This is such an interesting question.
First we have to consider the difference between the subject of a book and the theme of a book.
It seems to me the subject of a book is the engine that drives the book’s plot; the theme of a book is the engine that drives the reader to a greater understanding of the world and his or her place in it.
It’s funny that I’d never really thought much about the overarching themes in my work. This question sent me scrambling. I made a list of my titles. Beside the titles I attempted to distill the theme of each book. I was surprised to see how often the same themes recur.
The theme of privation drives many of my books. So does the theme of man’s inhumanity to man. My books often explore loss, adversity, and forgiveness.
I suppose the deep themes a writer returns to again and again give the reader insight into the author and his or her greatest concerns.
I’m not certain what my themes say about me. It will be interesting to see if any readers are inspired to examine my collective themes and share their conclusions.
In each book an author must choose how best to tell the tale. Any character will tilt a story in his or her own unique direction. If I had wanted to tell Bayard’s story, the book would still have been about The Dust Bowl but it would have felt and sounded quite different. The emotional landscape would have been Pa’s: his feelings, his wants, his needs. Though there would have been some overlap, for the most part the things Bayard Kelby noticed and cared about would have had little in common with the things that mattered to Billie Jo.
It has always been the experience of the child, the victim of undeserved circumstances, the voiceless and powerless that stirs my writing. I like the challenge of narrating a complicated story from a child’s perspective. It demands of me to stay true to the voice of the narrator while conveying to the reader everything necessary to understand what is going on superficially in the book and between the lines.
I never considered telling this story from any other character’s perspective. It was Billie Jo I most cared about. It was her story I was most interested in telling.
SAFEKEEPING is the only book I have both written and “illustrated.”
There have been a couple of projects in which I’ve attempted to team up with other authors. Once, Ann M. Martin and I dipped our toes into a two-voice novel, but neither of us loved the direction the book was taking and so we agreed to jump ship together. Another time I was part of a group of authors attempting to create a single story. Though some of the book sparkled (I’m sorry to say not my part), the project failed to realize its full potential and was mercifully put out of its misery.
My friends and family help me with every book project, from listening to me blather on about my subject as I go deeper and deeper into the research, to critically reading the manuscript, sometimes repeatedly, as I do revisions. In the case of THE MUSIC OF DOLPHINS, my parents and my aunt were particularly helpful in connecting me with the Florida Coast Guard, who agreed to take me up in a helicopter and fly me over the Florida straits. Unfortunately, because of weather conditions, we were unable to go through with our plans. The other connection my family made for me on that same research trip went a good deal more successfully. I visited a dolphin research center in the Tampa area and spent time with a remarkable male dolphin named Sunset Sam. What I learned from my time with this highly intelligent cetacean unquestionably informed my portrayal of Mila in the book.
When I was young, my little cousin was badly burned in a household accident. I spent weeks with him, reading to him, making up stories for him, keeping him company as he slowly recovered. I can’t help but think that experience contributed to my understanding of the physical and emotional pain endured by Billie Jo and her mother. It also gave me insight into what Billie Jo’s father might have felt.
Billie Jo, like all my characters, reflects in some manner an aspect of my own personality. When I write, I enter my character’s world and mindset, so yes, I feel what they feel. As you can well imagine, I am physically and emotionally drained at the end of a good writing day.
No, Billie Jo was a seed blown by research into my imagination. She is an entirely invented character. But she was specifically crafted to carry the story of OUT OF THE DUST.
No. I was born in Baltimore, Maryland about 20 years after the worst of the Dust Bowl.
The inspiration for that scene came directly out of my research. The story of the accident was reported in the Boise City newspaper from the time period on which I was concentrating. I followed the story over several days, searching each column and corner of the micro-film for any mention of the injured woman. Such an accident was not as unusual as you might think. More than a few people have spoken personally, or written to me about a similar accident befalling one of their family members.