JL: You've written almost 20 books for children and young adults spanning various genres. Which genres do you find the most challenging, and why?
LH: For me, it’s less a question of “genre,” Jacqui, than of the nature of each project. As an example, my picture storybook set in ancient Egypt, Muti’s Necklace, is, as you’d expect, only a few thousand words long. Yet it’s based on nearly two years of research into Egyptian culture in general, and the Egyptian short story in particular. Who says picture books are “easy” to write?!
In contrast, Rosey in the Present Tense, because it’s a contemporary novel grown from personal experience, essentially wrote itself. It involves the death of a loved one, and though I removed myself from the direct pain I’d suffered only a year before (my protagonist is a teen, and male), the story was already there, just needing to find its way out. So the entire book? Probably took a few months to write! (Not fun months, mind you, but necessary, cathartic, and I’ve heard, helpful to others who are struggling with similar heartaches.)
JL: Of all your books, I think my favorite is Black Pearls: A Faerie Strand which is a collection of short stories that are retellings of classic fairylands from, shall we say, unusual perspectives. Where did the idea for this book come from and how is writing a short story collection different from writing a novel?
LH: Thanks, I love this book, too. Let me start with your question about how I came to write it: I teach in an MFA program (more on that below), and because publishing goes through cycles in which different genres are favored, there were a few years there, where every other new writer was working on myths, folk stories, or fairy tales.
What perplexed and confounded me was that too many of these writers focused on the story structure, but abandoned characterization almost entirely.
When I asked these students why their characters felt less real than their stories, why they lacked individuality (a princess is a princess is a princess), the response was almost always, “Oh, well, this is a fairy tale. It’s universal!” Of course, what this meant is that they had overlooked the alchemy of fiction—the process whereby the more specific and individual a story and its characters are, the more it “lives” on the page and the more universal its appeal. I wrote Black Pearls as a demonstration of this alchemy. I hope it is!
As for the difference between a short story and a novel? The “short” answer is that a story usually focuses on one turning point in a life, rather than a chain of events that includes backstory, rising action, and resolution. For me, the short form actually empowers readers more than a novel does, since it allows them to supply much of the backstory and resolution themselves. (For more of my take on short fiction, you can always check out my recorded lecture here: http://louisehawes.com/shop-talk/the-short-story-a-boat-in-a.html.)
JL: Much of your fiction writing seems to be inspired by other art forms (for example, The Vanishing Point and its focus on painting; The Language of Stars and its focus on poetry). Do you consciously seek inspiration in art forms outside narrative fiction? Do you think a broader appreciation of creativity in all its forms can impact a writer's process and, if so, in what ways?
LH: Yes! Creativity is everywhere. It’s a giant river with tributaries leading off in countless, fascinating directions: for instance, I’ve always written poetry, just not necessarily for publication. I usually write a poem as an emotional touchstone for every chapter in my novels—it’s another form of free writing. Oh, and I was a mediocre actor before I became a published writer; that brief career still serves me in dialogue, blocking out scenes, and public readings. I’ve had a sculpture studio, and I also love to paint. I used to belittle these wide-ranging interests by calling myself a dilettante. But then one day, I looked up the root of that word: it’s delight. So now I don’t accuse myself of dabbling. I’m simply finding delight at every turn!
And no, I don’t consciously look for ways to connect fiction to other art forms, but I’m always involved with art of all kinds. Sometimes I’ll set up an easel and move from a painting to whatever I’m writing. One opens the other, inspires the other, plays with the other. I was raised in a family where art was loved madly. We painted, wrote, drew, played the piano (or like me danced to music). My three sisters and I still conduct creativity workshops all over the world—we call them “Playshops” because they require no artistic preparation or background, yet participants “play” with writing, painting, voice, and movement. (https://www.facebook.com/foursistersplay/)
JL: You've been teaching writing for some years now, including at Vermont College of Fine Arts. What's the most common piece of advice or feedback you find yourself giving to students? What's the most important thing you believe a new writer should keep in mind?
LH: Over the last ten years, my answer to this question hasn’t changed. I helped found the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont, and like everyone on our faculty, I take an active part in reading applications from potential students. Sadly, during the last decade I’ve watched the overall quality of our student applications drop. That doesn’t mean we don’t still get standout writing samples, stories that make us excited to meet and work with the authors. But it does mean that the average level of language and craftsmanship has declined. Why? Because while our applicants are more familiar with marketing and genre niches than they’ve ever been, they are actually reading less. They want to publish, but they don’t want to read!
What’s wrong with this picture? If you love something, you can’t love it half way. If you want to make books, then you have to read them. To find out what makes scenes work (and doesn’t); to learn who’s doing what you hope to, and how. Read to grow your writer’s mind and heart. Read because it keeps you curious and open. Read because it will change your writing and your life!
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us, Louise! Happy writing!!