in other words, Frequently Asked Questions
My books, even the Tillerman series which most frequently gives rise to this question, are not history, not biography or autobiography. They are fictional, imagined, made up, fabricated. Like all fiction, they are lies, although I hope they are not untruthful.
There are bits and pieces in the books that are real, taken from my own life. Someone might tell me about something that happened to them, or it might even be something that happened to me, something I heard or saw. I remember an odd rattling noise – nobody could be knocking on an attic window, could they? – that disturbed me at my work. Who might be knocking on a third story window? (This is as close as I have ever come to the Voice Clothilde hears in Tree by Leaf.) The boy I glimpsed one night at King's Dominion, the only passenger in a Tilt-a-Whirl carriage, multi-colored lights flowing over him, his arms stretched out wide along the back of the seat, his dark glasses hiding his eyes: that boy became Jeff Greene in A Solitary Blue. At the side of a steep Alpine ravine, I found myself picturing a questing hero hauling himself up over the edge, and thought how easily it might happen that he would fall, and how often such heroes must not have survived: and that was the start of Wings of a Falcon.
My geographies, it's true, are as real as I can make them, even the geographies of fictional lands, like the Kingdom, and settings in Maine and Maryland. When I make places up, I always draw a (very clumsy) map of its setting, because if I don't have a clear idea of what is where, my story gets lost.
It is important, first, to notice how many kinds of ideas go into a book – for a story, for a character, an idea that seems important to try to express convincingly (known in English classes as the theme, or as my niece calls it, the DHM, deep hidden meaning), for a voice to tell the story and a place for the story to happen. Just to keep things hopping – picture kernels of corn in a popper, coming to life – any of these several vavious ideas (in my case at least) can come at me from any direction. For example: One book emerged out of a book I'd already written, another from a book I'd just read.
For another example: One book began in a dream and another while I was doing my weekly shopping at the supermarket. To continue the list: One is a continuation of my lifetime fondness for Zorro, another comes from a question my husband suggested I ask my students, another began at the sight of a girl's painted face in a museum, another because I opened a cupboard door at just the wrong time for a mouse. Ideas come out of nowhere, it seems, the same nowhere occupied by thought and imagination and memory.
In my experience, ideas do not like to be hunted down or searched out. When I wait by the door, impatient and eager, they do not arrive.
Does anyone decide to be a writer? The only real decision, it seems to me, is the decision to want to be a writer, to try to be one. The rest seems to require a combination of luck and work and talent, trying to make your way into print, especially at someone else's expense. This assumes that to be a writer you have to be, somehow, published and that, of course, is not exactly true. To be a writer, you have to write. It's the writing that makes you what you are. The publishing comes after that, and is external to it, like a mirror that shows you yourself looking as good as you hoped after you've dressed yourself up.
The writing – carving words into stone blocks, typing on a computer keyboard, everything in between – is what matters, what satisfies, what enlivens the imagination and stirs up the mind. I am sure of that. The publishing – putting something into print and out into a market – is, I know, secondary. But it doesn't feel that way all the time. The real rewards of writing – the sense of balance in my day and my life, to be making something, the solitude – are like a refreshing glass of cool water – but publishing is like champagne in a tall flute, bubbling up and up.
In any case, I can pretty much pinpoint the time when I decided I wanted to write. Previously, in chronological order, I had wanted to be a cowgirl, a fire-person, a horsewoman, a veterinarian, a detective. But in the spring of my 9th grade year, I made up my mind. Here is the story:
Our English class had read The Idylls of the King, Tennyson's epic poem about King Arthur and his knights, and the final assignment, Miss Moody (who was not at all moody) assigned was to add a chapter to the book. I remember clearly that at rather the last minute, as was my style, I sat down at the leather-topped desk from which my parents conducted their financial and social affairs, took out one of the lined pads my father brought home from the office, and started to write. This was when I thought smart people didn't need outlines (maybe they don't need them but they do better work with their help) and didn't revise (wrong!). I sat and wrote, wrote my story, wrote it in blank verse. Then I handed it in and forgot about it.
