Author Interviews, Book Resources

Virginia Hamilton Interview Transcript

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

The author was interviewed by Scholastic students.

What kind of stuff do you like to write the most?
Well, I think fiction is the hardest and most fun to write. The folktales are easier to do, but I enjoy writing novels the most - even though they're harder. When you're doing a novel, you have to create the whole story, whereas when you're doing a folktale, you're dealing with material that's already in existence.

Which books were the hardest, easiest, and most fun for you to write?
I think the hardest book for me to write was M. C. Higgins, the Great. The easiest is probably the one that's coming out in fall of 1999 called Bluish. It's my 20th novel - it may be my last! The most fun, well, I'd probably say the newest was the most fun, too.

How do you know when one of your books will be interesting to other people?
When I get excited, then I think that the book will be interesting to other people. I think I'm a normal, typical American, so when I get interested and excited I think everyone else will too.

What do you think you do best as a writer?
Very good question. I think I develop character and plot very well. Those are my strong points. Gee, I just think I write novels very well!

Have you written an autobiography?
No, I haven't. I've been asked that a lot lately, and I've been thinking about it. But I've never written it.

Have you ever written poetry?
My husband's a poet, and I think he does it a lot better than I could!

Why did you become a children's writer?
I think because I've always written, from the time I was a child, and it was something that stayed with me throughout my entire educational life. Although I did other things, too, I always came back to writing. In college, I studied writing, and I really felt that it would be possible for writing to be a fine career for me. Writing children's books was a happy accident. . . . I simply wrote, and I had a friend who worked at a publishing house who submitted one of the stories I'd written in college to the children's editor. And that became my first book, Zeely.

Did people encourage you to write?
Oh, yes. I always had great encouragement from teachers and from my family. I think I was the one whom everyone thought would be the chronicler, the one who wrote things down. My sister was a journalist, and my father wrote poetry, which was interesting.

What did you read when you were a kid?
I read everything from a very early age - I would win prizes in elementary school for having read the most books in a summer program, and for being able to tell the teachers what they were all about. I loved winning prizes, because the award was usually a beautifully colored book. And those kinds of books were not easy to come by when I was a child! I read Nancy Drew - I think every child at that time read that series - she was a wonderful character who solved mysteries. She had her own convertible automobile, and she was very independent and ahead of her time! So I loved those books, and I read them all when I was in school.

What did it feel like to win the Newbery Medal and the Hans Christian Andersen Award?
Those were almost overwhelming experiences! Many years apart, but still very overwhelming. Winning the Newbery Medal and speaking at a gala of 2,000 people in San Francisco was the highlight of my career. And winning the Hans Christian Andersen Award, and flying to Berlin to accept it - that was very exciting.

Do you know why your books that have won awards have won those awards?
Yes, I know why they won the awards. I think it's because they're very good and somewhat unusual and express a lot of detail and cultural learning for young people. And they have very strong plots. I generally agree with the award-winning books - M. C. Higgins, and The House of Dies Drear.

What writing tips would you give to children who want to become writers?
My writing tips for anybody are to observe people. I do a lot of people watching. At a very early age I realized that what people were talking about may not be seen in the expression on their faces. I learned that what you say is not necessarily what you mean, by watching your body language. So, observation can help to make characters very real.

Also, I would advise a student who loves to write to write something every day, if only for 15 minutes. Try to describe yourself and members of your family and your room and where you live on paper. And before you know it, you have a story - writing every day allows that to happen, that opening up of yourself. And try to read as much as you can. When you read, you learn that stories have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Every time you tell something to a friend, you start somewhere. And as you become aware of that, that's how you learn to write.

Are any of your characters based on you and your experiences?
Yes, they're all based on me because they all come out of me. They come from what I see around me and what I think. It's not that I'm copying somebody exactly. I might take somebody's laughter or anger and make somebody new. You take things out of your memory and combine it with facts and imagination. That will make for something and somebody new. That's what I call the "writing triad" - the known, the remembered, and the imagined, which is fact, memory, and imagination all combined in some way, to create something that has never been there before.

Which one of your characters is most like you?
Oh, dear, that's difficult. I think maybe Cammy, from Cousins, is like me, and Thomas Small in The House of Dies Drear. I am all of these characters, so they're all like me in one way or the other!

How do you come up with names for your characters?
You know, that's an interesting question. It's unanswerable. It seems to me that when I create the character the name happens. I never heard of Buhlaire. It happens that way with most of my books. I don't know from where the name Zeely came from for my first book. It seems to just happen when I create the characters. Like the name, Bluish comes out of the definition of the character. I don't even think about it, really. It just seems to work.

Why did you write Cousins?
Well, Cousins seemed to be a natural, because I come from a large, extended family here in Ohio, and I have many cousins. So I know from experience how cousins are great friends one day and not speaking to each other the next. It was a very dynamic subject, and I felt that it would be a very popular one.

