Category: Wish on a Unicorn


Wish on a Unicorn

Wish on a Unicorn

While running a quick errand with my young daughter one morning, I drove past an abandoned car filled with all sorts of things: from pots and pans to pillows, blankets and books. On the roof of that forsaken car (it no longer even had tires on its metal rims) was a two foot tall stuffed unicorn, growing more and more dejected looking by the minute under a steady drizzle. My daughter had not seen the unicorn when we passed it the first time but I knew she would see it on our return trip. I prayed the unicorn would not still be there because I knew if my daughter saw it she would want to bring it home and I didn’t think that was right. As we approached the little parking lot where I’d first seen the stuffed unicorn, I stared in wonder. The car, the pots, the pans, the pillows, the books, and the unicorn had all vanished. It couldn’t have been more than 20 minutes. How could a car with no wheels vanish in such a short period of time? It seemed impossible to me. It seemed like a miracle. Upon arriving home I wrote a short story inspired by the experience. In time the story became the novel you know as WISH ON A UNICORN.

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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.

036 (7)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.

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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.

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Photo 19Letters from RifkaPost Card

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?

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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.

WITNESS, too.

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.

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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.

I’m often asked to explain the “meaning” of my work. Since my first published book, WISH ON A UNICORN, I’ve intentionally declined to give a definitive interpretation to the events that occur in my books. If I tell you how to “read” the book, where is the pleasure in it for you? I’ve always maintained a book is a collaborative effort between the author and the reader. I try to write scenes that invite the reader to co-create the story with me.

The book would have far less impact on you, I think, if you were shut out of it because I, the author, had closed all the doors of possible interpretation and forced you to think only what I say you should think. What fun would that be?

Did Johnny Reeves die when he jumped off the bridge in WITNESS? What do you think?

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.