"One writes what one would read."
Ronald BarronGail Richmond called Marsha Qualey's first YA novel, Everybody's Daughter, "an exceptional first novel" (p. 142). Revolution of the Heart, Qualey's second YA novel, was even more successful. Selected as an American Library Association "Best Book for Young Adults" and winner of a 1994 Minnesota Book Award for best Older Children's Fiction, it was also named the best book of the year by the School Library Journal and received a blue ribbon for 1993 from the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Since the publication of Revolution of the Heart, Qualey has published three other quality YA novels.
Born in Austin, Minnesota, Marsha Qualey attended Macalester College (1971-72) in St. Paul, later transferring to the University of Minnesota from which she graduated in 1976 with a BES degree with a concentration in American history. According to Qualey, "the BES degree was a relic of the 60s-70s at the U - a non-major degree granted on the basis of credits completed, no other requirements (requirements were, I guess, considered oppressive)." Qualey, married to David Qualey in 1976, moved to Cloquet, Minnesota, in January, 1995, when her husband was transferred to his company's Duluth (MN) office. She has recently returned to the Twin Cities.
Qualey had little formal training as a writer, other than some journalistic work in high school and college, prior to writing Everybody's Daughter. She believes that she probably inherited some writing talent, primarily from her mother's side of the family. Her maternal grandfather was an editor and magazine publisher, and her maternal grandmother wrote confession stories during the Depression to earn extra money. "She considered it her job and worked at it 8 hours a day," Qualey told Gretchen Wronka.
"Choosing to be a YA novelist was, in a way, a happy accident," says Qualey. She tried writing short stories for the adult market, but none of them sold. Later she wrote a short story about a teenager; and she says, "simply because it was about a teenager, I decided to market the story to teen magazines." Although the story failed to sell because an editor felt it was "too adult," Qualey "received a personal, wonderfully encouraging rejection letter from the fiction editor of Seventeen Magazine." Qualey claims she "was fixed, for some reason, on telling the story to teenagers, and didn't think for a moment that the manuscript might work better for adults." She eventually expanded the 50-page short story into Everybody's Daughter, her first published YA novel, and she says "a few revisions - (which even to my inexperienced eye made it more appealing to a teenage audience) - and several rejections later, it was bought by Houghton as a YA novel." Interestingly enough, the first and last line of the short story became the first and last line of the novel.
Everybody's Daughter took a long time to write because Qualey was the mother of two young children, which restricted her writing time. "I have often said that my first novel wasn't written, but was composed," says Qualey. "That's an exaggeration, I suppose, but sentences, character ideas, and dialogue all took shape in my head as I pushed strollers and swings. When I could (that is, naptime and during Sesame Street), I'd get those mental notes down on paper." However, she adds, "My four children are now all in school all day long and I write on a daily basis."
Sixteen-year-old Merry Moonbeam (Beamer) Flynn, the major character in Everybody's Daughter, has good friends, sympathetic parents, and an attractive boyfriend; but she feels smothered by her parents' friends, whom she considers a bunch of "old hippies." Beamer's parents had helped start Woodlands, a northern Minnesota commune, eighteen years earlier; and Beamer was the first child born at Woodlands, thus giving everyone an interest and, they believe, a role in her upbringing. When Woodlands disbanded six years earlier, many of the members stayed in the area; and the bait shop Beamer's parents purchased with their share of the money from the sale of Woodlands became the unofficial meeting place for the "Woodies."
When ex-Woodie Sandra accidentally kills a security guard with a home-made bomb during a demonstration at a nuclear power plant, the former commune members draw more tightly together. In the first draft of the novel, Sandra blew up an abortion clinic, but Qualey "wanted readers to come to the book with an open mind" rather than reacting based upon their preconceived views about abortion, so she decided to use a demonstration at a nuclear power plant, which she thought might be a more neutral topic. "I wanted readers to see it as a plot element, not as a political statement," Qualey told Gretchen Wronka. Apparently reviewers reacted the way Qualey expected since none of them have mentioned the subplot in their reviews of the book.
Further complicating Beamer's life is her inability to decide between two boys: Andy Reynolds, a classmate dubbed "Saint Andrew" by the rest of the class, and the older and more exciting Martin Singer, a Northwestern junior majoring in journalism who is doing an internship at the local radio station. Part of Beamer's indecision about both Andy and Martin is her desire for a long-term relationship rather than just a boyfriend. Although a number of reviewers mentioned the romance component of the novel, Qualey says she was more interested in the psychological aspect of Beamer's life.
Ultimately Beamer comes to grips with how her commune upbringing and her extended family have shaped her life, recognizing the wisdom of her mother's advice: "Beamer, as you muddle through life you'll discover the things you can't change and the things you can't escape. Sometimes the best you can do is to have a little fun."
