When I write in free verse I usually avoid formal constraints. Though I do love occasional internal rhyme, I try not to overdo it as too much makes the work seem self-conscious and contrived. Instead, I arrange the verse to suggest the rhythm and cadence of the character’s native language or accent. I think of my novels in verse more as theater than as one long poem.
THE CATS IN KRASINSKI SQUARE was inspired by a story I discovered in a newspaper from the 1940s while researching ALEUTIAN SPARROW. This is the closest I have come to tackling the unbearable subject of the Holocaust.
While researching, I come across multiple articles on certain events. I also peruse numerous advertisements for everything from baby bonnets to basketball games. I make an effort to fold these bits and pieces from the period into my narrative in a way that reflects how often I came upon them in my research. So yes, the events in the book, from the accidental fire to the curiosity about the Dionne quintuplets received multiple mentions and attention in the media of the early 1930s.
There are no guarantees in life. If a formula existed for becoming a best-selling author the market would be flooded with best-sellers to the point that “best-seller” would cease to have the meaning we presently give it. I’m certain there are successful writers who followed a path to fame and fortune, who sought publicity first, placing the goal of being a “best-seller” above the deeper goal of communicating profoundly with other members of the human race, and I’ll bet some of them are quite satisfied with their choices, but it would not be my advice to you to follow that path. Perhaps a better goal would be to write books on subjects and themes you care deeply about. Dig down into your material, dig down into your understanding of yourself and of the world. Understand that there are mountains, beyond mountains, beyond mountains, that the superficial has its place but may not be as enduring, or as gratifying as the longer view. Write what’s in your heart, write what’s on your mind, and if it becomes a best-seller, you have that, too, to celebrate at the end of the process.
Over the course of a lifetime we accomplish so much. What seems like a great achievement to some people might seem quite small to others. And what seems quite small to some might seem great to someone else. When one looks back over a lifetime, perhaps then it is possible to get some perspective. Certainly my marriage and family feel like a very great achievement. My publishing career, also, fills me with awe when I take a step back and look at it. My friendships have felt very significant in the measure of my life. If you wrote each thing you accomplished in a single day on a slip of paper, if you did that every day over the run of your lifetime, if you put all those slips of paper into a hall the size of the hall pictured above, if you randomly pulled out one slip of paper each time you were asked such a question as this, any of those slips of paper, any of those achievements would be a valid response to this question, don’t you agree?
Just as only a partial view of my neighborhood is revealed through the frost on my window, only a partial understanding of the world was revealed to me in my home. In school I learned about friendship and societal rules along with reading, writing, science and math. Exposure to my teachers and my fellow students opened me up to the world and helped me to understand who I was and how I fit. I loved everything about school…except, perhaps, the tests. I loved learning, I loved those moments of understanding when I finally grasped a math concept or how two seemingly separate incidents in history actually connected. What is your favorite thing about school?
A Time of Angels
While preparing for bed one evening, I flipped through our very small offering of cable channels. The remote landed on a documentary about the Spanish Influenza epidemic. At the time I knew almost nothing about this devastating piece of history and watched the program with rapt attention. The following day I began doing some research of my own and before long I’d stepped back in time to 1918; its pain, its kindness, its hardships, and its hope.
With joy, in 2000 I accepted an invitation to travel to Southeast Alaska and speak to enthusiastic students, librarians, and educators. The students in particular hoped I might write a book about Alaska but I shook my head no. I could never write with the authenticity of an Alaskan resident. However, while in Ketchikan, I visited Parnassus Books where I purchased more volumes about Alaska than I could carry. Most of the books were shipped back to my home in Vermont. But I kept a couple out to read on the plane. That is when I first learned of the Aleuts and their story. To my knowledge, no one had told their story to young readers and I feared no one ever would. This was such a risky project. How could I ever do the tale justice? I was very fortunate to have the assistance of several people with first hand experience who gave me honest criticism and helped me correct my misunderstandings and mistakes.
I fear the emotional, mental, and physical trauma of being relocated, of living in a refugee camp, has not changed significantly since 1942.