Article, Author Interviews, Book Resources

Jane Yolen Interview Transcript

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

The author was interviewed by Scholastic students.

When did you start writing?
I started writing in first grade, but of course I wasn't writing professionally in first grade! I sold my first book on my 22nd birthday. That book was Pirates in Petticoats, and it was about women pirates.

What was the first story you can remember writing? What was it about?
The very first thing that I remember writing, because my mother kept it for years, was a poem. It was a terrible poem, but she loved it. I was probably in first grade, but maybe even kindergarten. But then, in either first or second grade, the teacher gave us an assignment to create our own world. And I drew on a big piece of posterboard, a big candy cane island. And I wrote a song that went with it, which I can't sing to you right now, but the words go like this: . There is Santa Claus's summer home, and Jack Frost lives there too. . .And that's all I remember. So, that was a big improvement over my first poem. But I didn't write stories until much, much later. I wrote the class play in first or second grade, and the music and lyrics — we were all some kind of vegetable. I played the lead carrot — I was always an overachiever, and the finale was a big salad!

What attracts you to writing about myths and folklore?
I've always, since I was a kid, loved to read myths and fairy tales. And also, my father, who played the guitar (very badly), used to sing folk songs to us. So, those two things combined, early on — reading folktales and singing folk songs — they became a tremendous influence in my life. So, that's where the idea of folktales, and myths, and fantasy come from, originally.

What's the difference between a myth and a folktale?
Well, if you have time, I will write you an entire book about that. But, in the short term, a myth has more to do with the religion of a people. And a folktale is a smaller, more homey kind of story that may have magic in it, may have mythological parts to it, but may not. So, one is a story told by the fireplace, and the other is the religious underpinnings of a people.

What do you think is the best thing about writing?
Finding out how the story's going to end. That's it — I'm the first reader of any new Jane Yolen book. Most of the time, I do not know how something will end — I know how it begins, and I want to find out how it's going to end.

Is it difficult to teach writing?
I've taught writing for years. But I find it difficult to teach someone who does not want to write, to write. I usually teach people who are desperate to learn to write, or people who are already good writers and just need a little more pushing and polishing.

Do you ever read your own books later for fun?
Oh, goodness no! I may read them if I'm giving a reading, I may storytell them. But there are so many books out there I've never read, that I want to read those. And besides, and if I read my own books later, it's not fun at all, because I just want to rewrite them! My 13 year old would rather experience magic and myth through video games. How can I encourage them to get it through reading? Well, you might start with books that are attached to, in some ways, those video games. For example, a Xena novel or a Dungeons & Dragons novel. Not the greatest writing, not great literature, but it's a start.

Out of all the different genres you write in, do you have a favorite?
Whatever I'm working on now — that's my favorite. Right now, I'm deep into a historical novel, but next week, if I'm working on a book of poems, I love poetry. And if the week after that, I'm working on a picture book, boy, I love picture books, etc, etc.

Do you keep a journal or diary?
In my entire life, I've never been able to keep a journal, until I decided to make it into a book. Then last June, I started writing something called Telling the True: A Writer's Year. And I've kept it faithfully. And it's the only time I've ever managed it. But it's really more about what I'm writing than about my family. Mostly it's about the process of writing.

Do you travel to other states or countries to research your books?
Well, first of all, I travel a lot. Second of all, I live part-time in Scotland. So the answer is yes, yes, and yes! Sometimes I get an idea because I'm in a country. Sometimes I go someplace because I'm working on a book. Mostly my travel takes place in Scotland and Europe, or traveling to give speeches all around America.

How do you work with the people who illustrate your books? Do you give them suggestions for the artwork?
Most of the time, you don't get to meet with them. Sometimes you never meet them. The story has to tell them what to do — not me. Just as they don't tell them what to write, I don't tell them what to draw.

What were your favorite books as a child?
Well, I read everything as a child. So I can only give you a few things that I loved. I loved the Andrew Lang fairy books. I loved anything Louisa May Alcott wrote.
I loved anything Robert Louis Stevenson wrote. I read every horse and dog book that ever existed, every book about King Arthur that ever existed. I love Charlotte's Web, The Wind in the Willows, The Back of the North Wind, The Secret Garden, Make Way for Ducklings, Ferdinand — the list goes on and on and on. I just read a lot!

When you're writing a book, does the story line ever take a turn you didn't expect?
Almost always.

How do you start to write a book?
Well, there are many different ways. It's a little bit like asking where you get your ideas from. Sometimes a line or a paragraph is in my head, sometimes a title. Sometimes a character kind of partway formed or bit of dialogue comes into my mind. Sometimes I'm reading something else like history, and there is a wonderful idea. Here's an example: I was in Scotland, at Stirling Castle, and there was a plaque that said “Mary Queen of Scots had three female jesters.” “Oh wow!” I thought — who were they? What did they do? What were their names? Very little is known about them. All we know is that there were three of them, they were on the castle rolls, one was named Jardiniere, one was named Lafolle, and one was called Governance, or “governess.” And so I thought, “here's a story, here's a novel” — we know so much about Mary Queen of Scots and her history, why not tell her story from the point of view of one of the fools. That book came out this past spring, called Queen's Own Fool. So there's an instance that I saw something — it was a character, and it made me want to write her story.

How does it feel when you've finished a book?
It's a little bit like giving birth — you're done, you count toes and fingers, you breathe a sigh of relief, and then the real worries start.

Why did you move to Scotland?
Wouldn't you?

Did you daydream as a child?
I still daydream.

When you start a story, do you create the characters or the plot first?
Almost always the characters, and they tell me their story, which is the plot. But I rarely know the plot before I've written it.

