Karen Chow and Stephanie Willing met in 2017 when they were both selected as Pitch Wars mentees. Author Brenda Drake created this now-ended mentorship program pairing emerging authors with traditionally published authors. For Chow and Willing, being involved felt like the beginning of the writing dream coming true. And then it took six more years . . .
The two writing colleagues reconnected in 2023 as middle-grade debut authors. Their friendship as writers and moms was cemented when they finally met in person at The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference (SCBWI). Now having published their original Pitchwars books, West of the Sea (Viking Books for Young Readers, 2023) and Miracle (Christy Ottaviano Books, 2023), the two are grappling with the particular challenges of writing and careering while momming.
In this interview, which has been edited for content and clarity, they speak with one another about their journeys.
Karen Chow: West of the Sea is a speculative middle-grade novel that weaves Celtic mythology, mental health, mystery, and Texan landscapes into the tale of a loving but struggling family. It’s what would happen if A Wrinkle in Time took place on a highway in Texas instead of the fourth dimension. Your main character, Haven, isn’t quite human. Was it a conscious choice to write her that way, or did it come while you were writing?
Stephanie Willing: Yes and no. I always knew she was a child who had roots in both worlds. Her father’s family had farmed that land for generations, and her mother’s family had lived a double life on sea and land for ages. But the degree to which Haven was magical, like her mother, was a detail that got refined repeatedly through revision. I always wanted the shape-shifting and mythology to be real in the story’s world. While it absolutely works as a metaphor for adolescence, visible and invisible differences, and mental illness, I wanted the consequences of this heritage to be real.
KC: In West of the Sea, the mother-daughter relationship is strained because the mother isn’t entirely present for Haven, and she suffers from neglect. Since you’re a mom, was it hard to write about that relationship?
SW: Becoming a mom made me much better at writing this book. I didn’t have my first son until five years into the manuscript. So I was initially writing from my feelings as a daughter whose mother had disappeared emotionally many times in my life, and it was very easy to tap into that hurt, confusion, and loneliness.
A mom in my critique group always added notes like, “The mom should push her hair back here” or “The mom should react to this and tell her how happy she is to have her as a daughter.” Once I became a mom, I found places for tenderness and connection rather than focusing on how Haven felt alone. I also wrestled more honestly with what it meant as a mother to be so mentally unwell that she emotionally or physically neglected her children.
KC: You shared that one of your sons is autistic. Did his diagnosis influence the sensory sensitivities that Margie experiences in the story?
SW: At this time, I’d say he’s neurodivergent rather than autistic simply because he hasn’t received a specific diagnosis. It could be autism, or it could be a few other things. His needs were flagged pretty early in daycare, and after we were evaluated a couple times for early intervention, he began to receive speech therapy. Once he was classified as a preschooler with a disability, he was recommended for occupational therapy and extra support in the classroom.
Like many millennial moms, I learned as much as I could about neurodivergence and sensory processing disorders. This research helped me understand and help my son. Then I began to remember similar experiences I’d had as a child. I had to have enough space in my shoes to cross my toes, or how I wore tights every day, even in Texas summers, because the compression felt good. I remembered how throwing myself physically at my dad or onto the floor was a relief to my nervous system and how I’d hated the smell, lights, and sounds of almost every space we entered. Even my nightmares were often about how terrifying it was to go inside a store.
The details in the book about therapies, treatment, and coping mechanisms come directly from what I learned as a mom, but some of the sensory overwhelm experiences are more personal. Margie’s character is my stand-in in a lot of ways. She’s queer, and I’m bi, but just like with my early childhood “quirks,” I didn’t recognize myself until much later in life than she does.
KC: At the end of West of the Sea, Haven learns that she can’t make her mom happy because her mom has to figure out how to be happy herself. Without revealing the end, can you explain how you arrived at the mother’s choice?
SW: My whole point was that kids shouldn’t ever feel like they are responsible for their parents’ feelings—kids should be taken care of, not the other way around. If Haven had found her mom and “saved” her, that would have contradicted the story’s heart. And the mother chooses her family in the end! But it’s definitely not wrapped up with a bow.
KC: Your background is voice acting. Was it a natural segue into writing? How does your job influence your writing?
SW: I was a writer long before I got into voice acting. I grew up dancing and writing, and then after college, I also began acting. Moving to NYC seemed like a good idea. Once I was here, I began looking for flexible and lucrative work that would support me as an artist and eventually as a mother—’cause I always knew I wanted a family and that I didn’t want to work a nine-to-five. Once I learned about voice acting, I thought audiobooks would be a good fit for me. As it turned out, I was right! I’m very thankful for the way voice-over and audiobooks have given me the flexibility and income I’ve needed as a parent. Since I read everything that I narrate twice (first to prep, second as I perform it), I spend a lot of time thinking about pacing, dialogue, archetypes, power dynamics, the arc of an individual scene, and then the arc of those scenes to make a book.
When I’m narrating another author’s work, my goal is to stay true to their intent. But when I narrated my own book, I knew exactly what each character was feeling. Still, I think you can hear my voice shake on the recording of West of the Sea when I say, “Narrated by the author.” It was such an overwhelmingly wonderful experience. And what a gift! I got to tell my story, in my own words, in my own voice, with full confidence in my ability. I felt like the universe had gotten me to exactly where I was meant to be in that moment.
KC: Where were you in your writing career when you became a mother?
