The Resilience of the Human Spirit with Marcy McKay, author of Pennies from Burger Heaven

It doesn’t happen often in life that we meet someone who really changes the way we look at the craft we dedicate our time to, someone who captures and illuminates all the thoughts we believe are singular to ourselves, and someone who lifts us up while sharing their own journey.

For me, Marcy McKay is one of those people, and if you read her publishing credits, you can see why.

From her website:

As seen on: Writer’s Digest, Write to Done, The Write Life, The Write Practice, Jane Friedman, Bestseller Labs, Positive Writer, Writing Forward, and The Change Blog.

Pretty prolific, right? When she’s not guest posting, she’s writing in her blog, creating uplifting challenges for other writers, crafting literary suspense that sucks the marrow from your bones, and in general being a great person.

image of author Marcy McKay

Without further introduction, here’s my interview with this amazing author.

Welcome, Marcy!

Thanks for hosting me, Adan! You and I are perfect examples of strangers connecting online through our love of writing. We’ve never met, but I consider you a friend!

[Adan’s Note: Back atcha, sister. You’ve been such an inspiration and a well of positivity since we met. If anyone hasn’t read Marcy’s posts or taken part in her annual Creative Monsters Challenge, I highly suggest you do so. You’ll love it!]

WARNING! from Marcy: After reading my Q&A, I realized that Pennies from Burger Heaven sounds like total downer of a book, but it’s not! It’s a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and how love conquers all.

Here we go…

Was Copper Daniels inspired by a real child you know or knew?

Copper Daniels is 100% a creation of my imagination. She’s pure fiction, but I can now look back and pinpoint different moments in my life that inspired her:

  • The kids from the Presbyterian Children’s Home I went to junior high and high school with as a teen. They were “at risk” before I knew what that term meant. They weren’t homeless, but I noticed they often wore the same clothes at school and there was a “heaviness” to them.
  • The sweet, grubby faces I saw every Tuesday when I served lunch regularly at a local homeless shelter. It killed me that living on the street was “normal” for them.
  • Years later, I wrote for the Children’s Home magazine (the same group home where my former classmates lived). I interviewed countless kids, like the high schooler who woke up at 5 am every weekday, walked to high school to attend all day, walked 5.5 miles to her job at McDonald’s, then walked home again (it’d be about 1 am by the time she got home). She’d sleep three – four hours (depending on homework), then wake at 5 am to start over. PERSEVERANCE!

image of a teen girl staring into the camera

How’d you create such a realistic homeless child?

Most every parent has experienced this nightmare: You’re shopping at the store with your child and turn around for a split second. Your child is gone. VANISHED!

Your heart races up your throat…you rush around frantic, looking everywhere. It’s the worst feeling, although 99.9% of the time you find your child within moments.

I took that same scenario and flipped it over, the child’s terror in trying to find her missing Mama. In 2008, my kids were eight and eleven, so I knew how ten-year-olds spoke. I started there, then “ghetto’d up” Copper’s voice.

I also watched YouTube videos for mannerisms, details for characters or settings. Google anything and you can find it: homelessness, meth addicts, gangs. That really helped me to “hear” Copper’s voice.

image of a child searching for something on the ground

Lastly, I did lots of “free writing”. I have a spiral notebook that I would ask myself a question about Copper, the plot, etc., then hand write as fast as possible for three solid pages as if Copper was telling me the answer.

I wrote like I was on fire, so I could write faster than the fear: You can’t do this book. Why will anyone care about story told by a kid? You’re not good enough…

Do you or someone you know have personal experience with child abuse, addiction, or homelessness?

Child Abuse – You can’t turn on the news or read the newspaper without coming across these sad realities: CPS taking a child from physically abusive parents, a teen is raped and murdered. I have a couple of girl friends from college who were molested by relatives, but that’s the extent of my personal experience.

Addiction – I didn’t grow up with active addiction, but when I hit my 20’s, I saw the diseases of alcoholism in my extended family and my husband’s family. I spent 10 years in Al-Anon, which taught me so much.

There are a lot of good ol’ fashion drunks who drive Mercedes and are Soccer Moms. They aren’t the same as meth-heads on the street, but pain is pain. Self-medication never helps.

Homelessness – #1 covers that.

Did Copper’s life come from research based on your interest in the far-reaching problem of abuse?


Bleh, I hate research, it’s boring and no fun, but I love me some stories! That’s where all the videos made Copper come alive.

When I started writing Pennies from Burger Heaven, I knew four things about Copper Daniels: 1) she was homeless, 2) she slept beneath the Warrior Angel statue at the cemetery for protection, 3) she and her mama panhandled outside the Burger Heaven restaurant, 4) her mama was missing.

image of a warrior angel statue

I didn’t know if that meant… kidnapped, abandoned her daughter, or what. Like the reader, I wanted to know…what happened?

I didn’t have some bigger message I was trying to convey about homelessness, etc. I didn’t research anything up front, because I didn’t know anything up front.

The more I wrote, the deeper it took me into the dark world of Paradise, then I said: Oh, I need to learn more about homelessness. Oh, I need to learn about meth. Oh, I need to learn about gangs.

What were the hardest scenes to write, and how’d you get through them?

I don’t want spoil the story for folks who haven’t read Pennies yet (shame on you ;)), so I’ll keep my answers vague, but PBH readers will understand. The three most difficult scenes to write were the “Egypt flashback,” “Under the Bed”, and “Moley’s Backseat.”

[Adan’s note: Those scenes were hard to read, too, but were essential to the story. Check out my review here.]

Aren’t those weird descriptions? Anyhoo, I was raised to be a “nice girl”, so all sex scenes are difficult to write. Make it abusive, then it’s even harder.

I had to up-chuck the words onto the page, but they felt true to the story, and not sensationalized. Plus, I lucked out with an eleven-year-old narrator, so I could convey the scene without being graphic.

Not many books written from the point-of-view are as gritty and nail-on-the-head as Pennies. How’d you manage to write in the voice of a child without making it seem shallow or childish?

Thanks for that compliment. Creating a character is like making a new friend. The more time you spend with them, the better you get to know them: She loves tacos. He hates judgmental people.

My literary agent said the key to Pennies’ success was Copper’s voice. I had to make that homeless world come alive for adult readers, through her descriptions, etc.

My agent adored Copper, but thought the plot needed to be taken up several notches. She sent me a 12-page editorial letter and tore my book apart. I cried for days, her suggestions rang true for me, but I didn’t know how to fix my manuscript other than to set aside the 300 pages I had, and rewrite the whole book.

I didn’t let myself look at the old manuscript once in the first draft. It was TORTURE, but I wanted to make Pennies the best book possible, so I did it. I’m so glad I did, too!

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