Donna Cooner is an author, blogger, speaker, and teacher currently living in Fort Collins, Colorado. A former teacher and school administrator, she is a now a professor and university administrator at Colorado State University. Donna is the author of over twenty picture books and was a founding member of the Brazos Valley Society of Children’s Bookwriters and Illustrators. She also wrote children’s television shows for PBS and textbooks for future teachers. SKINNY Scholastic/Egmont UK) is her debut novel for young adults. You can listen to her read the first chapter of SKINNY with her very own Texas accent. For more info, visit her website.
Let the conversation begin!
How did you choose the genre you write in?
The story itself seems to dictate the form for me. As a 20 year old kindergarten teacher all alone in the basement of a 100 year old school, I LOVED picture books. I especially loved the repetitive, patterned text that had my five year old audience chiming in at every page turn, so that’s the kind of book I started to write. When I came back to writing for children after several years away, I was facing a life event that was incomprehensible. My beloved mother had been diagnosed with stage four cancer. There was no stage five. I spent a great deal of time in hospitals and doctor’s offices trying not to think of the unthinkable. I saw family after family torn apart by the diagnosis that someone-child, mother, father, grandparent- was facing cancer, and slowly I started to write about something that definitely wasn’t picture book material. It was the basis for my first piece of writing for an older audience and a contemporary story about very real problems. I knew young adult books were the perfect format for this kind of story and that’s what I started to write. It didn’t take long until I felt just as passionately about reading and writing young adult books as I did about picture books.
Will you have a new book coming out soon?
My debut novel, SKINNY, will be released on October 1, 2012. It’s about a girl whose obesity and negative thoughts stand in the way of her dreams of becoming a singer and finding love, until she begins a long, hard journey of self-discovery and reinvention culminating in gastric-bypass surgery, only to find that love and her own self-worth was never dependent on her size.
Is any material in your books based on real life experiences or purely imagination?
The main character in SKINNY, Ever Davies, is definitely based on my own experience. Obesity rates for adolescents have nearly tripled in the last 20 years. Knowing statistics, however, is not the same as living it. For me, there is a much more personal story to tell. I’ve struggled with being overweight my whole life. I know first-hand the mental and physical impacts, especially in a culture where the media bombards young people every day with the message their value depends on the way they look. About ten years ago, at my top weight of 302 pounds, I made the decision to have gastric bypass surgery. I lost over a hundred pounds in one year and the surgery was a positive experience for me, but it wasn’t a magic wand. I will always struggle with weight and body image issues. SKINNY is about that struggle, but even more importantly it’s about trying to overcome the negative self-criticism that keeps so many of us from achieving our dreams.
What was the best thing that happened to you this year?
This has been such an amazing year, it’s very difficult to select the “best” thing. A great problem to have, right? As a debut author, I experienced so many wonderful things throughout SKINNY’s journey to publication, but attending BEA was definitely near the top. When I received the news SKINNY would be featured on the BookExpo of America (BEA) Young Adult Buzz panel, I had no idea what to expect. I’d never attended, but always heard BEA was completely overwhelming (so true). It was a HUGE trade show with long lines of people sitting on the floor, just waiting to get inside. Books were everywhere. Big books, celebrity books, children’s books, crazy books… It’s like book heaven. My first event was the editor’s YA Buzz Panel. The room was a large ballroom and it was packed! The authors for the five chosen books sat in the audience and the editors talked on stage about each book. My editor at Scholastic, Aimee Friedman, went first and she was amazing. I looked down at the table the whole time to keep from bursting into tears. After the panel, I went to the autographing session and actually had a line (SO EXCITING for a debut author to actually have a line and to sign my very first ARCs!) Even more meaningful than the presentations or autograph lines were the many touching, personal comments from readers. Connecting with readers –it’s what we all dream of when we’re sitting at our solitary desk, typing out a manuscript we have no idea if anyone will ever see.
What is your definition of a relaxing day?
On any given day I can take a short drive up the canyon toRockyMountainNational Parkand be surrounded by the some of the most beautiful scenery in theUnited States. I am lucky enough to have seen the park in every season, so spending time in the mountains is definitely a favorite relaxation. The one thingColoradodoesn’t have, however, is an ocean. I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Texas and spending a day at the beach is still my absolute favorite way to spend a day. It has all my required ingredients for the perfect vacation — sand, waves, sunsets, and always the potential for great conversations.
Planner or a procrastinator? Example?
Recently my horoscope said, “Puttering around is part of your creative process. So don’t fret if it takes you a few hours of wandering from room to room to get comfortable. This is just what you do before you finally settle into work.” I’m not a big follower of horoscopes, but I couldn’t have described my writing process any better. So what does it look?
Today is Saturday. Time to write. Ahhhh…sitting down in front of the computer. Open manuscript? Not yet. Open Facebook. Read. Post. Open Twitter. Read. Open online news. Check email. Check celebrity fashions. Nice shoes. Shop for shoes online. Now, I’m ready to open the manuscript and get down to business. Cat jumps on desk. I tell cat to get down. Cat doesn’t (repeat several times). Pet cat. Notice cat hair on shirt. I should really wash that. Do a load of laundry. Ok, back in front of the computer. Open manuscript! Look at word count. I need more words. Plot out word count on calendar beside my desk. Stare at screen. Time for lunch. Ok, back in front of the computer. Now, I’m really doing it. Write a sentence. Read the sentence. Change the sentence. This is going sooooooo sllllloooooowwwwly. You know what would help? Listening to music. Go on ITunes. Look for song that I can’t remember the title for… email fellow writer for title. Download song. Listen. Would sound better with some good speakers. Shop for speakers online. They’ll come in the mail in a week or so. I should check mail. Walk to mailbox. Sun feels really good…warm. Sit outside and promise God I’ll go inside and write when the sun goes behind that cloud over there. Ok, I’m back.
Is all of this bad for the process or just part of it? Who knows? Maybe, I’m not procrastinating. Maybe, it’s something different. Natalie Goldberg, in Writing Down the Bones, calls it composting:
Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. But this does not come all at once. It takes time (p. 14).
So, I choose to believe I’m not a planner or a procrastinator. I’m a composter.
What is your worst personality characteristic?
My father was a star high school athlete and later a coach. Not the Saturday morning kind of volunteer coach, but a football/basketball “does-it-for-a-living” kind of coach. Growing up inTexas, that was serious and, as a result, competition is hard wired into my nature. I can’t help it. When I was barely able to hold a glove, my dad was playing catch with me in the front yard. That led to a passion for playing fast pitch softball. I was a catcher, a not-so-glamorous position that required a high tolerance for pain. I spent many a summer day, with broken fingers taped together inside my glove, catching a ball thrown toward me at amazing speeds. I didn’t endure all that just for the love of the game. I played to win. That passion for competition has, for the most part, served me well. Especially in the world of writing and publishing. I’m often approached by people who want to write books, but few actually take the journey. I try to compete with myself to reach the next step in the process and rejoice in the “wins” along the way. I celebrate finishing a manuscript, completing the edits, finding an agent, or going out on submission. And now I’m especially celebrating the publication of my first novel.
I know the odds to this game, but each time I reach one of those milestones, I know I’m joining a smaller and smaller percentage of writers out there. Competition surely has a dark side, but it helped me accomplish things I never thought I could, both personally and professionally.