Lauren Wolk Talks with Roger

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With My Own Lightning, Lauren Wolk returns to the characters and setting of her first novel for young people, the Newbery Honor-winning Wolf Hollow, published in 2016. We talk below about why she went back.

Roger Sutton: After Richard Peck wrote A Long Way from Chicago, which was a Newbery Honor book, and it became as successful as it did, his editor said to him, “Well, you are writing a sequel.” So, I want to know the story behind Wolf Hollow, a Newbery Honor book, and its sequel, My Own Lightning.

Lauren Wolk: The exact opposite of what you describe. When I told my editor I was planning to write a sequel, she said, “You’re out of your mind. First of all, Wolf Hollow ended without loose ends. It doesn’t need a sequel. Why would you do that?” I said, “Because I keep going back to Annabelle and the farm in my head. She’s the first of my book daughters, and I miss her, and I miss the family.” This was right around when my father died, and the world was crazier than it usually is; I think I wanted to go back to a safe place and people I love, and revisit Annabelle, but I also wanted see what she was going to do with her life after some terrible things had happened in Wolf Hollow. I wanted to see how she was going to grow from that, adjust to it, learn from it. I ignored the advice of my very wise editor and wrote the most difficult book I’ve ever written. It was an interesting experience, writing a sequel to Wolf Hollow during the pandemic.

Photo: Robert Nash.

RS: I always wonder, when writers write a sequel to a book that they didn’t originally plan to have a sequel, do you ever say to yourself, goddammit, why did I have that happen? Now you’re stuck with it.

LW: Yeah, there were moments like that. My Own Lightning was a hard book, and I had something like eight subplots, all kinds of things that didn’t belong in that book. I knew it, and my editor helped me take a couple steps back and look at what was there just because I was being self-indulgent or distracted. Once we got through that, I could focus on what mattered. Then it was a real pleasure. I’m a fast writer in a slow industry, so I figured, well, I’ll start and see. I’m really glad I did, because Annabelle and I had a therapeutic time together. She took a closer look at someone in her life who she had made up her mind about, and she discovered a lot of things lurking beneath the surface and was the better for it. I was doing similar things in my own life. It was very much worth doing.

RS: I wondered if we were going to revisit the themes of the first book when the second book opened with another stranger coming to town?

LW: I write without a map. I never know what’s going to happen. I come up with the first line when I’m in the shower, almost always. When I notice patterns, I think, huh, I’ve done this before. There must be a reason why I’m doing it again. Let’s see where it goes. And if it goes somewhere interesting and different enough, I keep on, and if it feels like old hat, I stop and start again somewhere else. I once tried to write a book with a plan, and it was a bore to write. I’m sure it would have been a bore to read if anyone had ever read it. I'm intimidated by some of my writer friends who have a very good idea of where a book is going to end up. They’ve got Post-it Notes. They’ve got all kinds of maps. I reckoned I would give that a try. It was an experiment, and I never did anything with it. Even when I find myself wondering if something’s going to work out, I usually just follow my nose, follow my characters. Happily, this one took me into new territory.

RS: In the last ten days, I read three other books for interviews. One was a verse novel. One had two alternate points of view. And the third was kind of a choral novel with a lot of characters whose stories braid together. Oddly, it felt revolutionary, when I then read your book, that not only do we keep the same perspective all the way through, each chapter follows immediately from the previous one. Why does that feel so unusual?

LW: Well, you know, I’m kind of old-fashioned. I write historical fiction. It’s what comes naturally. I do sometimes think to myself, man, I should try something new and quirky and edgy and unusual, and every time I try — I’ve tried writing novels in verse and a number of things that I haven’t encountered often or ever — and I feel like a big phony. So, I go back to doing what feels right to me. I love books of all kinds. If they’re well written, I’m happy to put my faith in them, but for me, it seems to be a thing to just tell a story and be fairly traditional about it.

RS: It’s funny, I know you write historical fiction, but I don’t feel like I’m reading historical fiction when I read them, which is a definite compliment.

LW: Well, thank you. I take it as one. I don’t want to be dusty and gray. I want to make kids sit up in their chairs and read on.

RS: Do you write the kind of books that you like to read? I know that’s a very general question.

LW: Yes, but I have very eclectic taste. The things I love the most are books like All the Light We Cannot See. When I was a kid, I liked serious books, and I hardly ever read science fiction or fantasy, although I like some of those now. I loved Island of the Blue Dolphins. I loved books that had an element of sorrow and darkness in them. I do think My Own Lightning is a hopeful book. Annabelle comes out of her depression and forges a relationship with a former foe, defeats a villain, helps Nora, and saves a boatload of dogs.

RS: I was happy that the dogs didn’t die in this book, but it did make me wonder about myself again — why is it an animal in pain, which you convey so beautifully in this book in a number of instances, upsets me so much?

LW: Well, animals are so innocent. They’re not helpless, but they depend on us. I know a lot of people feel that way. I’m an animal lover, but I don’t have pets. But I know a lot of people who have dogs, and I’ve spent a lot of time with dogs. People are absolutely passionate about their animal friends. Do you have pets, Roger?

