Zilpha Keatley Snyder Biography (1927-)
Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Zilpha Keatley Snyder contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
When I look back to the beginning, at least as far back as memory will take me, I see most vividly animals and games and books. People are there, too, my mother and father and older sister, but in those earliest memories they are much less distinct. I don't know what this says about my priorities at the time, but there it is.
There were lots of animals. Although my father worked for Shell Oil, he had grown up on cattle ranches, and by dream and desire he was always a rancher. So we lived in the country where he had room for a garden and as many animals as possible. Among my earliest acquaintances were cows, goats, ducks, chickens, rabbits, dogs, cats, and, a little later on, horses. I can recall in some detail the day we acquired a collie puppy and a young kitten. I was three years old. The kitten was nominally mine and from the mysterious depths of a three-year-old's mind I produced a name—Maryland. I can remember some of the ensuing argument—no one else thought it was a sensible name—but I can't remember the reason for my choice.
Neither the kitten nor I had ever been to Maryland, nor had either of us, as far as I know, ancestors from there. But Maryland she was, and she and her offspring play a prominent part in many of my early memories.
And then there were games. Some were secret, some less so, and most of them grew out of a compulsion to endow everything animal, vegetable and mineral with human characteristics. I suspect that all very young children are naturally given to anthropomorphism, but with me it must have been almost a full-time occupation. Not only animals, but also trees, plants, toys, and many other inanimate objects had personalities, and sometimes complicated life histories. Often these creatures seemed to have been in need of a helping hand. I built leafy shelters for homeless insects, doctored ailing toys, and every morning I saved Orphan Annie from drowning.
Glazed on the bottom of my cereal bowl, Orphan Annie was daily threatened by a sea of milk and gummy oatmeal. It was necessary for me to eat the disgusting mess quickly to save her from drowning. But once her face was uncovered, and the milk dammed behind a dike of oatmeal, my duty was done. My mother may have wondered why I began so eagerly and then left that thick dam of oatmeal around the center of the bowl.
Other inhabitants of my world of secret games were not so helpless, or so innocuous. Knives and hammers could be intentionally cruel; wagons and roller skates and all their ilk were often sneakily vindictive; and at the foot of my bed there lived a permanent settlement of little black demons with pitchforks just waiting for me to carelessly straighten out my legs. But I fooled them. For years I slept curled in a ball.
There were many other demons, most of whom haunted closets and the dark corners of rooms. Although they really frightened me, I don't think I would have wanted to be talked out of them. They were my demons and we had a working relationship.
Books and reading must have had a beginning somewhere but it is beyond memory. I seemed to have been born reading. Actually my mother claimed I taught myself after eavesdropping on lessons she was giving my older sister. Then one day when she was sick and I was four years old, I offered to read to her. When I proceeded to do so she thought I had memorized the book until she began to ask me individual words. Later when I became, briefly, a kind of neighborhood oddity—I had not yet been to school and I could read the newspaper and was sometimes called into neighbors' homes to demonstrate to sceptical guests—my mother claimed to have had nothing to do with it. Actually I think she used two methods which are almost certain to produce an early reader. First of all, she read to us—a lot. And then, when I tried to horn in on my sister's reading lessons, she told me I was too young—a challenge that no self-respecting four-year-old is going to take lying down.
Of course the games and the reading merged. Little Orphan Annie and the demons were soon joined by the likes of Heidi, Dorothy and Dr. Dolittle, not to mention some of the more intriguing characters I met in the pages of a very fat book called Hurlbut's Story of the Bible. My favorites were the ones whose lives included episodes that played well, such as Noah, Daniel, and Jonah. Jonah, in particular, was a role that adapted well when one had, as I often did, tonsillitis. Being forced to stay in bed was less of a handicap when the scene being enacted took place in a whale's stomach.
But something should be said about the real people who were an important part of those early years. My father, William Solon Keatley, was a tall slow-moving man, the memory of whose kindness, patient devotion and unfailing sense of humor is, to me, proof that it is possible to surmount the effects of an appalling childhood.
The first child of John William Keatley, a young Englishman who immigrated to America in the 1870s, and Zilpha Johnson his Nebraskan bride—my father's first few years of life were happy ones. But when he was five years old his mother died. Putting my father and his two younger brothers in an orphanage, my grandfather went to California, promising to send for the boys as soon as he was able. But for some reason the summons to a new life never came. The orphanage, losing patience, allowed the two younger boys to be adopted. But by then my father was too old to interest adoptive parents, and old enough to be of temporary interest to various people, some of them relatives of his mother, who needed an extra ranch hand. Forced to do a man's work at the age of eight, often beaten, punished by being sent out mittenless in freezing weather, so that his frozen hands very nearly had to be amputated, he survived to become a gentle man with crooked hands, who loved people almost as much as he loved horses, and who treated both with unfailing kindness.
As a young man he worked as a cowboy, in the days when many ranges were still unfenced; and in later years he told wonderful stories about broncobusting, roundups and stampedes, and above all—HORSES. He sometimes said that he might forget a man but never a horse, and I'm sure it was true. As a child I knew all his horses through his stories including Old Washboard, who had an iron mouth and a penchant for hunting wild horses and who, on spotting a herd of wild ones, took off, completely ignoring the desires of his helpless rider who willy-nilly accompanied him on a mad chase, leaping gulleys and plunging down almost vertical cliffs with wild abandon. Fearing that someday Old Washboard would tackle a cliff he couldn't handle—"the only horse that ever scared me spitless," my father would say—he chickened out and sold him to a gullible passerby, just as innumerable owners had surely done before.
