21 September 2010

A Place for Carol

Over fifteen years ago, I went to a critique group for children’s writers at my local library for the first time. I didn’t know anyone there, and hadn’t been in a writing workshop since college. As an acquisitions editor, I was seeing a full share of unsolicited manuscripts, and worried about how much more unbaked writing I could stand.

A couple of people read truly amateurish little stories, and I was wondering whether I would return when one member read a retold folk tale that was so well shaped and expressed that I knew I had to come back the next month.

That member was Carol Flynn Harris, and we stuck together in writing groups for years, through novels and short stories, articles and scripts. At one point, we found that we’d each sold the Highlights book club a short story titled “Snow for the Queen”; I quickly emailed the publisher to say that Carol deserved to keep the title.

Later we each placed a middle-grade historical novel set in Boston; my deal fell apart after a change of editors, but Boyds Mills followed through with Carol’s. A Place for Joey takes place against the backdrop of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, but it’s really about a young immigrant trying to figure out where he belongs. Joey dreads moving from the North End to Watertown—the same nearby suburb where Carol lived and worked at the library for decades!

Another of Carol’s manuscripts, Gemma, was about the friendship of two teen-aged girls, one of whom is diagnosed with cancer. Carol herself underwent treatment for cancer, and put her experiences, and her sense of humor, into her heroine.

I was even more struck by how Carol had constructed Gemma. In each chapter, it seemed, the teens were totally fixated on an upcoming event in their high school: tryouts for the school play, or a math test, or a date. And then the next chapter started after that event, because the real drama was taking place in the spaces in between the “dramatic” events. I was amazed to see Carol could tell a story that way.

A few years ago, Carol’s husband George became ill, so she couldn’t come to meetings regularly, and then couldn’t come at all. We kept Carol on the group’s email list, which of course meant her mailbox filled up month after month, but it also meant we could still consider her part of the group.

George died last year, and I went to his memorial service, seeing Carol for the first time in over a year. She made it back to one meeting, but still looked shaky.

Last night I learned that Carol had passed away. Her cancer had recurred, and she died peacefully in hospice care. Like all writers, she left behind a bunch of manuscripts. But Carol also left behind a bunch of friends who are very glad to have known her.

1 comment:

gail said...

A very well-done piece about this author and her work.