The author was interviewed by Scholastic students.
How did you become interested in writing books for children?
I became interested in writing books for children when I started reading books for children, which, oddly enough, was not when I was a child, but when I was teaching fifth grade. I had to make a reading list for my students, so I went to the library and started reading the books beginning at A and ending up at Z! That's when I first became interested in children's literature. Before then, I wrote for grownups and for my kid, but I failed!
Did you write stories when you were young — like in fifth grade? Did you ever win a writing contest?
No and no. I didn't write anything at all except book reports until I was in seventh grade, and then I wrote mostly poetry for myself. I think I wrote my first story when I was in tenth grade — but not when I was in fifth grade. I read then, but nobody was interested in our writing. Maybe I was a late bloomer.
Were there any teachers or people who encouraged you to write?
No. No one encouraged me and said I had talent. In fact, there were people who did their best to discourage me. But I've always been a bad follower, so that was OK. There were teachers who found me interesting to teach, and that was encouraging! My friends encouraged me sometimes — the more astute of them.... (laughing)
How old were when you wrote your first book, and what was it called?
I was eighteen when I wrote my first book, and I can't remember what it was called. I have no idea where the manuscript is — I lost it when I was twenty-one. My first book that I published was Homecoming, but the fourth book that I published was actually written before that. That book was Calendar Papers.
What book did you have the most fun writing?
They've all been fun to write, because I don't do things that I don't enjoy. But Dicey's Song and A Solitary Blue — I wrote them like a hot knife going through cold butter. They were just smooth. So in that respect they were the most fun. Although the Kingdom books — where I get to make up everything — contend for that prize, too.
What was the hardest book for you to write?
Hmmm... First, the books are getting harder to write as I go along. I'm not sure why, but I hope to figure it out. Mysteries are hard — I've written two mysteries, and they're very difficult. It's hard to do the plot. When She Hollers was hard to write, because of the book's subject matter.
Did you ever have problems finishing a book?
I do have trouble starting books. I have ideas that I have trouble starting to write. But I'm the kind of person who tends to finish everything she starts out of sheer stubbornness.
How did you get the idea for the books in the Tillerman cycle? Did you know a family like the Tillermans?
No, I don't know a family like the Tillermans. I first had the idea for Homecoming — so I wrote that one. Writing that gave me the idea for Dicey's Song, and so I wrote that one. There was a character in Dicey's Song that was interesting, and that gave me the idea for A Solitary Blue. And it wasn't till I wrote that one that I realized I was writing a series. When I finished the third book, I knew what the last book was going to be, but I didn't know how many there were going to be in between. So the idea for the Tillerman series came from the Tillermans themselves.
Where did you get your idea for Homecoming?
I saw a bunch of kids waiting in a car at a parking lot by the market where I was going to do my shopping. For some reason, I wondered as I walked into the store, what would happen if nobody came back to get them? And that was how I got that idea. I wrote that one down immediately, because I knew it was a really good one.
Did you like the movie they made of Homecoming?
Except that they left out so many words, yes I did. I thought they did a good job and were true to the book. I was very grateful that the people who had made it, made it.
How did you get the idea for Dicey's Song?
I think of Dicey's Song as Homecoming part three. Dicey's Song finishes the story that starts in Homecoming — the story about what happens when they get to their grandmother's house and what happens to Mama. Homecoming was simply too long to have all that in one book. But Dicey's Song is a separate book, and it should be.
Was Dicey's character based on someone you know?
Not that I know of, although I'm willing to go so far as to say that Dicey is the kind of kid I wish I had been. I would've enjoyed being like Dicey. In the same way, Gram is the kind of old lady I'd like to grow into, but I probably won't.
My daughter and I read Dicey's Song when she was in fifth grade. It became a favorite in our family. She is now in her first year of college and we still refer to Dicey and her family. We often wonder if you share any of Dicey's experiences. Thank you for bringing such a wonderful story into our lives. I feel that this book taught my daughter how to escape into a story.
Well, thank you! The true answer is, I share all of Dicey's experiences, and none of them. None of them are in my biography. I think we all have had many more experiences in our spirits, so to speak — or our psychologies — than we have literally had. We have them in different forms or under different names. That's why fairy tales work, because although none of us have been princesses, we all sort of have — making dishonest arrangements to get our golden balls back, picking up the odd frog....
How did it feel to win the Newbery Medal?
It felt absolutely terrific. Part of the great thing was that I didn't expect it. I didn't expect it not because I didn't think I'd be considered, but because I thought the committee was meeting later in the month! I said to myself, "Okay, you can get anxious about this at the end of January." But the phone call came in the middle of January, which took me totally by surprise! It was like getting something you hoped for but you didn't know if you were really going to get — like getting into college times ten. I think if my parents had given me the horse that I asked for when I was twelve, I might have felt the same way. It was like being queen for a day. It was terrific.
