Priscilla Chaves and the Art of Designing Book Covers

This week we’re lucky to have Priscilla Chaves, a book designer, visit the Tolllbooth!

Priscilla designs books of all genres—fiction, non-fiction, cookbooks, children’s books, and more.

Ever since I worked with her last summer when she designed the cover for my novel, Crossings, I was curious about her job as a book designer. I learned that as a designer, she designs the front and back cover and spine of the book, and that she also designs the interiors. She works for Cedar Fort Publishing.

Welcome, Priscilla. 

What was your path to becoming a Book Designer?

I’ve always been interested in art since I was a little girl. In high school I took a few design classes and knew it was something I wanted to pursue. At college I studied design and loved it. After graduation I looked for design jobs, and the book design job found me.



What is your typical process to design a book cover?

Our authors are sent a design form where they tell me what they envision for their books. Once I receive that, I normally brainstorm ideas that go along the lines of the author’s ideas. Most of the time, I’ll draw sketches and pick the ones I think look best. Then I research ideas and look for images and typography that will work well on the cover. I’ll transfer those ideas to Photoshop and start designing. After the concepts are complete, I take them to my meeting. If it’s approved, great, if not, I go back to the drawing board.

In my case, she read the opening of my novel and other info I had sent to the publisher. Then she sent me an email that included some screen shots to see if she was heading in the right direction at capturing my “vision.” I gave her feedback. Then we talked about hair color. (Which meant I went back into the text and made sure it appeared in the first pages; it had been revised out of those pages.) Next, she finished the cover of Crossings, both the images and typography, showed me what she had designed, and got final approval from the publisher. Later in the process she designed the spine and back cover, and then the interior (working with an editor). I feel she did a wonderful job at capturing the tone and essence of my novel.


How do you collaborate with your authors?

Our first communication is when I introduce myself, and discuss their design document for their book with them. Frequently I check in to make sure I’m getting the right vision they want for their book. Normally there’s back and forth until we decided on something we both like.



In addition to the outer cover, what other aspects of book design are involved in preparing a book for publication?

The interiors of books are a collaboration between the copyeditor and myself. We choose text and flourishes that are compatible with the cover and go from there.




Where and how do you find the inspiration for your ideas for the covers?

I enjoy walking around bookstores and looking at other ideas. Covers that catch your eye stand out, so I try to emulate that in my own work.

Could you share a few of your favorite covers that you have designed?

Daughter of Ishmael, How to Become a Pirate Hunter, Chasing Red, In Spite of Lions, The Gnome Exchange Program: North Pole Rescue.

(These covers are all included in this interview.)




Thank you, Priscilla, for visiting us in the Tollbooth today.

~Sarah Blake Johnson

Writers Dreaming

Hu Jundi

Hu Jundi







This is the writer’s journey, the deeper we dig into our characters, the more we are able to unmask monsters of our own. 

Rock Me

A cardboard cradle inhabits my character’s dream.

Cardboard rockers, cardboard corners fitted by torn slots.

A cradle that’s dwelt in its dream house for years,

rockers stilled on bare hardwood, gathering dust. Staled

by air it reeks like only old cardboard can, a scritch-scratch-scritch

from inside as if tiny claws or limbs scrabble to climb out.

A top has been fitted loosely on the cardboard cradle,

and the whole thing might be cleverly, or crudely made

to keep that crawling thing in or allow its escape.

Who knows? We’re always left to ponder,

paused in the trap of our nightly hallucinations,

questions such as these.

Not the best poetry, but dreams are useful things for writers. You might have noticed this is my character’s dream. And I’m using it to uncover something about her.

We’ve all heard the stories, inspiration for Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web came to E. B. White through his dreams. A gift that has also come to singers, scientists and artists of all kinds. But this exercise is a bit different, this is about deepening your characters by letting them dream.

A friend of mine who studies Jungian psychology tells me the best way to understand a dream is to ask yourself what each element represents of you. In other words, you are not just the dreamer, but the cradle, the bed, the walls, the floor, and yes, the creepy creature trying to get out. What about your character? What does she dream? What images belong to her at night? How do they manifest and illuminate her deepest fears and desires? If each element represents her, what does this dream say about her?

