A conversation with Loretta Ellsworth about her book In Search of Mockingbird
The protagonist in your novel shares a love of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird with her mother. How were you affected by that book both as a reader and a writer?
I fell in love with To Kill a Mockingbird when I first read it in high school. But I didn’t really appreciate Harper Lee’s lyrical writing until I read the book again many years later when I was writing. I love her description, in particular, of Maycomb, “a tired old town, where men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning, and ladies were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” This was a place that I knew existed! Her writing never fails to inspire me. I often revisit the book now like an old friend, and I discover something new every time I read it.
Erin aspires to be a writer and keeps a journal to record her thoughts and ideas. What advice would you offer to young writers? Talk a little about your journey to publication.
My journey to publication, like many authors, was a long road with frequent stops along the way. I tried many different types of writing before I landed in children’s fiction, a place I believe I’m meant to be. My first magazine article was published when I was thirty years-old, but my first book didn’t come out until I was forty-seven. Of course, I was busy with four children and a teaching career, and I learned much of my craft during that time. Although I kept a diary for a year when I was young, I wish I had started writing seriously at an earlier age, and I wish I had spent more time learning my craft before I wrote many of the manuscripts that line the bottom of my closet. My recommendation to young writers is to work hard learning about writing, to write as often as you can, and to pay attention to the world around you. And, of course, keep a journal. You’ll treasure it when you’re older.
Erin's journey to meet Harper Lee is obviously a physical "road trip" journey, but it is also an emotional journey. Can you elaborate on that?
Erin feels that she needs to take this journey for her mother’s sake. Of course, she realizes later that she is doing it for her own sake, as a means of finding the connection she desperately longs for. In the actual road trip, she immerses herself in her mother’s journal and makes new friends who help her realize that we’re all searching for something: a reconnection with a long-lost son, a sense of identity that makes us feel special, a relationship with a mother who died years before, and a newfound relationship with a concerned father.
Talk about the research involved in writing In Search of Mockingbird compared with your research for your first novel, The Shrouding Woman.
For The Shrouding Woman, I spent many hours reading old newspapers and prairie journals at the Minnesota Historical Society, and books about life in the 1870’s. I had to do a great deal of research on death customs and the tradition of shrouding. For In Search of Mockingbird, my research dealt with Harper Lee and the Greyhound bus schedules. I traveled to Monroeville, Alabama, saw my first magnolia tree, visited the Monroeville Courthouse Museum, and met many people, including Harper Lee’s cousin, Dickie Williams. And I kept revisiting To Kill a Mockingbird. I wanted to feel the same way Erin felt about the book, like it was my best friend and a guide to life.
Discuss your inspiration for writing In Search of Mockingbird. When did the idea come to you and how long did the novel take you to write from first draft to publication? Did the story change very much over the course of revision?
The idea for my book came to me when my daughter Erin had to read To Kill a Mockingbird for her high school English class. I hadn’t read it in years so I decided to read the book at the same time she did. I fell in love again with Harper Lee’s words and started thinking about how books connect us. The experience I was sharing with my daughter, reading a book that had influenced me so much, was very special. When I was writing The Shrouding Woman, I inherited my great-great grandmother’s journal, written in the 1870’s. By the time I finished reading her journal, I felt as though I had a special connection with this woman, even though I’d never met her. These two events provided me with the inspiration for my book. The novel took six years from first draft to publication. The story changed a lot over the course of revision, but the central theme remained: a girl’s connection to her mother through a cherished book and a long lost journal.
What is your favorite part of the writing process? Your least favorite?
My favorite part is when I’m inspired, when I feel like a character is telling me what to write and I just have to try to keep up. My least favorite is often in the middle of a story, when doubts start to creep in. I have several half-finished manuscripts that I gave up on.
Describe the editorial process working with your editor.
My editor, Christy Ottaviano, gives me a lot of freedom when she edits my books. She doesn’t tell me what to do but asks insightful questions that help me figure it out on my own. If I’m stuck, she does offer suggestions. For The Shrouding Woman, I needed to add fifty pages. Christy gave me several suggestions about character development, such as “I’d like to see more of Evie’s relationship with her father,” and “Could you tell me more about the work on the farm?” This led to chapters on making soap and finding a baby fox, which Evie tries to hide from her father.
In Search of Mockingbird held more difficulties. Not everything went smoothly for us and there were long stretches between edits. I signed the contract for this book in 2002, five years before it would see print. But the end result makes me sound like a better writer than I am, so who can complain about that?
You work full-time as a teacher. When do you find time to write?
Good question. Like most authors I know who have other jobs, I’ve had to be flexible in my writing. I’ve learned to write at soccer practices, gymnastic meets, early in the mornings before school (yawn), and even during a few faculty meetings (don’t mention this one to my principal!).
If you could choose three favorite books, what would they be?
My three favorite novels in order are: To Kill a Mockingbird, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and a tie between Huckleberry Finn and Peter Pan.
You have four grown children. Do they read your work and, if so, how do they inform your writing?
My children were young when I first started writing. As they’ve grown, they’ve become my first readers, sharing insights and suggestions. And they’ve also become good promoters of their mom’s books. On a recent trip to Poland, my kids introduced me as a “famous American author.”