Meet Kathie McMahon, a retired teacher, musician, and author. Her new chapter book, Mortimer and Me, is releasing this Saturday, September 28, 2019, at 10 am at the rehearsal studio of East Valley Children’s Theatre, 4501 E. Main St., Mesa, Arizona, on the southeast corner of Greenfield and Main. If you’ll be in the Greater Phoenix area, you’re invited to come!
ARHtistic License: Your chapter book, Mortimer and Me, is for ages 6-9. What’s it about?
Kathie McMahon: Eight-year-old Jimmy is the new kid in school and he’s already been labeled a troublemaker. After his first attempt to make a friend turns disastrous, the only one who seems to care about Jimmy is Mortimer – a big ole clumsy moose that wanders into town causing problems of his own. Jimmy and Mortimer face one setback after another, including a run-in with a couple of bullies and an escape by the class pet. The soccer game between the teachers and third graders might be the opportunity Jimmy is searching for. Maybe he and Mortimer can finally prove to everyone that they belong.
AL: How did you come up with the idea?
KM:My dad used to tell me bedtime stories about Mortimer and all the trouble he would get into. Each night was a different catastrophe. I can still hear my dad’s low voice saying, “Mortimer? Go help someone else!” Dad’s Mortimer was a donkey, however, not a moose. But one summer, my husband and I were on an Alaskan cruise. We saw a moose standing by the train tracks, and then in town we came upon a gift shop called “Mortimer and Company,” with a huge picture of a moose in sunglasses. All those stories came flooding back and a new Mortimer was born.
AL: You taught elementary school for years, and you’ve written musicals for East Valley Children’s Theater. How does writing novels differ from writing musicals? How are they similar?
KM: I taught elementary band and general music for twelve years and then decided to move into the regular classroom, where I taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grades for 20 years until I retired in 2005. When I taught music, I always did school musicals by published playwrights. Once I started in the regular classroom, I found myself wanting to teach the social studies and science curriculum in a different way. So I created musicals that aligned with the curriculum and performed one every year. After taking a sabbatical to hone my composition skills, I started writing music for community theatre, specifically East Valley Children’s Theatre, for which I’ve won four AriZoni Awards for Original Musical Composition. When I started writing novels after I retired, I found writing dialogue to be the easiest because of my playwriting experience. What I found the most challenging was the narrative, the descriptions needed around the dialogue. I’ve been working on that a lot, but you’ll still find my novels to be very dialogue-driven.
AL: Are your musicals available to other groups for performance?
KM: My school musicals are self-published. I’m currently revising those and will be adding accompaniment tracks. I hope to have them on my website soon. I’ve had one musical, The Floating Princess, published by Pioneer Drama. C. Lynn Johnson is the playwright and I did the music and lyrics.
AL: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
KM: I’ve always been a pantser, that is until I wrote my first YA novel. I finished the first draft and it is a mess! The plot and characters took quite the twist and turn in the process, to the point where I’m not sure how it even all lines up. So going back and revising it is going to be a real chore. I swore I would outline from now on! I’ve already outlined book two of the Mortimer series, and I think it’s going to be much easier to write. I will still have my moments of “pantsing,” I’m sure, because I always want to let the characters take me in a direction I hadn’t thought of before. So I suppose I will strive for a balance of both in the end.
AL: How long did it take to write Mortimer and Me?
KM: Oh my, it’s been quite the process – you wouldn’t think writing a chapter book would take so long! When I first started writing, I was actually teaching the writing process to my sixth graders as they navigated through how to write a story to be published. So I came up with Mortimer and used him as an example. The story evolved, and initially I planned for it to be a picture book with an original song. I imagined a toddler listening to the story and then learning a simple song about Mortimer. When I pitched it to a publisher, she suggested making it into a chapter book and introducing a boy character. So Jimmy and Mortimer’s relationship was born. I also found my writing voice in middle grade, the age group I had taught for 32 years. I put Mortimer and Me on the back burner while I worked on some other projects. Eventually I came back to it and decided to self-publish it as a chapter book series. It’s been quite the ride!
AL: What kind of research did you do for Mortimer and Me?
KM: Well, I researched moose, of course! Living in Arizona, we don’t see any here! I wanted Mortimer to have the characteristics of a moose, but some human traits as well. I think every child has fantasies about having a certain kind of animal as a friend. So while I’m not suggesting anyone go up to a moose in the wild and try to pet it, I found many examples of moose wandering into towns every now and then. I found out that they normally don’t attack humans unless provoked. I also visited Wisconsin to get a feel for life there, and to research my ancestors who emigrated there from England. You can find out interesting facts about moose on my website, and if you’re interested in my ancestors from England, you’ll have to wait for my YA novel, once I finally revise it!
