This week we bring you the always fabulous Linda Sue Park. She most deservedly received a Newbery Medal for her book A Single Shard, the story of a young homeless boy in long ago Korean who watches the skilled potters at work and longs to make pots of his own. Just before interviewing Linda Sue, I read Project Mulberry--set in modern day, a girl and her best friend take on an ambitious school project--raising silk worms in the city. Since the interview, I had the chance to read an advance copy of Keeping Score, to be published this month, and loved it just as much, if not more, than the others, and decided to postpone posting her interview until Keeping Score was coming out. After reading it, I emailed her to say, "I love, love, love it! I love Maggie, and the wonderful exploration of prayer and superstition, sports and god and friendship, obsessions and choices. You write with such lovely simplicity that somehow is rich with complexities and thoughtfulness. I rarely read more than one book by any author because I'm a slow reader and there are so many books I want to read--but this is my third LSP. I'm a huge fan." Linda Sue's writing is flawless. Her storytelling style is so light, so melt-on-your-tongue, that you think you're getting a simple little tale, a quick-and-easy read that flows by in no time, until all of a sudden you realize she's given you a meal on the sly. Powerful, heartwrenching, insightful, funny, intelligent, life-changing stories that read as simply and swiftly as comic strips--no one does it like Linda Sue, and I am in constant awe. And now, here she is, the grand dame herself.
SH: I have to ask you about Project Mulberry. In between each chapter, the main character has a conversation with you, the author. This is so brilliant! I love how you somehow balanced this metafiction moment so that it doesn’t detract from or compromise the story, and yet is a fascinating insight into the writing process. As a writer, I loved it, and I imagine kids must really love it. So…(you can see what a genius I am at this whole asking questions thing…) can you tell us something about this section, how it came about?
LSP: Lots of writers say that their characters talk to them. This hardly ever happens to me. My characters do not talk to me. I used to get really jealous of writers whose characters talked to them. My characters only talked when I was making them talk in the story.
But Julia was different. I don’t know why, but she started talking to me. And once she started, she wouldn’t stop. She talked to me all the time. She talked to me when I was trying to go to sleep at night, and when I was out driving around, and when I was in the grocery store, and sometimes even when I was in the bathroom! She talked to me so much that she was driving me crazy, and I was very sorry that I’d ever wished for a character to talk to me.
Julia was almost never happy when she talked to me. She didn’t like the way the story was going. She didn’t like her little brother. She thought I was way too hard on her. She also asked a lot of questions—why did that chapter have to go like that? Why couldn’t she have a little sister instead of a little brother? The questions she asked were usually good ones, and they were on my mind a lot as I worked on the story.
Like all writers, I sometimes get stuck when I’m working on a story. ‘Sometimes’ for me means about every other day. I would get stuck and I would sit there and stare at the screen and my fingers weren’t typing anything and the page was staying blank. I needed to get my fingers going.
So I started typing out the questions Julia was asking me, and I started typing out answers to them as well. And more and more often, as I would be typing out these questions and answers, I would get ‘unstuck’—I’d figure out what I needed to do next, and I could continue working on the story.
This started happening regularly: I’d get stuck, I’d type out a conversation between me and Julia, I’d get unstuck, and I’d go on with the story. It happened so often that the typed conversations started to feel like part of the story too. So about a third of the way through the book, I decided to include them. And that’s why there are those sections in between the chapters of the book.
SH: Do the people in your neighborhood know your profession? What kind of reactions do you get from people outside this business on hearing that you’re a children’s writer?
LSP: Most of my neighbors know what I do because there are several families with children on the block, and I've visited their schools. Also there is a retired librarian a few doors down. But we've lived here for fourteen years now, which means that many of them knew me *before* I was published, and I don't think they think of it as a big deal. I think they mostly wonder why my yard always looks so terrible. (I do not have a green thumb. I have a black and shriveled thumb.)
Outside the biz, I usually introduce myself as a writer. Then of course people always ask if I'm published, and I say yes, and then they ask what kind of books I write and I say novels, and then I say that my novels are mostly for young people. I think this fools them momentarily. (I guess most folks don't want to be thought of as old people.)
I kind of enjoy tracking their responses, but when it comes right down to it, I don't really care what they think. I love what I do, and children's writers have the greatest fans in the whole world. As far as I'm concerned, the real question is, how come EVERYONE isn't writing for young people? But I'm glad they're not, because I think only the BEST writers should write for young people. (Like you!)
SH: If you could do something dangerous, impossible, crazy, with no ill consequences for anybody, what would it be?
LSP: Space-walk. Like an astronaut (as opposed to what I often do when I'm pondering a story, which is to walk spacily). But that will probably never happen, so second best would be sky-diving.
(Hmmm...seeing the earth from above, in both cases. I am a very short person. I think this means that I have a Napoleonic complex.)
SH: Is there anything about being a writer that would have surprised you before you were published?
LSP: The talking part. That so many people would invite me to give presentations and come to hear me speak. It makes me very nervous, and I spend hours and hours on my presentations in an effort not to disappoint them, but no matter how much I prepare, I still wonder why in the world anyone would want to hear what I have to say about anything.
SH: The hot rumor I heard at the secret writers deli is that there's a new Linda Sue coming out soon. Tell, tell!
LSP: Oh, I'm so glad you asked! I have a book coming out this spring (in March), called KEEPING SCORE. I've been a baseball fan my whole life, and I've always wanted to write a baseball story. KEEPING SCORE is about a girl named Maggie (YAY for girls named Maggie!), who lives in Brooklyn in the 1950s. She's a huge fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. A family friend named Jim teaches Maggie how to keep score of a baseball game--you use a system of letters, numbers, and symbols to record every play. (It's fascinating if you're interested, and completely mystifying if your'e not.) Then Jim gets drafted into the army and has to go fight in the Korean War. So it's a baseball story that morphs into a war story.
I am SO excited about this book. I have to say that at the moment, it's my favorite of all the books I've written. I can't wait to find out what readers think about it!
Thank you for your generosity in doing this little chat! Another thing you should know about Linda Sue is, she is a complete and total delight. I've had the opportunity to meet her a couple of times and I have a teeny crush on Ms. Park. She just so rocks. And even cooler--I'm going to the ALA annual conference this year and will be doing a Readers Theater with Linda Sue, Norton Juster, and Eric Rohmann. I don't know how I fooled everyone into thinking I belong in that all-star line-up, but don't tell on me! 'Cause I'm psyched.