Richard Peck published his first novel for young readers in 1971. In the decades since, his work has spanned such genres as contemporary realism, historical fiction, science fiction, picture books, short stories, memoir, and more. He’s the first children’s author ever to have been awarded a National Humanities Medal, and has twice been named a National Book Award finalist. His stories starring the redoubtable Grandma Dowdel, whom he once described as “the American tall tale in a Lane Bryant dress,” have garnered him both a Newbery Medal (A Year Down Yonder) and a Newbery Honor (A Long Way from Chicago). Peck recently spoke with Bookshelf about revisiting Dowdel territory in A Season of Gifts, a companion novel published by Dial.
When you wrote the short story “Shotgun Cheatham’s Last Night Above Ground” years ago, did you have any inkling that it would grow into three entire novels?
No, I didn’t. I didn’t think of it as being anything but a short story, but my book editor thought otherwise. I was asked by Harry Mazer to contribute something to a collection of stories about guns [Twelve Shots, Delacorte, 1997], and I thought, “He’s going to get too many guy stories, so I’m going to think up a female character.” That’s how Grandma Dowdel was born.
You once said, “When you’re a writer, you can give yourself the grandmother you wish you’d had.” Is Grandma Dowdel that grandmother?
She’s all my great-aunts. I came from rural Illinois and a tradition of women who ruled the world from black iron stoves in country kitchens. I was fascinated by my great-aunts. I thought they were very old ladies—they were probably in their 60s—and the fact that they could remember the 19th century intoxicated me. It was from this family and human element that I fell in love with history, because they were living history. They were pre-feminist-era power figures, and they clearly had an influence on me because there’s a strong elderly woman in virtually every one of my novels.
This generation doesn’t know extended family or family history. I had elders, and I was very much under the influence of elders. Grandma Dowdel is my contribution to young people who may not be living in communities where they have to come to terms with an adult. My mandate now is to provide elders for young readers. Divorce and suburban life has robbed them of extended families, as has the nightmare of the Internet, where the person at the other end is more important than the person in your home.
You often write in the first person. Why?
I was a teacher once, and as a teacher I was painfully aware of how long students would listen to me, as opposed to each other. Writing in the first person keeps me—the alien adult—off the page and off the stage. It also provides a healthy control on language. If I wrote in the third person, too many multi-syllabic words and adult locutions would steal in. First person controls that, and it increases the intimacy of the experience, as if one young person is saying to another, “Let me tell you a story.”
What is one of the biggest challenges for you in writing a novel?
Finding that young voice which will be the right one to tell the next story. Will it be a boy or girl? Now or then? Urban or rural? I have to do casting calls—sit down and start writing in a particular voice. Sometimes the voice works and sometimes it doesn’t, and I have to know when it doesn’t.
One of the difficulties in revisiting Grandma Dowdel was that she had run out of grandchildren. That kept me from writing about her for years. When I re-read the first two books, though, I realized that I’d never mentioned who had the mixed blessing of living next door to Mrs. Dowdel. I settled on a minister with his preacher’s kids—a boy in the middle, with an older and a younger sister—and I had my voice.
Most of your most recent work has been historical fiction. Was this a conscious choice on your part, or are these simply the stories that came?
There are two answers to this question. In the aftermath of 9/11, I went out looking to see how this signal event in our national history was being dealt with in schools. Suddenly, my life had a shape, with a Pearl Harbor at either end of it. I felt that everything had changed from that day on, but it seemed to have no impact at all on young people, and I was appalled by that. I’m afraid it was mishandled in history and social studies departments—my impression is that they’re not learning about it at all in schools.
Secondly, I fell in love with the Civil War by reading Gone with the Wind, not a history book. Fiction isn’t a substitute for the rigorous linear study of history, but I can try to make a moment in history meaningful, even if it’s something as superficial as Elvis going away to the Army, which is mentioned in A Season of Gifts. Many a teacher in this country doesn’t know that we had a draft from 1940 until 1973! So even in this latest novel, which doesn’t seem very history-linked, I’m still teaching history.
You worked with George Nicholson for 22 years, until he left editing to become an agent. How was the transition to a new editor, and who do you work with now?
Laurie Hornik, head of Dial and Dutton at Penguin, has been my editor for nine years. Nobody but a reader ever became a writer, and nobody but a very good reader ever became an editor. Laurie is a reader on whom nothing is lost. She will see in my work things that I’m unaware of.
What is your background as a writer? Did you have any formal training?
I always say I’m a writer because I didn’t have a creative writing class, I had a real writing class. I had senior year English in high school with Mrs. Thelma Franklin. There was no way around her. She prepared us for writing the research papers that would be the basis of freshman composition in college, taught us documentation, sources, synthesizing material and so on, as well as the three-part essay: say what you’re going to say, say it, and say what you said, which is basically a novel. Nowadays she’d be a cross between a graduate professor and a lawsuit, but her class made a writer out of me. I’m sure I’m not the only student she saved, but as happy a moment as I’ve had in my life was the day I could go back to my hometown and find her and hand her a copy of my first book and say, “Thank you for this.” You don’t always get to do that with people, and I was blessed she was still there.
How did teaching help shape you as a writer?
