Ginny Rorby, “An Accidental Author”
I am an accidental author. I fell into writing out of my lifelong passion for animals, and a close encounter with Physics and Calculus. I ended up writing for young adults because I didn’t know any better.
I grew up in Florida, where I spent every waking hour outside looking for critters to capture and turn into pets. At one time, I had a pet lizard with its own ant colony, twenty-two baby turtles, a parakeet, and a collection of dead animals in jars of alcohol. I used to pick the rat bones out of owl pellets, and paste the reconstructed skeleton to the cardboard inserts that came in my dad’s Arrow shirts.
Unfortunately, none of this passion translated into being a good student. No one had particularly high hopes for me and I lived up to their expectations partly out of boredom, but I also kept secret from my parents that the amblyopic “lazy eye” I had as a kid still bothered me when I was tired. To see clearly, and thus to read, I had to cross that eye in toward the bridge of my nose. The only classes I ever did well in were biology and math. I detested English and failed it over and over.
After high school and a stint as a bank teller, I moved to Miami and went to work as a flight attendant for National Airlines. In 1980, Pan American Airways bought National and I worked for PAA for another nine years. Midway through my flying career, I came to my senses and realized that if I didn’t want to be waiting on tray tables when I was sixty-five, I needed an education. At age thirty-three, I enrolled in the University of Miami to pursue an undergraduate degree in biology, specializing in ornithology—the study of birds.
For the next five years, I went to school during the week, and flew to London on the weekends. I was senior enough to hold the galley position on the DC10, which was in the belly of the aircraft with a view of the nose wheel. I’d cook all the meals for first class, set up all the teacarts for the meal services in both cabins, then spread my books in front of the ovens and study for the remainder of the ten-hour flight.
It was a 1981 encounter with an abandoned dog that changed the direction of my life. A friend found her in the doorway of the Catholic Church in Coconut Grove, Florida. She was young, skin and bones, with no fur left on her body except for a single long patch down the back of her neck. Maggots lived in open sores on her sides; her eyes were diseased and opaque. Her head and ears were bloody from her miserable digging at fleas, and flies drank at the discharge from her eyes. My friend and I took her to a vet and had her put down. On the way home, I wrote a letter to her owners describing how her life ended. Of course, I had no one to send it to, so I folded it and jammed into a pocket in my purse.
Early in August 1982, I was in the offices of the Miami News and, while waiting for the editor with whom I had appointment, I began cleaning out my purse. There in a side pocket was the letter I’d written about the dog. I scrawled, We Found Your Dog, at the top of the page and gave it to the woman who came to review my photographs. Two days later it was published as an editorial comment. That same day, John Hopkins, an editor with the News, called my home and left this message with my husband—a single sentence that would change my life: “Tell her if she can write like that, we’ll publish anything she writes.”
At the time of John’s call, I was five years into my work on a degree in Biology. Physics and Calculus loomed large. On a whim, I signed up for a creative writing class instead. Eventually, with the encouragement of Evelyn Wilde Mayerson and Lester Goran, and a pat or two on the head by Isaac Bashevis Singer and James Michener, I was, by 1985, committed to becoming a writer and began work on the novel that eventually became Dolphin Sky.
I’d never had an interest in writing, failed English at every opportunity, and don’t consider myself very imaginative, so over the course of the next three years, until I graduated in 1985, I rewrote the same story over and over. For each new class I trotted out the story of my husband sinking his airboat and walking out of the Everglades.
Meanwhile, I researched and wrote Dolphin Sky, occasionally getting an editorial comment published in the Miami News, nearly always about an abandoned animal, or a person with a disability.
Florida International University was launching an MFA program in Creative Writing, and in 1987, I began taking creative writing classes there, with an eye to getting accepted into the program when it started accepting candidates.
Even after I acceptance into the MFA program, I still saw my writing successes as a fluke, and was stunned when I got an agent while still in grad school. She suggested, in spite of a sex scene between my protagonist’s father and a visiting research biologist, that Dolphin Sky was YA fiction, I didn’t know what she was talking about. I’d never heard of Young Adult or Middle Grade as a genre, and told her I wanted to write for adults who love animals, and insisted she send the manuscript to editors of adult fiction—which she did, one editor at a time. After nearly two years and six rejections—all of which said the same thing: “This is not adult fiction,” I became a writer of Young Adult fiction by default.
Dolphin Sky is the story of a young girl’s friendship with a pair of dolphins that were kept in a freshwater pond as part of roadside tourist attraction in the Everglades. I rewrote it, took out the sex scene, and my agent started submitting it to editors of children’s fiction—one editor at a time. It took another 24 months to accumulate 8 more rejections before it finally sold four days before my 50th birthday. There’s a P.S. to this story.
There is a lot to be said for not knowing what the future holds, or how long we are required to stick with something to see it bear fruit. I think you have to be an optimist to be a writer. Or a masochist. But there is only one way to succeed and that is to stick with it, and write your heart out. Wring your heart out. It took me awhile to figure this out. The mistreatment of animals has always pushed my buttons, and I firmly believe that animal abuse and child abuse are linked. If you mistreat one you can potentially harm the other. Once I realized what I cared most about, what twisted my guts, the writing came easier. Nearly all my books draw a parallel between these issues.
Part of my success in creating believable young characters is my ability to go back to my own wounds as a kid. I remember being paralyzed by fear when I thought I might be called on to read aloud in class. I remember living with the secret of my father’s alcoholism, and I can readily revisit fights with my mother, and her cutting, cruel putdowns.
My favorite author is Eudora Welty. She once wrote, “I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.” She has to be an exception. I think most good writing comes from picking the scabs of our wounds, recognizing what we wanted, what our characters want, and throwing obstacles in their paths to achieving it.
Eudora Welty also said, “Never think you've seen the last of anything.” Which brings me back to the P.S. to the Dolphin Sky story. DS has been out of print for twelve years. It was my first book; I started it when I’d been writing for a measly three years, and it was published before there were e-books. A couple of years ago, I reread the original and was appalled to find it littered with adverbs and uninteresting verbs. I loved the story and knew I could tell it so much better now—after 30 years of practice. I sat down and began a yearlong process of rewriting it. I changed it to present tense, got rid of every adverb, many of adjectives, and made the verbs active. A few months ago, I uploaded the ‘Revised Edition’ to Kindle, and will soon have it available on Nook, and other e-book platforms.
Ginny Rorby holds an undergraduate degree in Biology from the University of Miami, an MFA in Creative Writing from the Florida International University, and is the author of 4 novels for Young Adults, Dolphin Sky, (Putnam, ’96) and Hurt Go Happy, (Tor Books, ’06) which won the American Library Association’s Schneider Family Book Award (2008) and has also been nominated for six state reading awards. The Outside of a Horse (Dial Penguin,’10) is a Scholastic Book Fair selection, and Lost in the River of Grass (Lerner Books ‘11) is a Junior Library Guild, a Scholastic Book Fair selection, and a 2012/2013 Sunshine State Young Readers Award nominee.