It was not until my father was in his forties and the owner of a small horse ranch in Wyoming that he was contacted by his father. Warmly received by his father's second family in California, he decided to relocate there. And it was there that he met Dessa Jepson, a thirty-five-year-old spinster schoolteacher, a cousin of his stepmother.
The Jepsons were Quakers. They had lived for many generations in Maine, the first Jepson arriving there in 1720, but in the 1870s several branches of the family moved west. My mother was born in California, the youngest of six children. Several years younger than her nearest sibling, she was born when her parents were middle-aged, and on the death of her mother she became her father's housekeeper and companion.
I never knew my grandfather, Isaiah Clarkson Jepson, but he must have been a complicated and determined man. A farmer who had tried photography and teaching and who loved poetry, he doted on Dessa, his youngest daughter, and effectively discouraged her early suitors. She became a schoolteacher, attending UCLA when it was still Los Angeles Normal School, and devoted herself to teaching and to her father. His death when she was in her early thirties left her rudderless and she suffered what she later referred to as a nervous breakdown. On recovering she returned to work and was teaching in Yorba Linda, California when she met my father. It was a romance right out of Zane Grey—the bachelor rancher meets the lonely schoolteacher.
My parents were living in Lemoore, California when my older sister, Elisabeth, and I were born, my father having accepted what he thought of as a temporary job until he could get back to ranching. But the Depression deepened and, to support his growing family, he continued at a job he hated. It was after he was transferred to Ventura, California that my younger sister, Ruth, was born.
Like my father, my mother was a storyteller. Like his, her stories were true accounts of past events. Mother's childhood was always very close to her and she had a tremendous memory for detail. She made the people and events of rural California at the turn of the century as real to me as were those of my own childhood in the l930s.
So I came by my storytelling instincts honestly but, as it soon became apparent, their acquisition was all that was honest about them. It wasn't exactly that I was a liar. I don't think I told any more of the usual lies of childhood—those meant to get you out of trouble or get someone else into it—than most children. It was just that when I had something to tell I had an irresistible urge to make it worth telling, and without the rich and rather lengthy past that my parents had to draw on, I was forced to rely on the one commodity of which I had an adequate supply—imagination. Sometimes when I began an account of something I had heard or witnessed my mother would sigh deeply and say, "Just tell it. Don't embroider it."
At the age of eight I became, in my own eyes at least, a writer. I sometimes say that I decided on a writing career as soon as it dawned on me that there were people whose life's work consisted of making up stories. Up until then my tendency to "make things up" was one of the things that came to mind when I repeated that phrase about "trespasses" in our nightly prayers. The idea that there were people who were paid, even praised, for such activities was intriguing. I began as most children do with poems and very short stories, and I was fortunate to have a fourth-grade teacher who took an interest in what I was doing. She collected my works, typed them, and bound them into a book. I loved it—and her.
This early opus, while showing no great originality of thought or unique turns of phrase, does seem to exhibit a certain feeling for the rhythm and flow of words. The following excerpt owed its subject matter to a "social studies project" on China.
The Water Buffalo
Did you ever see a water buffalo,
Slowly around a rice field go,
Dragging a plow at every step?
To plow a rice field takes lots of pep,
So when the buffalo's work is done
He goes down to the river to have some fun.
He wallows down where the mud is deep,
And shuts his eyes and goes to sleep.
My memories of my first five years of school are pleasant ones. I was a good student, although my abilities were decidedly lopsided. I could memorize a poem in a flash, but the result of multiplying seven times eight eluded me for months, until my mother printed this slippery bit of information on a card and pinned it to the wall in front of the kitchen sink where I was forced to stare at it every evening while doing the dishes. It worked, I guess. I'm not sure whether my hatred of doing dishes spilled over onto the multiplication tables or vice versa, but I'm still not particularly fond of either.
Although there were times when I would have gladly traded my proficiency in reading and writing for a little skill at something that really mattered to my contemporaries such as running races or catching fly balls, I had few problems in the small country schools I attended until the end of sixth grade. But then came the seventh grade in the big city of Ventura. Too young for my grade, having been advanced by a first-grade teacher who didn't know what to do with me while she was teaching reading, and further handicapped by being raised by a mother who hadn't really faced up to the twentieth century, I was suddenly a terrible misfit. Still wearing long curls and playing secret games, I was too intimidated to make an effort to relate to girls who wore makeup and danced with boys. So I retreated further into books and daydreams.
Books! Books were the window from which I looked out of a rather meager and decidedly narrow room, onto a rich and wonderful universe. I loved the look and feel of them, even the smell. I'm still a book sniffer. That evocative mixture of paper and ink and glue and dust never fails to bring back the twinge of excitement that came with the opening of a new book. Libraries were treasure houses. I always entered them with a slight thrill of disbelief that all their endless riches were mine for the borrowing. And librarians I approached with reverent awe—guardians of the temple, keepers of the golden treasure.
It has occurred to me to wonder if I might not have faced up to life sooner if I had been deprived of books. (I know my father worried sometimes about the amount of time I spent reading. My father, not my mother. Her first priority was that we were safely and virtuously at home, with a book or without one.) Lacking a refuge in books, would I have been forced to confront my social inadequacies and set myself to learning the skills that would have made me acceptable to my peers? Perhaps. But then I wonder if it would really have been a fair trade. Would dances and parties and inexpert kisses by pimply contemporaries have made me happier than did Mr. Rochester, Heathcliff, the Knights of the Round Table and the many other heroes and heroic villains with whom I was intermittently in love? Who's to say? In any event, I went on reading—and suffering the daily agony of the preteen outcast.
