A few years ago, David and I were both on a panel at a book festival in Eau Claire, WI. Besides being very tall, David is also very kind and charismatic and I could have listened to him read his stories all day. Here is my interview with him.
Stephanie: At what point do you declare a piece of writing "done" ? Do you have a clear "The End" moment?
David: I'm not very clear on when a piece of writing is done. I have stories that I've been working on for almost twenty years, and I can rewrite a novel over and over and over, never getting it exactly "perfect" for my standards. A deadline from an editor can be good motivation for me to finally call it quits on a piece of writing, or just exhaustion and the sense that I can't do anything else, at this time, to make the piece better.
Stephanie: What do you hope will be on your resume five years from now? Do you have a "Sistine Chapel" you're hoping to tackle one day?
David: I have just been offered a contract for the first picture book that I'll be both author and illustrator, so I am very much looking forward to having that on my resume in five years. If I could keep getting published regularly, ideally one new book each year, I would be happy. I also hope to have my current novel, the one I'm writing and rewriting, published in five years!
Stephanie: What's the coolest thing a reader has ever said to you?
David: I've heard some very nice things from people who have read ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY NOT. One young man told me that he read it once or twice a month while he was in the process of coming out, just to reassure himself that he wasn't alone. A college student wrote that after reading this book, he was motivated to contact a friend he knew in his mid teens and apologize for the unsympathetic things he had called him about being gay. It is rewarding to discover that something I've written has had an emotional impact on readers that has caused them to take action.
Stephanie: Who is your favorite author to read? How do you choose a book you want to read?
David: I don't have a favorite author, but I'm always interested in reading any new picture books by Mo Willems or Phyllis Root. Mostly I read middle grade and YA books, often on the basis of recommendations or buzz I hear online. It worries me that I'm missing some great titles that are slipping under the radar.
Stephanie: What is the last book you read that you just didn't want to end because you liked it so much?
David: THE STRANGE CASE OF ORIGAMI YODA by Tom Angleberger was a very fun middle grade novel about a fifth grade outcast who might not be as clueless as everyone thinks. I was disappointed that it was over in just one reading.
Stephanie: What author, alive or not, would you most want to meet? What would you ask them?
David: I'd love to meet Shakespeare and tell him that his plays and sonnets are still being performed and read hundreds of years later. There's some controversy about who the real Shakespeare was, and I'd love to find out more about the real man (or woman!) behind all of his work.
Thank you David!!
Ten writers for children. All with something to say.
Last February while traveling in Oregon, I had the privilege of meeting fellow spud, Carmen, face to face. We found each other in the Portland, Oregon public library and walked a few blocks in the rain to a small cafe, where we shared conversation over coffee and pie. A year later, I was excited to "draw" Carmen's name for this interview and to learn even more about this charming, diminutive woman, brimming with personality!
1. I understand you have a background in math. Did you find the switch to writing difficult, or did you always know you would be a writer?
I didn’t know I was a writer, but everything indicates that I was. I was always making up stories; I stared at people, and pretended to be inside their heads; and I made up my own stories using the illustrations in comic books.
2. English is a second language for you. At what age did you learn English, and now is it natural for you to think and write in English? Are your books also released in Spanish?
In eighth grade I went to a private school with American nuns as teachers. When I said some words in English my classmates laughed, so I tried hard not to speak the language. It wasn’t until I met my husband at the University of Connecticut when I began to speak it without so much fear.
When writing the first draft of a story, my feelings come out better in English than in Spanish. I think, speak, read, write, and dream in both languages. I write in English first, then translate. Both César: ¡Sí, se puede! Yes We Can and Sonia Sotomayor: Supreme Court Justice have a version in English and a version in Spanish.
3. Your books have won numerous awards, including several Pura Belpre Honors. What are you most proud of?
The best award is to have readers.
4. Tell us about your most interesting research process/trip.
I do as much research from home as I can. Then I write the first drafts. When I have enough questions, I go on site. For César I didn’t travel far because Oregon has many farm workers. For Frida I visited Mexico City; for Diego I visited Guanajuato, Mexico; for Sonia Sotomayor I visited Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.; for Alicia Alonso: Prima Ballerina (Illustrated by Raúl Colón, Fall 2011) I visited Cuba and met her; and lately, for Pablo Picasso (Illustrated by David Diaz, 2012) I visited Southern France and Spain and met his grandson Bernard Ruiz-Picasso.
5. I understand you teach at the Whidbey Island MFA Program. Can you tell us a little about the program and your teaching experience?
