Story Behind the Story #6:
Night Journeys

Night JourneyI spent the summer of my 16th year at a work camp run by the Society of Friends (Quakers) on a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina. There, with other teenagers, I labored with the local people, doing farm work, helping to clear wooded areas to bring in electricity, rebuilding homes, plus a great variety of useful community tasks. I also had many talks with the camp head, who provided me with an introduction to the Quaker faith, which made a strong impression on me, and about which I would subsequently read a great deal.

Years later, I was living in Lambertville, New Jersey, on the banks of the Delaware River, right across the way from Pennsylvania. My boys came to attend the Buckingham Friends elementary school, a Pennsylvania Quaker school, which had a number of quite beautiful 18th Century structures. By way of coincidence, the headmaster of the school was the same individual who ran that work camp to which I had gone.

It was a combination of my interest in Pennsylvania Quakers, colonial American history, and the place where I was living, that led me to write the historical novel, Night Journeys.

The Quaker religion, like all religions, is complex and, again, like all religions, theory and practice is full of contradictions. I recall reading about the wealthy Pennsylvania Quaker farmer who, being opposed to war, refused to pay a tax levied for what we call The French and Indian War. But, not wishing to go against the law, he left the right amount of tax money on a log where the tax collector could “find” it.

It is just this kind of moral predicament which lies at the heart of Night Journeys, when Peter York, an orphan boy, is taken into the home of Everett Shinn, a deeply religious Quaker. What law (sacred or secular) should be followed when two local indentured servants run away to seek their freedom? In the book I wrote one of my favorite sentences, the one from which the title of the book derives: “Roads at night are always new.”

In which I show improvement

It is not usual to suddenly come upon information about yourself when you were five years old. Adult son Shaun was going through old family papers when he found my report card for my AM kindergarten. As I say, I was five years old.  S=satisfactory. I=improvement. U=Unsatisfactory. I like to think things have gotten better.

Avi report card

Avi's kindergarten report card

Story Behind the Story #5:
Emily Upham’s Revenge

Emily Upham's RevengeEmily Upham’s Revenge, or, How Deadwood Dick saved the Banker’s niece.
A Massachusetts Adventure by Avi
Pictures by Paul O. Zelinsky
William Morrow, 1979

If you have read one of the previous Stories about my Stories, in particular, how The End of the Beginning came about, you’ll find reference to me visiting my good friend, Avon.

Avon and his wife lived in North Brookfield, Massachusetts. Artists, they purchased North Brookfield’s old railway station, and converted it into their working studio. In this studio hung a large, old sign that simply read “George P. Upham.”

Even as I knew about this charming place, those were the years when I was an avid collector and reader of old children’s books. I would, in time, amass more than three thousands of them. [They are now part of the University of Connecticut’s research children’s book collection.] I combined my knowledge of North Brookfield and those highly morally charged and absurd Nineteenth Century tales to create this book, the title, plot and style of writing imitative of children’s books of the period.

There was another element. At the time my mother was quite ill. At some point she said to me, “I’d wish you would write something that would make me laugh.” That request was part of my creative process.

The book was also the first children’s book illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. As for the original illustrations, I was told that they had been left on the publisher’s desk where, one evening they fell to the floor. That night they were scooped up by the cleaning staff and all tossed away.

The book went on to become nominated for “Best Children’s Mystery of the Year” by the Mystery Writers of America.

Story Behind the Story #4:
Captain Gray

The College of New JerseyIn the summer of 1975, I was working as a librarian, and trying to write. My first two books had been published. But, still needing to work full time at something other than writing, and having worked at the New York Public Library for about ten years, I took a librarian’s job at Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey) where I was hired as a reader’s adviser, with a focus on the arts and literature. It was a somewhat unusual position insofar as I was a member of the faculty which, among other perks, meant I would have my summers off—to write, of course. That’s why I took the job.

Being in New Jersey I did what I always did when in a new place: read some of its history.

I don’t know if I was required to join the (state-wide) faculty bargaining agent, the American Federation of Teachers, or joined on my own. In any case I was a member of the union. What I did not know was that there was on-going contract dispute. In the spring of 1976, a strike was called. That was a new one for me, but I went along. The first day of the strike was exciting in its way: mass picket lines, camaraderie, hopes for a quick positive resolution. In fact, there was no quick resolution and, after the first day, I was given a one hour picketing assignment—for two weeks.

For the first time as an adult I was not working full-time. For a day I was perplexed, and then I realized I could stay home and write. That too was a first.

Captain GreySo it was that I sat down and began to write what would become Captain Gray, a novel set in New Jersey history, a sea-faring tale, if you will. [It was also the novel that in some fashion or other, the publisher forgot to send out for reviews.]

As for the strike: It was settled in NYC by Al Shanker (anyone remember him?), the head of the national union, and someone representing the state of New Jersey. The leadership of my union was not even at the table. The result: I (and all librarians) lost our faculty status, and our summers off.

Great labor victory!

