Sharon Creech opens the front door of her three-story, neo-Georgian, red-brick home and welcomes PW with a smile. She is dressed casually, in jeans and a dusty-pink cotton shirt. And she is wearing moccasins. Those familiar with Creech's Walk Two Moons, which received the 1995 Newbery Medal, know that the book's protagonist also wears moccasins; Salamanca Tree Hiddle's guiding mantra, in fact, is "Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins." In reality, this message came to the author in a fortune cookie, and it changed the course of the book—which in turn changed the course of Creech's life.
The first floor of the house, which is owned by the school in central New Jersey where her husband is the headmaster, has a more formal feel than the couple's living quarters, which are on the second and third floors. Creech explains that the house has just been cleaned in preparation for a faculty picnic to mark the end of the school year. She leads the way to her office: up the stairs and down a hall hung with photos of family and friends, letters from readers and bulletin boards layered with sketches and dummies for her picture books. At the end of the hall is a bright, sunny office. Gifts from friends, family and readers are scattered around the room; many are moons.
Creech uses a gray iMac computer; there is a fax machine, a phone and filing cabinets. Her bookshelves are divided into adult and children's; on the former are the likes of Carol Shields, Anne Tyler, Lorrie Moore and a number of Southern women writers, and the children's side includes David Almond, Kimberly Willis Holt, Richard Peck, Laurie Halse Anderson, Louise Rennison and, fittingly, Walter Dean Myers. "There's this new connection that Walter and I have," she says, referring to her new novel, Love That Dog, "so I'd really like to go back and read all of his stuff." It is hard to narrow down her list of favorite children's authors, she says, and it's always growing. "Until I received the Newbery, I didn't know this whole realm of amazing books existed," she admits. "I tend to like novels that are like mine: contemporary, realistic fiction with funny and serious intertwined. I like to read what I like to write."
Throughout Creech's body of work there is a sense of journey, of travel and self-discovery. She says that travel has always been important to her, starting when she was young and continuing through her life. In fact, when she was 13, her family took a road trip that Creech later re-created in Walk Two Moons. "And I also love the way that each book—any book—is its own journey," she says. "You open it, and off you go. You are changed in some way, large or small, by having traveled with those characters."
This idea extends to her writing process as well: "When I begin writing a book, I have no idea who I will meet along the way, nor what they will see or hear or do. I usually have little idea where we are all going together." She describes the experiences of the characters in her two latest books as "everyday journeys."
Creech will spend the summer at her cottage in upstate New York, where she and her husband, Lyle, will relax, enjoy family and get ready for what promises to be a busy fall. Her seventh novel and her second picture book, A Fine, Fine School, illustrated by Harry Bliss, will be published by HarperCollins/Joanna Cotler Books next month. Plus, the author is anxiously awaiting the birth of her first grandchild in October. Though Creech will tour for the two books, the October appearances are somewhat tentative at this point, depending on when her daughter goes into labor. "I do not want to miss this!" she says with determination.
The Writing Life
Creech was raised in South Euclid, a suburb of Cleveland, and then went to Hiram College in Ohio. She married and had two children, a girl and a boy, and the family relocated to Washington, D.C. There, Creech worked part time as an editorial assistant at the Congressional Quarterly (a position she found less than stimulating) while attending George Mason University for a master's degree in English and writing. It was in grad school, Creech says, that she discovered one needs to read in order to write well. After grad school, Creech says, she wanted to teach but realized she wasn't qualified, since she hadn't majored in education. However, she could teach in private schools that didn't have the same certification requirements.
A friend was working at the Tassis School outside of London, and told Creech about an open position for an English teacher. Newly divorced with two young children, Creech decided to take the job—a move she attributes not to bravery but to naivete. "I had no idea how hard it would be, in so many respects," she says. But her children attended the school free of charge and got to travel all over the world as part of the curriculum. "We had amazing opportunities, so it didn't matter so much that we had no money," she says. "One reason I took the job was that I could give the kids something that I couldn't have given them if I'd stayed in the States." She stayed in England until 1998, when she and Lyle (who were married in England in 1982) moved back to the States.
An ideal day for the author (which she admits doesn't always happen) has her in the office by about 8:30 in the morning. She reads and answers e-mail for an hour and then gets on with writing, which will last until about 12:30, and then it's time for lunch, a walk and maybe a nap. She spends the rest of the afternoon writing, until dinner, and then writes again after that. Some days, though, are given over to other obligations, like activities at her husband's school or bookstore appearances or school visits.
And then there's the matter of fan mail. Creech says that some weeks she can spend an entire day on mail; she reads and personally answers each letter she gets. "People say I should have an assistant do that," she says, "but it's something I don't think I'd be comfortable handing over to someone else. I want to read the letters." With all the admirers Creech has, though, this is no small task. "I figured out one time how long it takes. It's something like nine minutes to read a letter, write a note, and address and stamp the envelope," she says.
