Author Kathryn Lasky was interviewed by Scholastic students.
Did you always want to be a writer when you were growing up?
I loved to read, and if I could've been a professional reader, that's probably what I would've wanted to be! Somehow, it just evolved — if you like reading, I think you like writing. But I never really thought anybody could get paid for writing! So it came as a great shock to me! But I guess you could say that in a funny way, yes, I probably always wanted to be a writer.
Did anyone in particular inspire you to become a writer? Parents? Teachers?
I would say my mother. She just was always very responsive to my language — to the way I spoke. I remember very specifically once we were driving in a car. It was in the summer time, and we had the top down. And I had my head back against the seat and I was looking up at the sky. And there were all of these thick woolly clouds. It was at night. And I said, “It looks like a sheep back sky.” And my mom said, “Kathy, you should be a writer!” And I always remember that.
As a child, did you daydream a lot?
Yes!! Incessantly. I once read a quote, and I think the person who said it was a famous English writer named Elizabeth Bishop. And she described herself as a distracted student in the classroom of life. That's the way I feel. I feel I was always daydreaming and I was always distracted.
Is it fun pretending to be a princess when you write the Royal Diaries?
Well, I think in a way she's right. You kind of have to get into the role. And it is challenging — and it can be scary too. Those princesses went through some pretty scary times. Elizabeth saw what her father Henry VIII had done to her mother — chopped off her head. She knew he'd done it. She knew what he'd done to her stepmother too. And he exiled her on occasions. So it must've been scary when he went into his rages. And similarly, when I wrote Marie Antoinette — she was made to marry a young man she'd never met. She was just sent off from her family and home to go to France and marry this guy. And it turned out he wasn't so great! He was about her age, but he was very immature — he was physically very unattractive. He was shy to the point of rudeness. And this wasn't just a blind date! So those are the scary parts of being a princess — or pretending like you're a princess.
How is writing Diaries and journal of famous people different from writing a regular story?
Well, with Diaries and journals of famous people, you sort of know in a way the whole story before you begin. Although you might choose to focus on more obscure parts of it. For example, with the Princess Diary of Elizabeth — I knew she was going to be queen. And with Marie Antoinette, I knew she was going to have her head chopped off — and I was glad I didn't have to take the diary that far. And so, I'm not sure if it exactly affects my writing in a conscious way, but I think it does in some kind of very subtle way. Where you take a fictional character, like in my new book for Scholastic's series My Name Is America, I'm doing a journal of a young boy named Augustus Pelletier, who went on the Lewis and Clark expedition — he's just made up. Therefore, he's not famous until there's this wonderful kind of thing that happens, where I can just imagine him grown up. Even though in the diaries he's just 14, I can just imagine him grown up, and history doesn't stop me, even though I don't write about when he's 30. So, I guess for the fictional characters, the possibilities seem much more limitless.
How do you choose the subjects you want to write about?
Well, I just find something that kind of goads my imagination — it can be from anyplace. I can read a newspaper article and it might trigger something else in my mind. I often like to choose in historical fiction things or subject matter I don't feel have been given a fair shake in history. Where people fell into kind of easy answers or stereotypical thinking — I always feel like that there's an understory that people should explore. And that was very true with my book Beyond the Burning Time. I just felt this hadn't been handled well or explored responsibly in terms of fiction.
Where did you get the idea for First Painter?
I have always been fascinated by paleontology and prehistoric people, and I've always thought that one of the most intriguing moments in human history was the birth of artistic imagination. I always loved those cave paintings. When I was in college, I took an art history course, and my favorite part was the cave paintings — I found those were the most powerful of all the artwork I was shown in that course. I thought it would be really neat and a challenge to try to reconstruct a moment, imaginatively, when human imagination was born. I don't know if there was any single moment — this is a construct, it's not like in real history one person walked into a cave and said “I'm going to paint.” But, within reason, I tried to reconstruct a moment.
I just finished your book Beyond the Burning Time. It is a very interesting book to me and a very interesting topic. I was wondering, what was it about the topic that interests you and made you write the book?
