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Local writer explains creative process behind new work, 'Sparrow Road'

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Sheila O'Connor
St Paul writer Sheila O'Connor teaches college classes in novel-writing, but her latest novel "Sparrow Road" is aimed at middle school students.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

This is a big week for St. Paul writer Sheila O'Connor. Not only is she promoting her new novel "Sparrow Road," on Monday, it is also the day she's set to writing begin her next novel.  

Sheila O'Connor' teaches novel-writing at Hamline University in St Paul, and her whole life seems dedicated to the creative process.

Her new novel for middle school readers is about creating too. It concerns Raine, a 13-year-old girl whose mother suddenly takes a job in a remote colony for artists in a rundown rural mansion called Sparrow Road. From the start Raine thinks it's a bad idea. 

Now I'd lose what was left of my good summer so Mama could cook and keep house for some artists in the country.

"Raine," Mama said. "We've been over this already a hundred times at least."

We had. Still none of Mama's reasons for this job made an ounce of sense to me.

"But Sparrow Road?" I said. "You had a job back in Milwaukee."

"Sweetheart," Mama opened up the truck door. "This is going to take some brave for both of us."

Sheila O'Connor published two novels for adults a few years back, but Sparrow Road is her first book with a younger audience in mind. 

"It was a snap decision," O'Connor said.

O'Connor was coming to the end of many years as a writer in the schools. She began the novel when she realized how much she would miss her interactions with students. She said she wanted to leave a book for the kids and was going to write something for them "filled with all the things I thought were important, and that I tried to share with them in the time I was with them over the years," she said.

She said she started Sparrow Road knowing that there were kids to come that she would never see.

The novel is a deceptively simple story about Raine's summer. In time, she learns why her mother abruptly took the job. She spends time with the artists who have their own idiosyncratic reasons for being there. 

She also discovers Sparrow Road was at once an orphanage. Raine becomes fascinated with a drawing she finds left decades before by a boy called Lyman. She begins to write what she imagines to be his story. Sheila O'Connor said she believes in muses, and remembers a comment she heard while visiting some students who had read the book.

"One of the boys, a third grade boy, raised his hand and said, 'Raine is to you as Lyman is to Raine,'" O'Connor said. "And he understood that I imagined Raine to life in the same way Raine imagines Lyman to life."

O'Connor said a part of what's happening in the book is the idea of how does a story come to life? How is something created? What happens when we are left in silence with nothing but our own imaginations? What kinds of things are we capable of from our own hearts and minds?

Sparrow Road deals with the role of parents in a child's life, looking at both the good and the bad. It also examines ideas of forgiveness and the important lessons to be learned from the past. 

O'Connor said she has been pleased by the number of youngsters who have told her after reading Sparrow Road that they now want to write a book, a play, make music or act.

"That's probably been one of the most profound things for me with Sparrow Road going out into the world, is it is empowering children to see themselves as artists," she said.

  Sheila O'Connor believes the book will interest many adults too.

She'll read from Sparrow Road on Friday evening at the Wild Rumpus Books store in Minneapolis, and the following morning at the Barnes and Noble in Roseville. She's scheduled readings around the state throughout the summer.

But Sheila O'Connor may be slightly distracted. As someone who teaches college, summertime is when O'Connor writes. She sets herself a start date every year to sit down to begin a new book — this year, it's Monday May 30.    

She'll write five hours a day, every day till it's done. And as in years past, she said she has no idea what she will write about.

"I am so nervous," she said. "If I knew I'd be sleeping better at night, but right now I keep thinking 'what is the story? What's going to be ahead?'"

She doesn't even know for what age group she'll be writing, but for Sheila O'Connor that's all part of the adventure.