Revolution of the Heart
Qualey followed the success of Everybody's Daughter with Revolution of the Heart, the story of a seventeen-year-old girl's encounter with racism when she dates a Native American boy. One reviewer called the book "a fine story in which a politically correct message in no way overshadows its plot or characters" (Fritts, p. 127). Although racism is a central issue in the novel, Qualey enriches and gives more complexity to the story by also having Cory deal with the death of a parent, peer pressures, and disharmony within her family.
When the novel opens, Cory Knutson has gained notoriety in her home town of Summer, Wisconsin, by smashing the window of a store when she lost control of her stepfather's new pickup on a patch of ice. Although Cory considers herself in a "social prison" because she has to pay the $500 damages and because her parents confiscate her drivers license and her keys, that experience pales in comparison to what she experiences when she starts spending time with Harvey (Mac) MacNamara, a Native American senior who has transferred to her high school.
Cory meets Mac at a powwow she reluctantly attends with her mother and her mother's co-worker and friend, Roxanne Chapelle. Although Cory had never really noticed it before, her relationship with Mac gives her first-hand experience with the bigotry and prejudice which exist in her school and in her hometown. She becomes the target of crude notes taped to her locker and insensitive comments made in her presence, culminating in the ultimate example when someone stuffs a huge quantity of contraceptives in her school locker.
Cory's situation gets more tense when Margaret, her mother, is hospitalized because she needs a heart transplant. Although the town conducts a number of fund raisers to pay for the operation, Margaret dies before a donor can be found. According to Ken Donelson, "Cory's mother dies, believably so - there ought to be a reprimand or a few lashes for the writer of the fly-leaf who announces that fact since the death is well-prepared for and the scenes of Cory's reactions are among the best in the novel, not a mere plot detail" (p. 101). Roger Sutton shares Donelson's judgment when he writes "it's unfortunate that the flap copy reveals Cory's mother's death, a crisis that is skillfully prepared and sensitively handled by the author" (p. 292).
After Margaret's death, Rob, Cory's older brother, and his wife move in with Cory and her stepfather. However, Cory's relationship with Rob is strained because Rob is one of the leaders of the group protesting Native American spear fishing on local lakes. Mike, Cory's stepfather, is opposed to Rob's activities; and eventually Mike throws Rob out of the house after Rob is arrested at a demonstration for carrying a concealed weapon. Although Mac and Cory try to avoid involvement in the spear fishing controversy, Mac is injured by glass fragments from a bottle thrown at him and later Mac and Cory are found asleep in an unused motel room where they went so Cory could bandage Mac's cuts, an experience that makes Cory and Mac the subject of even more extensive gossip. During a confrontation with Rob, Cory breaks her arm when she falls after Rob hit her when she lied and told him "she was doing it with an Indian" (p. 140). Rob soon regrets his actions and apologizes to Cory; but, although Rob later invites Cory and Mac to a party he is having, she is reluctant to forgive him.
The title of the novel comes from what Mike calls Margaret's theory of revolution: "Change a heart, you change the world. But doing it one heart at a time is the best you can hope for" (p. 64). After seeing the people at Rob's party, Cory decides Margaret's theory of revolution may lead to a change in the relationships between whites and Native Americans in her home town.
Come in from the Cold
"Some of my life has filtered into my work. Adolescent passion for camping and canoeing still shows up in my work, though it's been twenty years since I have slept in a tent," says Qualey. "My third novel, Come in from the Cold, is the most nearly autobiographical, though calling it that is a stretch. I did, however, reshape some of the important things from my high school years, notably the death of an older brother in Vietnam."
Qualey's third YA novel, Come in from the Cold, was one of the five nominees for a 1994 Minnesota Book Award in the Older Children's Fiction category. It also made the International Reading Association's Young Adults' Choices for 1996 list, an award program conducted by the Literature for Adolescents Committee of the IRA in which students in grades 7-12 from throughout the United States read and vote on their favorite new books.
Set in 1969, the narration of Come in from the Cold alternates between Maud Dougherty and Jeff Ramsey, two characters who appeared briefly in Qualey's first novel, Everybody's Daughter. Three years earlier when Maud's mother died, her older sister Lucy left home to become a radical anti-war protester. Because of her activities, Lucy went underground and did not contact Maud and her father. However, when Lucy is killed in a bombing of the physics building at the University of Minnesota, Maud and her father, a poet and college teacher, try to understand why and how Lucy died. Particularly puzzling is the fact that rather than getting away from the bomb, Lucy returned to the building where the bomb was set.
