When I was a child, the thing I wanted more than anything was to grow up and live in one house. Since my dad was in the Navy, that wasn't possible. Instead, I lived in a different home every couple of years. I learned French in Paris, explored caves in Guam, rode the ferry across Puget Sound in Washington. Now I feel lucky that I had such a diverse background, but as a child I was shy and hated moving. My sister, the family clown, made friends more easily than I did. About the time I made a close friend or two, it was time to leave again.
Although I always loved reading and putting words on paper, I never thought about becoming a writer until I was twelve. That year I read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. The characters in that book seemed like real people to me. I wanted to write stories like that. In seventh grade, I enrolled in a creative writing class and my teacher encouraged me to keep writing. It was years before I followed my dream, but I will always be thankful for that teacher's faith in my ability.
Most of my story ideas come from my childhood. Sometimes they hatch from stories my parents told me, sometimes they come from experiences in my own life, and sometimes they are inspired by mere moments.
For example, when I was nine, I passed a woman walking on a road in the Louisiana piney-woods where my parents grew up. My mother told me the woman was mentally retarded, and that her husband was, too. She said they had a lot of children. That fleeting moment stayed with me and inspired my first book, My Louisiana Sky . [When I first started writing, I'd get all sorts of ideas but none of them were coming from my heart. That was the first story that came from my heart. The voice of Tiger Ann, I just knew it right away.]
The seed that grew into When Zachary Beaver Came to Town sprang from the time when I was thirteen and paid two dollars to see the “Fattest Boy in the World” at the Louisiana State Fair. [He was in a little trailer and we went in there, and I would like to say that I wasn't nosy, but of course, I was. I was very quiet and shy and usually very sensitive towards people's feelings but for some reason — I guess paying that two dollars and the fact that he was on display — I felt like that gave me the right to ask him nosy questions. I asked him, “How much do you eat? How much do you weigh? Where do you go to school?” A few years later, I had a boyfriend whose sister-in-law worked in New Orleans, and that same boy and same trailer were parked at a shopping center near her office for two weeks. She paid two dollars every day to see him. She ate lunch with him every day and befriended him. And I remember thinking, “I didn't do that. I didn't come across is a kind way.” I think that had some influence on the story, because that's kind of what ends up happening with the boys and Zachary.]
Now I live in Amarillo, Texas, with my husband and daughter in an ordinary neighborhood. We're all readers, but we like different kinds of books. My husband, Jerry, likes to read action-packed novels about spies. My daughter, Shannon, loves fantasy and fairy tales best. And even though I enjoy a variety of genres, historical coming-of-age novels are my favorite.
My days are filled with writing, reading, and being a mom. Some days, I get to visit schools around the country and talk about what it's like to be a writer. I often feel like I'm pretending, because it's still hard for me to believe it when I see someone holding a book that I've written. I hope that exciting new feeling never goes away.
If you want to be a writer, you should keep on reading good books and write every day. When you're looking for stories, look in your own heart. That's where you will find the best ones. Experience life-climb trees, eat sushi, listen to old people. Your experiences will add rich detail to your writing. And hold on tight to your dreams because when you work hard, dreams do come true.
The author Richard Peck told me that he thought I wrote to find home. I think he's right. My family's roots are very important to me. I come from a line of hardworking people who never made much money, but were rich in stories. I plan to carry on that storytelling legacy with my writing.