Q&A With Blue Balliett
Author Blue Balliett answers questions about her books include Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3, and The Calder Game
A: There is something deeply satisfying about his sculpture that is hard to explain-I've been looking at it for over forty years, and I still don't really understand where the "just right" feeling comes from. His work is a crazy bundle of opposites. It's playful and unpretentious-accessible to all ages-yet unpredictable, asymmetrical, graceful, balanced. There is something oddly alive about these metal constructions, something that doesn't seem to depend on any formula or set of ingredients. Hmm, perhaps it's magic.
Q: What do you want readers to come away with when they read The Calder Game?
A: Lots of questions that weren't in their minds before they picked up the book, such as: Can life itself be seen as a mobile? How does context change how you see, whether you're looking at art or yourself or another person? What does it mean to be "foreign"? How can art be freed? Does it need to be freed?
Q: What type of research did you do for The Calder Game?
A: I visited and stayed in Woodstock, England, three times, read lots on the history of the town and on Blenheim, ate every kind of Cadbury chocolate, read many books about Alexander Calder and saw as much of his work as possible, read as much about Banksy and his art as I could find, and did a ton of research on hedge mazes, including getting lost in a number of massive, prickly ones in England. Research is a great excuse for having adventures.
Q: Why did you choose a small town in England as the setting for The Calder Game?
A: After completing a book tour in England a couple of years ago, my husband and I rented a car and drove around the Cotswolds. We stumbled on Woodstock, and suddenly I knew that Calder, Petra, and Tommy should go there, too. I hadn't planned to write a book set outside of the United States, but Woodstock had a maze of just the right size, and a small community that kids could navigate on their own. It just felt perfect.
Q: Had you always planned to write a third book about Calder, Petra, and Tommy?
A: No, I didn't plan these three mysteries way ahead of time. For each of the three, I've had a moment when I just knew that book had to be written, isn't that odd? I'm an intuitive person, and I kind of wait for that "green light" feeling inside, then get to work.
Q: Is there a particular character in The Calder Game that you identify with the most?
A: It's hard to say...maybe Petra. I've been making mobile-poems, sometimes just in my imagination, since I was a teenager. And I understand Petra's way of doing things.
Q: In The Calder Game, you introduce a controversial artist named Banksy. Why did you decide to weave him into the story?
A: When I first stumbled on Banksy's art, in a newspaper article, I was so excited. He's both fearless and generous in the big questions he asks about art, and his ideas are so marvelously free. Plus, he's managed to protect his privacy-the public still doesn't know what he looks like. How cool is that?
Q: While most of your characters are fictional, is it true that there's one particular four-legged character in The Calder Game who is in fact based on someone in your life?
A: Absolutely. Our old cat, Pummie, is real-personality, shape, and all. He died just as I was finishing the book, at age 19. Everyone in the family misses him dreadfully.
Q: Your books are popular with both boys and girls. Is that something you were trying to achieve?
A: Yes. Having a son and daughters, and having taught school for many years, I knew a few secrets about the very real differences between boys and girls. And I don't mean stereotypical differences-just the ways in which they communicate and find meaning in the world around them. Knowing those secrets helped a lot.
Q: Your previous books, Chasing Vermeer and The Wright 3, have codes embedded in the text and art. How did you develop the code in The Calder Game?
A: Well, I came up with the codes in the text, for all three books, and Brett Helquist did the imaginative coding in the illustrations. The code in The Calder Game came right from Alexander Calder himself. It kind of jumped out at me one night as I lay in bed, studying photographs of his mobiles before going to sleep.
Q: What have been your favorite responses to Chasing Vermeer and The Wright 3?
A: Oh, I've received many, many fabulous letters from kids. I do love it when kids tell me that my books have changed the way they see their world, and made them believe that their ideas are important. Kids have told me that these books inspire them. That makes me so happy.
Q: As a former teacher and now a full-time writer, what do you find more demanding and/or rewarding-teaching or writing?
A: I loved teaching, it was very exciting and totally absorbing. And when I'm writing, I sometimes feel as though I'm still teaching-facilitating adventures, exploring ideas, learning as I go. It's great to believe so deeply in your lifework, and to be able to do it in a way that feels true. I am very lucky.
Q: To what extent did your own childhood, growing up in New York City, influence your writing?
A: At the time I grew up in New York, I think kids had more freedom to get around the city on their own. Museums were a good place to hang out, a place away from small apartments. So the combination of independence and museums helped to form my way of seeing things, I'm sure.
Q: You obviously spend a great deal of time developing, researching, and writing your stories. How do you spend your free time?
A: My writing and my life aren't really that separate-things that I like to think about generally find their way into what I write. But I love to travel and read, and try to remember to notice the world around me: the shape of a puddle or a crack in the sidewalk, the light coming through a tulip in my kitchen, the beauty of an egg or a perfect apple.
Q: Are you working on anything now?
A: As soon as I finished The Calder Game, I found I was already sifting and stirring, thinking about possibilities for the next book. Yes, I'm currently researching, and the next book will have less art but more controversy. I love to make trouble of the right kinds!