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Q and A: Gail Donovan

11/09/2018

Q&A: Gail Donovan first appeared in Islandport Magazine, Winter 2018.

Some authors start with plot, some with setting, some with theme. For Gail Donovan, her books start with character. The seed for Finchosaurus came with an image of a kid on a balance ball chair. “I knew he would be a bouncing-off-the-wall kid who got sent outside all the time,” she says. “Once I knew that, I knew he’d also be a kid who, when he was outside, kept busy by digging.” That led her to paleontology, which led to a kid who wanted a dinosaur named after him, which led to Finchosaurus. Donovan has been dedicated to the craft and art of writing since college. While earning a master’s in creative writing at Brown University, she joined a writing group that is still going thirty years later. She has worked as a farmer, as a transcriber of surveillance audiotapes, and for a brief period thought she might support herself as a writer by being a potter. After giving up that career plan, she settled in at a public library. 

Why do you write for the seven- to twelve-year-old age group?

I often look at a toddler screaming at the top of their lungs and marvel at how passionately they let the world know they’re not happy. Then I think how we never see adults doing that! I’m interested in people in between those places. A child who is eight or nine or ten feels things just as deeply as a crying toddler, but they’re learning not to cry and scream out loud. They’re trying to figure out how to live in a world that can feel deeply unfair. That fascinates me, and that’s what I am trying to explore in my books—how a young person lets the world know, “that’s not fair, and this is how I feel about it.”

What kind of books do you write and why?

When I was a kid I had a teacher who used to show movies about different times, such as life in Colonial New England. They always began by setting the scene, and then the narrator said, “and you were there…” The movie tried to make you feel as if you were actually there. That’s what I want to do in my books. So even though my books are fiction, they’re realistic fiction. I want the reader to feel as much as possible that anything that happens in this make-believe story could actually happen in real life.

What do you like to read?

I like all kinds of books. I like books that aren’t realistic fiction, like Charlotte’s Web. I love picture books by the same author and illustrator, like the work of Beatrix Potter. I like novels in verse. But my favorite books are realistic fiction. Old favorites include Little Women and the All-of-a-Kind Family books. Some newer realistic fiction books I like are Rules by Cynthia Lord, Frindle by Andrew Clements, Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson, and the Clementine series by Sara Pennypacker.

Is there going to be another book about Finch?

I don’t know! I love series and I know readers love them too—being able to stay with a character. And I think Finch is the kind of character whose bounciness, curiosity, and determination would keep getting him into interesting situations. So I’ll see what happens. 

What is your favorite book outside of your genre?

As a writer of realistic middle-grade fiction, dystopian young adult fiction is not my genre, but I do love The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. And while what Collins does in her trilogy—posing deep thematic questions about war and violence—is fascinating, that’s not what gives the work its power for me. What I love is the scene, quite early in the first book, in which Katniss volunteers for her sister. For me, everything follows from that character-building moment. It propels me through the whole trilogy.