Karen Hesse Interview Transcript
Why did you decide to write about the Dust Bowl?
The story is, I was driving to Colorado with a friend, and fell in love with the plains. But I didn't write about it then. It took another three years of thinking about it, before Out of the Dust really began. I was working on a manuscript called Come on Rain. I read it at my writing group, and a fellow writer asked why the little character in the book wanted it to rain so much. I started thinking about times in this country when people really wanted it to rain. So I came back to the Dust Bowl. Being the writer I am, when I started thinking about the Dust Bowl, I started researching. I became so fascinated by that period of history and the people living then that I put the picture book aside and started writing Out of the Dust.
How did you research the Dust Bowl for your book?
I always start my research in the children's room at the public library in Brattleboro, Vermont. Then I use the footnotes and the bibliographies from those books to find more books. I looked at some very dry — no pun intended — texts to read about growing wheat and living on a farm in that period. I studied the effects of the dust, and what impact it had on farmers and non-farmers living in that area. The impact of anything in history ripples out to touch everyone eventually, so I also studied the effects of dust throughout the world.
Did you use any family history in your research and writing for Out of the Dust?
Well, my parents and grandparents lived through the Depression, but the stories they tell of the Depression are so different from the stories I heard about when researching Out of the Dust. My family's experience was in Baltimore and New York City, and it's completely different from the rural experience of not having enough. I can't even relate the two!
Can this book still be classified as fiction even though you based it on actual events?
Yes, I think you can classify it as a historical novel. It's almost docu-fiction, in that doing the research led me to newspapers from that time period. I didn't speak to many people, but I did read newspapers from that area. And a lot of the events in the book are drawn straight from the newspaper; I just embellished and pulled in the other research to create the book. But a lot of the characters are based on real people I read about. And of course, I created them to be able to carry out the action of the book. I even used some real names of people I read about, people I didn't think would be harmed.
How long did it take you to write Out of the Dust?
From the time I started doing the research until the time I held the finished book in my hand, was about a year and a half.
You mentioned that you studied the effects of dust throughout the world — what did you find out?
Well, one of the things I found out is that ships out at sea — 200 miles out into the Atlantic — could see dust tracing all the way back to the Kansas or Oklahoma prairie. The cost of wheat is determined by the amount of wheat produced in the plains, and during the Dust Bowl only a portion of the wheat survived. And so the price of wheat went up, and that caused a demand for wheat all over.
Where were you and how did you feel when you found out that you had won the Newbery Medal?
I was in my apartment, in Brattleboro, Vermont. When the phone rang, I answered it and found Ellen Fader on the other end of the line. I knew Ellen from lunches and dinners that I had attended with my publishers. When she called, I had no idea what she was calling about. I was ready to be sociable. She said, “I am not calling for social reasons. I am calling for the Newbery committee,” and I didn't hear anything else. My heart started beating so fast. I didn't know if I had won an Honor or a Medal. It wasn't until the Today show called that I knew I had won a Newbery Medal. I can't imagine anything more thrilling.
Why did you choose to write Out of the Dust in blank verse?
I enjoy writing poetry. I started my writing career as a poet, so in a way this book allowed me to get back to my roots as a writer. I don't think I ever consciously decided to write this book in blank verse, but when I tried to put my finger on who Billie Jo was, and how she would speak, I realized she lived a very spare life. Everything she did was carefully considered, because it took so much to survive, to get through one day living with parents who were struggling. It seemed as if the only way to get at that spareness was to tell it through poetry.
Why did you make Billie Jo a poet and a pianist?
I guess because I'm both a poet and a musician — although I'm not very good at either, I'm afraid! But the research I did was filled with more than the Dust Bowl. The dust storms were only minor articles — what was going on there was life! There were concerts and plays and schools. Even though everyone was struggling, life was going on. I wanted the reader to understand that you still have to brush your teeth, and you still sing when you're washing dishes — even if you have to pump for the water. So I made Billie Jo connected to the arts, because I wanted the reader to understand that even if people were struggling under such harsh circumstances, they would find a way to keep joy in their lives.
