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Author Interview: Jill Mackenzie and SPIN THE SKY

Today we are so pleased to feature an interview with debut author Jill MacKenzie, whose SPIN THE SKY (Sky Pony Press) is out in the world today! She swung by the Highway to talk craft, reality television, her journey to publication, and baby animals.

About the book: Magnolia Woodson wants nothing more than to get her and her sister, Rose, out of the pitifully small, clamming-obsessed Oregon town that hates them—she just doesn’t know how. Forced to put up with the snide comments and hateful looks the townspeople throw at them, Mags thinks she’s destined to pay for the horrible, awful thing her mom did—and that she’s left her and Rose to deal with—until the day she dies.

But when a nationwide televised dance competition posts tryouts in nearby Portland, Mags’s best friend, George, says they have to go and audition. Not only have they spent the past fourteen years of their lives dancing side-by-side, dreaming of a day just like this, but also it could be Mags’s chance of a lifetime—a chance to win the grand-prize money and get her and Rose out of Summerland, a chance to do the thing she loves most with everyone watching, a chance to show the town that she’s not—and has never been—a “no-good Woodson girl,” like her mother. But will the competition prove too steep? And will Mags be able to retain her friendship with George as they go head-to-head in tryouts? Mags will have to learn that following her dreams may mean changing her life forever.

 1.     SPIN THE SKY centers around a reality show, which has a built in sense of tension due to the competitive frame of the show, but what do you find compelling about reality television? How does this format reflect who we are as a culture?

Reality television, ah yes. The question of all questions! Here’s the interesting thing about reality TV: Twenty years ago, we didn’t even have reality TV apart from MTV’s The Real World. Then all of a sudden—bam—it was everywhere and now it’s just so commonplace that we often forget it’s for entertainment purposes and therefore not as real as the “reality” component of the name would suggest. If reality TV was really real, it wouldn’t be as exciting because life doesn’t unfold in thirty minute segments (or fourteen minute segments, if you’re not counting commercials) with a clear beginning, middle, and end. And that’s what I find compelling about reality TV. I never could have predicted that it’d still be as popular as it is today. I’m baffled that people treat it as though it were completely real. I’m saddened to think that home viewers watching reality TV don’t consider the individuals involved—usually new actors or A-list wannabees—at all.

In Spin the Sky, cameras follow Magnolia everywhere, scrutinizing her every word and move to an almost uncomfortable level. I really wanted to expose this side of reality TV so readers would get the chance to not only be part of a reality TV show themselves, but to see how it must be for those people on reality TV. Sure, a lot of it is scripted, but what about the parts that aren’t? How do those reality TV participants deal in situations where parts of their lives are aired and exposed that they never meant to reveal? That’s what I wanted readers to think about during the reality TV sections of my book. How it feels to be on the other end of the camera. How it feels to be watched in your most vulnerable moments. Because the fact that most of us don’t think about the other side of that camera when we’re watching reality TV does say something significant about our culture: we’re in it for the drama. We want to see the train wrecks. We’ll sleep peacefully, even after we have.

2.     Magnolia’s family life and her dreams are complex and intertwined. How did you come to understand her as a character? What are her driving motivations and values?

Magnolia has been a part of me since I was fifteen years old. That’s when I spent a lot of time on the Oregon Coast, in a town very much like Summerland (called Summerland by me because I was only there in the summers.) Of course, her character didn’t start to develop until many years later, but when I first thought of the idea of the dance show, I wanted there to be a really big reason for Magnolia to want on the show; something other than dance. At first I thought she would want to find her mother. Then I realized that she was past that point. Maybe she’d always secretly want and dream of her mother’s return, but more than that, Magnolia wanted a way to move forward and live a normal life.

After my own teenage years were coming to an end, I started working in a youth shelter in my hometown. It was a life-changing experience. I spent a great deal of time with homeless youth and was always struck by the stories they told me of their own families. Most of them dreamed of being reunited with their parents one day. And most of them knew that they could never, ever go home.

This idea of knowing what you want, versus knowing what’s good for you, really resonated with me. Magnolia wishes her Mom was home and things were normal like they used to be—at least, how they used to be inside her own head. But she also knows that Mom being there with her and Rose wasn’t good for them. So even though she won’t give up her dream of living the kind of life that isn’t weighted down by her mom’s shadows, she also knows (at least, for two-thirds of the book) that she’ll never be totally happy because her mom isn’t there to complete her family. Magnolia’s drive to be herself—to live up to her own potential, unburdened by her mother’s crime—propells her and her story. And it’s her motivation toward dance—the one good thing she’s always been able to do—that provides her with the vehicle to live up to this potential.