Beyond my personal world of home and school and books and dreams, the Depression deepened. Although my father never lost his job, his salary was cut and cut again until he was finally unable to cover the mortgage payments and it was only the New Deal's mortgage relief legislation that enabled us to keep our home. Like so many other families, we lived constantly under that sword of Damocles called the "pink slip." My sisters and I, as well as many of our friends, knew about the slip of pink paper which might at any time be included in our father's pay envelope, and we knew that the result would be the disgrace of "relief lines" and perhaps actual hunger. Sometimes as I walked past the "Okie Camp" that had sprung up on a neighbor's vacant land—trying to pretend I wasn't staring at the cardboard shanties, broken down cars and ragged dirty children—I fantasized that I belonged there; that I would turn in on the dirt road and as I approached the first crumbling shanty I would see my mother in the doorway. It was a game that both intrigued and terrified me.
As the first decade of my life ended the times slowly began to get better. The Okie camps disappeared, people who had been laid off went back to work and salaries began to rise. And then one day when we turned into our driveway after a Sunday morning at church, a neighbor ran to meet us. The Japanese, she said, had attacked Pearl Harbor.
I was in my early teens during the war and I would like to report that I thought deeply about the issues involved and the terrible suffering that was going on around the world—but it wouldn't be true. In spite of the fact that a Japanese sub once shelled an empty field not far from where we lived, and we had occasional air raid drills in our classrooms, the war seemed distant and almost unreal. I wrote a few sentimental war poems and went on reading and dreaming. Years later when I visited Anne Frank's apartment in Amsterdam and saw the pictures of movie stars on her bedroom walls, familiar Hollywood faces of the forties, treasured by teenage girls in California as well as those in hiding in Amsterdam, I was deeply shaken. I cried not only with grief for Anne but with shame that I had known and cared so little.
By the time I was in high school my social skills had begun to improve, and I became a little less afraid of my peers. I had some good teachers and made some exciting new friends, such as Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson.
And college was wonderful. At Whittier College, a small private liberal arts school in Southern California, originally established by Quakers, I grew physically and socially as well as intellectually. I discovered contemporary authors, politics, social injustice, psychology—and boys; men, actually, as the time was the late forties and campuses were full of returned servicemen. It was a good time to be in college. I learned a lot at Whittier: facts, ideas, and essences. Many of the facts have faded, as elusive as seven times eight, but I remember that Whittier taught me how little I knew; a startling concept to any new high school graduate. And even more important—how little anyone knew. Until then I had been satisfied that all possible knowledge was pretty much in hand, and as a student my only job would be to commit it to memory. What a thrill to realize that a lot of so-called facts were actually still up for grabs, and that decision-making was a part of learning.
And one more thing I owe to Whittier—my husband, Larry Snyder. We met first in the Campus Inn where we both waited on tables, and when I first saw him he was playing the piano. Six-foot-five with curly black hair and blue eyes, Larry was a music major who was also an athlete, a charismatic extrovert who was—and still is—a natural scholar, and a small-town boy who was born with a Ulysses-like yearning for new horizons. I liked him a lot. I still do.
But I was planning to be a writer. I wanted to live in New York City, in an attic apartment, and write serious novels for serious people. It's a good thing I didn't try it. At barely twenty-one with a new college degree, I had a sketchy instinct for self-preservation and all the sophistication of a cocker spaniel puppy. New York City would have eaten me alive, and that's without even trying to guess what New York editors would have done to me. The pages that have survived from the period suggest that as a writer I still had the lively imagination of my childhood, and some feeling for the sound and sweep of a sentence. But style, theme, subject matter, and even handwriting (I still didn't own a typewriter) have a pronounced aura of puppy.
Facing up to the fact that I didn't even have the money for a ticket to New York City, I decided to be practical. So, "temporarily until I got back to ranching," I took another job—I decided to teach school. Only I was more fortunate than my poor dear father. I didn't hate my temporary job. In fact, I liked it a lot. After the first year, which was a bit traumatic until I stopped being surprised when I told the class to do something and they did it, I developed into what must have been a pretty good teacher. I taught in the upper elementary grades for a total of nine years, three of them as a master teacher for the University of California at Berkeley, during which time my classroom was almost constantly being observed by teachers in training. I found teaching to be as rewarding as it was demanding, and I would probably still be at it if I hadn't been lucky enough to have my dream-ranch become a reality when my first book was published—but that was later. And I also decided to accept Larry's offer of marriage, which was probably the best decision I ever made.
Larry and I were married in June of 1950, and the next ten years flew by. They were happy years for the most part, although I sometimes think that if they hadn't been I might not have had time to notice. During that time Larry was in graduate school at Eastman School of Music; taught for one year at Eastern Washington College in Cheney, Washington; and then, because of the Korean War, was in the air force in Texas, New York and Alaska, before returning to graduate school at UC Berkeley. In the period we moved fifteen times, I taught school in New York, Washington, Alaska and California, and we had three children. Our first child was born by emergency caesarian section in 1952 and died two days after his birth. Our daughter, Susan Melissa, was born in 1954 in Rome, New York and our son Douglas in Alaska in 1956. There were no further additions to our family until 1966 when our foster son, Ben, came to live with us. Ben was born in Kowboon, China and when he became a part of our family he was eleven years old and spoke no English. Three years later he was the valedictorian of his eighth-grade class. Ben is like that.