Who is your favorite character in Cousins?
I think Cammy is my favorite character - I chose her as the main character. The others have a lot to them - Patty Ann - I think she was very well-drawn. I try to be fair to my characters. I like to write well-rounded characters. And although Cammy is the main character, she has certain failings as well.

Do you do research for your books?
I do research on all of my books, some more than others. I do novel research sometimes very heavily. Arilla Sun Down and M. C. Higgins took a lot of research. Collections of stories take the most research. Most of them take place in the early plantation period. I do a lot of research so that they can be put into a language that everyone understands and can read and speak easily. Many of those stories were in a deep dialect and had to be rewritten.

Do you write about slavery because of your grandfather Levi's experiences?
I think the experience of my grandfather was the first story I ever heard - my mother told me - and I think it had a profound effect on me. I grew up in southern Ohio, in an area that had a lot of houses from the Underground Railroad, so I knew about slavery just by osmosis. It's not the only thing I write about. But it was something that was very significant to me. I probably won't write any more books about slavery, but I very much wanted to do the books that I have done about it.

Of the books you have written, which one is your favorite?
I always say that I don't have a favorite - and it's true! This year is the 25th anniversary of M. C. Higgins, the Great, my Newbery Medal winner. So I just reread it. And any one of my books that I pick up and read becomes my favorite at that moment. I have no favorites! I like them all - that's why I wrote them.

How did you get the idea for Plain City?
I was teaching at Ohio State University and I got caught in a winter ice storm. I pulled off the Interstate onto the off ramp. The sign said "Plain City." There was also a McDonald's sign, and I decided to pull off and wait until the storm was over. I did that, but I never found the "Mickey D's" and I never found Plain City - I drove about six miles! After that, every time I drove down that road I'd pass that sign and I'd wonder about Plain City. Then I started making up what the town would be like, and the people, and that's how I made up Buhlaire and all the other characters. You know, I still have never been to Plain City. I'm kind of afraid to go now. But I have heard that it is kind of like what I made up. In fact, they have a river, and it does flood!

How did you get the idea for The House of Dies Drear?
I got the idea because I come from an area of Ohio in which there were many stations along the Underground Railroad. There were many houses with secret passages and rooms. I learned about that at any early age because my grandfather was a fugitive who came to Ohio on the Underground Railroad. And my mother named me Virginia so that I would never forget the history of my own family. My grandfather was a former slave in Virginia who crossed the Ohio River into the North and settled in southern Ohio, where I live now. I think it was that story that so fascinated me. So, I just naturally fell into writing a story about an abolitionist, Dies Drear. He's a made-up character. It's a mystery, and kids seem to really like it. It's one of my most popular books, even though it's 250 pages.

Do you like writing mysteries?
Well, I wrote two - I wrote a sequel to The House of Dies Drear. Mysteries are very hard - I wouldn't say I like them. In some ways you have to plot backwards from the way you write a normal story. And hard as I've tried, I've never been able to think of any new mysteries!

Why did you make Pesty an orphan in the Dies Drear series?
Well, I don't know. The story kind of worked out. I knew about orphaned children during slavery time; there's been quite a lot of research about it. I had a lot of knowledge about it, and it seemed like something that would work well in the story. Pesty was a perfect candidate for an orphan child.

Is there one particular time period you most enjoy writing about?
Oh, no, not really. I've written about the past and the future, and I've written many books in the present.

What kinds of books would you say that you write?
I think I would say that there are three kinds - novels, biographies, and collections. I've written 36 books, so I have different kinds! And then I would say that I write novels and folktales, mainly.

Are there any kinds of books that you haven't done but would like to?
I think I've done a lot of the kinds of books I set out to do. I would like to go back to the future and write more science fiction stories, but I haven't done that yet.

Do you feel an obligation to write about African-American history because of your family's background?
No, I don't think so. I write and have written about what interests me and has interested me. I've done a lot of books on black history, and a lot of contemporary novels that take place in the present. So I really just write what occurs to me and is interesting, and that's it.

What is your favorite part about writing?
I think my favorite part is writing the second draft. The first one is the hardest - figuring out the plot, the tone, the language of a book. By the time you get to the second draft you can really make it feel right, with the proper emphasis on the characters you've created. A first draft is kind of like a summary of what you're going to create. Then you go back and fill in. The second draft is a lot more fun.

What do you do when you're not working?
I love to garden and swim.

Do you read a lot of children's books?
I do. I read as much as I can. Of course I get a lot of books by children's authors, and I do read them. I don't have a lot of time to read anything when I am working on a novel. But I do read and enjoy children's literature.

