Alameda Bookshelf: Ellen Plotkin Mulholland

Alameda Bookshelf: Ellen Plotkin Mulholland

Kristen Hanlon

Photo by Kristen Hanlon.

Ellen Plotkin Mulholland grew up in San Bernardino. After earning her degree in journalism and English literature at the University of Southern California, she moved to London to write. In 2012, she published her first novel, This Girl Climbs Trees. She lives and teaches in Alameda.

Your second young adult novel, Birds on a Wire, is the saga of three close friends – Jesse, Matt, and Miguel – in the fictional Southern California town of Santa Niña. You grew up in San Bernardino. To what extent did you draw on your memories of your teenage years when writing this story?
Both of my books draw from the area where I grew up, because it’s what I know. In order to protect friendships and family and not make myself look too stupid growing up, it’s all fiction. The backdrop and landscape of Birds on a Wire is very much San Bernardino – that desert heat, that stifling Inland Empire feel of being landlocked. The heat and the landscape add to the plot.

I spent a lot of time at the library as a child, and so the library plays an important role in the book. However our library was not as atmospheric as the one in Santa Niña. We had an orange grove in San Bernardino, and the annual Orange Show Festival, so those details are real.

What brought you to writing young adult fiction? Is there something special about the teenage years that you find inspirational?
First of all, I spend a lot of time around teenagers. I teach middle school, and I’ve been teaching for 24 years. I’ve raised two kids, one who is still a teenager and one who just entered his 20s. That’s my world, so I have a lot of information to draw from. I enjoy that age – it’s the coming-of-age time, of crossing that threshold from being innocent and needing mommy and daddy for everything to wanting to be independent.

There’s so much drama just in being an adolescent. I feel like if you tell the story of some typical adolescents, you’re going to get drama, and you’re going to connect with your readers because they will identify with it.

You’ve been a teacher at Will C. Wood Middle School since 2004. How does your day job affect your writing, and vice-versa? How does being a parent influence your writing?
The first book I wrote, This Girl Climbs Trees, was written 30 years ago when I had just graduated from college and was living in London. Then life started to happen – I came back to California, got married, had kids, and started teaching. I had typed it on a manual typewriter and it was sitting in a Harrod’s bag, stowed away in a drawer. A few years ago I began to have more time on my hands, as my kids were getting older and needed me less. That’s when I went back to that book.

Teaching is kind of a love/hate. It’s where I get a lot my ideas, but it’s tiring, and it can sap your creative juices. When I started writing Birds on a Wire, I began to carve out time for myself. I’d get up early on the weekends, when the house was quiet, and get a cup of coffee to wake me up. Once I created the habit for myself, I felt I could be more creative because I was no longer stressed about finding the time to write.

During the school week, I occasionally have time in the early mornings to write, but I allow myself a pass when I don’t. It’s the weekends, and summer vacations, that are my main writing time.

My kids have been a great influence on my writing. When I wrote This Girl Climbs Trees I hadn’t had children, but when I got back to it all those years later I edited it and made changes to the language in the story based on what I had learned as a mom and a teacher. The other thing that I have to give my kids credit for is the stuff they say. It’s so real and true and it’s stuff I could never make up. I carry a tape recorder in my car and Post-Its with me, and I’ll say “What did you just say?” and write it down. A lot of the language comes from what I hear kids say.

What are you working on now?
The first two books were set in Southern California, but I’ve been living in Alameda for a long time now. This next book is set on a little island town, not unlike Alameda, and it follows a high school freshman, a girl who is having a hard time fitting in. People call her a “freak,” she talks to herself, she hears voices, and she is kind of searching for herself. My books focus on self-discovery, self-acceptance, and self-empowerment. These are big themes in adolescence.

This girl has never met her father, so she’s in search of him. She does some things that are not legal. There’s a lot of opportunity for the characters to test out their moral compass, and I enjoy that part of it. We make mistakes as teens – and as adults – and the joy of writing a story is to let the reader make a connection with a character who makes a mistake and think, “I’ve done that! That’s not so bad, actually.”

Any advice for would-be writers of young adult fiction?
Write! Don’t throw anything away. I don’t read young adult fiction, but I read a lot. I love Stephen King, he’s a great storyteller. No matter what you want to write, you need to make a habit of it. You need to love it and not make it a chore. And you need to read a lot to discover what kind of a writer you are, what your genre is. I don’t know if I hadn’t spent a lot of time around teenagers if I’d be able to write young adult fiction, but we’ve all been teenagers so we have that experience to draw upon. You need to write what you know.

Excerpts from Ellen Plotkin Mulholland’s books can be found on her website: She will be participating in the Indie Author Book Fair at The Hub in Oakland on December 12. Details are at