What do you think you do especially well as an author?
Some days I don't think I do anything especially well, and some days I think I do everything especially well! Probably character development. Aristotle said that character is the easiest thing to do and that plot is the hardest. I agree with him!
What writing skill do you think is the most important for students to learn?
Whoa! I never do superlatives — no bests or favorites. I can hardly even separate the different writing skills, let alone choose which is best. When I was a teacher I wanted my students to be comfortable using language to express their own ideas, and to be adept at that as much as they could be. I wanted them not to be afraid of language — it's rich. It might turn on you sometimes and nip at your ankles, but it's nothing you can't manage — and it's fun! The important thing here is that sometimes students who learned this didn't do the kind of work I wanted them to do, but they had learned the important thing nevertheless.
Do you think that going to writing classes can make a person a better writer?
No. I think ability is one part of the deal. What you do with it is another part, and maybe even more important. What school can do is open your eyes, open your mind, give you things that you might want to write about. But life does that too. So do I think you need a Ph.D. to be a good writer? No. As a matter of fact, I might even vote the other way!
Did you ever take any writing classes?
I took three "creative writing" courses and they didn't work for me. The teachers didn't like my writing. What's my advice to encourage children to read? Read aloud to them so that reading is a treat — it's a present. When I was teaching, at the end of the school day, we used to read aloud for half an hour. The kids loved this time. Also, make sure that there are lots of books around for them to read and teach them phonics so they can learn how to read!
Do you plan your stories in an outline, or just make them up as you go along?
I definitely plan them in an outline. I'm a big fan of outlining. Here's the theory: If I outline, then I can see the mistakes I'm liable to make. They come out more clearly in the outline than they do in the pages. Sometimes if I've written something and I don't like it, I go back and make an outline. Then I can see where the mistakes are.
Has your writing style and process changed over the years. If so, how?
Well, one problem with the style question is that different books require a different style to be well written. So it's hard to say what's a change in my style, and what's a change in what I'm writing. I don't think of myself as having a specific style. The process has changed to the extent that I make outlines differently, and not as well. I used to plan more carefully and more precisely. The truth of the matter is that I'm not sure whether I have become freer and more confident or whether I have become lazier — probably a little of both!
How long does it usually take you to write and publish a book?
I would think two to three years. I figure about a year to write it, a year to revise it with an editor, and then about another year to get it out.
Do you come up with your titles before or after you've written the story?
Sometimes during, sometimes I don't come up with them at all, but somebody else does. I used to have to know the title before I could write the story, or at least I wanted to know the title. But then, because of the way the story changes as I write it, I found I sometimes had to change the title. One of my books had a title that someone had already used, and I couldn't use it. It was one of those warehousing problems, and we'd already run into it with Homecoming. So I changed the name — that was Izzy, Willy Nilly, which I'd originally called A Nice Girl Like Me. One of the other alternative titles for that book was one that I decided to use for another book, because I liked it so much — that was Tree by Leaf. I got three titles out of that one book! For the book When She Hollers, I could not think of a good title. I tried various different ones, and they were all dead. Regina Griffiths, my editor, thought of it, and it was really very good. I don't know if it was her or a committee, but Scholastic titled that book.
Where do you get your ideas for your books?
Everywhere I can — anything that floats by that looks possible, I grab! I get them from my own experiences, mostly. But you have to remember that it's not my own autobiographical experiences — it's something that happens that gives me an idea. For example, I was in the Alps wandering alongside a very steep, rocky river, and the steepness of the ravine made me think of the plot for The Wings of the Falcon. So I got the idea from my own experience, but the book wasn't about my experience.
Sometimes other books give me ideas. Or sometimes I see a landscape and I want to write about it. Once, I dreamt about one of my books before I wrote it. In general, something attracts my attention and makes me wonder, "What if?" And sometimes that turns into a book. I get ideas wherever I can and I write them down in a notebook — most of them are stinkers!
Do your children ever give you ideas for your books?
No, they don't. My children, as far as I'm concerned, are absolutely perfect about having a mother who writes for children. They're older now, but when they were kids, they just treated it as having a mother who worked as a lawyer or something. They were much more interested in themselves than in me, which is how it should be. My daughter has read all my books; my son has read one or two of them; and they both give me the impression that they approve of them. But they don't feel as if they are responsible for them, which is perfect.
Did you like to read when you were a child?
I was a big reader when I was a child — up until the age of twelve or thirteen. I read everything I could get my hands on. The problem was, there wasn't that much to get my hands on!
Who are some of your favorite children's book authors?
