The Horn Book » Talks with Roger Publications about books for children and young adults Wed, 10 Feb 2016 22:01:46 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Marieke Nijkamp Talks with Roger Tue, 22 Dec 2015 20:03:25 +0000 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. Marieke Nijkamp’s first novel, This Is Where It Ends, is unfortunately timely, telling, through multiple points of view, of a young shooter who holds an entire school hostage for one harrowing hour. […]

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Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

Marieke Nijkamp’s first novel, This Is Where It Ends, is unfortunately timely, telling, through multiple points of view, of a young shooter who holds an entire school hostage for one harrowing hour. Blood is spilled, secrets are revealed, truths are told. Marieke (pronounce it like the Jacques Brel song of the same name) spoke to me from her home in the Netherlands.

Roger Sutton: You are Dutch. How did it happen that this book is written in English and being published here?

Marieke Nijkamp: It actually came to pass quite by accident. I’d been writing in Dutch for quite a few years before I made the switch to English. A few non-Dutch-speaking friends of mine would have me translate things I was working on into English so they could get a sense of what I was doing every time I sat curled up in a corner somewhere with a notebook or my laptop. I’d been writing young adult stories without realizing it, because it wasn’t quite a market here, at that point, the way it was in the U.S. Mostly on account of traveling, I’d been used to speaking English, so using it as a way to tell my stories felt very natural. That was basically how that experiment started.

RS: Do you feel like a different person writing in English? Do you think you write different things?

MN: I actually do. I think it has to do with the way we use language in general. The rhythm of language, the melody, and also the cultural components really do influence the way we tell stories; the way I tell stories, certainly. I tried to translate an English story of mine into Dutch at one point, and halfway through the second sentence it changed into something completely different. That’s something to say about translating — it’s an art and craft that I do not possess.

RS: What was it like for you, then, coming from the outside, but writing in English, about what is a very American problem, at least these days?

MN: At first it felt incredibly intimidating, and I felt completely unequipped to talk about it. But I started working on the book because I was feeling just confused and baffled by how often these situations happen and how horrendous they are. I wanted to explore that and find a way to better understand. As a writer I do that by telling stories, and by trying to get as close to a situation as I can, even fictionally.

RS: Which part of the story occurred to you first?

MN: It started out as a conversation with a friend about gun safety and school violence. It left me with so many questions, and it began this story in the back of my mind, these characters who wanted me to tell their story. That’s something I hadn’t really quite experienced before. I’m usually the type of person who very carefully plots stories and knows exactly where to go from one moment to the next. But these characters occurred to me, and refused to let me finish another story I was working on, because I was so enthralled by what they had to say.

RS: I think it’s a very dangerous story, and I mean that in a good way. The storytelling is dangerous. And you let us know pretty early on in this book that it’s not going to be safe. That no one, essentially, in the book is safe from the shooter. We don’t know until the very end of the story who’s going to make it out alive.

MN: That was a very conscious choice for me, and also something that quite terrified me, writing it. I wanted to get as close as I could to the experience of being in that kind of situation, while still staying on the side of fiction, of course.

nijkamp_this is where it endsRS: One hopes.

MN: I feel like it’s important to have these types of discussions in fiction, too, even the ones that are dangerous in a sense. We only talk about tragedies after they occur. After something absolutely terrible happens we try to find ways to put it into words. We rarely ever talk about it beforehand. We rarely create safe spaces where we can discuss things that are so quintessential to teens’ lives these days. Books can play a very important role in that.

RS: Do you think a book like yours can help prevent these things from happening?

MN: You’re giving me the hard questions.

RS: I’m not asking you to say, yes, my book will save lives. But books in general. How do they help?

MN: Books in general, especially books that reference teens’ experiences and make them feel seen or heard, can create a sense that you’re not alone even when it may seem like it. In that regard, books play a very important role in many teens’ lives, in making them feel like they matter. Sometimes, especially for teens in difficult situations, it can seem like the entire world is against them. Just having that sense that there’s someone else out there who has gone through what you’ve gone through, or who can just empathize, is so incredibly important.

RS: How do you balance the need for telling a good story with getting your message across?

MN: The story always comes first. I don’t write with a certain kind of message that I have to tell. I certainly don’t want my books to be didactic, telling teens how to live their lives. But I do think it boils down to empathy. If you tell a good story it means getting close to teenagers’ lives, getting close to the things that motivate them, things that matter to them. If you do that, and if you approach that respectfully, you can get to a place where you have a common understanding of each other. That helps in getting the conversation going. Being a conversation-starter is one of the most important, or even just the best, things a book can do. There’s nothing like picking up a book and going over to someone else and talking about the things you experienced or the things you felt, and how that changes you, or how that makes you feel. That is more important than any message, in the end.

RS: It’s interesting. The last interview I did for this series was with British publisher David Fickling, and he said that when he reads a book he really loves, he doesn’t want to tell anybody anything about it. The only thing he wants to do is say, read this.

MN: That is so interesting. I tend to be that person who picks up a book and carries it under their arm and walks around pushing it into people’s faces.

RS: How did you decide to make the entire action of the book fall within a single hour? It’s pretty intense.

MN: To be honest, I asked myself that question many times while writing. I mostly wanted to convey that when a tragedy strikes, disaster strikes, it almost does feel like time slows down or stops entirely. Even a minute can feel like an hour or a day or longer. I wanted to use that as a way of exploring just how much has changed in such a short period of time. I gave myself those boundaries and stuck as close as possible to the situation itself, which obviously meant a little poetic license, because looking at average shootings, they don’t last for 54 minutes. So I did make some allowances there. But I hoped to get the point across that everything that you thought you knew, even five minutes ago, can change utterly and completely, and what does that do to you as a person?

RS: I think it’s a really effective literary device in this case too. When I started the book, I wasn’t really paying attention to the timestamps beginning each chapter. But as soon as I realized how minute-by-minute the story was, it pulled me in even further.

MN: That’s good to hear.

RS: You’re on the board of We Need Diverse Books here in the States.

MN: True.

RS: We Need Diverse Books is all about increasing representation in books and in publishing and among writers, etc. Do you feel like an outsider, coming to this American story?

MN: I don’t necessarily. I had been talking and writing about representation well before We Need Diverse Books happened. I grew up disabled, and there were many, many days and weeks and months I spent in hospitals, lying in bed, being able to do nothing but read books and watch television, and in my case that usually meant just reading books. With a very few exceptions — and those usually ended up being books like The Secret Garden, where even the disabled character is healed by the end, so it didn’t really feel like a book for me anyway — I just never saw myself inside the pages of a book. That’s something that caused me to start writing.

So that feeling, that necessity that stories should belong to all of us, motivated me from very early on. And it culminated in being a board member of We Need Diverse Books. I have to be conscious about the fact — and I do try to be — that I live in a different society, with different rules and different experiences of various kinds of marginalization. But that underlying need of readers to have both mirrors and windows is something I feel is universal, and is something I can speak to in that particular context.

RS: Sometimes I worry that our definition of what a mirror is has become too narrow. When I think of my own reading as a kid, I didn’t just need little nerdy gay white boys to read about, even though that’s what I was. I found my mirrors in lots of different kinds of characters. They could be animal characters, they could be female characters, they could be adults, they could be historical figures. Sometimes I feel like we’re getting too literal about what we mean by a mirror.

MN: I think we can find mirrors in many kinds of books. I don’t think that finding a mirror in a book or in a character that is supposedly unlike yourself means that everyone will always find themselves reflected in that way. Just looking at the books I read and my experience, there were certainly books that I identified with a lot, but there were also things I struggled with as a disabled kid that I would have loved to have seen in books and never saw. Just the ways life can differ if you have a disability.

Just having that sense of recognition would have been very important to me. I think that even when we do see ourselves in different kinds of stories, that doesn’t negate the fact that there are many other stories we rarely tell, if ever. There is a need for those as well. The fact that we seem to have a narrow definition of mirror at times doesn’t mean that those are the only stories we have to tell, but it means that those are the stories we aren’t telling enough, and maybe we should try to be more inclusive.

RS: I understand that. Let’s make sure that those mirrors are there.

MN: Yeah, absolutely.

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David Fickling Talks with Roger Mon, 14 Dec 2015 15:58:15 +0000 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. David Fickling, editor, has been with us for quite some time, since 1978 when he began his career with Oxford University Press and subsequently the UK arms of Doubleday and Scholastic, bringing […]

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Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

david ficklingDavid Fickling, editor, has been with us for quite some time, since 1978 when he began his career with Oxford University Press and subsequently the UK arms of Doubleday and Scholastic, bringing us, among others, Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson. David Fickling Books, entity, opened in 2001 as an imprint of Random House. And this year, the imprint has joined forces with Scholastic once again. In a phone call whose logistics proved as complicated as publishing itself, David and I talked about wading through submissions, bringing books across the water, and the virtues of small-pond publishing. Enough with the aqueous metaphors!

Roger Sutton: Let’s discuss transatlantic publishing. Have I ever talked to you about the Jacqueline Wilson problem?

David Fickling: No, but do. Jackie just got the J. M. Barrie Award.

RS: I think she’s great, and I have always loved her books. It seems that there have been repeated efforts to make her happen in the U.S. in the same way that she happens quite well in the UK. Why isn’t it working?

DF: Do you know, or do you want me to try and answer that?

RS: I have a theory, but I want to know what yours is.

DF: Well, I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it’s because of how the books are presented to the reader. Like you, I like her work very much. Her voice has a very warm tone that I think would appeal to American readers as much as British readers. But there are intervening steps between book and reader, and even if everyone goes in with great intention, that great intention can be a difficulty, in a sense. It means people can’t discover it for themselves. It’s oversold. So much of reading is discovering for yourself, forming your own opinion.

RS: Though there’s also something enjoyable about reading a bestseller because you want to be in on the buzz. What is everybody talking about with this Fifty Shades of Grey, or whatever the book might be? But I think you’re right — mostly readers want to feel like they were the first person to discover something.

DF: Yes. It’s almost like you’re talking directly with the author — how lovely that is. But then again, actually meeting an author you really adore can sometimes cause difficulty for young people.

RS: Oh, I don’t like it either.

DF: Yes, me neither.

RS: Authors can be so different from their books.

DF: It’s so disappointing, isn’t it? Publishers can be incredibly disappointing, too.

RS: I think of people who are so witty on the page, and not so in conversation. Or the opposite. They write these terribly serious books, but they’re a laugh-and-a-half when you talk to them.

DF: It’s curious. I’m sure there are good explanations for it. Sometimes if I read a really good book, I don’t want to tell anybody about it at all, even as a publisher. I want them to discover it. I just leave it lying around.

RS: Well, that can’t be good for business, David, can it?

DF: No! It’s terrible.

RS: I can’t speak to a British audience, but to an American audience, there’s a difference in the ways domestic fiction and fantasy fiction translate from one country to the other. I mean, Philip Pullman, another one of your authors, had no problem translating.

DF: No. When somebody says to me, “That’s very British,” I tend to take that to mean it’s not very good, and they’re just being nice to me. Only the things that really strike can move easily overseas. There may be something in Jackie’s work that doesn’t travel. What is that? Sometimes you don’t know what the little cultural misstep is. Or it might be so big that you can’t see it.

RS: Now that Scholastic has set you up in your own shop again, how much do you have to think beyond the UK market?

DF: We’re tiny, Roger. I describe us as the Magnificent Seven-and-a-Half. Actually there are a lot of part-timers, so we’re probably only the Magnificent Five-and-a-Half. But I am astonished how global we are. The difference is that the authors are inside with us, really. The situation is different in large publishing, where I think the authors are more like Hollywood stars in a studio system. That’s not a criticism of them. It’s just the way it is if you’re huge.

RS: I guess I don’t completely agree. If you’re huge, you do have those books that are filling the maw, but you can have the kinds of books that you’re describing, too.

