E.L. Konigsburg Interview Transcript
Have you always wanted to be a writer? When did you start writing?
No. I was the first one in my family to go away to college. I came from a small town where there was no guidance in the high school at all. It was a mill town, and I never knew anyone who made their living from the arts. When you did go away to college, you went away to be something - an engineer, or a teacher, or a chemist. I never knew anyone who went away to be an artist until I was in college. When I was in college at Carnegie Mellon, I wanted to be a chemist. So I became one. I worked in a laboratory and went to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh. Then I taught science at a private girls school. I had three children and waited until all three were in school before I started writing. When my third child went away to school, I started to write in the mornings. I've already mentioned that I want to write something that reflects their growing up, because when I was growing up the books I read never reflected me.
What are your children's names? Have they ever served as character models for any of your books?
Their names are Paul, Laurie, and Ross. They have posed for the illustrations in my books. Laurie was Claudia and Ross was Jamie in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
How do you feel about the problems children face today?
I believe that the problems that children face - the children that I write about - at the age I write about them are the same basic problems I had when I was that age. The essential problems remain the same. The dressing that goes on the problems changes. But the kids I write about are asking for the same things I wanted. They want two contradictory things. They want to be the same as everyone else, and they want to be different from everyone else.They want acceptance for both.
Do you think friendships like Noah's, Nadia's, Ethan's, and Julian's really exist?
I think they do. I don't think it's common, but I think that's what made these kids special - they were all outsiders, and they were not competitive with each other, but allowed their strengths to complement each other.
Why is it important to do random acts of kindness?
I think it's important to experience kindness, so that you can experience it more in the future. I believe that patterns of emotional behavior are set down before adolescence. And I think that if you have not observed kindness, you will not recognize it. You have to experience kindness in order to be kind. And you have to lay down those emotional pathways. For example, they're finding that kids coming out of those awful orphanages in Romania have never experienced kindness. When they're adopted, they cannot bond with people and experience kindness, because the pathway has never been laid down inside their heads. I think that as our population grows, it becomes increasingly important to be kind.
Where do you get your ideas from?
I get my ideas from things I've read, people I've met, situations I know about.The important thing about ideas is the coming together of character, place, theme, and plot. I'm going to suggest something. Suppose you take an ordinary event, and ask yourself "what if?" Suppose you get on the school bus tomorrow morning. What if suddenly the school-bus driver can only speak Hungarian and your best friend won't speak to you at all? Suppose you get up in the morning to see the sunrise, and what if the trees in the light of day are all blue instead of green and the sky is red instead of blue? Suppose you're sitting in school, and what if you are suddenly not right-handed but left-handed? What if you are suddenly blue-eyed instead of brown-eyed? Take an ordinary event, and ask yourself "what if?" When it all comes together, that's what getting an idea really is.
Do you use real-life people as the basis of the characters in your books?
That's true of all my books. The characters begin their lives as people that I may know, but they end up their lives as characters! Even the historical figures I've written about - Eleanor of Aquitaine and Leonardo da Vinci - s are outgrowths of my imagination. The incidents are true, but I make up conversations and personalities. I do that to emphasize that every character in those two historical novels lived, and every incident happened - I just embroidered it.
Do you have anything in common with your characters?
There are parts in each of them that I relate to. Noah's resistance to authority, for example. Ethan's challenge for having a high-achieving sibling. Nadia's sense of having been abandoned. And I hope, Julian's kindness and outsiderness. Julian was the most outside of all of those children.
How important are characters to the story?
Characters are so important to a story that they actually decide where the story is going. When I write, I know my characters. I know how things are going to end and I know some important incidents along the way. I can give an example of this. When I was writing From the Mixed-up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler, I did not know until Claudia was in Mrs. Frankweiler's house that she was going to take a bath in Mrs. Frankweiler's magnificent marble tub. It wasn't until I got her in that room that I knew what she was going to do. It's because at that point in the story, I knew the character Claudia as well as I know my own children.
