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Mary Cecilia Jackson | 20 Questions: SPARROW

March 20, 2020

1–What’s the name of your latest release?


2–What is it about? 

Sparrow is the story of Savannah Darcy Rose (“Sparrow”), a gifted seventeen-year-old ballerina who suffers physical abuse at the hands of her boyfriend. It’s also about her friend and dance partner, Lucas, who serves as a second POV character. He’s been secretly in love with Sparrow for years and tries hard to be a strong ally for her, while facing a tragedy of his own.

3–What word best describes your protagonist? 


4–What is the most interesting thing you discovered about your protagonist while writing this book? 

I knew that Sparrow would be filled with grief and despair after her boyfriend’s violent assault; what I also discovered was the depth and breadth of her rage.

5–Who are the people your main characters turn to when they need help?

Sparrow’s lifelong creed has always been, “I am not the kind of girl who tells,” so she internalizes her fear and pain and refuses to admit to anyone that her boyfriend is hurting her, until it’s too late. Lucas confides in his mother and his friends, especially Delaney, who is Sparrow’s best friend.

6–What do you love about the setting of your book?

Sparrow is set in Virginia and North Carolina, both places I love and know well. I grew up in Virginia and went to college at Virginia Tech, which is nestled high in the Blue Ridge mountains. Now I live in Western North Carolina, overlooking Pisgah National Forest. The breathtaking beauty of those mountains, the sweet, fresh air, and the huge starry sky are everything that’s home to me, so it seemed natural to set my story there.

7–Are you a plotter (follow an outline) or a pantser (write by the seat of your pants)?

Truthfully, kind of both. For early drafts of Sparrow, I had a super-vague outline, and I pantsed most of the writing. Once I started working with Susan Chang, my editor at Tor Teen, I created long, detailed outlines, because the work was incredibly intense, and I needed that structure to help me manage the intricacies of revisions, edits, and the creation of new material.

8–What is an ideal writing day for you?

Up at 6:00, coffee with my husband, a four-or five-mile walk, home for a shower and a green smoothie, at my desk by 9:30. I like to write until 3:00-ish, then do emails and plan for the next day.

9–Do you listen to music while you write, need total silence, or do you have the TV on? 

Most of the time, I need total silence.  If I’m writing a difficult, super emotional scene – for instance, the assault scene in Sparrow, or the last five pages of the book – I’ll play movie scores or classical music in the background. I wrote the last scene of Sparrow to the End Credits from Castaway, and when I was plotting out the scene where Sparrow is found unconscious and rushed in an ambulance to the emergency room, I heard the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem in my head. I wrote to that.

10–How do you approach research?  

I love research and learning new things! I do a lot online, but I also order books and pore over them, highlighting and underlining important passages. I talk to people when I can. For example, I called the Office of the Commandant at the Citadel to ask what cadets wear at graduation, and I met with a ballet teacher in San Antonio to make sure the dance scenes were accurate.

11–What is your publishing journey story? 

It took seven years from the day I wrote the first line of the first draft to the day Sparrow was released. I spent a year writing that first draft, then I did revisions before I queried agents.  After I signed with Emerald City Literary, I did two rounds of revisions with my agent, then went out on two rounds of submission. Once I signed my contract with Tor Teen, I spent almost two years working with my editor, rewriting and revising.

12–Do you have critique partners/writing groups you want to give a shout-out to?

I don’t have critique partners or writing groups, but I’d love to give a shout-out to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I did manuscript consultations at several of those conferences, both in New York and Los Angeles. Those (puke-on-my-shoes-terrifying!) consultations with professionals changed my writing life.

13–What are the most frustrating things about being an author?

I honestly don’t find anything frustrating about being an author! Sometimes things didn’t happen as quickly in the publishing world as I would have liked, but it’s like that for every writer on the planet, and I had to learn to chill myself out. My writing sustains me and feeds my soul, and having the opportunity to work with Susan Chang – and then the entire Tor Teen/Macmillan team – has been the most profoundly joyful  professional experience of my life.

14–What’s your favorite scent?

The sea, always and forever.

15–What movie will you watch no matter what if it’s on TV?

The Birdcage, with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. I’ve seen it eleventy-million times, and it still makes me laugh so hard I cry. The scene in the kitchen, OMG.

16–Do you like breakfast, lunch, or dinner best? 

Lunch, definitely. 

17–What’s one thing you wish you knew more about?

I grew up listening to classical music with my father, and recently I’ve been obsessed with everything Monteverdi.  I’d like to learn more about him and immerse myself in his major compositions. I used to sing in a big choir, and my love for choral music – particularly early sacred music – has only heightened over the years.

18–What’s the silliest thing you’ve recently done? 

I make up voices and personalities for inanimate objects. Our dishwasher is cranky, the eggs in the fridge are really needy, and everything in the freezer is aggressive and threatening. (“Don’t make me thaw, bro.”)  Lately, the seventy-five pole-bean plants that my husband and I planted have taken on a life of their own. They all speak in a tiny little bean voice and say things like, “We are soooo smol, but soon we will be mighty!” 

19–What can readers expect from you next?

I’d like to know the answer to that, too! Right now I’m laser focused on Sparrow, my book tour, and all the reading and writing I have to do in advance of that. I have another YA novel in its (very) early stages and about a hundred pages of an epistolary novel I adore and worked on whenever Sparrow revisions were out with my editor. When things calm down a bit, I’ll figure out what speaks to me.

20–How can readers reach you?

On Twitter @marycjackson, through my website,, and on Instagram @mceciliajackson.

SPARROW by Mary Cecilia Jackson


In the tradition of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, a devastating but hopeful YA debut about a ballerina who finds the courage to confront the abuse that haunts her past and threatens her future.

There are two kinds of people on the planet. Hunters and prey
I thought I would be safe after my mother died. I thought I could stop searching for new places to hide. But you can’t escape what you are, what you’ve always been.
My name is Savannah Darcy Rose.
And I am still prey.

Though Savannah Rose–Sparrow to her friends and family–is a gifted ballerina, her real talent is keeping secrets. Schooled in silence by her long-dead mother, Sparrow has always believed that her lifelong creed–“I’m not the kind of girl who tells”–will make her just like everyone else: Normal. Happy. Safe. But in the aftermath of a brutal assault by her seemingly perfect boyfriend Tristan, Sparrow must finally find the courage to confront the ghosts of her past, or lose herself forever. . .

Young Adult [Tor Teen, On Sale: March 17, 2020, Hardcover / e-Book, ISBN: 9780765398857 / eISBN: 9780765398857]

About Mary Cecilia Jackson

Mary Cecilia Jackson
Mary Cecilia Jackson has worked as a middle school teacher, an adjunct instructor of college freshmen, a technical writer and editor, a speechwriter, a museum docent, and a development officer for central Virginia’s PBS and NPR stations. Her first novel, Sparrow, was an honor recipient of the SCBWI Sue Alexander Award and a young-adult finalist in the Writers’ League of Texas manuscript contest. She lives with her architect husband, William, in Western North Carolina and Hawaii, where they have a farm and five ridiculously adorable goats.


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