Circling Tuck: An Interview with Natalie Babbitt

Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting was first published in 1975; it has since become a modern classic. Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s 25th anniversary edition of the novel, to be published this spring, features a wide-ranging, deep-digging conversation between Ms. Babbitt and critic Betsy Hearne. The following selection is excerpted from that interview.

BETSY HEARNE: The style and plot of Tuck Everlasting fit together like flesh and bones. Was this book an easy birth, or a hard labor? How long did it take, how many drafts, and how much editing?

tuckeverlastingNATALIE BABBITT: It was hard to find the right way to begin it. There were a couple of other beginnings that aren’t around anymore, because there were so many piles of paper that I finally gave everything to the University of Connecticut. But once I got started it was easy — partly because of the setting, which is a real place. It’s always fun to write about a real place. In upstate New York we had a cabin on a pond, exactly like the Tucks’. We lived in a little college town south of Utica and went up to the cabin, in the foothills of the Adirondacks, for vacations and weekends when the children were little. Everything about that place in the book is true, including the mouse living in a drawer. (It was there when we first moved in, but we didn’t keep it the way the Tucks kept theirs.) Everything about the pond, about toads — there were a lot of toads there — and frogs, everything is exactly the way it was in real life. All I had to do was fit my characters into the setting. That part was easy. And I knew what I wanted to say, which is always helpful.

As far as drafts are concerned, the way I’ve always worked is different from some of my colleagues who go from A all the way to Z and then start all over again to do their rewriting. That’s a perfectly good way, but I rewrite each sentence when I come to it until it’s just the way I want it. So in that sense Tuck didn’t take any longer to write than any of my other books, about a year — nine months to a year, something like that. My editor, Michael di Capua, did some editing on it, but he did more boosting than anything else. He’s very good at that.

BH: The images in Tuck Everlasting circle back over and over, especially the image of the circle itself. We find wheels circling, the sun circling, weather cycling, a ring of trees around the pond and rings in the water, and even the music box circles back over the same song with the key that winds in circles. And the plot circles, from the toad at the beginning, to the toad at the end. Were you aware of developing this theme as you wrote, or did the circle motifs just bubble up from underground, like the magic spring?

NB: Some of the circles you mention I wasn’t really conscious of, but certainly the whole idea of life and the seasons as a circle is a notion I’ve had for a long, long time, since I was very young. I think most of us have some sort of a visual image of what time would look like if you could draw a picture of it. I talk about that with kids when I visit them in school. My idea always was a fixed circle. I have a friend who said that couldn’t be right; it would be more like a coil because it would come around but it wouldn’t come to the same place, which is actually more accurate than the way I’ve always looked at it. But certainly the circle was and is very much a part of my philosophy, if you can call it that.

BH: So you started out with that idea, but the bits and pieces of the image took you by surprise as you wrote?

NB: I don’t think I was even conscious of them. This is one of the weird things about writing. You don’t know what you’re doing, really, until years afterwards, and sometimes it comes as a great surprise. Writing is a kind of therapy, it really is.

BH: Fairy tales are also therapeutic, and Tuck Everlasting has a lot of fairy tale elements, including the water of everlasting life, a young heroine who journeys through the woods on an adventure that bestows new knowledge, and a “monster” whom she and her wise helpers overcome. You’ve talked about how the hero’s mythic journey, as identified by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, repeats itself in fantasies for children. Did you carry a folkloric pattern in the back of your mind as you wrote? Or do you think such patterns — usually diagrammed as a circle, by the way — are unavoidable in reflecting the human experience that has generated them over the centuries?

NB: I think they are unavoidable and I don’t think you have to know anything about them to discover afterwards that you’ve been using them. Joseph Campbell says we’re born with an understanding of this. I don’t know what I think about pre-birth wisdom, but maybe it’s true and certainly in the writing of fantasy, the pattern is almost unavoidable. Tuck doesn’t necessarily end the way readers would expect a fantasy to end. In that regard, it is less of a fantasy than some of my other stories. It represents more of what I feel about fantasy and reality being a part of everybody’s life in that two people can look at the same thing and see very different things. My sister and I, for instance, remember a very different person as a mother. So who can say where the reality actually is?

BH: There’s a sense that death, as far as Tuck Everlasting goes, is a happily ever after. You see Tuck yearning for death when he looks at the man in the yellow suit dying. So the fact that the man dies is not a tragedy.

NB: It isn’t to me, but to some people it is, and maybe that’s why it makes good talk material in school. People get to debate that point. I think there are a lot of us at any age who are very unsatisfied with The Plan that has been thrust on us. But of course we have to accept it, because there’s no way to change it — not so far anyway!

BH: You may have to write another Tuck if there’s a big change.

NB: Right, a revised edition.

BH: How about the man in the yellow suit? Did you intend him to be a death figure, with the descriptions of his bony white fingers, or maybe a devil figure with whom Winnie’s family must bargain their woods in exchange for finding out where she is? And why does he wear yellow, which often represents brightness or sunlight, though sometimes cowardice? And why does he have no name, which is so mysterious?

