Anna Myers is fond of saying she has a great opening line for her autobiography, “I was born in Pinky George’s liquor store.” It definitely grabs your attention and there’s a funny story behind it. Anna is always telling great stories, especially ones that revolve around her family. She grew up surrounded by storytellers; stories are in her blood.

Thankfully, she shares her talents with us, her writing community.

Anna Myers is not only an award-winning author of nineteen novels for young adults, including Assassin, Time of the Witches, Spy, Tulsa Burning, The Keeping Room, and her latest title, The Grave Robber’s Secret, but she is also the SCBWI Regional Advisor for our motley crew of writers here in Oklahoma. A job she is very well suited for. The skills she acquired wrangling a classroom of rowdy eighth graders into submission often come in handy when addressing a bunch of children’s writers. Although she may call us out to sit down and behave, she is also there to offer support and guidance to those of us who have found a similar calling. One thing she doesn’t do is sugar coat  the life of a writer. Many times I have heard her say, “If you can be a truck driver, be a truck driver.” But if you have to write, you cannot live without writing in your life, be prepared to work hard. Study your craft. Get your writing critiqued and be prepared to listen to the critiques. Many times beginning writers send out their work too soon. It’s the biggest mistake she sees them make.

The best thing Anna Myers ever did for me was comment on some of my writing she heard at an informal gathering one night. I was a little more than nervous because she has a reputation for giving very direct critiques – the non-sugarcoating kind.

She doesn’t subscribe to the sandwich method.

After I read my pages – voice shaking, hands sweating – I waited for the ripping to start. One of the first things she said to me was,

“Wow! You are a writer!”

Everything else fell away. I was ecstatic. An actual writer that I respected had called me a writer. She saw enough talent in me to encourage me to keep pursuing my dream. That is so huge to someone who is struggling and fumbling and not even sure if they are good enough to keep trying. After that, I stopped saying that I was “trying to write a novel” or “aspiring to be a writer” and started calling myself a writer. It may seem like a simple thing, but many of you may know how hard accepting that label is.

I have never forgotten that evening. Any time I hit a rough patch or I feel like giving up, I remember those words and I keep going.

Mine is only one story. Anna has mentored, encouraged, and cajoled many of us in our SCBWI OK group to reach farther, dig deeper, or to even write something we ourselves aren’t sure we’re capable of writing. She keeps challenging us to be better writers, to keep learning. For our part, we follow her lead. She isn’t often wrong and we wouldn’t be where we are without her.

We aren’t the only ones who think Anna is amazing. Earlier this year, Anna received the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book. I had the privilege of  attending the event, along with several of her other writer friends and many members of her family. Anna’s son, Benjamin Myers, an exceptional poet in his own right, gave her an introduction that didn’t leave many dry eyes in the room. Here’s just a brief excerpt from that speech:

Near the beginning of her masterly novel, Fire in the Hills, Anna Myers gives us this exchange between young Hallie and her dying mother:

          “Ma,” said the girl, trying not to scream. “Ma, you can’t die.”
          “We all do, child. We all do. There is worst things. Sing to me, Hallie.
            It  will rest us both.”
This brief bit of dialogue sums up much that is great about my mother’s work. Her novels are rooted in the common human lot of suffering, in the ties that bind us together even in the hardest of times, and in the universal song that transcends the sorrow: “Sing to me, Hallie. It will rest us both.” Anna Myers comes from folks who know suffering and from folks who know how to tell a story, a long line of yarn-spinners and survivors. Thus, her books often begin with sadness, like the gut-wrenching first line of Red Dirt Jessie – “My sister Patsy is dead” – or the heart-rending execution scene with which she opens Spy, her account of the life and death of Nathan Hale. This story structure, this motion from pain to the pleasure of narrative, reminds us that the stories we tell are born from our sorrows and that our strength to face such sorrow is often born from the stories we tell.
When these stories belong to all of us, we call them “history,” and much of my mother’s career has been dedicated to bringing history alive in narrative. Red Dirt Jessie, is set during the Great Depression, a stark backdrop to mirror the emotional depravation of its young protagonist and her father. In Assassin, the turmoil of the Civil War matches the inner turmoil of young adulthood as Bella wrestles with her identity, the possibilities of good and evil in her young soul a microcosm of the equally polar possibilities within her young country at a great moment of crisis. Anna Myers knows that the stories we call history are the stories of individual lives. In Rosie’s Tiger, Rosie herself says so:

                   I didn’t understand much of what the newsmen said. It took me the
                     longest time to get it straight that the United States was mad at
                     North Korea and wanted to help South Korea.  But all along I
                    understood that Ronny might not come home. When I set two
                      plates out on the table for super, I’d look at his empty chair and
                      be so awful afraid it might stay empty, always.
My mother’s novels remind us that the stories we share as history are stories of empty chairs and of changed lives.

