Alison McGhee is the author of 10 award-winning books. She writes for all ages-from picture books for those too young to read, to adult novels, with a healthy smattering of books for children and young adults in between-and has six more children’s books scheduled for publication over the next three years. McGhee’s characters are down-to-earth. She insists there are no such things as superheroes. Or super villains. Instead, the characters who live in her pages are the people in-between, the “regular Jo(e)s” who simply do the best they can to get by in life.
In her new book, Falling Boy, McGhee depicts the life of Joseph, a young paraplegic living in between the nonexistent realm of the inherently good and inherently evil.
The Minnesota Women’s Press recently talked with McGhee about her life and work, in particular, Falling Boy.
McGhee said she often writes about children and young adults because it’s an age group that often grapples with enormous and complex questions about life. “We don’t give enough credit to adolescents,” she said.
And McGhee has definitely had some experience with adolescents, both as a mother and a teacher. A former high school teacher, she currently teaches at the college level; she is an associate professor at Metropolitan State University and an adjunct professor at Hamline University. She sees herself as more of a writer than a teacher. “I couldn’t define myself if I left the writer part out,” she said. “But it’s a humbling thing to be a teacher.”
To write Falling Boy, McGhee recognized that she needed further education about life in a wheelchair. She interviewed a quadriplegic and spoke with a neurologist and sex therapist in an attempt to make the book’s details accurate. And she also pushed herself around in a rented wheelchair.
McGhee, who is both easygoing and funny, said that the image of Joseph came to her in a melodramatic moment when she was between books and feeling a little washed up as a writer. In that initial imagining of her soon-to-be protagonist, she said, Joseph seemed more belligerent than he turned out in the novel. It isn’t surprising, however, that Joseph took on a life of his own, considering that McGhee said the Enzo character “just flung onto the page.”
According to McGhee, at its heart, Falling Boy is about the poet John Keats’ idea of negative capability, or more specifically, how Joseph wouldn’t have had the capability to open up to the people around him had he not been disabled in an accident. She steers Joseph from the position of “less-than-ordinary paraplegic” to “extraordinary superhero” to “regular kid” who finds love and friendship.
Many of McGhee’s books are set in upstate New York, where she grew up. Falling Boy, with its detailed descriptions of Lake Calhoun and muggy Minnesota summers, is the first to be set in Minnesota. McGhee said she writes about places where she sets down roots.
“And I try to write books that I would like to read.”
Visit Alison McGhee’s website.