I don't do favorites. I haven't read much in the last few years, but one of my all-time favorite children's books is The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban. It's hard to answer that question, because I read so much. I like the Anastasia Krupnick books, because I like what they do and what they're about, and their tone. But I also like books of high heroism, like The Gammage Cup or Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh.
Why did you like Cherry Ames and Nancy Drew books?
Because they were good stories, with people I wanted to be! Nancy Drew solved mysteries, and I've always liked reading mysteries. Cherry Ames was an army nurse, and she got out in the world and did things. Even though I fell off every horse I got on, I had an image as myself as a horseback rider, and I wanted to be a vet. The characters in the books I liked all got out there and did things that I wanted to do for myself.
What types of books do you like to read now?
I'm an omnivore. I will try reading practically anything: fiction, nonfiction, comic books, TV Guide. I don't seem particularly fond of science fiction or fantasy. But I've read books on math — I liked Steven Hawking's book. I'll try everything!
What do you think makes a book good?
That's a good one.... I think for a book to be good, it has to have 80 or 90 percent of the stuff right in it, which means a good story, interesting people, and good writing. Whatever style it's written in, it needs to be well done. If it also has good thinking behind it, that just makes it better. A good book is like a good movie — there are two or three essential ingredients: a good character, a good story, and the third thing can be any one of a number of things.
Have you written any books for grown-ups?
Yes. One of them has even been published! I wrote a book called Glass Mountain, which came out in 1991. It did okay — not great. But I had a good time with it.
How did you get the idea for Building Blocks?
From real life. My son was about two, and his grandparents had given him a set of cardboard blocks that we had to fold together. They looked like bricks and they were light. My son would make towers and put them at the end of his little slide in the living room — then he'd slide into the blocks. At night my husband would make buildings out of them. One morning my son and I came down early, and he crawled into one of these houses that my husband had built. As I watched him do this, I thought, what if when he crawled out he was in a different place? And the whole story just fell into place after that — fathers and sons and building blocks.
Why did you dedicate The Runner to your parents?
My parents and everyone's parents have a lot do with everything! I dedicated that book to them for two reasons. One, because I love that book and I'm proud of it. Two, because they weren't the kind of parents that were in the book. It's hard to be a parent, and I wanted them to know that I appreciated their efforts.
What made you want to write about girls who were bad in Bad Girls? Do you really think Mikey and Margolo are bad?
I think the question of what makes someone bad is worth exploring. I think Mikey and Margolo are inconvenient. I think they're terrific. I wanted to see if I could have girls who would simply do bad things because they wanted to. Not criminal, not cruel, but just the kinds of things that would not sit well in a classroom. I get tired of writing about people who are supposed to be bad but are only misunderstood. I think all of us are egotistical and are interested in ourselves and our own well-being. We should have more fun with that. Generally, boys are the only ones who get to have fun in literature, and that's a privilege I'd like to see passed around. I think that sometimes being what other people call "bad" is the only way to get what's right for yourself.
Did you ever teach girls like Mikey and Margolo?
Not exactly like them. But I used to love what my daughter called "my unwieldy students." My daughter, who is a very nice girl — she's a sweetie — used to think that she should be more unwieldy. I guess I have taught kids who were like Mikey and Margolo.
What kind of kid were you — good or bad?
I'm afraid I was better than I wanted to be! Although I had my moments.... But you should remember it was easier to be a bad girl when I was a kid. I got in trouble for playing so roughly that I ripped the sash off my dresses almost every day. And that was considered bad. I'd like to think I could've done better under different circumstances — I would've been a better bad girl!
If you were growing up today, do you think you would be a different person?
I was eight or nine when we got our first TV. The only films I saw were Pinnocchio, the Disney cartoons, and Snow White. My world was smaller and had less variety. I didn't have to think about a lot of problems that I think kids today have to think about simply because they can't get away from them. Political questions, pollution problems — you could get away from the news when I was a kid — not like now! I might've been less anxious if I were growing up now. We had to worry about wars and bombs. There was a way you had to dress and important rules to follow. But on the other hand, I truly believe that people are born with their own characters. The life you live makes some difference, but who you are is an important part of who you become. So maybe I would've been the same. And maybe I would've been a real wreck! And maybe I would've been a lot bolder — a detective or a spy!
Are you going to publish a third story about Margolo and Mikey after Bad Girls and Bad, Badder, Baddest?
I hope so, yes. I have in mind to write a couple more. I'd like to take them through ninth grade. These are hard years for girls. I am working on a new story about them right now, but that's all you're going to hear about it! I have a good time with Mikey and Margolo.
Do you think it's important for children's stories to have a lesson?