(To read full speech, click here.)

Me and Anna at her awards ceremony.

I asked Anna if she would let me interview her for this little blog and she agreed without hesitation, always willing to help out.

Valerie Lawson:  As a young kid, what was the worst trouble you ever got into? And what was your punishment?

Anna Myers: I am afraid this will make me sound terribly dull, but I never really got into trouble as a kid. I was number six in a family of seven. My parents were easy going about rules. Yet, I knew full well that I was expected to behave and use my head. I did not want to disappoint them. At school, I had lots of fun and sometimes went just to the edge of aggravating the teacher, but I always stopped before I got in trouble.

VL: What did you want to be when you were in grade school? What influenced this choice?

AM: The summer before first grade I decided to be a writer because I loved stories better than anything. I also knew it was a lucrative profession because I dictated a story to one of my older sisters. I then charged each of my older siblings, including the one who wrote it down for me, a quarter each to read the piece. I made $1.25, my last big money.

VL: Thinking back to your childhood heroes /role models when you were a kid, who were they? What drew you to them? What powers/abilities did they have that you wished you could have? Do you still feel that way about them now?

AM: Anne of Green Gables comes quickly to mind. I admired her spunk and identified with her imagination. Another of my heroes was my sister Shirley. Six years older than I, she was always quick to protect and help me. When I was in first grade, she taught me to recite “The Night Before Christmas.” Next she took me in before school to recite the piece for my teacher. Shirley also suggested my recitation would be good in the all-school Christmas program, and my teacher agreed. I grew up wanting to be like my sister. I still do. Shirley read Anne of Green Gables to me when I was about eight. A few years ago my two sisters and I went to Prince Edward Island, where the story is set and to see author Lucy Montgomery’s home there.

VL: I wouldn’t mind a sister like that. She really instilled a love of stories in you, in sounds like. Although, I think that pretty much was part of your family tradition wasn’t it?  You grew up surrounded by storytellers. One of your first books, Fire in the Hills, is loosely based on your own family, right?

VL: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? When did you start pursuing that seriously?

AM: I always enjoyed writing, but I did not get serious until I was forty. When I attended my first SCBWI conference, I sat by a lady in her seventies. She told me she intended to write someday. I realized I was following in her footsteps, so I went home and got busy.

VL: Wow. That would be a serious wake up call to any writer. Don’t just think about writing or talk about the story you’re going to write, get busy doing it.

On to the next question, were you ever afraid of the dark, of anything under your bed or in your closet?

AM: As number six in a family of seven kids, I was never alone long enough to be afraid.

VL: Who was your childhood best friend? Are you still friends today?

AM: My best friend was Darlene Fast, who lived about ½ mile down the country road from me. A few years ago when I woke after brain surgery, Darlene was standing at the foot of my bed. I told the nurse, “This woman has been with me on every important occasion of my life except my birth, and the only reason she missed that is because I am a month older.”

VL: So many people come and go in our lives. I think that is so rare, to have a friend who has known you from childhood to adulthood.  Tell me about your most memorable adventure you had with your friends outside of school.

AM: For a couple of years starting in about 5th grade, my friends and I greeted spring by going on what we called “safari.” We spent days making lists of who would bring what, everything from first aid paraphernalia to food, reading material, and blankets for rest. We met at Darlene’s house because she lived near the creek. Some of us brought wagons belonging to younger siblings. We went to the creek and stayed until dark. Our safaris continued periodically until fall.

VL: That sounds fantastic! And very organized. Did you ever have a clubhouse or secret place of your own? What did you do there?

AM: I grew up in the country, mostly with other kids whose fathers worked in the oil fields with my father. We roamed the countryside, climbed on oil derricks and swam in creeks.

VL: Did you ever have to deal with a bully? How did you handle it?

AM: When I was in junior high, a boy who was a year younger used to spit on my friends and me, usually from steps above us. After that happened several time, we jumped him one day and made him sorry. He yelled loudly, but the duty teacher ignored him. Things were different in those days.

VL: Kids solved their own problems. Interesting. What was the scariest thing that you ever experienced as a kid?

AM: As a small child, I believed that a kid had to stop playing at some point. My older sisters never played with dolls or with dogs outside. They were not pretenders, and I decided they must be beyond the age such things were allowed. I don’t know why I never expressed that fear, but I remember lying in bed at night wondering when I would cross that terrible dividing line.

VL: I think that is one of the most terrifying things I have heard. I wonder why children keep such dark thoughts to themselves. I remember suddenly realizing that everyone I knew would die one day and then that I would die, too. I would lose sleep thinking about it. I didn’t talk to anyone either. I was probably seven or eight.