Like the poem suggests, our dreams are nightly hallucinations, necessary to our psyche’s balance during the day. Which means your character’s dreams are full of telling details. Especially when her dreams turn, as ours do, from pleasure to torture, and express daytime tension and conflict as nightmares.

A word about disturbing dreams. My dream expert says that when you’re being chased in a dream, or otherwise overwhelmed by some dream villain, Jungian theory holds you should stop running, turn and confront the monster. This is how we discover what’s behind the monster curtain, because standing up to it reveals it for what it really is. And when it’s revealed, it loses power.

How like the hero’s journey this is. When your character uses her new tools to return to the fray, suck it up and confront the villain, she’s really confronting her own deepest fears. In other words, the real monster is not the physical thing, the villain, but the fear in the hero that she must overcome to face the villain. And how a character grapples with this fear throughout the story creates her emotional arc. You can use your character’s dreams to help you uncover and strengthen this arc.

I like doing this in free form poetry, present tense, but to relax your critical mind you might also try writing or drawing a character’s dream with your non-dominate hand.

Your character’s dreams may not always show up in your final manuscript, but they can help your character show up. A casual observer might not see it, but for me, the dream analysis below revealed what I’d been missing about my character’s inability to connect with others, that she’s a foster child.

Digging Down the Dream

If I am the cradle I have held up as such

through years of dust and disinterest.

If I am the room I have good, solid floors,

but my walls are plain and stark.

If I am the bed I feel empty and bare,

barely slept in. If I am the dreamer

I am puzzled and wry, lucidly dreaming

myself. If I am the creature

inside the cradle I am trapped

of my own accord.

                                        –zu vincent



Notes From VCFA


Someone is playing piano in the lounge next to my dorm room at VCFA. It’s raining and a great rush of water pours off the roof and sends cooling air in on the breeze, and the sounds weave through the open window until you can’t tell where one stops and the other begins. The mingling is very like the alchemy which happens every Vermont College writing residency, since faculty lectures, no matter how disparate their titles and content, invariably evoke similar themes, and touch on the questions you have already been asking yourself.

Questions such as, how does our personal and cultural “truth”—that ever shifting truth—really inform our fiction? Where is the intersection of the personal story and art, where does one stop and the other begin? And how do you get to this crossroads and best tap in, to uncover the patterns you want to paint in fiction?

In last week’s post, Helen Pyne touched on the idea of writing with “mindfulness, honesty and play” as laid out by amazing authors Amanda Jenkins and Marcelo Sandoval. In the way of things, these themes have suggested themselves in the current VCFA residency lectures as well, so let’s visit them from a couple of new perspectives.


Liz Garton Scanlon, author of the Caldecott-honored picture book All the World, and middle grade The Great Good Summer, says that as writers we face a dearth of daunting, complex choices. So much so that sometimes it’s easier not to choose. Where do we show, where do we tell, where create poetry, where create prose, where inform, where entertain? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. But no matter how hard to choose, it’s in answering such questions, Scanlon says, that writers find their power. Her advice for the next time you’re faced with this dilemma, is to play around with the intersection where two such opposites meet, because here you’ll find the sweet spot which holds a new way forward.

For example, bestselling author of the Raven Cycle and other novels, Maggie Stiefvater found her sweet spot while creating the Scorpio Races, in the meeting of myth and personal story. For her, a story comes alive when she uncovers its mood and emotional weight. _StiefvaterSo even though she was writing about a fantastical world where dangerous, mythological sea creatures rose up to be ridden, she needed to connect it to her own childhood memories of what it felt like to face danger and challenge. And then her novel was born.

Not that the deeper reasons you’re writing a novel are always easy to determine. Tim Wynne-Jones, who knows how to get things accomplished given his long list of award winning novels, just spent four years creating his new release The Emperor of Any Place.  Emperor-of-Anyplace

The work began as a series of vignettes he wrote in college—enter the element of play—and grew as he put it, from a “greedy curiosity” to write about so many characters, settings and situations that one book couldn’t hold them. To actually make this “morass” into a novel, he had to return to why he was writing it. To let go of “the stories that might have been” and find the pattern in his writing that revealed the one true story thread.

