When Jennifer suggested that I interview Clare Vanderpool, I must admit I had to look her up. And when I did, whew, was I glad. Any writer who quotes Madeline L’Engle out of the gate, gets big points for me. Her debut novel Moon Over Manifest won the Newbery Medal, the first debut work to do so in 30 years. Enjoy the interview with her, and be sure to pick up her books asap.
1. Tell me about your latest project.
I don’t usually say much about a work in progress. I like to keep things fluid and malleable as long as possible. Once I’ve started to reveal things about the story it starts to feel somewhat solid and it becomes more difficult to change. Every story is challenging, especially at the beginning. It takes a lot of time just sitting quietly, staring off into space, waiting for the characters to begin to speak and reveal themselves. That can be challenging in a busy life. But when the characters start to speak, I’m all ears!
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
Books and reading were a huge part of my childhood. My mom was a schoolteacher and she taught us to read at an early age. We made frequent trips to the library and always had lots of books available in our home. I remember sitting in a dressing room while my mom tried on dress after dress, and being thoroughly wrapped up in a Nancy Drew book. I would even have an extra book with me in case I finished one I’d have another ready to go.
As for writing, I always enjoyed the creative writing assignments we had in school and seemed to get good feedback from teachers on the stories I wrote. In 5th grade we were supposed to write a paragraph about what we wanted to be when we grew up. One of my answers was I wanted to be a writer. I think I always knew that I had some stories of my own to tell.
3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?
My writing routine has evolved greatly over the years so it is a stretch to even call it a routine. With younger children, every time I’d settle into a routine, the dynamic at home would change and I’d have to come up with another plan. I have had to be somewhat of a vagabond writer, taking up temporary residence in various friends’ homes, offices, apartments, garages. I have trained myself to be able to get in a zone almost anywhere.
The part of writing that has not changed is the discipline of sitting down and getting quiet inside. Having a little writing experience under my belt at this point, I have learned to trust the process. The story will come. The characters will speak. I think the challenge is to keep at it, even when the words are not flowing. When that happens, I switch over to a spiral notebook and ask a lot of questions. Sometimes, it turns into a personal interview with one of my characters. Sometimes, it’s just pondering what might happen in a particular scene. Another tool in my writing arsenal is the telephone and it usually involves calling my sister. The way she describes these phone calls is that I call with a particular question or dilemma and I proceed to talk it out while she listens and says, things like “oh” or “sounds good” or “yeah, that might work,” while I come up with my own answer. She says the whole thing makes her feel very helpful.
4. Who are you reading now?
Some of my recent favorites are: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, Gloryland by Sheldon Johnson, and a re-reading of Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry.
5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love these books?
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – a story with a wonderful voice. When I give writing workshops, voice is a little challenging to teach. Scout’s voice is one for the ages.
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather – really any book by Willa Cather. I love her sense of place, especially the richness of the Midwest, and how place weaves it’s way in and out of character in her books.
Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger – a great story with a wonderful mix of humor and pathos. You start out thinking this is a laugh out loud book and by the end it becomes something stronger and deeper. This is one of my most often recommended books.
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?
Honestly, in my life right now, I have to know my limits as well as my interests. I was born before the 1990’s so most forms of social media confuse me. When I grew up we had three channels and we actually had to get off the couch to change them. We had one telephone line and if someone else was on it, you were out of luck. I’m not on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. I don’t know how to Face Time or SnapChat or Hashtag. I called it flashtag once and my daughter gave me one of those teenage eyerolls. It’s kind of fun to get that reaction so sometimes I get things wrong on purpose. I call Mumford & Sons – Sanford & Sons. She really rolls her eyes at that. Some of my lack of participation in social media is sheer ignorance and inability, but it’s also by design. I have to stay focused on the job at hand and for me writing stories is my priority. I have a website that I try to update once in a while but probably not enough. I’ll leave most of that to those born after 1990.
7. What is a typical day like for you?
I typically get up at 4:55 to go exercise at the Y. Come home, get kids off to school, eat breakfast and get a few things crossed off my to-do list to clear up some mental space. This is dangerous because the morning can get away from me very quickly if I’m not careful. Hopefully, I’m sitting down by around 10 am and I try to write until school is out. That’s when the house gets pleasantly noisy which is usually a relief from the quiet of writing. I try to get caught up on everyone’s day. My high school aged son loves when I ask him, “what’d you do today?” He says, “I went to school, that’s about it.” And he thinks that should about cover it. The girls are so different. They’ll usually give me the 411 and then some. Overall, there is a nice ebb and flow to my days.
8. Describe your dream writing space?
My dream writing space is still a little in the future because right now all available space in our house is occupied. I have a computer in an office area but that space is used by everyone so I’m hard pressed to be able to leave anything out and know that it will be undisturbed the next day. If I did have a room of my own, it would have a nice desk facing the window, with lots of shelves for my favorite books, and some file cabinets to keep everything organized. And it would have a large side table to spread out a manuscript for actual cutting and pasting. And it would be decorated in a retro style with an old clunky black telephone (I already found one of these at an antique mall and it is waiting patiently in the closet until I have a space.)
9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?
It was probably the first time I read in a critique group at the very beginning stages of my writing life. It was a group of about twelve people, mostly academics and professors and people I knew to be knowledgeable about good writing. Each workshop was two hours long and was devoted to one person’s writing. That person would read out loud (about 20 pages) and the rest of the time consisted of the group discussing your work. It was difficult because I felt like I was in over my head. It had less to do with their critique and more to do with the fact that I was very insecure in my writing and I didn’t know if I had what it takes to be a good writer. Fortunately, this group was also encouraging and I learned so much about the craft in the years I was able to participate.
10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?
Find the quiet and the story will come. I know that sounds like a line from a Kevin Costner baseball movie, but it’s what I have to remind myself everyday.
Clare Vanderpool is the author of the 2014 Michael L. Printz Honor Book Navigating Early and winner of the 2011 Newbery Medal for her debut novel Moon Over Manifest. Clare Vanderpool’s heartfelt novels have enchanted readers of all ages.