I live in Massachusetts, and I had gone out to Salem many times on my own, on school trips with my kids, and I didn't like the way it was presented. I didn't like the billboards showing witches on broomsticks flying across the moon. And I thought, “This is cheapening what was a terrible tragedy, and a shameful moment in our history.” And I knew there were descendents of some of those people in the area. And I thought, “Suppose we treated the Holocaust this way — like some tourist attraction.” I hated the fact there was a witchcraft shop out there, and I decided I really wanted to find out about it. So, that was easy to do — because Massachusetts doesn't throw away any scrap of paper. They had all the transcripts of the trial — and I delved into it, and read the more recent scholarly work. And you realize that at the bottom of it all was a lot of economics — people feeling they'd been cheated by their neighbors or relatives. I think it was a terrible moment, and it could recur — people want to blame others for their problems.
Out of all the books you've written, do you have a favorite?
Oh, that is so hard! It's like saying do you have a favorite child — no! But I have a favorite kind of book, and that is historical fiction.
How did you get into writing historical fiction?
The first book I ever wrote was called The Night Journey, and it was based on a true story of my own family. It was about how my grandparents came to this country from Russia in the late 1800s. I might not have thought of it as historical fiction, but I guess that's how I first got into it.
Do you have a favorite time period that you like to write about?
Well, not exactly. I guess I kind of like the 1800s in American history, because I really am a Wild West fan, and there was a lot of interesting stuff going on then. But I don't think I really have any special time period that appeals more than others.
My seventh grade class is reading True North. I have been able to put together a map so my students can follow the journey of Africa from the Great Dismal Swamp to Phil., but I'm having difficulty finding a detailed map of Boston to follow the movements of Lucy and Pap. Can you guide me to a resource for this?
Going to the library or the Massachusetts Historical Society would be a good idea. I also find great things on the Web through that search engine Google.
Where do you go to research your books? The library? The Internet? Do you interview people?
All of the above! And I go to the actual places — I'm only 45 minutes from Salem. For The Diary of Remember Patience Ripple, I just went down to Plymouth Plantation. I've started using the Net a lot more in the past year.
Did you have a favorite book when you were a kid?
I loved The Secret Garden.
When you first started writing, did you have any doubts about whether you could do it?
Of course — I still have doubts! You never stop having doubts!
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
I really like all the parts — I love the start-up and I love when I'm just beginning the research. And I don't mind the revision — I love planning out the books. So, there really isn't a favorite part — I like it all. And one of the things I think is so great about writing is that there are so many parts to it — you never get bored! You do research, outlining, there's straight writing — I'm doing them all every day, on every book. They're ongoing simultaneous aspects.
How do you feel when you've finished a book?
Sometimes I feel a little sad — it's like I've become friends with these people and I don't want to let them go. They're good company.
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
Read. I like working in my garden — which I've just been doing — planting my spring bulbs.
As an adult, how are you able to get inside the head of a kid so well?
Well, maybe there's a kid inside me that's never left! It's kind of mysterious. I do think that somewhere within me there's this perpetual 11 or 12 year old.
How closely did you work with the Illustrator on First Painter?
Well, he lived in Toronto, and I live in the Boston area. So, we talked on the phone a lot. But generally speaking, illustrators and writers don't work that closely together. But we talked, and the editor was sometimes an intermediary. But I can't really tell him what to do, just like he can't tell me what to do.
How can the other arts (music, painting, etc) inspire writers?
Well, I think it's a very subtle way in which they do, but I think it's very important. I think if you want to be a writer, you should be looking at art, listening to music, and all that kind of stuff. Because you learn what communicates with people — what stirs your soul. It can be a slant of light on something, and all of a sudden, a dead leaf just sparkles. For myself, because I do love to write about landscape a lot, so the photography of Ansel Adams has been very influential, as well as the paintings of Monet. How can you write about light unless you've really seen it and thought about it?
What advice would you offer students who would like to pursue a writing career?
Read. Just read as much as you can — I think that's as important as keeping writing. There was an era when people thought you had to keep journals, and I don't think it's that important. But read all kinds of things: fiction, nonfiction, the newspapers. All of that.
How long does it take to do research for your books?
Forever! It never stops! I would say, roughly speaking, it's a 4 to 1 ratio of research time to writing time. For every hour I spend writing, I spend four researching. I begin by doing only research, and then I get a base, but I keep those books or papers around me. So, I go back to them as I write, and I keep extensive notes, so it's hard to say. For the Dear America books, it just takes a couple of months, but three-quarters of the time is research, so I can write pretty fast in the time that isn't research.
What book was hardest for you to write and why?