I’m still a teacher, you don’t get over it. I think of my stories as lesson plans, though I hope they don’t look like it! I would never have been a writer if I hadn’t been a teacher first. Teaching un-centered me, and writing of necessity is a vastly un-centering experience. Nobody wants to read your diary. I think that’s a problem with a lot of young people who want to write—they think they have a life story to share with us. J.K. Rowling didn’t attend Hogwarts and Beatrix Potter was never a rabbit, but it’s awfully hard for young writers to understand that the world is not waiting for their life story. Teaching kicked the autobiography out of me. Students weren’t interested in living in my past; I had to learn to live in their present.
What does the rhythm of your life look like these days? Are you still doing school visits? How do you balance writing and traveling?
I say I don’t do school visits, but then I find myself in a classroom and I ask, “How did I end up here?” I certainly don’t do it as I once did, going out on the road for weeks—that time is past. Still, I travel probably a quarter of the time, and that means I can’t maintain a schedule because I’m always off it. But I come home energized.
My writing schedule is very piecemeal. If I’m home for six weeks, which is rare, I tend to slow down and grow morose and the writing looks dead on the page to me. If I only have a couple of weeks, on the other hand, I’m more productive. You hear of writers getting up before the kids are awake to squeeze two hours of writing in, but I’m past that time of life. If I get a page and a half I’m wringing wet and worn out. But when the end is in sight, I can write for hours and hours at a time with no sense of fatigue. I’m like an old horse that smells the barn. Some start with great gusto and then lose steam, but I don’t have any steam to lose—I gather strength as I go along.
Writing a book is always daunting, because once I’ve made a commitment I’m going to see it through. I’m going to spend a year writing something that maybe nobody is going to be interested in. That part never gets any easier. It’s very speculative work. You may have a contract, but it’s still the great unknown. But of course that’s part of the romance of it.
And speaking engagements? Do you still do a fair amount of these?
I do more than a fair amount! Speaking nourishes me greatly, because writing is the loneliest job in the world. With speaking, you get immediate gratification. I know plenty of people who consider speaking intrusive, but for me, it’s my reward for writing. I like to get away; I like to see what’s happening out there. I like to get out to the real America, to schools where school librarians are still getting kids organized to read, where they still care enough to bring authors in to speak, and sometimes spend their own money to go to conventions when the school can’t afford to send them. It’s a chance for me to say thanks, to tell them that I appreciate what they’re doing, and that I know there are people in their communities who don’t.
Most recently, with your Grandma Dowdel stories and novels like Fair Weather, Here Lies the Librarian and The River Between Us, you seem to have settled into a comfortable groove mining American history with a humorous twist.
I have settled into a groove, and I’m being rewarded for doing the same thing over again, for writing nostalgia. Nostalgia is the art form the old have to offer. But publishers are apt to go a little too long in the same direction, hoping to mine it, and so are writers, of course. So I’m going to kick myself out of this groove next year with a book called Three Quarters Dead. It’s a hard-edged, not very sentimental parable about conformity, told as a horror story. It’s the first time I’ve written a contemporary novel since the Internet came along, and I had to look for a new vocabulary. For example, how do you deal with electronic communication in a book—doesn’t it destroy tension? Is there no moment that you can be alone now? And that’s a challenge for me, because I much prefer 1935 to now, but it’s exciting because it’s a new challenge.
Family and relationships are at the heart of all of your novels, no matter the genre. I know that the whole idea of “heartland values” is a cliché, but do you think that growing up in the Midwest has shaped your work?
I find the Midwest very underrepresented in fiction. New Yorkers know little about it, and publishers know little about it. We’ve heard from the South with its traditions, but we haven’t heard enough from the Midwest, and the older I get, the more meaningful those childhood memories are.
My career has fallen between revolutions, the late ’60s youth cult that created the YA novel, and now the electronic revolution. Both have been frontal attacks on family life, and my novels are all about family life, or the search for family. All fiction is family fiction, it seems to me, and certainly for our age group of readers, who think they are going to find a substitute for family in the peer group.
Your career is a distinguished one, and noteworthy for its longevity. Can you comment on changes you’ve seen in the field of children’s and young adult literature, either good or bad?
I think the more it changes, the more it stays the same. I was told when I entered the field years ago that I had gotten there too late, because Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” money had dried up and therefore there was no way I could make a living as a writer. In publishing, the sky is always falling, and people are always saying, “In the old days we published books because we believed in them, now it’s just the bottom line.” If you live long enough, you become inured and immune both to trends and to crying doom. I think it’s hard to get a book published today, and it was hard in 1971.
When I entered this field, the YA novel was by definition a contemporary novel. Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War and Paul Zindel’s The Pigman were books I kept on my desk for inspiration. Then later, when I followed my own inclination as a teacher, I wanted readers to know about the past. That led me into historical fiction.
At this time of my life and career, I’m very interested in staying in the game. So part of the rhythm of my life includes reading. I’m very interested in what younger people are writing right now, and how they’re saying it. Writers like Cormier and Zindel were my early influences. Now I want mentors again, but they’re going to be younger than me. Laurie Halse Anderson, Kate DiCamillo, John Green, Sarah Dessen, M.T. Anderson—these are the people I’m learning from now. The field is so rich—these are the good old days right now.
A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck. Dial, $16.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-8037-3082-3