Maggie Tokuda-Hall has an MFA in writing from University of San Francisco, and a tendency to spill things. She splits her time writing for kids and for adults and her debut children’s book, Also an Octopus, has been called “wickedly absurd” and “a perceptive how-to” that will “inspire kids to imagine a story of their own.” She’s the winningest writer of The Booksmith’s competitive erotic fan fiction contest, Shipwreck, and a contributor to the Loose Lips anthology.
TBL Author Q&A Series: Maggie Tokuda-Hall
This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!
How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?
My whole family is chock-full of storytellers, so the impulse to tell a story is very much a family tradition for me. But to actually put the story on the page started in high school when I attended the California State Summer School for the Arts as a writing student, and then really solidified in college, when a professor urged me to apply for a writer’s workshop at Skidmore College over the summer. I think the combination of my professor’s investment, and my realization while at Skidmore that I could talk about craft all day long, is what inspired me to apply to an MFA program.
Your new book went on sale this October—what can you tell us about the publication process of a children’s book? Do you notice a difference in the process between writing a children’s book and writing for adults?
Writing for kids is completely different and exactly the same as writing for adults. It’s completely different because writing something that is meant to be illustrated adds a certain constraint— overwriting is a real risk. But at the end of the day, you still have to tell a story, and one that holds someone’s attention other than your own. The obligation to craft is the same.
And honestly, kids are a smarter audience than grownups. They don’t feel obligated to finish stories they don’t like, and if the story doesn’t do what it set out to do they don’t feel like it’s their job to connect the dots for the author. So, they’re tough, but they’re savvy.
Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career? Will you continue to write and record chapters of Miri’s life?
When I write for adults, and with the stories about this Miri person, I feel like I’m really just circling around the myriad of anxieties that are particular to women, and particular to women who don’t have to worry about their survival. When life is comfortable, you have so much time to make your interior life UNcomfortable. And I find that endlessly hilarious, terrible, and interesting.
What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?
The author who made me want to be a writer in the first place (in high school) was Kurt Vonnegut. The one who made me want to write for kids (in grad school) was M.T. Anderson. The one who made me want to write a picture book was Oliver Jeffers. The one who made me feel like I could was Jon Klassen. The one who really inspired me to think big and to think weird was the playwright, Edward Albee. And the one who I want to be when I grow up is Kate DiCamillo, who I think speaks “kid” more fluently than any other grown-up on the planet. Or else Kelly Link, who I think is one of the most tremendously underrated writers in the galaxy.
I think it is impossible to talk about writing without talking about reading. If writing is an expression of self, reading is the road map we use to find that self in the first place.
What would you say is the most important element for crafting a story, or for discovering a new mode of creativity?
The willingness and confidence required to give yourself the freedom to fuck it up.
In terms of publication, is there something in particular that you look for when approaching different presses or journals? I wonder what factors play into choosing and developing relationships with presses?
Their willingness to publish something a little silly. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that’s deadly serious and finding a home for something that’s making a funny face at you can be tough. Mostly, I don’t look. I’ve had a few come to me, and I realize that’s not going to happen forever, but for right now it’s been great.
Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?
Yes. A couple.
I was a long time children’s bookseller for Books Inc. That taught me everything I needed to write my first children’s book. It taught me what I wanted to say, and it gave me the expertise to know what reading out loud to kids is like.
And because I was a career kids book person, for a long time I didn’t think I could write for adults at all. I used to tell people I didn’t know how to anymore. But then, the Booksmith bookstore started an event called Shipwreck, a competitive literary fan fiction event. I immediately fell in love with it, and volunteered to write. It’s silly and smart and everything I like about bookstores and book people. And I ended up winning a lot. And I was like, huh. I guess I CAN write for grownups. And that gave me the confidence I needed to start writing the Miri stories, and it also got me invited to do readings all over San Francisco. So, it was a HUGE opportunity maker, and confidence giver.
Their book, Loose Lips, is out now, and a couple of my stories are in it. So it’s a funny time for me, this moment when I’m promoting my first kids’ book, and also a book of smut.
What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?
Get a day job. Not just because paying your stupid bills is essential—it is— but also because a life outside of writing can be integral in giving you the inspiration you need to write.
What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?
I have no idea. I vacillate daily on thinking I could make it as a writer and being pretty sure no one will ever publish me ever again because I’m a crazy person with zero talent. I hope that I can get more footing in writing for adults, and get more publications there. I pray that I can get another book deal for a kids’ book. But if there’s anything I know for sure, it’s that I don’t know anything, and I certainly don’t know the future.
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