NB: Well, he’s a very interesting character. I have known a couple of people who are like him, one of whom he is modeled after — a man now dead who was a completely amoral person, neither good nor bad. To be bad you have to have some understanding of good and then choose to go against it. That’s the way the Christian or Judaic devil is; he has been in heaven and he goes to hell. The man in the yellow suit isn’t like that. He doesn’t see good or evil. He sees what he wants. He’s totally selfish, totally self-absorbed, and that to me is much scarier than somebody who is simply bad and going against the law, because there’s no way to reach him.

BH: So he doesn’t intend evil, in a sense.

NB: No, he doesn’t even think of it that way. He thinks about what he wants and that’s the only thing that matters to him. He will use any method he can think of to get what he wants. There are people who are like that. The man in the yellow suit did have a name in the beginning, though I can’t now remember what it was. I tried to find a very neutral name, but as long as he had a name, he was not as threatening. I think that is a very common thing with us humans. Somehow or other when something has a name, whether it’s a person or a disease or whatever it is, we can cope with it. But with no identity, it slips through your fingers when you’re trying to describe it. Then it becomes seriously threatening. So I took his name out. The yellow suit, however, is not like that at all. He wears a yellow suit because I needed a two-syllable color and nobody wears purple. And the reason why he needs a two-syllable color is because I use that phrase over and over again — “the man in the yellow suit” — and it has to have a certain kind of music to it. If it were “the man in the black suit,” the sound would kind of clump. That’s the only reason for the yellow and it is unfortunate, because a lot of people have thought that it meant he was a coward, which he’s not. He doesn’t even understand cowardice.

BH: Yes, I proposed cowardice to my class but they didn’t buy it. They said it should have been red for the devil or black for death.

NB: I don’t think of him as a death figure, although that’s interesting; he does seem to have some of those qualities, doesn’t he? But physically he is rather like the person on whom he’s based. He was very scary, very powerful.

BH: The man in the yellow suit looms as a threat, and Tuck speaks wisely — but it is the women in the book who act, both Mae Tuck and Winnie. Were you aware of challenging the common stereotype of passive heroines, especially those in some of our more popular European fairy tales?

NB: I don’t know whether I did that consciously or not, but I really wanted Winnie to be strong. She is a lot like me on many levels and I recognized that, but I wanted her to have qualities that I don’t have and that I envy in other women whom I know. Winnie was worried about going into the woods. She got homesick and she went through all those difficult things, but she overcame them and was able to act. I am kind of a nervous person who needs a lot of familiar things around me, and I didn’t want her to be like that. When I talk to children about her, I only say, “Well, she wasn’t afraid to pick up the toad.” I’ve never picked up a toad. I wouldn’t even consider picking up a toad! Winnie is strong — and Mae is a kind of woman whom I also very much admire. But Mae represents all of us females, and I have fun talking about this to girls in school, too. She represents all female animals. She strikes without stopping to think, in order to protect her young. So it’s interesting that the complaints I have gotten about her killing the man in the yellow suit have — I think I’m right in saying this — come only from males. Women seem instinctively to understand why she did what she did.

BH: And as you talk, I realize that she’s not only protecting Winnie, her young, but she’s also protecting the young of the world.

NB: Oh, yes. She is an Earth Mother figure if there ever was one.

BH: And there’s not going to be any place for the young if the man in the yellow suit succeeds in getting hold of the water of everlasting life.

NB: Right. She understands all that and she’s very accepting of the lot that she’s been given. She doesn’t try to judge it, she just moves forward. I have known women who have some of those qualities and I envy them enormously.

BH: So Winnie is a new kind of heroine, in the way she acts, and Mae is an ancient kind of heroine.

NB: Absolutely.

BH: Although she’s a pre-adolescent, Winnie feels attracted to Jesse, and at first there’s the possibility of a future romance with him. I made a leap from her awakening awareness to the fact that frogs and toads are common symbols of sexuality in fairy tales.

NB: I didn’t know that! Are they?

BH: “The Frog Prince” comes to mind. Tuck Everlasting is full of frogs and toads…

NB: It is, that’s very funny!

BH: ...and Winnie moves from feeling repelled by a toad to holding it “for a long time, without the least disgust, in the palm of her hand.” Do you think Winnie’s toad is another folkloric symbol of her crossing a threshold to maturity?

NB: Not really. There were toads at the pond, the real pond, and I’m just trying to think about the timing. Valerie Worth, a wonderful poet who’s now dead, wrote a superb poem about a toad. I’m just wondering whether I read that poem before I wrote this or not. I can’t remember, but maybe I simply recognized Winnie’s feeling of revulsion because that’s the way I feel about toads. Frogs are much more glamorous figures, but toads are earth creatures like Mae. They’re not beautiful and they tend to accept an environment where the colors can serve as a kind of camouflage.

BH: And you’ve called her a “great potato of a woman.”

NB: Yes. But as far as toads being a sexual symbol, that is not something I was aware of, which doesn’t mean that I didn’t do it subconsciously.

