Born in Manila, P.I., I was safe stateside before she was bombed. I grew up milking goats, shearing sheep, smoking bees, and dressing squabs around a bend in Virginia’s James River from where my first American ancestor was a teenage hostage to Powhatan. (Please do see One Among the Indians, my soft cover Authors Guild-iUniverse Backinprint about his death-defying adventures.)
Note 1: To smoke bees, we put a piece of burlap in a can with a bellows and spout, set the burlap afire, and puffed smoke at the bees. This quieted them so that they were less likely to sting us while we worked in their hive.
Note 2: To “dress” squabs, one removes–from within and without–rather than adorns.
The first book I remember is Babar, given me when I was 9 months old by my grandfather, John Bennett, himself a writer and artist. That first Babar was as big as a bread board and entirely in French, but as I couldn’t read English for another four years yet anyway, this was no issue. Other early favorites included Grandfather’sPigtail of Ah Lee Ben Loo and Master Skylark; The Wind in the Willows; The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie; the entire Little Colonel series; He Went With Christopher Columbus and any other Louise Andrews Kents I could get hold of. Maybe her He Went Withs are a reason I’ve tried to write historical novels myself.
Among my post-high school favorites are Animal Farm, Homeless Bird; The Little Prince; The Sword in the Stone; Out of Africa; The Fountain Overflows; Things Invisible To See, Raindeer Moon.
On graduating from Smithfield (Virginia) H.S., I worked a year for college money as a telephone operator (56¢ hourly the first 6 months, 75¢ the second). I biked the five miles to work, and one morning, having coasted noiselessly down a clay hill, I was frozen by a terrifyingly harsh reproach and a great blue heron rose from the marsh to my right and flew majestically across my path. Twenty-two years later I gave that heron to Dougal MacDougal in my first picture book, Dougal Looks for Birds, and he reappears, to Alarik in The Star in the Forest and to David in Island Magic.
At the College of William & Mary I worked in its library, and for Colonial Williamsburg, for much appreciated money. For much-appreciated experience, I worked first on the campus newspaper (writing headlines is harder than it looks), then on the editorial board of The Royalist, the campus literary magazine. For my contributions to the latter I was given the James Bryan Hope Award, i.e. money, i.e. water in the desert. Submissions to the magazine were anonymous until accepted, and listening to one’s work dissected by people who didn’t know that the author was sitting there was almost as eye-opening as discovering, after decisions were made, that one’s neighbor was the author of the piece one had just candidly appraised (out loud).
After 3 semesters I transferred to the University of Michigan. There I majored in chemistry, worked as the secretary of the Geology Department, and as a chem lab assistant (serially). To my lifelong pleasure, I squeezed in Marvin Felheim’s Shakespeare, Clarence DeWitt Thorpe’s Keats, and Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky’s Russian History classes. (“And I myself have seen the Empress Eugenie, when she was a very old lady. And she was still a very beautiful woman.”)
Graduation week I and one other were given the Merck Award as the top ranking chem majors. It was a particularly useful book, which devastated me because I had supposed it would be money, and I did not have enough to pay for a ticket home.
Once home I worked in DuPont’s Richmond laboratories for much more than I was worth, and was out of debt by New Years’.
After marriage returned me from that DuPont lab to Ann Arbor, a sympathetic husband and UofM’s marvelous libraries made my first 4 historical novels possible. Number 3, the YA Darkness Over the Land(Dial, 1966), is about a Polish orphan who grows up in World War II Munich believing himself German. Its writing was further assisted by my husband’s Guggenheim and Sloan Fellowships, which took us to Munich for a year. While he toiled at research at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry, I busied myself drawing World War II experiences out of everyone to whom I talked. (Starred review Horn Book, Kirkus and SLJ; ALA Notable Books 1966; French translation, La Rose Blanche de Munich.)
Back in Ann Arbor, my husband encouraged me to take writing classes. Roy Cowden slogged through my first two books and won my lasting respect and affection. The narrator of my picture book Island Magic is named for his grandson. The grandfather was inspired by Prof. Cowden, but lost his character at the last hour when Atheneum’s tactful and perceptive editor, Jon Lanman, observed to me, ‘If this book is intended for small boys, don’t you think we should give David some of the good lines?’
UofM was fortunate to obtain for one summer the services of Joyce Carol Oates, who was working at that time on a novel set in Ann Arbor. Asked for advice regarding my apparently unsalable story “Summer in the Country,” Ms Oates replied, “I can’t write your story for you.” I agreed, but suggested that as I had worked on it so long I was numb to it, whereas she was not, perhaps she could point out to me its fatal flaws. “You might end it sooner,” she suggested. “They like open-ended stories now.” I lopped off the final two or three paragraphs and sold “Summer in the Country to Ingenue. Because the setting was that of my childhood home, my parents feared that people would think the story was autobiographical and didn’t speak to me for two years. Let this be a warning to those of you who plan to be writers.
In 1977, my husband and I moved to our Bourbon County, KY Thoroughbred horse farm, the source for many scenes in my novel Lonesome Road, my YA Kate of Still Waters, and my MG Sarah the Dragon Lady. There for 30 years we were hosts to bluebirds and hawks, great blue herons and great horned owls, and, one rare November, thousands of sandhill cranes. And one of our fillies was Canada’s 1991 Two Year Old Champion.
Now I am a beached sailor, 470 miles from that Bourbon County home, rejoicing in Henry Holt ‘s publication of my latest MG, Sailing to Freedom.
Questions or suggestions, whether about writing or lecturing, can be sent to me at
7130 Mt. Hope Road, Columbia, MO 65202-7620.
For an answer via snail mail, please enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope.