About the Author
Kids @Random Spotlight
Nobody wants to know how hard it is. They want to know what fun it is. So let’s skip the hours, months, years staring at a computer screen trying to understand what the plot needs, what the characters want, and what they have to overcome to get it. Skip the feeling that this is way too hard for you, that you should have stuck to the easy stuff: the books of poetry, literary criticism, the hundreds of articles you thought were so difficult. They were a snap compared to writing a really good children’s book.
I’ve now written eight. You’d think it would get easier. Yes, you’d think that.
The latest is called A Bitter Magic, a mystical mystery about a girl named Cisley, whose mother disappears during a magic act. When I started the book, that’s all I knew. Was the mother dead? In hiding? Would she ever reappear? Even well into the writing, I didn’t know. Before long, I was lost amid shifting labyrinths, bands of gypsies, and a closet of whispering ball gowns. Things were getting out of hand. The book was impossible!
But then, all my books feel impossible to write. “That’s just your process,” my wife tells me. “You always say that.” She’s right, and she always talks me through it, brainstorms with me on long walks, comes up with my best ideas, and makes me believe that maybe the book is not quite impossible after all.
That’s when I begin to realize that despite my complaints I’m actually having fun. It’s fun to get to know my characters, from Cisley’s mad uncle (The Amazing Thummel, Illusionist), to the very peculiar Miss Porlock, to Cisley’s pet, a talking lobster named Elwyn. (Or does he only seem to talk? Hmm.)
The truth is, I conspire to make things hard, too hard, for myself—as if a book is worth writing only if it strikes me as quite impossible. I paint myself into a corner and then see how I will get out of the room. Call it the Houdini complex.
I guess that’s my kind of fun.
AWARDS AND HONORS
- Top Ten Best Children's Books--ABA's Book Sense 76
- Kansas Notable Book Award (three-time winner)
- VOYA's Best Fiction Book
- Top 100 Best Books, New York Public Library
- YALSA Best Books for Young Adults
- Top 100 Noteworthy Books, The Kansas City Star
- Scholastic "Literary Circle" Book Club Pick
- Texas Blue Bonnet Master List Selection
- Governor's Arts Award—Kansas
- The Thorpe Menn Award
- The Peregrine Prize for Short Fiction
- Master Artist Fellowship for Fiction, Kansas Arts Commission
- Fulbright Professorship, Universidad de Concepcion, Chile
- First Prize, Academy of American Poets Contest (two-time winner)
A conversation with Roderick Townley
This interview is provided by Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing and can be reprinted for publication either in full or excerpted as individual questions and answers
Q. In all three books in the Sylvie Cycle, you explore the eternal childhood question of where our beloved characters live when their book is closed. That is such a brilliant idea and one that many adults might stop wondering about as they get older. How did you come up with this idea?
A. I've always felt that writing is a heightened form of listening. Often I sit at my computer for a long time and hear nothing. Other times a snatch of a phrase crosses my mind, and I have a beginning. Where the phrase comes from is a mystery. In the case of Sylvie, I was lying in bed one night and my wife asked me to tell her a story to help her get to sleep. A sentence came to me: "There was once a girl who lived inside a book that no one was reading." I didn't know the girl's name or what the book was about, but the idea intrigued me. Days later, trying to recapture the idea, I revised the sentence: "Sylvie had an amazing life, but she didn't get to live it very often." And I was on my way.
Q. You write a lot about dreams and memory in your books, especially in The Great Good Thing. Explain the significance.
A. Dreams can be wish fulfillments, or projections of our fears, or just a jumble of senseless images. A few rare dreams are coded signals from our deepest self. That self is trying to tell us something important, just as Sylvie, entering the dream of one of her book's Readers, tries to impress vital messages on that person's subconscious, words that will be remembered when the person wakes up. So memory is an essential part of the Sylvie books. Tragically, our memories are faulty; and when Sylvie's story is forgotten, the characters start to rust away. As Norbert Fangl warns her, "The wilderness is littered with forgotten stories that will never be retold."