Love That Dog, written in free verse, in a way brings Creech back to the beginning of her career as a writer. She started out writing poetry and had it published in journals from 1979 to 1985, before she turned to novels. "I always thought I'd be a poet if I were to be a writer, but then got into fiction," she says. "But I always wanted to go back and do something in that realm for children. And yet I didn't want to do a collection of poetry for children—there's not much poetry for children that I like; it's either too silly or too serious, so I didn't really set out to write this book as poetry."
The book's main character, Jack, and his story just emerged one day, she says. "I didn't know it was going to come out in the form it came out, but I was so excited when it did. It was the most fun book I have ever written, and it came out fully formed."
But the fact that the book is in some ways a tribute to Walter Dean Myers initially gave Creech some pause, and she put the manuscript in a drawer for several months. Though it took some convincing from Cotler, Creech eventually, reluctantly, sent her the manuscript. "Joanna called within 24 hours of my sending it to her and said, 'Love that book!' "
Myers's poem "Love That Boy" had been a favorite of Creech's since she first read it on a card given to her by a friend while she was living in England. The first stanza of the poem (which she thought was the whole thing) had been on her bulletin board for months before she wrote the book, and it remains there today.
At the moment, Creech says, her plan is to write one picture book for every four novels. The manuscript for A Fine, Fine School was done a couple of years ago, but Creech and Cotler were waiting for the right illustrator. "We knew it had to be someone who is funny and could draw funny pictures," Creech says. When Harry Bliss, a New Yorker cartoonist, came along, they both felt he was the one. The story, about an overzealous principal, is absolutely based on her husband, Creech says. "We would see Harry's sketches for the book and about fall off our chairs laughing," she recalls. "He really nailed it."
The author says that she enjoys her relationship with Cotler and likes being a part of an imprint within a larger publisher; Cotler has edited all of Creech's books except Walk Two Moons. That book was bought by George Nicholson and David Gale, who were at Harper at the time but left the company before it was actually published. Nancy Siscoe then became Creech's editor, but she, too, left. At that point, Marilyn Kriney, then president of HarperCollins Children's Books, introduced Creech to Cotler.
Since meeting Cotler, six more books have come out: Absolutely Normal Chaos (1995), Pleasing the Ghost (1996), Chasing Redbird (1997), Bloomability (1998), The Wanderer (2000, for which Creech received a Newbery Honor) and her first picture book, Fishing in the Air (2000). "What happens with the Newbery," she says, "is a golden door opens. It creates an audience for you, because everyone hears that the book exists and it's gotten this sort of seal of approval."
Creech also has a new agent, Amy Berkower at Writers House. She says Berkower is an ideal agent, one who doesn't really edit her but will give her guidance if needed, and she takes care of all the business aspects of Creech's career. "I had the old romantic view that you write books and they get published and people read them," she says. "I didn't know you had to keep all these files and records."
That lesson came about a week after the Newbery announcement, she says, and she was "shattered for a year" with all of the attention. "I did nothing but answer the phone for six months," she gasps, "and people would call and ask if I could do IRA, ALA, BEA, and I would think, What are you talking about? What do those things mean? I had no clue. I had a cheat sheet for months."
Luckily, when the announcement came, Creech had almost finished writing her next book, Chasing Redbird, so she had time to write her Newbery acceptance speech, which alone took her about three months.
The phone rings and it is the headmaster. He has invited us to have lunch with him in the school's cafeteria. We walk on freshly mown lawn past a pond and fountain in the backyard, through a sporting field, past more red-brick buildings and find him waiting outside for us. All of the students have gone home for the summer, and the place feels on the verge of relaxing; the kitchen staff has scaled back the menu to cold cuts and salads, ice cream and cookies. Lyle's enthusiasm for his wife's success is evident; he says he, too, can't quite believe all that has happened in the past few years. Indeed, he has been along on the ride as well, attending a number of those once-mysterious conferences with his wife.
Over lunch Creech shares a bit about what she is working on now, a novel about a feisty Italian grandmother named Granny Torrelli and her daughter. "I think I'm moving to my mother's Italian side of the family now, for inspiration," she says. "The book seems to be about their relationship and the subtle effects they have on each other." Her next novel, Ruby Holler, about an eccentric older couple that meets up with a pair of twins, will be out next spring.
With apologies for the school lunch, Creech bids PW farewell and is off to a meeting about tomorrow's picnic, and after that she will get on the phone with Cotler for a three-hour editing session. Juggling comes easy to her, it seems. It is all just part of the journey.