Imagine Meryl Streep playing the part of a Newbery Medalist, and you have some notion of Karen Hesse's earnestness and intensity. An author distinguished by her range of subjects and mastery of genres, she by her own account d s nothing by halves -- and that, apparently, includes giving an interview. Seated with PW in her office, a modest room with a cozily sloping ceiling, on the top floor of her house in Brattleboro, Vt., she puts so much thought into her comments that only the ring of the telephone alerts her to the passing time: more than three hours have rolled by, and she has forgotten to break for lunch.
Then again, pausing for the most accurate answer and carefully emphasizing every phrase are what a reader would expect from Hesse. Her Newbery winner, Out of the Dust (Scholastic, 1997) is written entirely in free verse; her dozen other books are narrated in prose, but reflect a p t's respect for the weight of each word. Discussing her newest books -- Just Juice (Scholastic, Nov.), a middle-grade story about a family in severely straitened circumstances, and Come On, Rain! (Scholastic, Mar.), an exuberant picture book about urban girls playing in a summer storm-reviewers uniformly praised Hesse's powerful imagery and rigorously honed, immediate language.
In fact, Hesse began her writing career as a p t, publishing while still in college (she graduated from the University of Maryland in 1975 and with her husband, Randy Hesse, moved to Brattleboro the following year). "I found some degree of success in the world of adult p try," she says, referring loosely to awards and invitations to read on different campuses.
But when she became pregnant with her first daughter, Kate, now 19, the p try stopped. "I couldn't block off enough creative energy to write in the way I had always written, with that same total focus," she explains. "My body and brain were at that point creating life, and so the creative energy seemed to channel inward rather than outward. What I wrote had no integrity to it."
Writing, however, was "part of who I was," she says, and at that point, even before Kate was born, Hesse started reading children's books. "I began discovering children's literature all over again, and it had changed enormously from the time I'd read it as a child."
Among the first books she happened upon was Katherine Paterson's Of Nightingales That Weep: "I couldn't believe that was children's literature." She went on to read everything Paterson wrote; "I learned at her knee, whether she knew it or not." A slow but very determined apprenticeship had begun. At the same time, Hesse needed to bring in some income. While Kate napped or occupied herself, Hesse did freelance work, typesetting and proofreading for book compositors (knowing of her interest, they often sent her children's books). When the baby went to bed for the night, around 7 p.m., Hesse went to bed, too -- and then got up at 1 or 2 a.m., to write for five or six hours until Kate woke up, ready to start the day. "I'm sure I was cranky. I was certainly sleep deprived. But I'm crankier still when I don't write!"
The grueling schedule continued. A second daughter, Rachel, now 16, was born a few years later. Though Hesse had yet to place one of her books with a publisher, she forged on; she founded a local chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and began leading a writer's group. She wrote book after book, and while her work was good enough that the rejection letters were personal, rejection letters were all she received.
Finally, about 12 years ago, she arrived at a turning point -- along an unlikely path. Deeply inspired by hospice volunteers who helped her grandmother achieve a dignified death at home, Hesse underwent training and became a hospice volunteer herself. Tellingly, when she speaks of this work, involving hours every day, she d sn't mention the cost to her own tight schedule and her family's difficult finances, but speaks of the profound effect on her writing. While the genre she favored at the time was fantasy, her fiction focused on the same motifs that concern her now: "female protagonists dealing with issues of separation and loss." But, she adds, "I just wasn't dealing with them in a fully realized way. When I took the hospice training, I had to look at myself all the way to the core. It made me think and respond on a level that I never had before. Because I was denying so much of who I was, because I had not confronted so much of who I was, how could I confront it in my work? Once I was able to look at my whole self, I could then perhaps create a whole, believable fictional world and characters who had solidity and substance and credibility."
Three published works emerged from the period immediately following the hospice training. Hesse sent the book that became Wish on a Unicorn to Brenda Bowen, then at Holt, because seven or eight years before, Bowen had responded encouragingly to a manuscript about Bigfoot and an abused girl. To Hesse's amazement, Bowen remembered her. Hesse summarizes Bowen's comments: " 'I love the characters in this unicorn story, but I hate the plot. Would you be willing to rewrite it?'" Thrilled, Hesse rewrote the book from scratch, expanding it from a picture book to a "novelette" in the process -- and then, when Bowen still didn't like the plot, she rewrote it a second time.
Unicorn, a middle-grade novel in the end, appeared in 1991, followed by Letters from Rifka in 1992, also from Holt. Rifka, an epistolary account of a Russian Jewish girl's emigration to America in 1919, based on the experiences of Hesse's great-aunt, put Hesse on the map: among other awards, it was named the International Reading Association Children's Book of the Year (to Hesse's great pleasure, the keynote speaker at the awards ceremony was none other than Katherine Paterson; today the two are good friends).
