Ellen Emerson White: There's no easy answer to that question, because I'm honestly not sure. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that I was a small child during the war, and those nightly grim news reports made a very strong impression upon me. I remember my parents didn't want us to see any of the graphic war footage on television — and naturally, that made me much more curious about the whole thing. And I clearly remember events like the horrible day of Martin Luther King's assassination — we happened to be traveling in the South, at the time, and I was in Atlanta on the day of his funeral.
During the 1960s, I was in elementary school, so I only had one or two friends with a sibling old enough to be in Vietnam, and there was one girl whose father was an Air Force pilot who served. No one ever really talked about it, though; the war seemed very distant to most people I knew. My mother is an artist, so she had a fair number of hippie friends, and yet, we were also brought up to have great respect for anyone who served in the military, and even when it wasn't popular, we flew our flag every day. Always have; still do. I've had a small flag right by my desk my entire adult life — long before 9/11 made it popular again. When I was seven years old, I was a Brownie, and I was chosen to be a flag bearer in our town's Memorial Day or Veterans' Day parade (I've forgotten which one). Even though I was only a second grader, I remember being extremely proud and making sure that my uniform looked just right and that my gloves were perfectly white and clean. I even made of point of standing up straight — a highly unusual state of affairs in my life, to be sure. My parents raised us to be so patriotic that I get upset, to this very day, if the National Anthem is played somewhere — at a ball game, say — and people don't stand up and take off their hats. It bothers me terribly. Nothing of this really answers the question, but I seem to have a strange, visceral connection to the Vietnam War.
RFA & EST: You have said that you love the research part of what you do but that research "can become a crutch." Would you elaborate on that idea?
EEW: It's easy to do research, and you can learn a lot — and it's very, very hard to write a book. In any case, I find it difficult to write. I worry so much about doing a poor job, that I often have a hard time getting down to work, and it is tempting to procrastinate by saying, "I'll just read one more book on the subject, and then I'll be ready to go." Also, in the end, it's the strength (or lack thereof) of the characters which is going to make the book succeed or fail, and worrying too much about the accuracy of every single historical detail can end up cheating the character development. So, I always find that there's a point at which I have to tell myself, enough already, let's just explore these characters' lives, see what happens, and hope for the best.
RFA & EST: How did living in New York and working on this novel during the tragedy of September 11th influence Molly's diary?
EEW: It influenced the book far more than I would like, actually — it's much darker than it might have been otherwise. Oddly, it already had a very strong firefighter angle, long before 9/11, which was established in her brother Patrick's journal, which I finished in August, more than a month before the city was attacked. (Their father, and most of their male relatives, are members of the Boston Fire Department.) But, on 9/11, I was on a very tight deadline for Molly's book, and had literally been up all night working on it. I went to bed at about 8:45 that morning — which was just a couple of minutes before the first plane hit.
My sister knew that I'd been planning to work all night, so she let me sleep a couple of hours before she called up and said, "You'd better turn on the television now." It was surreal, and I feel stupidly guilty about the fact that I was asleep at the moment it happened. Not that I could have changed anything if I'd been awake, but still. I finished the book during the next ten days, while there was constant military traffic overhead — planes, fighter jets, helicopters — and almost every time I got on the subway, we'd be evacuated because of a bomb threat or something. So that "the world just seems to be going crazy" feeling must have gotten into the book. I think it would have been somewhat lighter, otherwise. And yet, the very design of the plot — her brother is in Vietnam when it opens — means that Molly was going to be very worried throughout the diary, regardless, so maybe it would have had the same tense flavor, without the terrible tragedy which took place in my beloved city. But somehow, I doubt it.
RFA & EST: Molly's mother gives her a copy of The Feminine Mystique. Why did you choose this particular book as the gift? Did Friedan's book have an impact on you?
EEW: Honestly, it had no effect on me — I was just a baby when it came out. But I thought it was a book that would have made a tremendous impression on Molly's mother, and it was the seminal book for the feminist (I prefer to call it "humanist") movement. I think it was very dislocating for my mother, and my friends' mothers, to have the definition of women's roles change so utterly and completely, when they had done what they all thought they were supposed to do with their lives — and ended up feeling as though they had really missed out on so many opportunities. I was a huge baseball fan, from the time I was six years old, and when I was nine, I got to play in one of the first girls' Little Leagues in the country, when I lived in California. Then, I moved back to Rhode Island, and our town created one of the very first girls' leagues in New England — where it was really considered shocking — and very unfeminine — that girls might want to play organized sports. And I had a well-deserved reputation for being a hard-nosed, wildly competitive player, so more than once, I was heckled and criticized by adults in the stands, for doing things like breaking up a double play by taking out the shortstop or second baseman with a tough slide. I'm glad that notion is outdated now, but it is very easy to forget how recent the changes in women's lives are, and how women's lives are still in the process of changing. The same holds true for civil rights, of course — our society has made massive amounts of progress in a remarkably short period of time historically, and yet, still has so far to go.
RFA & EST: How did the experience of writing Molly's diary differ from creating your previous Dear America book Voyage on the Great Titanic: The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady?
EEW: Well, in the book about the Titanic, I was faced with the ugly reality that most of the characters were going to die when the ship went down. It was very depressing and I was very concerned about the fact that these were real people, and should be treated with the utmost respect, even in a novel. To make matters worse, I wrote that book while I was completely bedridden from some severely disabling injuries (originally, I was not supposed to recover at all). I literally wrote that book lying down, nearly blind, partially deaf, too weak to stand up, and mostly unable to walk. I'm still recuperating several years later, but back to at least 60% of my old self, which makes life — and writing — so much less complicated, although it changed the way I look at just about everything, and I've yet to explore that in fiction. So, whenever I think about my Titanic book, it brings back a terrible period in my own life, more than anything else. Molly's book will probably always make me think of 9/11. So, life is a complicated thing, I guess, and writers' real lives influence their fiction to an incredible degree. Another big difference between Molly's book and my Titanic book is that I didn't have to use turn-of-the-century British dialects. That made the writing much less complicated, obviously, since I'm not British, and wasn't born in 1900, so the language in that book took a great deal of extra attention. In Molly's book, it was more a case of remembering that words like "neat" and "groovy" used to be cool.
RFA & EST: Mrs. Jorgensen, Molly's favorite teacher, inspires and encourages her. Did you have such a teacher in your life?
EEW: I had a very fine English professor at one point in college, but for the most part, no, I have never been lucky with my teachers. Some of them were very nice, but they didn't exactly embrace me academically. The truth is that I tended to be a flippant, overly curious student, and I received regular lectures about "my attitude." The scenes during which Molly is sent to the office and so forth for speaking her mind during her classes happened to me on a regular basis when I was in school. It's funny, though — I went back to college part-time this semester, and I still can't resist sitting in the back row in the corner, looking cynical, and pulling a baseball cap down low over my eyes, even though I'm old enough to know better. But, at least I participate in class this time around! And since I'm an adult, I actually do my homework. So, Mrs. Jorgensen is really an example of the sort of teacher I wish I had. My parents, though, cared a great deal about my education, and whenever she could yank the baseball glove off my hand, my mother would shove a book in it, instead. So, Mrs. Jorgensen may represent my mother, more than any teacher I ever had in school.
RFA & EST: If you could ask young readers of Molly's diary one question after they finished reading your book, what would that question be?
EEW: So, did you like it? That's the question I would actually ask, and I'd be crushed when/if they said, "No." Here are two other questions worth considering. How can you, personally, do something to try and improve the world around you? Do you think it's even possible for one person to make a difference, and if so, how?
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.