Which children's authors do you especially enjoy?
I like picture books a lot, and I like the read-along books. The late Arnold Lobel wrote some wonderful books about Frog and Toad. They look so perfectly simple, but when you try to write like that you realize how difficult it is to pull it off. I like to read picture books, and I've done a few of my own. There's so much you can do with them! So I read them a lot. I also like Avi, Nancy Willard, Walter Dean Myers, Robert Cormier - gee, I like lots of authors, whose names are escaping me.

Where did you get the idea for Willie Bea and the Time the Martians Landed?
Oh, that's one of my favorites! I got my idea for that story because my family was wide awake when Orson Wells' radio program "War of the Worlds" by H. G. Wells came on the air, and some of the family came in the middle of that program and believed that Martians had landed! And my family wasn't the only family that believed that! All over the country people who heard that program from the middle thought that Martians had landed in New Jersey! Even though I was very young, I remember it so vividly, and what all of the family members were going to do to escape the aliens. One of my aunts was going to jump down a well! There were all sorts of stories in newspapers around the country about what people were going to do. So I thought it would be fun to write about - and it was.

Do you think that aliens exist?
I don't know! First you know about The Planet of Junior Brown... I think anything is possible in this endless universe around us and many others beyond it. I think it's quite possible.

In The House of Dies Drear, why is Thomas so curious?
Oh, I think he's like many kids. If you were going to live in a house on the Underground Railroad that was spooky and had a caretaker that looked like the devil, I think you'd be curious too! He's very imaginative, and he's very aware of what's going on around him.

Did you write the screenplay for the movie version of The House of Dies Drear?
I had a lot to do with the movie of Dies Drear, but I didn't write it. The producer came to my house, and said, "Show me the house of Dies Drear." And I said, "Don't you know what fiction is?" There wasn't a real house, I made it up! It was a compilation of other houses I knew.

What did you think of the movie?
I liked the movie - it was different of course, and there had to be changes to make it fit into two hours. But my response is that I have the book, and it will always be there.

What is different about the movie?
There are two twin boys in the book, and they become one in the movie!

Are there any other of your books you would like to see be made into movies?
Well, actually one has been made into a movie recently - The Planet of Junior Brown - and it's won several awards for best screenplay at independent film festivals. It was on Showtime in January and February. It's quite different from the book. It's fun for kids to see the movie and read the book and argue and discuss the differences.

Why did you wait 18 years between writing your first and last book in the Dies Drear chronicles?
That's a good question! I don't know why - I didn't want to do it for 18 years. And then I got an idea. In order to continue a mystery like that you have to come up with something that is missing from the first book, that you can work with in the second book. So, I asked students to look at what's missing in the first book. And what's missing in the first book is there in the second. You can e-mail me your answers if you'd like! The address is Bodeep@aol.com.

Did you ever not finish a book?
Only one, a long time ago. At the beginning of my career I wrote a book and I didn't finish. I have a lot of stories that I set aside, and hope to finish some day. I save them to work on another time - maybe even with that first, long story that I never finished.

How long does it take you to write a book?
Well, actually they all seem to fall into the same length of time. A novel or a collection takes 1 year to 18 months to write. That's including a lot of research that goes into it. And then there's about 18 months of production. So by the time a book is published, I'm already writing something else - and have often finished one or even two other books!

Which book took you the longest to write?
That's a good one. Hmmm. I think it's one you haven't read. It's 300 pages. It's called The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl. It was a difficult book to write. I think it's a lovely book - seventh or eighth graders would enjoy it. But it's not an easy book to read or to write. It has a very large plot with many characters. There are "real" people and spirits and gods. It takes a little more understanding while reading, that might work for an older child. It took maybe two and a half years to write. Most of my books take about a year to write.

Is it hard to be a writer?
Well, you know it does get to be fun. When you start, you have a lot of anxiety - you don't know where it's going to go, and whether you can do it. Often I have difficult ideas for plots, and I don't know how they're going to work. But then I become challenged, and it gets fun! I forget all about myself, and I get involved in the story.

Is there anything, aside from writing, that you wanted to do?
Oh, sure. I'd like to be king of the world! I wanted to be a singer, when I was in New York and Chicago many years ago. I wanted to be a great track star, and I was not. I wanted to be a teacher, and I was at various times. Writing is where I feel most comfortable, and I can stay home and sit down and do it, which is nice.

How did you come up with the idea for Zeely?
Well, it was a 1960s inspiration. I was a ‘60s person. We were looking to our heritage - our homeland. Zeely is about an American black girl who looks at another black girl who's older and 6 1/2 feet tall whose name is Zeely. She considers Zeely to be some sort of African queen. During the story we find out who Zeely really is, but we also discover the connection between Africa and America.

Do you have a favorite author?
Well, when you go to college, you study many authors. I was a literature and writing major. I love the writing of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. There are other writers who run a close second, like W.E.B. DuBois. There are many writers I admire. I read all the time.