Curiously, the word to strike derives from the nautical term, “to strike one’s sails,” which is to say not go anywhere.

But I did have my first historical novel.

Story Behind the Story #3
No More Magic

No More MagicMy first novel, No More Magic, had its origins in my son’s eighth birthday party. At the time, I was living in Lambertville, New Jersey, a charming old 19th century town, the birthplace of James Marshall, the man who, in 1848, first discovered gold on Sutter’s Ranch in California. Situated on the Delaware River, Lambertville was where the iron rims for gun carriage wheels were manufactured for the Union forces during the Civil War. The point is the typography of No More Magic is Lambertville. Indeed, there is a fair amount of my family life that appears in the book.

My son Shaun was fascinated—as were his friends—with superheroes. For his July birthday that year, we decided to have a superhero party. The eight or so kids would dress up as their own favorite super-hero, and then we would film (borrowed 8 mm camera) a story of Shaun’s invention.

Lambertville, New Jersey, photo by Graham Bush | Dreamstime.com

Lambertville, New Jersey, photo by Graham Bush | Dreamstime.com

We would do this in a local park.

So it was that the kids assembled that birthday afternoon in a variety of hodge-podge costumes, mostly masked, mostly caped, all excited. For reasons never explained, one was dressed as Snoopy.

Mikey—one of the boys—came dressed as the Green Lantern—complete with a green ring, the Green Lantern’s magic ring.

The usual congenial chaos ensued, until at some point Mikey approached me. “Avi, I lost my ring,” said he.

I, assuming it was a piece of dime-store costume jewelry said, “Is that a big problem?”

jade ring“It was my mother’s jade ring.”

The filming ended. The superheroes—and their guardians—now searched the thick green grass for a green ring. It was never found.

But a plot for a book—No More Magic—was found. The book went on to be nominated for an Edgar, which is to say the best juvenile mystery of the year. I did not win, but there it was, my first novel had an award nomination. In short, despite the title, a lot of magic.

Story Behind the Story #2
The End of the Beginning

Snail TaleTo understand this story about a story you need to know that my birth certificate name is Edward, though other than signing a credit card I never use it.

Once upon a time I had a good friend, since passed, who was a writer. Avon actually published a number of fine non-fiction books along with his wife who was a professional photographer. They lived in rural North Brookfield, Massachusetts, the setting for another book of mine, Emily Upham’s Revenge.

Now the truth is, as a writer, Avon talked his craft very well, with wonderful wit. Indeed, he was a wonderful storyteller, with many a good tale to tell. That said, he was a very, very, very slow writer.

Years ago, I went to visit him and spent a week with him and his wife. Even back in those days I was always writing something. Indeed, while I was visiting, I took the time to put in my daily stint. Avon, however, did not write one word.

“Avon,” I said, “I’m going to write a book that exposes you for the slow-poke you are.”

“Dare you.”

That was the origin of a book originally titled Snail Tale. It features a hyperactive ant named Edward and a snail by the name of Avon, who does things very, very, very slowly. It concerns their mock-epic adventures along one branch.

The legendary editor Fabio Cohen took the book.

“Does it need any more work?” I asked.

His answer was perhaps one of the most astonishing I ever received from an editor. “It needs,” he said, “about eight adjectives.”

The End of the BeginningThe book was published very modestly. Years later, another editor (from a different publishing house) read it, liked it, and wanted to republish it. She did suggest more revisions. Done. It was reissued with vastly superior illustration and a new title: The End of the Beginning.

For some of my readers this version of the book remains their favorite of my writing.

Moral: Sometimes writing a good book takes a very, very, very long time.

Story Behind the Story #1

New Story Chapter OneIn the late sixties, I was trying to be a writer. The best of my achievements was that I did have an agent. But I was also doing many other things. Among such things was a cartoonist; not as an artist, but a doodler. So it was that I doodled a bunch of humorous note cards (which were published) at a time when such was somewhat unusual.

A friend of mine announced she wanted to write a book for kids, and would I illustrate it. Her work was some kind of non-fiction, for which my art was, in fact, completely inappropriate. Regardless, I said, “I’m not an artist, but if you want to show what I do along with your idea, go ahead.”

My friend took her work (and mine) to a publisher and showed off her idea. The editor said, “I’m not interested in your book, but have the illustrator call me. I like his work.”

I called.

“I’d love you to illustrate a book.”

“I’m not an artist. I’m a writer.”

“Well then, write a book, illustrate it, and send it to me.”

“I’ll try.”

I put together a collection of short tales I had made up for my eldest son, Shaun, then three. I illustrated them and sent them in.

She called, “You’re correct. You’re not an illustrator, but I like your book. I’d like to publish it.”

We made a date to meet in two weeks.

Day before the meeting, she called. “I just got fired,” she said. “Sorry. Good luck with your book.”

My agent took the manuscript and after, I think, seven rejections, it sold to Doubleday.

Things That Sometimes HappenIts publishing history was awkward. Three editors. One retired. One got another job. Third one did the best she could.

The book was published in 1970.
It received pretty bad reviews.

