I hope you’ll enjoy this interview, a podcast, with Susan McCabe on REALTalk. We talked about all of my books.
I hope you’ll enjoy this interview, a podcast, with Susan McCabe on REALTalk. We talked about all of my books.
I loved receiving this review for the new middle-grade anthology, Totally Middle School (Delacorte, ed. by Betsy Groban). I hope you’ll discover the wide variety of stories within this book, many of them the right length for a classroom read-aloud, and all of them engrossing for reading on your own.
“Featuring an eclectic mix of short stories from a number of beloved authors, this collection explores three topics—“Family,” “Friends and Fitting In,” and “Finding Yourself”—in a variety of formats, from poems to comic panels. Margarita Engle takes on the “dreaded/ dreadful/ deadline-looming/ first-in-my-lifetime/ Middle School/ Mixer,” while Katherine Paterson and granddaughter Jordan offer advice-laden Facetime and text exchanges between two cousins (“organize, organize, organize”). A David Wiesner comic visualizes finding one’s place in an intimidating new setting, and Linda Sue Park and Anna Dobbin’s story, told in part from a dog’s perspective, considers cross-species family life. The stories look at eras and cultural differences, as well, from Gary Schmidt’s searing story about a boy’s neighbor heading off to the Vietnam War, to Hena Khan’s present-day tale of a Pakistani immigrant connecting with her new classmates. The collection, “dedicated to middle schoolers everywhere” (“This, too, shall pass”), deals honestly and sensitively with this volatile time.” (Publishers Weekly)
I don’t sit at my desk and try to push mashed potatoes through a keyhole. I do something else. Walk, putter in the garden, play computer solitaire, eat an orange, do the laundry, nap, or work on a different project. My subconscious seems to work on the problem without me, and eventually I find a way back in.
(photo credit: Katerina Kovaleva)
If you could invite four people from history over for dinner, who would be sitting around your dinner table? What food would you serve?
Eleanor Roosevelt, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Oscar Wilde for their strength, intelligence, and wit, and Paul Newman, because who wouldn’t?
I’d serve roast chicken because that’s what I always serve. And salad with grapes and avocados. And pumpkin pie.
Do you remember your first exposure to medieval history? What clicked with you about that time?
In 1965 and many years after, I attended Renaissance Faires and was enchanted by the color, the music, the people, the language and food and life. I transported the fair in my mind to the middle ages and held the memory tightly for 25 years until it blossomed in Catherine Called Birdy.
Yes! The brilliant, subversive How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban, with fabulous illustrations by Quentin Blake, in which Tom teaches the Captain and his sportsmen about the value of fooling around. My husband could, and probably still can, do all the voices. His Captain Najork was splendid, though he excelled at Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong. For years “Fool around, Tom!” was a watchword around our house.
Have a listen to Quentin Blake, the illustrator, about why he enjoys this book so much
I’d like to add that Fungus the Bogeyman and Leo the Late Bloomer tie for second.
This month, I’m answering frequently asked questions.
Here’s the first:
What’s the one book that pops into your mind first when you think of books you read when you were young? What do you remember most about that book?
One book? No way. It has to be a three-way tie: Blue Willow, by Doris Gates, the story of a migrant girl who longs for a permanent home; Cotton in My Sack, Lois Lenski, about migrant pickers in the cotton fields; and Strawberry Girl, also by Lois Lenski, wherein a family moves to Florida to start a strawberry farm
I remember these books to this day. They opened my eyes to another world: other times, other places, and other lives. I could see beyond the boundaries of my own experiences and relate to characters much different from me. Apparently my family, my neighborhood, my problems, were not the only way of life. At ten, that blew me away! And each book is a coming of age story concerned with the search for home, topics that I seem to write about over and over myself.
The following is an interview with author Karen Cushman about the 1999 movie-making experience of The Ballad of Lucy Whipple, starring Glenn Close, Robert Pastorelli, and Meat Loaf, as well as Jena Malone, who played California “Lucy” Whipple.
Be sure to view the photos at the end of this interview.
We recently watched The Ballad of Lucy Whipple on The Hallmark Channel. Having read the book, this felt like a fairly faithful retelling of the movie. We feel very lucky that you’ve agreed to let us ask you about your part in the making of this made-for-television movie.