RS: Yeah. We’ve had one dog or another dog for almost thirty years. The first one lived a very long time.

LW: I often wish I had or did, but having children took it out of me. I wouldn’t trade them for the world, but as soon as I started having kids, I thought there’s no way I’m putting another animal in this house, and then I never did.

RS: How did it occur to you to give Annabelle this struck-by-lightning (literally!) insight into how an animal feels?

LW: That’s a good question. I wanted some strong, unexpected external force to rattle her, to shake her out of this depression she was sinking into, but at the same time I wanted it to spark (no pun intended) an internal shakeup. I thought, how is this lightning strike going to change her, and what is she going to do in response to some new element of her life? I did some research on what happens to people when they survive a lightning strike; some of them do recover with an extraordinary new ability, like being able to do complex mathematics or speak another language. I wanted her to have a strong relationship with a dog, or more than one dog. There are dogs in all my books...I’m not sure why.

RS: The universe is telling you to get a dog, Lauren.

LW: I think it is. I followed my instincts here, and that just felt right. In fact, I played around with a number of ways she might have been changed by the lightning strike, such as being able to play the piano. The one that felt true, and most interesting to me, was having a sense of what another species might be feeling. That one took, so that’s the one I followed.

RS: It reminded me of when you’re really sick, feverish, and it breaks — that feeling when you come out of it that all your senses are twice what they were.

LW: Exactly. It could have been any of her senses, and it was all of her senses that were electrified, but on top of that — the human brain is an amazing thing. There’s so much untapped in the brain. I like to explore the possibilities, so that was part of all this, too. I wish I could live a few hundred years to see how we evolve — if we evolve — into using more of our brains.

RS: I thought that particular choice gave you the opportunity to explore Annabelle’s capacity for empathy.

LW: Absolutely. I should have said that right at the beginning, because empathy is the key to everything. I do believe she and my other protagonists have a great deal of empathy — that’s perhaps their strongest attribute. And it also allows Annabelle to have an increasingly important relationship with her brother, Henry. He was beginning to be more of a friend to her at the end of Wolf Hollow. The age gap between them was less important. He watched how she dealt with Toby and Betty, and he began to see her through new eyes. I wanted that to be a big part of this book. He loves dogs like she does, and that was a way to bring them closer together as well.

RS: How did you work out what you had to bring over from Wolf Hollow for a reader who’s new to the characters in this book?

LW: That was really hard, because I’ve never written a sequel before, and I hate spoilers. It bothered me that people might read My Own Lightning before Wolf Hollow. But I read a lot of books in series, and I decided to pay attention to how authors handle that. I tried to give enough so that people would understand, but not so much that they’d be bored with the constant reminders of what had come before. I figured my editor might help with that, and she did.

RS: This feels more like a bookend than the second book in a series.

LW: I know. I think it will be. Kids keep asking me for sequels to Echo Mountain and to Beyond the Bright Sea, and if I have the guts to write another sequel, I’ll write a companion for each of them as well. They both have loose ends, so that might be a little easier. Especially Beyond the Bright Sea. The kids have the sequels all mapped out for me. They’ve given me — in great detail — what I need to do next, so I have to unlearn what they’ve taught me. I think this will just be a pair of Wolf Hollow books. Although we’ll see — in five years, I might get the bug to go back to the farm and see what Annabelle is doing.

I have to tell you one thing — and this is fascinating to me. Two years ago, I had a story idea, but I put it aside because I thought it wouldn’t work. Then a couple of days ago at an elementary school I was visiting, a girl asked me if I would do the very thing I had been thinking of two years ago. She was maybe in fifth grade. I thought, holy cow! Maybe this is a sign. My idea was to write a book in which Annabelle from Wolf Hollow and Crow from Beyond the Bright Sea and Ellie from Echo Mountain all meet and have some sort of relationship. Of course, their ages would be different. I guess Crow would be the oldest, so I thought perhaps she would be a teacher. I’ve never read a book that combined characters from several unconnected books. It might not work at all. It might be absolutely gimmicky and stupid. But when this girl asked me if I’d ever consider doing it, I thought that might be a sign that I should give it a shot.

RS: The time periods of each book would allow you to do that?

LW: If Annabelle was the youngest — if it was still in the 1940s and she was a teenager — then both Ellie and Crow, who were her age in the 1920s, would be considerably older. They’d be twenty years older than she is. Maybe they’d be teachers in a high school she ends up going to.

RS: Do you like school visits?

LW: I do. I like them a lot. I never get nervous when I’m meeting with adults, but I always get nervous when I’m meeting with kids. And yet it always works out great. They ask the best questions. I spent yesterday at two different schools — one had 120 fourth and fifth graders in a room with me, and the other had about sixty fifth and sixth graders. It was fantastic, but I worry about boring them. I imagine they probably get all these jazzy authors and illustrators who come into their schools, wearing high-top shoes and being cool. And here I come, with my serious historical novels. I’m sixty-two years old, and I’m always afraid I’m going to be dreary. But so far so good.

 

Sponsored by

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc. from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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