Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.
I am obsessed with helping kids, not just survive childhood but grow into their best adult selves. I do this in my books, each of which could be boiled down to a grandiose and old-fashioned sounding title like: On Courage, On Prejudice, On Finding Home. I want to sweep young readers away with life’s epic challenges and possibilities, but my most intense effort along those lines is not literary. It’s practical, modest, and extremely local, and is aimed at the kids of my own neighborhood. Seminole Manor is blue-collar bordering on welfare and our children have limited opportunities to gain life experience; one girl told me of a friend who lived far away and then named a street at the edge of the neighborhood. When my father died, my husband and I (with the help of many volunteers) turned his house into a children’s library that offers books and programs on everything from map-making and Greek mythology to human anatomy—a couple of weeks ago while taking on simple machines we built a catapult that jettisons rocks across the yard. Our library uses books and catapult-building to stimulate creative thinking and to demonstrate that life’s options are vast.
I am also obsessed with making and writing music. Through high school, college and a little beyond I was always in a rock band or duo. After a very long hiatus I am now half of a duo called Hot Tamale. With my partner, Craig Reeder, I perform Motown, classic country, R&B. Best of all we write music collaboratively. Lately we have been writing lyrics that come out of the experience of being a little older. Who needs more music that celebrates falling in love at eighteen? I wrote enough of that stuff while suffering early love myself (and bemoaning the fact so few words rhyme comfortably with “love”).
I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?
I was on a school visit—something writers for young readers do a lot—trying to make the concept of “setting” real. "Tell me about a place you know well," I said. I was ready to hear about a neighborhood, a school, Disney. Instead I heard about a cardboard box, the kind an appliance comes in. The boy who’d stuck his hand up said he had one. The box was where he went when he needed to be alone. That need for a place was the germ that became "Summer on the Moon." I had intended to go with the cardboard box and I gave it a shot, but the box grew in the writing, becoming a financially distressed housing project that was only partially built. As the kid in the only family that has moved into Moon Bridge Estates, Socko makes the entire subdivision his cardboard box. He skateboards in the empty swimming pool, walks the beams of unfinished houses, and in the end leads Rapp, the gang leader from his old neighborhood, on a chase across a territory he knows and Rapp doesn't.
What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?
Shy and self-conscious—why, oh why, do my eyebrows meet in the middle? Observant. A listener. From my novelist mother I learned writer’s habits like editing (done by her on any flat surface anywhere in the house, sometimes while ironing my dad’s shirt with the other hand), an awed respect for good writing (she committed poems to memory while washing dishes), the stoic acceptance of rejection (“not for us” letters came to our mailbox with such regularity she rented a PO box to avoid my live-in grandfather’s punitive sympathy). The childhood provided by my parents was safe and nurturing. That, more than anything, affected the stories I write. I will never write a book in which a young character is completely unsafe and without access to adult help. That help may not come from a parent, but sympathetic, responsible adults can always be found a couple doors down.
What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?
I never studied writing—yes, I’m an imposter. I am a trained artist—a field which also has surprisingly slim job prospects, but straight out of the Rhode Island School of Design I got a job as an illustrator for the Baltimore Zoo. This was back when zoo workers trickled in from truck circuses, farms, performing dog acts. Cleaning toilets was a retired blues singer named Orgie Kimball who had performed with Billy Holiday, “back in the day.” I married the zoo photographer. When I finally sat down to write in earnest, the zoo and my fellow employees became my first novel. After the birth of our daughter, Ray and I packed our step van and rolled out of Baltimore. Living aboard an old wooden boat in the Keys, I had my own art gallery, ran a public library, taught art at the community college, cleaned condos, kept books for a carpenter. The time of knocking around in the Keys generated a couple more novels. My random wanderings hardly constitute a career but they have yielded the observation that has generated every one of my books. With or without visible accomplishments, everyone has a story. Surprisingly often the woman cleaning toilets, the toes cut out of her sneakers to ease her bunions, can tell you about how she once sang with Lady Day.
If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it -- other than cash?
I teach writers from third grade through imminent extinction. Some are excited by the prospect, some are indifferent, even unwilling. I do it first to see the spark of story ignite and the writing begin—I had the same experience teaching drawing. Everyone can draw and everyone can tell a story. Once the words are hitting the page I get huge satisfaction out of keeping new writers off rocks that holed me below the waterline when I began.
What's your worst writerly habit?
When in doubt I return to page one. There is always a word/sentence/paragraph that needs a little talking to, but since I’ve been there so many times that page has a reassuring familiarity. Page one is where I sit on the ugly but comfortable couch and drink the coffee that will get me back to the swampy middle pages of the manuscript. I can make a cup of coffee last a long, long time.
The Front Porch Library: http://thefrongporchlibrary.wordpress.com
Hot Tamale: http://hottamale.weebly.com/index.html
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