Talking with Authors
Leonard S. Marcus -- 2/14/00
Some well-known children's book writers discuss their childhoods and their vocation
.What kind of child were you?
A. I was an only child, which meant that when I was alone I was really alone, and I was alone a lot. My parents were divorced when I was nearly seven. My mother, who was an alcoholic and a drug addict, and who suffered a series of nervous breakdowns, was often hospitalized. My stepfather was often at work or just not at home. I was often on my own after school and on into the evening. Often during those times I would wander around the cities I lived in, exploring.
My stepfather kept changing jobs, and as a result of this we moved so often that between second and eighth grades I never went to the same school for an entire year. All this change made me into a kind of jokester and a show-off. I needed to be noticed. And it made me very observant. I became a real spy and a quick study: On starting at a new school I could figure out right away who I wanted to make friends with, which kids I wanted to avoid. I noticed everything about everybody: when somebody got new sneakers or when somebody was sobbing quietly to herself. And I learned that you live the life you're given, and so I adjusted to whatever was going on around me.
Q.Did you like to write?
A. Very much. I started by trying to write comic books, but my drawing skills didn't keep pace with my writing and so after a while writing came to mean more to me. The word balloons took up more and more of the space. Eventually, I just drew tiny heads in the corner of each frame speaking my long sentences.
At the same time, I realized that my stories weren't as good as the ones we were reading in school. So, much like the kids who were athletes or musicians, I practiced: I would pick a passage of description or dialogue from a book that interested me and go over it again and again, trying to figure out why it moved me or made me laugh. I did this for years. From the fifth grade on, I knew I eventually wanted to write novels.
Q.Did you go in for sports?
A. I loved sports, but because we moved so much, I rarely got to play on a school team for a complete season. The other problem was that I was short for my age. But I was quick and a good passer. When I was living in Washington, D.C., an African-American friend who was six feet four used to go around with me to the playgrounds where black kids played serious basketball. I was accepted. We'd all kid around. And if I ever faked out one of the black players and sank a shot, they'd all laugh and say, "Oooh, white boy put the move on you!"
I loved sports in part because during a game, nothing else matters. Real time d sn't exist for the players. It d sn't matter that it is three o'clock; it only matters that three minutes remain in the game. I also liked the direct cause-and-effect of sports. If I faked a guy and hit a jump shot, well, that was something I had done. Outside of sports, I felt very much as though I couldn't make anything happen.
Q.Do you revise your work much?
A. I think "revision" is badly named. The "re" prefix implies that you are going back over something you've already done. But you're not going back. You are going on with the writing process. It's all just part of getting it right. A friend of mine who played basketball once said that he envied me because he had just missed a foul shot that would have tied the score at the end of an important game. He said, "But you can write that foul shot until you make it."
Q.What kind of girl were you?
A. Very bookish and imaginative and dreamy. I always had some fantasy going -- a circus in the backyard, or a play in the garage, or a newspaper. After we moved from Chicago to southern California when I was ten, my mother and dad would say, "You always have your nose in a book. Go outside and play." So I would go outside -- and be miserable until they let me back in so I could read some more.
Q.Once you'd moved to California, what were some of the things you liked to do?
A. On hot summer days, my friends and I would sit on the curb waiting for women in high heels to pass by. We would watch as their heels sank into the melting asphalt.
Most of all, though, I liked to write. I wrote stories and plays. This must have started earlier because my parents had already given me a child's typewriter as a present when I was six or seven. I became known as the storyteller on our block. The neighborhood kids, all younger than me, would come to our house and lie on my bed, and I would simply start, not knowing where my story would lead.
I was fifteen when the Elvis Presley craze began. I wrote an epic p m on the life of Elvis. I would also think up suggested plots for Elvis movies and send them in. I thought the movies being written for him were just terrible and that I could help. Of course I never heard back from him.
Q.What's the best part about being a writer?
A. I dedicated my first book, Catherine, Called Birdy, to my daughter and her five best friends. Watching them grow up together taught me a lot about girls -- that girls can, for instance, be more independent-minded than I as a girl ever realized. They were an inspiration to me. As a writer, I in turn am glad to have the chance to inspire other girls.
Q.What kind of boy were you?
A. I was a baseball fan. I loved books and history. And I always wanted to be a writer.
My father worked in the West Coast office of a major publishing company, Macmillan, and would invite the authors he met home for dinner. John Steinbeck; England's p t laureate, John Masefield; and Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone With the Wind, all had dinner at our house. As a boy, I would sit at the table and watch and listen to those colorful, larger-than-life men and women. I wanted to be like them.
Q.How do you choose the subjects of your biographies?
