Phyllis Reynolds (P. R. Tedesco) Naylor Biography (1933-)
Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
I love to get up in the morning. And so begins the dichotomy of my life, because I also like going to bed at night. I enjoy being around people, but thrive on solitude as well. A worrier, I am, at the same time, a happy person. And even though a tragedy sucked three years out of my early twenties, I am one of the luckiest people I know. Because I write.
If it's still dark when I open my eyes, I wonder, "Is it time yet?" If it's not, and I begin thinking about a manuscript, sleep becomes impossible. I creep out of bed and head for my big comfortable chair in the living room.
A book begins with a feeling of intense excitement. And because there is always a book in my head, I live in a chronic state of anticipation; with me, it's always the week before Christmas. I never start writing a book until a character or setting or theme or plot ignites something within me. Then everything I see and hear seems to relate somehow to the work at hand, and I am constantly putting things together, like the pieces of a puzzle—something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. My books are made up of things both imagined and remembered.
My sister, brother, and I grew up surrounded by stories. Since these were the Depression years in Indiana, we did not have much of anything, but we did have a few books: two volumes of Grimm's Fairy Tales; Egermeier's Bible Story Book; Child-Rhymes by James Whitcomb Riley, with "Hoosier pictures" by Will Vawter—those wonderful illustrations of "Nine little Goblins, with green-glass eyes" and the Raggedy Man; Missionary Stories for Little Folks; a set of Sherlock Holmes detective stories which the mice had nibbled; Collier's encyclopedias; the complete works of Mark Twain; and a book about righteous living, which had pictures showing what would happen if you lived any other way—devils chopping people in two. I did not read this book, but I spent a lot of time worrying about those pictures.
Then there were the stories not in books but in my parents' heads—stories that my mother made up about a kitten named Fluffy. Stories that my father told us about what he did as a boy—how he decided to run away when he was sixteen because his father, a minister, wouldn't let him smoke. But halfway down the road with his suitcase, he saw his father coming with the horse and wagon. "Where are you going?" his father asked. "I'm leaving because you won't let me smoke,"
my dad told him. There was a long silence. "Get in," his father said gently, and my dad went back home.
There were long epic songs, too, which were really stories: a preacher who goes hunting on Sunday, a ship that is sinking, a woman who couldn't cook, an orphan alone on the streets … I never had the slightest interest in authors when I was growing up; it was the story that mattered.
My writing career began before I could even print my name. In Muncie, the kindergarten teacher used to sit in the middle of the floor each afternoon and invite us to come to her and make up a story. She would write it down for us. I've forgotten the stories I made up, but remember the teacher telling me once that I had had enough turns for the day, to let someone else have a chance. My mother, however, saved the first story I brought home:
Once upon a time there was a little boy and a little girl who lived in the woods with their
mother. One day the little boy said, "Mother, I want an apple." The mother said, "Okay." The boy reached into the box and the mother closed the lid on him and cut off his head and set him out in the yard and tied a rag around his neck to keep his head on. The little girl came home. She cried a lot. She sneaked out and pasted his head back on with magic paste. Then she put her brother in her boyfriend's house. She grew up and married her boyfriend. The mother died. The end.
I have always believed that Mother kept this story should I ever need a psychiatrist when I was twenty. But I discovered later that it sounds suspiciously like The Juniper Tree by the Brothers Grimm, so not only was my first effort awful, it was plagiarism!
As I wrote in How I Came to Be a Writer, I could hardly wait until I could read and write my own books, and entered first grade with high expectations. For some reason, however, I couldn't make sense of reading for a time. I would sit with a small group of children while the teacher turned over large sheets of paper tacked onto an easel. Sentences had been printed on each page in black crayon, and they seemed to have something to do with the picture in the right-hand corner—a cat or a dog or a tree in autumn. One by one the other children read aloud those black marks on white paper while I sat mute and unhappy. How did the others know, I wondered, that those marks said, "See the dog run"? One day I decided that perhaps the other children were just making things up. So the next time the teacher pointed to the words, I raised my hand and eagerly launched into a story about a vicious dog attacking a cat beneath a tree in autumn. The teacher looked at me sadly and shook her head, and I knew that I still had not discovered the magic secret.
I don't know when it was that reading clicked with me but whenever it was, I couldn't get enough of it. The advanced reading books seemed to have the most interesting stories, and how I wanted the class to hurry through one so we could get to the others before the year was out!
At home, however, I spent more time playing than reading—sliding down a grassy hill on a piece of cardboard, swinging from a tree like Tarzan, building a house out of packing boxes. But the excitement my parents had kindled over stories read, recited, or sung began to grow, and when I entered fourth grade, I started writing my own books.
Each day I would jump off the school bus and rush inside to see how many pieces of paper I could find in the wastebaskets, because we were never allowed to use plain white paper that was blank on both sides. I would rescue as many uncrumpled sheets as I could, staple them together, then draw my pictures on the blank side and write the words above or below them.
I wrote boxes of books … about Dutch boys and girls, animated fire engines, even a book called "Danny the Drainpipe." After I discovered Nancy Drew mysteries, I wrote my own series, and chose as my heroine a character named Penny. My sister had just taught me to draw lace, so somewhere in each mystery, Penny managed to lose her dress just so I could draw her lacy underwear. When my mother told me how babies were born, I was eager to show off my new knowledge, and promptly wrote a book called "Manual for Pregnant Women," with illustrations by the author. Mother read my books and liked them, but it wasn't for the audience that I wrote: it was for the excitement it engendered in me.
One thing that has always bothered me is that although I can change my name, my address, my shape, my husband, even, I cannot—even for a moment—get outside my own skin except in my imagination. And so, because I want to know what it would be like to be a preacher or a bicycle courier or a motherless twelve-year-old or a bridge worker, I write.
I was born in a tiny house that my father and grandfather built in Anderson, Indiana. The last I heard, it is still there. The doctor was attending a theater in Indianapolis when I had my coming-out party, so I came by myself.
My parents were educated at Anderson College, and were interested in music and drama. They sang in quartets and had leading roles in the college production of The Merchant of Venice. Studying to become a minister, my father gave up that idea when the Depression hit, and worked for a while as a grocer before taking a job as a salesman. Mother got her degree in religious education, and used her training in church school until we three children were grown. Then she became a primary teacher in the public schools.
My sister brought into our family a talent for art and painting, and my musically-gifted brother eventually became an architect. I was the one still caught up in stories, so I became a writer.
It is more the emotions I have felt rather than the experiences I've had that find their way into my novels. The routines of my childhood would seem oddly out of place to young people today, except, perhaps, that we moved often from one town to another—from Anderson to Muncie to Anderson again, then on to Illinois. Even bedtimes, when I was growing up, were different from the way things are now. How many girls, on a hot summer night, lie giggling in a double bed with their sisters, the top sheet drawn up over their heads, while their father stalks the room with a spray gun, filling the air with mosquito repellent? The smell of the repellent, the soft pad of my father's footsteps, the whoosh, whoosh of the spray gun … An ordinary summer night in a Muncie home, but strange-sounding to my ears now.
To put ourselves to sleep, my sister and I would sing duets, and when we tired of that, would take turns tapping out rhythms of songs on the wall while the other tried to guess what song it was.
When we were sick, bedtimes were even stranger. A sick child in our family got to sleep with Mother. Sleeping with Mother meant a back rub until her arm would almost drop from weariness. It meant song after song, until her voice would trail off in sleep. It meant that if we woke with fever in the night, she would be close by to care for us. The sister who was not sick, however, had to share her bed with our father, who was not at all tolerant of our wriggling about. "Now lie still and go to sleep," he would say as he turned his back to me, and instantly every inch of my body would itch as though poison ivy had sprung up on the mattress. I was the only girl in the state of Indiana, I'm sure, who learned finally to sleep with one hand above the covers to scratch anything above the neckline, and one hand below the covers to reach knees and toes.
