Natalie Babbitt Interview Transcript
The author was interviewed by Scholastic students.
Did you want to be a writer when you were younger?
I never wrote a word - I wrote verse from time to time. But I never wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a book illustrator. I used to hurry home from school and draw.
How old were you when your first book was published?
I was maybe thirty-five. I wasn't really writing then. What I wanted to do was be an illustrator. My husband wrote the story for my first book, but then he didn't want to do that anymore. So if I was going to go on being an illustrator, I had to start writing the stories, too.
When you first started writing, did you have any doubts about whether you could do it?
Yes. The first two books that I did by myself were long stories in verse. I knew I could do that because I'd written a lot in verse. But, verse stories are hard to sell, so my editor encouraged me to try writing in prose. And I thought "okay," and I wrote a little picture-book story and it kept growing and growing, and before I knew it I had created The Search for Delicious. When it was finished, I couldn't believe I had done it! And I'm not sure I could do it again today.
Why are the people in The Search for Delicious so quarrelsome and thoughtless? Do you think all people are like that?
I think all people are like that when they think they have a good reason.
What influenced your writing of The Search for Delicious?
It came out of the fairy tales I had read growing up, but it has a serious side to it, too. I wrote it during the Vietnam War, and I wasn't conscious of writing about that - I'm not a very political person. I had lived through a lot of wars - I had grown up during WW II. We human beings do a lot of dumb things, and war is certainly the dumbest. I think that affected the book as I was writing.
Has being an artist/illustrator influenced the way you write stories?
I don't know that it has influenced it. I think my writing style and my pictures come out of the same place - they're mutually informed by what I see in my head. When you're writing a story, it's like watching a movie - you describe what you're seeing in your head. And illustrating is the same thing - you draw what you see in your head. I'm not skillful enough to draw exactly what I see in my head, but I do the best I can.
How would you describe your writing?
Wordy! I enjoy description - I like words, and words are the tools that writers use, just like paint is the tool that artists use. I think words are fun, and I have a lot of fun using them. I know that a lot of kids think my stories start very slowly, and I expect that's true. But that's the way I like to read stories, so when I'm writing them I can do what I want! I say that to kids in schools, and they are very generous - they say, "That's true. You can do what you want. It's your story."
Do you have any favorites among the books you've written?
I have two favorites. My most favorite is the only one that's not for kids - it's about Ohio, where I grew up, and it's about Midwestern things and people. I tried to make it a book for kids, but it did not want to go that way. It's called Herbert Rowbarge. And it's for women over forty. Of my books for kids, my favorite is Goody Hall, which is the one my readers like the least! Kids in England tend to like it better than kids in America. I love the characters in that book. And it seems funny to me.
If someone could only read one of your books, which one would you want them to read?
Tuck Everlasting. People seem to have a good time thinking about the issues raised in that one. And grownups seem to like it as much as kids.
Do you think there's a lesson in Tuck Everlasting?
People are always looking for a lesson in it, but I don't think it has one. It presents dilemmas, and I think that's what life does! I dealt with a lot of dilemmas before I even started school. I think a lot of adults would like to think that things are simple for kids, but that's not so. I get a lot of letters from students and teachers saying they spend a lot of time debating the things that happen in Tuck. Things that are illegal happen - the man in the yellow suit being killed, for example. I think the book doesn't present any lessons about what's right and what's wrong, but it does point out how difficult these decisions are.
Why did you feel it was necessary to kill the man in the yellow suit?
In the beginning, I hadn't decided what I was going to do with him. He had to be silenced - it was a practical thing. If you think about different ways to keep someone quiet, they're all very terrible. Rip out his tongue? Bash him on the head and put him in a coma? Killing him seemed to be the most merciful thing. Mae Tuck is a female animal, and we female animals are born with an instinct to protect our young. And Mae lashed out at the man in the yellow suit without having to think about it. She did what I would've done if someone had come into my house and tried to take my children away when they were very little. She's very much like me - and what I was like when I was young.
Why doesn't the man in the yellow suit have a name?
He had a name in the beginning. As I went along, I took it out. He is much more threatening and mysterious if he doesn't have a name, and I think that's true of a lot of things in life. When we don't know anything about someone, they're more mysterious.
How did you get the idea for the man in the yellow suit to remain nameless?
I talked to kids in school, and I asked them how they would feel if a stranger came and sat in the classroom and didn't say anything. They said it would seem dangerous! I think the man in the yellow suit's evilness is easier to believe if he doesn't have a name.
How did you come up with the setting for the story?
The location of the story is a real place. We lived for twelve years in the Adirondacks, in central New York State. Our house was exactly like the Tucks' house. There were many toads around, so it seemed natural to put them in the story. There were frogs as well, so I put them in the story too. But frogs don't come out into the middle of the road, and toads do.
How do you choose the names of your characters?