Will you ever write a sequel to Out of the Dust?
I often get asked about writing sequels to my books. One of the things that thrills me most is creating fiction fresh from the ground up. Writing a sequel doesn't hold an attraction for me, because I have already established characters and I don't have the opportunity to create new ones. There is not that same appeal I have as when I am beginning a new book from the ground up. I won't say that I will never do it, but it doesn't have the same appeal for me.
Is there anything you would change about Out of the Dust?
I think that I would have there be even more hope in the earlier part of the book than there is. When I was traveling to New York City to appear on the Today show, right after the award was announced, I reread the book so I would be able to answer their questions. (I hadn't read it in a while.) And I noticed how sad it was! It ends on a note of hope, but I think that if I had to do it again, I would try to make it less bleak in the beginning.
Why did you choose to settle in Vermont?
What a great question! In 1976, at the Bicentennial celebration, my husband and I got into our pickup truck, put shelves on it, and took our two cats, a little bit of clothing, a Coleman lantern, a stove, and a tent. We took off across America. We traveled for six months, camping along the way. Near the end of those six months, we drove into Vermont. We knew we had come home, and I have never regretted it.
We're Vermonters and we wonder if you will be making any local appearances.
Oh, one of the difficult parts of becoming a celebrity is that you could literally spend every day on the road. And then you don't write. So I have made the decision not to appear anywhere for a year following this wonderful Newbery year. I need to take time to fill the well back up again. Then once that happens, and my baby daughter graduates next year — in the spring of 2000 — I am looking forward to seeing students again. But for this year, I am going to stay home in Vermont.
Is it true that your grandfather almost boarded the Titanic?
My grandfather had a ticket for the Titanic, but he was approached by someone who had a little more money. So he sold his ticket and went over on the next boat.
When did you start writing books?
I started writing in grade five. I started writing for children in 1982, when I was thirty years old, but I didn't publish my first book until 1991, so it was a long apprenticeship.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I was following two voices. First was a voice from outside, my teacher's voice, which told me I was good with words and very creative. But you also have to follow your own voice, about what feels right and what doesn't. And when I sat down to write a poem or story, I felt more at home with myself than at any other time. So the two voices together helped me decide.
Did you always want to be a writer once you'd started?
Interestingly, I almost became an actress, but in my freshman year I fell in love and found that I couldn't be in theater and in love at the same time! So I went back to writing.
Who or what inspired you to write? Were there any teachers or mentors who really influenced you?
Oh, yes. As far as teachers, I had one wonderful teacher after another — Mrs. Datinoff and Mr. Ball, in particular. They were so supportive and so encouraging. Then reading books helped me a lot in my pursuit of writing. The one author who was most instrumental to me was Katherine Paterson. I discovered her in the early 1980s when I read Of Nightingales That Weep. I thought, if this is children's literature, I want to be part of it.
Who were your favorite children's authors when you were growing up?
I loved Dr. Seuss. The way he used language just delighted me. The language — the sound of it — is amazing. He was writing as I was growing up and I couldn't wait until the next new book came out. I could drive my librarian crazy. I had this librarian who would feed me books the way a mother feeds children food. Her name is Peggy Coughlin. She eventually went on to the Library of Congress.
Did you read a lot as a child?
Yes, I read a lot. I read at night after the lights were out in the hallway. I would read by the light from the outside. If I got caught, I would get yelled at. But it never stopped me. I would read until I fell asleep every night. And I still do that.
Do you think Dr. Seuss's books inspired you to write poetry?
That is a great question. It's a hard one to answer because the poetry I write doesn't rhyme. In fact, I have a lot of wacky rhyming poetry in my drawers that has never seen the light of day. But I think because of the music of his language, I embraced the opportunity to play with the language the same way. Even if I look at the prose, you can hear the same poetry in it.
Did you read your work to your children when they were growing up?