When we moved back to Anderson again, my father built a sleeping porch connecting house and garage where the whole family, thirsting for a breeze, spent the hot summer nights. If we were awakened by a sudden storm, we would scurry inside, dragging our sheets with us, and bed down again the following night on mattresses still damp from blowing rain. We used that porch for play during the day, and also would sit on the edge of those beds holding huge sacks of lima beans we had picked from our garden, laboriously shelling them for Mother.
How do you translate this into a book for children now? How do you write about cleaning rooms with wallpaper cleaner that you have used first for modeling clay? Of chasing the ice truck down the alley and snitching a small piece of ice off the back? Of sitting through a long sermon and knowing that at some point, when the boredom got unbearable, your mother would hand you two things: a stick of gum and her compact, and you could happily occupy yourself by chewing Juicy Fruit and opening all the little compartments in the compact, staring at your own green eyes through the fog of powder on the mirror? How do you write about magazine reproductions of nativity paintings pinned to the wallpaper of your dining room during the Christmas season? Or of walking to the woods with your father on a Sunday morning to see the gypsies and finding only their campfire? These are the memories of my childhood that seem different from the experiences of young people today. Bit by bit, they will probably find a place in my books, as other parts of my life have been included in scenes and settings.
In the meantime, what I bring of myself to my books are the things I have learned about relationships among people: of trying to match a sister's accomplishments, of being jealous of a brother, of having to rely on myself for my own amusements, of trying to please a parent. Who, of any age, has not experienced these?
I did not know that writing would be my life's work until I was in my late twenties and had been a playground supervisor, a YWCA locker-room attendant, a clinical secretary, third-grade teacher, typist, executive secretary, and editorial assistant. As a young girl, I saw myself as an actress, a teacher, a tap dancer, an opera singer, or a missionary. My mother ruled out actress and tap dancer, and I wasn't all that crazy about the other three. Writing was only a hobby.
When I was twelve, my father was transferred to Joliet, Illinois, where a river, with drawbridges and towboats, ran through the center of town. There was a very large high school and junior college, and, just outside Joliet, the state prison. This city provided the setting many years later for my book One of the Third Grade Thonkers.
We moved to Joliet shortly before the end of World War II. Back in Anderson, we had turned out our lights during the air-raid drills or "blackouts," so that the enemy, on the way over to bomb Delco Remy and Guide Lamp, would see only a darkened landscape below and pass over, like the Death Angel passing over the homes of the Israelites back in the Old Testament. One little ray of light seen beneath a window shade, I believed, would destroy us as surely as any Israelite who had not smeared the blood of a lamb on his door frame.
On D Day in our new Illinois town, overwhelmed with the news that the long war was at last over, we grabbed brooms, mops, and rolls of toilet paper, climbed into the family car, and headed for the center of Joliet. Waving the mops and brooms from the car windows, unfurling the toilet paper, blowing the horn, and screaming our delight, we joined the ranks of the other citizens who were doing equally silly but joyous things. No one knew me, I remember thinking, and I could be as ridiculous as I liked.
But with the world settling down at last, I began to look about and realized that life, for me, was indeed changing. Joliet was an ethnic city, known for the excellence of its school bands. Only boys were allowed to play in them then, and they began their studies in third grade. Each had to take private lessons and work his way up through the Joliet Grade School Band, after which he would be eligible for the nationally prominent Joliet Township High School Band.
My brother took flute lessons and proudly wore his blue uniform. My sister, entering high school, shunned the home economics courses, talked the superintendent into letting her take Latin instead, enrolled in oil painting courses, was accepted into the elite madrigal group, and won major roles in the operetta and the senior class play.
Who was I, the middle child, I wondered. I did not have my brother's musical ability. Although I was accepted into the madrigals after I reached high school, I did not have the precision ever to become a good musician. And while I took piano lessons for three years, I could never figure out the time and made up the rhythm as I went along. If I came to a difficult passage, I simply skipped over it. In my final public recital, in fact, my mind went blank halfway through the piece and I realized I did not know where my hands went next. All I had was the melody in my head, so I finished it by ear. Shortly thereafter, I gave up piano, and realized that a career as an opera singer was equally impossible.
I, too, talked the high school superintendent into letting me take Latin instead of home economics, because whatever my sister did, I tried also. I had no road map of my own. I, too, would eventually have a major role in the senior play and a part in the operetta. I also took oil painting classes. But my acting was self-conscious, and I did not have my sister's artistic abilities. I could paint an object if it sat before me, but had no imaginative mental images to transcribe onto the canvas.
My mother assumed I would become a teacher because, well, what else could I do? The only thing I knew for sure was that it had to be work in which there was not just one right answer or one right note. Some of the worst moments of my life took place in math and algebra courses, when I had to explain a problem on the board. I suffered frequent stomachaches, and even now feel that familiar panic when I want to tip a cab driver fifteen percent.
What I craved during this time, even more than a chosen career, was a room of my own. For all of my growing-up years, I had either shared one with my sister, my brother, or slept in the common playroom. I longed for a door I could shut, walls to enclose me, a private place to be me, whoever that was. And finally we moved again to a different house in Joliet, where there was a room of my own. My father bought a desk for me, and there I wrote my stories.
When I was sixteen, a former Sunday school teacher, who was now editing a children's church paper back in Anderson, wrote to say she remembered me from her class, how much I had liked stories, and wondered if I might try writing one for possible publication. I was thrilled, wrote my first and only sports story, "Mike's Hero," mailed it, and she sent back a check for $4.67. I couldn't believe I was being paid for doing something that was so much fun.
I wrote more stories for her, and most of them she accepted. When they needed editing, she did it herself. A poet who lived next door gave me her old copies of the Writer magazine, and I realized that I was now one of two people I knew who earned something by writing. What a life, I thought, and decided to write for the slick magazines I saw in the drugstores. It was two years, however, before anyone else accepted a story of mine, and only slowly, with hundreds of rejection slips and an occasional acceptance here and there, did I branch out into other types of magazines for different age levels.
In my senior year, I was asked to try out for senior class poet. There was an ivy day ceremony in which the graduates, in their robes, walked to a little knoll, the superintendent gave a little speech, the senior class poet read a little poem, and the ivy bearer planted ivy.
I tried out, and am convinced that I won because no one else wanted the job. The poem I wrote was dreadful:
The ivy grows.
It climbs ever upward,
higher and higher …
And so on. I entered Joliet Junior College in preparation for elementary teaching. I had given up all thoughts of being a missionary, and what else, indeed, could I do? A marvelous speech teacher encouraged me to write my own monologues and read them to the class. I enjoyed having the reaction of an audience, but could you really make a living as a writer?
In Psychology 101, the professor gave us a vocational test designed to discover what we were best suited for. I hoped it would turn up something I hadn't thought of yet, something that would be truly me, not a duplicate of someone else in our family. On the day we were given our scores, my eyes quickly scanned the top of the sheet. The professor had made a graph for each student. I was high in social service, music, literary, and artistic categories. But there, at the very top of the graph, was "Persuasive." A salesman, I thought. Like my father. I could feel my eyes filling with tears. All the remaining categories ranked so low that I was warned to avoid them.