That's one of the things I like the best! In most of my books, the characters' names have secondary meanings that the reader doesn't have to know. In Tuck Everlasting, Winnie's last name - Foster - means "forester." The name Tuck came from a thesaurus and an old dictionary. I wanted a name that meant life and was only one syllable. When I looked it up in my old dictionary, I found that tuck meant life. The first names in that book were chosen to go with the times - they're old-fashioned. You don't meet too many people with those names very often any more - although once I was approached by a woman who told me her name was Winifred Foster!
Why did you make Winnie die in Tuck Everlasting?
Winnie did what I would have done. I think that living forever would be a terrible thing. It would be boring, sad, and lonely.
Will you ever write a sequel to Tuck Everlasting?
No, I will never write a sequel. I think sequels are wonderful when a writer has planned to do it before the first one is done, but to write a sequel to a novel just because people have enjoyed it usually produces an inferior novel. And it would be unfair to do a sequel without Winnie in it.
We've read and enjoyed the book The Devil's Storybook. Have you ever considered writing a book about heaven?
Heaven is in the Devil's stories every once and awhile. In the story about the two brothers who quarrel all the time, it's there. But I'm afraid I must say, and I hope nobody gets mad at this, but things are probably more interesting in Hell than in Heaven. Which is not to say I want to go there, but as far as storytelling is concerned, I need bad people. That's why we have to have villains, to keep interest. If everybody was good, we'd have fewer interesting stories.
What is the most important aspect of writing a story?
There are so many different ways to go about writing a story. I have been criticized because it always appears that the idea, not the characters, is the most important thing in my stories. I think that criticism is probably justified! I cast my characters out of the possibilities - the kinds of people who are best going to be able to talk about my idea. The Tuck family has four members, and they were chosen specifically to talk about different points of view of living forever.
Why did you choose to write about the idea of living forever?
The question of what it might be like to live forever is something that everyone thinks about. And I think you think about it more when you find out you can't do it. It's an idea that's been sitting around in my head for a lot of years. I think we shy away from writing about our own deaths, although we can write about others' deaths. I'm always surprised when people think that Tuck Everlasting is unusual, because I think it's the most usual question there is.
Do you consider yourself to be a fantasy writer?
Well, everybody thinks my books are fantasy, but they're not. Kneeknock Rise and The Eyes of the Amaryllis are not fantasy. Very often there is no other way to talk about certain kinds of ideas. You can't talk about living forever without writing fantasy. Fantasy can deal with things much more directly sometimes than factual fiction can. And there's also something very satisfying about the whole pattern of the classic hero. These stories tend to have strong, satisfying endings. Although I get some back talk on Tuck Everlasting with that one - some people don't think it has a satisfying ending.
What do you mean by "classic hero?"
There is a pattern about which I knew nothing until I had written several books. In almost every fairy tale or myth, or big story, even in the movies, there is a hero who receives a call to adventure, and crosses the line from the real to the fantasy world. He meets his adversaries, fights his battle, and comes back to try and pass on what he's learned to the real world. This pattern is so ancient that some people think we are born understanding it! It even happens in the Wizard of Oz. The hero has protectors - like the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion. And the hero mostly comes back in the end. This pattern is there, and it's hard to escape it in fantasy.
What types of books would you read when you were young?
The things I read to myself were mainly fairy tales and Greek myths. Those were the things I liked best.
Did you have a favorite book when you were younger?
I think my favorite books were Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I loved them because they didn't have any lessons to teach.
What made Alice's Adventures in Wonderland your favorite book?
The pictures were beautiful and funny at the same time, which was relatively unusual. They were in black and white, which is what I decided I would always do, although now I've branched out into color. It seemed to me to be the perfect children's book, but children either love it or hate it. I couldn't wait to read it to my own kids, and none of them really liked it!
Have your children influenced your writing? Have you ever used them in your books?
I've used them for models for pictures. I haven't used them as themselves. My daughter is a writer too, among other things. I have used my grandchildren as characters. I have used my grandson in the picture book Bub, Or the Very Best Thing. He's the main character. For the picture book I am writing now, I am using my granddaughter Maggie. I have to draw her eight times on each page (since the fairy godmother turns her into eight of herself). I have to do one more book for my third grandchild. They love being in the books. They are very good about posing. I also use our pets. We have cats and dogs. In fact, everyone in Bub, Or the Very Best Thing is a real member of our family.
What do you feel prepared you for a career as a writer?
Two things: As I've said, I read a lot when I was a child, and my mother often read the children's classics aloud to my sister and me. My father loved words and was very funny with words. Those two things were tremendously useful. You really have to love words if you're going to be a writer, because as a writer, you certainly spend a lot of time with words.
What is the best part of being a writer?
When I'm all finished. I enjoy the sense of completion.
What is your longest book and how long did it take you?