DF: You can have both. Some of the most brilliant editors in the world are working at large companies. My view is, though, that the trend is towards a studio system, in which debuts aren’t understood in the same way, or books that don’t immediately strike or those that might not be considered commercial for some reason aren’t given enough time.

RS: I just read this morning that Kwame Alexander — who won the 2015 Newbery Medal — was just signed up for four more books with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. One is a prequel to the Newbery winner and three are a trilogy. So there’s an attempt to develop franchises around authors. How do you let them be free to do what they want to do?

DF: I don’t much like multi-book contracts. I’m not sure they work for either party, author or publisher, and definitely not for the reader! There is a problem of completion and thus quality. Give me a contract-by-contract, book-by-book dance card any time. Editors can go to the ball! Trust is a wonderful thing for the editing process.

RS: How do you stave off middle-age ennui? Asking for a friend.

DF: Got to get a dog.

RS: I’ll receive something for review and think, “I saw this book twenty-five years ago.” But that kid reader, the one for whom the book was published twenty-five years ago, has grown up. There’s a whole new audience now. How do you keep yourself alive to possibility?

DF: I think it’s through selfishness. I’m still responding as a reader. It’s impossible to publish something you’re not excited by, I think. Even though you’re tired and ancient, your bones ache, and nothing’s ever as good as it was — the reading mind is still weightless.

RS: At its best, yes.

DF: And you work with a team. I work with some really wonderful people. It’s not just me. But I love being around the making of these stories. You mentioned Philip Pullman — can you imagine what it’s like to receive his next book? What you were talking about earlier, being one of the first readers. There’s a little bit of me that feels, “I’ve read that, and I’m not going to let anybody else read it.”

RS: I wrote an editorial about reading The Amber Spyglass. I had an early copy of it, bound manuscript pages, and I was on the beach on Cape Cod reading it, and it was just a transcendent experience. I did think, “Most people in the world haven’t seen this book yet.” And that felt great.

DF: That’s exactly how I feel — I can’t quite believe my luck. Philip would describe himself as a storyteller first, I think. He’s probably the greatest writer of descriptive prose we’ve got. And often writers change and improve. We’ve published a retelling of Robin Hood called Shadow of the Wolf. There’s a passage in that book which is one of the most extraordinary passages I’ve ever read. I hope there’s something in all the books we publish that is extraordinary, that hasn’t been seen before. That happens almost on every page with Philip.

RS: What I’ve always liked about his books is that they do take me someplace else. But I don’t feel like I’m being pushed into it, the way I do with a lot of fantasy. It’s like authors think, if I pile on enough adjectives, the reader will be convinced of this magical world. But he never does that. There’s so much breathing room.

DF: I think he described his work as “stark reality.” It’s an invitation in its way. You have that sense of “Oh, yes, I’m in good hands, and I want to stay here. I want the book to last longer.”

RS: And that connects to what we were saying earlier, about feeling like you’re the only one reading a book. So many books I get into the office now are crawling with quotes from bloggers and booksellers and letters from the editor, pleading with me.

DF: I don’t even want to send the books out to get quotes. Blurbs shorten the world of the book if they give too much away.

RS: Right. People want to find their own way into a book.

DF: That’s exactly right. The worst thing in the world is a synopsis. A book should command your attention, shouldn’t it? And surprise you. I always think the greatest thing somebody can say about a book is, “I didn’t think I’d like it. I don’t like that sort of book normally.” Or, “I’ve never read that sort of book, but I was amazed by it.”

You inhabit the world of consciousness about the reception of books. I can ask you all the questions you asked me, really, because you see way more books than I do. I see a lot of non-books. I live in an unpublished land.

RS: We have some screening before it gets to us.

DF: Do you despair of the level of screening?

RS: Sure, sometimes. The tricky thing for me is when I read a book and I’m not liking it, but I’m not quite sure if it’s because there’s something wrong with the book, or if I’m just not the right reader for it. And like you, thank God, I’ve got eight other people here in the office, so I don’t have my own last word, as it were.

DF: What you’ve got is the same experience I have. The books that spend the most time in the office are not the easy rejections. They’re the ones that swim around, where there might be something there, or there might not be. You’re not quite sure whether you’re being overindulgent or not indulgent enough. We’re so limited. That’s why it’s nice being a small outfit that’s not trying to control everything. We can’t control everything. Talk about global: I’m not sure I even understood the large publishing companies I was a part of, let alone the global market. What we ought to do is try to bring our best to the table, and then hear what the readers think of it. We’re the first readers. That’s very exciting. When you know you’ve got a live one, everybody knows. Very quickly. It’s everybody’s. That’s an exciting moment as well, when you’re done and the book goes out with a lovely crowd around it, and you settle back to everyday — stuff coming in, stuff going out.

RS: That’s life.

DF: Yeah. It’s breathing, really.

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Kevin Henkes Talks with Roger Tue, 01 Dec 2015 15:21:00 +0000 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. You ask some very great writers and illustrators about how they do what they do, and it can seem as much a mystery to them as it is to you. But Kevin […]

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Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

kevin henkesYou ask some very great writers and illustrators about how they do what they do, and it can seem as much a mystery to them as it is to you. But Kevin Henkes is one of the most astute and articulate observers of his own artistic choices I have ever met, and it was a pleasure to talk to him about the creation of his latest picture book, Waiting.

Roger Sutton: This is probably the fourth or fifth picture book I’ve seen this year about waiting, and I want to know: What’s in the water?

Kevin Henkes: I don’t know! But in my work life, waiting has been very big. My next book is called When Spring Comes, illustrated by my wife, Laura Dronzek. It was originally called Waiting for Spring, and the word wait is in it seven times, which is quite a lot for a picture book. Then after that I have a picture book coming out called Egg, and the word waiting is in that one seventeen times. Children spend a lot of their time waiting. They wait in line. They have to wait their turn. They wait for their birthdays, holidays, weekends, the end of the school day. They seem to be waiting quite a lot, so I thought it would be a good idea for a book.

RS: How do you handle waiting in your own life? Are you good at it?

KH: If I’m working on a book and it’s going well, that’s a real anchor in my life and it makes everything else okay, including waiting. And I do love the time between when I’ve finished a book and when that book comes out in print. I use that time to come up with an idea for the next book, so I don’t mind it being stretched out. I know some people ache to see their book after they’ve finished the art, but I enjoy that lovely stretch of waiting. It’s a year, usually.

RS: Your work is done. It’s out of your control at that point.

KH: And it hasn’t hit the world yet, so it can still be the lovely thing that I think it is.

RS: Waiting can be nice if it’s something nice that you’re waiting for, like your little guys in this book, the pig with the umbrella waiting for rain. She knows it’s going to rain eventually, and she likes rain. It’s always good to have something to look forward to.

KH: I was at a bookstore in Minnesota, and the bookseller who introduced me said to the group of children sitting on the floor, “This book is about waiting. Does anyone like waiting?” One lone hand went up, a little girl about six who said, “I love waiting.” I noticed her throughout my presentation, because she was very present. If I said something that was mildly funny, she laughed hysterically. She was there. Then I noticed her again near the end of the signing line.

RS: Waiting.

KH: Waiting. And then she got to the table. She put her arms on the table. She leaned in to me. She narrowed her eyes, and said, “Okay, I changed my mind. I do not like waiting.”

RS: How do you prevent a book that is about anticipation — and now of course I’ve got that damn ketchup ad in my head — do you remember that, with the Carly Simon song?

KH: Yes.

RS: When a book is about anticipation, and the setting is essentially a tableau that doesn’t change, how do you prevent it from being static? Did you have to think about how to keep it dynamic?

KH: No, I thought, how do I keep this clean and simple? It was a conscious choice to not show a child in the illustrations. I wanted to keep it simple in its design, universal in its scope. There are no references to a home other than the window. There’s no wallpaper, no floor, no carpet, no furniture. At one point I toyed with the idea of having either the tail of a dog or a cat, or a dog or a cat itself coming in and out, but a lot of the work was just scaling back. I pictured this as a book in which the reader and the listener would have a lot to talk about. Where do you think the elephant came from? Or who do you think put the gifts on the windowsill? Is someone moving the figurines?

RS: You know, I do have to ask about that elephant. Jumped or pushed?

KH: I think it was an accident with the child owner. I was at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and a person came up and asked, “So, did the elephant die? Isn’t that dark for a children’s book?” And I said, “Well, no. It’s a broken figurine.” Children are people, and people deal with all kinds of loss. Some children deal with huge losses. Even if they haven’t, they’ve dealt with a popped balloon or a dropped ice-cream cone. And I think that children are good at taking from a book what they need, or not taking what they don’t need. If you’re a child who has suffered a big loss, you might interpret that spread differently than a child who has not.

RS: Or if you’re a black-hearted Irishman like me, you think the owl pushed him off the ledge.

KH: Someone else asked, “On the page where the elephant arrives, why does the pig have a come-hither look?”

RS: Wait, I have to look.

KH: I said, “Really?” This person had a whole scenario.

henkes_waitingRS: It is amazing what you can do to express motive and emotion with the placement of those little dots for eyes.

KH: Yes. The book started because I began going to my local clay studio in 2006. I make little animal sculptures. I have many of them in my studio. One day I looked at the ones on the windowsill, and they really seemed like they were looking out the window, waiting. Originally I thought I would use my figurines and photograph them, but I decided that I’m much better at drawing and painting than I am at sculpting. And actual figurines would be fixed in a certain way, and I wanted to be able to at least change their eyes or the tilt of their heads.

RS: You do a really great job of having them retain their figurine nature, but giving them just enough movement to provide a story and emotions.

KH: That was tricky. I didn’t want them to be moving all over the place as if they were living, breathing beings, but I did want them to have enough life to make the story work. Some move more than others.

RS: When creating the groupings, was it in your mind that someone was moving them or that they were moving themselves?

KH: Oh, I always imagined a child who owned them and loved them playing with them. I guess there is always that question of what happens when you turn the light off.

RS: It’s kind of like that old science-fiction story, where people realize they’re just bugs and that someone’s controlling them from above.

KH: That whole idea plays into this story, I think. One could interpret this book many different ways.

RS: The toys are never described as waiting for their owner. It’s not a toy longing to be played with. They have each other.

KH: And it’s not a toy longing to become real.

RS: Right.

KH: Probably in the child owner’s eyes, they are real.

RS: I want to talk for a minute about my particular obsession with picture books, which is page turns. When you’re creating a book, when are you thinking about the page turns of the finished book?

KH: I always write the words first. I get them to the point where I think they’re perfect, and then I dummy, cut up the words and start playing around with them. That might be the point where I really see the physical page turns, but I’m already thinking about page turns when I write.

When I’m writing — and particularly when I was writing this book — I wanted there to be a real pattern to the words. In the beginning I’m playing with the pattern. “When the moon came up, / the owl was happy. / It happened a lot. / When the rain came down, / the pig was happy. / The umbrella kept her dry.” It sets up a series. After the characters are introduced, there’s the section where we’re getting more information about their lives. “Sometimes one or the other of them went away, / but he or she always came back. // Sometimes they slept. / But mostly they waited. / Sometimes gifts appeared.” So you have sometimes, sometimes, sometimes. And then to heighten that little series, once, and it’s big: “Once a visitor arrived…” When I wrote the line “They saw many wonderful, interesting things…” I remember thinking, oh, this is my chance to have a wordless section. Trying to decide how many wordless pages there would be and how the pages would play against one another—that was a long, hard process of decision-making.

RS: One thing I love about this book is that it keeps confounding us as to, well, what kind of book it is, exactly. Do you know what I mean?

KH: Oh, I do. Most of my books are about something small writ large: girl has purse, wants to show it to the world, and has to wait. The waiting again. When I decided that I wanted this book to be about waiting, I didn’t want it to just be about a child or a character waiting for something. I wanted it to be bigger than that. I was thinking about the changing of the seasons, the wonder of nature, sudden sadness and disappointment, those unexpected moments of joy or sadness that crop up while you are waiting for something. And I wanted it to be big enough to include birth and death.