When I got up the nerve to study the results some more, however, I read what was printed under each category: "Persuasive interest," the Kuder Preference Record said, "means that you like to meet and deal with people and to promote projects or things to sell. Most actors, politicians, radio announcers, ministers, salesmen, and store clerks have high persuasive interests." Actors, politicians, and ministers, too? Maybe the "Persuasive" category also included those with something to say.
By the time I reached my third year of college, years later and in another town, I was studying to be a clinical psychologist, not a teacher (though I taught with a temporary certificate for a while), and was able to pay a large share of my tuition by writing and selling stories. When I graduated with a B.A. degree, I realized that writing was my first love, so gave up plans to go on to graduate school and wrote full time. Using the pseudonym P. R. Tedesco, I started a humorous essay column, "First Person Singular," that ran for twenty-five years in church magazines for teenagers. I also continued writing short stories and articles. It wasn't
until I had been writing full time for five years that I got up the courage to try a novel.
I wonder sometimes what my life would be like if I were not a writer. I'm certain I would not be as happy—could not be—because I need to write for so many different reasons. One reason I write is that I'm working out problems on paper where they aren't so scary, deciding how or even whether I could cope. I write to put myself in the place of other people whose lives are very different from mine, to see how and why they make the decisions that they do. I write as a catharsis, to work through strong feelings that immobilize me temporarily. I write to laugh, because I need humor in my life.
In some ways, I was not an easy child to raise. I did not get into any serious trouble, but when I was small I was fearful, and when I reached my late teens, I had religious doubts that troubled my parents.
I don't know what it was that made me fearful. "Phyllis Dean, a bright, happy little soul," Mother wrote beside a picture of me, one year old, in my baby book, so the fears must have come later. We were poor, but I never bothered myself about that. I remember Mother crying when she broke our fever thermometer, and again when my sister spilled the vanilla—needless waste. I remember Mother taking in washing to help support us, and my sister and I taking the clean clothes back to the neighbors (after dark, at my sister's insistence). I was too young for it to faze me then, though I put all this in my book, Walking through the Dark. What terrified me in kindergarten was a doll without hair. If anyone even brought it near me I screamed. I also cried when the teacher left the room. Separation from those I loved (or perhaps from one's hair) was the most frightening thing of all.
So strong was my fear of being separated from Mother that I almost lost my life. To get to school each day, I had to cross some railroad tracks. In the mornings, I walked with my sister, but when I came home at noon, I was by myself. One day on the way home, I saw a freight train coming and panicked. I remembered going to the store sometimes with my mother and how, if a train came by while we were inside, it often stopped, blocking the road while boxcars were added or taken off. To a child of five, waiting beside her mother, it seemed to take forever for the train to get moving again so we could cross the tracks and go home. But to a child alone, the thought of the train separating me from my mother was unbearable. And so I ran.
I reached the other side only seconds before the engine thundered by, the whistle shrieking. I can still see the horrified face of the engineer as he leaned out the side window. At home, white and shaken, I told Mother what had happened. For a long time she walked me home from school herself, then promised me candy for each time a train came and I waited. Each day I came home from school and said proudly, "I didn't run in front of a train today," only because no train happened to come. Yet deep down, I knew that if I were once again put to the test, I would run.
As I grew older, my worries were fear of the dentist, fear of the Nazis, fear of hell, and fear of losing both my parents. A daytime fantasy that caused considerable anguish was what I would do if the Nazis ever came to me and said they were going to kill one of my parents; which one should it be? And when I would answer that it was impossible for me to choose, the Nazis would say that if I didn't, they would kill them both. This fear of having to choose one parent over another surfaced, in a somewhat different way, in my book The Solomon System.
I was afraid, too, of swimming. Swimming lessons never took, and I was in high school before I learned to stay afloat. This fear may have stemmed from a near brush with drowning when I was small. My mother and aunt took a bunch of us cousins to a lake to swim, and as the two women chatted on the grass, we children frolicked about in the water. At some point I stepped into a hole and went in over my head. I remember floating on my back about six inches under the surface, unable to right myself, watching the bubbles from my nose and mouth streaming up through the green water above me and thinking, "So this is what it's like to die." Strangely enough, I felt peaceful. I remembered all the missionaries I had heard about who had lost their lives, and thought how the newspaper would report my death. It was only after a cousin rescued me that pain set in, and I crawled gasping and coughing out of the lake. My mother hadn't even noticed.
The fears of my teens were of math, algebra, and public speaking. I also worried that my feet were too big. But a strange thing happened on the way to growing up. Despite my terror of trains separating me from my mother, Amtrak is now my favorite form of travel. I can also swim. I speak often to large crowds and it doesn't bother me a bit. My feet no longer make me self-conscious, and my toes are absolutely gorgeous.
My mother was a fearful person, too. I remember her worry when my father had to drive home from a long trip on Christmas Eve during a snowstorm. Separation again. In our growing-up years, we were to hear many times how Mother could have drowned but didn't. In college, she and some girlfriends set out in two canoes for a trip down a river. They had stopped along the shore at one point to rest, and soon the girls in the first canoe set off once more while the girls in the second were still getting ready. Then came the screams as the first canoe went over a dam, and all the young women in it drowned.
"What if I had been in the first canoe …?" Mother used to say, over and over. Life, I learned, was risky. The wrong decision could cost you your life. What if, what if …?
True, and yet against this drumbeat of alarm was my father's optimism. While Mother could take a wonderful event and think of all the reasons it might be ruined, my father could take the worst of problems and think of all the reasons it might get better. He did not believe in looking back. Mother's imagination versus Dad's practicality. "Don't cry over spilt milk," he often said.
We had no health insurance, and Dad, with bad kidneys, was unable to get life insurance. Yet he always believed things would be better. He taught me drive and persistence. He read the Dale Carnegie books about success, and believed that you could accomplish anything you wanted if you really tried. "You can say anything to anybody if you say it with a smile," he told me once, which isn't entirely true, but says something about his approach to life.
When I was young, my father always seemed so sure of himself, so competent, that when he was sixty-five and his kidneys were failing at last, it was very difficult for me to know how to be helpful. On one of the last times we were together, I was packing his bag for the hospital and saw him trying to put on his shoes. His hands were shaking, and his feet were unsteady. I wanted so to go to him and help, but was afraid it might embarrass him. And so I let him struggle the best he could. I chastise myself now when I think about it: I didn't even tie his shoes. But Dad would probably say the usual: "Don't cry over spilt milk."
Many of us grow up becoming a composite of our parents, and so did I: I am still a fearful person when it comes to matters of life or limb, but adventurous when it comes to social or professional challenges. If the worst that can happen is a rejection slip or a missed opportunity or the loss of a thousand dollars, well, that I can stand.
We even discover, as we become adults, that some of the negative aspects of our upbringing can't be turned into pluses. My mother's what ifs are, in fact, the basis of every book and story; you start with a common situation and see how far you can take it. Even her tiresome "What will people think?" caused me to be a better listener, observer, trying to detect feelings in others that might have gone unrecognized.
Not all of my mother's imagination went into worrying, of course. To our whine of "What can we do?" on a rainy day, she usually thought up something: doll-houses built out of scratch paper, their walls pinned together to keep them upright. Card games made out of old cracker boxes. Or our favorite pastime of "train," in which we lined up all the dining room chairs like the seats on a train, and covered them with a sheet.