Do you have a special place where you write?
In my house in Massachusetts — it's up on the 3rd floor — I have the entire attic, which I call the aerie, which means an eagle's nest. In Scotland, I have part of a family room, which used to be the old billiards room, when our house was part of the mansion. It's now been split into two houses, and we have the smaller part, but the prettier part.

Do you ever get writer's block?
I never get writer's block because I write on a number of things at the same time. So that if one thing is not going well, I turn to another.

What kind of schools did you attend as a child? Were they small, traditional? Did you like school?
I went to P.S. 93 in Manhattan through sixth grade — very traditional. I went to Hunter Junior High School for seventh and eighth grade — you had to test to get into it. So you were getting sort of elite seventh and eighth graders, all girls. Then we moved to Connecticut, and I went to Staples High School — a traditional high school, but of very high caliber. For college, I went to Smith College, one of the Seven Sisters, an all-women's college. I actually enjoyed all of my schools.

As a child, did you practice expanding your vocabulary, or did it just happen as you read more books? Were there any influential people in your life who emphasized the importance of proper English?
My parents were both readers and they were both writers, so the idea of reading being important was part of my growing up. Also, TV wasn't invented until I was almost a teenager at least, we didn't have a television I didn't even see a television until I was 11 years old. So, the habit of reading came early, and the love of writing did too. I've never done any vocabulary-expanding exercises, because I was reading adult books when I was 9 and 10 years old. There was no such thing as “young adult” literature when I was growing up. You went from children's to adult literature no training wheels.

In Armageddon Summer, why were Jed and Maria thinking differently in each chapter? So, why did you write it like that?
Because Bruce Coville and I were writing it together, we decided to have him do the boy's voice and me do the girl's. (It was Marina, not Maria.)

What's the strangest myth you've ever heard?
Not for public consumption! Some of them are pretty, pretty strange.

How many books have you written?
Over 200. And if they want to go to my Web site and see them all, it's http://www.janeyolen.com/.

Why do we need to write down stories? What did people do before there were books and printing presses?
There were still stories — they were told orally and passed on and people had better memories then. But we still have oral storytellers — I do oral storytelling, for example. But as good as our memories used to be, they weren't good enough to remember all the stories. So isn't it wonderful that we have a way of keeping them. Otherwise, they'd all be gone forever.

How has the Internet affected your career as a writer?
In some ways it makes me more accessible to my fans — this is good news and bad news. I do not yet trust the Internet for real research because in many instances I have no way of finding out if the research there is reasonable or accurate or true. But with my own Web site, my fans or people who want to research about me will get the straight scoop.

Do you think the Internet will affect the way we tell and pass along stories?
Yes. But again, good news bad news. Some is good in that we can connect with people all around the world. But some of it, and we have to learn to control it properly, is like Napster. Where they were stealing things that were written by people. I have found some of my stories and poems on the Internet without my permission, without payment, without my name attached to it — if that keeps happening, then people like me will have to stop writing. Because I make my living as a storyteller — and if people steal things from me, I can't afford to do it anymore.

Do you think today's child is forced to grow up too soon?
Yes. I have grandchildren. I see certain things on TV or in books or in movies that I think are pushing ideas and concepts too soon onto them. I have to trust that their home life and their good common sense will win out in the end.

Do you have a favorite passage from one of your books?
No. It's dangerous to fall in love with one's own words.

Do you come up with the titles before or after you write your books?
Both ways. Sometimes the editor suggests a title — sometimes we argue about a title until the last minute. And sometimes a title suggests a book.

Do you have a favorite saying or motto?

Are you working on any new books now?
I'm always working on new books. Right now I'm deep into a historical novel. I'm working on a book of poems with my son, who is a photographer. My daughter and I are working on our fourth book of our unsolved mysteries from history series, which will be about the Salem Witch Trials. I just finished revising a short story called “Centaur Field” for a Bruce Coville anthology. And I'm waiting for a revision letter for a novel called The Bagpiper's Ghost, and I'll start revising that when my editor sends me his comments. And a music book with my other son, who is a musician. That's what I'm actively working on right now. And of course, the journal.

Do you ever think about becoming something else other than a writer?
Not anymore. I'm 61! But when I was younger, I wanted to be a ballet dancer, at another point I wanted to own a horse ranch, or be a lawyer. I have been an editor, a journalist, and a college professor. But I'm very happy now with my four jobs — I'm a writer, I'm a wife, I'm a mother, and I'm a grandmother.

What did you study in college?
I majored in English, and I minored in Religion and Russian Studies.

What is your favorite book that you have not written?
That question can mean two things — the favorite book of mine that I have not written yet. One is a Guinivere book for young adults, and one is an adult book about the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, which was a group of painters in England in the 19th century. My favorite book that I wish I had written — there are about a dozen of those. Sarah, Plain and Tall (Patricia MacLachlan), The Jungle Book (Rudyard Kipling), The Secret Garden (Francis Burnett), The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahme), Beauty (Robin McKinley), Catherine, Called Birdy (Karen Cushman), Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson), The Sword and the Stone (E.B. White), The White Deer (James Thurber) — and that's only a start!

Is there anything else you would like to say to your readers?
Writing is like any athletics or dancing — it has to be practiced every day because otherwise the writing muscle goes flabby. But unlike dancing or athletics, you can be a writer, young middle-aged, or old. The more you do, the better you get. A writer doesn't run out of ideas — a writer runs out of time.

  • Subjects:
    Achievement and Success, Arts and Creativity, Creativity and Imagination, Pride and Self-Esteem
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