Without doubt, the books my father wrote and read chapter by chapter to the family as they were written. This was a huge part of my education, one I didn't realize I was receiving at the time. What does a first line sound like? How do you create the sense of closing at the end of a chapter? The joys to be found in history and plot twists and the sounds of words.I drank it all n, along with the notion of books as theater. It's no accident that many of my own books are designed for living room performance.
Did you grow up dreaming of being a writer?
Certainly not. We already had a writer in the family. The day in high school when I set eyes on my first symphonic score, I sensed my calling. That's what I wanted to write-intricate, multi-voiced creations. Which I indeed ended up doing, first in poetry and then in prose. BULL RUN-arranged for 16 voices-was my attempt to recreate that first symphonic score.
What did you study in college?
Everything, from botany to folk dancing to philosophy to film. I began as an English major but ended up with a general major that allowed me to take almost anything. One thing I didn't take was creative writing-a subject I didn't pursue until I was on the brink of graduation and had to think about making a living.
How long had you been writing when your first book was published?
I was in my last year of college when I wrote my first book, a picture book called THE BIRTHDAY TREE. It went to Harper and Row, who immediately bought it. How easy this is, I thought to myself. My next book, however, they turned down. So did publisher after publisher. It took five years before that book sold-an early lesson in unpredictability and perseverance.
Are your books autobiographical?
Highly. I think one reason I write for kids and teens is that it gives me a way of disguising material from my life, transforming it into stories starring 4- or 14-year-olds. THE BORNING ROOM was inspired by becoming a parent myself. Divorce, remarriage, my mother's death-these lie behind WHIRLIGIG, SEEK, and BREAKOUT. Not that readers would know, or need to. But when I'm looking for ideas, I'm drawn to those that offer a connection to my own life, sometimes one I don't fully understand until after the book is written.
Have you done writing other than books for children?
I have, not that the general public would know. With a composer, I wrote an opera about Theseus, never produced. My adult guide for househusbands, SAVOIR PERE, was bought, then canceled, and has never been published. I've written many poems and sketches for particular gatherings and people. "The Quiet Evenings Here," the first poem in BIB TALK: POEMS FOR FOUR VOICES, was originally written for a party in Asheville, North Carolina. I have a composition for six female voices, LABYRINTH OF LOVE, built from singles ads and published by a music publisher. I finally broke into The New Yorker some years back with a "Shouts and Murmurs" piece that's posted on my website. I also wrote the stirring voiceover opening for the Spielberg film THE LAND BEFORE TIME- onkly a few words which survived.
What will we see from you in the future?
ZAP, my first play, will be published in fall 2005- a zany train wreck of seven plays, designed to give high schools something besides GREASE to put on. New editions of GRAVEN IMAGES and THE BIRTHDAY TREE are on the way. So is a multi-voiced, worldwide telling of the Cinderella story.