RS: Ah, so the elephant does die.

KH: Well, of course that’s what I was thinking about. And with the matryoshka cat at the end, it’s birth.

RS: But it’s never a “you’re getting a baby sister” book either, though.

KH: No. Although — so far I’ve read it about twenty-five times across the country, from New York to California. With the elephant, there’s usually a collective “awww.” And with the cat, there’s usually an “aaahh.” But one little boy — he was about three — grabbed his head and said, “Oh, no. Not more babies!” I overheard someone saying he had newborn twin siblings at home. It was poignant and funny and I loved it. And again, it made me think everyone sees what they see. It might not be what I intended at all. But waiting for a baby is another big wait.

RS: This book swims against the tide of thinking we need a lot of action, that we need a child or at least personified animal characters. We need a big plot. I wouldn’t say yours is a particularly plotted book in the way we traditionally think of those.

KH: I would agree, but I would also say I think there is a lot going on.

RS: There’s a ton going on.

KH: For a young child, there’s a lot to talk about. I recently spent some time with my niece’s two-year-old daughter. I’m amazed at her ability to imagine and play with just about anything. And at her willingness to stay on one page of a book and really talk about it with an adult who’s asking questions. I think of this book as being pretty packed. I was a little surprised when I read a couple of reviews — which have been lovely — that said not much happens. I think a lot happens.

RS: But it’s not happening in a traditional plot trajectory.

KH: I’ll give you that.

RS: Do you think, as you’re creating a book for young children, about how it’s going to be read? Do you assume the kid is looking at it by him or herself? Do you assume an adult and a child together?

KH: I hope it works all ways. With this book I was thinking about an adult and a child, and thinking about an adult asking certain questions. But I think a child could do that on his or her own as well. I also wanted there to be a lot of space between the words, between the sentences, between the thoughts. I give space to the reader or listener to fill it in. I think that’s important. Even in books without pictures, I think we need a space between chapters. We need a space between paragraphs sometimes. It can be really powerful. What you leave out can be pretty dynamic.

RS: There’s so much mystery in this story. How did these particular figurines get there? Are they toys? Are they alive? What’s going on with them? Is there anybody else in the world besides them? I think you echo that mysteriousness by giving lots of room around each picture, around each sentence. Don’t you think that, visually, that encourages someone to wonder?

KH: I do. I used white space with this book in a way that I never have before. Both with the words — space between the words, the sentences — and the white space with the design of the book. And yet I wanted it to be very grounded. I wanted the illustrations to work together. I think of them as being echoes of each other. When I introduce each of the characters, there’s a double-page spread. “The owl with spots was waiting for the moon. / The pig with the umbrella was waiting for the rain.” And then: “The rabbit with stars / wasn’t waiting for anything in particular. / He just liked to look out the window and wait.” He’s in the lower right-hand corner of the right-hand page. When the cat comes, and the text goes through the whole series of questions — “Was she waiting for the moon? / No.” And then when I say, “She didn’t seem to be waiting / for anything in particular,” I’ve echoed the position of the rabbit. It creates a rhythm. There’s a reason to it. That part of bookmaking is what I love most. Thinking everything through and making it work together in a certain way.

RS: And then making all that work disappear.

KH: Yes. There’s that great M. B. Goffstein quote from her picture book An Artist: “You should work and work until it looks like you didn’t have to work at all.”

A spread that really pleased me when I came up with it was one of the wordless ones — the one where on the left-hand side of the page is the window with frost and on the right-hand side are the fireworks. I remember thinking the fernlike pattern of the frost was a great way to segue into the feathery nature of the fireworks. One is natural, and one is not. There’s a similarity, but there’s a tension. You could compare it; you could contrast it. You could talk about it; you don’t have to talk about it; you don’t even have to notice it, but I did, and that’s what matters. Those are the kinds of things that, when they happen, I think: I love my job.

More on Kevin Henkes from The Horn Book

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Jennifer Donnelly Talks with Roger Mon, 16 Nov 2015 22:20:38 +0000 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. Fans of Jennifer Donnelly’s first novel, A Northern Light, will enjoy her return to the Gilded Age in These Shallow Graves, a rich tale of murder and romance set in 1890 Manhattan. […]

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jennifer donnelly twr

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

jennifer donnellyFans of Jennifer Donnelly’s first novel, A Northern Light, will enjoy her return to the Gilded Age in These Shallow Graves, a rich tale of murder and romance set in 1890 Manhattan. Plus: a fascinating presentation of early forensic medicine should draw in devotees of CSI and The Knick.

Roger Sutton: I saw on your website that you said the idea for These Shallow Graves started with an image in your head of a dead man with a tattooed face. How did that turn into this hundred-chapter triple-decker of a novel?

Jennifer Donnelly: There’s a bit of a backstory to it. I had written A Northern Light and Revolution, and both of those books had been inspired by ghosts. It’s hard dealing with ghosts, because they sit in a room with you, and they keep you company for years, and they give you their stories, but they really do take pieces of your heart in exchange for that. I was very, very weary of ghosts. So I was working on a lovely Disney series about mermaids [The Waterfire Saga], and I was having a wonderful time, and this dead man shows up in my head. I had this sinking feeling, like “Oh no, here we go again.” And then the other characters came. That’s how it happens — they sort of walk out from my imagination. His story was intertwined with theirs, but most of all with this young woman, Josephine Montfort. I had to get to know these two characters the best, but they’re very defiant and made me work hard to understand them, to coax the story out of them. It’s a difficult question, and a difficult answer, and I end up sounding like a fruitcake.

RS: I want to ask a slightly theological question. When you talk about ghosts, how literal are we being?

JD: Well, for me it’s not like a guy in a sheet howling in the corner of the room rattling chains, a green glow in a haunted house or anything like that. It is just a heaviness. It’s a feeling.

RS: So where do you think the ghost came from in this book?

JD: It was this man. He just took up residence in my head. I haven’t been able to dig deeper than that into my subconscious to figure out why. Maybe I was missing the past and history, the old streets that I like to walk down in London or Paris or New York — a kind of calling back to that.

RS: Now that it’s done, are you surprised by the direction and shape the novel took? When you originally saw this vision of the man with the tattooed face, is this the book you thought it would be?

JD: It is. I knew he didn’t get in that coffin of his own free will. There was a dark story behind him, how he died, why he was lying in his coffin, why he had the tattoos. I knew there was something sinister about it. I’m not surprised at all that it took the shape of a murder mystery. A guy in a coffin pops up in your head, it’s never going to be good.

RS: There are a lot of elements going on here. It is a murder mystery, and there’s also a whole CSI dimension.

JD: Right, with Oscar the forensic medical student. I’ve fallen in love with Oscar. Nothing can gross this guy out. He amazes me. I just adore him, and I want to find out how he progresses in life. Does he get together with the girl he likes so much? He has taken me on a journey into the history of forensics, and I’m finding out that I love it.

donnelly_these shallow gravesRS: I bet that research just begets more research.

JD: Yeah, and it’s so much fun. If there were no such thing as a deadline, I would still be researching. It’s so compelling. It feeds the story. What you uncover helps you enrich characters and think up new storylines. Story and research are very interconnected for me.

RS: Your book had me go read Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House. It’s fabulous.

JD: It’s amazing. And to think that she was brave enough to do that. She faked this whole breakdown, got herself committed, and wrote about it. She must have known to some degree what she was getting herself into, that it was going to be extremely challenging, dangerous. She actually changed policy, got money directed to the asylums, and changed the way people thought about these institutions and their patients. What a brave young woman.

RS: I think what amazed me most was her resolution that once she was in there she wasn’t going to do anything to act crazy. She was simply going to reiterate that she didn’t know who she was, but otherwise be completely rational, and that just made her seem crazier to them.

JD: You couldn’t talk your way out of it once you were inside. It’s terrifying to consider.

RS: I was really worried for your heroine, Jo. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but—

JD: Yeah. Near the end?

RS: Yes.

JD: If you were, I’ve done my job. I’m very happy about that.

RS: How do you make a Gilded Age heroine like Jo both true to her time but relatable enough to a contemporary young reader?

JD: I just let Jo speak. She is who she is. She is of her time, but she is a strong-spirited person. She’s questing and she’s restless. She’s extremely curious and intelligent. I think you let that character speak, but you also show the stumbles that somebody like that makes as she tries to express herself and grasp what she’s reaching for. She’s so torn, and with good reason. She comes from a background where there’s money, privilege, enough to eat, and there’s a lovely life waiting for her if she marries Bram.

RS: Right, Bram’s a good guy. It’s not like he’s the evil rich suitor contrasted against Jo’s other man, the upright young journalist Eddie.

JD: Yes, absolutely. He’s fantastic. I love Bram. There’s nothing horrible about him at all, so it’s a true, realistic, difficult choice for her.

RS: You’ve left a lot for us to wonder about, with her friend, Fay, who goes to Winnetka, and with Jo herself. What will happen to them next?

JD: It’s very open-ended.

RS: What’s your feeling about sequels?

JD: I would love to do one; we have to see if readers embrace the story. I want to know what happens with Jo. I can only imagine the sorts of challenges and sexism she would come up against as a young female reporter at that time. I’m curious to see what happens with her and Eddie. I want to find out what happens with Fay, and I really want to follow Oscar through the morgue and the streets of New York and see what kind of trouble he gets into.

RS: Oscar could have his own TV show. I think he should branch out.

JD: Absolutely. Why not?

RS: You’ve written a few historical novels for teenagers and a fantasy series for slightly younger kids as well as books for adults. Do these feel different to you as you write them?

JD: They share similarities. Writing any book is desperately hard for me, so that struggle is common to all the books. But besides that, I’m very aware of the openness of children, their vulnerability. For The Waterfire Saga — my mermaid books — I didn’t want much bad language or too many racy scenes, that sort of thing. The message had to be clear and the plot had to be strong and engaging, because kids of that age will get frustrated if you don’t get to the point. I feel like I can take a little more time and ramble around a bit more in my YA and adult books. But the commonality among all of them (other than being difficult to write) is that there’s a lot of emotion. And hopefully a compelling plot. Hopefully there’s something that will inspire the reader as he or she goes through the book as well.

RS: I was just thinking that if you did write a sequel to These Shallow Graves it could almost be published as an adult book. I wonder if that’s ever happened before.

JD: That’s a good question. I have no idea. Watching the characters get older…

RS: Right. Because this does seem to me to be a true crossover book. An adult would read this with no particular sense of “Oh, I’m reading a book for young people.”

JD: I don’t worry too much about those distinctions, because you can try to tell readers what to read and where to go in the bookstore, and they’re going to do what they want to do. Readers will not be pigeonholed.

RS: Something I think you’ve done well in These Shallow Graves is to create a world for a reader to go into and wander around. We go uptown. We go downtown. Your characters are inhabiting a real place.

JD: I tried to make the city not just a setting but a character in its own right, someplace palpable that the reader can really orient herself within.

RS: We’re having a mini-trend with this era, both in steampunk books and straightforward historical fiction. Often it’s London, but some are set in the United States. I wonder if part of the reason is the parallels to our world today. We’re in another Gilded Age, where some people are experiencing great wealth and luxury, and other people — most people — are not.

JD: What’s going on in the world right now, the gulf between the haves and the have-nots — it almost feels insurmountable. Looking at the strides women have made, though, we’ve come such a long way. Jo didn’t even have the vote. Working outside the home, for a woman of her class and station, was unthinkable. There is still wage disparity in the U.S. and so many issues, such as domestic violence, to be addressed. But then I think of places today where it’s so dangerous just for a girl to want to go to school. I think your point is incredibly apt.

RS: Do you find that your novel overlays itself in your imagination when you visit New York now?

