Anthony Manna discusses his love for inspiring kids to become better readers and writers. He also shares his passion for reading, connecting with other authors, and tirelessly working on his writing skills. Parents and educators should check out Anthony’s website where there are games and activities to help kids enjoy reading.
RL: Have you been inspired by any teachers in your life and why?
AM: The first teacher who motivated me to be honest about my writing was a priest in the seminary I attended right after I graduated from high school. He was into teaching writing processes, by which I mean he didn’t just assign us—his students—a topic and send us off to write. Rather, he led us step-by-step through a series of activities relevant to a particular assignment. He helped develop our confidence by demonstrating and modeling writing techniques before inviting us to explore and practice the techniques on our own. He was demanding and deeply concerned with our development, and he illustrated his concern by thoroughly reading and critiquing his students’ drafts and finished pieces. What I learned from that teacher would serve me well as I moved through my experiences as a student and later as a university researcher who was required to write competitively in juried journals.
Another great influence on my writing life was my father. He penned a weekly article about sports in a New Jersey newspaper. I never received direct instruction from him about writing. What I did receive was a model of discipline as he got to work several days a week composing, editing, and meeting his deadline, all of his writing done on a manual typewriter. The sound of those clicking keys have remained with me over the years, reminding me of the need to avoid procrastination and get to work. He taught me that writing is drafting. That getting the writing into a first, second, third draft means that you’re on your way to getting it right. I remember the sigh of relief I and my siblings and my mother felt when my Daddy was ready to deliver his article to his editor. The discipline, the drafting, and the joy of the accomplishment taught me about a writer’s life. I draw on those memories to keep me aware of the processes writing sustains.
Believe me or not, academic—researched—writing in a university environment helped me to develop skills such as clarity, succinctness, logic, voice, and reportage that keeps readers interested—and awake. These are skills I developed over time with help from colleagues who often served as first draft readers and/or actually collaborated on writing the several books—and many research articles— about multicultural literature, teaching strategies, educational drama, and approaches to teaching writing that kept me busy during my 30-year career as a university professor.
That career included my role as the university’s Co-Director of the National Writing Project, a program based in Berkeley, CA, with sites in universities across the country. Each summer, the National Writing Project team invited about 30 K-grade 12 teachers to participate in a graduate-level intensive that involved them in learning all sorts of teaching strategies for helping their students develop confidence and skills as writers. As a team member, I was responsible for demonstrating and modeling strategies, techniques, and assignments (remembering that priest who did the same). I served as a writer among teacher writers. We wrote for and to one another. And I kept developing as a writer due to our honest and kind and constructive critiquing. In one of my assignments, I shared a children’s story I was working on that would later become my award-winning co-authored picture book, The Orphan: A Cinderella Story from Greece.
I joined a writers’ critique group a few years ago, and it has turned into a genuine life-changing, writer-changing experience. The group consists of six writers, most of us published, and all of us working on pieces that range from dystopian and middle-grade novels to picture books. We meet twice monthly, and each time we gather, we bring pages for the member to read and critique. Scary? Hell, yes. Vulnerable? Hell, yes. Helpful? Enormously. Not only do you hear responses to your own work, but also to the work of others. It’s a wide learning curve—once again leading the way to essential technique, craft, skill, honesty, and all that comes with nice folks gently, constructively helping each other out in a grand collaboration.
RL: What inspired you to become a story writer?
AM: I ventured into writing stories because of my experience in a kindergarten in Greece. I had gone to Greece on a grant from my university. The grant directed me to teach and conduct research in the education department at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece. What better way to learn about Greek culture than in a school. Into a kindergarten I went to collaborate with two very fine Greek teachers whose English language skills allowed them to help me navigate life in their classroom. When story-time rolled around each day, these kids stepped into the worlds of myths I was very familiar with. Worlds inhabited by Zeus, Demester, Atlas, Helios, Athena, Artemis, Icarus and other personages in that population of intriguing characters.
