Maggie Lyons of Callao was a winner in this year’s Bulwer-Lytton contest based on the worst opening sentence of a bad novel, but that’s what the Bulwer-Lytton Contest, a whimsical competition, is all about.
Lyons is an accomplished children’s book author, but she said writing the sentence for the contest was fun.
While it’s hard to believe a good author could like writing a bad opening sentence, it’s even harder to believe of a University English department. Since 1982, the English Department at San Jose State University has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (BLFC). The contest is the brainchild of Professor Scott Rice, whose graduate school excavations unearthed the source of the line,”It was a dark and stormy night.”
Sentenced to write a seminar paper on a minor Victorian novelist, he chose Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who coined phrases that have become common in our language: “the pen is mightier than the sword,” “the great unwashed,” and “the almighty dollar.”
Lyons describes herself as being a trapeze artist, astronaut and a spy, then admits she was just kidding, except for the “spy” bit.
That part is true she said.
She does speak three languages, but didn’t elaborate about spying, just said it was lots of fun, a long time ago and in a far off land.
Her middle-class upbringing began in a little coal-mining town in South Wales. One of her earliest memories was of the bombing of England during WWII, when everyone had gas masks. Hers was a little Mickey Mouse mask for little tykes. She hated to wear it because the rubber it was made of smelled so bad she felt she couldn’t breathe. As she grew older, she was “properly” brought up in England where she did English things like attending an all-girls grammar school, playing rounders, doing two hours of homework every day and going on soggy caravan holidays with her family.
Lyons trained as a classical pianist, with thoughts of someday being a concert pianist. “This meant annoying family and neighbors with daily four-hour practices.
“This changed once I grew up,” she said, then admitted she has never actually grown up.
“I experimented with hedonism in Paris, where, among other things, I taught English to very proper French schoolgirls” at Marie Curie, an all girls school.
Later in her career, when she worked for the British Embassy in Romania, she failed to abide by the British Embassy’s social rules. Her job in Bucharest was to appease visiting Royal Ballet dancers.
“If you’ve ever attempted to herd butterflies, you’ll know what I mean,” she said.
“Soon after that I moved to the USA in 1967 because the streets here were supposed to be paved with gold.”
Although the streets weren’t gold, she stayed anyway. In Washington she worked in orchestral management as a publicist for the National Symphony Orchestra. A part of her duties with the orchestra was editing its program notes and fundraising. This gave her access to the Library of Congress, which allowed her to use those facilities for research.
Lyons said the rest of her professional life has been a “regal zigzag through a variety of careers from law-firm media relations to academic editing, all of which entailed a lot of writing and editing.”
Although the work brought her plenty of satisfaction, it didn’t produce the kind of magic that can come from writing fiction and nonfiction for children, she said
“Children’s literature has always fascinated me. My parents read bedtime stories to me when I was a child and I read stories to my son when he was small. All I needed was an excuse to borrow books from the children’s library, and declaring myself to be a children’s writer did the trick,” she said. “Studying the work of great children’s writers gives me the chance to indulge my love of that enchanting mix of innocence, escapism, imagination, and humor that bubbles out of children’s literature.”
Lyon’s articles and poetry have appeared in Stories For Children Magazine and Knowonder! Magazine. Her two adventure stories for children ages seven through twelve, Vin and the Dorky Duet and Dewi and the Seeds of Doom, are published by MuseItUp Publishing (e-books) and Halo Publishing International (paperbacks), available in most bookstores and Kindle.
“Hopefully they inspire children, especially reluctant readers, to turn a page or two,” Lyons said. She now lives in a tranquil cottage setting, on a creek in a fishing and farming community on the Northern Neck of Virginia.