A. First of all, I choose a person I admire. I don't know if I would ever want to write about someone I didn't admire. Writing a biography takes a year of my life. It means in a sense that I live with that person for a year. I go to bed at night thinking about that person and I wake up in the morning thinking about him or her.
I also choose subjects whose lives have something to tell us about leading our own lives. I think of a biographical subject as a kind of teacher -- for me and for my readers. A third consideration is that I don't like to get stuck in a rut. Crazy Horse, a mystic and a warrior, was an Oglala Sioux. Martha Graham, who invented an entirely new form of dance, spent her whole life living in Manhattan. No two people could be more different than Martha Graham and Crazy Horse. That was one of their appeals for me; another was that I admired them both.
Q.What's the best part about being a writer?
A. Being a nonfiction writer means that I can explore any subject that interests me. Being a writer means that I can explore myself: It's impossible to write well about any subject without examining your own deepest feelings about it. Also, writing, like carpentry, is a craft. It's very satisfying to make a beautiful object with your mind and hands. To write a good sentence that makes the reader see a picture vividly or feel an emotion strongly or dream a dream is a wonderful experience. To write a good book is a thrill.
Q.What was it like growing up during the Great Depression?
A. The books I read as a child, such as Mary Poppins and The Secret Garden, were about people who had maids and spoke beautifully polished English. In contrast to this, in our Pennsylvania mill town, people during the Depression were hiring out as maids, and my father lost a business. Some of my school friends spoke with foreign accents because they had learned English from immigrant parents who spoke with foreign accents. As a child, I never found any characters in books whose lives resembled those of my classmates, my family, and me. Years later, this made me want to write for children about things as they are -- about people and places that my own children would recognize as real.
Q.Why do you write so often for children of about the age of twelve?
A. Because it is at that age that the serious question of childhood is asking for an answer. Kids want acceptance from their peers, but in two different, opposing ways: They want to be like everyone else and they want to be different from everyone else. So the question is: How do you reconcile these opposing longings?
Q.Why do you sign your books "E.L." rather than "Elaine" Konigsburg?
A. When I began writing in the mid-1960s, I thought it was not important for readers to know whether I was male or female. Also, I was a great admirer of E.B. White, so I may have thought that it would bring me luck to submit my first manuscript as "E.L." But if I were starting out today, I would use my first name.
Q.What kind of child were you?
A. Perky. Into everything. My mother didn't know what to do with me. Because I had six older brothers and a male cousin all living at home, in our Bronx apartment, I knew early on how to maneuver and how to take care of myself. I knew how to take a punch! I was also good at hopscotch and jump rope. Very athletic.
Q.Did you grow up bilingual?
A. Yes. My brother spoke English with me at home. We played -- and fought! -- in English. But with my mother I spoke in the sweet sounds of Puerto Rican Spanish, and because of this, Spanish has always felt like a safety net to me. It is the language I associate with my first experiences of being loved and hugged. Growing up, it was the language of my community.
Q.Did you enjoy school?
A. School was not always a pleasant experience for me. For example, I was eager to learn and was an excellent student in English. Nonetheless I was aware early on that often when I went to school I was going into hostile territory. The library, on the other hand, was an exception, but not the public schools.
My first day of kindergarten was an unfortunate experience. I had already taught myself how to count as well as to read and write, and when I tried to show my teacher what I could do, she would have none of it. "Look at this show-off," she said, scolding me for knowing too much. Later that same year some new girls arrived from Puerto Rico who spoke Spanish very well but knew no English. When I tried to help out by explaining to them in Spanish what the teacher was saying, she became furious. "This is not your country," she said. "You speak English here." For the rest of the year I got that kind of treatment.
In junior high school I opted to take the Spanish class, but my teacher, who had a thick Irish-American Bronx accent, insisted that we speak Castilian Spanish -- as it is spoken in Spain, with a European accent -- rather than speak with a Caribbean Spanish accent. It was like asking an American-born English speaker to talk like an English citizen. It felt like playacting, and all of us Puerto Rican children and other Latino children would laugh. But finally it became stressful and humiliating, and I decided to study French instead. I wrote about this experience in my novel Nilda.
Things got a little better in the fifties, when Puerto Ricans came to live in New York City by the tens of thousands. I felt less isolated and always had a group of buddies to hang out with. I also described some of these experiences in my collection of stories El Bronx Remembered (1975).
Q.What kind of child were you?
A. I had a really tough childhood. Both my parents were drunks and just hated each other. They fought and screamed and never should have been married. I can remember hiding under the kitchen table one day and just wishing they were gone. So to me childhood was mainly something to get through alive. Now, though, I'm actually grateful for some of those early experiences.
