Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.
Wren is new to the town of Pyramid, Michigan, practically catapulted there from Georgia after her father is killed in a plane crash and her mother tries to outrun her grief and anger by furiously driving north. But in Pyramid, Wren finds a friend, and a Cause, and wants to stay. Can she convince her mother that this could be their new home?
Roger Sutton: Be Light like a Bird made me want to go to Michigan, to the Upper Peninsula, where I’ve never been. Did you know the setting before the story or did you know the story before the setting?
MS: I knew the setting before the story. I usually seem to start with setting. It just happens that way, even in my historical fiction or my book about India (Saraswati’s Way). This one was also born by spending time in that setting because we have a cabin in Michigan. It started as a school story, but when I saw the actual landfill and I heard that people had tried to fight it, this idea came to me about how a girl could be involved in the fight.
RS: You knew the setting, but does the setting drive the story? How much of a part does that play for you?
MS: It does play a big part. Wren made a connection with the place when she got there. She found the pond, a spot where she could find a little peace, and had that connection to bird-watching and her dad. And then the connection with the school project — I thought that was a good plot structure, to make one lead to the other.
RS: Right, and it does bring her together with Theo.
MS: And then they start to do something together about saving the land, so then that friendship grew. But it all began with the setting. I always hear that other writers start with a character, and I should probably try that.
RS: When I first met you, you were living in India. Do you move around a lot?
MS: We used to. My husband and I lived for sixteen years overseas. He’s from Michigan, I’m from Germany. We worked in connection with American schools overseas. We stayed three years in Oman and three years in Chile, one year in Egypt, and then eight years in India. But my husband is older than I am and he was ready to retire. Now we don’t move anymore.
RS: But it sounds like you’ve experienced something of what Wren does, going from place to place.
MS: Yes, though maybe it was easier for me. I always thought if you live this overseas life, your marriage has to be really solid. There’s so much movement and so much stress, and that puts a lot of pressure on two people. It worked really well for us, but for kids — I was an elementary school teacher before I became a librarian. A lot of these kids would only stay somewhere for two years, sometimes only a year. I think that was very hard, making friends and then losing them again. Some of them even gave up like Wren did when she knew a place was just going to be temporary. It’s hard on kids to be itinerant like that.
RS: I don’t know how they do it. I had the experience of staying in the same town and the same school system for all twelve years. I don’t know what it would be like to hop from place to place. It seems absolutely terrifying, even now as an adult.
MS: For some kids it’s even the language. They may not be native English speakers. They come in and all of a sudden function in another code. Wren and I have that in common, a little bit.
RS: What is it like for you being raised in Germany and now writing primarily for and about American children? You and I are old people now, and life for young people is different. But how does your own childhood affect the way you write for children today? For children of a different culture.
MS: As a writer you dip into your childhood in different ways for different books. There’s always a little bit of who you are in the story — sometimes more than just a little bit. I used to say, when kids asked me, that my first book (The Dog in the Wood) was about fear. Saraswati’s Way was about impatience. In a way, Be Light like a Bird is about forgiveness, among other things, but I think it has a lot to do with that. The way we grow up may be different, the food we eat or the playground we play in, but wanting to belong somewhere, having conflicts with parents, the fear that others may be mean, that you don’t belong to a group — those are certainly things I experienced that I know will still be a part of life for children now. Writing for the first time a contemporary book set in the United States, I did avoid the texting and iPhones and all that. The characters were still going to the good old library and looking at the internet there. They were still actually using books, even. Which is probably really old-fashioned. Now if you want to find out what the recycle rate is in another country, you just look it up on your smartphone. So maybe I cheated a little bit, but the fact is in some places — among them, the island where our cabin is — you don’t have regular cell reception, so that may be my excuse. The technology makes it harder to write contemporary-set stories and eventually might push me into historical fiction.
RS: I’ve had this conversation a couple of times now with your fellow writers. Contemporary technology does provide an unwelcome shortcut for many problems that the traditional novel would use to set up conflict — you can’t find something, you don’t know something. Now we have the answer in our pocket. Plus, kids today know much more about the technology they use than we will ever know.