It is a low-residency writing program, meaning that students and faculty get together at Captain Whidbey Inn for a ten-day residency in August and another ten-day residency in January, and the rest of the semester is online. The residencies offer afternoon presentations by well-known authors, storytellers, agents, and editors.
Bonny Becker and I teach the courses for students interested in writing for children and young adult. But the beauty of this program is that students are required to enroll in classes out of their genre. For writers of books for children and young adults this is ideal because the skills to write poetry, nonfiction, short fiction, and memoir are needed to write for young readers.
6. I am so interested in the fact that both FRIDA: LONG LIVE LIFE and DIEGO: BIGGER THAN LIFE are written in free verse. When I finished reading them, I felt as if I knew far more than the basic facts about their lives. I felt as if I knew their souls. Are all your books written in verse? How did you make the decision to write in poetry, rather than in prose?
Thanks you for your kind words.
I don’t call myself a poet. Other people do. If what I write is free verse, then I must say that free verse chose me. When I was writing César that was the format his story came to me.
My novel, In the Shade of the Níspero Tree and my first biography, Poet and Politician of Puerto Rico: Don Luis Muñoz Marín were written in prose. My six biographies with Marshall Cavendish are in free verse. But Virgen de Guadalupe (2012) is in prose.
7. What are you working on now? Will it be written in prose or verse?
I have a novel in mind. I don’t know what format it wants to be yet.
8. And one last question: What does the "T" in your name stand for?
(This said by someone who stands all of 4 feet, 9 inches.) Gracias, Carmen!
C: Edie, I have wanted to interview you since last summer when I finished reading Road to Tater Hill.
E: Thank you, Carmen!
C: What do you think is the trick to writing a book that mentions records and a hi-fi when your readers are playing music in CDs and iPods? How and why do they get interested in historical fiction?
E: Hmmm, I’m not sure I think of it as a trick. I have loved historical fiction from the time I first learned to read. It’s the perfect way to travel to another place and time without leaving my house, and I can actually “become” the protagonist as I’m reading and “live” through that particular era. Now that I am writing historical fiction, I think the “trick” may be to first do my research thoroughly and then to use specific concrete and sensory details right from the start to ground the character (and the reader) in that place and time. For example, when referring to Grandpa’s hi-fi set, Annie leafs through the albums and then is careful not to scratch the record as she sets the needle down. By that point in the book, I hope my readers are so connected to Annie and her emotions that they can automatically believe and picture what she does without questioning the actual details or taking them out of the context of the story.
C: Your novel is so truthful. Where were you in the summer of 1963 while Annie was in Tater Hill?
E: Well, though Road to Tater Hill began as an autobiographical event, I did fictionalize parts of it. The first act of fiction was to move the loss of my baby sister from the summer of 1961 to 1963. I did that specifically so I could also bring in the premature birth and death of the Kennedy baby in August of 1963. Because the circumstances were so similar to the events in my own family, I thought that might be the perfect way to help ground the story in actual events from the 1960s.
In real life, I did spend all of my summers (including both 1961 and 1963) in the North Carolina mountains with my grandparents (very close to the actual Tater Hill), and I used many of my own experiences, such as building a dam in the creek, picking blackberries on Tater Hill, and getting stung by yellow jackets, though some of those incidents may have happened during different summers.
Road to Tater Hill is in first person and it draws from your childhood memories. Wasn’t it hard to dig deep down into those emotions?
Those raw emotions have stuck with me throughout my life, so it seemed natural and right to delve back into those memories and mine the emotions from that time of grief. I guess it was almost cathartic to do so. Giving my protagonist (Annabel Winters) her own name, made it easier for me to allow Annie to become a character in her own right and not just a replication of me. She became stronger and spunkier than I was at that age and gave me a few other surprises during the writing of the book.
I think it was harder for my parents than it was for me. Every time I finished a chapter, I read it aloud to my parents, and of course it forced them to relive those memories, which were different for them as the mother and father, who not only lost Mary Kate, but also four other babies. I think they were surprised at the depth of emotion (and the isolation) I felt as the older sister. I have had to emphasize to my parents a number of times that the book is fiction, even though grounded in reality. My mother did not fall into as deep a depression as Annie’s mother did.
C: Do you have an exercise that may help another writer do the same?
E: Yes, I do have an exercise that I think is helpful for getting to the core of the emotion in a story. I ask my students to think back to an emotional event from childhood— a time of grief, anger, joy, envy, or fear, etc. Then I ask them to jot down where they were at the time and to concentrate on specific details. What did they see? What did they hear? What did they smell? Was there a taste associated with it? After they remember these specific details, I ask them to write the scene using these sensory details, but without actually stating the emotions they were feeling. I used this exercise myself when writing the scene where my character Annie finds the rock baby along the bank of the creek (pp. 11-13).
