October 3rd, 2007 01:29 EST
An Interview with Alice McLerran, the children's writer
Alice McLerran writes books for children, but first and foremost, for herself. In this interview, she tells us why it is important to never give up and that it is never too late to realize our dreams. From the childhood to the present day, Alice McLerran takes us for a wonderful journey through her colorful life devoted to her family and literature.
When and why did you decide to be a writer?
Alice McLerran: "Decided" is perhaps the wrong word. I grew up in circumstances that made wanting to be a writer as natural as wanting to breath. My mother loved to read aloud to her four children, and we shared books that way even after we four really could read ourselves. Both my mother and my maternal grandmother were excellent storytellers. The also wrote frequently and well both for their own pleasure and for the pleasure of others-- poems as birthday gifts, simple homemade books for their children, memoirs, etc. It`s likely I became an author (one step further than being a writer: an author shares what is written with readers) before I could write. I`m not joking. Not all publishing is commercial; home-published books can be important. Our family still treasures a book my mother wrote when she was ll years old. It`s probable that I started making small books to share when I was about 4 years old, the same age my children and grandchildren (who were brought up pretty much the same way) did. Okay, maybe our mothers wrote in the words for us, but that`s not cheating. Printing presses now put the words in my commercially published books, but I`m still their author. A child-author of four years does the hard part-- deciding what to tell, choosing the words to tell it in, often making the illustrations. I made a lot of books and poems while I was growing up, and that writing is what developed my skills. My brother, Don, still has the picture book I made for him over 60 years ago when I was finishing high school, and it`s a good book. I sometimes read a copy of it during school visits, and kids love it. Don and I regard it was one of my important books.
But if you mean when did I decide to be a professional author, trying to have my books published commercially, the answer is more straightforward and very different: at age 49. My husband encouraged me to stop other sorts of jobs and concentrate on what he knew I loved the best, writing. And I figured I was mature enough to face the depressing impact of the rejection slips that I knew would be part of what lay ahead.
Why did you choose to write books for children?
A.M.:The funny thing was that when I made that decision to go into writing professionally, it never occurred to me to write for children. My children were all grown by then. The very last bedtime story I told them was in 1968, and I fortunately managed to made it a good one. My youngest was 10 then, and I knew how unlikely it was I`d hear again the once-familiar request, "Mama, tell us a story." As an adult I had mostly been writing poems and short stories for adults. But I had never attempted a full-length novel, and as I prepared to make writing a real career it was my plan to do that. I chose a genre for which I thought would be relatively easy to find a publisher. My favorite choice for purely recreational reading (on airplanes and when ill) is the murder mystery. I have seen so many mediocre ones printed I was sure I could do better than many of them! On a 3-month visit to Finland, I worked out a plot, created characters, chose a truly unique murder weapon and took notes that allowed me to use as a model for my setting the physics conference that ended our visit. It was a classic setting, one allowing a limited number of suspects-- a meeting at an isolated resort above the Arctic Circle in Lapland. I know a lot about academic rivalries and intrigue, and had no difficulty creating red-herring motives to murder.
But as we headed back to the U.S. and I commenced the actual writing in Seattle, my husband and I realized that we were experiencing something more serious than mixed feelings about returning there. As a place to live it was wonderful, the only city where I have ever let myself even think, "I want to stay here forever." But as a place to do physics, it really didn`t compare with the environments he had enjoyed in Europe, or with other U.S. settings where he knew he might be able to have a position. As a writer, I could work anywhere. To a theoretical physicist, a stimulating work environment is important. We recognized that we had an important decision to think about. We set out for weekend on Mt. Rainier, the beautiful volcano nearby, to give ourselves a chance to sort things out. That mountain was one of the things we loved most about living in Seattle. Larry and I could never run out of hiking trails on that giant mountain; since there is snow all year on its highest slopes, we could do mountaineering skiing even in July. (And viewed from the city on clear days, the mountain was a thing of pure beauty, a magical island floating on the mist of the horizon.) By the end of the day Saturday, we had decided we should move-- a hard choice, not one that made us happy at that moment, but the correct decision. Sunday we lingered on our mountain, not ready to go back yet. On its upper slopes, my husband was exploring a small river, looking for fish. I sat on the bank, wishing time could stand still and that I`d never need to leave that place. At that point (and this is the only time in my life a story has ever come this way) the story that became THE MOUNTAIN THAT LOVED A BIRD came into my head, intact in every detail. I knew it was a better story than any I had ever created for my children, a more important story than my murder mystery. All I had to do was go home and find the best words in which to tell it. That took about two months, which is actually quite fast. During those two months I realized that, of course, this was the kind of writing that would give me the most pleasure, and I never finished the mystery.
Once, years later, I updated its plot, thinking I would-- but then I was distracted by another story for children that was ready to write.
Do you believe that writing for children is more difficult than writing for adults?