No, I didn't. I read to them — I'd read them everything I could get my hands on. I'd bring home boxes of picture books and of older books. But when they were little, I was writing novels for older children, and my kids were too young! Since they've reached an age when they're able to articulate things about writing, I read my books to them as I'm working. They are very helpful in assessing my work's strengths and weaknesses. They are tough reads! I still read to them — both my work and other books, too.
Tell us about your writers group. How do you help each other with your work?
Well, there's Liza Ketchum, Bob MacLean, and Eileen Christelow. We meet anywhere from once a week to once a month, and we read what we're working on. Eileen is a picture-book author and illustrator. We look at her art and text as it evolves. I'm not an artist, but I do help her a lot with her text. Bob is also a picture-book author and illustrator. For years he just illustrated books — probably close to 100 — but now he's trying to become an author and illustrator. He's struggling as if he's never published anything before! Finally there's Liza. She writes nonfiction. She wrote a companion piece to one of Ken Burns's documentaries about the West. She also writes young adult and picture books. Liza reads us chapters, we make suggestions, and then she revises them and reads them to us again. That works very well for her, but I'm a bit different. If I gave just one chapter to my writers group, and they didn't love it — which they never do — I would get depressed and not continue. So I write the whole thing and then I read it to them and get their suggestions on the book as a whole. I work a bit differently from the rest of the group.
Where did you get your ideas for Letters From Rifka?
When my grandparents died, I felt as if I had lost something I couldn't replace. I began asking my mother for stories about my grandparents. She didn't have them, but she suggested I ask my great-aunt Lucy. So I did. Lucy couldn't answer my questions about my grandparents either, but she could answer questions about herself. Her story is Rifka's story. Her children had never heard her story. So I urge all students, all people, to gather their family stories — to tape them and ask questions of their family members. I am certain they all have stories to tell.
When researching Rifka's story, how did you feel when you realized that part of your family had to go through such hardships?
That is a hard question to answer. When I write, I really put myself into the shoes of the character. When you are living through a difficult time, you don't always realize how difficult it is. So while I was writing Rifka's story in Rifka's shoes, I didn't have a sense of how difficult it was. It wasn't until afterward that I realized not only what my family went through, but also what thousands of families have gone through. I get mail from people who are leaving countries all over the world and finding asylum in the United States or in Israel . . . and not all of them are Jews. There are conditions existing around the world that affect every religion. These conditions are what drive people from their homes.
How did you come up with the name Rifka?
I have about six baby-naming books — the kinds of books people buy when they're trying to name a child. The books are from different decades and they're organized in different ways — by strengths and definition, by syllable, and by ethnicity. When I named Rifka, I was looking in the ethnic section. I was looking for pronounceability — it drives me crazy when I can't pronounce a character's name. I was also looking for a name with meaning and one that is ethnically correct — Rifka fit all of those things.
What does Rifka mean? What kind of name is it?
I have to pull out the name book! I believe it means “strong,” but let me see if I can find it. . . . It's under Israel, and it means “servant of God; binding.”
How do you come up with such realistic characters? Do you have any writing tips for character development?
I don't know if I can say how I come up with such realistic characters. I simply try to be as honest as I can to the character I am creating. I try to come up with characters that have a number of dimensions. One of the things I do is use a photograph. I will look at it as I am writing. I will look deeply into the eyes of that child. It's almost as if that child tells me what he or she would actually say.
As far as tips for aspiring writers, the best advice is to read every day. To read not only books you like but books you do not like. I find sometimes that it is more educational to read a book I don't like. Then I notice the themes and the flaws — I am more aware of them. When you read something you love, you tend to read fast, and to be more forgiving of flaws that you find. Then, you don't learn as much about the process of writing.
Do your characters seem real and believable to you?
My characters do feel real to me — so real that when it's time to make dinner or celebrate a holiday, it's hard for me to let the characters go and live for a while. I spent two Christmases working on the book Phoenix Rising. My family really didn't see me during those Christmases, because I was so involved with the characters and it was hard for me to leave them. My children said to me, “Please write a happy book next time!” Which I did!
What do you do if you can't think of anything to write? Are there any rituals that you do that are a bit interesting?