Meanwhile Jeff Ramsey has persuaded the student council of the high school he attends in conservative, rural Red Cedar, Minnesota, to pass a resolution condemning the war in Vietnam. Jeff's anti-war activities do not sit well with his older brother, Marine Sergeant Tom Ramsey, nor generate much positive response from other people in Red Cedar. Tom also objects to Jeff's friends, especially Gumbo who is into drugs and alcohol. To keep Tom happy, Jeff attends a party where Tom expects him to meet a better caliber of friend, but the only person Jeff meets is Roger Heistad, a church youth minister who also opposes the war. Roger introduces Jeff to the anti-war movement by taking him to a protest rally at the University of Minnesota; however, Jeff isn't very impressed with the people he meets because they seem to be only interested in talking incessantly and doing drugs. However, Jeff's opposition to the war grows when his brother Tom is killed in Vietnam, a situation Jeff considers a waste of human life.
Maud first meets Jeff in the parking lot of the National Guard Armory in Red Cedar in 1970. Maud is accompanying her friend Natalie, who is dating the bass player in a band called Napalm, which is playing at the Armory. When they arrive, Jeff is being thrown out of the Armory for trying to distribute leaflets advertising an anti-war protest. The next day Maud and her friends join Jeff at the protest, where Jeff is injured in a struggle over a flag with a pro-war advocate. Later, Jeff travels to the Twin Cities to take part in an anti-war march. After the march, Jeff and Maud hitch a ride with a group of people from Woodlands, a commune in northern Minnesota. While Jeff is attending college, he makes numerous trips to Woodlands, getting more enamored with the group, and eventually dropping out of college to join the commune. Although Maud and Jeff fall in love, get married and become permanent members of Woodlands, their love story "is overshadowed by their individual struggles to find meaning in the world" (Rose, p. 215).
Hometown, Qualey's next YA novel, is both a continuation of and a departure from what she had done in her previous novels. Border Baker, the central character in Hometown, is the 16-year-old son of Gumbo, Jeff's friend from Come in from the Cold who ran away to Canada when he received his draft notice. Set during the period of the Gulf War, the story opens as Border and his father are leaving Albuquerque, New Mexico, the most recent place where they have lived, and heading for Red Cedar to live in the house Gumbo has inherited from his father. Border is unhappy about leaving Albuquerque, where he has become the leader, almost a father, to a collection of teenage misfits and outcasts. When they return to Red Cedar, Gumbo, now a nurse, seems to make a smooth transition to living in the community, even being elected head of the local nurses' association. Border, on the other hand, is ridiculed and beaten up by a group of high school students because his father was a draft dodger. Later, Border meets Jacob McQuillan and becomes a friend of the McQuillan family, eventually becoming close to Jacob's sister Liz. Border's attachment to the McQuillan family grows as he joins them at their church where they are preparing care packages for the soldiers in the Gulf War. Later, when the community, more in response to Gulf War patriotism than Vietnam (only two Red Cedar residents died in Vietnam), decide to erect a Vietnam memorial, Border uses his talent playing the recorder to earn $517 so the money can be donated in the name of the McQuillan's church group.
Although Hometown is character-driven with an overlay of social issues (Gulf War, response to Vietnam War draft evaders) like Qualey's other books, Border's family is more dysfunctional than the families in any of Qualey's other books. Border's parents are separated, and his mother has a life of her own as a performer and chemist. Gumbo would like to bond with his son, but he doesn't seem to know how to go about it. At one point in the story, Gumbo tells Border that, when they lived in New Mexico, he worried that he might lose him. Although Border's sister comes to live with them in Red Cedar, she is an independent soul who drops out of communication with the family if the urge strikes her. Structurally Qualey experimented with the point of view of this novel. The bulk of the novel uses an objective point of view like her other books, but occasionally Qualey shifts to sections which are told from Border's point of view. Also, the chapters are divided into subsections, each headed with a title, another device Qualey did not use in her earlier books.
Hometown earned Qualey her second Minnesota Book Award for Best Young Adult novel. It was also selected by the New York Public Library as one of the Best Books for Teenagers. Hometown was reissued in a paperback edition by Avon Books in April, 1997.
