONS coming outnext March from Scholastic.
Keep up with Alison!