Newbery Medalist, school librarian, and historical novelist/playwright Laura Amy Schlitz is the author of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from the Medieval Village, The Hired Girl, and Splendors and Glooms. She spoke with PW about researching and writing her most recent work, Amber & Clay, which is set in ancient Greece. It tells the story of two strangers, an enslaved boy and a girl from a wealthy background, who share an unbreakable bond.
You have spent the last several years writing historical plays and novels for teens and young adults. What draws you to the past and why did you decide to set Amber & Clay in the time of Sokrates?
I don’t know why my imagination seems to be more wired to the past. I like finding a different world to write about than the one where I’m living. This world is lovely, but I like to find other times and places to exist. I guess I’m kind of an armchair traveler.
I’d been thinking about this story for a long time. I wanted to write about Sokrates, so ancient Greece was part of the territory. Sokrates had such a playful mind. I thought children would enjoy him. In the beginning, I wanted to write a story about him and the enslaved boy from Plato’s Meno. Sokrates was trying to make a point about someone who could use the knowledge given to him before his birth to solve a geometry problem. Because the slave was a child, I thought that would be a good place to start sharing Sokrates with children. I later found out that the enslaved boy could have been a grown man because in ancient Greece, male slaves were called boys all their lives, but he could have been a child…. Ironically, as I wrote the story, Sokrates was a little cast into the shade by the two children, Amber and Clay, but when Sokrates does appear, I hope readers will pause to ponder his ideas.
Why did you choose to write the book as a novel rather than a play? How is your process of writing each different?
At times I thought the story would be a picture book, but that idea wouldn’t lurk. In my experience, writers don’t make all the decisions at first. For example, I didn’t know I would be writing a lot of Amber & Clay in verse, but I did. When you write a book, you often don’t know what you’re doing. It’s the opposite of origami, when you have to do everything exactly right in the sequence that’s given to you, and then you get something predictable. When writing, luckily, you can’t destroy your paper by folding it too many times. When I write, I don’t have a sequence and I don’t have a plan.
This book was a lot more like writing a play than any of the other novels I’ve written. I wrote scenes out of order lots of times, and I wrote scenes not knowing whether I’d use them or not—many I did not. Usually, when I write a novel, I keep it all in one notebook. I write sequentially, first longhand, then at the computer. But this novel was very messy. I couldn’t fit it all in one notebook. It was written on odd sheets of paper and out of order. Sometimes I’d write a chapter as a dialogue, then in verse, then in prose. Then I’d change the point of view. Amber & Clay was a process-of-elimination book.
I wouldn’t say that plays are easier for me to write, but I did find when writing my earlier book, The Hired Girl, in first person, as I would while writing a play, it solved a lot of problems. If the voice is right, you just follow the character. Also, the character just has to tell you what interests them, unlike in a novel written in third person, when you have to give a wide shot of the whole room before zeroing in on a character. I tell myself not to write too much in first person because I’m afraid it will make me lazy, but I’ve heard from other authors who think writing from first person is more difficult.
There are detailed descriptions of lifestyles, religious rituals, and artifacts in the novel. Did they come from your imagination or from research? What type of research was required?
I didn’t know much about ancient Greece before I started. I did a lot of research. The original bibliography for the book was 10 pages, so I had to be selective, including only the books I used over and over again. I went to Greece and saw the museums. I tried making a clay pot. I know a woman who is a couturier, and we sat together with fabric, trying to figure out how the women of ancient Greece draped their dresses. I really did everything I could to be true to history, and I needed to do research for that because the world of ancient Greece was so foreign to me in the beginning. It took years for me to be able to say, “Oh, the ancient Greeks would think this,” or “they would have that idea,” and to have a sense of who they were. I researched the whole time I was writing the book, which took over four years. I was always having questions like, “Did they have socks? Did they have buckets? Did they have scissors?” that I’d have to research. I did have to take some liberties, though, like making the assumption that women had to press the pleats in their dresses. You’d have to weight the fabric down then add some kind of fixative. That was my little theory.
Some of the narrative is told by Greek gods. Why did you choose to include them in the novel?
They were very much a part of the way people saw the world back then. You’d go down the street and smell smoke, and it would be a sacrifice being made by people celebrating one god or another, or you’d have an experience when you were suddenly struck by a strong passion that you didn’t understand, and that too was a god. You’d go to the stream and you knew there would be nymphs there, so you went through a kind of ritual to ask permission of the gods to get water. The gods were a constant.
Also, when you use a god for a narrator, he/she can just say something like, “Here we are in a war between Athens and Sparta, and this is what you need to know.” I particularly appreciated having Hermes as a narrator because he is such a communicator, and he could do a lot of exposition for me in a very light-hearted way. I found his voice very easy to write. He was wonderful to have around!
Amber & Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz, illus. by Julia Iredale. Candlewick, $22.99 Mar. 9 ISBN 978-1-5362-0122-2