Suddenly a multitude of books by Hesse streamed into print: in 1993 two picture books appeared that had been written at essentially the same time as Unicorn: Lester's Dog (Crown) and Poppy's Chair (Macmillan). Every year since, there's been at least one book, a sign of unusual productivity especially in light of her diverse topics, from dolphin behavior and feral children in The Music of Dolphins (Scholastic, 1996) to the influenza pandemic of 1918 in A Time of Angels (Hyperion, 1995) to nuclear accidents and sheep farming in Ph nix Rising (Holt, 1995).
A Hard-Working Realist
As Hesse says, "I never do anything in halves." She started Rifka about 20 times, to get her heroine's voice exactly right; she rewrote The Music of Dolphins to give it a happier ending, then threw that version out, in favor of the more ambivalent one the protagonist had led her to. She worked on a sheep farm to get background for Ph nix Rising, and she routinely checks her work with specialists. For Just Juice, she says, she referred to a lengthy roster of experts, everyone from speech pathologists to tax specialists to a metal worker. "I went downtown to Dunklee's Machine Shop and I spent hours just watching Lester Dunklee fix things with his machines." Even Come On, Rain! required a call to a meteorologist: for the safety of her characters, she wanted to make sure there could be the right kind of summer downpour. "I just couldn't have those children out there if there was lightning," she says.
Her concern with accuracy extends to the emotional content of the work as well. When she presented the manuscript for Come On, Rain! to her writers' group, her friend and colleague Eileen Christelow suggested that Hesse consider just why her character would want rain so badly. Pondering the question, Hesse began to think about periods of drought, including the Dust Bowl of the '30s; before long she had contacted the Oklahoma Historical Society and located microfilm of an obscure newspaper published in that period. Come On, Rain! was put on hold as Hesse devoted herself to the work that became Out of the Dust.
The jacket for Out of the Dust bears a photo by Walker Evans, a portrait of a girl from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It's not merely a good design element. Hesse used that photo to represent the character to herself, a technique she often adopts. "I keep a photograph in front of me as I'm writing," she says. "I look in the eyes of that person, and in my brain there's a constant checking. 'Would you say this? Would you do this?' It keeps the character focused and real."
There are no photos above Hesse's desk at the moment, and no novel in progress, either. The Newbery Medal has kept her on the road, with a trip every week and a half or so, and plenty of speeches to write while she's home. Winning the prize has been "extrordinary" and "thrilling," and she is especially grateful to have received "wonderful, heartwarming, supportive" letters from previous medalists, and to have improved the readership for all of her books. But the Newbery responsibilitites have taken her out of what she calls "that creative mindset, where something is beginning anew." Even so, since winning the award she has finished not just Rain and Juice but a novel called A Light in the Storm, about a female lighthouse keeper in Delaware during the Civil War (due this fall as part of Scholastic's Dear America historical fiction series).
She also wrote her first autobiographical work, a short story for Amy Ehrlich's collection When I Was Your Age, Volume Two (due in April from Candlewick). It's a dazzling but often troubling story, depicting unspecified sorrows at home and secret knowledge of abuse in the row house next door. It suggests a vast unhappiness along with an almost literally redemptive vision, and she stiffens in her chair when it's mentioned. "That was a really, really, really hard story for me to write. I said yes because I have always wanted to work with Amy. And Amy was as great to work with as I thought she would be. But I will never write another short story again. I will never write another autobiographical piece again. Every word was painful to me."
Hesse is not contractually bound to any one publisher at the moment; she signs contracts only when she feels she has a salable book. Early in her career she had an agent, but for many years she has preferred to represent herself. Bowen, whom she followed from Holt to Scholastic, is now at Simon &Schuster, and there's no question of Hesse's loyalty to her. "I've worked with other editors," she says, "and most of the time I've had a really wonderful experience. But there is no other editor who understands me and the way I work and what I am capable of doing the way Brenda understands, and there's no other editor who can pull that kind of work out of me. She never tells me what to do, she just makes it so that I can't wait to explore the issues she's raised."
On the other hand, Hesse is loyal to Scholastic. "Even when I first came to them, they supported me in a way that went well beyond what they had to in order to make me feel at home there." She's especially pleased that they will be reissuing Poppy's Chair, now out of print but still in demand for its sensitive treatment of bereavement.
She also has great respect for Dianne Hess at Scholastic, who edited Come On, Rain!, and she is truly delighted with the artist Hess found, first-time illustrator Jon Muth. "Dianne knows what she wants, and she knows when it's right, and she's uncompromising in that vision. We had to work really hard together to make our two visions harmonize. But it was a joy to do."
Where Hesse will emerge next remains a question. "Ultimately, the most important thing for me is to write the best book I am capable of writing," she says. "And get it into readers' hands. Whatever I can do, to do that, I'll do."