In addition to writing poetry and fiction for adults, Lauren Wolk is the Newbery Honor-winning author of Wolf Hollow—which was recently shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. Her forthcoming middle grade novel, Beyond the Bright Sea, tells the story of 12-year-old Crow, an orphan who washed up on the Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts as a newborn. One night, Crow’s vision of a mysterious fire from across the water sparks a quest to discover her origins, in spite of warnings from her guardian, Osh. Wolk spoke with PW about following up her well-received debut for children, feeling at home in historical settings, and her life on Cape Cod, where she serves as associate director at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod.
This is your second work of historical fiction for young readers. What is it about the genre that appeals to you?
I have always been an old person, from the time I was little. When I was in fourth grade, my brother got a bike, my sister got a boom box, and I got a spinning wheel. My parents always went to antique fairs. And the farm that was in the family since the Revolutionary War inspired me to write Wolf Hollow. I felt very much at home there, and it was a pleasure to recreate those worlds in my books.
You began as an adult writer. Was there a defining moment when you decided to venture into writing for children?
I wish I could say it was deliberate. I wrote Wolf Hollow for no particular audience. I just wanted to tell that story. My agent said it would make a fine story for young readers, but I had not anticipated or intended that.
What was it like writing Beyond the Bright Sea after receiving such a positive reception for your middle grade debut?
I actually finished Beyond the Bright Sea before I had that reception. I knew from the reaction of editors who were interested in Wolf Hollow and from Penguin, which published the book, and my agent and others who’d read it, that it was a positive reception. But I finished at least the first draft of Beyond the Bright Sea before any reviews came out. Wolf Hollow’s reception has been interesting; it’s been wonderful. And it has given me a real boost of confidence and inspired me. But it’s a little intimidating, too. All of a sudden, people are watching what you are doing. I’m really glad I’d finished the book before any of that external attention came to bear.
Can you describe the research process for Beyond the Bright Sea?
I had done some research years before, when I intended to write a book about a couple at sea who lost a child. I had looked into quite a lot about that time and place, on the waters off Cape Cod, where I live. The collections of notes I had from that enterprise formed the basis of research on the Elizabeth Islands in the 1920s. I used the Internet a lot. I also used some wonderful books from the local library—there’s a Cape Cod room filled with books on the flora and fauna and history of Cape Cod. I also used the Cuttyhunk Historical Society.
I don’t like to inject my research into my writing. I like to do research before and after I write, so I can internalize it. It just comes out naturally. It was very easy to put together visuals and a narrative that made me feel as if I’d lived it. Some of what I knew about the islands came after the fact. I didn’t look any further than I needed to. I wanted the story to drive the research and not the other way around.
How has your own time on Cape Cod shaped the story’s atmosphere and setting?
Anybody who lives by the sea knows that the sea doesn’t change, even as we do. The wildness of the sea, the smell and the taste, what it feels like to be on a sailboat on a choppy sea—all those things I know down to my bones, because I’ve lived by the sea. I’m definitely an ocean person and I feel at home here, which helped enormously. I’ve only been to Cuttyhunk once or twice. I was on the Elizabeths one time when I went sailing there. We went on long boats to the shore of one of the uninhabited islands. I picked up about 20 ticks from the sheep there! I’m always interested in wild places. And I wanted creative freedom, so I created an island at the top of Cuttyhunk—a fictitious place.
Names and identity play an important role in the novel. What made you choose the name Crow for your heroine?
I had been picturing her for a long time. I love birds and I love crows—even though they used to wake me up at the crack of dawn when we kept a compost heap. I used to curse them as they picked at our leftovers. But I love them; they’re so smart and feisty, with a strong personality. When I pictured this girl, I named her Crow because that bird is smart, independent, and feisty—all the traits I wanted in my character.
Classic children’s books are full of orphans—Crow references The Secret Garden and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. What drew you to write from that perspective?
I never plan what I write or what will happen, except for the initial character. Crow came to me out of the blue. I just kept picturing her alone and on a beach, not knowing why. I just started where it felt natural to begin: with her washing up on a shore in a leaky skiff. And then Osh found her, and he was a nice surprise. Miss Maggie was also a nice surprise. These characters just appear in my imagination and won’t let go.
I think I really am attracted to characters—or they’re attracted to me—who are on a strong journey. Orphans, necessarily, are forced to grapple with big issues at a young age. They have to grow up faster. I like independent kids, and kids who think for themselves or are brave. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have no fears, but that they are able to move forward despite them.
While Crow gradually learns about her origins, Osh keeps his heritage a secret. Why did you decide to handle it that way?
I wanted him to be a little mysterious. I wanted him to be who he was in the moment. He wants Crow to be that way, too. He’s focused wholeheartedly on where he is. What he went through to take him to that island was painful, and I allude to that. He left things behind and faced hardship to establish a new life in a new place. For him, it’s extraordinarily important that he not look back, but look forward. That sets up a bit of a conflict, because Crow wants to look back. She wants to know her origins. I think it’s important to have realistic relationships in books. And no father-daughter relationship is without its tensions—no parent-child relationship is. In a way, I think it’s beautifully ironic. This very strong relationship is made tense by the adult not wanting to look back, and the child wanting to look back.
How has your experience as a poet informed your style?
I have to really control myself because I want to write poetically all the time. Wolf Hollow helped me discipline myself. It was the first time I’d written in first-person. It was just what I’d needed. Unlike third-person, it requires you to look from one set of eyes. If you want to write a realistic character, you have to write in a voice that rings true. And I don’t know many 11-year-old girls who think and speak poetically. I love lyrical language and I allow myself to write lyrically when describing a meadow or a forest. Writing Wolf Hollow, Beyond the Bright Sea, and my newest book has taught me to restrain myself a little bit.
Can you tell us about what you’re working on now?
I finished another book set in the desert in Arizona. My editor is reading it right now, so I don’t know for sure what work I will do on it next. Looking back, I’ve started noticing common themes and wondering where they come from. And I thought, “Wow, another orphan.”
Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk. Dutton, $16.99 May 2 ISBN 978-1-10199-485-6