MS: Now that I think of it, that scene in which Carrie and Victoria are actually looking at a magazine — I don’t even know if paper magazines are still around. [Ed. Note: a-HEM] They may still be around, but people probably also have them on their devices. I have seen a few books in which people use texting. It’s possible. I have to admit — I’ve only owned my smartphone for a year.
RS: Do you text?
MS: My friends tease me about it. I still use a computer for texting. I can’t really do it on the phone. At least I’ve embraced the idea of messaging.
RS: And how is your reception down there in the Blue Ridge Mountains?
MS: It’s good. This is civilization, Roger. You should come and look.
RS: Oh, it’s beautiful down there. I’ve been.
MS: It is, yeah.
RS: Do you watch birds?
MS: I’ve learned more about birds now that I have a big garden. I see lots of them through the window. We have no cats, so I think that keeps more birds around. My father and grandmother were birdwatchers. When I was a kid, my grandmother would always imitate bird sounds. There was a time I was convinced she could actually really talk with them. She would whistle, they would whistle back, and then she would tell me what they had talked about, so I thought, “Oh, she can speak bird language.” But I’m not that kind of person who goes out bird-watching like Wren does, like she did with her dad.
RS: It would be neat to have the concentration for that. I don’t know if I do.
MS: That was one of the fundamental things about Wren’s character, because it does take that concentration. I don’t know how many kids really do this on their own — she had to be led into it by her father. My dad was an avid environmentalist. When I was Wren’s age, for example, he would teach me all the names of weeds. I know them in German, so that doesn’t help me now. But I think it helps if you have an adult who shows you how to pay attention, and that’s what birding does.
RS: I want to know, because I neither bird-watch nor garden, what kind of attention gardening affords a person.
MS: I think gardening is the perfect hobby for a writer, because it requires patience. You put in bulbs in October, and you have to wait until March, April, until something comes up, if you’re lucky. I was never a gardener when I was overseas because we lived in big cities and apartments, and now we have this acre of land. I never even thought that this would be something I’d be interested in, but now I’m really in love with it. In that sense it’s also like writing because it requires some idea of a design. You have to think about what it’s going to be like when you’re done, and you have to anticipate future developments just like you do when you’re working on a book. And then also exactly like writing, your plan might not turn out the way it originally looked. That happens to me. This is my third year of gardening. It was a tough summer, dry, so a lot of plants showed me that they need more care than I could give. Or design decisions didn’t work. And I think also about the physicality of gardening — it requires that you go out and weed. That’s a lot of physical work that makes you move. I like that, too, because you don’t sit on your butt the whole time. When the garden starts to blossom in the spring, it gives me immense pleasure to walk around and look at it. It’s crazy, but I really enjoy it.
RS: Do you think about your writing while you garden?
MS: I try not to. I think about the analytical part of writing too much, about structure. I have this editor on my back all the time. I don’t easily tap into what I’ve heard Donna Jo Napoli call “the white heat.” Sometimes I get so caught up in thinking about it that it’s good to tell myself to go out and weed now — weeding, cutting, putting mulch on. It frees my brain from obsessing over what should happen in my plot, who’s this side character that I don’t know yet.
RS: I’ll tell myself sometimes when I go out for a run, if I’m working on something, I’ll think about it. But nine times out of ten I end up not thinking about it, but still have the answer at the other end. It feels like magic.
MS: I guess that’s how the subconscious works. That happens to me too. Again, because I don’t have other gainful employment now, no children — I have a husband, a dog, and a garden — I also go for walks.
RS: We have the same life.
MS: You also live with an older man.
RS: Yes, an older man, we have a dog, and we have a garden. I have nothing to do with it, but we have a garden. We go for walks.
MS: There you go. And then when you sit around, you put words on paper. Or you also read a lot, I guess, just like I do.
RS: Perfect, isn’t it?