Q.Grateful in what way?
A. Because I was pretty much on my own by the age of seven or eight, I learned about tenacity and independence and the willingness to fight. And I can go back now to some of the things that happened to me and write about them. They're like a mine that I can harvest.
Q.How did you survive?
A. At one time, when we were living in an apartment in a small Minnesota town, I moved down into the basement of our building by myself. My parents were so drunk, they didn't know the difference. I had found a place in back of the furnace, a sort of alcove, with a half-sized couch and a light from the ceiling. That became my home. I'd usually take down a quart of milk and would eat grape jelly and peanut butter sandwiches down there. I made a lot of airplane models. And I slept there at night. Or I would take off for a week and go stay with an uncle to work on his farm or to go hunting. Half the time my parents wouldn't know I was gone.
Q.Did you like to read?
A. For a long time I was a poor reader. When I was thirteen or fourteen, I sold newspapers in bars at night. I found that if I waited for the drunks to get a little cranked up, I could hustle them for more money -- instead of a dime, I'd get a quarter for a paper. This was in Minnesota, where it can get really cold. So one night when it was thirty below, I went into the library to warm myself up while I was waiting. The librarian, who had seen me come in, asked if she could help me. "No," I said, "I just want to get warm." "Wouldn't you like a library card?" It was a very small town and I'm sure she knew exactly who I was and all about my parents. I answered, "Yeh," in a smart-alecky way. So she gave me a card, with my name on it, and -- God! -- it was astonishing what happened to me. It was as though I suddenly had an identity: I was a person. "You want a book?" she asked. "Yeh," I said, still smart-alecky. I don't remember what book she chose for me, but I took the thing home and read it in the basement of that grubby apartment building. It took me a month. Over the next two years, she and I became friends. Eventually, I was reading two or three books a week. I owe her everything I've become.
kind of boy were you?
A. A nice boy, and I always did good! Actually, I was a stealth kid, the kind of guy who sits in the back of the class and cracks jokes. I would get my friends in trouble by making them laugh while I sat by quietly, trying to look innocent.
Q.How did you end up writing for children?
A. I first tried writing grown-up fiction while painting people's apartments to make a living. I then got a job teaching elementary school. That's when I rediscovered kids' books, and kids. Every bad joke I ever learned from my dad I could try out on them, and the little knuckleheads thought it was mine! Like, "I just flew in from Chicago and boy are my arms tired."
Q.Did the children teach you anything?
A. Teaching children taught me everything. Teaching them reminded me how often grown-ups ask kids -- in math class and English and music or wherever -- to go out on a limb, to try something completely new that they might fail at in front of all their friends. It reminded me how scary that can be. When I thought about taking a year off from teaching to try writing full-time, I told myself, "If they can go out on a limb, so can I."
Q.What kind of a child were you?
A. Working in our family store, and getting to know our customers, I learned early on how to observe and listen to people, how to relate to others. It was good training for a writer.
Back then, however, I thought of myself as a scientist. I was going to be a chemist. Like my father, I was fascinated by machines. My father wanted to know how machines worked, televisions, for instance. At one time he filled our apartment with old TVs! I, on the other hand, was always asking "What if?" questions about machines. What if the world had a central energy source that broadcast power? There could be world peace because it would be possible to cut off the power to any nation that wanted to start a war.
I was an American child -- so relentlessly so that my grandmother became hesitant to talk about Chinese things with me, even about the gods she kept on her bedroom bureau. I regretted this later, when I wanted to know more about my Chinese heritage.
Q.Did you enjoy reading?
A. Both my parents were good readers, and I became one, too. The Oz books were among my favorite books. Fantasy led to science fiction. When it came to realistic stories, however. I found nothing as a kid about the lives of Chinese-Americans. I know now that there was nothing for adults to read, either.
Q.How has being of Chinese heritage been important to you?
A. The answer to that question has changed dramatically more than once. As a child I hated Chinese school. I wanted to be as American as possible. Then, in my early twenties, I became very interested in my Chinese roots.
For years after that, I thought that my function as a Chinese-American writer was to act as a bridge between two cultures. Now, though, I am not so sure that it is possible to blend two cultures together. Asian cultures are family-and cooperation-oriented. American culture on the other hand emphasizes the individual and competition. The two cultures pull in opposite directions. So I see myself now as someone who will always be on the border between two cultures. That works to my benefit as a writer because not quite fitting in helps me be a better observer.
This article was excerpted from Marcus's forthcoming Author Talk, a compilation of interviews with 15 children's book authors. The book will be published by Simon & Schuster in August. ©2000 Leonard S. Marcus.
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