A.M.:Probably middle grade novels and young adult books aren`t more difficult, but I think picture books are. I used to regard poetry as the hardest kind of writing, and picture books have much in common with poetry. Normally both involve short manuscripts, and in both genres every single word must be absolutely right; overtones matter a lot. In both, you aim at something that the reader will want to read not just once-- which is all that most novels are read!-- but repeatedly. The thing that makes picture books even more difficult than poems is that they must be written with not just one reader in mind, but two: the child that is listening, and the adult who is reading the story aloud. If what`s in the story fails to catch the interest of the child, he won`t want to listen. If it has nothing in it that really appeals to adults, the reader will be reluctant to read it again.
What have you found the most difficult in your writing career?
A.M.:That`s an easy one-- the business parts: finding a publisher for each story, and in some cases, dealing with those publishers. You don`t want to know the horror stories from the latter part of my experience! The creative part of being a writer is a challenging joy; the business parts can be painful and frustrating. In the U.S., the publishing world is increasingly chaotic and dog-eat-dog. Both booksellers and publishers are imploding. Big chain booksellers, huge "publishers"composed of cannibalized parts of former ones and run by international conglomerates are becoming the norm. The original publishers of a number of my books no longer exist. Editors I really enjoyed working with have had to find other ways to earn a living. Happily, some of the books they created still survive.
You have three kids. Is it hard to be a writer and a mother and wife at the same time?
A.M.:Far from it! Where does a writer get material except from real life? The the roles of mother and wife are replete with important emotional experience and material for stories. Family life is an important motif in many of my stories, and I have mined not only my own experience but that of my mother`s generation for material. Telling regular bedtime stories for years was marvelous exercise for my imagination, and both that and reading aloud to my three gave me a sense of what holds a child`s interest. You also should know that, for me, the hardest part of writing is not the writing itself but shaping an idea into a full-fledged story-- something NOT done while sitting at the computer concentrating on the problem. That development happens best and most easily while the left side of the brain is distracted by something else, so that the subconscious-- which tends to be much more creative-- can do the work. Insights come while brushing my teeth or showering or sorting the laundry, but also during times shared with others-- pulling weeds, lazy days in the park. Any activity that doesn`t demand my full attention can be a good background for that part of my work.
What do you like the most in your job?
A.M.:It`s to choose just one thing. Many of the favorite parts involve the writing process itself. Finding an idea that I`m pretty sure I can develop into a story is like finding a diamond in the grass. I can`t say doing the development is my favorite part, but as you may gather from what I`ve just said, I`ve learned to leave as much of that as possible to my subconscious. Once I`m pretty sure of the story and can actually start writing, I find it exciting to get the first draft onto paper. Still, I probably enjoy the rewriting even more. By then most of the risky part is over. I only have to work at making the telling as perfect as my skills allow, and I feel pretty secure about that part: I`ve been writing long enough to trust those skills. The moment when I think a story is actually finished and ready to market is another favorite point. (From then on until it finds a publishing home is rough going.) But I never, never tire of being told-- through encounters, letters, emails, etc.-- that people really enjoy reading what I have created. That is, I confess, maybe the best part, although it sounds vain to say so. But after all, that is what I`ve been hoping during all the hard work that good writing tends to be -- that readers will love what I write.
If you could turn back time, would you change anything?
A.M.:Are you joking? Anyone can think of decisions made unwisely, actions that later are cause for deep regret. I`m no exception. But in general I mean well, and in general I learn from mistakes. On the whole, I have had an unusually fortunate life. My childhood was a happy one. In the first part of my adult life, I enjoyed being an anthropologist, and enjoyed as well later work in the field of mental health. My marriage to Larry began less than a year after an encounter with cancer-- a crisis that brought me face to face with my own mortality, and aware of the importance of not wasting whatever good time I might have ahead. Our joint gamble paid off. That good time now has stretched over more than 30 years full of unexpected serendipities, our partnership is a lively and happy one, and we both have careers doing what each of us loves best. I`m in good health, and looking forward to the future. I`d be an idiot to waste time in regrets!
Do you have any favorite writers? If yes, which one had the biggest impact on your life and writing?
A.M.:I have a lot of favorite writers, there is no way of listing them all. A few: Steinbeck (whom I started reading in the 3rd grade), T.H. White, Edna St. Vincent Millay, C.S. Lewis, Tolstoy, Barbara Kingsolver, Saki, e. e. cummings, P.G. Wodehouse. . . . It`s a varied lot, obviously.
