How did you become a children’s book writer?
I made up my mind to become a writer in high school, a playwright. A Broadway playwright. That sure didn’t work, though there were flickers of interest. Reluctantly (believe or not) I took up cartooning. By then I had a son. He liked to climb on my lap and ask for a story. I’d always tell him to choose the subject. “A garbage truck.” “Rain.” With such prompts I invented stories.
Around the same time a picture book editor saw my art work, and urged me to write a book. “I’m an artist, not a writer.” She said “Then write a book and illustrate it.” I did. In quick time the art was ditched but the stories remained. My first book, Things That Sometimes Happen—consist of those stories I told my son. It was published in 1970. A rewritten version of it is still in print. Writing that book reminded me how much I loved kids’ books. There’s your beginning.
When did you start writing novels?
By the time I had my own kids I needed a stable income. I became a librarian, working first at the NY Public Library. Then I became a librarian at what has become the State College of New Jersey. When there, my son—the same one mentioned above—had a costume party: super hero stuff. (One kid came dressed as Snoopy!) The third book I wrote was No More Magic loosely based on what happened at that party and the town in New Jersey where we lived. It was nominated for the Mystery Writers’ annual award. By then there was no turning back. I was a writer of children’s books.
And the historical fiction?
In 1947 Simon and Schuster published A History of the United States, the first truly pictorial history of the USA. I must have read it a thousand times. I still own that very book. It made history vivid and utterly absorbing for me. At the University of Wisconsin, I had two majors: Theatre and History. My early plays were historical dramas. I still read history for fun.
After I wrote No More Magic, I wrote Captain Gray, a novel set in the post-Revolutionary war period.
People often reference your historical knowledge and detail. Where does that come from?
That’s the librarian in me. At the college where I worked I taught students how to do research. I find it wonderfully exciting, endlessly fascinating. Recently, writing about a famous event, I learned (when doing research) that there was an almost full moon that night two hundred years ago. No wonder it happened at that time! Serendipity is candy for writers.
Writing the just published Gold Rush Girl there is a vast library about San Francisco at that time. People lived in tents. But I learned they also lived in Bamboo house imported from China, and iron house shipped in from New York City. Best of all there was this vast fleet of abandoned ships—abandoned because the crews went off to search for gold—with this wonderful name “Rotten Row.” How could I resist such stuff? Rotten Row became the core of the book. But of course, the story comes first. Still all that detail enabled me to invent a wonderful rich—as in detail—tale about people who came alive.
But–shortly after it was published I came upon a collection of Daguerreotypes (an early form of photography) of gold rush San Francisco people. And there she was: my heroine, Tory Blaisdell, looking and dressing exactly as I described her in the book, even to a Bowie knife in her belt! It was a wonderful confirmation of my research, my exploring Tory’s character, and the story I had written. Except as I looked at the picture, I had this eerie thought: maybe I was not writing fiction. Maybe it was channeled–a true story! Tory’s tale!
What is your writing process?
In two words: endless rewriting. Endless. That includes reading it aloud to my wife, and to kids in a favorite local school. There is no such thing as a perfect book—not by me anyway—but I do try. A story has to flow from start to finish with no speed bumps. In one sense a novel is a logical revelation, logical in the sense that is must all be linked, cause and effect. Or, as I like to say, I can’t write a good opening line of a book until I’ve written a good last line.
What is the role of an editor for you?
A good editor helps you discover (and deliver) the book you are writing. Working with an editor who is smart, who challenges me, who has wit, who has a sense of fun, of whom you grow fond —is one of the great joys of my writing life.
What advice would you give would-be writers?
Read. Read. Read. And read some more. And more. And more. In time—hopefully—your thinking will be like writing. Thus my mantra: “Writers don’t write writing. They write reading.”