AL: What was it like working with illustrator Tom Tate?
KM: Tom and I have been friends for many years. He’s been an illustrator most of his life and recently finished his own project, Tales of the Mythlewild, which he wrote and illustrated. We met through SCBWI and were part of the same critique group. Mortimer and Me is the first book he’s illustrated for someone else, something I talked him into because he had already critiqued the story. I hope this leads to other opportunities for him, because he is extremely talented! Since he already knew the story, he nailed Mortimer on the first try. Jimmy took a little longer because he doesn’t often draw contemporary kids. But in my mind, Jimmy was my younger brother. I was able to send Tom some childhood pictures of him. After that, the other characters came easily, and he added some nice touches for the front matter and chapter headings.
AL: What types of books do you like to read? What authors do you admire?
KM: Like every other author, I’ve been reading my whole life, so this is a tough one. I grew up with the Nancy Drew series and Little House on the Prairie. As a teacher, I liked to read historical fiction to my classes so they could learn historical facts in an interesting way. That genre has always been one of my personal favorites, along with science fiction – even though science is probably my weakest curriculum area! As a writer, I really relate to the writing styles of Richard Peck, Jerry Spinelli, Gary Schmidt, Gordon Korman, Sally J. Pla, Linda Mullaly Hunt, and Natalie Lloyd.
AL: What is your favorite book about writing?
KM: I’ll admit I haven’t read a lot of books about writing, but right now I’m reading It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again by Juila Cameron, who also wrote The Artist’s Way. Excellent advice in both books!
AL: What is the most difficult part of writing a book? What is the most fun part of writing a book?
KM: Writing a book is much more difficult than I ever imagined! I never had a writing course in school, other than what writing I had to do in AP English classes and two years on the high school newspaper staff. So there was so much to learn! I attended every workshop, conference, and webinar I could and just became a sponge that soaked up as much advice as possible. Then putting all that into a story was challenging! But that’s also the fun part. Taking an idea and watching it grow is exciting. I know I’ve hit a soft spot when I read an excerpt to my husband and he gets tears in his eyes. Or when I re-read something I’ve just written and I laugh out loud. Writing can be frustrating, but so rewarding at the same time!
AL: Why did you decide to self-publish? You’ve created your own imprint, Pearl White Books, named in honor of your grandmother. How did you do that? Do you have plans to publish books by other authors under that imprint?
KM: I have spent the last ten years querying and submitting three different projects to agents and editors. I’ve received some very positive feedback, as well as discouraging ones. I have many friends who have gone both the traditional and self-publishing route. I finally decided that what I really want to be is what is called a “hybrid” author – meaning I would like to do both. I thought Mortimer and Me would be a good place to start. I developed a website and social media platform and hope to build a fan base for this series that might lead to some agents willing to represent me. I used Kindle Direct Publishing through Amazon, which I found to be very professional and extremely helpful through the process. They allowed me to start my own imprint, Pearl White Books, in honor of my maternal grandmother. And yes, that really is her name! Funny, but I never really thought about her name before. Obviously, her parents didn’t know she’d marry someone named White when they named her Pearl. She was my inspiration and role model. She always knew the perfect gift to buy for birthdays and Christmas, and for me, that was usually books and music. She’s been gone for many years now, but I couldn’t think of a better name for my imprint. Right now, I’m just using it for my own books, but you never know what the future will bring!
AL: Mortimer and Me is book one of a series. What’s in store for the second installment?
KM: Like I mentioned before, it’s already outlined! The title is Mortimer and Me: The Bigfoot Mystery. Jimmy and Mortimer go camping and find a huge footprint that they can’t decide if it’s human or animal. So they decide to find out what it is . . .
AL: What is something about your books or about yourself that you wish your readers knew?
KM: Probably the biggest challenge any author faces is what story to tell. I struggled with this a lot when I started out. “Write what you know” turned into “Write what you can find out about” which is now “Write the story only you can tell.” As a retired teacher who likes to travel a lot, I wasn’t sure “my story” would be interesting enough that anyone would want to read! Journaling helps a lot when you’re trying to create ideas, and I found that I have a lot to say! You’ll find that my stories have a lot of heart and usually center on family, specifically relationships with grandparents. I’m the grandmother of five, so I can relate to that. My husband and I have traveled a lot since we retired, so you’ll also find that flavor in my stories. Plus, I love doing research, so even if I haven’t been there, I can travel there virtually. There are universal themes that all kids can relate to: friendships, relationships, belonging, family. Those things constitute the heart of my stories, and I hope there are those who can relate to them as well.