Q. In Into the Labyrinth, Princess Sylvie confronts the dangers of being uploaded on the Web now that her story has become a bestseller. What do you think about the proliferation of the Internet in our culture? Does it impact a child's ability to imagine?
A. People usually ask those questions about television, which we tend to watch passively while images are thrown at us. The Internet involves us much more actively but has its own dangers. One of them is that it physically removes us from other people, even if we're IM-ing them. Everything is virtual. When Sylvie was on the Internet, she bit into a virtual watercress sandwich and it was just awful. No taste, nothing. We human beings can take only so much virtual life before we demand the actual—smells, risks, hugs, skinned knees, wind in our hair. As for the effect all this has on the imagination, I'm reminded of a line by a Hispanic poet: "Is it the moon, or is it an advertisement for the moon?" The real moon awakens my imagination. An "advertisement," a virtual moon, an image without reality, puts my imagination to sleep.
Q. Now that the final novel in the Sylvie Cycle, The Constellation of Sylvie, is being published, you have a completed trilogy on your hands! How does it feel?
A. It feels great to complete the trilogy, especially since I resisted the temptation to make the second and third books "the further adventures of." The novels share most of the same characters, but they breathe very different atmospheres. As I sometimes put it, the first explores inner space, the second cyberspace, the third outer space. Such differences make summarizing tricky, but here's a try: "Princess Sylvie connects with the Readers of the storybook she inhabits, enters their dreams, battles monsters in cyberspace, and finally blasts to the ends of the solar system to save the people she loves."
Q. The Sylvie Cycle's heroine (Sylvie) is a girl with serious feminine appeal. She has style, she has gumption, and she's ready to take on the world. Is she based on anyone in particular? Did you find it difficult writing in a female voice?
A. Sylvie is her own person, not a version of someone I know. Of course, living in a household of admirable women, I'm sure I drew bits and pieces from those around me—their loyalty, their sense of fun, their impatience with limitations of any kind. But very early in the writing process I could hear Sylvie's voice in my head. Just Sylvie herself. Writing in a female voice, therefore, was never a problem. I just listened and wrote down what she said. Of course I also rewrote it, because I usually didn't hear it right the first time. I'm trying to listen better.
Q. Did you always want to be a writer?
A. Yes, but I didn't know it. There was a time, very early on, when I wanted to write symphonies. Very briefly I wanted to be a saint. Or an explorer. When I got to college I compiled a list of all the ways I could possibly make a living, then crossed them off one at a time until there was nothing left. After a moment of panic, I realized there was something I was already doing: writing. In fact, I'd been contributing anonymous essays to a magazine for several years. I hadn't been paid anything for them, but then, no one had paid me to be an explorer or a saint either. I decided to give writing a try. A dozen published books later, I'm still giving it a try.
Q. Do you have any advice for young writers?
A. Yes, don't write! Now, if you take this advice, you shouldn't be writing. If you ignore it, maybe you should. Real writers know when to take advice and when to leave it alone.
Q. Are you working on anything now?
A. I just finished a novel that'll be coming out next year, called The Red Thread: A Novel in Three Incarnations. It was a book that seemed impossible to write. (How do you follow half-a-dozen characters through three lifetimes in different centuries?) Somehow it all worked out-—I think. But now I'm walking around with a terrible empty feeling, because I'm between book ideas. I'll be a very grumpy person until I'm well into another novel.
Q. How much of your writing is based on your own experiences as a child or teenager?
A. A lot. My YA novel, Sky, came out of my teenage years in New York City. I was happy to recreate my high school (now long torn down), and the dirty snow in the streets of Greenwich Village, and the smoky dimness of a jazz club on Broadway where a kind hearted bouncer let me sit in the back and listen to the bands. In a sense, everything I've written has come out of my early years, even my fantasy novels like The Great Good Thing. They're the fantasies of the kind of kid I was—and still am.
Q. What is your goal as a writer?
A. There may be several goals. One is quite selfish: to write so brilliantly that people will never forget my name. A better goal, a deeper one, is to write something so true that people will be helped by it. Life is not easy. We all need to feel that someone understands us. I would like to write a story that will make another person smile secretly a hundred years from now.