Apart from the early role my mother took in drawing me to share her own passion for reading and writing, the only person who had a memorable impact on my writing was Clyde William Parker, an instructor teaching my freshman composition class at Stanford University, He somehow knew I was not doing my best work and gave me a "C" on my first essay-- one on which any other professor would have given an "A"! I was furious, yet could not deny that his marginal notes suggesting where improvements were possible were reasonable ones. We were required to write an essay a week in that course, and over the weeks I worked harder and harder. My essay grades moved up: C+, B-, B, etc. But then I stayed stuck at A- until the very end, I began the final week`s essay the day the assignment was given: it was to be a satire. I polished my draft all that week, until I could not improve one word. It was too late to expect an "A" as course grade, I told myself as I handed in the essay, but by heavens, THIS time there was going to be no minus sign after the "A" on my essay grade. To my amazement, my grade for the quarter was not an average of my essay grades, but rather an unmodified "A." I realized Mr. Parker knew I had learned what he was most determined to teach me: what it would feel like to do my Absolute Best. I had always been a good writer, and most teachers had been happy with what were essentially first drafts. Until that experience, I had never been pushed to such a standard. From then on, I was always aware when I was merely coasting. The standard he made me experience is the one I have since set for all writing when time allows. (I don`t aim for it in e-mails, life is too short for making ALL writing perfect!)
What would you advise to fledgling journalists and writers?
A.M.:Read. Write. Write a lot, and-- if there is time and what you are telling about is worth it-- rewrite until you can`t improve anything. If you are a creative writer rather than a journalist, remember an idea is not the same thing as a story. It`s your job to turn the former into the latter. Be sure you know where the story is going and how it will get there before you begin to set down the first draft. (This sounds like obvious advice, but it`s a concept I find many new writers haven`t quite absorbed.) Actually, perhaps that last bit isn`t bad advice for journalists either.
On your website you write how important your family is to you. What do they think about your writing career?
A.M.:Happily, they all seem proud of what I`m doing. When I use them in my stories, they are tolerant of the transformations effected by imagination. The two brothers and their younger sister in DRAGONFLY aren`t exactly like my three children, but they aren`t really all that different-- and the dragon is exactly like the one who used to carry them to adventures in many of our bedtime stories, except that our dragon was male. I made the older brother a bit of a pompous know-it-all, because he was viewed through the eyes of his competitive younger brother. When I showed the finished manuscript to my oldest, I asked him if he was OK with the character of Philip. He just chuckled, and said he was fine with it-- he knew how fiction worked. (The hero in SECRETS also has elements of this son, something I`m not sure he recognized, and is, in fact, more like him than is the character in DRAGONFLY. But what transpires in the story has roots that have nothing to do with my son.) My husband is incredibly supportive of my career, both emotionally and in practical ways. He`s happy to have me spending recent years concentrating not on placing new work in NYC but on publishing in translation earlier works that have the capacity to cross cultural boundaries-- seeking publishers in parts of the world where it`s clear the royalties aren`t going to be enormous, sometimes simply granting rights to a story without fee. He knows there are rewards from sharing my stories that way which matter a lot to me; we share the same values. The days of royal patronage for creative artists are over, but I have a patron willing to support me as I follow my dreams. Feminists should note that if a woman wants to try to be a writer (or a composer, or a painter, or a sculptor) a very agreeable solution to having total freedom to follow a creative career is a supportive husband happy to take the traditional male role of breadwinner, freeing his wife to do all of which she is capable.
From childhood into adolescence, you traveled a lot with your family. Do you like traveling? What do you find the most exciting in traveling and why?
A.M.:My childhood was a great preparation for our present life; I actually am doing even more traveling now that I`m an adult than in earlier years. I accompany my globe-trotting husband as often as our budget allows. (Institutions reimburse his airfare, but normally not mine.) Increasingly, I`m also combining my professional travel with his, and sometimes doing side trips of my own. A glimpse of this pattern can be had from the report on my website (www.alicemclerran.com) of last fall`s complex and exciting trip to Asia. I`m writing this from Rome -- after a physics meeting in Sicily, professional convergences for both of us in Paris, and another physics meeting on the coast of Normandy. Early in 2008 we`ll travel together to India, then I`ll head to Kenya for a month while Larry goes to Japan. I don`t like the packing and unpacking, and air travel is seldom anything but a necessary trial to get through-- but I definitely love everything else about this gypsy life. One of my earlier roles was as anthropologist (I have a Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley in that field) and I have always enjoyed learning about, and learning to function in, other cultures. But the thing I love best about all my chances to travel is that not only do I still have friends on other continents from my adolescent years, but that in the decades shared with Larry we have gained a rich network of colleagues and friends around the globe. A fair number of these friendships, although they must be maintained largely through e-mails, are closer relationships than any I have in the New York village where our primary home is located. I love certain landscapes the way one should perhaps care only about people, yes, and I enjoy seeing new and different places, yes-- but we seldom see them by ourselves. We almost never travel as tourists do, to places where we may know no one at all. We are always traveling to friends. The sense that I truly live on this planet rather than in one particular location, and can feel truly at home now in so many places-- that, together with the global network of real friendships we have built, is the most exciting part of travel.
Thank you very much.
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