In the early sixties the dust began to settle a bit. Larry was out of school and teaching at the College of Mann north of San Francisco, and the children were in school, Doug, the youngest, in kindergarten. I was still teaching but there seemed to be a bit more time and I caught my breath and thought about writing. Writing for children hadn't occurred to me when I was younger, but nine years of teaching in the upper elementary grades had given me a deep appreciation of the gifts and graces that are specific to individuals with ten or eleven years of experience as human beings. It is, I think, a magical time—when so much has been learned, but not yet enough to entirely extinguish the magical reach and freedom of early childhood. Remembering a dream I'd had when I was twelve years old about some strange and wonderful horses, I sat down and began to write.
Now comes the hard part. I've always maintained that I would never write an autobiography. To me, writing anything other than fiction is a chore. Take away the marvelous incentive of a world yours-for-the-making, and the joy dies. Thus, I once answered when asked if I would write an autobiography, by saying, "Not unless they'd let me make it up as I went along."
But then I weakened and accepted the invitation to participate in the Something about the Author Autobiography Series, and up to this point I've found, to my surprise, that I've enjoyed it a great deal. But from here on it won't be so easy.
My husband says that all authors' autobiographies should be titled And Then I Wrote. This, of course, has put me on my mettle to avoid, not only that phrase, but also anything even remotely resembling it while, at the same time, covering twenty-one books and a computer game. After considerable thought I've decided to rely on the appended bibliography to provide chronology, while I deal with my years as a writer in a less structured way.
One of the questions most often asked of a writer concerns how he or she managed the giant step between being "would be" and "published." Everyone has heard about the difficulties involved in selling a first book; the closets full of unpublished manuscripts, and walls papered with rejection slips. I've been known to answer such questions by blandly announcing that I sold my first manuscript to the first publisher I sent it to. It's the truth, but not unfortunately, the whole truth; and I always go on to explain the less-glorious particulars. But once when I made the initial pronouncement in a gathering of writers and before I could qualify it, someone said quite justifiably, "Stand back, everyone. I'm going to shoot her."
The truth is that I did send my first attempt to write for young people to Atheneum and it was, indeed, published there some time later. The other part of the story is what happened in between.
I was still teaching school that year and I began to write at night after a day in the classroom. I was a lousy typist and at that time I was completely unable to compose at the typewriter, so I wrote on a tablet, and my husband, whose fingers move almost as well on a typewriter as they do on the piano, typed it for me. Later, when the book was accepted, he bought me an electric typewriter and told me to get busy and learn to type as he didn't intend to make a profession of typing manuscripts.
I didn't exactly pick Atheneum because it was at the beginning of the alphabet, but it was nearly that arbitrary. It was recommended to me by our school librarian as a house that had recently published some good fantasies. But what I received when I mailed in my manuscript—"over the transom," no agent, no introduction—was neither the rejection slip I fully expected, nor the enthusiastic acceptance of which I'd occasionally allowed myself to daydream. What I received was a long letter, two full pages, telling me what was wrong with my story. It was only at the very end that the editor, Jean Karl, stated that if I were going to be working on it some more she would like to see it again. I remember telling my husband that either she was slightly interested or I had just received the world's longest rejection slip.
Of course I was going to be working on it some more. It never occurred to me to reply, "Who the hell are you?" as one well-known author is reported to have done when an editor asked for changes in his first manuscript. It was my first attempt to write for young people, and almost the only writing I had done for ten years. I knew I had lots to learn and I was delighted that someone was willing to help.
My first version of Season of Ponies was, among other failings, much too short to be a book for the age level towards which it was aimed. Jean liked the ending but wanted me to lengthen and strengthen the body of the story. I did, and she liked it better, but still there were problems. It was after the third complete rewriting that the book was accepted, and I became a published writer.
Being published, I found, makes a difference. It makes a difference to all writers, but there are, I think, differences specific to the writer who is also a wife and mother. Almost no one feels called upon to honor the working hours of an unpublished wife and mother who insists on wasting large chunks of time in front of a typewriter. But once she is published, friends are some-what more hesitant about calling up for long midmorning chats, and recruiters for the United Fund, the PTA and Faculty Wives are a little less inclined to put her on the "readily available" list.
Within my own family, however, being published made very little difference. Larry had always been encouraging and supportive, and he continued to be.
And my mother, who often lived with us, continued to bring her reading or mending into my room. "Just for the company, I won't say a word." She would say, "Go right on with your writing." And I would try to, knowing that she was lonely and watching for the slightest sign that my attention was wavering and that I was, therefore, fair game. And, of course, published or unpublished, I was always fair game to the children. Rules concerning an off-limits area in the general vicinity of my typewriter during certain hours of the day were impossible to enforce in the face of such major crises as the need for financing an ice cream purchasing expedition, or the mysterious and momentous disappearance of a baseball, rollerskate, sneaker, or any one of numerous pets, including cats, dogs, hamsters, rats, snakes and one very large, very green iguana. The demand for my expertise as a pet finder was especially pressing when the snakes or iguana were involved, since grandmothers and other guests objected to coming across them suddenly in unexpected places.
But children do go to school, and after I stopped teaching there were the blessedly quiet hours of the school day in which to write, and the list of my published books began to grow, usually at the rate of one a year.