In 2002, the book was picked up by another publisher, slightly rewritten, and had new illustrations.

Got good reviews.

First book. Still in print.

It is one of those Things That Sometimes Happen, which is the title of the book.

Remembering Natalie Babbitt

Natalie BabbittI was terribly saddened to learn of the death of Natalie Babbitt. In the days when I lived in Providence, Rhode Island, we became good friends.

She had a very rich talent, but was utterly modest, indeed painfully (to me) self-effacing about her skills. She did not attend the award ceremony when she won (1971) a Newbery Honor for Knee-knock Rise. “How come you didn’t go?” I asked her. “I was told it wasn’t important.”

As I knew her—and everyone knows such a richly complex person in a different way—she presented herself as an artist, and then a writer.  “I never start writing until I have the complete book in my head,” she once told me.  Yet she would tell me about endless discussions with her long-time editor, Michael Di Capua, about one word in her text.

I would try to encourage her to write more. “Why should I?” she replied. “I’ll never write anything as good as Tuck Everlasting.” Think of that book, and then consider another remark she once made to me: “People are always alone.” Yet she had a sly, sharp, and satiric sense of humor.

Loyal?  When I knew her, she watched, on television, every—every—Boston Red Sox game.

Our homes in Providence were at opposite ends of beautiful Benefit Street, and we often met for lunch, or at her house. We never met at my house, because, as she said, “Ladies don’t do that.” Indeed, when I went west to Colorado, one of the last things she said to me was, “Just know I won’t call or write. Ladies don’t call gentlemen.”  She didn’t.

She was quite a lady.

Stories about the Stories: Introduction

InspiredOne of the most common questions I, as a writer, am asked, is; “What inspired you to write such and such a story?” I know many writers get asked that.

To my ears, the use of the word “inspire” in that context has a magical or mystic ring to it, as if God, as per the Sistine Chapel, had reached down, and with a divine spark, gave Adam life, and to an author, his or her book.

In fact, the true meaning of the word “inspire” is actually closer to the mark of what really happens. That is, the writer breathes life into an idea. Crudely put, think of an idea as a balloon, without air. One blows into it and a shape is formed. That to me is what inspire is all about.

That said, it’s rather difficult to pin-point the exact moment when an idea comes into life. At the moment I am working on a book for which I had (or was given) the idea perhaps some forty years ago. Somebody told me a story about something they did, and it stayed with me. For a very long time. What took you so long to write it, you might ask? To that question I have no good answer.

In any case, I am going to commence a series here which will be stories about my stories, that is, what I remember as to how I came to write each of my books. The stories as to what inspired me vary hugely from that above, to someone telling me about an event, to a dream, or seeing or reading something. One book was inspired because I passed by an historical road marker, which virtually gave me a story. Another book came about (one of my favorites) because someone, a perfect stranger, made a casual remark to me about a building. In some cases one idea inspired me to have a completely different idea, and book. Inspiration can evolve.

I can only admit that some of these stories will be quite mundane. Others, I hope, you will find truly interesting.

So there you are. Surely there must be some of my books you have missed. Perhaps, with these stories about my stories, I can inspire you to reach for them. Mind, to be inspired only means that I desire to breathe life into an idea so that it becomes a book.

Only you, the reader, can decide if I have given the idea life.

Are you scared by what you’re writing?

Worried ManYears ago, I read an article by William Styron (author of Lie Down in Darkness, The Confessions of Nat Turner, Sophie’s Choice,) in a periodical called the Saturday Review of Literature, which is no longer published. I wished I had saved it because I’ve never been able to find it and it made a big impact on me.

If I remember correctly, Styron suggested that, crudely speaking, the writer is motivated by two forces, emotional and intellectual. That, at best, when writing, these forces are equally at work but that it is the emotional that gives force and power to writing. It is the intellectual side that shapes, and controls. Moreover, the intellectual monitors the emotional side. Things go awry, he suggested, if the intellectual censors the emotional, which is to say the writer becomes fearful or backs away from what he/she is writing. Yet it is the emotional which more often than not motivates the author to write.

Being scared of what one is writing happens quite often. Are you shying away from something because it seems frightening? Are you pulling back because you are afraid of making something (an idea, revelation, secret, or act) public?

I knew a writer who was writing a thriller. Quite casually, he asked himself, “Who am I most like in this book?” The quick (in the head) answer: “The villain.” It stopped the writer (and writing) cold. Mind you, it was all in his thoughts.It took months of self-therapy to sort that one out, so he could continue writing. (Aside: I was once told that the occupational disease of writers is depression.) Another writer I knew found herself completely blocked. Why? She was using the death of her brother as the basis of a novel. She just could not write the book. Too difficult.

At the moment I am working on a book that deals with war, a truly horrific event. I find myself backing away from its details, events, human destruction. I hesitate, and have to force myself forward. It is as unpleasant as writing gets. I keep telling myself that if I can capture the pain I will have a strong book. And I think it will be a good story. But, oh, it is hard!