There are times when those campaigning for political office seem alarmingly unfamiliar with, and uninterested in, the American constitution; or even a general working knowledge of democracy. I felt compelled to begin SAFEKEEPING in 2010 when a small group of dissatisfied citizens threatened to divide and destroy the balance of our entire nation. It seems we are in a similar pickle today, six years later, perhaps as a direct consequence of that same divisive element which has managed to shift the political discussion away from civility, tolerance, and functionality. My hope is that the American people will make a wise and informed decision in the upcoming presidential election. SAFEKEEPING is an exploration of what might happen if we choose a candidate who does not understand how to keep the fabric of our country from unraveling.
When I’m researching I am filling myself with the events of the historical period and those events clearly leave a mark on the work…the birth of quintuplets in Canada, for instance, or the eruption of a volcano, or the discovery of dinosaur bones. But events happening in the contemporary world of the writer might have an impact on the events woven into the author’s book, as well. In the case of OUT OF THE DUST, I honestly can’t remember current events entering the landscape of the story. There would, of course, be values, knowledge, and experience of the living writer seeping into the decisions he/she makes in designing the story. But Big Picture contemporary events might be difficult, in many cases, to transpose and weave into an historical setting without jarring the reader. Even if the writer deftly altered contemporary events to fit into the historical setting, I think in many cases there would be less of an organic flow than the writer might desire. Certainly, while I was writing SAFEKEEPING, a novel set in the near future, many events happening in the world at the time of the writing were integrated into the story. Perhaps contemporary fiction is more apt to be colored by what is going on in the greater world of the writer, while historical fiction is less likely to be overtly influenced by the author’s world.
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.
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.