Q: Glenn Close and Craig Anderson are the executive producers of this movie. You are listed as co- producer. How did you get that title?
A: It was in the contract. I assume my agent handled that. A few years ago, I saw a movie whose title I forget staring Tim Robbins , I think, about making a movie. The one scene I remember, for obvious reasons, was something about defining an assistant or co-producer as a title the producer gives to his girlfriend to keep her happy and out of the way. So that was my job—be happy and out of the way.
Q: What is the job description of a co-producer?
A: I read that associate producer or co-producer credits often go to someone who performs a key function in getting the movie made, but who doesn’t have the power or clout of a producer or executive producer. In my case, it was writing the book. After that, nothing.
Q: Who approached you about making a movie from your book?
A: Glenn Close’s people contacted my people—i.e., the film and TV agent at Curtis Brown.
Q: Did you hesitate before agreeing to have a movie made about Lucy and her family?
A: Not a bit. I admired Glenn Close and trusted her to do a good job. And I was excited to see the story played out on the screen.
Q: Did you play a part in writing the script for the movie? You are given a writing credit for the novel. Christopher Lofton is listed as the writer of the teleplay. (You may remember Christopher Lofton as the original Dr. Jeff Martin on All My Children. He is also listed as a producer of The Ballad of Lucy Whipple. Mr. Lofton passed away in 2002.)
A: No. I was asked if I wanted to write the script but I knew (and still know) nothing about writing screen plays and didn’t want to stop writing and learn. I didn’t know enough about writing novels yet. Still don’t.
Q: Did you have approval on the script?
A: I had script approval but never saw a script. I never asked for it or pushed for it. I was busy writing another book probably.
Q: Did you have any say in the casting of the movie?
A: No, but I was pleasantly surprised with the casting. I recognized many of the names, and I loved Glenn Close as Arvella Whipple. She had the strength and determination and stubbornness the character called for.
Q: Did you visit the set while they were filming the movie?
A: I did. They called and said We’re in Park City, Utah, in our last week of filming, and thought you’d like to see Lucky Diggins before we burn it down. I sure did. Unfortunately I had recently had surgery on my face (another story) and I was uncomfortable with the scars and how I looked. Phil and I went anyway, and it was great. People were very warm and friendly. I saw many, many takes of each scene—movie making is incredibly boring. What I loved most was the set decoration—the town, the boarding tent, the donkeys. The general store was amazing. Even the shelves and drawers were filled with appropriate objects. We didn’t stay to see it all burned down, but I was told later that everyone cried.
Q: Did you meet any of the actors in the movie?
A: Before filming started, I was flown to Los Angeles to meet Glenn Close. She’s a lovely, down to earth woman, and I liked her immediately. In Utah, I met them all, hung around with some, and hated leaving them when my time was up.
Q: Was there a special celebration when the movie was finished or when the movie was premiered? Did you attend?
A: It was a CBS movie of the week on television so there was no premiere. I can’t remember if Philip and I saw it on TV or on the videotape they sent me. We definitely celebrated.
Q: Were there differences between your book and the script?
A: There were some. They added the lawyer who commits suicide at the beginning, the intimations of sexual abuse, the woman miner disguised as a man, and Lucy’s judicial prowess. I would have argued against those decisions if I had known (and if I had any power).
Q: Were you pleased with the finished movie?
A: On the whole, yes, The actors were good, the sets were fabulous, and it was pretty true to Lucy’s story. I got to have dinner with Glenn Close and sit in Meat Loaf’s chair! What’s not to like?
A few months ago, I cried out for help. I was finding it profoundly difficult to be a writer. My inspiration and enthusiasm were buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggled to reach them. What’s a girl to do? In a world so woeful and broken, how might I dig beneath the heartbreak and create? How could I free myself to write during these confusing and troubling times?
In other words, I asked, as Anita Silvey did, “What difference does a children’s book make in the midst of all of this political calamity?” Feeling distraught and discouraged, I went where I so often go for guidance—to my fellow writers. And I received generous, loving, thoughtful, eloquent responses.