My second book evolved from the remains of a manuscript written when I was nineteen years old, a novel for adults set in a fictional town in Ventura County during the Depression. The story, lustily begun, had run into plotting problems and had dwindled off in midsentence on about the forty-fifth page, but the setting and a few of the characters still intrigued me. Knocking a dozen years off the ages of the central characters I began the book again and the result was The Velvet Room.
I had not been a published writer for long when I discovered a new threat to my precious time at the typewriter, one which I had not counted on. I began to get invitations to speak or lecture. Many were requests that I speak in classrooms, and these, except for the loss of writing time involved, were never any problem. I was accustomed to the classroom situation, I enjoy interacting with children, and it was a thrill to learn about their reactions to my books. But a request that I speak to an adult group was a different matter. I accepted the first one because I was asked eight months ahead of time and I didn't think they'd believe me if I said I'd already booked the date. And then it was such a long time away—perhaps the world would come to an end, or some other fortuitous circumstance would prevent me from having to face up to my commitment. But the day did arrive, preceded by many sleepless nights during which I lay awake wondering what my hosts would do when I collapsed in a dead faint at the podium. But both I and my audience of several hundred librarians managed to survive that one, the requests continued to come, and my terror when facing large bodies of librarians, teachers or writers, gradually diminished.
The Egypt Game was my fourth book, and a good one to look at as an example of the complexity of the only possible answer to a simple, and very commonly asked question; "Where do you get your ideas?" Children ask it poised on tiptoe, ready to run off and get some of their own, and adults suspiciously, as if expecting one to either: 1) Admit to having personally experienced every event described in one's body of work, or 2) Own up to hereditary insanity. The only answer to the question is "everywhere," and without meaning to be facetious, because in any one book the idea roots are many and varied; some of them easily followed while others are fainter and more mysterious.
For example the beginning seeds of The Egypt Game were sown during my early childhood, as is true of a great many of my books. A fifth-grade project on ancient Egypt started me on my "Egyptian period," a school year in which I read, dreamed, and played Egyptian. But my dream of Egypt was private and it was my daughter, many years later, who actually played a game very like the one in the story, after I had turned her on to the fascinating game possibilities of a culture that includes pyramids, mummies, hieroglyphic writing, and an intriguing array of gods and goddesses. However the actual setting and all six of the main characters came from my years as a teacher in Berkeley. The neighborhood described in the story, the ethnic mix in the classroom, as well as the murder, were all taken from realities of our years in Berkeley. So, as I tell children who ask me if I ever write "true" stories, all of my stories have bits-and-pieces of truth—true events, true people, true facts, as well as true memories and even true dreams (the real sound-asleep kind). But the fun comes from what goes on in between and around and over the bits and pieces, tying them together and making them into a story. The in-between substance is woven of imagination and that is what makes fiction fascinating, to write as well as to read.
And then there is another element, a mysterious idea source which, it seems, many writers tap from time to time, and its unexpected and unpredictable gifts provide some of the most exciting and rewarding moments in writing. One might call such exciting moments a lateral-thinking breakthrough, serendipity, the light-bulb syndrome, or just sudden inspiration; an inspiration that seems to come from nowhere and to have no known roots. Whatever you call it, it's the kind of thing that makes you look up from the keyboard and say, "Hey. Thanks a lot."
The Egypt Game came out in 1967. We were still living in Mann County while across the bay to the east, Berkeley was leading the way in a world-wide explosion of protest. To the south, in San Francisco, the Flower Children were painting gracious old HaightAshbury Victorians purple and living on love and LSD. And in our own neighborhood Ken Kesey's psychedelic bus was parked not three blocks away, and Janis Joplin's west coast hangout was just up the street. Larry and I marched in anti-war parades but otherwise mostly watched in wonder from the sidelines while lifestyles changed, traditions crumbled, and protest, drugs and violence became a part of American life—and our children entered their teenage years. It was not an easy time to be a parent or a writer of books for young people. Eyes in the Fishbowl, The Changeling, The Headless Cupid, and The Witches of Worm came from those years.
Also during those years Larry became the dean at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and we began to make almost yearly trips to Europe. In 1970 we spent a month touring France with our three children, who were sixteen, fifteen, and thirteen at the time. Melissa chose the day we arrived in France to announce that she had just become a strict vegetarian; Ben, who had been working hard at being a typical American teenager, perfected an admirably authentic teenage griping technique; and Doug showed little interest in French culture other than pâtisseries, pigeons. and stray cats. With the five of us cooped up together daily in a small rental car Larry and I came to the conclusion that early teenagers, like fine wines, do not travel well.
It was not until some years later that all three of them began to tell us how much they enjoyed that summer in France and how much it had meant to them.
In 1971 Larry took a position at Sonoma State University in Sonoma County and we moved to a one-hundred-year-old-farmhouse in the country near Santa Rosa, California. Larry was anxious to get out of administration and back into music and teaching and we wanted to get our children into a quieter, more rural atmosphere. We were also eager to own horses, a goal that was quickly accomplished after the move. I was out horse shopping almost before we were unpacked.
In our old house, mysteriously like the one I'd described in The Headless Cupid, I finished The Witches of Worm, The Princess and the Giants, The Truth about Stone Hollow, and the three books of the Green-Sky Trilogy.
