In the mid-1990s, after a snow storm on Mother’s Day, I decided I’d had enough of Vermont weather and began, with my husband, to explore other areas where the living might be a bit easier. One of our stops, Boone, North Carolina, held great promise. But in the end I realized, despite late season snows, Vermont really was my true home. Though I didn’t move to Boone, I wrote a book about it, a story about a boy and his father. That book, alas, was never completed, but a secondary character from the manuscript refused to remain in a file drawer. That character’s name was Justus Faulstich and she became the hero you know in JUST JUICE.
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.
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.
Though there have been discussions from time to time, my novels have never made it to film.
In this photo I’m wearing a scarf given to me as a gift by Karen Nelson Hoyle.
Don’t I look a bit like Rifka?
We did not have much money when I was young. But my mother was resourceful and creative with the money she had and I never felt marginalized in any way.
My father was a collection man and I would sometimes ride with him as he called on families living in isolation and deep poverty. His job was to collect a small amount of money each week/month from his customers who had bought refrigerators or televisions or stoves on the installment plan. My father offered genuine respect to his customers and they showed the same respect to my father.
I learned a lot on those days with my father about dignity and compassion.
Perhaps you see evidence of that in JUST JUICE.
Sometimes events in a writer’s life directly lead to a story idea. In the case of JUST JUICE, my family purchased a house we very much admired but could not have afforded at full price. The house had come on the market because the owner owed a significant amount in unpaid taxes. We paid their taxes and “owned” the house with the real owners for eleven months. During that time I imagined what it would be like to live in that house. I also imagined what it would be like to be the real owners looking at the prospect of losing their home. In the final weeks of that year in which we both “owned” the house, the real owners finally paid their back taxes, we were refunded our money, and we never stepped foot inside the house. I was full of regret. But I was also relieved for the home owners who did not have to surrender their home. JUST JUICE grew out of that experience.
I often take two years to complete a novel. OUT OF THE DUST took two years. PHOENIX RISING, two years. BROOKLYN BRIDGE, two years, too.
THE MUSIC OF DOLPHINS is also in the “two year” club.
I spend about a year doing research, another year writing and revising.
And no, I do not do the work on a deserted island under a palm tree. Most of the time I labor away in a tiny office in Vermont.
That’s such an interesting question. I do like nicknames. Often the story behind the nickname is entertaining or illuminating. I use nicknames in my books with some regularity. Often, a character does not have a clear understanding of who he or she is. A nickname is one of the tools in a writer’s toolbox. A nickname can help the reader learn more about the character, sometimes more than the character knows about her or himself.
I don’t believe I had a real nickname as a child. But my family has affectionately called me “fog” over the years because, I think, sometimes I’m not entirely visible to them.