But then I found myself in a fascinating story world filled with giants, rival step-parents, charming princes and princesses, struggling brothers, nasty goblins, mysterious asking spirits, and the like. These stories were Greek folk and fairy tales. With a Greek colleague, I researched these stories, translated them into English, and reimagined them for English speakers. That launched the Greek Folklore Project and my debut as a story writer.
RL: What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
AM: This is the kind of question kids like to ask when I visit them in their schools. They also want to know what’s the easiest thing about writing. I address both of their concerns by sharing slides of several drafts of a few sections of a story I’m working on or one that’s already been published. When I show students phases of my process, many tell me out in their follow-up thank-you notes that they are surprised to find out that a published writer goes through many drafts before feeling that the story is ready to be published. I don’t mean to scare them off by implying that the process is utterly painful. Rather, I want them to know if your goal is to publish any kind of writing, you are going to try to make it as polished as you can make it. The joy of all this hard work is knowing you’ve come to the place where you feel you’ve given the writing your best effort and now you want to send it out to hear what readers have to say about it. I tell them that I”m a member of a writers group which means that I share short pieces of my writing while I’m working on drafts of a story. The other members do that, as well. We read each group members writing and respond to it. I know for sure that my writing has improved because these writers are honest in their critiques. Not mean, mind you. Simply honest. And specific about what might be done to improve the pieces they read.
(An aside. Imagine the confidence and skill teachers would help student writers develop if they used a writers group model as a way to open the door to the challenge and satisfaction of writing. Their students would begin to experience the energy, honesty, and skill that they can draw on to compose writing product they can be proud of. Now I know many teachers who have opted for training in the writers group model. As I pointed out in another section of this interview, I know many of these teachers well because they participated in a writing-intensive summer workshop that I co-directed at the university that employed me. I also visited them in their classrooms where I collaborated with them in developing sensible and sensitive writing activities based on the writers group model. It works!)
I also tell students that during my school visits that my challenge is to trust myself as a writer once I start the process. I struggle to step away from those pesky inner voices which tell me the writing is bad or too simple or utterly uninteresting. Whenever these voices talk to me, I tell them, “Don’t disturb me. You’re not my business anymore. Leave me alone.” Sometimes that works. When it does, I move on, staying with the process and always reminding myself that writing is rewriting, that drafts are rough, and that if I keep working at it, something satisfying may emerge. I often hear folks talk about inspiration as a way to get motivated. Sorry, but I must say that if I waited around for inspiration to visit me like some magical muse, I’d never get a word written. Discipline is what gets me to my computer to write. I need to discipline myself to keep writing. I need to concentrate. I need blocks of undisturbed time. That’s just the way it is for me.
RL: How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?
AM: Have you ever heard of the “publish or perish”challenge professors must deal with throughout their careers at a university? During my many years as a prof, I was required to either publish or perish, either engage in a research project, write about their process and results, and send them to journals and magazines that would either publish or reject them. And so it went for many years. That I kept my university job is proof that I was successful at going the research publish route.
As an academic writer, I published several books—and many articles— about multicultural literature, teaching strategies, educational drama, and approaches to teaching writing.
As a story writer, I have co-authored two picture book Mr. Semolina-Semolinus: A Greek Folktale and The Orphan: A Cinderella Story from Greece. I also co-authored Folktales from Greece: A Treasury of Delights, which contains twenty stories, a good amount of material about Greece’s history and its folklore and folk and fairy tales, illuminated by full-color Greek culture photographs. I went solo with Loukas and the Game of Chance, a, illustrated folktale-inspired fantasy for middle grade and middle school readers. My favorite story is always the one I’m working or the one I recently finished. Currently, that would be Loukas and the Game of Chance. It’s about loss, separation, struggle, and Loukas’s journey to try to win back his identity and all that he loves and treasures from Destiny, Moon, and Sun.
RL: Where do you get the information or ideas for your book from?
