Mary Quattlebaum Interview

Please meet author extraordinaire, Mary Quattlebaum, if you haven’t read her many children’s books already!  SPARKS FLY HIGH is an American folk tale set near colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, where Mary and I first met in college a few, ahem, years ago.  We have this along with many more of her books on the “Quattlebaum Shelf” at our house where my kids always knew they could find a great read.  My very first writing workshop was with Mary (also, my second).  She is brilliant.  One thing I remember from those workshops that was so special:  the guided meditations she did as a pre-writing exercise.  Talk about getting out of your stressed out head and into a different world!  It really helped relax me and loosen things up in my creative brain so I could start writing.

Now my dear friend has a blog with fellow authors and illustrators called Pencil Tips: Writing Workshop Strategies and her post is about little exercises you can do to get yourself in the frame of mind to write.  It’s wonderful — I’m bookmarking it!  This is sure to be a great new blog and I look forward to many more interesting posts.

But first, let’s get to know Mary with some fun tidbits about her, followed by some info about her books and writing:

Tea or coffee?  Flavor?  Milk or sugar?

Tea.  English breakfast or Lipton (I like to be soothed and caffeinated both).  Milk and sugar, please.

Favorite season?

Sprummer (late May to late September)

Favorite comfort food?


Chocolate or some lesser nectar of the gods?

Gosh, I have so many nectars I could open a Smoothie shop!  And most of them start with the letter “P”.   In addition to popcorn, there’s peanut butter, pepperoni pizza, large, hard peaches–and scones (the sole “s”).

Food you’d rather starve than eat.

Vienna sausages

Cat or dog?

Dog, definitely.  Also, critters like gerbils, hamsters and guinea pigs.

Flats or heels?

The flattest of flats, preferably sneakers or boots.

Jeans or fancier?

Jeans are fancy for me.  Stretch pants or sweats are my work-at-home attire of choice.  (I could never go back to an office job.)

Short hair or long?


Language in which you’d most like to be fluent.

Dog.  Also horse.  I’m starting to be able to deciper the chuckles and wheets of our guinea pigs.

Favorite musical instrument.


Some favorite movies?

“The Station Agent,” “Whale Rider,” “Bright Star” (about John Keats–very moving).

Thanks, Mary!  Great answers, and now for some writing questions . . . .

Can you tell us how this book, or any of your books, came to be published?

Sparks Fly High is set close to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, which, Kathy, as you well know, is the stomping ground of our alma mater, the College of William and Mary.  (Can it be five years since we graduated?  Okay, maybe a bit longer.)  Working as an 18th century wench at Colonial Williamsburg (no, this was not a past lives regression but a bona fide resume-able job), I’d hear old oral folktales and songs, and I first came across this legend of a dance contest between Colonel Lightfoot and the devil in a book of Williamsburg ghost stories.  It was just a snippet but I remember thinking that it could make for a lively tale for kids.

I researched the tale and got some great source material, including a xeroxed copy of a portrait of the real Colonel Lightfoot, from the Virginia Historical Society.  I wrote and re-wrote.  My family and I even visited the Dancing Point area and saw one of the colonel’s homes in Williamsburg and his grave. One of the hardest things was coming up with a catchy title.  (My website has photos and details related to the research.)

What was the most difficult part of the process?

The hardest thing was finding a publisher.  Editors didn’t want to take a chance on that devil character in conservative, censorship-prone areas.  One children’s magazine told me they could never publish such pieces because subscriptions would be yanked.  So even though Sparks Fly High is a folktale, a piece of colonial Americana, and Old Scratch gets his due, that devil character proved problematic indeed.  Fortunately, my editor, the amazing Melanie Kroupa, then at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, took on the challenge.

Tell us why we should buy this book.

Well, it’s a colonial American folktale (of which we have few, alas) and Colonel Lightfoot is a true folktale hero.  Paul Bunyan had his great size and ox named Babe, John Henry had his phenomenal strength and hammer. Colonel Lightfoot has his dancing feet and a band of tiny angels.  And Leonid Gore’s illustrations are wonderfully dynamic.  Leonid worked really hard on the look of the colonial era and the expressiveness of the characters.

Why do you write?

I love playing with words, putting them together and seeing what sounds, characters and stories emerge.

Why do you write for young people?

The books I loved as a kid–Jane’s Blanket, Misty of Chicoteague, The Golden Treasury of Poetry–made a *huge* impression on me.  I’d love to connect with kids in a similar way.  And kids are interesting to write about; they’re experiencing so many things for the first time–language (for little ones), school, injustice, romantic love.  Such situations seem inherently dramatic and very interesting to me.

Is your family helpful?

My husband and daughter are wonderfully supportive.  I’m so lucky.  Chris dressed up as Colonel Lightfoot and Christy as a little devil (she wanted to, I swear) and they would occasionally dance like the characters in the book.

What’s the children’s book world like?

The children’s book world itself is sort of like a family.  Children’s authors and illustrators are wonderfully supportive of one another, I’ve found.  Books are a business–and one can’t forget that–but they also help create a remarkably kind and helpful “work space” of friends and colleagues.  (And speaking of friends, check out the blog I share with some very talented children’s authors and illustrators.)

What are you working on now?

Pirate vs. Pirate is forthcoming next year.  Aaargh!  (I need to brush up on my pirate lingo.)  And I’m working on some poetic picture books.

And may I just say, what could be better than having a name like “Quattlebaum” for a career as a children’s author?  It’s such a FUN name!  And I bet PIRATE VS. PIRATE is as fun as it looks!  Check out some of Mary’s other books:


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6 responses to “Mary Quattlebaum Interview

  1. Kathy – so fun to get to know Mary in this way. I first encountered her when she won the Marguerite de Angeli prize for Jackson Jones and the Puddle of Thorns. I entered the contest the same year and guess who whooped my butt!

    Congratulations, Mary! Love your new blog!

  2. I love the fact that you knew each other at W&M – very cool. Mary was my first workshop teacher, too, and I can’t imagine any better start for a writer.

  3. The first, second, and only workshops I’ve taken on writing for children were with Mary. Such a perceptive and gentle teacher! I still draw on her insights from those workshops, and they were over a decade ago. Plus, all of Mary’s books are wonderful. . . . Thanks for this interview!

  4. Thanks for the delightful interview! I do love Mary’s last name, too.

    Can’t wait to see Sparks Fly High. I’ve never read anything written by a former 18th century wench before. 🙂

  5. Kathy, thank you so much for your kind words and the chance to be on your blog. And how lovely to read the comments — and have a chance, at this time, to give a shout out to wonderful books by Wendy and Debbie.

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