JD: Totally. That always happens. I can see an old building or an old facade or an old railing, and standing across the street from it, I just squint my eyes, and suddenly it’s back a hundred years, and the person walking out of it is dressed like a Victorian. But certain types endure as well, and you see them today moving along the sidewalks. It’s ghosts all over again. And the fact that the city is trying to pave itself over as fast as it can, and build itself up, and yet it can never escape its past. I like this contrast. I like living in that space between them as a writer.

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Jodi Lynn Anderson Talks with Roger Tue, 13 Oct 2015 19:20:12 +0000 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. Ambitious but light-handed, My Diary from the Edge of the World is the story of twelve-year-old Gracie, whose family is being threatened by an ominous Cloud, sending them on a road trip […]

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jodi lynn anderson TWR

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

jodi lynn andersonAmbitious but light-handed, My Diary from the Edge of the World is the story of twelve-year-old Gracie, whose family is being threatened by an ominous Cloud, sending them on a road trip to the edge of the world. Literally: while Gracie’s world is much like our own, it is also flat. My conversation with Jodi Lynn Anderson (author also of the May Bird trilogy and several books for young adults) turned decidedly cosmic as we explored the Big Questions her novel is unafraid to address.

Roger Sutton: When creating an alternate world, how do you know how much you can do? How much can you change from our world? How much do you leave the same?

Jodi Lynn Anderson: I guess it comes down to choosing the story you want to tell, choosing what you want to focus on. You could go down a wormhole of different aspects for the world, which, in My Diary from the Edge of the World, is basically our world but tweaked.

RS: Right.

JLA: With this book it became a question of how many things did I want to tweak. When did those little changes contribute to the book’s momentum and the character-building, and when did they take something away or slow things down?

RS: How much did you know about the world your characters were going to be in when you began?

JLA: Well, I’m a little bit obsessed with old nautical maps. A lot of times when I’m supposed to be working, I’m just Googling old maps, those ones that say “here be dragons,” with drawings of mermaids and giant squids and all of those things. The idea for this book started with me thinking: what if those creatures imagined by the people drawing those maps had turned out to actually be out there? What effect would that have had on the way the world took shape? How would it have changed history? The big thing for me was the Industrial Revolution, and how wild beasts could have interrupted things.

RS: I think you did it with aplomb, to say that this major event that created our modern world didn’t happen.

JLA: My idea was that the Industrial Revolution happened a little bit, but it got truncated, in some good ways and some bad ways. Everybody has some ambivalence about the Industrial Revolution, what benefits it brought and also what harm, so there’s a little bit of that in there.

RS: It must have been difficult to do it with such a light touch, unless you’re just one of those irrepressibly funny people — are you?

JLA: I’m pretty goofy. But Gracie is not really me. The first image I had of Gracie was this girl I knew at summer camp who would stand on a picnic table and have everybody throw Cheerios into her mouth. She was just this confident, attention-loving, irresistible person.

RS: Gracie’s big sister accuses her of being a psychopath when it comes to seeking attention!

JLA: Yes. And there are many positives and downsides to that, and I wanted those both to be present in Gracie’s personality.

anderson_my diary from the edge of the worldRS: I really identified with Gracie when she’s talking about writing in her diary and says, “I wonder that if you keep growing and changing like you’re supposed to, if you always end up embarrassed about how stupid you used to be.” I feel that all the freakin’ time.

JLA: Oh my god. That was definitely straight from my own personality, the best of myself.

RS: Did you write when you were a kid?

JLA: I did, but I was very, very private about everything. I was a quiet kid, and I was secretive about my writing, so I wrote a lot but rarely shared it with people. It just felt so personal and vulnerable. I shoved my notebooks under my bed. We moved from my childhood home when I was thirteen, and I buried my journals under a big boulder in the backyard. I went on to be an English major, and then I moved to New York and worked in publishing. That was where I was forced to share my work.

RS: What did you do in publishing?

JLA: I was an editorial assistant at HarperCollins to begin with, and then I worked at a book packaging company called 17th Street Productions [now Alloy Entertainment].

RS: Oh, they did those paperback series for teens.

JLA: They did, yeah. A lot of that job was sharing creative work and trying to develop ideas and do outlines. That was the first time I really had to expose my own work. It slowly built my confidence.

RS: What did you find that working on the other side of things in publishing did for your writing, or to it?

JLA: It taught me so much — especially about structuring stories — that I don’t know that I ever would have learned on my own. On the other side, when I left to write for myself it took me a while to embrace my own quirkiness and weirdness. To not always think, “Who’s going to read this?” but instead to trust that this is the story I need to write and that it’ll find its audience. That was a challenge, coming from a world where I always needed to think of the audience as one of the primary factors.

RS: I think most publishing is a negotiation between what the author wants to say and what the audience wants to read. Books fall at different spots on that continuum, but both things are always in play.

JLA: It’s true, and it’s almost like a conversation I’m having with someone else. Maybe it’s just that the longer anyone writes, the more they trust their own idiosyncrasies, and trust that somebody else will be able to connect with them. That’s been the hardest and most rewarding growth for me as a writer over the years.

RS: One thing that can drive me crazy as a reviewer — and we get a lot of books like this — is when the main character is really just meant to be a stand-in for the reader, so it’s kind of a generic kid’s voice. Whereas in your book, Gracie really is an individual. She’s a true character.

JLA: With Gracie, it was her personality from the start that drove so much of my outlining and structuring of the story. The story came more naturally that way. It was just a joy to sit down to write every day, because I felt like this character was in control, so there was always momentum.

RS: How much did you know about the ending of the story when you began? It’s a great ending. I don’t know how we can talk about it without giving it away, though.

JLA: The characters are searching for this world, and — actually, that’s one major thing I didn’t know. I didn’t know whether they were going to find it or not, or how I was going to resolve that. I knew from the beginning how the loose ends of the family story tied up.

RS: Did you know how the — let’s say vaguely — the business with the Cloud was going to work out?

JLA: I did. There was always this sense of finding acceptance. That is part of what Gracie’s journey is about, not prevailing over something inevitable, but instead finding a different way of looking at the inevitable, and finding a way to incorporate it into her life.

RS: And how about the — how do we distinguish the two endings here? When they get where they’re going, and they discover that they can’t do what they thought they were going to do.

JLA: Right.

RS: As I was reading the book, I thought this must be the first in a trilogy. Because I’m looking at what I’ve read, and I’m looking at how many pages I have left, and I’m thinking they’re not going to be able to do what they need to do here. Can we assume that this is the end of the story?

JLA: It is.

RS: Good for you, girl. I’m tired of these multi-volume things.

JLA: Yes. I’ve written a few books that had follow-ups, and also a trilogy. That’s not where my head is at right now, and I just felt complete about this story.

RS: There’s a scene at the end where Gracie’s family gets to look at, but not touch, what might have been different for them. That was really powerful. Do you think alternative worlds are out there?

JLA: I do. I get a lot of comfort from reading about those kinds of things, and I think it’s because it makes me feel as if time and reality have more meaning than what we can grasp. Especially with losing people. I find that idea extremely comforting.

RS: Did you have any thought about what actually happens to a person in the Cloud?

JLA: I think it’s transformation, and what lies at the other side of the transformation is not all that relevant. Up until that moment of transformation, the idea of what is actually happening in the Cloud is subjective. That’s why each person sees the Cloud differently, sees a different shape in the Cloud. But then once that threshold has been stepped over, that shape doesn’t really matter so much. It’s a change.

RS: I like to think that when it happens, we understand it at that moment, and recognize it.

JLA: I would like to hope that as well.

RS: How much of this book would you say is you exploring what you know, and how much is you finding out things that you want to know?

JLA: It’s always so much of both. When I was twelve, my family moved from an idyllic little town in the northeast U.S. to Hong Kong. It was just me and my parents, and we were thrown together a lot.

RS: And in such a different world.

JLA: Exactly. A lot of that experience went into this book. Those dynamics of being in close quarters with your family was something I knew very well and was trying to revisit. And then on the other hand I’m always reaching toward things that I don’t know. The longer I’m writing, the more certain I am that I’m leaving a lot of things unanswered. That’s the most truthful way for me to end things. The book ties up in a lot of ways, but at the same time Gracie’s left reaching toward all of her wants, and I think that’s the way life is.

RS: I think that kind of an ending allows the character to stay in the reader’s mind. You don’t want to feel like everything’s all wrapped up, because then you don’t have to think about them anymore.

JLA: That’s such a good point. I totally agree.

RS: It’s different from not tying up a plot thread, which is annoying — when you finish reading a book thinking, wait a minute, she made such a big deal out of X. What happened with that? But I think you really crossed your ts as far as the structure of your book is concerned. To leave the characters wondering, or even grieving, is not a bad thing.

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Jonathan Stroud Talks with Roger Wed, 30 Sep 2015 19:25:17 +0000 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. In The Hollow Boy, the third book in Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series, Lockwood, Lucy, and George are still attacking the Problem: their alternate-world London is being stalked by ghosts that […]

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Jonathan Stroud Talks with Roger

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

stroud_jonathan_300x439In The Hollow Boy, the third book in Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series, Lockwood, Lucy, and George are still attacking the Problem: their alternate-world London is being stalked by ghosts that only young people can see — and defeat. I talked with Jonathan about world-building, series-continuing, and negotiating the needs of fans.

Roger Sutton: I’m curious about — in particular with the Lockwood series, but thinking about Bartimaeus as well — two things. You want Question One first or Question Two first?

Jonathan Stroud: Well…we can make it Question Two, right?

RS: Okay, Question Two is: When you have a world, as you do in the Lockwood & Co. books, that is like ours if not quite ours, how do you decide what the rules of that universe are going to be? Or is that something you work out as you go?

JS: It’s an organic process. I kind of work from the middle outward, I suppose. Both in Bartimaeus and in Lockwood, that middle-beginning comes with the key characters. I’ll start with the idea of a djinni as narrator who’s being controlled by dodgy human magicians. The first scene I wrote is the djinni meeting this kid who’s his master. At that point I knew nothing more about the world, really. I gradually pieced it together around that initial sequence. With Lockwood, I began with a boy and a girl walking up to a door in modern London, and they had swords at their belts, and they were going to deal with a ghost. I had them talking to each other, sort of bantering, but I knew nothing about the logic of the world. Why were children doing that? I had no clue.

RS: So you hadn’t even thought of “the Problem” at that time?

JS: Exactly. I wrote maybe three pages of the first chapter, just these two kids talking. And then I put it down, and I had to pause some while I was sitting there scratching my neck and wondering what reason it would be that they’re there without any adults, and what happens when they go inside. It took quite a long time to actually get them in the door, because I had to set some ground rules straightaway. You don’t get those all in one go. But clearly whatever rules I invent for the first book in a series, I have to make sure they remain fast.

RS: Right, and I think you do a good job of parceling them out. It’s not like we have to digest all the rules at the beginning.

JS: I’ve read books, and I’m sure you have too, where you just get hit between the eyes at the beginning with huge amounts of exposition about how everything hangs together. It’s unnecessary. The real world doesn’t work that way. We’re still discovering subtleties about how the world operates. You’re constantly fleshing it out. There’s no reason why an invented world should be any different.

RS: Have you read Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice? It’s a collection of short stories set in these completely unexplained worlds. And she just-sort-of-maybe drops in a rule about how that world works, and maybe she doesn’t. It’s almost as if they’re tales of straightforward realism set in very odd places.

JS: And you buy it, don’t you? If it’s done well.

RS: It’s very disorienting at the same time.

JS: Yes. It’s a fine balance, isn’t it? In fantasy, there’s nothing worse than feeling that the ground is shifting beneath your feet, where the rules suddenly change halfway through. The author has to play fair. But you’re right, part of the fun is throwing in the odd little detail and letting the ripples of it stretch out in the reader’s mind, even if you don’t necessarily ever refer to it again. It’s there, part of the furniture.

RS: I would think, too — and here is Question One — that the use of magic has to be handled very carefully, so that it doesn’t become a substitute for plot development.