_KarlinsThat’s ultimately why we write, says Mark Karlins, author of the acclaimed picture book Music Over Manhattan, to discover a description of ourselves in the world, a pattern for our lives and an identity, a sense of who we are in relation to others. Story allows us to ask, as the muddy creature from Jenny Wagner’s The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek does, Who am I? And story, Karlins says, is a place to explore, deeply and honestly, the answers to this question.

In addition, Karlins believes we write best when we write for our own amazement, right down to the smallest details. For example, instead of calling a day sunny, call it bright as the back of a spoon. The very strangeness of the metaphor can lead your reader in, and make your fictional world come alive.

Daniel José Older, author of the YA Shadowshaper and other bestsellers, says there’s yet another way to make your fictional world live on the page. Proximity. As a former paramedic on the streets of New York, Older experienced firsthand that participating in events is very different than simply watching them. To paraphrase the author, you can’t really walk in another person’s shoes (or another character’s), unless you’re proximate. And when you are no longer a passive witness to events, but an active participant, you become the protagonist in your own story, too.  _Older

Enter crisis, growth and change, which Older believes is the heart of any novel. But he cautions not to stop here, because none of us live in a vacuum. “Context (setting) is time, place and power,” Older says. (You only have to consider the events of 9-11 to see how crisis reshaped a nation’s mythology.) So if you want to create authentic worlds for your characters, their lives need to reflect the social, cultural and historical factors that make us who we are.

–Zu Vincent


Insecurity v Humility

insecurity |ˌinsəˈkyo͝orədē|
noun (pl. insecurities)
1 uncertainty or anxiety about oneself; lack of confidence: she had a deep sense of insecurity | he’s plagued with insecurities.

humility |(h)yo͞oˈmilədē|
a modest or low view of one’s own importance; humbleness.

Most writers joke (is it a joke?) about our insecurities. Our writing sucks, our books suck, our ideas suck, we suck. But would we really spend hours, days, months, years working on a project that truly sucked? In the deep dark corners of night when we’re tossing and turning in bed we might think the project stinks, but in the light of day, right before we push “send” and whoosh the manuscript off to our beta readers, agents, editors, aren’t we darn sure that the project doesn’t really suck, that it’s really pretty awesome?

Two weekends ago I attended the Writing Novels for Young People’s Retreat at VCFA organized by Sarah Aronson and Cindy Faughnan. The theme of insecurity ran through the entire weekend and we propped each other up with Micol Ostow‘s rallying cry, “Whatever…You’re awesome!” It was a wonderful, inspiring, supportive weekend–a group of amazing writers who critiqued each other’s work, probed, asked questions, encouraged, ate a lot of chocolate and drank a lot of wine (and some awesome margaritas). During the Saturday night readings (despite the awesome margaritas, or perhaps because of them) I was struck with a sense of insecurity. Who was I to think my story was as good as all these others?

In the days since the Retreat, I’ve had time reflect on my emotions. And as I prepare to speak before a classroom of middle schoolers at the New Voices School on writing poetry as part of the VCFA young Writers Network, organized by Katie Bayerl and Danielle Pignataro. I am near frozen with thoughts of insecurities: I am a fraud, I am not a poet. I struggle to push those thoughts away. I am not a fraud; I have a published book to prove it! And while claiming to be a “poet” might be a bit of a stretch, my published book is a novel in verse – so at least I can claim that I write poetically.

I’m not willing to say that I am “awesome” with anything less than a sarcastic tone, yet I refuse to believe that I suck. Instead, I am going to believe that I am humble — for aren’t insecurity and humility opposite sides of the same coin?

The art of feeling successful

successSuccess is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.
-Winston Churchill

Hi Writers,

Recently, I posted my 100th newsletter. 100 Mondays in a row. I spent some time writing and thinking about success. And a lot of people wrote back. As writers, we have a tenuous (at best) relationship with success. 

Here’s what people said:

“I never feel successful. Someone is always doing better than I’m doing.”