Well, the longest one is the only one that's for grownups, but it's not that much longer than the ones for kids. And it didn't take me as long to write as The Eyes of the Amaryllis. That took ten years and that was only to figure out the plot.
What do you think you do best as a writer?
I think I'm best at writing description, probably. That's what I like to write the best.
How do you choose the settings for your stories?
The problems that I write about come from my real life, and I deal with them in a made-up way. The characters are all bits and pieces of people I've known. And the settings tend to be places that I've known, too. The Eyes of the Amaryllis is very definitely Cape Cod, Massachusetts - to me. Although it could be any northern coastline, it has a very New England feel to me. Although someone told me they thought it was Florida!
Do you know anyone who was lost at sea? What inspired you to write The Eyes of the Amaryllis?
I don't know anybody personally who was lost at sea. None of my ancestors that I know of, that is. I am from Ohio and the first time I saw the ocean I was eleven and it made a huge impression on me. I wanted to write a book about it. In The Eyes of the Amaryllis, the ocean is the main character. Also, many people were lost at sea in the shipping days.
Who is your favorite author besides yourself?
I'm not one of my favorites! I don't have a favorite writer who's working now. I'm not especially up-to-date with today's children's writers. I'll read books by my friends who are writers. I've been around in the field for a long time, so I know a lot of people - Katherine Paterson, David Macaulay, and Mary Brigid Barrett, who's a new writer. I don't see them all on a regular basis, but I see them at book shows. Now, most of my favorite authors tend to be dead, but not all! I mostly read novels for adults. I particularly like British authors - Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. But there are some contemporary authors I like, too.
In Kneeknock Rise, all of the inhabitants of Instep refused to believe that there might not be a monster up in the mountains, no matter what anyone said. Do you think this was a good thing?
It is like what Uncle Eagan says at the end. Believing that it is there makes their lives more interesting. We all need to believe in some kind of magic. And not just children - grownups too.
Where did you come up with the names Kneeknock Rise and Instep? Do they have any meaning?
Kneeknock comes from an old expression. Sometimes you still hear it: "I was so scared, my knees knocked together." Instep was spur of the moment, when I was talking about the town at the foot of the hill, and the instep is a part of your foot. Instep is also common in the names of towns in Europe, but I don't know what it means.
Does the Megrimum represent anything? Where did that name come from?
The name comes from an old word for headache. People used to say, "Oh, I've got the megrims," and I just put a "um" on the end of it. The Megrimum is a similar creature to Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, and the Abominable Snowman - a creature that may or not be there, depending on your point of view.
How did you come up with the name and idea for the Woldwellers?
Wold is an old word for "wood" or "forest," and I just tacked the word dweller onto the end of it to make it wood dweller or tree dweller. I didn't make up the type of character, just the name for it.
Why do you use so many similes and metaphors in your writing?
We use similes and metaphors all the time when we talk. They help readers get things that they otherwise might not. I ask kids in schools: "How would you describe snow to someone who had never seen it?" You can't without using metaphors and similes!
Why do you use such difficult vocabulary words in your books?
They're the words that say what I wanted to say! Some time during the last 40 years, people have decided that children can't understand any words that have more than four or five letters. That's just plain crazy. When I was in grammar school, my friends and I were no smarter than children are now. But our books did not fudge on vocabulary! Alice's Adventures in Wonderland would be considered hard now. There's no other way to enlarge our vocabularies. The more words you have at your disposal, the easier it is to say what you want to say, specifically. Should we wait until high school to teach children words of more than one syllable? No, no, no.
What do you think is the best way to teach English and language skills?
That's a hard, hard question. The things that worry me a little bit about what we're doing now is that teachers are hideously overburdened. Parents aren't playing as much of a role as they should in educating children about the fun of reading. Teachers have to do it all! The most important job in the world is teaching, and you have to have special skills to do that job well.
Is there a certain place where you like to write most?
When I was doing most of my long stories, we lived in a house in upstate New York and I did most of my writing in a corner of the sofa. That was before computers. But now, many houses later, I write on the computer in the third floor workroom. I think using the computer has changed my writing. For one, it's easier to do because you don't have to worry about your typing as much. But I don't like it really, because it feels less personal.
Do you think technology will affect how children learn to read and what they read?
Well, certainly technology will affect how children read. I'm worried about literacy. I think that book reading is a tremendous amount of fun. I think the fun of it is beginning to be lost, a little. At one point, we got alarmed because kids weren't reading enough. So, we started to have kids read in school. Once we attached homework to it, reading lost some of its fun as a leisurely and enjoyable thing to do. If there were some way to teach reading and retain the idea that books are fun, then we'd have it made!
What was the best compliment you have ever received about your writing?
The best compliments that I get are ones I get in letters from kids who say they've liked something.
What is your suggestion for someone who wants to start writing?
Be a reader. It's the only real way to learn how to tell a story. All of us are storytellers of one kind or another, and I wish you all lots of luck with it if you choose to do it.