Today, best-selling author Lisa Gort McMann ’90 is no stranger to critical acclaim. But looking back on her days at Calvin, she remembers a review of a different tone.
“I distinctly remember Professor John Timmerman in his creative writing class telling me how sappy and melodramatic one of my stories was,” McMann said. “Timm was right; it was bad. The critiques from him and my classmates definitely made an impact on my work.
”McMann says her work was also shaped by a children’s literature class with Gary Schmidt that analyzed the techniques of authors in the genre.
Eighteen years after graduating from Calvin with an English degree, McMann’s first novel, a young adult book about a girl sucked into the dreams of others, debuted on The New York Times best-seller list for children’s chapter books.
Yes, debuted as a best-seller.
Spark caught up with McMann and reviewed her blockbuster novel, Wake, more than a decade ago in 2008. What’s changed for McMann since entering, and rising in, the world of young adult literature?“
I do have more of a sense of calm about this job after 12 years of writing novels,” she said. “Authors are constantly worried at the beginning of their careers: What if this book fails? What if publishers don’t like it?
“I’m glad to say it has gotten easier for me, but there are always doubts lurking like with any artist, musician, actor, or freelancer. There are no guarantees in the arts. But I wouldn’t trade this job for anything.”
McMann is surrounded by fellow artists: Her husband, Matt McMann ’91, is a former worship leader and emerging writer, and the couple’s adult children work in acting and the graphic arts. When McMann’s kids were just 9 and 12 years old, their creativity inspired her to begin a new book series.
After her children’s school made cuts to their arts programs, her kids came to her feeling frustrated—even punished—for being creative. She asked them: “What if there really was a world where children were punished for being creative?”
Her son responded, “Not just punished, Mom. Sent to their deaths!”
“It gave me a chill and I knew I had to write that book,” McMann said. “Now I’m basically 11 books into this magical fantasy world, and I’m still enjoying it.”
This world is explored in her seven-title series The Unwanteds (2011–2016) and continued in The Unwanted Quests series, which just grew to three books in February. Fans eagerly await book four, Dragon Curse, to be released in September.
McMann says her creative process changes from book to book, and she embraces writing each novel as a new journey.“Twenty-two books into this gig and I’m learning more and more all the time.”