The Depression years, with our finances and my father's health problems in the background, may have been the worst time for my parents, but my own worst time was yet to come. When I was eighteen, I married a brilliant man at the University of Chicago who, five years later, showed all the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. I had completed two years of college when he became ill, but had not yet learned to drive a car, had never written a check or made out the income tax, and could not type. Yet I was suddenly faced not only with supporting us, but coming home at night to a man who was suicidal, who bought a gun to "see the president," who sat with it loaded, waiting for the Communists who were corning up the stairs, he said, to get him. Later, traveling from Illinois to Wisconsin to Minnesota, as he looked for a job where he might feel safe, I wrote and sold short stories to pay our bills, and though many of them were bleak and brooding indeed, others were also funny.
Fifteen years later, long after he had been committed at last to a state hospital, I wrote a book, Crazy Love, about this experience, recording the terror and guilt and sadness of this time in my life. I received many letters, and soon discovered that other people had experienced far worse. "Be glad you had no children," some said. The letters haunted me. Would I have made the same decisions, I wondered, if I had been a mother at the time?
About ten years after writing this book, I began to think, "How would a teenager have handled it?" If I, as a young wife, could scarcely cope, what would a teenager have done? What if he was a young teenager, still awkward and ill at ease? What if, in his vulnerability, he suddenly found himself the keeper of a secret that his mother, in all her anguish, simply could not share with anyone outside the family, as I could not do for a while? It seemed to speak to the problem of how you can rely on a loved and familiar person who is suddenly no longer to be trusted. So I wrote The Keeper because I felt I must.
I almost never write two books of the same kind in succession. If I write a serious novel, I usually follow it up with something funny. An adventure story for children may be followed by a novel for adults. It is not for my audience that I change about, but for myself.
And here's the dichotomy again: while I want all of my books to be different, I wish I could keep the same agents and editors forever. While I may place one book in Iowa, another in Illinois, and still another in West Virginia, I do not, myself, like to move. I want to live in the same house on the same street forever. I am quite content, for weeks at a stretch, when one day is just like the one before—with me sitting in my comfortable chair, a clipboard on my lap, writing. It takes only an occasional trip to satisfy my need for travel. Yet I love the change of seasons, could never live happily in a place where the landscape stayed the same. These contradictions within myself and in the characters I write about are a constant puzzle to me.
Of all the books I write, humor probably comes easiest. I like humor that takes place in the context of ordinary life, which is why I so enjoyed writing The Agony of Alice and its sequel, Alice in Rapture, Sort Of. The first book begins with Alice reflecting on how she used to eat crayons in kindergarten. One day when she was bored, she stuck two crayons up her nostrils, then leaned over her desk and wagged her head from side to side like an elephant with tusks, and the teacher said, "Alice McKinley, what on earth are you doing?"
I receive a lot of letters asking, "Did you really stick crayons up your nose?" and the answer is no, I
didn't, but I saw a boy do it once when I was in third grade. I remember thinking, "I am now looking at the stupidest thing I have ever seen in my life, and will remember it always."
My role as a doubting Thomas in my late teens also provided fuel for books, though I didn't know it then. Actually, the questions about religion began when I was small. I just didn't ask them aloud.
Our lives revolved very much around our church. In Mother's Sunday school class, there were Bible drills in which she would call out a book of the Bible, chapter and verse, and we would scurry to see who could find it first and read it aloud. At home, in addition to the other books our parents read to us, we would hear a chapter a night from the Bible storybook, and when at last the huge book was finished, Mother would start all over again.
I was a fellow traveler with the Israelites on their journey to the promised land. I would never, I was sure, have worshipped the Golden Calf or mocked Elisha. Not me. And yet, as Mother read those stories, a still small voice piped up from time to time. We were told that the Israelites had to destroy Jericho because, as the storybook put it, "it stood in the way to the promised land." The Israelites did this by marching around Jericho seven times before the walls came tumbling down. If they could march around it in the first place, the voice inside me asked, how could it have "stood in the way"? Why didn't they just go around it?
I was certain, too, that if I had been one of the men carrying the ark of the covenant, that precious repository for the Ten Commandments, and the ark started to tip, I too would have reached out one hand to steady it. Why on earth would God strike me dead? Never mind that He had commanded that no one touch it. Didn't anybody get points for using his head?
Questions unresolved stay with us all our lives, and I reached the point where I could not say absolutely that I believed this or that when there was no proof. Neither, of course, could I say I did not believe. While I feel that there is a power beyond ourselves, the only answer I can give with certainty is that I am too small, and the universe too big, ever to understand it all. I'm content with saying "I don't know," without making up answers to explain things or accepting someone else's suppositions or faith as true.
I am as uncomfortable with people who insist that their talents are gifts from God as I am with those who claim that accidents and illnesses are punishments from the Almighty. They do seem related, for if God has chosen to favor some, then He has apparently decided to shortchange others. And because I cannot believe that a loving God would do this, I continue to read and think and wonder.
But coming from a deeply religious background in which many things are accepted on faith, I also understand the need for answers. Caught in the middle of this push and pull, I know what it is like for those who dare to question, or to choose a different church that speaks more specifically to their concerns. My novel A String of Chances was my attempt to grapple with such a situation. I used as parents in the story my own paternal grandparents, and their home in southern Maryland as the setting.
A sense of place is very important to me in a novel. It helps set the mood, determine the characters; it can even help form the plot. I once copied down two quotes by Willa Cather without having any idea, really, of how they applied to me: "Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet," she said, and "The years from eight to fifteen are the formative period in a writer's life."
In my own formative years, vacations were spent with grandparents. If we drove west to Iowa, we would be met at the door by my German-Scottish grandmother, who promptly fed us and put us to bed. Hugs were reserved for arrivals and departures only.
Some summers, however, we headed east instead, where the land became mysterious and hilly about the time we reached Pittsburgh. From then on the terrain was rolling, the roads curving, and we would hang eagerly out the car windows watching for the first sign of Maryland's purple clay soil.
This world seemed light-years away from the farm in Iowa. My paternal grandparents, Pappaw and Mammaw, were from the South. My father himself was born near Yazoo City, Mississippi. It was said that Pappaw's courtship of Mammaw began when he was a young boy and she just a baby. He would carry her about in his arms and announce proudly, "This is the girl I'm going to marry." And he did, when she was only fifteen.
In Iowa, by contrast, my maternal grandfather started his courtship of my grandmother by sending her a formal letter, two weeks in advance, asking her to accompany him to church, references provided.
In Maryland, my most vivid memory of my southern grandmother was going fishing with her along the Potomac. When my sister and I needed to urinate, she took us back in the woods, stepped up on a stump, and announced that she was going to show us how to do it without all that messy business of squatting down in the grass. Whereupon she lowered her slacks, thrust her body forward, and projected a stream as skillfully as any man. I watched, dumbfounded, in awe. My German-Scottish grandmother would have faced a firing squad before she would have exposed herself to her granddaughters.
Although both sets of grandparents lived on farms, I was within walking distance, in Maryland, of any place I wanted to go—the one-room post office, the firehouse, a small grocery, the neighbors, or the church where my grandfather was pastor. For the first time, I had a town I could encompass on foot, roads I could connect, faces that attached themselves to names I heard mentioned frequently over the supper table by my grandmother, the neighborhood midwife.
Years later, when I eventually moved to Maryland in my search to find a hospital that could help my husband, I drove occasionally to Marbury—sometimes just to visit, then to bury Pappaw, finally Mammaw. And one day, on a nostalgic drive back to their old home-place, I decided to use Marbury as the setting for my next book, Revelations.