Qualey moved into the mystery field with her latest YA novel, Thin Ice, published in 1997. Arden Munro, Qualey's seventeen-year-old protagonist, was orphaned when she was six after her parents, doctors volunteering at rural clinics, were killed in a plane crash in Central America. Raised by her older brother Scott, who dropped out of college and took a job as a mechanic to take care of her, Arden has grown into a self-sufficient and independent young woman, reminiscent of Qualey's other strong female characters. However, Arden's life is disrupted when Scott's snowmobile is found at the bottom of an icy river. Although Scott's body is not recovered, Scott's friends and his girlfriend, Claire, are convinced he has died. Arden, however, believes that Scott staged the snowmobile accident and has chosen to disappear. Despite the objections of those around her and how it disrupts her life, Arden continues to search for Scott and to try to learn why he disappeared. While she searches for Scott, readers also learn a great deal about Arden. In short, the search for Scott allows Qualey to combine an effective mystery story with a probing psychological exploration of her central character, a quality readers have come to expect from Qualey's books.
Qualey has completed a sixth YA novel, a mystery set in the Twin Cities tentatively titled Killers. She has been offered a contract by Delacorte and the book will probably be published sometime in 1999.
Qualey's Approach to Writing
"Deciding on the general subjects has been a somewhat different experience for each book," Qualey notes. "Usually I will start out with the kernel of a story and see what grows. That kernel is almost always an idea for a character, not the plot." Therein lies one of the major strengths of Qualey's novels, all of which are built around well-developed, interesting major characters. In addition, many of Qualey's minor characters also have an attractive quality. Typical of the critical response to Qualey's minor characters is the Publishers Weekly review of Everybody's Daughter, which mentioned that "minor characters - particularly the clan of middle-aged nonconformists - are colorfully depicted" (p. 81). The same observation could be made about some of the minor characters in all of Qualey's books and may account in part for the fact that characters who play a small role in one book return to play major roles in another book. Qualey admits her books "are clearly character-driven. Matter-of-fact, I can't get going on the writing until the protagonist is well-formed in my mind. Plot will follow."
Qualey treats subjects of substance - racial discrimination, peer pressure, death of a parent, the anti-war movement, how the lives of parents affect their children - that also make her books attractive to YA readers and that led a reviewer of Revolution of the Heart to call it "a good choice for class discussion," a comment that fits Qualey's other books equally well. In addition, Qualey avoids pat, simplistic solutions to complex problems. As Kathy Fritts said in her review of Revolutions of the Heart, "All of the plot threads resolve themselves in a real-life way, which is to say not too neatly" (p. 127).
Qualey told Gretchen Wronka that she is consciously trying to push her novels toward adult fiction, not because she wants to write for adults, but because young adults have a broader range of experience than they used to and "if we want to catch them with our books, we'll have to respond to that wider range of life experiences."
YA readers will also be impressed with Qualey's realistic dialogue and how accurately she portrays the thoughts of her teenage characters. Although Qualey has not directly used their life stories, her experience working as a volunteer with young adults has given her a good "ear" for their language. While composing dialogue, she says, "I listen and then talk to myself until I get it right and then I write it down before I lose it. I'm sure I'm not the only writer who talks to herself" (Wronka).
Based upon her contact with YA readers and from reading reviews, Qualey concludes that both adult reviewers and young adult readers respond to the same thing in her books, although they do use different language in making their point. "My conclusion - what interests and challenges me as the writer is what will have the best chance of interesting my readers," she observes. "Another surmise - that I would enjoy reading the same books as the readers who enjoy mine. One writes, I think, what one would read." Sound advice for anyone considering writing for either the adult or the YA market.
Donelson, Ken. "Review of Revolutions of the Heart," English Journal. November, 1994. pp. 100-101.
Fritts, Kathy. "Review of Revolutions of the Heart," School Library Journal. May, 1993, p. 127.
Qualey, Marsha. Come in from the Cold. Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
_____. Everybody's Daughter. Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
_____. Hometown. Houghton Mifflin, 1995; paperback edition Avon Books, 1997.
_____. Revolutions of the Heart. Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
_____. Thin Ice. Delacorte Press, 1997. "Review of Everybody's Daughter," Publishers Weekly. March 22, 1991, pp. 80- 81.
Richmond, Gail. "Review of Everybody's Daughter," School Library Journal. April, 1991, p. 142.
Rose, Jacqueline. "Review of Come in from the Cold," VOYA. October, 1994, p. 215.
Sutton, Roger. "Review of Revolutions of the Heart," Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. May, 1993, p. 292.
Watson, Elizabeth S. "Review of Revolutions of the Heart," The Horn Book Magazine. September/October, 1993, p. 604.
Wronka, Gretchen. "Videotape Interview of Marsha Qualey," Northern Lights and Insights. No. 235. Hennepin County (MN) Library System, 1992. (29 minutes.)
Author's note: Portions of this article are based upon two letters from Marsha Qualey.
Ronald Barron teaches English 11 and 12 at Richfield High School in Richfield, Minnesota. He is the author of A Guide to Minnesota Writers, published by the Minnesota Council of Teachers of English.