A Peek at the Creative Space of Sheila O’Connor

Joining us this week for Creative Spaces is author Sheila O’Connor. Sheila’s first YA novel, Sparrow Road, publishes this month from Putnam:

It’s the summer before seventh grade, and twelve-year-old Raine O’Rourke’s mother suddenly takes a job hours from home at mysterious Sparrow Road–a creepy, dilapidated mansion that houses an eccentric group of artists. As Raine tries to make sense of her new surroundings, she forges friendships with a cast of quirky characters including the outrageous and funky Josie.

Together, Raine and Josie decide to solve the mysteries of Sparrow Road–from its haunting history as an orphanage to the secrets of its silent, brooding owner, Viktor. But it’s an unexpected secret from Raine’s own life that changes her forever.

Sheila O’Connor has also published two novels for adults: Tokens of Grace and Where No Gods Came. Where No Gods Came won the Minnesota Book Award and the Michigan Award for Literary Fiction, and was selected as a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers title. Her work has been recognized with Bush Foundation, Loft McKnight, and Minnesota State Arts Board fellowships.  She teaches fiction in the MFA program at Hamline University where she also serves as editor of Water~Stone Review. A long-time poet with the Writer-in-the-Schools program, she has taught writing to thousands of young people.  She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

To learn more about Sheila O’Connor visit her website.

Describe your workspace.

Last summer I had a little writer’s shed built.  It’s a single room, very simple, with plenty of windows for me to see the world.  I don’t have much in it, a couple of chairs, a writing desk, a bed where my dog sleeps.  I like a space without distraction—so there isn’t much in there.  

Describe a typical workday.  

When I’m writing a book, I typically write five days a week, for four or five hours at a stretch, and I begin first thing in the morning.  The early writing allows me to have a clear mind—free from the details of the world.  I’m fairly disciplined about this schedule—my own rule is I can’t quit until I reach five pages.  If I get to five pages before four or five hours (I rarely do) then I’m free to go.  I wish I could keep shorter hours, but I do most of my writing in the summer which means I have a lot to accomplish in those months.  When I’ve reached my five pages, I stop, print, and set it on a table to look at the next morning. In the light of the next day, I decide if there’s anything worth keeping.  Sometimes the answer is yes, but often it’s no.  

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.
My favorite things are all handmade gifts.  In celebration of the publication of Sparrow Road my daughter made me a painting and my son a garden stone.  Both of those are precious to me. I also have a hand-sewn star from my dear friend Deb.  When I go out to my shed, I feel their good spirits surround me.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.  

Well, there’s the rereading the previous day’s work as I mentioned above.  I also like to warm up with pre-writing—listing or mapping in a notebook—messy jottings to get me ready for the work I have ahead.  For me, the most important ritual is entering the space that holds the story—a space where there is nothing but the story work to be done.  When I close the door to my shed I enter story world.

What do you listen to while you work?  
I’m a silence writer myself—no noise would be ideal for me.  Of course there’s always some noise from the world—but perfect peace is my dream.  
What keeps you focused while you’re working?  
The only way I know to stay focused is to stay put at the desk.  If I’m totally stuck, or exhaustion is setting in, I’ll take a rest, close my eyes, wait for something good to come. 

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?  

I write at the computer mostly—but there are times I write a scene by longhand, especially if some warm-up exercise leads me suddenly to prose.  In revision, I often move between longhand and the keyboard.  

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

I let the story lead me.  I follow the truth of the story, the characters, the events, the inevitability of certain outcomes.  I’m always focused on the causal relationship—how one thing would organically lead to the next.  

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

I have shared my workspace with fellow writers, both spaces I’ve rented and my shed, and I’m always happy to do it.  I like the thought of someone else’s dream coming alive in that space.  

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?

My favorite piece of advice is actually Einstein’s, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”  I’m at my best when I allow the dream to become the book, when I trust the process and the story to reveal itself to me.  The craft will come, the intellect will have its day during revision, but the story dream, I consider that the most essential work. 

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