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.
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.
It is not easy to understand life on the Aleutians without spending an extended period of time there. I was fortunate to have Ray Hudson as a consultant. Ray taught on the Aleutian Islands for 30 years; he knows the people and culture well. Even with extensive research I got many things wrong in my first drafts. I am ever grateful to Ray for helping me see where I’d misunderstood and misinterpreted my sources and how I might more accurately portray the people of the Aleutian Islands.
photograph of Ray Hudson from the Prairie Home Companion website
That’s a difficult question to answer. Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned is that even after researching for a full year, after reading thousands of pages of material, both primary and secondary sources, I could never recreate an historical period with absolute confidence. I needed to make so many leaps of faith and asked the reader to leap with me. My respect for historians and journalists rocketed over the years as I realized how precise they have to be. At least, in writing fiction, the bar is not set quite so high for factual responsibility. I did my best in understanding the sensibilities of the time period and representing time and place with reasonable accuracy, but I fear I never rose as completely to the challenge in my two year writing process as a good journalist does in a week.
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While researching a book I am insatiable. I want to know everything about my subject. I read thousands and thousands of pages. My brain crunches all of that research into a single story; details gleaned from my research rise up at just the right moment to illustrate the text. Of course, less than 2 percent of what I’ve read actually makes it into the finished book, but probably 80 percent of what I’ve learned is subtly woven into the story. When the book is finished I have no desire to return to that subject again. I feel as if I have exhausted the topic and the topic has exhausted me. And, therefore, I have little or no interest in writing sequels.
As a reader, I find certain books linger with me for months, for years, and occasionally for decades. Books have kept me afloat when I wondered how much longer I could hold on. They have taught me about decency and integrity. Books have shown me how survival is possible even when the odds suggest otherwise. Books have also taught me the elegance and beauty and power of language, not just for the message it contains but for the simple way it rolls off the tongue, the way it delights and excites every sense. Do I expect to have the same impact on my readers that certain writers have had on me? No. But I am grateful for every reader and for each opportunity to communicate and to share. If the reader feels less alone as he or she spends time inside one of my books, that’s enough for me.
If we study and learn from the way birds flock, or fish school, we glean so much about connection and instinct, direction and evolution, individual and group behavior. Life is filled with repeating patterns. Our brains are naturally drawn to them. If we study and learn from the way mankind has flocked and schooled in the past, we better our chances of survival into the distant future. That’s what draws me to historical fiction.
Ideas come from so many places. Sometimes, when I’m reading the work of other writers, I feel a finger of inspiration tickle my brain. I’ve transformed magazine and newspaper articles into novels and picture books. Concerts, lectures, documentaries, television and radio interviews can also become story catalysts. Occasionally a fan letter will open up a possible avenue to a story, or an overheard conversation in the doctor’s office, or someone sitting across the aisle from me in the theater. I trawl my own life, both my childhood and my adult years, for story ideas, too. Not every experience leads directly to a book, but every experience holds that potential within it.
Honestly, I am every character in every one of my books…the kind characters as well as the not-so-kind ones. Each character is a splinter off of my core personality, my shadow self; his or her flaws, assets, gifts, and burdens, are my own.