By the time I had placed a second novel, A String of Chances, in Marbury, and then a third, Unexpected Pleasures, I realized that this small Maryland town had worked its way into my blood. Driving along its one-lane roads, canopied with trees that opened up occasionally for a tobacco field, then closed again, past signs saying "Turkey Shoot, Every Sunday, Eleven till Three" or "Jesus Saves and Heals," I could hear my grandparents' southern voices, the drawl of the hired man, the gossip, the complaints, the blessings. Whereas my Iowa relatives found places in my novels Beetles, Lightly Toasted and Maudie in the Middle, my southern grandfather served as my role model for the father both in A String of Chances and in Night Cry. And these two sets of grandparents—these two very different worlds—became the yin and yang of my life.
As a young girl, however, it all seemed so ordinary. I knew that most grandmothers did not take wards of the state into their homes and care for them as Mammaw did—elderly confused patients like Sister Ozzie and aphasic Mr. Schmidt in A String of Chances—but as a self-conscious teenager, I found this to be an embarrassment, certainly not something I would ever write about for all the world to know. I knew too, that not all grandfathers were ministers, but Pappaw was not, after all, the graduate of a divinity school. He had picked up his theological training in the same way that Mammaw picked up her nurse's expertise, and they always seemed so "backwoods" to me. I wonder now why it took me so long to appreciate my grandparents. Nor did I realize then how valuable all this would be to me someday.
My questions about religion also made me wonder why blacks had to sit at the back of the theater or could use the public pool only on Mondays; why our family always voted Republican; why I should be expected to go to the same college my parents had attended; even why our family never ate anything exotic like spaghetti or chop suey! My questioning did not, unfortunately, make me curious about the natural world. It is a family joke that once, when we were driving to Maryland from our home in Illinois, I complained that the hot afternoon sun was always on my neck there in the back seat. "Why can't it come in some other window for a change?" I griped. I still remember that hush in the car as all faces turned to stare at me, and for the first time I found out that the sun always rises in the east and sets in the west. I had thought, with the earth whirling around through space willy-nilly, the sun just came up on whatever side of the earth it happened to be. The vocational
test was right; I would never have made a scientist.
When I was twenty-seven, in one of the best decisions of my life, I married for the second time. My husband, Rex, is a speech pathologist with strong interests in population control, creative writing, and chess. Over the years he has become the chief editorcritic of my work before it goes to a publisher. By the time I was thirty, I really liked myself. Not everything, of course; there were still many things I would have changed if I could—many things I am still working on. But I no longer craved to be named "Judy," the name I yearned for when I was small; I no longer felt I had to please every group I happened to find myself with; I did not agonize forever over goofs made in public; I could be myself without apology. Several years of psychotherapy helped bring about these changes in me. So did my second marriage. But mostly, it was that I had found myself—who I was and what I could do. I could write.
We have two sons, now grown. Jeff, who collected stamps and was editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper, is married, and is a knowledge-engineer for a computer consulting firm that devises programs in artificial intelligence and expert systems. Michael, who recently graduated with a degree in communications, is interested in video production, weight lifting, and music.
There is something rather nice about everyone in a family having his own unique interests and occupation. Just as I didn't know, as a mother, what our children would become when they were grown, I often don't know, as an author, exactly what my characters will say or do. I'm there to guide them, but if they are to come alive on paper, they must be given the chance to be themselves.
Rex and I live in a very ordinary house in an ordinary neighborhood in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. I love the big box elder in our backyard that the boys climbed when they were small, our pool, the screened porch where we eat our summer breakfasts, play with the cats, and read the Sunday paper. When the boys were still home and the world seemed close to war, we bought a Bradford pear tree to plant outside the kitchen window. Our "tree of hope," we called it, and said that someday we would have a picnic beneath its branches. We haven't had our picnic yet, but the tree is as tall as the house now, a mass of white blossoms in spring, crimson leaves in the fall.
When our sons were young, we traveled a bit—to Spain, France, and Italy with Jeff as a baby, later to England and Scotland and many places around the United States with both boys. Now when Rex and I travel, we usually go at a leisurely pace—by train, if possible—and enjoy meeting and talking with other passengers in the dining car.
We feel we are in the thick of things, living so near the nation's capital. In the early years of our marriage, we picketed the White House for a ban on nuclear testing and again later against the Vietnam war; we participated in the March on Washington in 1963 when Martin Luther King gave his "I have a dream…" address. At some point, it occurred to me that with all of our protest activities, we might have an FBI file, and after reading that any citizen could request a look at his, I wrote the FBI and asked for a copy of mine—if there was one.
What surprised me then, as it does now, is that what the FBI chose to investigate was not our picketing of the president, but rather a letter I had once written to one of our senators protesting the imprisonment in South Korea of a poet because he had written a poem against his government. I wanted to know why we would support a regime that would do such a thing. This, evidently, was alarming enough to make the FBI do a background check on me. I do remember a man calling, asking questions about my occupation. I explained that I was a freelance writer and that I wrote at home. Nowhere in the report did it mention that I was a writer, however. Marked "Confidential," it stated that I sometimes used the names "Phyllis Naylor, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, or Phyllis Dean Naylor, depending on the circumstances," and that although a check of four different police departments turned up no criminal or traffic records, "Naylor volunteered the information that she is self-employed and works out of her own home." I like to think that the FBI has found more important things to do since then.
In my books, I don't write about the members of my family directly, but I know, and so do they, that little pieces of their personalities, their interests and abilities find their way into the lives of my characters. We write from what we know, and who else do we know as well as ourselves and those who are closest to us?
No matter what type of characters I write about, however, I am a part of each one—even the ugly, the foolish, and the evil. How else can I make them real on paper? I can become all of these people in my books by tapping into my own reservoir of arrogance or cowardice, my own times of being mean-spirited and selfish. I take this risk because I accept the fact that everything I have ever felt or seen or heard or experienced, no matter how marvelous or disgusting or terrifying or brave, someone else has experienced, too. And I can therefore trust the generosity of the reader when I put my worst thoughts and feelings down on paper.
But an experience in real life is almost always woven into the threads of imagination and fantasy, so that the story that appears in a book resembles only something of the incident that triggered it. While visiting friends in West Virginia, my husband and I went for a walk along a river one morning, and it was there we met the dog that appears in my novel Shiloh. In reality it was a case of a throw-away dog who had been mistreated, and in real life the problem was what to do about it when there were so many abandoned pets in the area, and this one was simply one of many. Because we were leaving for home on the same day, we could not take the dog with us, since we could not be sure it was not somebody's pet. Yet all the way home I worried, and when days went by and I could not seem to get the dog out of my mind, the choice seemed to be either to do something about it or have a nervous breakdown. And so, as I usually do when faced with a sticky problem, I wrote.
In my story, however, the boy Marty knows to whom the dog belongs. He knows the dog is being mistreated, and when the animal runs away a second time and takes refuge at Marty's house, the boy hides him, and so begins a story not only about a mistreated dog but about honesty: what is the right thing to do in such a situation.
Not all of my books have happy endings. This one did, however, not only in its fictional form, but in real life. Several weeks after we had returned from West Virginia, we got a letter from our hosts. On a walk of their own, the same dog that had wrenched our hearts wrenched theirs. And so they took it home, fed it, kept it, and named it Clover.
When I wrote Beetles, Lightly Toasted, I knew for a fact that I was writing a gross book. I knew I would make people gag, because I am the original finicky eater. My father was often the cook in our family. His cornbread, his grits with red-eye gravy, and his fried chicken were beyond compare, but I also remember calves' brains scrambled with eggs, huge woody parsnips, and—horror of horrors—slimy green okra pods. My mother did not believe in telling lies, and when we came to the table to find a strangely shapen piece of gray meat on a platter and asked, "What is it?" Mother would always answer brightly, "Try it and see!"