BH: It is remarkable that Winnie gets over the disgust and feels a kind of respect and affection for this creature.

NB: But don’t you think that is something that we all go through, perhaps on a less dramatic level? You’re afraid of something until you try it and then you think, “Oh, gee, this is not so bad after all!”

BH: That’s exactly what the Princess thought, too, after she hurled the frog that was on her pillow against the wall and he turned into a prince. After all, sexuality and procreation are a part of the circle, and Winnie’s gravestone reads “Dear Wife/Dear Mother.” In fact, let’s talk about the epilogue. Some of the best children’s fiction I’ve read features a kind of “second ending,” after the action is over, that sheds new light on the whole book. The confrontation scene between the two main characters of Brock Cole’s novel The Goats is one, or the party scene at the end of Louis Sachar’s Holes. Your epilogue where Tuck finds Winnie’s grave still makes me cry, after all these years of rereading. It delivers death offstage, which is a subtle way of telling us about Winnie’s fate; and at the same time the epilogue verifies that the water is magic, because the toad still lives, and that means that Winnie really had to make a choice. Was this epilogue integral to your original idea of the story line, or did you surprise yourself by discovering and adding it?

NB: I really didn’t surprise myself, and that goes back to the way I tend to write stories, which is never even to begin until I know exactly how they’re going to end. I have a lot of colleagues/friends now and we all have different systems. My system of having to know how the thing is going to end before I start is only one of many different ways. There aren’t any rules, but it’s the only way I can do it. I don’t know how you can begin if you don’t know how the ending is going to be. Since the ending carries the weight of my whole feelings about a question, I have to know exactly how I am going to end it.

BH: When you started thinking about the book, did you think through it until you knew how the ending was going to be, or did the whole thing come upon you like a hatched egg?

NB: I did some thinking through. I knew that Winnie — well, I didn’t even know she was Winnie in the beginning, she had some other name — but I knew that my girl character would choose to die, and the question was how to lead up to that, how to have the characters discover it.

BH: It’s fascinating to contrast your process with those formula series books in which the plot is all outlined. There are no surprises in them because it’s all basically done according to a tip sheet; that’s the reason many series seem so contrived. Yet there’s nothing in Tuck Everlasting that seems contrived even though you had already planned the whole thing out. But you started with the ending and the surprise was how you were going to get there?

NB: Yes. One of the reasons why it takes so long to get into the story is that Tuck has three first chapters. I would start and I would be going along and then I would think, “Well no, you have to say something before you come to this,” so I’d put another chapter at the beginning of that one. Kids are troubled by this; they think it starts very slowly, and for them I think it does. In my generation we are quite used to books that take you gradually into themselves.

BH: It occurs to me that you have to circle around in order to get into the book because you’ve got different characters who are starting from different points. Why Winnie’s name, by the way?

NB: Well, it doesn’t have a meaning, and usually names that I use do have a separate meaning. But I wanted a name that was common to the period, and that’s true for all of the other names too. Winifred was a very popular name at the turn of the century.

BH: And she wins.

NB: That’s true. At least, you and I think she does.

BH: And the Tucks are tucked out of time and tuckered out.

NB: I spent a lot of time choosing that name. Tuck is a real name. Do you remember Dick Tuck, in the Nixon administration, who played dirty tricks on people? It’s a real name but it is also a word, and one of its oldest meanings, which you don’t even find in recent dictionaries, is “life.” I expect that somehow the phrase nip and tuck must come from that old meaning. I have a wonderful 1947 Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary that belonged to my family, and in there the word tuck means “life” among other things. So that’s why I chose it.

BH: And Mae is an interesting word; M-A-E is associated with may, can, will. There’s something very positive about it. Did you consider that?

NB: No, it was just a name that seemed to me on some level to be very suitable to the character that I wanted. I wanted the Tuck family to represent different ways of looking at the idea of living forever. After all, since we can’t do it, there’s no right or wrong way to feel about it. People think it would be good, or they think it would be bad, or they think parts of it might be fun. I wanted those different notions to be represented by the members of the Tuck family. That’s just a craftsmanlike way to go at it; there’s no art in that. Nor is there any art in the fact that the boys are boys. The Tuck boys are boys because they have a lot of conversations alone with Winnie, and it’s very hard to have two females or two males, because it’s always “he said” and then “he said” and then “he said,” and the reader doesn’t know which “he” is which. But if you can say “he” and “she,” you don’t have to keep using the names. That is pretty mechanical, and it worked out well.

BH: There would have been a whole different dynamic had one of the Tucks’ sons been a girl.

NB: Absolutely. In fact the whole family’s setup, with everyone going off for ten years, wouldn’t have worked very well if they had been girls. Not for the times it’s set in. A lot of those things are just the sheerest kind of luck, but they worked.

*    *    *

Betsy Hearne teaches children’s literature and storytelling in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Natalie Babbitt is working on a new picture book, to be titled Elsie Times Eight.

From the March/April 2000 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more, click the tag Natalie Babbitt.
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