“I read every bad review. What’s wrong with me?”

“I am so sick of calling myself pre-published. I get great rejections. Why am I doing this?”

For me, when I rely on the extrinsic milestones–the money–the fame–I’m SUNK. For me, success has to come from within. It comes more from how I’m feeling creatively. This might be TMI, but I need to feel safe and secure to write. But when I do, I (almost) like writing. 

As all my friends know, I also like to reward myself. 

My most famous rule: When I hit page 100 of a manuscript, I always make Thai seafood soup. (You can find the recipe here!)  Why? I celebrate because 100 is cool! More important, I know if I can get to page 100, it also means I’m going to be able to finish the draft. (That’s party because at page 70, I usually get a big dose of writer’s panic and block!)

For me, 100 is a symbol of success.

But there are a lot of other successes along the way.

Like a new idea.

Or a new chapter.

Or a day off from writing with a good friend.

Tackling a challenge I was afraid to try before. 

And don’t we all write better when we embrace these successes?  When we feel successful, we feel excited. We look forward to the work. The bumps along the way stop being obstacles and feel like opportunities. 

Feeling successful allows us the confidence to find our voices.

Ask Diane von Furstenberg.

dress(Wouldn’t that dress look great on me? Sorry!!!)

Anyway, SHE SAYS that to find success, we must first trust ourselves!

(I love her.)

“I think the relationship you have with yourself is everywhere, every moment of the day — to be able to be alone, to be able to think, to be able to count on yourself, to be able to console yourself, to be able to inspire yourself, to be able to give yourself advice. You are your best friend.”


Finding success is motivating–and in lieu of the usual barometers of success (i.e.: money), celebrating milestones along the journey of writing–is essential! We all know–it’s very easy to get discouraged before that first big YES arrives. But there are a million successes before that first YES.

There is the idea.
There is every good line that you write down.
There is every failure that you accept.
There is every day you sit down again to get that story RIGHT.

One of the reasons I started this newsletter was to offer other writers a little hope and strength as they make their ways from one success to another. It’s what I like about this blog, too. Because we ALL need support. Community. Cheers. We all need TIPS. We all need MOTIVATION. We all need new ways to approach the work in a fresh and different way.

Can you count your successes today? This week? Every week? You don’t have to brag. But you do have to pat yourself on the back! Writing is a journey–one that goes faster when we recognize each positive step.


You can sign up for Sarah’s newsletter, Monday Motivation, on her website, Under TIPS.

When Writing Doesn’t Look Like It

There always comes a time in drafting a story when I need to see it better. I need it to be something more than just the words on the screen or page. I need it to become a little more 3-D.

And since I love making messes art, I get out my scissors and glue and whatever other miscellaneous doodads seem appropriate. Making something tangible and visual helps make my story feel more concrete and real. The added bonus is that by tapping into a different part of my brain, I always learn something new about my characters and their world.

It’s all about the writing, even if it doesn’t look like it!

collage.treePOSTER COLLAGE:

Simple or complex, paper collages are an excellent way to combine visual images and words to represent a story.

I suppose Pinterest is a sort of online version of the same idea, but I really like the kinesthetic experience of finding the right image, and then cutting it out, finding the right place for it, and finally gluing it down. It takes more time, and there’s the element of surprise. More often than not I find something perfect that I hadn’t even thought about. But when I see that just right object, face, word, or color, I know it.

My Best Everything Theme boxBOX COLLAGE:

For my YA novel, MY BEST EVERYTHING, I wanted to include some three-dimensional objects. I took a field trip with a friend to various thrift stores, on the hunt for… whatever happened to catch my eye. Mixed with pictures from magazines, I ended up with a memento box for Lulu’s summer of making moonshine.

I’ve got the bottles and the moon, obviously, but I also have references to the junkyard where Lulu works, a tiny gold cowgirl hat for her best friend Roni, and a boy riding his bike through the woods. There’s a rosary–Lulu is a “good” Catholic girl, after all–and scripture verses. There’s also key chain since she’s learning to drive, as well as a few other assorted items.  And of course I had to include the recipe for a science experiment involving yeast and a flying grape. That’s kind of like making moonshine, right?