I don't really believe in writer's block. There are times that the writing goes so well that I feel I have been given a gift. Then there are times it goes so slowly, it feels like torture. But I know that if I stay at the computer — if I keep at it with every word and every image — it will be okay. Before long, if you keep at it, you get those days again when it is just beautiful and the words just flow.
What advice do you have for people who want to be writers?
I say go for it! Anyone who wants to write can. The requisites are to read as much as you can, and to write every day. Take it one step at a time. If you look at a whole novel, you will probably think that you could never write something like that. But if you take it apart, sentence by sentence, it becomes doable. Use a diary or a journal. If you feel that you have something to say, you probably do. Just don't give up.
There were about nine years when I submitted work and received not one acceptance. I think a less stubborn person would've given up! But I believed I could do it, and I had friends who were writers who believed I could do it, too. My stubbornness and their faith and encouragement of me kept me going through those nine years of rejection.
Do you think that the rejected stories from your first nine years should be published?
Well, my daughters think they should be published. I've grown a lot. The nine years of rejection were for a reason! I was apprenticing in this field of children's literature. I think that each piece I had written had its merits, but I was still learning. And even though my daughters think those things should be published — especially the humorous ones — I'm not sure I would like to move backwards rather than forwards.
Why did you decide to write Sable?
One summer, as my daughter was preparing to go to camp, she called me and said, “Mom, there is a dog on our back porch.” There was this pathetic, half-starved, half-dead dog. We gave the dog some water and told it go home. Of course, it didn't have a home. We put the dog in our car and took it to the Humane Society. They weren't sure if it would live, it was so hungry. After a week the vet decided it would live, and they asked us if we would like to adopt her. We did. The story is based on our dog, Sasha. She is no longer skinny. She is as fat as a sausage. She gets a cookie for anything — absolutely anything! She is a very spoiled, very happy dog.
What inspired you to write your book The Music of Dolphins?
I often listen to “Fresh Air” on public radio. One day, Terry Gross was interviewing a man about wild children. I was listening in my car, and I was so fascinated by the interview that when I arrived at my destination, I wouldn't get out until it was over. I thought that if I was that fascinated, other people would be, too. The book they were discussing is called Genie, by Russ Rymer. So the first thing I did was read that book. Then I dove into research about wild children. I chose to set my book in the community of dolphins because of all the animals I could choose for Mila to grow up with, dolphins have the most complex language and social structure. This gave me the opportunity to have my character return to human society — because of the skills she could learn from the dolphin society.
What kind of research did you do for The Music of the Dolphins?
Endless research. I went to Florida and spent time at a dolphin research facility. I spent time with the Coast Guard; I worked with speech pathologists — and that was all direct. I also did an enormous amount of book research — to study how language is acquired and how dolphins socialize and learn. I wanted to create a really credible scenario, and unless I did my research, I couldn't do that.
Do you think that the story The Music of Dolphins could really happen?
I wouldn't have written the book if I didn't think it could have happened. When I began researching for the book, I met with someone from the Coast Guard — from the Cay Cel Islands. They said it was very possible for someone to hang out there for years and not be detected. The Cay Cel Islands are a series of tiny little islands in the straits between Florida and Cuba. Then when I studied dolphins, I found out that dolphins will occasionally take in a human and protect him or her, under certain circumstances. I also talked to dentists and doctors to find out whether a human could survive on the dolphins' diet. She could, but she wouldn't be overly healthy! Her hair and teeth and skin would beaffected. The limited amount of fresh water would harm her health, but she would survive. Finally, when I had all those ingredients, I knew that I could write the book.
In The Music of Dolphins, why does the type size change throughout the book?
The words are set in a large face at the beginning of the book in order to represent Mila's ability with human language. As her ability improves and she becomes more acquainted with her human nature, the type size grows smaller. As she begins to question human nature, the type size increases again.
What was your favorite book to write and why?
