Frances O'Roark Dowell is an award winning middle grades fiction author who has recently added quilting fiction to her body of work. Even more recently, she has begun the QuiltFiction Podcast where she shares stories in audio form. Her writing is beautiful and heartwarming, just like her. I'm pleased as punch to call Frances my friend, and I can't wait for you to discover her stories!
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Frances O'Roark Dowell is an award winning author and the gentle, humorous, honest voice behind The Off-Kilter Quilt Podcast. After a couple months of getting to know each other online, I was delighted to meet her in person at the Chattahoochee Evening Stars Quilt Guild show last weekend. First and foremost, I'm pleased to report that she's even lovelier in person than on her podcast or online-- which I'm not even sure how that's possible. I think because she's so her. The Off-Kilter Quilt is truly authentic, and the Frances I've come to know and love there was the Frances that greeted me with, "It's me, it's me-- it's Earnest T!"
Frances unveiled her new book, Birds in the Air (which you should buy and read immediately--the sequel, Stars Upon Stars, will be out in 2019. Squee!), read an excerpt, and shared with us her Birds in the Air quilt collection. Birds in the Air is her first novel for adults. The story is set in small-town North Carolina, and Emma isn't exactly looking for quilting. But she finds it, as well as lots of relationships and interesting stories along the way. There are many quilts in the novel, but the star of the show is a Civil War-era Birds in the Air quilt. Frances decided she wanted to make that quilt (she has hand-pieced the top and will be hand quilting it). Soon she found that the idea of "Birds in the Air" was a bit addictive and now has a total of 6 Birds in the Air quilts (I can second the motion that it is addictive-- just hearing about the book on the podcast this summer led to my quilt, "Murmuration.").
What stood out to me most as Frances spoke was her repeated mention of community. It was an apt observation as there were about 7 members from our online community present for the show-- one of whom, Adelle, who designed the pattern for "Bauhaus Birds in the Air," drove from out of state to join us. Frances shares more about this in our interview, but I'll echo her here-- we've found our people. If you've been following along with my videos, then you know that I'm also on this journey of community in quilting (and seeking to spread the love and generosity of quilters beyond our stitchy circles), so her words and feelings resonated deeply with me.
Now, without further ado, Frances, who I am honored to call my friend:
1. How and when did you start quilting? What did your first quilt look like?When I made my first quilt, I didn’t realize I was making a quilt. It was a pattern in Amy Butler’s In Stitches book, and she called it a throw, not a quilt. If she’d called it a quilt, I never would have made it because I was scared of quilts. I loved them, but I didn’t believe I had it in me to make them. All those fractions! All those little bits and pieces of things. But Amy Butler’s throw seemed pretty easy—you sewed some squares and rectangles, cut out a back, and then put some fluffy but flat stuff in between and stitched through all the layers so everything held together. It wasn’t until later that I realized I’d made my first quilt. I gave it to my sister-in-law in Chicago for Christmas, and sometimes I go visit it. It’s holding up fairly well, though some of the seams have come undone in the interim. This was in 2007, by the way, so I was 43.
My second quilt was what I think of my first real quilt. I had no idea what I was doing, but I had a great time. I cut out templates from a Cornflake box, one for squares and the other for triangles. I cut out squares and sewed them together four to a block and I cut out triangles and sewed them together four to a block and then I sewed all the blocks together. It’s really not a bad quilt in its way. Except for the binding. I had no idea how to bind a quilt and just made it up, so the binding is two inches wide and not all that closely attached to the body of the quilt. It just sort flops along the borders.
2) You mentioned "community" several times when introducing Birds in the Air this weekend. Can you share more with us about the role community (and creative community) play in your life and why you find them so vital?
