Splendors and Glooms, the latest novel from Newbery Medalist Laura Amy Schlitz, is a gothic thriller about three children at the mercy of an unscrupulous puppeteer, who is himself under the spell of a malicious witch. It’s actually two separate stories that overlap at one key point, and its complexity gave the Baltimore school librarian fits as she wrestled it into shape. But it allowed her to marry two of her passions in a single work – Dickens and marionettes.
You have a background in children’s theater, but did it include working with puppets?
Well, yes and no. This is actually the third book I’ve written about puppets. One I abandoned, and the second I never finished. But in writing those, I knew I needed to know more about puppets so I made some marionettes. I eventually made seven of them. I became fascinated by marionettes, which I first saw in Venice. They were so haunted and so alive. You walked by them and you could feel their presence, with their beady eyes just fixed on you. I knew I wanted to write about them long before I found the right story. I have one friend who finds them very scary. One of the marionettes I made – she was sort of an aristocratic, prima donna type – my friend said like she felt like she was in the presence of a snake.
You made your own marionettes? You must be very crafty…
Well, the first ones I made had many design flaws. That was because I didn’t know what I was doing. I was making it up as I went along. But when I tried again, I got a guidebook, and now I know the tricks, like how to put fishing weights in their hands and feet, for instance. You learn by doing.
I’ve seen the adjective “Dickensian” describing this novel in more than one place – are you an avid reader of his work?
I am passionately fond of him, and this book is my homage to Dickens. I reread him all the time and I reread his books while I was writing Splendors and Glooms to keep Victorian diction in my mind. He’s the complete meal. Everything from the cozy to the surreal to melodrama to hilarity, it’s all in there.
Did you set the story in mid–19th-century England because of Dickens?
I did choose the Victorian period because I felt like I knew this period well already. Even so, I bought about 40 new reference books. But I didn’t have to start all over. I had a lot of grounding in this era already.
So you had this idea for a long time, and it certainly reads that way. It isn’t a book that reads like you dashed it off.
It took forever. It nearly killed me. I was stuck so many times I had to put it to aside. I wrote The Night Fairy in one summer [that] I was not writing Splendors and Glooms. I guess I started it in February 2005 but it was a long, long process. I just couldn’t get this book under control. It was like a marathon. A blood-stained marathon.
So the idea for this book predates your winning the Newbery Medal?
I was finishing up the first draft in June, the year I won the Newbery [in 2008, for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village].
The plot is complicated – actually it’s like a Venn diagram, with two overlapping stories that share just a short history. Did you ever consider that you had two separate stories?
Not really. The two plots come together eventually and even when I tried to separate them I couldn’t. The way the stories intersected gave the novel an energy and a complexity that I wanted. But it was difficult. I’d write 10 chapters about three characters but those chapters left two other characters out in the cold. I’d run myself into a dead alley and I’d have to tear them up. I felt so stupid.
But congratulations on your perseverance! Lesser writers would have given up.
Thank you for saying that because, really, it did take perseverance. There was something about this idea that kept me going. For one thing, I had friends who were reading it who said, ‘Don’t give up on this one.’ And my editor was very patient. She thought it was worthwhile. There were people there to hold me up when I felt like giving up.
Do you have a ton of ideas and not enough time to write them all, or do you have a few really good ideas that you husband until you can make them work?
I’m like a crockpot on low heat. My mind constantly comes up with ideas but I abandon a lot of them after a week or two. It’s the ones that keep coming to me, that keep picking up flavors, that haunt me, those are the ones that wind up getting written. And I love making up characters. I could make up characters till the cows came home. Plot’s what hard. Very hard. While I was writing Splendors and Glooms I longed for The Night Fairy, a story built on a single idea, a fairy who’s lost her wings and must figure out how to go on. But this one? A story built on images and me having to build a structure that connected those images together into a story? As I said, it nearly killed me.
What’s your writing schedule like? You still work at the Park School so do you get up early to write before you go to work or are you a night owl?
Since I won the Newbery, I have only been working at the school three days a week, so that gives me more writing time. I used to be nocturnal but that changed in my 40s [Schlitz is 56]. Now I try to get it done in the mornings. Getting myself to sit down is always difficult. I have to coerce myself and stoop to rewards. When you hear other writers speak they always talk about the importance of discipline but as you get to know some of them better and earn their trust, they will whisper about how hard it is to make yourself write. Sometimes I feel like an impostor and I have to remind myself, ‘You are able to do this.’ I look at the books on the shelf that have my name on them to remind myself I have done it before and, likely, I can do it again.
What are some of your tricks?
The one I mention most often to students is the half-hour, one-page trick. I unplug the phone, get a glass of water, and vow to keep my hands moving for 30 minutes. If the house is on fire, you keep your hands moving as you are rushing to safety. After a half hour, I’m usually in, but that first half hour is painful. And often, a half hour is all I’ll do. I get a cookie to reward myself and I leave it because this little rebellious dwarf that I put to work cannot be bullied or I won’t be able to get another half hour out of her the next day. I have to be really nice to myself.
Do you write at home?
Most of the time, but if I have trouble working at home, I go to a museum or a café and I am not allowed to come home until I have words on paper. A favorite spot is the Walters Art Gallery [in Baltimore]. They have beautiful tapestries on the walls of the Knight’s room. A lot of people play chess in there but I don’t. I write.
Would you rather be writing fulltime?
No, I wouldn’t give up the children. They are an inspiration to me. To be with real children and hear about what they love to read, I don’t want to do without that. And Park is a remarkable school. It has a kind of electricity in the air and an energy that is stimulating. People who work there fall under the spell of the place. Like I have.
Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz. Candlewick, $17.99 Aug. ISBN 978-0-7636-5380-4