Like so many of my books the trilogy's deepest root goes back to my early childhood when I played a game that involved crossing a grove of oak trees by climbing from tree to tree, because something incredibly dangerous lived "below the root." Years later when I was writing The Changeling I recalled the game, and in the course of embellishing it for that story, became intrigued with the idea of returning to the world of Green-sky for a longer stay. The return trip took three years and produced three more books. Initially published in 1975, 1976, and 1978, the trilogy has (1985) been reincarnated as a computer game, as well as in a paperback edition by Tor Books.
The computer game transpired when I was contacted by a young computer programmer named Dale Disharoon. After Dale introduced me to the world of computer games, I wrote and charted, Dale programmed, and a young artist named Bill Groetzinger made marvelous graphics for a game that takes off from where the third book of the trilogy ends.
In 1977–78, with our children grown and away from home, Larry and I spent his first sabbatical year in Europe. Larry, who is quite fluent in Russian and had done much of his graduate work on Russian music, had for some years been leading a UC Berkeley Extension tour to the Soviet Union during the summers. For his sabbatical project we traveled for seven weeks in Russia, the Baltic Republics, Poland, and Czechoslovakia while he did research on contemporary music. It was an incredible trip, sometimes uncomfortable and often a bit dismaying, but never less than fascinating, and very productive in terms of Larry's project.
When we finally reached Italy we were ready to settle down, which we did for four months in a lovely villa in the Tuscan countryside between Florence and Siena. During that time we alternated trips around Italy with long days of work, in which Larry compiled his collected data and practiced the piano, and I finished a novel for adults, Heirs of Darkness, and began a children's book set in Italy (a sequel to The Headless Cupid titled The Famous Stanley Kidnapping Case ). "Just like Chopin and Georges Sand," Alton Raible, who has illustrated many of my books, wrote, and then added, "Without all the coughing and spitting, I hope." Our villa was part of a complex of rental units constructed from a country manor house and outlying farm buildings, and among the residents were writers, artists, and academics from various countries. It was an environment molto simpatico and friendships we made there have been important and lasting.
On returning to Sonoma County I began work on a novel for young adults. It was a story concerning a teenage boy and a magnificent buck deer, and when I began to write I had in mind a fantasy about mythical animals. But A Fabulous Creature turned out to be one of those novels that seem to take over and direct their own development and I soon found I was writing a story that was quite realistic and that had a bit to say about one of my pet antipathies—the whole mystique of the sport of hunting. As had happened many times before, I suddenly said, "Oh, so that's what I'm writing about."
That backdoor approach to themes or "messages" has been a part of the scene for me since my first book, when I thought I was basing my story's antagonist on Greek mythology and only discovered after-the-fact that I'd been writing about someone I once knew—and feared; and my unconscious theme concerned the evil that arises when selfish and insensitive use is made of a naturally dominant personality.
It worried me for a while, this rather haphazard approach to thematic material, and now and then I tried it the other way, starting a few stories with the intention of addressing a given problem. But it never turned out well. Plots went lame and characters turned into caricatures. After a while I decided that, for me at least, "messages" were best left to their own devices. I would mind my own business, which was to tell a good story and let "messages" take care of themselves. They could, and would, I found, and in more subtle and interesting ways than when marshalled by my conscious mind. A case in point were some books of mine that were endorsed by the National Organization for Women. The stories in question had been written before my own consciousness had risen very far, and I'd not set out to say anything in particular about liberation or equality. But the message—that little girls can be vital and original and courageous people—found an appropriate opening, and there it was. Or when Heirs of Darkness, which I'd set out to write as a straightforward, one-dimensional Gothic horror story (not for children) turned into an exploration of guilt, and its relationship to the passive/ masochistic personality.
As the eighties began we were still living in Sonoma County. Larry had been lured back into administration serving as dean of humanities and then of the School of Performing Arts at Sonoma State University—and the pendulum of American youth culture had begun a dramatic swing. Liberal arts departments were shrinking, while business management and computer sciences burgeoned. Watching this new breed of hard working, practical young people, it suddenly occurred to me that some of the present teenagers, were undoubtedly the offspring of the flower-child generation. The next step was to wonder where teenage rebellion might take a child who had grown up in the "hippie" milieu. The result was another young-adult novel called The Birds of Summer.
Blair's Nightmare, a third book about the Stanley family of The Headless Cupid, and The Changing Maze, a picture-book fantasy illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak, brings me up to the present, the spring of 1985—a present set in a garden flat near the Porta Romana in Florence, Italy, where Larry and I are again living, this time for a year in which he is serving as director of the California State University's foreign study program in Italy. Having transported a word processor to Italy, with no little difficulty, I am still writing while Larry deals with the Italian bureaucracy and sixty-nine California students of art, literature, and architecture. Among the side trips we've been able to make this year was a nine-day exploration of Egypt, a destination that has been high on my must-see list since I used to walk to school as Queen Nefertiti when I was ten years old. In the fall, after another trip to the Soviet Union for UC Berkeley, we plan to return to the San Francisco Bay area.
So there it is, the story of my life and work, and while sticking to the facts wasn't easy, or nearly as much fun as fiction, I've faithfully done so. "See Mom, no embroidering." But before I sign off there's just one more question I'd like to address. And that is why?
Once, some years ago during the question and answer period after a lecture, a man asked me why I wrote for children. "Do you do it for the pocketbook, or just for the ego?" was the way he put it. He didn't give me any other choices, but there is another answer. The ego and the pocketbook are affected, of course, at least minimally; much of the time only too minimally. But the maximum reward is simply—joy; the storyteller's joy in creating a story and sharing it with an audience.