I think it's important for children's stories to have a story. I think it's important for everybody's stories to have stories. I think if we learn how to look for lessons, we can find some. But I've never wanted to write a story that would teach a lesson. I've wanted to write a story that would ask questions, because I don't think the answers are the same for every person.
How do you create characters that are so vivid and real?
That's such a nice question! How do I find such good readers? (laughs) I hope you are right, and that they are vivid and powerful — sometimes I think they are. I have no idea when character development works or exactly how it works; but I can usually tell when it's not working. In my experience, after I've written about characters for a while, they sort of come up almost out of a flat background and step out of it and become round and whole. Part of that has to do with getting the right name for them, and part of it has to do with imagining them — knowing what they would eat for breakfast, even if that doesn't go in the book. And a lot of it comes from hearing how their minds work, which probably is easier for a teacher to understand. It's one of those things teachers learn from their students.
How do you come up with the names for your characters? Do they have any meaning?
Yes, they have meaning for me! Here's an indirect answer to your question: If you've ever had a litter of puppies to name, you know that some are born with a name — as soon as you look at the puppies, you know their names. For some, maybe, you learn their names after a week — you learn what their names are by how they act. And for some, you just can't think of a name at all, so you go to the "Name Your Baby" book. But certainly, all of the names of my major characters are exactly the ones that I wanted, and there's a good reason for that — at least for me, there's a reason. Dicey's name is one I thought I had made up, but it turned out that it was a slang word for something that was risky. It was used by British soldiers in World War I. I tried to come up with names that Dicey could be short for, but I couldn't think of one. After the book had been published, a Southern woman told me that she was so glad that someone was using that good old Southern name again — and I thought I had made it up! In the Kingdom books, there are characters whose names appear and reappear over the generations. People are named after people in an odd way.
Is there anything else you wanted to do besides write?
I wanted to be a detective. And I wouldn't have minded being a singing star — not a rock star, a singing star. I also wanted to be a cowgirl and a veterinarian. But once I learned about teaching later on, all I wanted to do was teach and write. My favorite life was when I taught part-time and wrote part-time, because then I got to do everything. Oddly enough, when I was going to school, the one thing that I absolutely did not want to do was teach! I didn't like school when I was a student, because it seemed to me that teaching was a not-doing way of life; and if I wanted to be out there having adventures, being a detective and writing books was the way to go — teaching was not.
Why didn't you want to be a teacher at first?
I admired some teachers. When I was brought up, people told me that teachers were women who couldn't get married, and that you couldn't have a career and a family. It took me some years to realize I was doing both, and that I'd been given bad advice! My parents believed in education, but they didn't respect teachers. I don't think things have changed all that much — I think that's one of the problems our society has with its education.
How has being a teacher helped you write books? Has the experience been valuable in writing books set in the classroom?
I would think so! It's been very valuable. If I have a character of a certain age — and I am WELL beyond that age — I picture a classroom with kids that age in it, to get the rhythm right. As a teacher I taught everything from second to sixth grade, so it gives me a big range from which to work. I think that teaching has helped my writing in about a hundred and fifty million ways. Studying good books is good for anybody's writing. Also, there are all these characters in the classroom. You can't miss that there are 20 or 30 distinct personalities — they don't talk alike, or think alike, or look alike, even if they dress alike. It's like having a character parade set out in front of you. Not that I've ever written about anyone in particular, but it's fun to have all those characters around you. Finally, teaching a class in school is always interesting. It sort of put me in the habit of having the work I do be interesting to me, which writing, of course, is. Or so I think! (laughs) Not everyone needs to agree.
Do you ever plan to go back to teaching? Do you miss it?
I miss it. I miss the classroom a lot. I think of going back to teaching, but I don't think I will. Nobody's ever made me an offer I can't refuse. When you teach, you work very hard. Most of your time — day and evening — is taken up with planning and correcting. When you don't teach, your time can be taken up with reading and writing and looking at the deer in your backyard. A person can get to like that. So I think I'm spoiled now, and I probably won't go back.
Are you working on a new book? What's it about?
Yes I am. But except for saying that it's one of the Bad Girls books, I can't say any more. I'm always working on something new, but I never like talking about it. I can talk about the next book that's coming out. It's going to be the last of the Kingdom books, Elske, and it has this incredible painting by Vermeer on the cover. It's really beautiful. It's exciting, because when I first saw the painting, I knew I wanted it to be on the cover. Usually those of us who are not visually strong have an idea, but then have to shut up. But this one worked out, and it's very beautiful. I think the book is coming out in the fall — that's what I hope and believe.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
The only advice that everybody gives, which is WRITE. Try it out, see how it goes — how you like it.
Do you have any final words for the audience?
It's been very pleasant chatting with you. Keep on reading!