Immediately alarm bells would ring and we would push our portion of the strange stuff from one side of our plates to the other. And then, when we realized at last that the object before us was tongue and would cover our mouths, Mother would say pleadingly, "But it's calves' tongue!" as though this made it better somehow than sheep's tongue or pig's tongue or anybody else's tongue.
Everything I worry about finds its way somehow into a novel. The mistakes I have made get rectified in two or three hundred pages, and though not every story ends predictably, it provides enough humor or catharsis to enable me to put one problem aside for a time and tackle another. Very selfish, very self-centered, this writing.
The mother in The Year of the Gopher who, when her son experimented with baking soda and vinegar, rushed out and bought him a chemistry set? The one who, when her daughter asked the difference between a violin and a viola, gave her six years of piano? Well, I was that mother, more or less. I am also Craig's little brother in The Dark of the Tunnel who packs up his possessions in case of a nuclear war; at age ten, I stuffed two slices of bread in the well of our pencil sharpener so that when the Nazis invaded our small Indiana town and confiscated every morsel of food we had, we would still have a few stale crusts to sustain us. FAMILY SAVED BY CLEVERNESS OF YOUNGER DAUGHTER. I could see the headlines even then.
Not every aspect of writing a novel is pleasurable. The anticipation, quite frankly, before the writing begins, is sometimes the nicest part for, in this courtship stage, everything about the novel-to-be seems wonderful; I am often sure it will be the best book I have ever written. The hardest part for me is the first draft, for there is no blueprint to show the way, no structure on which to hang the parts of the story that are floating about in my head. As a novel progresses, there are usually scenes that are easy and wonderful to write, others that are far more difficult. The second, third, and fourth drafts are much more fun, for here I am expanding on what is already down on paper. On the final draft, however, whether it is fifth, sixth, or seventh, the job seems difficult once again as I want every word to be the best possible before I send it off to the publisher.
Sometimes, after a book is conceived, I discover it is going to be twins. Two very different themes or plots emerge, so I write one and later go on to deliver the other. This happened with a novel called Unexpected Pleasures. It started out as a book for teenagers, Send No Blessings, which I had wanted to place in West Virginia, a state I love. As the plans progressed, however, I realized it was a book for adults and would be set in southern Maryland. Unexpected Pleasures was written and published first, Send No Blessings four years later.
I don't enjoy research. I resent the time spent in traveling or reading or digging up facts, thinking how I could be well into the book if I didn't have to do all this work beforehand. And yet I must. During the writing of Unexpected Pleasures, it took months of calling to locate an ironworker who knew something about bridges. But the effort was well repaid once I found a man who had helped build the second Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
Most of what I have learned about writing has come from the process itself, from my husband's criticism and that of fellow writers, and from the rejection and acceptance letters of editors. I wanted to write for Jean Karl of Atheneum for many years before I finally submitted a manuscript to her. When she replied that she would consider it again if I would revise it, this turning point was one of the great good fortunes of my career.
I have also, from time to time, asked the help of my sons. Jeff and I once co-authored an article on mummies—he doing the research and I the writing. When working on my novel The Year of the Gopher, which takes place in Minneapolis, I enlisted the help of my daughter-in-law, Julie, in getting the setting just right. Once I sat in on one of our younger son's weight-lifting sessions so I could describe it in a book. I even paid Mike and three friends twenty dollars to play poker so that I could catch the rhythms of play and the conversation during the game.
While research is a low point for me in writing, and reading galleys is even worse, one of the most embarrassing things that happened to me came during an interview on a TV program. I had written a book called In Small Doses, which was a compilation of short humorous essays about family life, based loosely on my own family. I had changed Rex's name to Ralph, Jeff's to Jack, Michael's to Peter, and had imported an imaginary daughter named Susan to round out the family. Not having a daughter, I used myself as a young girl as my model, and some of the ridiculous things that I did as an adolescent found their way into the book as performed by the hapless Susan.
The interviewer had a copy of In Small Doses on his lap, and was telling the TV audience how much he had enjoyed the book. He went on to describe some of the funny things Susan had done, while I became increasingly uncomfortable. Please, he insisted finally, tell the viewers something more about this funny daughter of yours.
I could not sit there and lie to him and the people watching, so I said, "Look, I've got a confession to make, I don't have a daughter. I just made her up."
The interviewer did not laugh. He didn't even smile. He stared at me for a full five seconds, and finally held the book up to the camera and said, "Of course you have a daughter! It says so right here!"
The scary part of being a writer is that there is no vacation pay, no sick leave, no guarantee that even if I put in a fifteen-hour day for two or three years, I'm going to have anything to show for it in the end—anything that someone will buy. I am always conscious of the time when I go out for the evening. I know that if my mind is to function the next day, I must have plenty of rest; I know that if I am upset over something else in my life, it will be hard to concentrate and the writing will be flat. No one will pay me for sitting at a desk and putting in my time. With every new idea for a book, there is that awful mixture of anticipation and terror; I am wildly excited by what I want to do but am never really sure that I can do it.
One of the things that happens to us, I think, as we grow older, is that the differences that divide people do not seem as important as their similarities. I am closer to my brother and sister now than I was as a teen, and we share the same concerns as parents. And I'm far more interested in trying to be a "healer" than a "hurter"—a person who smooths the way rather than a person who enjoys stirring up trouble. Perhaps this was a lesson my mother had to learn as well, for it was the theme of a book we coauthored, Maudie in the Middle, about the early years of her life just after the turn of the century in Sioux County, Iowa.
I know that I carry many different people inside me, and I call on them from time to time when needed. There are moments I still feel like a scared child, yet I can draw on this panic when I need to in my writing. I also know what it is like to be the strong one when necessary, the supportive one, and sometimes I have to talk to myself like a reassuring mother. If I never experienced fear or jealousy, could I write about them convincingly? Perhaps not. And so, when I go through a difficult time, I tell myself, "Remember this; perhaps you can use it in a book."
All of us, authors and readers alike, will have both joy and pain in our lives. I have never been one to think "Why me?" but rather, "Why not me?" since I've seen many tragedies happen to friends. The difference between author and reader, I guess, is that after going through a difficult time, the writer is less likely to give himself a good hard shake and get on with his life; he grabs hold of the thought, the worry, the experience, the feeling, and doesn't let go, painful though they may be. He insists on dissecting, examining, and re-creating them on paper in a way that will provide release. The more he can touch upon universals, the more his experiences will speak for others.
The main reason I write, I must admit, is for the "high" that writing gives me—that certain moment when, through dialogue or narration—a character comes to life on paper, or when a place that existed only in my head becomes real. There are no bands playing at this moment, no audience applauding—it's a very solitary time—but it's what I like most.
My life is very busy, orderly, and planned—more so, at times, than I like. I have given up a lot for writing—oil painting, madrigal singing, dozens of books I'd planned someday to read but never do. I see a year not so much in seasons as in projects: "It will take me from now until spring to do the revisions on such and such, and then I can start work on so and so, with a break in the fall for a talk in Michigan, and perhaps by next January, I can take another look at the novel I put away last year."
I resolve to add more spontaneity to what my husband and I do, and sometimes I am successful. A late night swim or a weekend at the ocean or a trip to an apple orchard makes a joyful interlude. But there is always a book on my mind. Getting ideas is never a problem; keeping them away while I'm doing something with my family or working on a different manuscript is the rub. They are like bees at a picnic, and I continually swat them off.