So I write for joy, my own and my imagined audience's—but why for children? Unlike many writers who say that they are not aware of a particular audience as they write, I know that I am very conscious of mine. Sometimes I can almost see them, and they look very much like the classes I taught, and often read to. And, like those classes when the story was going well, they are wide-eyed and open-mouthed, rapt in the story and carried out of the constraining walls of reality into the spacious joys of the imagination.
I began to write for children by accident, through the fortunate accident of nine years in the classroom. But I've continued to do so because over the years I've come to realize that it's where I'm happiest. It is, I think, a matter of personal development (or lack of it, as the case may be). There are several peculiarities that I share with children which, like having no front teeth, are perhaps more acceptable in the very young, but which, for better or worse, seem to be a part of my makeup.
First of all, there is optimism. Since growth and hope are almost synonymous no one begrudges a child's natural optimism, but a writer's is another matter. It's not fashionable to write optimistically for adults, nor I must admit, even very sensible, given the world we live in today. But my own optimism seems to be organic, perhaps due to "a bad memory and a good digestion" (a quote that I can't attribute due to the aforementioned failing).
Secondly, there is curiosity. Mine is as intense as a three-year-old's, but where a three-year-old's most obnoxious trait might be asking "Why" several hundred times a day, I am given to eavesdropping on conversations, peering into backyards and lighted windows, and even reading other people's mail if I get a chance.
And thirdly there is a certain lack of reverence for factual limitations and a tendency to launch out into the far reaches of possibility.
So I enjoy writing for an audience that shares my optimism, curiosity, and freewheeling imagination. I intend to go on writing for some time, and though I may occasionally try something for adults, I will always come back to children's books, where I am happiest and most at home.
Zilpha Keatley Snyder contributed the following update to SATA in 2005:
It has been forty one years since 1964 when my first book, Season of Ponies, was published by Atheneum. Since then I have continued to produce fiction for young readers at the rate of about one book a year. Forty-two at last count, and another, The Magic Nation Thing, published in August of 2005.
Over the years I have occasionally asked myself "why?" Why do I keep on writing? Especially in recent years when, on finishing a book, I often announce that I am considering retirement, or at least a long vacation from writing. But then, after a week or two, I invariably catch myself beginning the slow spin of interrelated ideas that gradually lead to the production of character sketches, beginning scenes, and plot ideas for a new book.
"Why write?" was a question that I attempted to answer in my first autobiographical essay written in 1985, during the year that my husband and I were living in Florence, Italy, while he served as director of the California State University foreign study program. And now, twenty years later, my answer would be very similar.
I would again touch on the fact that for me writing fiction is probably, more than anything else, a continuation of a childhood habit. The habit of amusing myself by taking bits and pieces of information about real events, people, places, etc., and building on them until I had produced something, a game or a story, that was more interesting and exciting than the bare facts had been. As before, I would have to admit that it was a behavior pattern that occasionally got me into trouble, most often with my mother for doing something she referred to as "embroidering." This talent for "embroidery" also seemed to bother one of my elementary schoolteachers who objected to my tendency to add new and original episodes to a well-known book on which I was giving an oral book report. So it almost seems, for better or worse, that turning facts into fiction is one of my inborn character traits.
Another answer I have at times given to the "why write?" question is to say, "Being involved in writing a piece of fiction is a lot like being in love." The similarity lies in the tendency of people truly in love to see everything not only through their own eyes, but also through the eyes of the person they love. As in, "What would he think of that?" or "How would she feel about that?" The fiction writer's reaction when witnessing an event, or overhearing a remark, is somewhat similar. You find yourself thinking, "Yes, that's exactly what Gib would have said," or, "That's the way April would have reacted." Like being in love, being intimately involved with fictional acquaintances simply adds an extra dimension to life.
So in recent years I have continued to produce characters that run into interesting and sometimes slightly supernatural problems that I have them solve in ways that I try to make intriguing and believable. Among these stories are Song of the Gargoyle, a tale set in the Middle Ages in which a boy makes friends with a creature who may be a gargoyle enchanted into life, or simply a very large, very ugly dog. As in many of my stories the ending gives the reader an opportunity to opt for a supernatural explanation for what has occurred or a more realistic one.
Another book that I feel especially good about is Cat Running. A story set in California during the Great Depression, it concerns a girl named Cat (Catherine) who is locally famous for her ability to win races. Her own family's problems and her interactions with a schoolmate whose family lives in a nearby "Okietown" lead to a footrace which turns out to be a matter of life or death. Cat Running won many tributes, among them the Patricia Beatty Award from the California Library Association, an award given to a distinguished children's book that best promotes an awareness of California and its people.
Other recent works include two books that were inspired by my father's early life. Gib Rides Home and Gib and the Gray Ghost tell the story of a boy's life in a Nebraskan orphanage in the early nineteen hundreds, and then with the family by whom he is adopted, or perhaps only "farmed out." Gib's story is a fictionalized version of my father's life, but it does portray a child who, like him, endured a terrible childhood but managed to keep a kind heart, an unquenchable sense of humor, and an amazing ability to communicate with horses ("Gray Ghost" is, of course, a horse).
The Unseen, published in 2004, is the story of Xandra who feels herself to be the only ungifted and un-loved member of a large family, all the rest of whom are beautiful and talented. Animals, particularly ill or abandoned ones, have long been her friends and companions, and when a mysterious bird leaves her a strange feather, she soon realizes that it is a key: a key to a world in which emotions are turned into living creatures, love and sympathy into gentle, cuddly animals, and anger and jealousy into painful monsters.