Imagine my pleasure when Miss Moody gave it an A and praised it highly. Imagine now how pleased I was to have it chosen to be published in the graduation edition of the school newspaper. After all, I was a 9th grader and this was the high school paper. Things only got better after that: my parents were visibly proud of me and my sisters were jealous; people – grownups included – read it and came up to praise me; a boy I had my eye on asked a very intelligent question about my poem . . . .
Of course I decided I wanted to be a writer. It was easy, it was fun to do, you got lots of attention and praise for doing it, and boys admired you for it. Who could resist?
If I had known then that it would take me about twenty-five years to see a book of mine in print, I wonder if I would have made the same choice. Probably – I'm pretty stubborn, after all. I hope so.
Yes, a movie was made of Homecoming, in the early 90's and I lucked out with the writers/director of the film. The movie is true to the book – which doesn't always happen with movies. Hollywood has been interested – vaguely interested, temporarily interested – in a couple of others, and one has even been the cause of various scripts – not true to the book, which is disturbing. But nothing has come of these. That is, no movie has been made. Mostly, I'm relieved. There are all kinds of bad effects that films have on writers (especially Hollywood or TV films where the money is, for a writer, extremely big). Or maybe it's the money that has the bad effect? In any case, a film is very different from a story, in almost every way, including what makes it good and why it works. A film uses words differently and it paints the pictures for you. It doesn't have much time and can’t very often discuss things, think about them. Most unnerving to me is that a film is not only brought onto a screen but also written by a whole lot of different people, not many of them writers.
It makes sense that most films are ordinary. Imagine if a whole class of students were to create a movie together, with everybody having his say and needing to have his way, at least in some things. (Or hers, having her say and her way.) Think of how long it would take, and how cranky you would get, doing it, all those discussions, all those committees making decisions. Think of how glad you might be when it was over and how little you would care about how good it was, or even, how true it was to its original idea.
This is not to say that all books are extraordinary, only that the trouble they get into is the particular trouble of that particular author. I myself prefer things kept simpler, like that.
On the other hand, I sure do love movies.
in other words, Eagerly Awaited Questions
People will tell you one thing and another, and mostly they wait until you ask but not always. You will believe them or not, depending on who you are and the kind of day you've had and if you think they are trustworthy. Some writers are always sure of themselves, some always lack confidence, most of us probably muddle around in the middle.
But my question about this question is: What does it matter? If what you want to do is write, if that's what you are doing, for whatever reason, whether or not it will be called good is a secondary issue. Moreover, since you might hear one season about how good you are and then the next that you are no good at all – think of our opinions about our politicians, how they seem to sway back and forth – isn't it better to just concentrate on the pleasures and work of laying down sentences on paper, and hoping?
In my opinion, there are two most important things. One is: "I was wrong." Any variation of this will do, such as "I didn't know," "I should have known," "I wish I had known," and of course, "My mistake." The significant message is that adults make mistakes, (because nobody is perfect and nobody knows or understands everything), and that the adult response to an error is to acknowledge it, directly.
There is no loss of face, or authority, in owning up to making an mistake. In fact, it is people who can never admit to doing anything wrong whom it is difficult to trust, in whose wisdom I have no confidence.
Two follows directly and logically from One and is: "I'm sorry." A truly grown-up person can understand that she/he is flawed and makes mistakes. There is no need to kid yourself about being perfect, is there? And aren't you sorry that you did whatever harm you did, when you were making your mistake? An apology is definitely in order.
Democracy. Never mind being rich and famous and successful, fancy houses, fancy spouses children dogs, never mind even freedom, of whatever sort you like, democracy is the real dream. It's the wide, deep root system that holds freedoms erect, and feeds them.
I mean, what could be more ambitious, more wonderful, or more difficult than that a people would undertake to govern itself? And to succeed, if imperfectly, at that endeavor over many generations? And to intend to continue to do it well? That, to me, is the American dream: unlimited enfranchisement, one vote for each citizen, majority rule, and all under the protection of law. It makes winning a gold medal, acquiring a trophy spouse, amassing a huge pile of money or an armload of power look easy, doesn't it?