Because ideas make good company, however, being alone for hours at a time or even days is exhilarating, not depressing. There is a difference, of course, between solitude by choice and being alone by fate, and I am lucky to have my family. But I am also lucky to have the troop of noisy, chattering characters who travel with me inside my head. As long as they are poking, prodding, demanding a place in a book, I have things to do and stories to tell.
POSTSCRIPT: Phyllis Reynolds Naylor contributed the following update to SATA in 2004:
Much has happened in the fifteen years since I submitted my material for Something about the Author Autobiography Series and much has stayed the same. Our older son Jeff and his wife Julie have two daughters now, Sophia and Tressa. Our younger son Mike and his wife Jeanie have a little boy, Garrett Riley Naylor. We don't live near either family, so the times we can all be together are very special.
In 1992, the book I wrote about an abused beagle, Shiloh, was awarded the Newbery medal. Some authors have a strong suspicion that a book of theirs is on the "short list" for consideration because professional journals often predict in advance who they think might win this wonderful award. But no one mentioned Shiloh. And while one reviewer wrote, "… a moving and powerful look at the best and the worst of human nature as well as the shades of gray that color most of life's dilemmas," another said, "… this title is not up to Naylor's usual high quality."
I belong to the Children's Book Guild of Washington, D.C., a group of professional authors, illustrators, and librarians. Whenever one of us has a new book, we present it to the group. I remember standing before them, clutching the first copy of Shiloh after publication, and saying plaintively, "No one will ever love this book as much as I do." I am happy to say I was wrong.
I've known authors who said they waited by the phone the day their Newbery award was announced, their bags half packed, hopefully anticipating that trip to New York and their appearance on the Today Show. On that January morning, however, my husband was out jogging and I was calmly eating my shredded wheat when the phone rang. I answered and heard a woman's voice telling me that Shiloh had won the Newbery. And I heard my own voice saying, "I don't know what to say!"
The next thirty-six hours, however, said it for me. I was told that the Today Show would be calling me shortly, and that I would need to be in New York that evening. After I hung up, I stared at our two cats, grooming themselves in a patch of sunlight, and I wondered if I had imagined it all. Then the phone rang
again. It was NBC. When my husband got back from jogging, I was standing on the front porch in my robe telling him I had exactly twenty-four hours to lose thirty pounds.
The next six hours were a blur. The phone rang constantly. Bouquets of flowers began to arrive. Bottles of champagne. A photographer from the Washington Post. How could I pack? I wondered. What would I wear? We zapped our lunch several times in the microwave, but could not eat because of the interruptions. I phoned a few friends and relatives to tell them we would be in New York, and finally, by late afternoon, we were on our way.
A limo was sent to our hotel the following morning, and I found myself in a holding room at NBC along with David Weisner, winner of the Caldecott award. David and I scarcely had time to greet each other before we were whisked onto the set, where Jane Pauley was substituting that day. A technician off to one side was counting off seconds before air time: "Seventeen … sixteen … fifteen …" as another technician hurried over to me with a tiny microphone and said, "Slip this up under your dress, behind your bra and out the neckline of your blouse," while the first technician continued, "Eleven … ten … nine …"
"I can't possibly do that in nine seconds!" I choked, so he sat me down and attached the mike to my collar.
Jane Pauley leaned forward and said to us both, "Now this is going to be short and painful." Then she covered her mouth in horror and said, "Oh, my gosh, I never said that before! I meant painless!" And then we were on the air.
Afterwards, of course, our respective publishers took us out to lunch with much fanfare, and when Rex and I arrived home that evening, we found more flowers and champagne waiting for us on the doorstep. But when we stepped inside, we found a surprise of a different sort: little heaps of vomit. Our two cats had feasted on the flowers that had arrived the day before and thrown up all over the rug. Those were the first thirty-six hours of the Newbery.
But what was happening to me was no crazier than what was happening to Clover, that little dog back in West Virginia, and to our friends who had taken her in. The Washington Post called them with news about the award and wrote up the story. Over the next few months, Frank and Trudy Madden received phone calls from as far away as Denver, asking them to bring Clover to their town, all expenses paid, so that children could see the dog who had inspired the Newbery book.
Our friends didn't do that, but they did, on request, take her around to schools and libraries in West Virginia, where she would stand on a library table beside a stamp pad, and as students lined up to have their books signed, the Maddens would take one of her paws, press it on the stamp pad, and "paw-tograph" each book. "How did that work out?" I asked. "She was always so shy and trembly!"
She loved it! I was told. She basked in all the attention. But after about the thirtieth pawtograph, she would lie down, roll over, and hold one paw up in the air as if to say, "Do what you will with it, but I'm going to take a nap."
The downside of winning the Newbery is that I am busier than I really want to be. There don't seem to be those long leisurely stretches of unbroken time to spend on a manuscript, and more often than not, a book-to-be is started and stopped and started and stopped, so that it is finished at last by intensive sessions of writing separated by travel and speaking. But who should complain over that? I have learned to make Amtrak my writer's retreat. A cross-country trip of three days and three nights in my own little bedroom, with America rolling by outside my window, has proven to be one of my favorite places to write.
I had told myself I would write no more books about Shiloh. I did not want to turn it into a series, crowding bookshelves with Shiloh Goes to the Beach and Shiloh Goes to the Moon. But as letters from readers continued to arrive in huge batches, I was concerned at the depth of their rage over the character of Judd Travers, who had abused the little dog.
"Write another book and have Marty's father buy a gun and shoot Judd through the brain," they wrote. "Make his truck go over a cliff and burn him up." I wanted them to see that people are not born mean, and that there were circumstances in Judd's life that shaped him into the kind of man he was. So I wrote a sequel, Shiloh Season.
Then I realized that only one thing would ever convince Marty that Judd would never again hurt Shiloh, and that would be for Judd to risk his own life to save the dog. The final book in the trilogy was titled Saving Shiloh.
The first two books were made into feature films and can be seen on video. Rex and I were invited to Los Angeles to watch the filming, and we went down for a few days when Shiloh Season was in progress. It was a wonderful experience to see the talents of Rod Steiger, Michael Moriarty, Scott Wilson, and Ann Dowd all come together to bring the story to life on screen. The younger cast members had to be replaced for this second movie because the child actors in the first movie had grown too old for their parts. And the role of Shiloh was actually played by two look-alike beagles who were specially trained for the movies.
In general I was pleased with the films because the director and the producer, Dale Rosenbloom and Carl Borack, had worked hard to capture the spirit, theme, and setting of the two books. I believe you must look at a book and its movie counterpart as two separate entities, because what might work as a book does not always work on the screen. Time must be abbreviated, for example, and action, not musing, is the keyword. Film rights have been sold for Saving Shiloh but it is not in production at this time.
When I wrote The Agony of Alice, published in 1985, I had no idea it was going to turn into a series. I had simply wanted to write about a motherless girl, being raised by her father and older brother, and her search for a female role model. She finds it not in the beautiful sixth-grade teacher, Miss Cole, whom she longed to have for a mentor, but in homely Mrs. Plotkin. Yet at the end of the book, it is Mrs. Plotkin who has won her heart. Then the letters from readers began to arrive, and reviewers said such things as, "Alice's many fans will await her further adventures," and I said, What?
If there were to be more Alice books, I wanted there to be growth and change. I did not want the series to turn into a sitcom that goes on the same way, in the same year, forever and ever. So Alice is slightly older in each Alice book. I am planning a total of twenty-eight, including three prequels, and the very last one will take her from age eighteen to sixty, touching on the highpoints of her life. Actually, a draft of that last novel sits in a fireproof box in my office, with instructions to my sons to send it to the publisher should I be run over by a bread truck. But I am sure I will revise it many times before it is officially finished.