JS: With Bartimaeus, one of the things I discovered — it wasn’t intentional — was that as a djinni he had all of these protean abilities, magical powers, but when he came to Earth he was immediately constrained by the binding that the kid had put upon him. So the whole energy and the frisson of the books is that he can’t do what he wants to do, and it becomes a problem for him and an amusement for us. If it were easy for him, it would quickly become very tiresome for readers.

RS: That’s why Superman needed kryptonite.

JS: Yeah. It’s why I think a lot of these superhero movies and comics ultimately get a bit tiresome. (I’m saying that as a big fan.)

RS: Oh, you’re in trouble now.

JS: There has to be an element of danger. Things get rebooted so often, and the characters get in all sorts of peril, but ultimately they always seem to dust themselves off and hitch up their britches and walk away.

RS: How does a writer deal with that? I think about this when I watch cop shows on TV, even — that you want to have your characters in the greatest peril, and you want the viewer, or the reader, to feel the terror along with that person, but you know the hero has to survive for the next episode. There was that one show Spooks [MI-5 in the U.S.], though, do you remember it? On BBC?

JS: Yeah.

RS: Spooks knocked off main characters left and right. But you can’t really do that in a book for kids. Or in a book for anybody, really.

JS: No. In Bartimaeus I did do it, ultimately, and unexpectedly. I think there always has to be a sense that you could do it, that you are prepared to do it, and if you don’t, the character is lucky, and the reader feels that luck. That gives you the sense that the peril is genuine, and the relief is genuine too.

RS: I also think you can, as you have in the Lockwood series, leave your characters with genuine scars, both psychic and physical, from encounters that they have with (in this case) the Problem.

JS: That’s right. In the world in which you and I live, a fatal disaster is not so common — heaven knows that’s not always the case — but for us it is more about the psychic scars, the minor battering that you get as you go through life. So you do want your characters to have bruises from the things they experience. That makes them more lovable and identifiable, I think, from the point of view of the reader.

stroud_hollow boyRS: I’m trying to figure out a way to phrase this question without giving away the ending of your book, because we don’t want to do that — but something very dramatically changes in the last sentence of The Hollow Boy

JS: Yes, true.

RS: —and how do you pick up from that in starting the next volume?

JS: Usually with a series — it was the same with Bartimaeus — I will have a vague idea of where I’m going, but it’s only vague, and it can be altered at any given moment. Funny enough, as you rang, I was just working away on the structure of the next book. I’d actually done a very, very early version of that a year ago, when I was thinking about book three. I already had in my mind a possible way of continuing the story. And yet you have to be ready to throw that away if necessary. Now I’m trying to firm it up. Part of the beauty of it, part of the challenge of a writer, is to try to keep that balance: forward planning with improvisation. The two have to coexist. If you have everything mapped out from the beginning, it becomes arid. Similarly, if you fly by the seat of your pants entirely, it’s a bit high-risk. So I’m constantly trying to think ahead, but at the same time, not paint myself into a corner. I need there to be varied options. That links back to the question about what happens to the characters. With the Lockwood books, I genuinely don’t yet know what’s going to happen to my characters at the end. That means there is a potential threat hanging over them like an ominous cloud. I treat it with respect and my reader with respect, but I do keep it open as I go.

RS: What do you think adding a fourth ghostbuster in this volume does to the dynamic among the characters?

JS: I was quite pleased with it as a way of shaking up the existing dynamic. You have a nice triangular relationship between Lockwood, who’s the dashing central character in a way — he’s the titular character — but in another way, the central character is Lucy, the narrator. It’s her emotions we primarily follow. And George, who’s the third guy. [Ed. note: Poor George.] The three of them have a very nice, close, interconnected dynamic. And bringing in a fourth, and indeed female, character, Holly, really destabilizes things from Lucy’s point of view. That’s really been fun. It allowed me to focus more closely on Lucy’s emotional state, foreground it, and make her that much more affecting.

RS: At what point did you know there was going to be a series of books, not just one?

JS: Fairly early on, it had that potential. I remember with Bartimaeus, all those years ago, I wrote about fifty or sixty pages of the first book before I realized that there was too much going on for it to be one book. This time, because I’m a bit older and grayer and more grizzled, I sat there thinking about the problem of the Problem, what the Problem was, and what the book was going to try and do. I figured out almost straightaway my plan would be to have a series of very traditional ghost-hunting narratives, but then surround that with this wider issue of why the ghosts are coming back, and the social implications of it. That was quite interesting, embedding traditional ghost narratives in a wider social context. That is something I couldn’t do in one book. It was going to have to be a series.

RS: I thought it was pretty brilliant to make one of the rules the fact that only children could really deal with these ghosts.

JS: It was the first rule that I had to figure out. Why were these kids there? Where were the grownups? There had to be some pretty basic reason. It’s not just the old Scooby-Doo type thing where you’re a bunch of kids having an adventure. There are real ghosts. They’re really dangerous. And the adults can’t see them. That immediately has implications for how the society functions. The adults are vulnerable, but also still control things. They try and remain safe, but send kids into the houses to deal with the phantoms and potentially get killed. The adults stay at home at night, and the kids go out after dark. It’s fun to play with that.

RS: Will we see in the fourth volume — I don’t want to say a resolution to the Problem, but will we get a bigger picture of it?

JS: We will. As I’m speaking now, I’m thinking that I may do five books, and the fifth one will be the one that has the ultimate resolution. But, yes, having focused quite closely on the emotional dynamics of my heroes in book three, I think book four will open out again a little bit more and give a few tentative answers.

RS: Do you have any demands from fans as to how certain things happen or don’t happen?

JS: Well, yes, actually. There’s definitely a large number of people who are quite keen, particularly, on there being an emotional resolution to the Lockwood and Lucy relationship. That’s of interest to a fair number of readers.

RS: Are you seeing fanfiction about the two of them?

JS: I know it exists, but I don’t read it. When I do a naughty Google search, I’ll find all sorts of excerpts about Lockwood and Lucy. There’s a lot of fan art kicking around, and quite often that’s fairly…well, Lockwood and Lucy in loving clinches. So I’m under no illusions about what people would like. I guess to a certain extent one has to detach oneself a little bit from that and try and follow the way you want to go.

RS: And it is kind of a nice problem to have. It wouldn’t happen if people weren’t so wrapped up in the story.

JS: No, it’s the best. It suggests that your characters are living, breathing creations outside the little bits of paper in your messy old study. I remember, back with Bartimaeus, that somebody sent me a letter with an alternative ending to the series. There’s quite an apocalyptic finish to the third Bartimaeus book, and a girl wrote me a lovely alternative ending where everything was resolved in a much more upbeat way. It really moved me. It was wrong from an aesthetic point of view—I didn’t think that as a story ending it was correct. But from the point of view of wish-fulfillment and wanting the best for my characters, it actually made me feel very moved.

RS: In the Talks with Roger interview I did with Lisa Graff, we talked about J. K. Rowling’s periodic announcements about this or that character after the books have been published. You know, like when she told us that Dumbledore was gay. How much ownership do you feel over these characters?

JS: The only character of mine who could almost exist independently of me is Bartimaeus. A djinni that’s been around for thousands of years — it almost feels natural that I can assert him as being present in a couple of different epochs. People ask me if I’m going to write another Bartimaeus book, and I think yeah, sure, I could. He’s out there somewhere having adventures, and I no doubt could tap into it. He does have that sort of life for me. Beyond that, you give it your best shot in the book. You have a certain number of pages; you put down what you can, and then you leave it to other people to extend it. I think it would be wrong to keep adding footnotes and explanations to something that should be a finished text.

RS: That people can take and do with what they will.

JS: Fanfiction, which is great and lovely. That’s what we all do. Every time you read a book, you see things in your own unique way. The way you read Harry Potter will be subtly different from the way that I read it, and we’ll get different things from it. There’s no right and wrong answer, and if we want to go off and have fantasies about Dumbledore or anyone else, that’s certainly correct.

RS: What about George and Lockwood, nudge-nudge-wink-wink?

JS: Well, yes. Old George, you see, he’s a bit unnoticed. Lockwood’s sort of swishing around with his long coat, and Lucy’s looking after him with her big eyes, and old George is there on the sidelines. Absolutely. What’s his take on it? I think a lot of people would probably identify with George. I think, in a way, I identify with George.

RS: Me too.

JS: Most people probably have a little bit of a soft spot for him.

RS: All right, I’ve got tons of material here, Jonathan, and I can let you go.

JS: Okay, that sounds brilliant. I look forward to the headline on top saying “Stroud Denigrates Superheroes.” Oh, dear.

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Lois Ehlert Talks with Roger Tue, 15 Sep 2015 16:00:54 +0000 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. The first book Lois Ehlert wrote, Growing Vegetable Soup, published in 1987, was about a garden, and so is her latest, Holey Moley. It shows readers the life to be found both […]

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Lois Ehlert Talks with RogerTalks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

lois ehlertThe first book Lois Ehlert wrote, Growing Vegetable Soup, published in 1987, was about a garden, and so is her latest, Holey Moley. It shows readers the life to be found both below and above the ground as one inquisitive — and hungry! — mole makes her rounds. I last saw Lois when she won the 2006 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for her picture book Leaf Man, and it was a pleasure to talk to her again.

Roger Sutton: How are you today?

Lois Ehlert: I’m good. It’s a very pleasant day here in Wisconsin.

RS: Do you have a garden there?

LE: I have an indoor garden in which I grow flowers. I’ve always wanted a real garden, but I had to give it up because the tomatoes would always ripen when I had a job due, and I would be torn between working out there and being at my dryboard.

RS: We all have choices to make.

LE: Yeah. I go to the farmers’ market.

RS: It’s hard to find a good tomato.

LE: Especially this year.

RS: They’re not abundant, and they don’t seem to have much flavor.

LE: No. I don’t know why that is. We’ve had a lot of rain, but we haven’t had as much sun as they might like. I haven’t talked to a tomato, so I don’t know that for sure.

RS: Well, as we learn from your book, they need moles.

LE: Absolutely. I think any gardener who prides him or herself on having a pest-free garden probably doesn’t know that a mole has been working.

RS: Your mole, she’s quite a heroine.

LE: I think so. On the last page before the endpaper it says, “Things unseen don’t mean that we’re not here.” One thing I’m trying to emphasize is that no matter how small you are, you make a difference. But I don’t like to get preachy about it.

RS: Oh, I don’t think you do. One of the great things about this book is seeing that contrast and connection between what’s going on aboveground and what’s going on belowground.

LE: A lot of people, both children and adults, have never seen a vegetable growing. They see it in the grocery store. Even if they see it at the farmers’ market, it’s already been yanked out of the dirt.

RS: I remember asking my mother what kind of tree eggs grew on.

LE: That’s pretty logical, don’t you think?

RS: Yeah, you’d think.

LE: Like you’d see Brussels sprouts in a little container and you would never know that they grew on a stalk.

RS: As children we do understand plants, and plucking things from a plant, but you don’t even see the carrot in your garden because it’s underground.

LE: While working on this book I bought growing plants from the farmers in the market, then lugged them home and yanked them out of the dirt myself. I felt kind of bad about it, but then I drew the roots from the real thing. It’s such a marvel.

RS: I was thinking how, in your pictures here, the roots below look like the trees above. It’s almost like a mirror world that you’ve depicted. When you compare this book with Growing Vegetable Soup, which was your first book, how do you see yourself changing as an artist?

LE: It’s hard to say, because with each of my books I try to make the art style pertinent to the subject matter. And yet, there’s a certain look to my books that identifies me. I think that thread among them might be color. You know, Growing Vegetable Soup was not universally well received because it was so stark.

ehlert_holey moleyRS: There’s certainly a lot more color in this book, and darker colors.

LE: I try to let the subject matter set the mood. Dirt is dirt, you know?

RS: Dirt is dirt.

LE: Sometimes I look at the older books and think maybe I would do a certain leaf a different way, but you’ve just got to keep moving.