SW: Literally, within a week of finding out I was pregnant, I got an agent. I was launched into another cycle of revisions on my book. I’d done a revise-and-resubmit with Writers House, and after I turned the rewrite in, they were ready to sign me, but with the understanding that there was at least one more round of revisions. But suddenly, because of the pregnancy, I had to find a new apartment, buy all the baby stuff, make more money, and almost completely rewrite my book. AGAIN. It was intense, and I took much longer than I’m sure anyone wanted, but it got done.
KC: What are you working on now?
SW: I’m working on a middle-grade horror novel. I think I called it in an email to my editor “Stepford Wives meets Suspiria, but make it middle-grade.” I’m tapping into a ton of female rage to write about the institutions that would rather we be “nice” than be ourselves and fully human. I also get to write about dance, which is one of my other true loves.
Stephanie Willing: Your book Miracle is a contemporary middle-grade novel about resilience and hope. It follows violinist Amie, who loses her ability to play when her father passes away. And then her sound comes back, which is a miracle. Miracle is a gorgeous, heartbreaking book, with a major focus on child-parent relationships and how they can be different from parent to parent. What made you want to focus on that?
Karen Chow: Originally, I focused the book only on Amie’s relationship with her father, and her overwhelming grief when he’s gone. I think I wrote the first draft that way because I missed my own father so much (he passed when I was 21). It wasn’t until my soon-to-be editor, Christy Ottaviano, suggested that I change the focus to the mother-daughter relationship because the mother is suffering the same grief, and the mother is the one who is supporting Amie. Christy’s feedback was very on-point, and I think Miracle is a much better book because of the shift in focus.
SW: Amie’s father has been sick with cancer for as long as she’s been alive. Her grief when he passes is the true heart of this book, and it thrums with her love for him and the depth of that loss. When kids with a terminally ill or deceased parent read your book, what do you want them to take away from it?
KC: That they’re not alone. Lots of other kids and grownups are dealing with the passing of loved ones. I wanted to emphasize that life will be different without them, but there is always hope.
SW: In Miracle, Amie’s relationship with her mom takes more effort than the one she shared with her father. Amie takes on emotional labor to bridge that gap. I can’t help but think her mom could do more. Since you’re a mom, what would you do if you felt that strain with one of your children?
KC: I would talk about it. I try to create quiet, private moments at home with each of my kids where they know they can tell me anything. I would hope one of them would say something to me if they felt emotionally strained and/or upset.
SW: I really love how Amie always comes back to hope, trying, and searching for harmony. How is that relevant to you as a writer? As a mom?
KC: I feel like publishing is all about hope! Finding that agent, editor, contract, book signing, school visit, etc. There are so many hills and valleys to navigate as a writer, I have to embrace and hold onto the best moments. As a mom, it’s similar but you’re molding the future of human beings and not words. I hold onto the bright, happy, cuddly moments so that the dark days aren’t so awful.
SW: Where were you in your writing career when you became a mother?
KC: I’d been writing for eleven years before I became a mother. I’d already self-published a YA fantasy and was working on the sequel, which took four (maybe five?) more years to complete, and I never did anything with it because . . . babies and writing are a difficult mix! I also learned that self-publishing is not as easy as some authors make it seem. After I shelved the sequel, I thought, let’s try traditional publishing and see what happens. It took years and many drafts of other novels before getting an agent and publisher for Miracle.
SW: Did you always want to be a parent? Did you have a plan as you went into parenting for how to keep writing as a part of your life?
KC: I mostly always expected to have a family, but I didn’t have a plan for how to keep writing a part of my life. I started writing before I had a job, before dating, before marriage and kids. I think I figured I’d keep doing it until I didn’t like it anymore. And then, after kids and divorce, writing became like a sanctuary, an escape. It was/is my happy place! Obviously, the time I’ve spent writing changed, but not my passion for it. I also tried writing middle-grade for the first time, after my oldest was in kindergarten, which was definitely influenced by having an elementary-aged kid.
SW: Your background is in engineering. Was it a natural segue into writing? How does your job influence your writing?
KC: Not a natural segue. Engineering is very exact and precise. Writing fiction is loosey-goosey and free. However, when it comes to editing, my engineering brain kicks in, and I’m very good at breaking things apart to fix (i.e., troubleshooting) and putting them back together.
SW: You’re not just a mom; you’re a single mom! I imagine that makes some things harder and (maybe) makes some things easier. Can you talk about that?
KC: Single-momming makes certain things easier. I share my kids with their dad 50/50, so I get some breathing space when they are with him. However, when the kids are with me, I barely have any creative energy because I’m a hundred percent focused on momming plus I have a full-time job. It’s a weird back and forth of being completely exhausted and having almost too much free time on no-kid days. I’m lucky that my mom helps me with the morning rush, so I can get to work on time. In addition to household errands (the kids still gotta eat), I try to set aside a large portion of the no-kids days for authorly things: answering emails, probing a bookstore/school/library for an author event, actually doing an author event, and definitely writing.
SW: What are you working on now, or what’s next for you as an author?
KC: My next book, still untitled, is another middle-grade novel. It’s about an eleven-year-old girl whose parents are recently divorced (which I pulled a lot from my tween’s POV). The girl claims she’s an artist because her mother is a painter and because she thinks her engineer dad split up the family. But when she’s forced to go to her dad’s engineering job (which is basically my day job) after school, she falls in love with engineering and has to figure out how to reconcile the two halves of herself. It’s scheduled to come out in 2025.