3.     What was the hardest scene to write?

It’s difficult to answer this question without revealing what happens in the climax! So I’m just going to say this: that scene of “all is lost” for Magnolia was really, really tough for me because I felt so drained after writing it. She’d already been through so much, and I felt like I had intentionally hurt someone that I really loved and believed in anyway. I took a long nap after I wrote that scene. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.

But it was also hard to write the very last scene of the book where George and Magnolia meet, once again, on their beach. I cried like a baby during this scene because friendships are very important to me; I pride myself on having nearly every friend I’ve ever made. Having them resolve their issues but leaving things a little up in the air, too, made me uncomfortable. And sad. I’ve made my peace with it now, though.

4.     What was your favorite scene to write?

Without a doubt, my favorite scenes to write in this book were the dance scenes. They all flowed so easily for me. I chose a song that I imagined Magnolia or George dancing too and then actually saw them dancing and wrote them so fast—like lightning fast! I was always pleased with these scenes in the book. Even through the countless revisions Spin the Sky has seen, the dance scenes remained nearly unchanged. 

5.     Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to publication with this particular book? When did you begin writing it and how has it changed from that first vision you had of the story?

I actually love talking about this. Maybe because being a writer is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do with my life. I was writing stories by the time I was six. I remember writing a seven book series when I was seven called The Doggone Dogs, a story about a family of dogs who irritate their neighbors with wacky antics. Then, when I was ten, I wrote an eighty-page story on my family computer about a girl who runs away to live on a deserted island, which my dad accidentally deleted. I’ve been writing my whole life. So I really thought that sitting down and writing a novel would be no biggie. I’d just do it, it’d get published, and that’d be that. Ho boy.

Writing this book was a journey of epic proportions for me. Though it did land me my wonderfully kind-and-patient agent, Victoria Marini, she took it through at least six revisions before she submitted it to any editors at all. I had several revision requests after that, which I completed. Then, when Sky Pony bought the novel, I did another four revisions on it to get it into the shape it is now. The entire process, I do believe, took eight years. Granted, I had very small children during the first through fourth draft stages of this book. I hope that I’ve learned enough along the way to make things go a teensy bit faster for here on out.

And I like to think that the book it is today is consistent with the original story I had in mind for Spin the Sky. Though the title has changed (originally, it was called Dance Yourself Clean) the story itself has maintained its integrity and I’m pleased with that.

6.     What’s next for you?

I have some good things in the works. But I’m incredibly superstitious so I can’t tell…yet. :)

Fast Five
Coffee or tea?

Coffee. OMG. I have it rigged to my alarm clock to brew precisely twelve minutes before I need to wake up. My house knows better than to speak to me unless I’ve consumed at least half a cup. I never re-fill my cup. Always, always start a brand-new cup so the perfect cream-to-coffee ratio is maintained.

Last book you read:
I’m almost finished David Arnold’s new YA, Kids of Appetite. I love everything he writes. He is a genius with character. I also just finished Neil Shusterman’s Challenger Deep, which was one seriously powerful story. I highly recommend both.

Favorite baby animal:
This one.  This is a baby aardvark. Oh my god, he kills me. If I had him, I’d let him snuggle on my pillow.

Best piece of writing advice:
Butt in chair. Butt in chair. Butt in chair. The stories won’t get written if you don’t stay seated. It’s why I got a cat, actually. She sleeps in my lap for hours at a time. And I don’t get up for a break until she does. Now if only she’d figure out a way to keep me off social media…

Favorite place to write:
At home. I live in a very, very sunny place. Sometimes I actually feel overwhelmed by all the sun. So I like to close all my curtains and pretend it’s rainy out and envision myself in the perfect, perfect rainy-writing place. I even have a noise machine that emulates rain noises. You can take the girl out of the Pacific Northwest…
About the Author: Jill Mackenzie, a Vancouver native, is an ex-ballerina and contemporary dancer. Now working toward her MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Jill chasses between roles as part-time student, full-time mom, and always-writer. Though Jill no longer studies dance, she still tries to dance herself clean whenever she can. Currently she lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she spends her free time beach-bound with her husband and two beautiful daughters.

Stephanie Kuehn

Stephanie is the William C. Morris award-winning author of Charm & Strange, Complicit, Delicate Monsters, and The Smaller Evil.

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Item Reviewed: Author Interview: Jill Mackenzie and SPIN THE SKY Rating: 5 Reviewed By: stephanie kuehn