Tell me about the most interesting place you have ever lived. What did you like/hate most about it?

AM: My current home, a house built around 1920, is the most interesting place I have ever lived. I have lived there with my husband, Johnny, for five years. When we moved in, I felt I had finally come home, as if the house had been waiting for me. Shortly after we moved in, I had a dinner party for several of my close friends from college. I was struck by the number of my old friends who made comments similar to, “This house is so you” as soon as they entered. I feel the spirits of others who have lived here, and when I sit around the dining room table with my writing buddies, I feel especially peaceful.

VL: I would agree that it does have a very comforting, creative vibe.

What was the worst job you ever had while going to school?

AM: I worked my freshman year in college at a two-woman credit union. This was before computers.  I am not good with numbers, and I made lots of mistakes. People can get really upset just because you leave off a zero when working with their account or a check.

VL: What is the most embarrassing thing one of your friends ever did to you?

AM: My two best college friends and I did our student teaching in the same high school. I was careful to buy a new heavy tweed suit that I thought made me look really mature. On the first morning, we were walking down the hall together, my arms full of books, when my wrap-around skirt suddenly came off. Rather than helping, my friends stood there laughing while I, dropping my books, collected my skirt, got behind a classroom door, and did a retie. I threw away the skirt when I got back to the dorm, but for some reason, I kept the friends.

VL: HA! The skirt was probably easier to return. Did your parents ever talk to you about the facts of life? What is the most memorable thing they told you?

AM: What facts of life? I don’t know what you mean. No one ever told me anything.

VL: What is happening in your writing life now?

AM:  I am finally working hard on a project that I’ve talked about for years, my first novel for adults. It is about three women teachers who form a garbage company to supplement their teaching salary. I wanted to celebrate the camaraderie I enjoyed with the women with whom I worked when I taught. I also wanted to write about the death of a husband from a wife’s point of view. It will be finished by November.

I am also involved with my friend Pati Hailey in a writing business. We hold writing retreats at my home. For information about them go to http://www.critiquecafe.net.

VL: Having heard a short excerpt of this story, and having met the women who inspired this story, I am really looking forward to reading this book when it comes out!

Tell us more about your involvement with SCBWI; what type of events to you sponsor?

AM: For twelve years I have served as the region advisor for the Oklahoma chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. We sponsor two major events each year. In the spring we bring in editors and agents from New York who speak to us about writing and who critique our manuscripts and art.  This fall we will hold retreats for picture book writers and for people who write novels. We also have small, informal gatherings each month in both Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Anyone who wants to write or illustrate books for children or young adults needs to join SCBWI. Check out the international organization at www.scbwi.org and our local group at www.scbwiok.org.

VL: It is the best thing I ever did for my writing, for sure. I’ve met so many fantastic writers through SCBWI. That’s also where I found my phenomenal critique group.

Why are you willing to put so much time into helping other writers?

AM: I believe in paying forward. I was lucky to be born to very supportive parents and to be given siblings who have always done a great deal for me. My late husband, Paul, had more writing ability in his little finger than I have in my whole body. He taught me to write. Besides, after I gave up teaching, I needed to do something to satisfy what I call a “sick need to teach.” The main plus of working in SCBWI is that I’ve gotten to know so many great people. I treasure my SCBWI friends.

VL: Anna, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. It has been a pleasure.

If you would like to learn more about Anna Myers and her books or the critique services she offers at the Critique Café at Heron House click on the links.

Comments
  1. A wonderful interview, Valerie. I devoured every word and enjoyed the unusual questions as well as Anna’s eloquent answers. She’s clearly a wonderful mentor! Thanks to both of you for all the time and care you put into this post.

  2. sarameade says:

    Great interview, Valerie! Anna is extraordinary…she’s helped me so much.

  3. Fantastic interview. I love you both.

  4. Wow! Outstanding post and interview. I especially enjoyed the “wrap-around skirt” story. That was always my fear when I wore those. I do love a person who can laugh at themselves. Why haven’t we seen that scene in a book, Anna? :-)

  5. Susan says:

    If anyone ever needed to write about her life, it would be Anna Myers! Thank you for a wonderful interview, Valerie.

  6. thebnc says:

    HA! Love it. Great interview. :-)

  7. A wonderful post and interview! So inspiring!

  8. jocelynrish says:

    Wow, Anna sounds like a fantastic person – you are so lucky to have her as a mentor. I especially loved her story about her childhood friend being there for all her important events except her birth since she’s older. :-)

  9. [...] Anna Myers – Storyteller, Mentor Extraordinaire – Author Interview [...]

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