Will Alexander recommended music; Ginny Wolff, laughter; Susan Hill Long, imagination; and David LaRochelle, honesty and kindness. Susan Fletcher found “sideways wisdom” through her writing. Margi Preus reminded me just to put one word after another, and Anita Silvey, like the rest of us, does it for kids. Susan Cooper and Gennifer Choldenko wrote about hope and Marion Dane Bauer, wonder. Jen Bryant, Dorothy Love, Avi, Karen Blumenthal, and Nikki Grimes stressed the need for engagement and writing out of our struggles.
I now add them to my company of inspirations, people whose words keep me afloat, like Mary Oliver:
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Like Gwendolyn Brooks, Pulitzer Prize winning poet, in her “Speech to the Young”:
Say to them,
say to the down-keepers
“Even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night.”
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.
Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.
Like Berthold Brecht, poet and playwright whose words found me in this dark time:
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.
Yes, there will be singing about the dark times. With our voices and our words. In this dark time, whatever we may write will come from that place. And as the 1st/2nd century Mishnah sage, Rabbi Tarfon, whose quote is calligraphed and hanging on my wall, said: You are not required to complete the task. Neither are you free to abstain from it.
You must stay drunk on writing, said Ray Bradbury, who has so often said what I need to hear, so reality cannot destroy you.
The upshot is my despair and anger have not passed. Until we live in a perfect world, I imagine it won’t pass. But thanks to all who offered wisdom, compassion, and inspiration, I can write despite such feelings. Or maybe because of them. And because of you.
Now excuse me, I have a book to finish.
My question to several writers I admire: “I find it profoundly difficult these days to be a writer. My inspiration and enthusiasm have been buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggle to reach them. What’s a girl to do? In a world so woeful and broken, how can I dig beneath the heartbreak and create? Do you have the same thoughts? If so, how do you free yourself to write during these confusing and troubling times?”
I have received thoughtful and inspirational answers. I’m happy to share them with you here over the summer. I’m posting them in a random order, as I received their responses. If you have your own thoughts about these questions, I hope you’ll comment.
Anita Silvey writes:
When I read your letter a couple of months ago, I felt I had no answers to your dilemma. I had not abandoned hope completely but found it difficult to write daily. “What difference,” I was asking myself, “does a children’s book make in the midst of all of this political calamity?”
As usual, time and the young (in this case the students at the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College), provided the answers. Having agreed about a year ago to speak to them, I attempted to garner some optimism for the occasion. But only on the day I delivered the lecture did I actually understand how to do that.
Walking to the podium I realized that the events of the last year have — and will continue to — change every decision I make about writing books for the young. As a small example, in August of 2016, I finally published Let Your Voice Be Heard: The Life and Times of Pete Seeger. The book had taken me eight years to write; when I went to document all my research, it came to eleven pages of footnotes and sources (in a 96-page book). Seeing the published book, I thought that sourcing excessive. Some paragraphs in the book had been referenced by five print sources and an interview with Pete. Who did I think I was? The New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal? An adult academician?
But in August of 2017 I am thrilled that those eleven pages exist. And I believe that those of us who struggle to craft narrative nonfiction for young readers have an important role to play in the time ahead. We can show where facts and opinions come from; we can demonstrate using primary and secondary sources. We can stand shoulder to shoulder with all the devoted journalists of our time and the academicians who are fighting for an understanding of what constitutes real facts.
As long as I can breathe, I have hope. Now, more than ever, those of us who have the privilege of writing for the young need to reinterpret what we do in our books. What do we care about? What do we stand for? I want to help children engage in critical analysis of information. When the history of this time is published, I want to be able to say, “I stood with the kids.”
The author of 100 Best Books for Children, 500 Great Books for Teens, and Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book, Anita Silvey has devoted 40 years to promoting books that will turn the young—and families—into readers. She has appeared frequently on NPR, The Today Show, 60 Minutes, and various radio programs to talk about our best books for young people. In a unique career in the children’s book field, Ms. Silvey has divided her time equally between publishing, evaluating children’s books, and writing. Her lifelong conviction that “only the very best of anything can be good enough for the young” forms the cornerstone of her work. Formerly publisher of children’s books for Houghton Mifflin Company and editor-in-chief of The Horn Book Magazine, she currently teaches modern book publishing, children’s book publishing, and children’s book author studies at several colleges.