The Unseen was on School Library Journal's Best Books of the Year list, was a silver medalist for the Parents' Choice Foundation, and was a nominee for the Edgar Award.
The Magic Nation Thing, published in August 2005, concerns Abby, whose mother, Dorcas, is a San Francisco detective. Dorcas would like to think that she has inherited some of her Celtic ancestor's supernatural abilities, which could be useful in solving difficult cases. But actually, Abby is the one who has such talents. She can produce visions revealing the whereabouts of a person by holding one of their belongings in her hand. As a young child, Abby had asked a baby-sitter about her disturbing visions and was told, "Don't worry about it. It's just your imagination." But what Abby heard was, "It's just your Magic Nation," and for a while she thought everyone had one. When she realized that wasn't true, she began to resent her "weird" ability. Abby wants to be like her school friends who lead "normal" lives, but circumstances often force her to make use of her strange talent in one way or another. It was a particularly fun book to write.
Other career-related information might include the fact that several more of my recent books have been recorded by Recorded Books Inc. Among these are the "Gib" books, Spyhole Secrets, and The Ghosts of Rathburn Park. I have been pleased with the quality of these recordings, all of which are unabridged and are read by talented actors.
Since the recent publication of The Egypt Game in Thai and Czech, I now have books translated into sixteen languages.
Along with writing, I have continued to travel. I have often said that I married a man who was born knowing he wanted to see the whole world, just as I was born knowing I wanted to write. In recent years my husband and I have made several trips inside the U.S.A., traveled to Cuba with a Global Exchange group, cruised around Tahiti, toured Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and India, and in September 2004 we went to Iran and Lebanon, again with Global Exchange.
All travel is enlightening but the visit to Iran was particularly eye-opening. Before we left, friends and neighbors would ask if we weren't frightened and nervous about visiting Iran. And I guess I was, just a bit. However, we are now able to tell our doubtful friends that we have never been in a country where we were welcomed with such eager enthusiasm. The young people of Iran (and there are lots of them—fifty percent of the population is no more than twenty-five years old) are among the best educated in the Middle East. They are on the Internet, are surprisingly well informed about world affairs, and are curious about America. And, having grown up during their horrible war with Iraq, they tend to be less angry at us for what we are doing in that country than are the people of many other areas. Along with the friendly and engaging people, Iran also has many fabulous tourist sites, including the amazing ruins of Persepolis, the palace of Darius the Great, built more than 500 years B.C.
If I am to cover the most significant developments in my life since I last updated my Something about the Author material, I can't leave out the results of our first trip to India. While we were staying in the Bissau Palace Hotel in Jaipur we decided to join a group that was taking a trip, via bus and camel, to a village in the country. It was during that excursion that we visited a school: an elementary school with an enrollment of almost 150 children, that had no running water or electricity, desks, books, pens or paper, and where most of the students sat outdoors on the ground and copied on slates what the teachers wrote on portable blackboards.
When we returned home we decided to establish a fund at the Marin Community Foundation to provide support for the school and were able to locate an Indian couple in Jaipur, already active in non-governmental organization work, to act as our local administrators. Our fund was named the Mohanpura Education Project and several of our friends contributed to it. That was in 1998 and when we returned in March of 2003 we were welcomed with great ceremony and were able to see the many improvements that had been made possible by the modest funds we, and our friends, had been able to provide.
Where there had been only three teachers for five grades there are now five. The pupils now have texts and workbooks, pens and pencils, and a daily hot lunch. Scholarships have been awarded to a few older students to travel to Jaipur for technical classes, and electric wiring has been provided for a new computer. Because a librarian friend donated a large number of discarded children's books, there is now a school library which contains many American picture books, and some slightly longer books in Hindi which our Jaipur representatives were able to acquire by trading with some of the private schools in Jaipur, where many of the older students speak and read English well.
One development that particularly delighted me was that the huge first-grade class now is largely made up of older girls who had never been allowed to go to school before, but whose parents now see school attendance as worthwhile for them. Where there had been a very small percentage of female students, there are now more girls than boys enrolled.
Our fund has also made it possible for some women to learn to use sewing machines, and for a self-help women's group to be established. Members of the group receive low interest loans that allow them to buy items that make it possible for them to contribute to their families' income—a development that also helps to improve women's status in the community. The women buy such things as sewing machines, goats, and—for the more ambitious—female water buffalos, which give milk as well as pull plows.
When someone asks, as a few have, why we chose to help these Indian children when there are so many people in our own country who could use some assistance, we can only say that the amount of money we were able to provide would not be enough to accomplish much of anything here at home. On the other hand, in a country where a teacher's salary is only about $250 per semester, we knew we could make an important difference in the lives of a great many children.
And so life and the written word goes on. My newest effort is set in an enormous crumbling palace that will someday be inherited by seriously undersized Harleigh IV, my central character. But then Harleigh, who has given up on believing that a recent operation will enable him to grow, meets Allegra, a strange girl who claims and at times really seems able to fly. Harleigh's growth, which has been stunted not only by his malformed heart but also by his strange impersonal family life, discovers and finally achieves several different ways to grow. As for the title? Don't ask. It's still being debated.
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Nate Smith Biography - Fought His Way into the Union to Theodosius II BiographyZilpha Keatley Snyder (1927-) - Personal, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights, Autobiography Feature