Scrapbook Collage


Same basic idea, different layout.

This particular one is still a work in progress, but it’s for a story where the past heavily influences the present. It made sense for me to have separate pages for different time periods. Here’s a compilation photo of some of the pages.



Maps are not just for epic fantasy novels. They’re a wonderful way to world-build, regardless of your genre and/or setting. You can map an area as big (the world) or as small (a bedroom), as you like. I’m including a very simple one here, but you should definitely check out the amazing book, MAP ART LAB by Jill K Berry and fellow VCFA alum, Linden McNeilly. They’ve compiled a multitude of gorgeous projects to inspire you!



Happy Mess-Making!

Sarah Tomp




Holla, Shadowcat!

Lately I’ve been a little overwhelmed with the good news from other writers. Don’t get me wrong, I am super-thrilled to hear about their book deals, new agents, and launch days. I kid you not. I love seeing their success, how far they’ve come, and the amazing things they’re doing. The problem is that, in comparison, my own success, my own progress, and the amazing things I’m doing feel as intangible as Kitty Pryde phasing through a crowd of New York Times Best selling authors.

I bet you wouldn’t be surprised to know I’m not alone in this emotional tide pool. In fact, through conversations with other writers, I know for sure that I’m not. What might surprise you (it surprises me) is hearing this same story from writers at different stages of their careers. Stages that I, unpublished naïf that I am, view as the various pinnacles of success.

There’s a scorecard I keep in my mind, a checklist of sorts, as I work towards what I hope is a career in writing. It goes something like this:

  • Decide to write
  • Go to a Writers Conference
  • Get an MFA in Writing
  • Write a Book
  • Revise that book
  • Speak at a Conference
  • Query Agents
  • Get an Agent
  • Get a Book Deal. Maybe a Multi-Book Deal! At Auction!!
  • Movie Deal!!! Toys!!!! Merchandise!!!!!

You get the point. For the most part, I feel pretty damn good about my progress. I have a plan. I’m doing the work.

Then I see that [REDACTED] has an agent, or [REDACTED] scored a multi-book deal, and I’m all, “[REDACTED], [REDACTED], [REDACTED]!”

Which is to say the voices in my head take a trip to the Dark Side.

Help me, Obi-Wan, you’re my only hope.

This week two Obi-Wan Kenobis spoke to me as I barreled down a trench in the Death Star on the lookout for a small, thermal exhaust port in which to drop my figurative torpedo. Where did I find multiple Kenobis? The internet, of course.

I discovered Elizabeth Gilbert’s most recent TEDTalk, Success, Failure And The Drive To Keep Creating. In it, the author of the mega-successful Eat, Pray, Love talks about the pressure to have another mega-hit, and how destructive the pressure of outcome is to the writing process. And, you know, the living process.

There’s a lot to takeaway from her talk, but this is the quote I tacked up on my wall:

“I will always be safe from the random hurricanes of outcome as long as I never forget where I rightfully live.”

The second voice of Jedi-wisdom comes from friend-of-the-blog Steve Bramucci, a guy so easy going and likable, never mind talented, that you’d think he’d be immune to the vicissitudes of publishing. Nah. Turns out he’s human too.

He wrote a wonderful piece at Ingrid Sundberg’s place about feeling the anxiety of outcome, and dealing with it. He proposes a four step checklist (I love checklists) to keep our keels even. The step that resonated with me the most was the first one: Gratitude (and I did so read them all, don’t look at me that way).

It reminded me that I am grateful for the good feeling that comes with turning ideas into words, into pages, into stories. It reminded me that this is a pretty great privilege. And it reminded me of all the good folks in my life that cheer for my success. Heck yeah, I’ve got a lot to be grateful about.

Even stupid [REDACTED]’s latest big announcement.


Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to  pack for NESCBWI so I can check off item number six on my personal scorecard.

Writing Inspiration

What inspires your writing?

Hints of spring waft in the air and birds sing, and I consider what inspires me in my writing. Walking in nature is one of my favorites. Other writers a big inspiration to me, so I asked several to share what inspires their writing. I hope you enjoy their answers as much as I do.