Well, I'm not sure if it was the hardest, but Marie Antoinette was difficult. I had just finished Elizabeth, whom I loved. She was so smart and so full of life and determination. Marie Antoinette was not. Marie Antoinette could hardly read or write and was bossed around entirely by her mother. She was very pretty, but she seemed like kind of an airhead to me! So, this was hard, because I'd rather have Elizabeth as a friend, and I was going to have to “hang out” with Marie Antoinette. But through research, I found aspects of her personality that I found admirable, and I was gradually, over time, drawn to her. But, that's why beginning that book was very hard for me.
Where did you get the idea for True North (to write two stories in one)?
Well, because I live in Boston, I knew that there had been many abolitionists living in Boston and there'd been an active Underground Railroad program in Boston. I also knew that although Boston was considered a bastion of liberal thinking, they were Yankees — but I knew there was an element of very wealthy people whose businesses depended on slavery. The Boston economy did — we had the textile mills. All the cotton picked down south was often sent here to put into fabric. So, I thought that made it kind of an edgy place to set a book about the Underground Railroad.
If you could travel back in time and meet one of the historical people you've written about, who would it be?
I would want to go back and meet Mark Twain. I wrote about him in Alice Rose & Sam. It's about a girl who is 12 years old and she meets and teams up with Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) when he was writing for a newspaper in Virginia City, Nevada, during the Civil War. And they strike up a friendship. I always loved Mark Twain, and I think he was just such an original. And really a character — kind of a nutty, wild guy!
Do you have a special place where you do your writing?
Yes, I'm sitting in it now! It's a study. It's gotten so cramped with books, that we're beginning just this week to add onto it.
Was it hard for you to write about slavery?
Yes, all of slavery was absolutely terrible. But it was very hard for me when I uncovered the stuff about the sexual abuse of young girls and the separation of children from their parents — that was the worst. So it was hard.
If you were not a writer, what would you be?
What a good question! I might want to be an illustrator. I might want to be a fabulous musician — like a composer and a pianist.
Do you travel to the places you've written about in your historical books?
I try to get to as many as is possible, but I can't always. I'd been on part of the Lewis and Clark trail, way before I ever wrote the book, and I would've liked to have done the whole thing, but there wasn't time.
Are you friends with any other children's book authors?
Yes, I know a lot of them.
Do you have a favorite passage from one of your books?
Of course I can't remember exactly, but I wrote a book years ago called Beyond the Divide. And there's a passage in the book in a chapter called “The Sky Weaver,” and this girl — a lot of devastating things have happened. And she was questioning why — was there some reason? And she begins to think about the connections among everything on earth — the stars, the snakes, herself, her father, and so forth. And she's trying to weave it all together. I wish I could remember it all — but that is a favorite passage of mine.
Which of the characters you've written about most resembles you and why?
Well, I don't think any of them — they might have a few aspects of me. But usually these characters are what I would like to be. I did write a book several years ago called Pageant. And it was perhaps the most autobiographical book I ever wrote. There's a girl in it called Sarah Benjamin, and she's a lot like me.
Do you keep a diary or a journal?
If someone could only read one of your books, which one would you want them to read?
Maybe Beyond the Burning Time. I think everything really came together in that book.
Do you ever get writer's block? What do you do when this happens?
You know, I haven't ever gotten it! And I think it's because there are so many parts to the process for me — so I can always be rotating among the research, the outlining, and the actual writing, so I think that does help.
Are you planning on writing more books in The Royal Diary series?
Oh yes! There's Mary Queen of Scots — I just finished it. It might come out in a year or so. And I'll be doing one on a Japanese princess and one on an Indian princess (from India.)
Do you ever read your own books later for fun?
Not very often, no. Been there, done that!
Do you enjoy telling stories aloud?
No, I really don't. I'm not a storyteller in that sense. I hate to say it, but I'm not — I think it's a real art, and I just don't have it.
Is there anything you wish you could change about any of your books?
I don't think so — I'm not saying that they're perfect, but it's very hard for me to go back and think about what I might have changed or done differently.
Are people reading more or less than they did when you were a kid?
As of recently, because of Harry Potter, I think they're reading more — or children are. I don't know about adults. I came from a home where everybody had a book. But I may have a different view of things. But it does seem that a lot of my contemporaries don't read as much as I do.
Is there anything else you would like to say to your readers?
I just think it's great that they're reading — and great that they're reading my books! I have to thank them because I know there are so many demands on a kid's time, that I feel honored by any young person who breaks away from all those demands on their time and picks up my books. I just hope they read them to enjoy them and not just because they have to write a report!
Many thanks to Kathryn Lasky for joining us this afternoon and participating in our live interview.