Growing up I wasn’t much of a joiner. I’d join clubs and groups and then quit. Mostly I just wanted to go home and read (I’m a serious introvert). I didn’t join a sorority in college. I thought about it, but I knew it wasn’t for me (though I envied people who did join sororities; from the outside, they looked like they were having fun). But the older you get, the more aware you are of how much you need other people. I think I learned this when I had kids. I had two friends I made in my prepared childbirth class back when I was pregnant with my older son, and they remain two of my best friends eighteen years later. They were my first support group! I was a fairly idiosyncratic child and young adult, so it was lovely to finally have something in common with other women. Quilters have been a similar sort of community. It’s so fun to have others who share my passion for quilts, who are happy to talk about the best thread for quilting v. the best thread for piecing, different methods of making half-square triangles, the best books and teachers and Craftsy classes. But more than that, the quilters I’ve come to know have been so supportive and generous in every way. A few years ago I was working on a blue and white mosaic block quilt and all these people who listen to my podcast offered to send me blue fabric, which I happily accepted and used in the quilt! And when my mother was very ill, a group of online quilting friends made me a quilt, which I cherish. Now with the publication of Birds in the Air, I’m once again overwhelmed by how great my quilting friends have been. I feel like I’ve found my people. It’s been enormously important to me, both personally and creatively.
3) You're a maker in at least two respects-- writing and quilting-- how do you find the two interact? Do your processes for each resemble each other? Do you think writing makes you a better quilter and/or vice versa?
I’m not sure how they interact, though in some way the creative process is similar for both, especially when I’m making up a quilt as I go along (as opposed to using a pattern). I’m a notoriously bad first draft writer and a famously good reviser. I think being a writer has made me a better quilter because I’m not afraid to mess up and I’m under no illusion that I will ever produce something that’s perfect. I’ve written some books that I thought were pretty good and I’ve made some quilts I like a lot, but I’ve yet to make anything that was error-free or that couldn’t be made better given more time and effort. But with both books and quilts you get to a place where you’re done. You’ve given what you can give to the project and it’s time to move on.
As a writer, I’m very aware of the need for an editor, and as a quilter whose making more of my own patterns (as it were—I don’t actually figure anything out on paper beforehand) I rely on feedback from my online quilting community. I got a lot of help on one of my recent quilts, Modern Birds in the Air—I just kept posting drafts and changes to my quilting group on Facebook, and people would tell me what they thought worked and what didn’t and what I might try next. It was helpful to get other quilters’ perspectives. My husband and I are both writers (he’s a journalist) and our family’s motto is “Everybody needs an editor.” I used to fear constructive criticism, now I desire it, both as a writer and a quilter.
I don’t know if I’ve taken anything from quilting into my writing. Quilting gives me a creative outlet that doesn’t involve words, and I think that’s good for me as a writer because it’s good to be involved with something that’s nonverbal. It also gives me a way make something that’s not judged. I feel very fortunate to make my living as a writer, but sometimes it can be hard putting your work into the world. The world isn’t always kind. So I love making something that no one is going to give stars to or say something mean about on Goodreads!
4) Tell us a little bit about your other books?
For most of my writing career, I’ve written middle grade fiction—novels for upper elementary and lower middle school readers, so roughly 4th through 7th graders. Recently, I’ve started writing early chapter books, which is a lot of fun. I find childhood fascinating and I remember mine vividly. My earliest memories go back to when I was around 18 months. The years between 9 and 12 provide so much much material, I’m surprised that I’ve surfaced to write about adult lives. I’ve written a fairly broad spectrum of books, from mysteries to historical fiction to contemporary realistic fiction to one fantasy book. Probably my most popular books for young readers are Dovey Coe and The Secret Language of Girls trilogy.
5) What advice do you have for both young authors and young quilters?
Practice. Be not afraid. Ask for help. Everybody needs an editor: find someone you trust to give you constructive criticism. Most of all, tell the story you feel passionate about telling and make the quilt you feel passionate about making, regardless of what everyone else is doing. That’s where the joy is.
Thank you, Frances!! It's a pleasure to know you, and I'm so glad you took the time to "talk" with us today (and oh goodness I can't wait till QuiltCon 2017!). Y'all can find Frances talking about things quilty and writerly at The Off-Kilter Quilt and on the Off-Kilter Quilt Podcast. She shares pictures on Instagram @offkilterquilt, and blogs on the QuiltFiction Website.
Go listen to the Off-Kilter Quilt or The QuiltFiction Podcast, and make something!