RS: I recently interviewed Ashley Bryan for this series and we talked about collage. I asked him: when you pick up a piece of paper and your scissors, how much do you know about what you’re going to do? And he told me: nothing. How does that work with you?

LE: It’s the same. In my book Boo to You, the cat’s ears are made of fragments of marbleized paper, which I bought years ago on a trip to Florence. Wherever I go I just pick up paper that I like. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it. But I always do something.

RS: How do you keep the paper?

LE: It goes in folders.

RS: So, not a system?

LE: Well, it is a loose system, in that I separate the cool colors from the warm colors, but I just have drawers and drawers of these. Sometimes accidental mating can turn up something unexpected in a color sequence. Or if I’m doing something on my dryboard and the paper falls on the floor at a diagonal, I look at it and think maybe it would look better at this angle. It’s kind of intuitive. I don’t know if it’s explainable.

RS: But there are no accidents.

LE: I don’t think so.

RS: Have you ever had a book start from a piece of paper?

LE: I don’t think so, but for Eating the Alphabet I made those papers — the watercolor, the texturizing. I did a lot of that before I even got to the illustrations. And quite honestly, I didn’t know what would turn out well and what wouldn’t. You have to allow a lot of extra time. Somebody once said to me, “You know, you could get some of those textures on a computer.” My answer was, “Why would I want to do that?” Because to me part of the pleasure of being an artist is that you see and you touch. I don’t want to hurry it.

RS: So you don’t use computers at all in your work?

LE: I don’t. But of course I have a publisher that does the production. I’m not saying that I’m bare-bones in that regard.

RS: I don’t think that would be possible.

LE: No. Since my previous career was as a graphic designer, I know about typefaces and styles and sizes and all that. So when I do my dummy books, those are all really nailed down. I know what size type is going to fit on the page, and how it’s going to work with the next spread.

RS: That’s also something that identifies your work. If I just look at a block of spare text against the color, I’ll guess that it’s a book by you.

LE: Some people would say, “Well, the text is so simple. I could do that.” And maybe they can. But I start out with more than I need of everything, and then begin paring it down so that it works, so that as soon as you turn the cover you’re in the book. That’s my plan.

RS: Your books are generally for very young children. You’ve been at this longer than I have. Picture books have really expanded to older children in that time. Sometimes I worry that the younger kids are getting left behind as an audience.

LE: I do too. And I also worry that they don’t go outside as much. It is something to be concerned with, but again, like the mole, you just have to do your thing. I put a lot of information in the back of my books—like in this one all the stuff about worms—and while I know that a three-year-old is not going to be reading that, I figure that the adult who’s reading the book to a kid could have a little more information to share.

RS: Right. We don’t know all of that, most of us.

LE: After I’ve spent all the time doing the research or having the experiences, why not share that too? But I don’t like to include in the text only words that a child might know, because sometimes a new word is delicious on the tongue.

RS: And how else do you learn new words? If books only included what we already knew, why read them?

LE: That’s right. I love music, and reading aloud is like music to the ear, if it’s done well.

RS: Do you always have the text set before you start designing and illustrating?

LE: No, I hardly ever do. I usually start with a visual idea. Maybe a feeling, or something to do with the art. I know that’s contrary to what most people would do.

RS: What did you see here? What was the first image that became this book?

LE: The first thing I did was to figure out a map of where a mole might go. That’s now in the back of the book. I tried to figure out how I could span three seasons and different locations.

RS: Even before that did you say to yourself, “I want to do a book about a mole”?

LE: Yes. And this is not the first book about a mole that I’ve done [Mole’s Hill: A Woodland Tale, for example]. I think a little kid can relate to a small creature sometimes.

RS: I think you’re right. And moles are good because they look like aliens. Like an animal from another planet.

LE: The other thing, going back to community gardens and so forth, is that there’s a movement in Milwaukee, started by Will Allen who was the adviser to Michelle Obama for the White House garden. His organization in Milwaukee, Growing Power, Inc., works with schoolchildren, and they also sell worms. My brother and I went on a tour to see them. I’m not real fond of worms, although I understand their importance — they are used in composting and all sorts of things. And so I decided I would spell out words in my book with worms.

RS: Yes, Horn Book creative director Lolly Robinson and I were trying to figure out all the worms.

LE: Sometimes the way an idea comes about is almost unexplainable. Except that when you do get the idea, you just say thank you.

RS: That sounds like what Ashley was saying, that the process is as much a mystery to him as it was to me.

LE: You’re just thankful to be doing something that you love.

RS: Pretty lucky, aren’t we?

LE: I think so.

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Lisa Graff Talks with Roger Tue, 01 Sep 2015 07:00:34 +0000 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. In Lost in the Sun, a companion to Umbrella Summer, Lisa Graff explores the consequences of one boy’s death on the other boy who inadvertently caused it. How do you get over […]

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Lisa Graff Talks with Roger
Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

LisaGraff_200wIn Lost in the Sun, a companion to Umbrella Summer, Lisa Graff explores the consequences of one boy’s death on the other boy who inadvertently caused it. How do you get over that? And how, I also wanted to know, does having once been a children’s book editor (Graff worked at Farrar, Straus and Giroux) affect the way one goes about writing for children?

Roger Sutton: Let’s dive in because I have a lot of questions about Lost in the Sun. It seems like such a risk to use an unreliable — well, is unreliable the right word? Unsympathetic, maybe — narrator. How did it occur to you to do that?

Lisa Graff: I’m not sure it was a conscious decision. Though now that you say that, I’m remembering that my graduate thesis at The New School was on unlikable protagonists in middle-grade literature, so obviously it’s something that’s interesting to me. A couple of my narrators have been unlikable. I’m fascinated by kid characters, especially, but by all characters who seem on the surface to be people we wouldn’t want to spend time with. How they got that way, what they’re thinking, and what’s going on behind them.

RS: How do you, as a writer, keep a reader invested in that person? I thought, “This guy Trent is so screwed up.” But I fell for him.

LG: It’s funny, because with all of my characters that are “unlikable,” I really love them. They’re usually my favorites, and it doesn’t occur to me at first that the reader might not love them. It’s a matter of finding what makes them do the things they do — the bad decisions — and what makes them tick. We can connect with whatever the emotions are, if not necessarily the actions themselves.

RS: One thing you do early on in the book is let us know why Trent is acting the way he is. So we don’t just think he’s an asshole.

LG: He still is, a little bit. But you know why.

RS: Right. Here we have this protagonist who’s been involved in something terrible. He really didn’t do anything wrong, but you can see why he feels like he did, and now he has to learn to come to terms with it. How do you stop that from turning into a problem novel? Or is it a problem novel? What do you think of that term?

LG: It makes me cringe, even though every book deals with issues and problems. If they didn’t, they’d be boring. But the term is kind of horrific.

RS: It has a lot of bad history.

LG: My early drafts were definitely problem novels. When I write my first several drafts, everything is really big and broad and cheesy, and there are huge moments and huge emotions. I usually overwrite so much at the beginning. My first draft of this novel was probably five hundred pages. It was enormous. And a mess.

RS: Multiple victims. Crawling on the ice.

graff_lost in the sunLG: And then I go through and pick up the moments that really feel truthful. Those tend to be the quiet moments. They’re the ones that if I were to outline — which I don’t often do but, but if I were to — probably wouldn’t even make it in the outline, because they’re not big events. But they’re the ones that really matter. I keep those, and I throw everything else out.

RS: That makes me wonder about outlining as a technique for putting a novel together. I wonder if people miss things, because they’ve got this list, dammit, and they’re going to stick to it. I guess it’s different for everybody.

LG: I think so. I’m not an outliner, because when I do — after I’ve spent all that time and hated every moment of it — I realize that my outlines are all about things that the characters understand and emotions they’re having. There’s no actual plot in the entire outline, and it doesn’t work.

RS: Oh, plot. Plot.

LG: My books are not particularly plot-y. That’s not the way I think. The plot is very secondary to me. I just can’t outline.

RS: But you do have things happen to your characters. I’ve read some books where it feels like the plot is just an excuse to move the characters from place to place so they can have another conversation.

LG: It’s all in the rewriting, the revision. Where can I put these characters, and what would best show us what’s happening to them?

RS: What has your previous career as a children’s book editor done for you as a novelist?

LG: That’s a great question. I sold my first two novels just about three months after I started at FSG, so I was really learning how to be an editor at the same time as I was learning how to be a writer. It was wonderful, though very difficult. Being an editor has probably helped me to just take my time. At first it was hard, because I was working with all these wonderful writers and wonderful books, and I would try to edit myself too much. But after a while of seeing the process so many amazing writers go through — how some projects start not as amazing as they end, and the very different ways that people go through drafting and writing books — I realized that it was okay to start from a really terrible place. What was important and necessary was to just work through the process the way you need to do it. So counter to what you might expect, being an editor has actually helped me take my time more.

RS: Do you feel like you’re nicer to yourself as an author, maybe?

LG: At the beginning of a book, yes. Then I’m brutal and cruel in the middle, which is also very important. There’s no greater satisfaction to me than slashing out entire pages of a draft. I get a sick pleasure out of it.

RS: Just sort of lacerating yourself with self-hatred — is that what you’re doing?

LG: I want the book to be as concise as possible, and since I know I’m someone who overwrites in drafts, I know that the cutting stage is part of my process. Often I’ll make myself some word count — I have to cut twenty-five words on every page in a draft, say. That’s actually fun for me, because I see what’s crucial to the story. Sometimes passages or paragraphs or even whole pages that were my favorite things to write can be unimportant to the story.

RS: That’s something I had to learn as an editor as well. Sometimes design dictates you can only use so many words and no more, and it becomes like a puzzle. How am I going to get all the words into the allotted space?

LG: Love that.

RS: It is kind of fun. And how far will you go with this before you share a manuscript with your editor?

LG: It depends on the project. Jill Santopolo has edited all my middle-grade books, and I like to show her my projects when I know they need work but I don’t know what else to do to them. That’s my ideal situation, though it doesn’t always happen that way because of time constraints. There have been a couple of times, too, when I’ve hit a spot where I have no idea what I’m doing, and it’s just a mess. I’ll show it to Jill, and she’s amazing because she can see through all that, and she’ll point me in a direction and say, “Okay, this is your story,” or “This is your main character,” and I can go back to square one with that little piece.

RS: Do you feel like it’s done when it’s done? I know writers who are never satisfied, even when the thing is published.

LG: When I was working on my first published book, The Thing About Georgie, I remember having this moment when I realized that I could just revise this thing until the end of time, and it would become a different book. There was something kind of wonderful and scary about that. But there does come a moment when it feels like it’s the story that I was trying to write, even if it’s not perfect in every regard. That’s the point where I want to stop. Usually what happens is after that draft where I think I’m done, and I go out for a nice dinner to celebrate, two days later Jill emails me another revision letter. This has happened with every single one of my books. She says, “Okay, just one more draft.” And then after that one I’m really done. She’s always right.

RS: Let’s talk about the end of this book. I loved it. But I noticed that even the Horn Book review has some questions about the ending. I don’t want to give anything away, because it is a great surprise of an ending, so let’s talk around it a little bit. What kinds of reactions have you had from readers?

LG: You mean the very, very end, right?

RS: The very, very end.

LG: There have been some people who were surprised and upset, but most of the responses are positive. I think most people felt it was the best, natural ending to the story. For me there was never a question. It seemed like the truest way to tell these characters’ stories. I’m trying to find the best way to talk around it.

RS: I know.

LG: I think it speaks to one of the central themes of the story, which is that it’s not the events in our lives that are important so much as how we respond to them. That’s what I really wanted to get across.

RS: That’s the theme of your novel all the way through. The big central propelling event of the story happens before the first page.

LG: Absolutely. In essence, it could have been anything that happened. It’s the way that Trent reacts. It’s not that event per se that shapes him, it’s what it did to him.

RS: Right. Had he been someone else, it would have been a completely different story. Because it’s about what happens to that character, not what happens to a person, when a tragedy like that occurs.