C: I enjoy the idea that two of my favorite authors carry the same name, Edith Hemingway and Ernest Hemingway. Is your husband, Doug, a 42nd cousin of Ernest?
E: I am honored to be one of your favorite authors! No, I’m afraid Doug is not a 42nd cousin of Ernest (although we have not actually researched his genealogy), but it certainly doesn’t hurt to be E. Hemingway if you’re a writer. :>)
C: You say that, after you had babies, you put your writing in the back seat for a long while. Completely? How did it make you feel?
E: I don’t believe I did any writing until my daughter was in kindergarten and suddenly I had about three uninterrupted hours a day to write. It wasn’t until then that I realized how much I had missed writing. I never stopped the reading, however, and reading is such an important part of becoming a writer!
C: It seems to me that you began to publish after you became a member of the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). How did the organization help you to become a published writer?
E: The SCBWI organization has been invaluable to me for many years. I first joined way back in the 1980s. My membership sometimes lapsed when I couldn’t afford it, but I always returned after several years away. The inspirational conferences, the hands-on resources that help writers put together professional manuscripts, the connections with other writers and illustrators, and the opportunities to meet editors and agents face-to-face are a huge boost to many careers. The contract for Road to Tater Hill resulted directly from a critique I had with my “now” editor at a regional SCBWI conference in Maryland.
C: Could you explain how the collaboration between you and Jacqueline (Jackie) Shields worked? Did you fight?
E: Collaboration, especially when writing fiction, is not an easy thing. Both authors have to have the same vision and voice for the story and characters. Early in our partnership, Jackie and I made the commitment to write only when we were physically together, so that we didn’t go off on separate tangents. Learning to be completely honest with each other took time—neither wanted to hurt the other’s feelings, but we realized we both had to agree to everything that went into the final manuscript. No, we didn’t fight, but we had a few disagreements that we worked through, and we are still good friends, though we no longer write together.
C: What a dream it must be to be able to write in a secluded cabin! What does your writing schedule look like when writing in the cabin? Is it more productive than at home?
E:I am still looking forward to that dream of my secluded writing cabin! The building of it has been delayed until the snow melts and the ground thaws, but my husband is working on the plans. My log cabin home is still secluded and a good place to write, but with my husband retired now, I don’t have the quiet and solitude I used to have for concentrating. I can’t wait to be able to take my cup of tea every morning and walk through the woods to the tiny cabin to work. I hope it will be more productive, as I will not have the distraction of the Internet. Once the construction starts, I’ll post some photos.
C: You give presentations and workshops. Could you, please, give us more description of “The Role of the Drummer Boy in the Civil War?” It sounds fascinating.
E: During the course of researching our first co-authored book, Broken Drum, Jackie and I learned a great deal about the huge responsibilities shouldered by drummer boys (as young as 10 and up through age 17) in the Civil War. Drummer boys were responsible for sounding reveille in the mornings, and beating roll call, mess call, and sick call while in camp. In battle they were responsible for beating out the orders to advance or retreat, and helped to rally the troops and direct them back to their regiments. Supposedly they were kept at least 50 paces behind the front lines. And as if all this wasn’t enough, after the battles they were given the grizzly task of removing the dead and wounded from the battlefields. Broken Drum is the story of Charlie King, a 12-year-old drummer boy in the Pennsylvania 49th Regiment of the Union Army. It’s quite an eye-opening experience when we speak to students who are the same age as Charlie King!
C: Last question. If you can, please, speak about your next book. I can hardly wait.
E: I’m working on a middle grade novel set on Vinalhaven Island, off the coast of Maine. This is a place where Doug and I love to vacation, and we do a lot of kayaking in the basin and the coastal waters around the island. Naturally, there will be kayaking in the book, as well as a bit of a mystery. For the first time, I’m writing in two alternating points of view.
Edie, many thanks for sharing your stories with the world.
Before heading to Brazil, Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen took the time to complete these sentences about her life as an author:
Of all my books, I am most proud of The Compound because I actually quit three times while writing it, even dumping the entire manuscript and starting over.
Because of my books, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet some fabulous people and travel to amazing places.
But it's not all glamor! The toughest thing for me about being an author is the drudgery of the daily discipline. The alliteration is tough too...
