Ruth White won a Newbery Honor in 1997 for Belle Prater’s Boy, a tale of two cousins trying to overcome huge losses, set in a place White knew well: the western Virginia mountains where she grew up. White, 65, returns to the region in Way Down Deep (FSG), her 10th novel, a story about the meaning of home and family. Bookshelf caught up with White at her daughter’s home in Hummelstown, Pa., where White is eagerly awaiting the birth of her first grandchild.

Tell us where the idea for Way Down Deep came from.

I read a newspaper article a few years ago about a child, somewhere in the Midwest, who had been abandoned. That child died and the town erected a memorial in her honor. They never even found out her identity, but the people of the town didn’t want her to be forgotten. Well that story stayed with me, of course. I wanted to write a story about a child surviving having been abandoned.

You wanted a happier ending for Ruby, the main character of Way Down Deep, and Miss Arbutus, who takes her in when she’s left on the courthouse steps.

When I started the book, I didn’t know how it would end. I didn’t know where Ruby came from. But I couldn’t let her die. That was too sad for a children’s book. I just let her relationship with Miss Arbutus grow in a natural way and arrived at the ending.

Way Down Deep (the name of Miss Arbutus’ town) seems like an awful nice place to be abandoned. It reminds me of that saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

It’s not where I’m from; it’s more the way I wished it had been. Even the bank robber in the story—those people never considered turning him over to the police. They found out his story and decided, ‘This man needs our help.’ That’s my ideal place. So is the town in Belle Prater’s Boy. An ideal town with an ideal family that works together, and loves and, especially, forgives each other.

You grew up in the region, but unlike Gypsy (the main character in Belle Prater’s Boy) you didn’t live in the most beautiful home in town. Your family was poor.

Very, very poor, and so was everybody else. There wasn’t much room for sympathy.

Are your books a way of rewriting your childhood?

I draw from my own memories and I have very vivid memories. When I speak to kids, I always tell them I can’t remember what happened last week, but I can tell you everything about living in Whitewood, Virginia, which doesn’t even exist anymore. They took all the coal out so everybody left. They took the town off the map.

The fact that you got out of there, too, and went on to college to become a teacher, a librarian and a writer is pretty amazing. Who encouraged you?

My father loved to read and so did my mother. I had a great-uncle on my mother’s side who published a book in 1918, but I don’t know exactly how it happened. I was determined, I guess. The writing seemed to grow out of a need to write. I just felt I had to do it.

Was there a teacher who encouraged you?

Yes, there was one at Grundy High School, which Lee Smith also attended.

Ah—a phenomenal English teacher who gets some credit for having produced the two of you?

Well, I don’t know about Lee because we didn’t know each other well then. I had graduated by the time she arrived, but there was a teacher for me, Mrs. McElroy. I don’t even know her first name, but Mrs. McElroy was very supportive and she encouraged me. I was the first one in my family to go to college, which happened almost by accident. I thought I’d try it just for a year, and then two years, and before you knew it, I had a degree.

Did you get a scholarship?

I did get a $100 scholarship, but at the time a whole year of college was only $900.

Do you think contemporary young readers, in our land of plenty, can understand the kind of grinding poverty that you, and characters like Ruby, experienced? Or do you think they see it as just another act of writerly imagination?

I think they understand. I also think kids feel a little nostalgia, just like I do, for a simpler time. The letters I get from kids always reflect that what they’re intrigued by is Belle Prater’s Boy is Gypsy and Woodrow’s loving family. Kids are hungry for that.

Do you get a lot of letters from readers?

When I have a new book out, I get quite a few about that book, but the most letters I get are still about Belle Prater’s Boy.

That was not only your breakout book; I’ll bet it changed your life.

It did. My previous books hadn’t got much attention but after that, all my books got reviewed. There was just a lot more exposure.

Did you have any idea at the time that you were on the Newbery Committee’s radar?

Well, of course, I hoped, maybe not for a Newbery, but that it would win some awards. It was really an exciting thing.

What’s your editorial process like? Do you get a lot of input?

I do a lot of revising for Margaret [Ferguson, White’s editor]. She’s wonderful. She’s just an expert editor. I’m so lucky to have wound up with her.

Farrar Straus has published all your books, correct? Did you submit the first one yourself, without an agent?

Yes. I sent Sweet Creek Holler (1988) to several publishers and they were the first to express an interest. It was just an absolute stroke of luck.

What are you working on now?

What I’m working on now is a little different than my other books. I’m just a little tired of the Appalachian setting, but we’ll see if it works. Once you’ve established yourself, people are not that eager to see something totally different than what you’ve done before, so I’m not sure I’m ready to talk about it yet. The next book I’ll have out, though, is set in a coal mining camp.

Tell us about that one.

It’s called Little Audrey and it’s probably the story that’s the closest to my own childhood. My father died in my early childhood, that was why we left Whitewood.

Did he die of some kind of coal mining-related illness?

No, he was killed. Shot.

Was that traumatic to write about?

Actually, it’s been so long and I was so young… it was okay.

You were one of four sisters—have they all read your books?

Well, my older sister, Audrey, was the one who was mentally ill [the subject of White’s novel, Memories of Summer]. She passed away in 1993. And the other two, yes, sure, they have read them. They understand that I fictionalize things. They know I use some poetic license to bring everything together.