PW: What inspired you to write A Corner of the Universe?
AMM: When I was about nine years old, my parents told my sister and me that we had an uncle we'd never known. He had been my mother's younger brother. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age, and he killed himself when he was 23, before my parents met. I remember that what surprised me more than the existence of this uncle and the story behind him was the fact that he had been kept a secret.
Then, the Christmas before I began writing the book, when I was getting ready to put some family movies on a videotape as a present for my sister, I ran across some old movies of my Uncle Stephen. From that incident came the opening scene of the book, where Hattie is sitting alone in the parlor watching films of her Uncle Adam. Although Adam and Stephen are secrets, the character of Adam didn't come from my Uncle Stephen. I never met my Uncle Stephen and knew very little about him.
PW: Did your creation of the character of Adam require any special research?
AMM: No. I purposefully decided to keep the nature of Adam's mental illness vague. I didn't want to confine myself to a certain pattern of behavior. I've worked with children diagnosed as autistic and, through them, I've met some autistic young adults, but in my mind, the character of Adam is not necessarily autistic.
PW: In what ways does Hattie resemble you when you were a child? What other aspects of the book come from your childhood?
AMM: Like Hattie, I had a father who was an artist and a mother who came from a different background from my father. Although I grew up in a more conventional household than Hattie's, there are some similarities in our personalities. I was very, very shy as a child. I was apt to bury myself in books and apt to get along better with adults than with children. Also, some details of the book came from my childhood. My grandmother, like Hattie's, had a buzzer under the table that she used to call for the maid. It was always a great temptation for my sister to push that buzzer. Unlike Hattie's grandmother, my grandmother would have let my sister push the buzzer if she'd asked.
PW: Was the experience of writing this novel different from writing your previous novels? If so, how?
AMM: Even though I never met my Uncle Stephen, this book seemed more personal to me than my others—more steeped in family history. It was interesting for me knowing that everything I wrote was supposed to be a secret. I hesitated to tell my family about the book as I wrote it. Then, at the very end, I had to call my cousin—the daughter of Stephen's brother—to ask her something. I told her about the book and mentioned that it would be coming out soon. She surprised me by saying: "Oh, we talked about Stephen all the time in my family." I do wish that I could have talked to my own mother about my uncle. In many ways, writing this book was a cathartic experience.
PW: What do you hope young readers will gain from reading A Corner of the Universe?
AMM: I would hope that everybody, kids and adults, would greet new situations with more open minds after reading this book. I hope readers come away thinking about people they've known—who are a little off center—with more openness and warmth, knowing that the same basic human feelings are attached to everyone.