I love documentaries. One evening, while preparing for bed, I caught the last portion of CHILDREN OF CHERNOBYL, a haunting retelling of the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. Glued to the screen, I watched until the end and then searched for when the show might be rebroadcast in full. Not only did I watch it repeatedly, but I recorded the audio and listened to that over and over. I’d become obsessed. Often, when I fixate on a topic, the only way to move forward is to go as deeply as possible into the material and write my way out of it. That’s exactly what I did in this instance, researching nuclear power plants, the science behind them, the people who run them. I also researched life on a sheep farm once I’d settled on that as my setting. This was perhaps the most challenging two years for my family as I wrote my way out of this obsession. We were all grateful when the manuscript returned to my editor for the last time.
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?
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.
No. I’ve always written what I “had” to write. When a story won’t leave me alone. When it won’t let me put it aside, or ignore it, or discard it. When it haunts me until I have no choice but to write it, I surrender in the end and give the project my complete heart and soul. That’s my process. Winning the Newbery Medal and the MacArthur Award changed my life in many, many ways, but it did not change how or how much I write.
Well, almost all of my books have animals in them:
Lester’s Dog has a bully dog and a kitten in it.
Sable is about a girl who longs for a dog.
The Cats in Krasinski Square bristles with heroic cats and dangerous dogs.
Wish on a Unicorn features a stuffed unicorn.
Phoenix Rising runs on sheep and dogs.
The Music of Dolphins…well, Richard, you know which animal you meet in that one.
Out of the Dust has rabbits and horses and cows, but they only make cameo appearances.
Stowaway introduces all sorts of animals. It’s a veritable ark.
Witness ends with a deer.
Aleutian Sparrow…think cold-climate fauna.
Brooklyn Bridge wouldn’t be any kind of book at all if not for stuffed bears.
The upcoming Safekeeping gets close and personal with dogs, cats, and chickens.