PW talks to Patricia MacLachlan about Grandfather’s Dance (HarperCollins/Cotler), which brings to a close the five-book series that began with Sarah, Plain and Tall.
When you first introduced the character of Sarah in Arthur, for the Very First Time (1980), did you ever think her story would continue to grow as it has, with sequels and a series of movies starring Glenn Close?
No, I didn’t. I did [Sarah, Plain and Tall] and someone said, “Are you going to write more?” and I said, “No, I don’t believe in that.” When Glenn wanted to do another, I think that’s what did it. It was so interesting to watch the kids grow up [on film]. Chris [Bell] who played Caleb, was six at the beginning and 14 at the end.
How did the series evolve?
I have a whole history in my head. I know what happens to the people when the book ends. That landscape [in the Sarah books] is part of my past, my father’s farm, my mother’s life. It was very personal for me, which makes [its conclusion] bittersweet in a way.
There was a little story about Aunt Meg who brought a prism to Arthur in Arthur, for the Very First Time. My mother read it and told me that had happened, when her step-great-grandmother [the mail-order bride who inspired the character of Sarah] arrived and brought a prism. But I hadn’t known that story. My son John had his first baby and named her Ella. I tried to figure out why that [name] seemed so personal, and then I realized it was [the real] Sarah’s name—but John didn’t know that. Life is full of these amazing little [connections]. Your life slips sideways into your books.
What surprised you most, as you developed Sarah’s story line?
I like the fact that the characters are imperfect. Being married to a psychologist, I realize that I learn more from imperfections. They’re more touching: when grandfather loses his temper or Sarah gets stubborn. That’s where the breakthroughs come, and often they come through the children, because children speak the truth. Caleb says what people are afraid to say, like, “Will she [Sarah] stay?”
What were the biggest differences between working on the books and the screenplays?
I have great editors, and I always have. Somehow great editors ask the right questions or pose things to you that get you to write better. It’s a dance between you, your characters and your editor. Working with Glenn Close was good because she had a sense of the integrity of the books. With filmmaking, it’s more of a committee. It’s fascinating to hear people speak your words and bring their own things to it. But I’m more comfortable in the book world, I think. You have more control. In the film world, they say, “We’ll just have one dog.” I said, “Children will notice [that there aren’t two dogs].” I get letters every year asking, “Where’s your other dog?”
What will you miss most about these characters? Are you sad to see them go?
I feel they will live on with me. Give me another year and I could come up with more and more plots, but this [fifth book] just seemed to have a rounded feeling, that the family has come full circle. I thought Anna would grow up to be a writer, but, no, she’s a nurse because she’s a caretaker. Caleb will be a teacher; he’s a caring person, he’s patient and he’s kind—that came through when he was teaching his grandfather to read. My father started teaching in a one-room schoolhouse when he was 19, so Caleb will be there soon. Cassie will be the writer.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a bunch of things with my daughter, Emily. In some ways she’s a smarter and better editor than I am. And I’m doing a novel for Justin Chanda at Atheneum, [featuring] a whole other family I’ve created that interests me, in which a child dies. This feels dark. Emily reminded me that all of my books are dark; parents disappear and people leave babies places. I’m on chapter eight and he hasn’t died yet.
What made you decide it was time to wind down the series?
It naturally came to an end, but it’s bittersweet because I love this family. My father died a couple years ago at age 102, and this was his little dance.