AM: That’s a great question. So far, my books are reimagined folk and fairy tales. These stories inspire me with their rich themes, exotic settings, complex and often strange characters, intriguing conflicts, explorations of human nature, and mostly satisfying endings. As a writer, I like the challenge of taking a brief tale and shaping it into a story that entertains as much as it explores life’s mysteries, struggles, challenges, temptations, problems, and relationships. You see, these ancient folk and fairy tales have been passed down through generations of storytellers. No one “owns” them in the sense that no particular storyteller—or story writer—has the exclusive right to claim the story as their own. Each ancient tale is like a story waiting to happen or re-happen. Any teller or writer can reimagine a tale, making it their own, changing it to fit certain values or beliefs, refreshing the plot and all that other elements and characteristics that make a story come alive. I’m a writer who moves deeply into a folk or fairy tale I’m attracted to and reimagines it according to my sense—my vision—of what the tale reveals to me about life and living. The labor of developing authentic characters in space and time conflicting, struggling, losing, winning—whatever characters do to live a life and survive—or not—fascinates me.
With my most recent book, Loukas and the Game of Chance, I reimagined a Greek tale of loss, struggle, and the search for redemption into a middle grade/middle school fantasy, which draws on some characteristics of the source tale, but moves into story territory far beyond the source’s economic narrative.I invented characters and situations that turn the tale into a full-bodied fantasy driven by suspense.
RL: What are you working on these days?
AM: I am working on two stories. Anthousa Xanthousa Chrisomalousa (a young female character’s name) is a variation of Rapunzel. The Imposter is a tale of deception, intrigue, and the struggle the main character engages in as he tries to salvage his true identity from his enemy who stole it. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I’m developing a picture book biography of a late artist/friend whose paintings, drawings, and inventive constructions are receiving the recognition they well deserve.
What advice would you give other authors who are just starting out?
AM- What books do you like to read? Mystery, suspense, realism, poetry, romance, short stories, humorous stories, plays, fantasy, science fiction, picture books, teen novels? Read your favorite genres. A lot. But also reach out and read beyond your comfort zone. Read the way a writer reads, noticing craft in styles, characterization building, plot structure, dialogue management, types of poetry, ways to develop suspense, mystery, surprise, and voice. To help you read as a writer reads, get hold of good books that help writers to develop their craft. Books like Leap Write In: Adventures in Creative Writing and Rip the Page: Adventures in Creative Writing —both wonderfully interactive guides by Karen Benke. Find guidance in Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence by William Kenower and The Writing Warrior: Discovering the Courage to Free Your True Voice.
About Anthony L Manna
Anthony L. Manna draws on his experiences and passion as an award-winning educator of fifty years to inspire kids and teens to become confident, skilled, and happily motivated readers and writers. He has taught in schools and universities in Turkey, Greece, Albania, and the United States where he immersed kids, teens, and young adults in powerful multicultural books and entertaining, action-packed activities to help them enjoy the discoveries about themselves and others that great books and their own writing can encourage them to explore. Manna is the award-winning author of Mr. Semolina-Semolinus: A Greek Folktale, The Orphan: A Cinderella Story from Greece, and Greek Folktales: A Treasury of Delights. Loukas and the Game of Chance, a middle-grade fantasy, will be available in October, 2019, wherever books are sold.
Anthony L. Manna’s first collaboration with Soula Mitakidou, Mr. Semolina-Semolinus: A Greek Folktale, illustrated by Giselle Potter, was an ALA-ALSC Notable Book, a Marion Vannett Ridgway Award winner, and a New York Public Library Best Book for Children. Another collaboration of theirs, The Orphan: A Cinderella Story from Greece, illustrated by Giselle Potter, was a Bank Street College of Education Best Book of 2012. They also collaborated on the anthology, Folktales from Greece: A Treasury of Delights. Anthony has worked with children and teens in drama and storytelling; has been an actor, director of children’s theater, vehicle repossessor, and janitor; and has taught in schools and universities in Turkey, Greece, Albania, and the United States. He divides his time between Ohio and Arizona.