LG: Exactly. The idea for this book came from a book I wrote several years ago, Umbrella Summer, which is about a character, Annie, dealing with the tragedy of her brother dying. It occurred to me at the time that someone had to have hit the hockey puck that struck her brother. There was nowhere in the book to address it, so I just ignored that side of things. But the idea sat in my head, and it wasn’t until maybe five or six years later that I decided I wanted to write a book about the boy who’d hit the hockey puck. And then it wasn’t until the book was finished that I figured out why I wanted to focus on Trent’s character, who I hadn’t realized at the time was based on someone I had known, whom I was very close to. That was my jumping-off point.

RS: There’s this new book by Sophie Kinsella — she writes those Shopaholic novels. But she’s written her first YA, Finding Audrey. It’s about a girl who has become intensely agoraphobic. She even wears sunglasses so she doesn’t have to look at anybody. All we know is that something happened at school between her and this clique of girls, but we never learn what it is.

LG: Oh, interesting.

RS: Similarly, she’s dealing with the fallout and recovery from this event. The actual whatever happened happened before the book began. We never find out what that was, and it becomes all the more powerful because you don’t know. That’s kind of how I feel about what we’re trying not to discuss.

LG: I always feel funny about that, when kids ask me what happens to these characters after the book ends. I’m like, “Whatever you want. It’s fiction. It’s not real.” But yes, I do feel like I know what happened.

RS: I got so mad when J. K. Rowling told everyone that Dumbledore was gay. Not because I care that Dumbledore is gay. Be as gay as you want, Dumbledore. But it’s like she took that power that you’re talking about away from readers. She didn’t write that he was gay.

LG: I had that same reaction. It’s not on the page, so it’s not true. I feel like once you write a book it belongs to the reader. It doesn’t belong to you anymore, so it doesn’t matter what you think, or what your backstory is for those characters. It’s everyone else’s.

RS: You have done your part. And the reader has a job too. And if you don’t give readers the room to do that job, I suspect they’re not going to get invested in your story.

LG: It’s interesting to read people’s interpretations of my books, because there are times when I think, “That’s absolutely not why the character did that.” But that’s just my interpretation. Readers can think whatever they want. They have that freedom, and it’s great.

RS: But it must drive you crazy when people do actually misread what you have put on the page.

LG: Yeah, that’s annoying. It says it right there! But I remember being in a grad school workshop, and someone was giving me notes. I cut in, which we were never supposed to do; we were supposed to just remain silent while they gave us their comments. But I cut in and said, “That’s not what I meant.” My thesis adviser said, “Lisa, you can’t sit over everyone’s bed while they read your novel and tell them what you meant.” Which is really true.

RS: And kind of creepy.

LG: So I try to remember that.

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Ashley Bryan Talks with Roger Wed, 19 Aug 2015 16:54:35 +0000 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. Ashley Bryan lives in the tiny — pop. 70 — town of Islesford on Little Cranberry Island, a part of Acadia National Park in coastal Maine. It’s an inspiring setting indeed for […]

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ashley Bryan Talks with Roger

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

ashley bryanAshley Bryan lives in the tiny — pop. 70 — town of Islesford on Little Cranberry Island, a part of Acadia National Park in coastal Maine. It’s an inspiring setting indeed for Bryan’s latest book, Sail Away: Poems by Langston Hughes, a collection of fifteen extremely child-friendly poems by the great writer, all devoted to themes of water and particularly the sea, and each one gloriously illustrated in sensuous cut-paper collage. Here are some highlights of my interview with Ashley Bryan via phone from his home (where he was entertaining Horn Book stalwarts Robin Smith and Dean Schneider, whose photos can be found below).

Roger Sutton: I hope you’re having a good summer.

Ashley Bryan: Yes. You know, summers are always special, because so many people I see only in the summertime come, and the island is so beautiful.

hughes_sail awayRS: How much does the population increase in the summertime?

AB: It goes from seventy to about four or five hundred when the cottages around the shore are all occupied. And every day we have hundreds of people take the boat and come out to walk on an island.

RS: How do you like living with only sixty-nine other people for most of the year?

AB: Well, I’ve always loved community. It was that way in New York, Roger. Growing up in the twenties and thirties, we lived in tenement apartments, four or five stories, and we knew all the people in the building. Everyone looked after everyone. In good weather people would sit out on the street with their games and instruments and an eye on the children. So the feeling of community that I had growing up in New York is what I found on these small islands.

RS: How did you discover them?

AB: It was through a Skowhegan School of Art scholarship I received in 1946, the year the school [a summer residency program], was founded. I had just come back from the Second World War and was completing my work at the Cooper Union. I came back completely spun around by the war and wanting to find out why man chooses war. I knew I wanted to finish at Cooper Union, but I knew I had to try and find answers to my question, too. That very summer I came up to Skowhegan, and that’s where I found my roots. Painting outdoors in the midst of the earth, the sky, the sea. I had such a strong feeling of nature and the care that nature asks of us and painting from the inspiration of what was in nature. On weekends we’d go to Acadia National Park, and you’d see all these islands off the shore. That’s how I came to the Cranberry Isles. I knew that every summer that I was home in the States I would spend my time painting on those islands. I did sabbaticals there. So over the years, I grew to know not only the landscape, but the families, for generations.

When I was about to retire I chose to come here rather than returning to New York City, where all I had grown up with has been razed and made uniform — it’s not a community any longer.

RS: Well, we can’t afford it anymore anyway.

AB: Yeah. So I decided I’d live on this little island where not only did I know the people, but the people knew me. Everything that I do here people have taken part in. My work with painting, with sea glass, with making puppets—everything has been my outreach to the community, in the hopes that its few remaining year-round residents will be able to hold on.

blooms and ashley bryan by robin smith

Horn Book reviewer Sam Bloom and his daughter visit Ashley Bryan. Photo: Robin Smith

RS: The art for this book is done in collage. What kind of a distinction do you make when you talk about painting and collage? Do you consider them the same thing, or are they different?

AB: To me it’s all the same thing. As I was saying to Daniel Kany in a recent article in Kolaj magazine, my work in general is not divided into illustration or anything else. It is an urgency that is fundamental, and the essence is the same. It’s the urgency to discover something about ourselves in every work we make. I make no distinction between doing a block print, a collage, a watercolor, a tempera painting. To me it’s an effort to discover something of myself that I do not know and have not done. So each effort is like that of the child going out in the morning, making discoveries and having adventures.

RS: How do you compare the artistic process of cutting a piece of paper with putting paint onto a canvas? How is it the same and how is it different?

AB: Well, design is always at the heart of whatever you do, whether you’re painting a scene of, say, a garden outdoors, or working on a collage. I’m starting with a blank surface. And I’m committing myself, by the first marks I make, to a continuity of rhythm that’s going to create the composition. And for me, that kind of effort is a dialogue between the material and the artist, which is constant. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing. If I’m walking the shore, and I pick up two shells, I put the shells together, and I say, “That reminds me of an African mask. I’m going to make a puppet of that.” It’s seeing a material that you’re going to transform. And that is universal. It’s integral to everything we do. The act of transformation and the desire to transform.

RS: And how much do you know before you start cutting?

AB: I try to know nothing about anything in the art that I am about to begin. What I already know is wonderful. There will always be that biography following me. But I don’t want to do what I have already done or already know. I want to make a discovery. So I say to myself, “I must find something in this adventure that I’ve never had before.” Yes, there will be a family resemblance in the creation. But I want to make that discovery of what I do not know through the adventure of the work.

People have said “Sail Away is the best work you’ve done.” Well, that’s fine. I like to feel that whatever I do, that it is the best. But it’s all in company, a family relationship to everything else I have done. I can respect and love what I’ve done in the past, and I can look back surprised at what I did when I was fifteen, twenty, all of which is currently in an exhibit of my life and art at a museum up here.

ashley bryan and deborah taylor by robin smith

Ashley Bryan and Deborah Taylor on the dock. Photo: Robin Smith

RS: How did you select the poems for Sail Away?

AB: The poems that I selected from Langston Hughes were ones I felt a child would have no trouble immersing him- or herself in. To me, those poems would be like Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, Eugene Field’s Poems of Childhood, Mother Goose rhymes. The freshness, the sense of the child…that would relate to all children. I had a vast range of Hughes poems to choose from.

Through poetry we find this confrontation with the most difficult and the most joyous things to face in life.

And so when I take a poem by Langston Hughes, there is a kind of brilliance. Nikki Giovanni, a living artist today who I know and love, gives me that same sense in the way she explores language and excites the spirit through language. That kind of inspiration just lives with me, which is why I dedicated the book to her and Langston, out of that little poem of Langston Hughes’s, “To Make Words Sing.” “To make words sing / Is a wonderful thing— / Because in a song / Words last so long.” You can remember the strains of a poem that will never leave you. And it does not matter how many hundreds of years ago it might have been written or how recently. It is always current to you.

RS: Do you remember when you discovered Langston Hughes?

AB: I was on my own in that, because it was not a part of my schooling growing up in the Bronx. My finding of black artists was on my own. We had the basics — you know, George Washington Carver. But Langston Hughes was not included, nor Countee Cullen, or any of the black American poets. I discovered them later through my love of poetry — Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, Frost, Sandburg. But finding black artists, for most young people in school in our country, is a search of their own. It is not a part of the curriculum. It is not required. It is not on any exams. And it is considered something that’s an addition for Black History Month, something which can be forgotten because it will not be on the test.

RS: When you’re illustrating a poem, do you hear it in your head as you create?

AB: Oh, it sings through me constantly, in waking and sleeping. I’m listening, I’m singing it. The motion of it. Each poem that I take on has the depth of a world, feeling and thinking and rhythm. “Off the coast of Ireland / As our ship passed by / We saw a line of fishing ships / Etched against the sky. // Off the coast of England / As we rode the foam / We saw an Indian merchantman / Coming home.” There’s a feeling I wanted to get into the artwork as well, the spirit of excitement, of just being on the sea, with that line of fishing ships.

The artist in nature. Photo: Robin Smith

The artist in nature. Photo: Robin Smith

RS: It’s interesting, as I look at that picture as you read the poem aloud, I see these strong horizontal and strong vertical lines meeting in just the way that you read. It’s like the picture is marching, almost.

AB: Yes. Good. But in each poem, there are different images — and they change so profoundly. In “Sea Calm,” for instance, that one with the very quiet water scene, the person’s lying on the shore with a little child, and it’s so simple. “How still, / How strangely still / The water is today. / It is not good / For water / To be so still that way.” It’s something you’d like someone to look at and reflect on, and almost enter into a dream of observation as they look at it, you know.

RS: I think that’s what you want to do. You want to be careful in illustrating poetry not to be too directive. You know what I mean? You don’t want to simply recreate what the poem says.

AB: You want to give an echo of image that can allow for a wandering experience of the seer, so that they can bring something of themselves to it as well.

RS: Don’t you think that poem “Sea Calm” is kind of creepy? I don’t mean that in a bad way.

AB: Yes, it is strange, but it’s open for people to respond to it their own way. Very often, when I’m crossing back and forth from my island to the mainland, I’m looking at the surface of the ocean. And I’ll just be thinking of the Middle Passage, what the depths of that very still surface of the water has meant to my people, crossing from Africa to our hemisphere, the New World. The sea is always beautiful. But you know what it can mean, if anything happens to the ship. A sudden storm where fishermen are swept away and lost. When they started out on a day that seemed a fishing day, and then suddenly a storm comes up, and they’re swept away. Or your power dies. It’s a winter day. And you’re found washed up, your boat on the shore, frozen against the motor that you’ve huddled over for warmth. When I came here to the islands, in the late forties and fifties, I had some experiences like that, you see. This sea that Langston Hughes loved — he calls his autobiography The Big Sea. The sea is mysterious. It’s beautiful and people like it. But that wide, deep depth is also very holding.