Sandra NickelSandra Nickel

Madeleine L’Engle once said that being a writer can sometimes feel like you’re a battlefield with ‘a dark angel of destruction and bright angel of creativity wrestling.’ I think life can feel this way sometimes too. And I am drawn to write by both the dark and the bright, but especially the magic and surprise and so-very-human refusal to be less vivid just when it feels like the dark angel is about to take us down.

Sandra can be found at

Robin Prehn  Robin Prehn book cover

Reading other books definitely inspires my writing; not only do I want to take certain stories in a new direction, but I also feel that excitement of discovering a new world and want to create my own.  Being in nature also inspires writing, mostly because I let my mind wander as I walk and enjoy the sounds and sights around me.  My thoughts will touch on this and that, and often, a story emerges.

Robin can be found at

Rose Green Rose Green

As to inspiration, the biggest thing that inspires my writing is probably places. I’ve lived in 22 different houses spanning 9 states and three countries, and both the geography and the culture of all those places provide tons of writing fodder. A recent book I wrote was inspired by watching my in-laws’ bicultural prowess between rural mountain Idaho where they came from, and wealthy urban southern California where they’ve spent the past 40 years.

Rose can be found at

Sandra Tayler  Sandra Tayler

Everyone needs stories, but not everyone has the skill to tell them. The moments which most inspire my writing are the ones where I am able to give words to a story that someone else needs.

Sandra can be found at

Katherine Cowley

Katherine Cowley

I try to notice things around me, and put myself in situations where I will learn or do interesting things that will inspire me. I’ve received story ideas from Baby Animal Days, visiting the aquarium, indulging myself with a trip to an art museum, traveling to exotic locations, and becoming friends with people who are completely different than me. I also try to read widely: classic novels, science news, and history books on very specific subjects, like batteries. Most of the time there will be one or two ideas that stick out to me which I’ll record and stew over until I find the right match for a story idea.

Katherine can be found at

Christy LenziChristy Lenzi

Sometimes the books I read provoke questions, which spark my imagination. When questions from my fiction and non-fiction reading find their way to each other, that’s when the sparks start a fire. “What the heck is wrong with Heathcliff and Cathy? How would it feel to be slightly unhinged, like her? And what if, instead of the moors, I lived in the Ozarks during the Civil War? What would happen if the revivalist preacher wanted to save my demon-possessed soul and marry me, but the only person who understood me was this outlaw, hated and feared by everyone else?” My questions and curiosity inspire me to find the answers within the pages of my own book.

Christy can be found at

Melodye ShoreMelodye Shore

My writing is inspired by sunlight and shadows, though not in equal measure. I’m drawn to birdsong and rosebuds, and the skirted palm trees that rise from the desert floor, fronds lifted toward an impossibly blue sky. But I’m intrigued, too, by the mysteries that lurk just beneath the surface of things…the soul’s desperate yearnings, whispered secrets in the dark.  Writing invites me to stay fully present for (in) all of this—to appreciate each moment for the miracle it is, and to bear witness to the truth as I see it.

Melodye can be found at

Thank you to all these writers for sharing what inspires their writing. Their inspirations reinvigorate me and feed my creative energy. Feel free to comment on this post. I’d love to read your comments about what inspires you.

Sarah Blake Johnson

Ray Bradbury Inspiring Passion

Author Ray Bradbury, ninety one


Passion for writing. How do we get it? Where does it come from, and where, sometimes, does it go? I’ve been thinking about this question for a while, and it seems fitting to talk about it now in light of hearing that one of the most passionate writers of our time died last week. Ray Bradbury.

Early in his career Bradbury set himself the task of writing 1,000 words a day and reportedly banged out the first draft of his famous book, Fahrenheit 451, in nine days on a rented typewriter. His books have sold over eight million copies in 36 languages and he’s thought of as one of the major science fiction writers of our time.

But where he most touched and influenced me as both a reader and writer is through his semi-autobiographical 1957 novel Dandelion Wine. Reading about 12 year old Douglas’ childhood in Dandelion Wine is to be transported. It’s evocative, sensual language stirs you up and lands you smack back in childhood, replete with all its wonders and fears.