Do you travel a lot? If so, where to?
Yes, I travel a lot. I was just out in California. I do a lot of lectures and things like that. I'll be in New Orleans and Las Vegas in June. I've traveled to South Africa and really enjoyed it. I hope to write a story about it some day. Usually I travel more after I finish a book. My next deadline is in July - it's a younger book and so it doesn't take as long. I'll go wherever my publisher will send me after that.

How did you come up with the character of Junior Brown?
I was living in New York City, and actually I had the character Buddy Clark, who is Junior's friend, before I had Junior Brown as a character. I was very interested in this bright young boy who was out of school, on his own playing hooky. I was watching this kid in the park every day, with my own children. That's how I got the idea. I didn't get the idea for Junior Brown until I'd written four chapters, and I had to start all over again!

Why did you choose to write about Paul Robeson?
Well, he was a magnificent singer - a wonderful baritone who's famous around the world. My father loved his work, and that's how I became interested in him. He sang in many languages, and he was once one of the most popular artists in this country. So that's why.

How old are your children, and what do they do?
My daughter is thirty-one, and she's an opera singer. She's a very good writer, but she's singing opera in Vienna, Austria, right now. My son is twenty-eight, and he's a singer/songwriter in New York. He also teaches voice and has his own band on and off. He's a very good writer, too. So they're both musicians, and they both write.

How do you come up with ideas for your collection of stories?
I discovered that there's all this American treasure of old, old stories that are in dusty piles in libraries. I'm the kind of person who goes looking for things that will make good stories for today's young people. It takes a lot of work to find the right sound that sounds authentic and works for today. The ones I find are generally stories that were made up by slaves on the plantations. The animal tales that they made up are absolutely unique to America. Nobody had ever done them before. Of course there were fables, but not like these long, elaborate stories like "Brer Rabbit" and "Brer Deer." On the plantations the slaves saw all kinds of animals, because the plantations were often cut right out of the forest and lots of familiar animals would appear. So, they made up stories after observing them. They saw that the deer was shy, the fox was cagey, and the rabbit, tricky. These animals could also find a way to get themselves out of any situation. The slaves made up stories to match these qualities.

Did you actually see a jaguarundi in a rainforest?
I've been in a rainforest, but that's not where I saw a jaguarundi. I was in a rainforest in Puerto Rico called Yunke. It's beautiful, very mountainous. Jaguarundis had migrated from South America through Central America into Arizona, where I saw them. We don't understand that, as habitats are destroyed, animals move to find somewhere else to live.

The book Jaguarundi is about 19 real rare animals, only it's a fantasy story. Two of the animals decide to leave because their habitat is being destroyed. It's a story about what happens to them. I saw the animal at a museum. Just a beautiful, beautiful body. Like a cat, but different. It's so seldom seen that we don't know if they're rare or not. This was an outdoor habitat museum, where the animals are alive. I was just fascinated by him.

If you could talk to any person, living or dead, who would it be?
That's interesting. . . . I think I would like to talk to Mr. Faulkner. That would be very interesting. He was a southern gentleman who was very shy. I think I would've liked to have known him.

What is your process for creating characters?
The only process that I know is that I see them very clearly. There was a poet once who wrote "I think what I see." And that's what happens. I see them in my head, I see them come to life, and I like to describe what I see very clearly. The way they move, and the expressions on their faces define them. They have to come to life for me first before they can come to life for anybody else.

Did you get advice about writing when you were younger?
No, I don't think I got advice about writing - the little stories I wrote - until I got to college and took creative writing courses. And then my teachers had lots of advice for me! But when I was very young, people mostly gave me encouragement - not advice.

How can I come up with better ideas in my writing?
Well, that's a hard one. Only you know the ideas that you come up with! I don't know what I can tell you about that, except that maybe if you give your ideas a chance to develop you'll like them better. I never throw any ideas away. I might start something and put it away for a while, but I never put an idea away.

Do you have any techniques that help you come up with new ideas?
None whatsoever! What I try to do is leave myself open to thoughts and imaginings. I'm a great believer in daydreaming, and I think that's how you come up with ideas. I'm always telling people to leave themselves open to creative thoughts. Just let it happen - that's what I do.

If someone could only read one of your books, which one would you want them to read?
That's tough! I like several of them. I think I would like them to read M. C. Higgins, the Great, just because it is such a rich book.

What's your main goal when you write a story?
TO FINISH THE BOOK!! That's my personal goal.

Virginia, do you have any final words for the audience?
Oh, thank you very much for having me! I hope you all keep reading. And you can always reach me online at my Web site. So come visit!

  • Subjects:
    Literature, Literature Appreciation, Writing
  • Skills:
    Writing
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