Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth: An Interview with Author Sheila O’Connor About Penpals and Protests

It’s the Vietnam War and one young girl is determined to save her brother from the draft. In Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth, a new historical novel by Sheila O’Connor, an 11-year-old finds help from an unlikely source and learns the real meaning of devotion and sacrifice.

Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth is told back-and-forth in letters. What inspired this format? What was most challenging about writing a story this way?

I have always loved letters, both for what is said and unsaid depending on the receiver, and the way a letter allows the writer to express private thoughts that wouldn’t get said in person. It’s a bit like a secret note; the letter can be personal and confidential, words meant only for the writer and the receiver while the reader has to eavesdrop.

I’d had a desire to tackle an epistolary novel for years, mostly because I am always in search of new artistic challenges, and the relationship between Reenie Kelly and Mr. Marsworth was perfect for the form. The book is set in 1968 when letters and pen pals were quite common, and most children had a great deal of practice writing letters to relatives and friends.

I didn’t have an official pen pal, and I always wished for one. Still, I was always writing letters to friends and family to share my heart, to connect, to entertain, and I was always waiting impatiently for a letter in return. Email changed that magic for many of us, but I still do love a letter.

Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth is a bit reminiscent of Dear Mr. Henshaw. Was Beverly Clearly an inspiration for you?

It wasn’t until I was well into this book that I read Beverly Clearly’s Dear Mr. Henshaw with respect and delight. I am honored by the comparison.

In truth, the book that most inspired me was Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster. It’s an old novel, published in 1912, but for some reason I read it as a fourth grader in 1968, and fell in love with the epistolary form. It wasn’t a children’s book, and it’s filled with incredibly dated notions, but as a child I was immediately drawn to the power of letters to tell a story.

Years beyond that, there was Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and later The Miracle Letters of T. Rimburg by Geoff Herbach, both adult epistolary novels I admired. In a way, Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth is a gift to that child I was—that fourth-grade child reading Daddy Long Legs and dreaming of the day she’d write a book of letters for someone else to read.

Your novel is so timely right now, a story about war and peaceful opposition. What inspired you to write a story set during the Vietnam War?

I’m a great fan of historical fiction, mostly for the ways it allows us to experience a time and place that’s been lost. At the same time, there are so many things about the past that are present and real today. For instance, Reenie’s awakening as a young activist, her growing sense that she needs to speak out if she wants change, oddly mirrors the recent March for Our Lives movement, and the brave work of countless young activists.

I want my readers to know their lives matter, and their voices can make a difference, and I hope like Mr. Marsworth that a better world will be their work. So yes, the book is both past and presently relevant.

In terms of the war in Vietnam, and the U.S. draft in particular during those years, I wanted readers to consider the challenges that young men and their friends and families faced, and will face again, if a draft is called. The cost of peace. The divisions among families and communities when we stand on separate sides of difficult issues. Again, we’re seeing that today, and young people know it.

I’d love to know more about your writing process, and how the published story differed from your early drafts?

Every book is a mystery to me, and it’s often several drafts in before I understand the story I’m trying to tell.  In the beginning there was Reenie Kelly, and her family, and her problems in the town.  Mr. Marsworth was a very small piece of that story and it was told in a traditional first-person narrative.

Once I’d made the switch to letters, and Mr. Marsworth came alive for me, I had to work through several major revisions to achieve all I wanted with the letter format.  Also, there was the historical research, and the usual plot concerns.  The book had various endings, which I can’t reveal, but the ending that I landed on feels exactly right.

What books did you like to read as a kid?

I was a voracious reader, but there wasn’t the wealth of children’s literature we have today. I loved the Betsy Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace. And of course, The Boxcar Children. And Harriet the Spy.

But mostly, I read the books adults had in their homes: my grandmother’s Agatha Christie novels, for example. In fifth grade, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton rocked my world. It was the first I’d read realistic fiction that reflected my own urban reality. Strangely, I was also a great fan of poetry, such as Robert Frost and e.e. cummings.

What is up next for you? Are there more books coming that we can look forward to? (We hope!)

Right now, I’m working on a new middle grade novel for Penguin; but honestly, it’s too early to reveal much about it. I’m still in the mystery phase. I’m thrilled to say I have an adult novel, V, forthcoming in fall 2019 with Rose Metal Press.

Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth is on B&N bookshelves now.

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