Patricia MacLachlan is the Newbery Award winning author of Sarah, Plain and Tall and more than 20 other acclaimed books. She spoke to us about her new novel, Word After Word After Word, which is based on her own experience speaking in schools. MacLachlan also collaborates with her daughter Emily MacLachlan on picture books, including this fall’s I Didn’t Do It. MacLachlan was born on the prarie in Wyoming and now lives in Williamsburg, Mass., with her husband.
What inspired Word After Word After Word?
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Quite a while ago I signed a contract with Harper to do a nonfiction book on writing, [focusing on] what it was like to be a writer. And my editor at the time said, why don’t you do what you do with kids in schools with your bag of prairie dirt that you carry around? Then when I came to writing it, I thought, UGH, this is so boring, I’ve said this over and over and over again to children, so I decided to write a fictional piece instead. So that’s how that came to be. And it’s also kind of my tribute to wonderful teachers and wonderful kids who are finding their voice in writing.
Your novel is so elegantly spare. How do you feel about writing shorter fiction versus longer works? Is it difficult to pack the same meaty wallop into a shorter work?
I think what happens is you write how you grew up. And I was born on the prairie and so everything is kind of spare on the prairie. And so I’m just used to writing in that way. Sarah, Plain and Tall was that way. And most of my fiction is. I like writing small pieces. Somehow it just suits me. My writer’s group laughs that I start to faint when I get to 200 pages—so that’s kind of a standing joke.
Why do you carry dirt from the prairie with you wherever you go?
I think it’s important to remember where I began. I know that when I talk to other writers, say writers from the South or writers from abroad, it’s where they begin as children that is important to them. And so I always carry the bag of prairie dirt around and actually every time someone who is a friend of mine goes to Wyoming or one of the Western places they bring me back another, so I probably have about 12 bags of prairie dirt now.
How did you craft these characters and formulate their writing in the novel? The two work so well in combination, and each of these characters’ writing does so much to resolve their inner struggles. How did that develop?
I have great respect for children. And I have great respect for their ability as writers. And I so enjoy the process of developing characters, But when I started to develop these characters, what was frustrating was that initially their writing, their poems, all sounded the same. So I really had to delve into their characters to create a unique voice for each of them. Interestingly, it was the character of Russell who emerged first as a distinct voice. He is the most disconnected of the kids and he approaches them as an outsider. And he writes about his dog, and gets them to listen. I believe what this novel shows is that we have so many different reasons for writing. And the famous author shares hers, but each of these children, and the teacher, too, express a different reason for writing.
Why do you write?
Each time I write a new piece, whether a novel, a picture book, a speech or anything really, it has so much to do with what I’m going through personally or a problem I’m trying to work out. When I wrote my novel Baby, my three children had all just gone out the door. And I don’t think you need to be a trained psychologist, although I am married to one, to realize I was dealing with how I felt about being a mother. And now sometimes I am working out how I feel about being a grandmother, which I think is such a special and amazing role.
In such a short novel you create such memorable characters. How did you come up with the teacher, the writer, the kids, the friendships, the parents?
I have a great reverence for old people and I like to create inter-generational stories. My father lived to be 102 and he was such an amazing, generous person right up until the end. When I look back on my novel Journey, I think you can see that. And I think children are rather like old people—they are so direct and immediate and they just don’t get as blocked as adults.
I wanted this teacher, Ms. Cash, to be a good teacher. I myself loved my time teaching and I am so impressed with the teachers I come across and work with in schools. And while the author and the teacher contradict each other about writing, this is a good teacher. She’s still learning, though, just like the kids. So I hope that respect for teachers comes through. Also I admire that she [Ms. Cash] takes a risk and starts to write herself alongside her students.
With the character of the author, I drew on my own experience in schools. I go to schools quite a bit because it gets me back in touch with children and the least powerful in our society. And children are so honest. Children always want to know how much money you make. They don’t mean to be rude, but they’re inquisitive and trying to work out what it means to do this for a living. And they want to know where I get my ideas. They are always surprised when I tell them how much editing and revising I do—that I work on the same words over and over and over. And, I always tell them to do something they really care about, and to appreciate that their teachers really care about teaching because they could earn a lot more money and work a lot less hard doing something else.
I am always surprised by what children tell me when I am in schools or giving speeches. I love their letters. I saved one from a child, on my refrigerator, and it says ‘Thank you for writing this book, it was the second greatest book I’ve ever read.’ I love that. And I always wonder what was the first greatest book this child ever read.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Oh, I don’t know. I usually just hope they find some piece that speaks to them. I hope that they take away something and I believe that whatever that is will be all their own.
With the characters in Word After Word After Word, I really liked this group of friends, and how kind they are to each other and understanding of the issues each of them face. And in particular I grew quite fond of Henry. He has such a good life and he loves his life.
Can you say a little more about your writer’s group?
We meet once a week and reach each other’s work and complain and talk about our processes. Jane Yolen is one of the many writers whom I admire and trust in my group. Our processes are all so different and we like to complain to each other and cheer each other. I think anyone else would think we lead such great lives so it’s nice to have each other as support and to vent.
Talk about your new collaboration with your daughter coming out this fall, I Didn’t Do It, the companion to Once I Ate a Pie. How did this partnership come about?
My daughter Emily rescues dogs, and our family has always had lots of dogs. At one point she told me these stories about dogs and we decided to write about them together and that became Painting the Wind. Our second book, Once I Ate a Pie, was so much fun and we drew on even more dogs we knew—dogs my son has in Africa, dogs we had lived with when they were children. I have two dogs now, terriers named Charlie and Emmett. My son in Africa inherited a house with seven dogs. My daughter has a hound, a white Pyrennes puppy that already weighs 125 pounds. We just used him in this new book, I Didn’t Do It. This one is a puppy book, and we were playing with the idea that a puppy doesn’t have a conscience. It’s very funny and playful and I think our best yet.
What is your typical writing day like?
I don’t know if I have a really typical writing day. I go to bed early and I get up very, very early, around 4:30 am. I like to get up early when the house is entirely quiet. I make my coffee first thing and the dogs are still asleep, my husband is asleep. I like to get to work before my mind is cluttered with the news. I do write throughout the day, depending on what I’m working or what’s happening, but the morning is my best time.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a novel for Simon & Schuster called Waiting for the Magic, about four shelter dogs, which is somewhat magical. This was a real departure for me; I wrote the voices of the dogs. Emily and I are going to keep doing picture books together but pretty soon I am going to be ready to quit dogs and get back to people.
What do you think when you look back over your career?
I hope I’m getting better. There is so much more I want to write. Sometimes I look back at my books and even read them and I think that I’m getting better. And sometimes I read something I wrote and I don’t even recognize it. I once read a newspaper article that quoted something I thought was rather insightful about the prairie, and when I looked more closely at it, I saw my name and realized that someone had interviewed me and it had been quoted. That was the funniest experience. So really I think about what’s to come more than looking back.
Word After Word After Word by Patricia MacLachlan. HarperCollins/Tegen, $14.99 June ISBN 978-0-06-027971-4