Virginia Euwer Wolff.Photo: Tracy van Straaten.
With the much anticipated release of
Virginia Euwer Wolff.
Photo: Tracy van Straaten.
Coming from rural Oregon, how did you come up with the idea to write a series of novels about inner-city girls struggling for better lives?
It’s true that I had a bucolic, truly peaceful childhood, growing up in a house next to our family’s orchard. We had a lot of books and art, but no electricity until I was eight years old. Since then, I have seen a lot of inner-city life, though. Right after college I moved to New York City, and all of a sudden, I was hit with new sights, sounds and smells—crowds of people, all speaking different languages. The impact was tremendous.
In what other cities have you lived?
Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
Are any of your characters based on people you’ve met in the city?
Absolutely not, but I have gotten tiny shards of information from different people I’ve known. For example, when I was an English teacher, I had four or five students in my classes who were pregnant, and I once shared a house with a single mother who told me, “I didn’t like either of my babies’ fathers, so I didn’t marry them.” These were shocking words for a person of my generation to hear, but they were fitting for my character, Jolly.
How did the names of your characters, Jolly and LaVaughn, come about?
I wanted Jolly to have an ironic name. The character of LaVaughn is named after two people: my first-grade teacher, who never let me know that I was the last student in her class to learn to read; and a hairdresser I knew, a bleached blonde, cigarette-smoking owner of a post-WWII beauty shop. Coincidently, I recently learned that Michelle Obama has the middle name LaVaughn.
Do you think of your characters as being a certain race?
I’d like to leave that up to readers.
Why did you decide to write the books in verse rather than prose?
Reviewers have called my books “novels in verse.” I think of them as written in prose, but I do use stanzas. Stanza means “room” in Latin, and I wanted there to be “room”—breathing opportunities to receive thoughts and have time to come out of them before starting again at the left margin. I thought of young mothers reading my books, and I wanted to give them lots of white space, so they could read entire chapters at a time and feel a sense of accomplishment.
Make Lemonade began as a Ray Bradbury exercise: sitting down at a manual typewriter—or in my case an early-model computer—and improvising. I was scared to death of this exercise, so I thought, “Okay, I’ll be somebody else. I’ll be a baby-sitter,” and I came up with the lines:
Those kids, that Jeremy and that Jilly,
were sloppy and drippy
and they got their hands into things you’d refuse to touch.
They acted their age so much they could
make you crazy.
I thought of the voice as speaking haltingly, and sometimes as I wrote, I thought, “If I have to go all the way to the end of a line, I’ll show my ignorance.”
At what point did you know that your first book, Make Lemonade, would turn into a trilogy?
After the first book was published, I got letters and letters from children who wanted to know: “Does Jolly get her life together? Does LaVaughn ever make it to college?” Children have a sense of ending—I knew I had to give them one but was terrified to begin a sequel. I invented True Believer as a filler—a chance for me to develop LaVaughn’s interest in science and a time for me to get up the courage I needed to deliver the final part of the story.
What did you want to address in that “final part?”
I knew I had to go back to Jolly’s beginning. I had a feeling that as a baby a totally unlikely person had abandoned her. I’d already planted some seeds about her birth mother’s identity by giving Jolly’s son, Jeremy, certain traits, like being precocious, having to wear glasses and learning to read at an early age, but I had to keep looking back to see where the seeds were planted. I also knew that LaVaughn would run the risk of ruining two lives and jeopardizing her entrance to college. I knew there would be hideous confrontations, and that was scary.
Did you work with the same editor for all three books?
Yes, but not always at the same publishing house. I’ve followed Brenda Bowen as she’s moved from Henry Holt to Scholastic to Simon and Schuster to Hyperion and to HarperCollins. I have complete confidence that Brenda always knows the right questions to ask. I’m not sure another editor would be able to do that.
Did completing the trilogy take longer than you imagined?
I knew This Full House would take a long time to write, but not seven years! During that time, I kept having interruptions. I was busy working on other things, preparing lectures and traveling. I got invitations to go to Germany, England, India, China and South Africa, and I said yes to all of them.
Did receiving so much recognition for the first book make the process of writing the other books difficult or intimidating?
Yes, I knew that “you’re only as good as your next book,” and I was terrified that True Believer wouldn’t be well received. It helped that I had other things besides writing to keep me going at the time, like contracting the construction of a stone garden and playing violin with a chamber group. There was a time that I carried around an index cards with the words “chamber group” and “raise flowers” on it. It reminded me that I had other things in my life besides writing if the book didn’t get good reviews.
Of course, True Believer did get excellent reviews, and you went on to win the National Book Award for it. How has being an award-winning author affected your life?
Most people I know don’t even realize I’m an award-winning author, but I have gotten many opportunities to travel to places I’d never have visited otherwise.
Do you feel closure now that the trilogy has been completed?
I do feel a sense of closure. Leonard Marcus, a leading authority on children’s books, once said, “All of children’s literature is about a transfer of power.” If this is true, I think I was able to achieve that goal. In True Believer, LaVaughn gains a sense of her own power and in This Full House, she learns that using it carries enormous risks.
How do you envision the futures of your characters?
I can see LaVaughn becoming a neonatal nurse, and I think that the relationship between Jolly and her birth mother, Dr. Moore, will continue to develop. But they won’t always get along.
What else are you working on, now that these books are finished?
I have an idea for another book, maybe the best idea I’ve ever had. But I’m not yet sure how to execute it.
This Full House by Virginia Euwer Wolff. HarperTeen, $17.99 ISBN 978-0-06-158304-9
This Full House (HarperTeen, Feb.), the final installment of the Make Lemonade trilogy, award-winning author Virginia Euwer Wolff spoke about creating the three books featuring LaVaughn, a teenage girl growing up in the projects, and Jolly, a young, single mother.