Is the character of Mrs. Frankweiler based on yourself?
Actually, Mrs. Frankweiler was based on Miss Olga Pratt, who was headmistress of Bartram's School, the school where I taught. The woman who posed as Mrs. Frankweiler was a Miss Anita Brougham. And she lived in the same apartment house as we did, and one day in the elevator I asked if she would pose for me. And she did, and when that book won the Newbery, we had moved away from the apartment house. And a friend of mine who still lived there met Mrs. Brougham in the elevator and asked her how she felt to be famous. And she said, "I am very pleased for Mrs. Konigsburg."
Did you ever hear anything from Miss Pratt in regards to your book's winning the Newbery?
She had never been vain enough to check this sort of thing out! Miss Pratt was not wealthy, but she was a matter-of-fact person. Kind, but firm.
Do you enjoy writing your stories more than illustrating them?
Not necessarily. I began painting and drawing before I began writing. My first two children are very close in age, and I needed an outlet. I began taking painting lessons at adult education. When we moved to the suburbs of New York, I joined the Art Students League. I used to take art lessons on Saturday morning, and explore New York City in the afternoons. Many of the trips in the city were devoted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Why did you write The View From Saturday the way you did, as four different stories?
I wrote the book that way because that's the way it came to me. I thought children would enjoy meeting one character, and then two characters, and that they would enjoy seeing parts of the story repeated but in a different way. I thought that they would enjoy having the second character interact with the first character, with each story moving the general story along. And I had hoped that readers would feel very satisfied with themselves when they had it all worked out. And that's been my experience from the letters I get, that readers feel very satisfied after having read it.
What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up?
I have to confess, I read a lot of trash. I read a lot of movie magazines. But I also read classics. One of the reasons I started writing is that I never felt I met children who were like me in the books I read. I would pick up a book and be promised that I would meet typical children in typical small towns, and the books always had children whose families had maids. And in my town, growing up, many of the mothers WERE maids. So I wanted to write about children like me. I went directly from reading children's books - and I read a lot of trash - and then I went to adult novels. I read a lot of popular fiction, authors who would mean nothing to you. The Egyptian, or Forever Amber. And I also loved mysteries. The librarian in my town would only let me take one book at a time, and we were only allowed to keep them for two weeks! So I had to go back more often!
Do you ever go back and reread children's books you read as a child?
I am rereading A Little Princess right now, and when you find that children were sent away for four years and never saw their fathers, well, I thought that was ordinary growing up - and that I was under-ordinary!
Who were your favorite authors growing up?
I have to tell you, I love Francis Hodgson Burnett and Louisa May Alcott, and I believe in their stories.
Which of your books is your favorite?
It changes. I think Father's Arcane Daughter. That's one of my best books.It was difficult to write, because you get your ideas from situations you know about. And this was a situation I knew about, and I had to disguise everything. And I think I did it pretty successfully. That book was made into Caroline?, a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation. The opening was very different from the opening of my book, but I thought they did a very good job of capturing the book's spirit. It was about having a sibling who's handicapped.
If you could invite any six people to dinner, who would you choose?
I think Albert Einstein would be at the top of my list. Eleanor of Aquitaine would be there. Michelangelo. I think I would like to have dinner with Oscar Wilde. And I would like the interplay between Wilde and William Shakespeare. And I think I would like to speak with Eleanor Roosevelt.
Whom, of all the characters you've written about, would you most like to meet?
Eleanor of Aquitaine, definitely. I'd like to have dinner with her to see how close I came!
Who are your favorite artists?
My favorite artists - well, I love the work of Michelangelo. And I have to tell you that I think he reached a pinnacle from which everyone had to move down. He just creates such an emotional impact. A person cannot look at his work without a visceral feeling of satisfaction. It's a real "gotcha." I also like the work of Georges de la Tour. He's a hard-edged painter, but he does a lot of work with light and shade. And after Michelangelo would be Caravaggio, an emotional and wonderful painter, but a terrible painter. Egon Schiele, also. He's a very, very disturbed man. He had an exhibit at the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) last year, and I flew up to New York to see it.