RS: Well, I wonder if that’s part of what keeps us attracted to it — knowing the terror that it holds, as well as the beauty. We can’t look away from it.

AB: I remember visiting the family home in Antigua, in the West Indies. As a young man I wanted to see where my parents had come from. And at that time I would go snorkeling. I would be looking at all these different corridors of fish below, and I would suddenly forget that I’m in water. And I’d have to keep coming back, that I’m being buoyed up by the water as I’m experiencing the rhythm and movement of fish below. It’s amazing — seventy percent or so of the earth is water, so it’s bound to be very much a part of the language and the lives of people.

RS: I think that is a perfect place for us to stop. I got you at your most poetic.

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Louis Sachar Talks with Roger Tue, 04 Aug 2015 16:36:20 +0000 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. While Louis Sachar’s books are frequently tinged with something other than reality (the Wayside School, the curse in Holes, the voices from Beyond in The Cardturner), Fuzzy Mud is a suspenseful blend of […]

The post Louis Sachar Talks with Roger appeared first on The Horn Book.

Louis Sachar Talks with Roger

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

louis sachar

While Louis Sachar’s books are frequently tinged with something other than reality (the Wayside School, the curse in Holes, the voices from Beyond in The Cardturner), Fuzzy Mud is a suspenseful blend of straight-up school story and science gone seriously, scarily, awry. There’s a bit of Grimm here, too, as seventh-grader Marshall and fifth-grader Tamaya discover that a forbidden shortcut through the woods can lead straight into big trouble. According to the author, it all began with The Blob; see below.

Roger Sutton: When I first heard about Fuzzy Mud — which was probably a year ago at ALA — it was being hailed as this great new book about bullying. And bullying was definitely the buzzword of last year. Do you think of it as a bullying book?

Louis Sachar: No, I don’t. That’s part of it, but I think of it more as a suspense story, and an environmental story. The relationship between Marshall and the bully, Chad, is what I use to get the characters into the woods in the first place, the predicament. But I never thought of it as a bullying story.

RS: The ecological aspect of the book is fairly terrifying. We’re so used to seeing big dystopian novels about what happens when the world goes wrong, and here we see how that can start on a very small scale.

LS: Right. I didn’t want to write a dystopian novel. I wanted to write one where there was still room for hope at the end, if people would get their act together.

RS: It is a little worrying when Professor Mayfair says in the hearings that the problem is that we have the population increasing, and what are we going to do? What are we going to do, Louis?

LS: When I was a teenager I read The Population Bomb, and it scared me. It’s been on my mind ever since. Of course, that book predicted that by the 1980s we were going to face disaster. Even if the population increase doesn’t lead to disaster, does it lead to a change in what it means to be human? When there’s no room to think and dream and explore?

RS: I wonder if that is already getting circumscribed around us, but because we’re in it, we don’t see it.

LS: I think so. The fact that people live so much in virtual lives online is partly because there just isn’t room anymore, out in the world. It’s just so crowded.

RS: And of course you and I are old enough to remember before September 11, obviously, but I think about the kids who were born afterward, who don’t realize how going to the airport used to be such a different experience. They’re used to it.

LS: It was a different world when I was growing up, where my mother would drop me and a friend off at the beach in the morning and pick us up in the evening and not worry about us. And obviously when she was a kid, the world was even more open.

RS: As a writer, how do you reconcile your own experience of childhood with writing for children today? I had a discussion about this with Richard Peck a couple of weeks ago at dinner. He wanted to know how Instagram worked for a contemporary novel he was writing. And, of course, his own childhood and his own present life had no connection to Instagram whatsoever. How do you make those connections?

sachar_fuzzy mudLS: It’s difficult. I try to come up with ways to avoid those situations. Like in Fuzzy Mud, I made it against school rules to have cell phones or even to use computers for homework unless necessary. I set it in this private school with its own rules because I’m just not familiar anymore with what happens in schools.

RS: They’re very different places from what you and I remember.

I also think that there’s something that can be very elemental about a story. In Fuzzy Mud, as you just said, it’s how do I get these three kids into the woods? And once you’re in the woods, you have an archetypal background to work against. The same thing happened in Holes when you put everybody out in the desert.

LS: We can talk about the world having changed so much, but kids haven’t changed that much. People haven’t changed that much. When I first started writing in the 1970s, I was going to college, and I helped out at a nearby elementary school. That’s what got me into writing for kids in the first place. But even then, at twenty-two years old, I was warned, “Well, kids are different today.” It was, what, twelve years from when I was a kid? And they weren’t different. I still don’t think they are. Just their daily lives are different. So if you can get kids out into the desert, or into the woods, then they just become kids and they can be any generation.

RS: Marshall, in particular, seems to me like a classic Sachar antihero, or underdog. This seems to be a persistent type in your books. Would you agree with that?

LS: It’s a lot easier to identify with the kid being bullied than with the bully. There were some interesting choices to make with Marshall. My editor was a little concerned at first by the fact that Marshall so cavalierly said, “Good, Chad’s gone.” But if someone’s being tormented every day by this person, especially a twelve- or thirteen-year-old, I think that would be a natural reaction.

RS: Especially for a kid. Sometimes as adults we forget how terrifying day-to-day existence can be once a bully gets his eye on you. It seems insurmountable, because you can’t go to adults for help. Adults tell you, “Come to us,” but no kid wants to do that.

LS: No. As soon as you tattle on someone, it just gets worse. Marshall was stuck, and his life was miserable. So when Chad disappeared, that was great. Marshall’s life got better.

RS: One good thing about growing up is that you do start to see more ways out of things.

LS: You’re not trapped, for one thing, having to go to this school every day where you’re getting bullied.

RS: I recently went to my fortieth high school reunion and talked to the kid who had tormented me through two years of school. It was interesting in that neither one of us held onto it. It was a long time ago. It seems so small now. We laughed about it. Back then, though, it was horrible. But when you write a book for kids, you’ve really got to stay in that moment with them.

LS: Yes. You become the character as you’re writing about the character. And so the thoughts Marshall was having were thoughts I was having.

RS: Which part of the book came first? Was it the situation with the out-of-control plague? Was it the kids in the woods? Where did you start?

LS: I started with the kids in the woods. My initial motivation was to try to write a 1950s sci-fi movie–type book. Like The Blob. I knew the kids were going to come across something in the woods, but I didn’t know what it was. I was just experimenting. As I wrote, the story became more than just a 1950s sci-fi, but that was the initial starting point.

RS: And then your menace kind of overtook the story.

LS: Right. As well as my own sensibilities about the environment and overpopulation. And the characters, as I wrote about them, became real, and they took the story in their own direction too.

RS: Whose idea was it to do those brilliant spot illustrations at the start of each chapter, with the increasing number of organisms?

LS: It was a combination. Initially somebody at Delacorte came up with it, but at first they didn’t have them multiplying that quickly. It was one ergonym the first chapter, and two maybe the fourth chapter. When I saw that, I said, “It would be good if the ergies increase more quickly and actually start overflowing out of the petri dish.” And then I was surprised to see them cover the entire page.

RS: Pretty quickly, too. I love the way that you introduced that reproductive cycle in the book, because it sounds pretty innocent when you say one times two is two, two times two is four. It doesn’t really seem like that much. But then you see just how terrifying it can get.

LS:It doesn’t take that long. And then at the end I apply it to the human population.

RS: Tell me something about the human population of Fuzzy Mud.

LS: Tamaya was a challenge to write. It seems like most books with girl protagonists feature spunky, sassy kinds of girls. It was a challenge to write a girl who is just trying to be good, who is shy and quiet and often gets overlooked. I really like that about her.

RS: In that sense Tamaya is a very typical character for you, in that she’s one of those people who says, “If I just lay low, I can get through this.”

LS: It’s not even that. I think it’s more like, “Well, the teacher says no talking, so I’m not going to talk” — partly to please, but partly because this is what Tamaya was taught she’s supposed to do. Listen to the teachers, listen to her parents, do what they say. And around her are friends who have maybe been doing that all their lives too, but now that they’re fifth graders, they’re starting to get more rebellious and independent. Suddenly it’s bad to be the good girl. She doesn’t know when that happened.

RS: Then when Tamaya does take action and stands up against Chad in the woods — when she throws the mud at him — disaster strikes.

LS: Yes, and she blames herself for that later, but at the same time, even in that situation she’s doing the right thing. She’s got a lot more courage and strength than any of her friends who make fun of her for being a goody-goody, because she actually has the courage to throw the mud in Chad’s face, and later to go out in the woods to look for him.

RS: But she also sets off all these unintended consequences. A lot of what happens to us is out of our hands.

LS: Yes. In an earlier draft, Chad actually died.

RS: Yikes.

LS: Part of the story was Tamaya dealing with her guilt and trying to come to terms with it — is it her fault for throwing the mud in his face? When I start a book, I don’t know where I’m going with it. So I do a lot of drafts and go off on a lot of tangents that I end up saying no to. That was one of them for this book, Chad dying. But that feeling of it being her fault is still there, to a lesser degree.

RS: It must be tricky to decide how far you want to go. You do want to show the consequences of a character’s actions, intended or not, but if Chad had died, you would have had a whole different book.

LS: Right. I didn’t like where that book was heading, so I changed it.

RS: Those choices are tough in this kind of book. I don’t know if you saw my review, but I compared it to William Sleator.

LS: I did see that. I like his stuff a lot, so I was happy to see the comparison.

RS: Both of you, you in this book and Sleator in several of his, have this question of how do I make this exciting, suspenseful story that involves a real-life problem, that, one, doesn’t turn into a morality tale, or two, doesn’t become a horror story that overwhelms the fun a kid will have in reading it.

LS: Right. I wanted to make the story threatening, but I wasn’t going to start writing about people being killed.

RS: I would have been upset if you’d killed the dog, much less the people.

LS: My style of writing doesn’t lend itself to cavalier death, where the bad guys and the good guys fight and people are being killed right and left. I try to keep it small in that sense, so that every hurt is felt. Even the fact that there are some deaths reported, deaths that we don’t see, was hard for me. My editor Beverly Horowitz suggested we need to make the threat feel more dangerous. So I put that in, that five or six people died from the ergies.

RS: No one we had actually met.

LS: Even that I hated. Part of me didn’t like being that flippant with people’s lives, even if they are just made-up characters that we don’t see.

RS: I think Beverly is right that if there is no disastrous consequence someplace, then what’s the big deal? That’s a tough line to navigate.

LS: It was also tough to navigate just how badly affected Chad and Tamaya were by their exposure.

RS: How much do you work on a book before you show it to an editor?

LS: Quite a bit. I think it goes back to the days when I was struggling to get published. I’d try to make a manuscript as perfect as possible before I’d ever show it to anyone. I still do that. Fuzzy Mud I considered close to finished, if not finished, when I first showed it to Beverly.

I always tell writers who are trying to get published, don’t expect an editor to see the gems buried in there and bring out your brilliance. You’ve got to show them. You’ve got to make it sparkle yourself. You can’t count on someone seeing that in there.

RS: What was it like for you after the mega-success of Holes? It won everything it could win, it was really popular with kids, everybody loved it. It was a huge book. Is it harder or easier to move on from a success like that?

LS: At the time I thought it would be easier, because I got confidence from it and felt like I could take on bigger challenges. Not so much from the awards, but just from my feeling that I tackled something difficult and succeeded at it. But, looking back, writing became more difficult because I had greater expectations with my next book, and so did my audience. It added pressure.

RS: It’s nice that you’ve switched directions a couple of times since then. Even with the companion to Holes, Small Steps, you didn’t try to write another Holes, for example. And The Cardturner was completely different, as is Fuzzy Mud.

LS: With Fuzzy Mud I’m getting back to my roots. I’ve done The Cardturner. I’ve done Small Steps. And now I’m getting back to writing about middle-school kids again.

RS: Well, we’re certainly glad you’re still doing that. I think you’re going to have a big hit here.

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