It is astonishing to me that the Alice series has appeared on the list of the most challenged books in the United States for many years now. While Alice and her friends are very frank with each other about what they feel and think and believe, and while some of these topics deal with bodies and sex, these scenes are a normal part of teenage life. The letters I receive daily, both by post and by e-mail, bear this out. But the number of critical letters I receive are far outweighed by others telling me that the Alice books have provoked some wonderful classroom or dinner table discussions, and I am grateful to my many readers for their support.
To help handle the fan mail, my publisher created an Alice website, http://www.simonsays.com/alice. I can more easily answer questions and take suggestions from readers this way. I think I learn as much from them as they learn from me.
I try never to write the same type of book twice in a row. Novels such as Walker's Crossing and Sang Spell provide an entirely different climate, requiring new research, a new voice. Parade magazine once featured a young skinhead, a person who had taken a hard look at himself—at the loathsome things he had done—and decided he did not like what he saw. He changed his life, and I was struck by the ability of someone so young to have this insight.
I began to research hate groups, those home-grown militia organizations. With the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which provided me with much of my background material, I began to educate myself about what makes these groups tick, composed as they are by a wide assortment of individuals. The common denominator, it seemed to me, was fear—fear of change. Fear that they might lose their jobs, their guns, their women, their children, their homes, their country. And because fear needs an object, they seek one out: minorities, Jews, the government, Communism, the United Nations, you name it. I wrote Walker's Crossing, about a twelve year-old boy on a ranch in Wyoming, because I wanted young people to see how violence can begin.
Sang Spell was more different still. In a column by Jack Anderson many years ago in the Washington Post, I was reading about economic conditions in Hancock County, Tennesssee, and he mentioned a group called the Melungeons, a mysterious dark-skinned people with European features who lived high up in the hills, and were thought to be descendants of survivors of a Portuguese shipwreck.
As soon as I read that paragraph, I had to know more. The research stretched over a period of several years. I finally went to Tennessee and talked with a Melungeon who has written several books about his heritage. My fascination with him and his people took hold, so I wrote Sang Spell, a blend of history and fantasy.
Then there was Jade Green: A Ghost Story. Many years ago I saw a scary movie called The Hand, about a severed hand that crept around the house at night, and it scared me half out of my wits. Thinking about it some more, I reasoned that most of my readers had probably not seen it, so why not resurrect that hand in a story of my own choosing? The voice became one of Judith Sparrow, a young girl in the 1800s, going to live with a relative in the Carolinas, and I had a great time writing that book.
Our two cats, Ulysses and Marco, now gone, figured in four of my books, and to be perfectly honest, I wrote for revenge.
Ulysses had a habit of swallowing anything long and wiggly—grass, tinsel, rubber bands…One Christmas I set up a little gift-wrapping area in the basement. On a curtain rod over a card table, I placed four rolls of crinkle ribbon so that I could quickly pull a piece down when needed. Little did I know, when I closed up shop for the evening, that Ulysses was still down there. He must have jumped up on the card table in the night and taken the end of the gold ribbon in his mouth. As he swallowed, the ribbon kept unwinding, and when the gold ribbon was gone, he ate the blue, then the red and green.
Several months later when I took the cats for their shots, the veterinarian said, "Mrs. Naylor, I can feel a huge tumor in your cat's abdomen." He told me to go home, that he would operate, and when he found out what was going on, he would call me and we could discuss what to do.
Two hours later he called and asked, "Are you sitting down?" The verdict: forty yards of Christmas ribbon, eleven rubber bands, grass and hair. It cost me four hundred and fifty dollars, and when I got that cat home again, I looked him in the eye and said, "I'm going to earn that money back! I'm going to write a book about you!" So I did, and The Grand Escape was followed by The Healing of Texas Jake, Carlotta's Kittens and the Club of Mysteries and Polo's Mother. The stories are about two housecats who make their escape and join a club of cats whose mission is to discover the great secrets about their human masters.
There were many other books, of course—the "Boys Versus Girls" books—The Boys Start the War, The Girls Get Even, etc. Some took much longer than others—some required research, some required none. I also finished After, a novel for adults that was nineteen years in the making. I was writing other things too at the time, but for some reason it took years of thinking about it before it all came together.
As always, my husband Rex is the first person to read my manuscripts once they are completed. He is also, perhaps, my most severe critic—fair, but thorough—so I don't let him see anything until I feel it is as good as I can do. It is never as good as I can do, however, and he makes me write better than I think I can.
After I make the revisions he suggests, I read the manuscript aloud, a few chapters at a time, to a critique group I have been meeting with for twenty-three years. We are all published writers, so we know both the delights and the disappointments of writing as a profession, and though we are gentle with each other, we are honest. It wouldn't work otherwise.
And so my life goes on very much as before, but there are always changes. I still have the same great agent, Bill Reiss, but I lost one of my longtime editors, the wonderful Jean Karl, to cancer.
There are changes in family too. My father died in 1967, but in the early nineties, in three successive years, I lost first my ninety-year-old mother, then my brother-in-law, then my sister, and a few years after that, my husband's brother. I feel a sharp regret that my mother did not live long enough to celebrate the Newbery with me, but the pain of losing my sister was deeper than I ever expected. The more people we have to love, of course, the more people we add to our worry list. But the arrival of grandchildren is a constant reminder that life renews itself, and I get great satisfaction out of dedicating some of my books to these children and reading along with them.
I have lived long enough to know that just as the world situation can become seemingly hopeless at times, periods of violence and unspeakable cruelty can be followed by periods of progress and calm. Through it all, I still have family. I still have friends. I still have my work.
The Bradford pear tree we planted outside our kitchen window when the world situation looked especially bleak—our tree of peace, we called it—fell down and was replaced by another. That too proved fragile, and Hurricane Isabel toppled it when I was away on a speaking engagement. We know, of course, that world peace does not depend on our tree, but we wanted a symbol of hope to remind us of the good in human beings, and now a brilliant crimson maple thrills us in the fall.
I generally write about three books a year, but the stack of three-ring notebooks beside my writing chair grows. Each has the name of a book-to-be in masking tape on the spine. Inside each notebook are summaries of the plot, descriptions of characters—notations about time and place and theme. There are pockets in each notebook for assorted newspaper clippings, for maps, for photos. Every time I get a new idea for that particular novel, I jot it down inside the notebook where I know it will stay until needed.
But sometimes an idea will begin to fade. If enthusiasm doesn't grow for one story or another, I eventually discard it, only to replace it with a more urgent plot—something new that has struck out of the blue. The ideas come faster than the books are written, and there are enough ideas-in-waiting beside my chair that I could not possibly live long enough to write them all.
So when one book is done, there is sometimes a luxurious moment when I think, Now what would I really most love to do next? Sometimes the question does not have to be asked, because often before one book is finished, another of those notebook ideas is fairly jumping off the shelf, crying "Me! Do me next!"
I look at my books as pots cooking on the stove. All are simmering, some longer than others. It's the pot that boils over that gets my attention. When a particular story is the first thing on my mind in the morning and the last thing on my mind at night, I know the only way to deal with the excitement is to write that one next.
How could I not love this job? I am so lucky that whatever grabs my attention, frightens me, amazes me, mystifies me, or makes me laugh, is something that can be relived or exorcised forever by turning it into a book.
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Grace Napolitano: 1936—: Politician to Richard (Wayne) Peck (1934-) Biography - CareerPhyllis Reynolds (P. R. Tedesco) Naylor (1933-) - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights, Autobiography Feature