How would you describe your writing style?
I can't judge that. I didn't even know I had a style! E. B. White, in his book Elements of Style, says the thing to do is not affect a style. I didn't even know I had one until I wrote Father's Arcane Daughter, and my editor said that this book was so different that she wished we could put it out under a pseudonym. But she said that my style was so distinct that people would recognize me! And until then, I had no idea I had a style! So it's really not for me to judge.
How do you go about revising your writing?
My editor - I've had the same editor always - sends me some suggestions. I have had two books go directly from manuscript to typescript, which is like getting an A+ on a paper. My editor makes suggestions, and I read them all and work with them. Neither she nor I approves of someone going in to tweak the story. We agree that you should read the comments over the whole story, and then decide what you are going to churn up. You don't change little bits at a time.
Do you ever want to change something you've written after it's been published?
I have to say yes and no. I don't reread my books. And I think that when I am called on occasion to look something over because someone wants to excerpt it or something, I reread it and I think that I would do it differently. Or I think I would be less verbose. But I don't hand something in unless I'm satisfied. I don't hand in half-finished work, or a vague notion. I don't hand it in unless I like it.
How do you think people could recognize one of your books if they didn't know?
That's exactly what I don't know! Because I do think about what E. B. White said - don't affect a style. He has all these things you should not do! I don't have an answer! I'm sorry! He says, "Style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition."
Would you like any of your books made into movies?
Yes, I think that when you regard a film as a translation, I think it's like having one's books translated into another language. And you witness the effects as if you are in a foreign country, and in that way it's interesting. It can be intellectually challenging and emotionally disastrous!
What are your hobbies?
I love to paint and draw. And we live on the beach, and I love to take long walks along the beach. If people ask me where my ideas come from, they very often come when I'm walking along the beach.
How important is being smart to you?
I have to say that I have absolutely no athletic ability or musical ability, and my one strength was academic ability. So being good in school was always important to me.
Did you ever think about becoming a writer when you were a child?
No, I was a very timid child. I thought about it, of course.
Do you have any advice for people who want to be writers?
I always give one word, and the word is: finish. The word is finish because I think the difference between being a person of talent and being a writer is the ability to apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair and finish. It means you'll sit there and work out the details, and work out the next transition, and that you'll have the discipline to transform talent into a written story, book, whatever.
What was your favorite book to work on?
A Proud Taste of Scarlet and Miniver. We went through Europe, tracking down Eleanor of Aquitaine. And that was fun.
Are you working on a new book right now?
I do have something in the computer, but I am so superstitious that if I talk about it, I'm afraid I won't be able to write it out. So I don't like to talk about it at all until it's finished.
Do you have any mixed-up files of your own?
Oh, yes. I don't have as many as Mrs. Frankweiler, but I do have mixed-up files. I'll tell you the names of some of the files. I have one called Fame and Celebrity. In addition to having files on research materials, I have one called bouboulina, which is a file about censorship. I have one called Reviews that Fault Something for Not Being Something Else. I have another one titled Notes on the third place, which was for my Newbery Medal acceptance.
Do you ever had problems with censorship? What is in that file?
Yeah, I do. There are people who don't like Jennifer, Hecate. . . because the little girl pretends to be a witch. And there were people who objected to Claudia and Jamie standing on the toilets at the Met - they said children might try it and fall in. I've had a story in Altogether, One at a Time censored, too. A little girl calls another child a "nigger," and people didn't like that. In the files, there are articles and letters about these things, and about other cases of censorship.
Are there any books or art that you think should be censored? Why or why not?
No. I don't think there are any.
Has your sense of meaning about book awards changed at all?
I think that when I won for The View From Saturday, I had a better understanding of what it meant, after having been so richly rewarded with recognition after the first one.
Do you have any final words for the audience?
I want to thank you for your interest! And for your thoughtful questions.