FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
How do you write for kids if you don’t have them?
I wrote about that for The New York Times, here.
Do you like writing short stories or novels better?
I like going back and forth between the two. It’s like the difference between a long marriage and dating, and there are advantages to each. With a novel, you know you have the book there to work on every morning. With stories, you have new characters and fresh situations. (Although some of my stories have taken me as long as the novels, as I’ve put them aside and picked them up again.) Some of the stories in Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It were written (or started) before and between the novels, and some after.
Do you like writing for kids or adults better?
I like going back and forth between the two. It's been great meeting so many middle schoolers. Kids are much more intense and focused readers than grown-ups are.
Do you outline your novels and stories before you begin?
No—I wish I could. It might be more efficient. I figure the story out as I go along, and then revise heavily when I know what it is. The story “O Tannenbaum,” in Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, started with the idea of a family out cutting down a Christmas tree, and choosing one that’s crowding another tree, so that the tree left behind would have room to grow. We used to do that, when I was growing up in Montana, and it seemed like a promising idea, but I didn’t have anything more in mind than that. The hitchhikers showed up for me as they do in the story, under a tree in the snow. And then I have to figure out what to do with them, why they’re there.
When did you decide to write A Family Daughter? Were you planning it when you wrote Liars and Saints?
I wrote Liars and Saints first, with no thought of writing another novel about the Santerre family. I really thought I was finished with them. It wasn’t until after Liars and Saints came out that I started thinking about writing a book about someone who’s written a novel, and about the way people wonder what’s true in it. Then it seemed interesting to have one of the secret-keeping Santerres write one, so that A Family Daughter would seem to be the bigger, messier, less-streamlined source material from which Liars and Saints emerged.
Everything I’d written until then had been very straightforwardly realistic, and this new novel would have a meta-fictional aspect to it, but only in relation to the other book. A Family Daughter also had to work on its own, as a story with its own plot, if you hadn’t read Liars and Saints. The mental exercise of doing both things at once seemed interesting and entertaining to me, and you have to find things that are interesting and entertaining to you, if you’re going to plug away at a novel.
I think the best way to read the two novels together is to let a little time pass—enough time to read another book—in between.
What’s The Apothecary series about?
The Apothecary is a cold war spy novel with kids and magic, but a kind of magic that’s more like science: it has to be learned. The book is set in 1952, and it’s about a girl, Janie Scott, whose parents are on the Hollywood blacklist, so they have to move to England to work. In London, which is still reeling from the war, Janie meets a mysterious apothecary and his defiant son, Benjamin, and gets drawn into their world. It’s about a boy confronting his destiny, and a girl finding a new life, and it’s set in the atmosphere of fear and anxiety of the early fifties, of “Duck and Cover” bomb drills and a mounting nuclear threat.
The second book is called The Apprentices, and it begins with Janie in boarding school in New Hampshire, trying to work on her own experiment and not knowing where Benjamin is. The After-Room picks up where The Apprentices leaves off, and is set in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the South China Sea, and in Rome. All three novels are beautifully illustrated by Ian Schoenherr.