On Sunday, January 14, 2018 Hamline’s Creative Writing Programs will host a Graduate Recognition ceremony to honor all the students who have completed their studies and will be receiving an MFA from Hamline University. 

We will be featuring our soon-to-be alumni as they look back on their time at Hamline University. Today’s new graduate is Christine McDonnell. She lives in Jamaica Plain, a part of Boston with cafes and good places to walk.

What do you do when you’re not working on packets?

I teach ESL at Rosie’s Place, a women’s shelter in Boston. I spend much of the spring and summer in Craftsbury, Vermont where I watch cows and clouds and have no cell phone and not much internet, except at the library. The library porch looks out at the Green Mountains and usually there are other people sitting there with laptops open connecting to the internet– it’s the town’s communal outdoor office.

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?

Anita Silvey is an old friend. When she was editor of The Horn Book, I had an interview column called “New Voices, New Visions”. Two years ago she invited me to have lunch with Gary Schmidt, Lisa Ketchum and Kelly Easton before Gary was speaking to her class at Simmons College. They were all so great I thought, why not? So I sent in an application and a few weeks later I was at my first residency. No, I didn’t research the weather in Minnesota in January.

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?

I was a children’s librarian beginning in 1972 at The New York Public Library until I retired three years ago, so I’ve been reading and reviewing children’s books for a long time, and I’ve been writing since 1980. I published a series of chapter books, two young adult novels and two picture books with Viking Press. The best known is Toad Food and Measle Soup. Most are out of print now except for a board book edition of Dog Wants to Play and a Mexican edition of Friends First (Los Amigos Primeros). I wanted to be in a writing program for ages but I could never work out the time, kids, money, work, etc. Retirement finally gave me that opportunity.

What do you especially remember about your first residency?

Someone told me, “No one will ever love your writing more than this faculty.” That’s something! During my first residency Laura Ruby won the Printz and Matt de la Pena won the Newbery and Gene Yang was named Ambassador for Children’s Books. Pretty impressive! I figured I picked the right program. I remember that it was 19 degrees below zero during the day. And I remember how welcoming and supportive everyone was.

Have you focused on any one form (PB, novel, nonfiction, graphic novel) or age group in your writing? Tried a form you never thought you’d try?

I’ve been working mostly in middle grade realistic fiction but I did start a biography with Claire Rudolf Murphy and a fantasy with Phyllis Root. Mid-semester with Phyllis I got the idea for the story that became my thesis and I switched to over to that. 

Tell us about your Creative Thesis. 

The main character, Ellen, is a freshman, a scholarship student at Saint Hilda’s School surrounded by girls from wealthy families. Her mother, who was a student at this school, died when Ellen was six and being at Saint Hilda’s gives Ellen opportunities to learn more about her. Tutoring at Our Lady of Sorrows Church she meets nine year old Charlie who can’t read. The church is in a run down part of town, a contrast to the girls at Saint Hilda’s. Ellen feels comfortable there and forms a bond with Charlie. She doesn’t feel at ease at Saint Hilda’s because of the difference between her background and the wealth of the other students. It’s a story about Ellen’s friendship with Charlie and his younger brothers and her search for her mother. It’s about her struggle to find where she fits at school and in her family. It’s also about economic differences.

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?

I’m on the lookout for possibilities, missed opportunities, as Ron Koertge says. I’m trying to develop fuller scenes while at the same time cutting ruthlessly. I try to see first drafts as wide open exploration and I’m taking more risks, trying things out. I’m also committed to daily writing.

Any thoughts for entering students or for people considering the program?

Pat yourself on the back for making such an excellent choice!  A friend who was struggling with a PhD thesis told me his brother would call every day and say,”Don’t get it right, get it written.” That’s advice I pass on.