Don't be surprised to find Heather McCutchen signing her debut novel, LightLand (Scholastic/Orchard), while comfortably attired in her protagonist Lottie's favorite fashion statement: pajamas. Entire schools have held pajama days in honor of her visits. "I love meeting with kids; they're so enthusiastic," McCutchen says. "They really are more fun than adult audiences. I quoted one in the back of my book--one of the first readers out of Norwich, Vt., who said she loved this book 'because it could really happen.' " The child's belief that a magic portal through an expanding "StoryBox" could open to Lightland, a world where an evil NightKing roams and steals memories, thrills the author.
McCutchen, an award-winning playwright, recalls being inspired by three things: an actual StoryBox that featured in an outline for a play she'd never written; a desire to explore the importance of memory (a theme that also began surfacing in her earliest plays); and an essay by C.S. Lewis.
The StoryBox is based upon an intricate wooden chest that McCutchen's grandfather crafted for her, with many little drawers in which she kept childhood treasures, "all my memory things, particularly in one drawer that's stuck and I'm the only one who knows how to open it." Her fascination with the importance of memory began while she cared for her paternal grandfather during her college summer breaks. Although he did not have Alzheimer's, she became aware that some of his memories had begun slipping away, and she was moved by watching that process. "Are we afraid of being forgotten? Yes, that desire to be remembered, to have made a difference, goes very deep," she says.
Then, years later, the third "aha moment" that contributed to LightLand occurred while McCutchen and her two daughters, Julia, 9 and Catherine, 7, were reading the Chronicles of Narnia. McCutchen went to the library in search of another installment and discovered C. S. Lewis's Essays of Children's Literature. His words made her realize that "great children's books are wonderful to read at any age." This realization inspired her to take a break from writing plays, pull out a long-ago outline of a play based on the StoryBox and try turning it into a novel.
The route to publication for McCutchen was swift. It took her only a year to write LightLand, and then an old friend, Charlie Melcher of Melcher Media, "helped me get it to people at Scholastic and they bid on it a month later." Scholastic editor Amy Griffin helped her tighten the novel and draw upon her experience writing for the theatre, where she had learned the value of having to rewrite and do it often. "If a scene's not working," McCutchen explains, "they want a new one by the next day so they can get it up in rehearsal."
McCutchen lives in Durham, Conn., with her husband, college sweetheart Tom Kannam, their two girls (whom she calls "wonderful critics") and two dogs, in a "quirky old farmhouse built in 1750 that has its own secrets and charms."
The busy mom writes whenever she gets the chance. "I write on a laptop at the local coffee shop, in the park, at the library, in the elementary school, during the girls' swimming lessons, in the flower garden out back. Sometimes I read from the laptop until the girls fall asleep and then I stay snuggled next to them and write late into the night," she says. "I write just about everywhere except at my desk."
McCutchen has already begun storyboards for the next two books of a probable trilogy, and is currently finishing LightLand's sequel, tentatively titled LightLand and the World of Dreams. She has also established a Web site, www.lightlandfans.com, complete with recipes.
A veteran of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, McCutchen finds artistic collaboration to be the major difference between creating a novel and play writing. "I think that a really good play isn't much fun just to read, because if it's good just to read, it ought to be a book," she says. "A good play requires other artists bringing their own creative vision--it's completely collaborative. Whereas a book, once it's done, you have a complete experience in your head."
McCutchen says that the collaboration between reader and story reminds her of the support she has had from various teachers--even if one of her high school English teachers, who received one of the first copies of LightLand, promptly discovered four errors in the text. Asked if that teacher would approve of the pajama reading parties, McCutchen replies, "Absolutely. I just try to write the kind of book that I want to read. I'm getting those pajamas out there!"