Which book of yours was the most difficult to write or illustrate?
My non-fiction books required the most intense periods of research, but the YA novel, Blue Coyote, was the most personally challenging. How could I, a straight woman, take on the character and voice of a young male teen who was exploring his sexuality? Yet a number of readers who had read the novel’s prequel, Twelve Days in August, had written to ask, “What about Alex? What happened to him?” They also asked the question I couldn’t answer myself, without writing the book: “Is Alex gay—or not?” I felt these readers deserved answers. As I worked through many drafts, I received wonderful insights and suggestions from my writer’s group, as well as from a couple of gay friends who read the manuscript in draft form. Writing the story in a third person limited point of view also gave me some needed distance. When students in schools ask me which book I’m proudest of, Blue Coyote is at the top of the list.
Which of your books would make a good movie and who would be the star?
Newsgirl—because it is an adventure story with plenty of action, an exciting setting (Gold Rush San Francisco), and a diverse cast of characters. Amelia should be played by a feisty, determined 12 or 13 year old girl who can hold her own in a gang of boys. And since she goes flying off in an unexpected balloon ascent, she shouldn’t be afraid of heights.
What’s your favorite line from a book?
I will cheat and cite three. The first is the famous opening line from One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Marcia Marquez: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
I also love the opening sentence of M.T. Anderson’s novel, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: “I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple trees.” This is followed by six more breathtaking sentences that introduce the narrator’s amazing voice and set the tone for the story that follows.
The last sentence of Elizabeth Bowen’s novel, A World of Love, has stayed with me forever. While many final sentences wrap up a story, this one opens the reader’s mind to a whole new beginning for the protagonist, who has been through a difficult time: “They no sooner looked but they loved.”
What book do you tell everyone to read?
A tough question, when there are so many great books out there! I often mention Philip Hoose’s magnificent non-fiction book, The Race to Save the Lord God Bird (Melanie Kroupa books, Farrar, Straus and Giroux). It is one of the few non-fiction books that I have reread a number of times; I even read and studied the footnotes at the end. It’s a true story with the drama, pacing, and characterization of the best fiction. I learned a lot about birds, avid birders, and about the interconnectedness of commerce and the environment. Who knew that the disappearance of the ivory-billed woodpecker in Louisiana was linked to the rise of the Singer sewing machine? I certainly didn’t.
Are you a night owl or an early bird?
I’m an early bird. I raised my sons in Vermont, where the school bus came early, and we had animals to feed before starting the day (a small flock of sheep and a goat or two to feed and milk). My sons were also early risers, so I got into the habit of being up with the sun. In good weather, I love to walk or garden first thing in the morning. When I was teaching at Hamline University, I was lucky to room with Jackie Briggs Martin. We woke up at the same early hour during the July residencies and explored Hamline’s St. Paul neighborhood, admiring the gardens, butterflies, and birds as we walked the quiet streets.
Were you most likely to visit the school office to deliver attendance/get supplies, visit the nurse, or meet with the principal?
I hated school from the middle of kindergarten—when we moved from Vermont to Washington, D.C.—to the end of third grade. I had stomach cramps every day. When I complained of pain, my teachers sent me to the principal’s office. She was a fierce older woman who scolded me and accused me of inventing my symptoms. When I was grown and living in Vermont years later, I learned that a close writer friend had attended the same school, a few years ahead of me. She, too, suffered from repeated stomach trouble. “It was because of recess,” she said. “Remember how the boys played war?” I had forgotten, but it all came back: the gangs of boys on the playground, who tortured and bullied us girls. They chased us until we fell and skinned our knees; they yanked our hair and called us names, while the staff—who were supposed to be watching—ignored the whole scene. When we moved to New York State—where I attended a wonderful public school—the stomach aches disappeared, and so did my trips to the principal’s office.