I think my most favorite to write was Lavender— because it practically wrote itself. My aunt, who is so close to me, lives in Maryland, and I live in Vermont. One winter morning, she was on the way to work. She slipped in the driveway and fell, and she broke her leg. She called and no one came. She had to get back into the house and call the ambulance. That same morning, I was sitting at my desk and I couldn't write. She was calling for help from 500 miles away, and I think I heard her. I wrote all the stories I could remember about her, that day, and that became Lavender.
What types of books do you most like to read as an adult?
I love reading children's fiction. I have a stack of books by my bed. I read until I sleep, and I read as soon as I awake. I also read a lot of nonfiction, but mostly I read it for research. I LOVE discovering new things. I feel so fortunate that I have a job that encourages me to read and discover new things.
Did you ever write a completely non fictional book?
No, I haven't. But a lot of people call my work docu-fiction — because I do careful research. Although the character telling the story is fictitious, the world I create is very real. I just don't feel comfortable putting words in the mouths of real people.
How long does it take to write a book?
It all depends on the book, and it all depends on the author. There are some authors who spend their entire lives writing one book. I tend to average about one to two years per book. A lot of time is taken up on just the research — I would say eight to ten months before I even write the first word. In order to make the world real to the reader, I have to make it real to me. Sometimes, as in the case of A Time of Angels, I had trouble finding the voice of the character. So in addition to all the research for that book — on the Spanish flu, World War I, Boston, and Vermont, all during that very early period in the 1900s — I spent time trying to find a way to tell Hannah's story. So that book took a lot longer to write.
Is it hard to support a family on the salary of a writer?
It's pretty hard. Only about five percent of published authors can support their families on their earnings. This has been a glorious year for me, and it's pushed me up into that five percent. But it's very difficult to stay there if you don't continue to write books that are acclaimed and that sell well! So if you want to write in order to be rich, I wouldn't suggest it. But if you want to write because it gives you joy, and it's the only profession you can think of having, then I think it's the most wonderful profession in the world regardless of how little or how much you make!
What will your next book be about?
It is a Dear America book, part of Scholastic's wonderful series of fictitious characters telling their stories during a certain period. My story is set in a lighthouse on Fenwick Island, Delaware, during the beginning of the Civil War. The character Amelia looks from the North to the South, from her spot at the center of the East Coast. All through it, she keeps the light in the lighthouse burning. It's the light of hope in the darkness.
Do you think technology will affect how much kids read in the future? Or how or what they read?
Oh boy! I hope that the technology, whatever it turns out to be, can make reading a more powerful experience for the reader. Books were once a new technology, and they were wonderful. It's possible to imagine a technology where you take in words and experience it the way books do now. Until that happens, I don't think there is a satisfactory technology like a book. A book is an excellent technology — and I don't think it should be forsaken until the new technology is something you can curl up with, and take time with. When you take the words into your brain through your eyes, you take the experience in — in an intimate way. I don't feel that same sense of intimacy with a computer screen.
Do you write by hand or on the computer?
I write on the computer. When I first started writing poetry, I wrote by hand. Then I used a manual typewriter, and then an electronic typewriter. Then I got a Commodore, and I loved it. Now I write on a Compaq Presario, and it fits on my lap. It is warm like a cat, and it purrs like a cat. I love writing that way!
How does listening to your voice help your writing?
When you write, you write a reflection of what you are. Now, I'm not sad about it, but I didn't have an easy childhood — it had a lot of bumps on it. My work reflects the bumps and knocks that I've experienced. I write the kinds of books that I would've wanted as a child. And I like books that have grit and make me feel like I've learned something when I'm finished. I try to write books that will have that effect on readers.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
My daughters! As wonderful as my writing career is — and it is spectacular and has brought me wonderful things, like letters that make me weep — I think the most wonderful thing is having two wonderful, dynamic, independent-thinking daughters!
Do you have any final words for the audience?
I'd like to say how much I appreciate the teachers who read the children's books out there today, who find the value in them and bring it into the classroom. I also want to thank the students who bring everything, every piece of emotion to what they read. They breathe life into the words a writer writes. And so I thank them just for being the most splendid readers.