I’m a huge fan of Gillian McDunn’s work. I’m proud to say I’ve now read all three of her books (and enjoyed them all). Gillian’s writing is always insightful, especially when she’s writing about relationships, whether that’s between friends, family members, or siblings. In These Unlucky Stars, the protagonist, Annie reluctantly befriends a grouchy elderly woman in her neighborhood, even as she’s trying to find her place in her family.
Gillian and I discuss Annie’s character, writing about small towns, and trusting the process when she writes. Enjoy!
Hi Gillian! I’m thrilled to be interviewing you. As you know, I’m a huge fan of your books (like ALL of them). What inspires your writing?
Thank you so much, Afoma! As a big fan of your site, I’m very excited to chat about books with you!
I’ve wanted to write children’s books for my entire life. The books I read as kid became a part of who I am today. When I write, I’m always thinking of the kid version of myself–I try to tell the kinds of stories I would have wanted to read. I hope that my books feel “true” to kids (and a story doesn’t have to be real to be true). I would say that my stories are mostly inspired by relationships, which are endlessly fascinating to me.
I loved These Unlucky Stars. Annie Logan grew on me really quickly. Her plucky (and sometimes, self-pitying attitude) tugged at my heartstrings. I’m curious, did anyone or anything in particular inspire Annie’s character?
I’m so glad you connected with Annie. Several things inspired her character.
In my earlier books, I had written from the point of view of Cat and Meg, who are both (in different ways) struggling to find their voice. I was really drawn to the idea of a character who was the opposite–one with so much voice that it sometimes seems as if the people around her might be thinking, “Did you really just say that?” It was incredibly fun to write about someone who tended to be a bit reckless with their thoughts and feelings.
I was also inspired by the general idea of there being more than meets the eye with most people in the world. I’m thinking of the quote “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” (I tried to find attribution for this quote, but it’s murky at best–oh well, I still love it.)
One of life’s great challenges is communicating our “battles” to those around us. Annie may be outwardly brash but she’s hurting on the inside. She has accepted some part of her story so wholeheartedly that she isn’t fact-checking with those around her–I’m thinking of Dad, JoJo, and Ray–who can all give her some more pieces of the puzzle she’s trying to sort out.
Sometimes there is a story we tell ourselves about who we are–and sometimes those stories are more accurate than others. Annnie has been viewing life through the lens of being unlucky. In some ways, this has been a way of holding onto a piece of Ma. But throughout the story, Annie changes her relationship with that story and therefore changes how she views herself.
Gloria was such a grumpy character, even though we get to understand her better as the story progresses. Did you have any friendships with older people when you were Annie’s age?
Gloria’s character was inspired by my godmother, Barbara Sederquist. When I was a child, she was my favorite person in the world. Although she was grumpy, she had a huge heart and always seemed to see me for who I really was. She did things her own way and didn’t answer to anyone about it. Barbara died ten years ago and I still think of things I wish I could tell her. She brought a lot of richness to my life.
Annie’s relationship with her brother and father is both sweet and sometimes heartbreaking, the way she feels like an outsider in her own family. I felt that this happened largely because of the differences in their personalities. What did you hope to achieve by highlighting Annie’s feelings about her situation?
I agree that Annie has a very different personality than her brother and dad. I think of her family as being out of balance–almost like a mobile that’s more heavily weighted on one side. Ma has been gone for many years and Annie, Ray, and Dad have all found different methods of coping with that loss. Dad is extremely practical and has focused on providing for his family. Ray has a similar personality and gravitates toward Dad. Annie, on the other hand, sees herself as being creative and more similar to Ma. She’s very much actively grieving that loss–unbeknownst to Dad. Annie is afraid that if she lets go of some of that grief, it will be the same as letting go of Ma. I hope that readers realize that Annie’s path to healing has to do with connecting more to her Dad and brother–it’s only by seeing their inner “battles” and sharing her own that they can grow together.
I loved the small mountain town vibes in this story! Did you grow up in a small town like the one in this book?
I didn’t, actually–I grew up in a suburban city in Southern California. I do love writing about small towns for their sense of community and character. Since all my books (so far!) take place in North Carolina, sometimes people are surprised when they find that I am not a North Carolina native. I grew up in California and also lived in St. Louis before moving here eleven years ago. But sometimes I think it’s that outsider perspective that allows me to appreciate how special and unique North Carolina is.
Annie loves to get away on the roof and paint. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I love spending time near the water–the ocean is my favorite, but I’m also happy to be at a lake or river. My family and I really enjoy cooking and love trying out new recipes together. I have celiac disease, so we’re always looking for ways to make food that’s both delicious and safe for me. I’m also a new fan of crossword puzzles–that’s been a pandemic discovery for me. My husband and I are working through the New York Times crossword books together–sometimes the kids will jump in and try to solve along with us, too!
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
The best writing advice (and advice on most things) comes from my husband, Jon–who is actually a scientist. I tend to be very results-oriented and struggle sometimes with the “thinking/prepping” phases of writing. I would much rather hurry ahead to the writing part where I get to see my daily word count tick up, which I find incredibly satisfying. But for me, that thinking stage is crucial–without it, I cannot write the kinds of books I want to write. Jon reminds me that the process part is just as important. He encourages me to be patient and give those ideas time to develop when I need to.
Which middle-grade books have you read and loved recently?
I’ve been lucky enough to get my hands on advance copies of three can’t-miss reads being published in 2021:
The Magical Imperfect by Chris Baron–a novel in verse about the friendship that forms between two kids who find themselves on the outer edges of things. Chris’s writing is beautiful and the characters are especially vivid.
Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca–another novel in verse, this one about an Indian-Americal girl whose mother is diagnosed with leukemia. This book was heartbreaking and joyful.
The Hedgehog of Oz by Cory Leonardo–This book is described as Wizard of Oz meets The Wind in the Willows. No one writes animals like Cory does–and this book is full of characters that readers are going to adore!
Even though it’s been out for several years, I had somehow missed Leslie Connor’s The Truth As Told By Mason Buttle, but I read it recently and have since given it to everyone I know. It’s glorious.
You’ve written three heartfelt, but different books — about siblings, friendships, and now, coming of age — what’s next for you? (no pressure, haha) Do you think you’ll ever branch into other kid lit genres like YA or picture books?
Ahh, I love this question. I would definitely love to branch out at some point, but right now I have so many middle grade stories I want to tell. I’m currently in revisions for my fourth book–which I like to say is about family, friendship, and pie. Elliott loves to cook more than anything in the world, but outside the kitchen things aren’t running so smoothly. His stepmother is about to have a baby, and this has turned Elliott’s life upside down as he tries to understand what this means for his place in the family and his relationship with his dad. He’s also facing some friendship struggles at school where he’s been assigned a pie-baking project, paired with the extremely organized and driven Maribel.
Thank you so much, Gillian! I can’t wait for everyone to meet Annie!
Buy These Unlucky Stars
Meet Gillian McDunn
She grew up in Orange County, California and was the oldest of three children. She has also lived in San Francisco, San Diego, St. Louis (go Cards!), and currently lives near Raleigh, North Carolina.
Gillian still loves to read and write. She also loves to spend time with her family playing board games, going on road trips, and walking on the beach.
More Author Interviews
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- E.L. Shen on The Comeback
- Claire Swinarski on What Happens Next