When I am not writing, I love to read and bake cupcakes and drag my husband on long, blister-inducing walks.
Most people would be surprised to learn that I was the 1981 Strawberry Festival Queen.
Right now I am packing for a speaking trip to Brazil and trying to finish my latest novel.
I wish that I had a cow in my backyard.
Thank goodness David didn't ask me about when a famous male YA author ended up in my lap!
When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer? What personality traits or habits do you have that make writing appealing?
I recognized myself as a writer when I was nine years old. By that time, I was imagining scripts for the Jimmy Stuart show, and imagining that I loved in the exquisite Victorian house with a turret. I would write scripts, act them out while jumping on my parents’ bed. I pretended that the closet at the end of the hallway where I wrote with a flashlight and a composition notebook (so the pages would be threaded like a book) was that turret. I could look out at treetops. This made me happy.
What makes you want to write? Settings? Life experiences? Conversations? Mysteries? Research? Imagined possibilities? In other words, what triggers your imagination?
Life triggers my imagination. One thing I have struggled with is the transition, within me, to write about pain. Sometimes, it has been so close, that to write about it would feel disrespectful. Somehow, it felt that the immensity might lose the sacrality of the devotion all of us in the trenches have to embrace every day, and the process of loss.
Talk about your writing program, and any other writing classes or training you have had.
The MFA program I graduated from, Spalding University in Louisville has been an umbilical cord for my life as a writer, mediator and teacher. It has opened pathways for me to teach at The Writer's Loft of Middle Tennessee University, Southeastern Louisiana State University, postgraduate teaching, and several opportunities to hold the position of writer-in-residence in New Orleans' schools. One particularly lovely connection for me has been the editor of The Children's Corner of The Louisville Review. I have been offered a delightfully satisfying opportunity to nurture young writers from across the nation. For five and one-half years, I have engaged and discovered young people who humble me, everyday, with their talent—pure gift, pure gift.
What are you working on?
My publication history is most abundant in literary journals, magazines, and newspapers. My own heart beats within two novels I am refining, Strong Moon Tonight and The Alfalfa and the Omega; and two picture books, Zoo Day, Blue Day, and Miss Smackbottom.
You have a writing job that keeps you busy. How does that help your personal writing goals? OR how to you fit in your personal writing goals around your work?
Yes, I do have a writing job, and yes, it does keep me busy. In retrospect, I think teaching and nurturing young writers, artists, and readers inspired my own writing more than the technical approach. I find it difficult to balance my creative life with my NASA work. I am looking deeply within myself to examine how to negotiate my nature and being as a writer and the environments I choose.
Is there anything different/unusual (outside the type of writing you've done in the past) that you would you like to try writing someday?
I love picture books! They are delicate and fundamental and joy and the beginnings. The more I explore their power, the more I find myself indulging myself in the details of life that children cherish: a crow's call, tangerines growing at the top of the tree--and the scent of their leaves, strawberries picked off the vine. I have this integral belief in the sensuality of the senses, and as artists our privilege is to remind our readers and ourselves.
Any tips for other writers? Anything that you feel is unique to you?
My best word for other writers is that hope must grow into a strong muscle. Hope is intention in process. Commitment is hope in practice. I write because I must. It is my joy and my completion.
My favorite couple is one I found when reading aloud to my children. We had all fallen in love with Cynthia Rylant's early reader series: Henry and Mudge, but when I came home with the book Mr. Putter and Tabby Pour the Tea, we quickly consumed every book we could get our hands on of this new love match! "Mr. Putter and Tabby Pour the Tea" is the first of the series and begins with Mr. Putter all alone. He has no one to share his English muffins with nor his tea. He has no one to share his stories with and finally decides he wants a cat. At the pet store he realizes kittens are not for him as they are "cute" and "peppy"and he has not been "cute and peppy for a very long time." At the shelter Mr. Putter meets Tabby, who has creaky bones, thinning fur, and seems a little deaf, just like himself. A perfect match! One of my favorite Rylant lines ever is in this book: "Tabby loved Mr. Putter's tulips. She was old, and beautiful things meant more to her." This resonates with me as I myself grow older. In the end Tabby cannot remember life without Mr. Putter and Mr. Putter cannot remember life without Tabby. They share their muffins together, drink their tea together, sing opera in the evenings, and Mr. Putter shares his stories. The rest of the books continue the life and love adventures of Mr. Putter and Tabby, baking cakes, picking pears, flying airplanes, and more. Mr. Putter and Tabby is one of my favorite love matches in children's literature and if you have not read any of them, you are in for a treat!