And it begs the question for those of us who love to write for the young, is childhood the realm where passion truly lies, and never dies? Is that why we seek to recreate it on the page?

Ray Bradbury as a young man


On his 91st birthday, Bradbury was working on a screenplay for Dandelion Wine with Phoenix Picture’s producer Mike Medavoy (of “Black Swan” fame). Knowing this book would be made into a film Bradbury is quoted as saying, “(this) is the best birthday gift I could ask for. Today, I have been reborn! Dandelion Wine is my most deeply personal work and brings back memories of sheer joy as well as terror. This is the story of me as a young boy and the magic of an unforgettable summer which still holds a mystical power over me.”

How could it not? As children everything sparkles, because we’re experiencing our lives for the first time. And as Bradbury himself noted, as a boy his imagination was “hungry. It was one frenzy after one elation after one enthusiasm after one hysteria after another. You rarely have such fevers later in life that fill your entire day with emotion.”

Mystical power, a kindling of the imagination, hysterical fevers, high emotion. Oh for the joy, pain and yes, passion of childhood!

Can we truly ever get it back? Can we, as Bradbury suggests, be reborn?


I recently spoke at a writer’s conference in California alongside musician Mark McKinnon, guitarist-vocalist-songwriter and founder of the California Celtic band, Ha’penny Bridge. A few years ago Ha’penny Bridge released its first studio CD album of original songs titled “The Awakening.” And, as its title suggest, “The Awakening” is the result of a journey of rebirth of passion for artist McKinnon.

Listening to McKinnon talk about “The Awakening,” it struck me how many similarities his musician’s journey has to the writer’s journey. Not that he particularly knew he was on a journey until he found himself in the middle of it. But a trip to Ireland in 2001 transformed his music, and his life. Seemingly overnight, he went from years of performing rock, folk, and world style music to becoming a Celtic musician and songwriter.

McKinnon had traveled to Ireland reluctantly, cajoled by his wife.  But as anyone who’s been there knows, there’s a moment when the plane banks and the clouds part and you’re offered the first glimpse of endless, enchanting green. For McKinnon that glimpse told him he’d come home.

He fell in love with Ireland, its traditions and its music, and never looked back. It was a moment that gave him renewed passion for his art. “The first Celtic song I wrote I started to cry,” he admits. “My ancestral ghosts were talking to me.” At this point, all he had to do was show up and listen. And listen he did. He’s since returned to Ireland many times, studied Gaelic, changed his approach to music, and found a new passion for his songwriting.

“I have no idea how I wrote the songs on this CD,” he says of the bands’ new release “At Fiddlers Green,” and the magical inspiration now stirring his soul. “But the journey of my songs are the journey of my life. Never give up hope,” he adds, “never close down doors, or shutter any windows.  I kept walking through doors I didn’t know existed and I didn’t know I was even looking for this.”

Cover art for Ha'penny Bridge new CD At Fiddlers Green

The result is a beautiful, melodic tapestry of songs that have garnered Ha’penny Bridge an enthusiastic following, and showcases McKinnon’s storytelling, and keen instinct for the arc of a song.

Still, we can’t all be Ray Bradbury, and write 1,000 pages a day. As McKinnon says of the muse these days, “I’m no longer a short order cook. I’m a chef. I have to trust it’s okay to let something be on the back burner. That when you return to it, your connection will still be there.”

Passion, it seems, can be both fevered, and simmering. And sometimes, when you think you may have lost it altogether, or are watching it eek away, passion can sneak back up on you.

Falling in Love

Is passion then, the newness of falling in love with a thing, no matter what age you are?  I fell in love with writing my novel The Lucky Place. I fall in love with each novel I write, or else I couldn’t write it. Not well, anyway. But to fall in love you have to pay your dues. You have to show up and sit down and plunk.

That was Ray Bradbury’s advice to writers. Keep plunking. Let your plunking sweep you away, awash in the fevers that fill your day.  Burn with a thousand pages. And look with surprise  from a banking plane, to know you have come home.


Ha’penny Bridge Band plays “The Running Man”