Where do you live?

In Fairfax County, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.

How many children do you have?

Two! A daughter and a son, who have both grown up to be amazing creative artists themselves—in theatre and film.

How many books have you written?

Seventeen! Ten YA and Middle-grade novels; five picture books with illustrator Lynn Munsinger; and two adult nonfiction books I wrote when I was a magazine journalist.

faq_5.gifHow and when did you start writing?

Honestly, I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t scribbling down stories. I was lucky to have a healthy imagination like Storm Dog’s Ariel, and by elementary school I was writing stories on the old-timey onion-skin typing paper my parents would staple into “books” for me. I do recall the loud scratch a well-sharpened pencil made on the crisp sheet, and that it was hard to erase my drawing boo-boos. Most of those stories included animals as “supporting characters,” something I still seem to do today. I even wrote my first “historical fiction” back then about an Algonquin girl and her pet fox, clearly influenced by the story of Virginia Dare (the English baby born in the late 1500s in the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island, NC, and reportedly adopted by local Native Americans). My drawings were….well…. let’s just say I am incredibly lucky that my picture books are graced with the beautiful artwork of Lynn Munsinger!

I think what I instinctively loved about writing was it allowed me to ask all those “how-come” questions, like Alice in Flying South. “How-come” people act they way they do? Writing helps you explore and come to understand and then celebrate—or challenge the thinking of—the rather remarkable creatures that human beings are.

faq_3.gifDid you have a favorite author as a child?

Frankly, I was a bit of a tomboy and spent most of my childhood romping through wildflower fields behind our home, climbing trees, and playing with our pets. I was lucky to live in one of the lusher parts of Virginia, where the hills roll green—so I was an outdoor child. But when I went indoors, a phenomenal library awaited me. I grew up in what had been my grandfather’s home. He was a commonwealth’s attorney (a prosecutor for the state), by all reports a kind of Atticus Finch (of To Kill a Mockingbird). I wish I had known him. But I felt kinship with him through his vast collection of books. His study was filled with stories of adventure, chivalry, and quests. I grew up on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book; J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan; Robert Louis Stevenson poems and novels like Treasure Island; the real Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne, with that wry humor and delight in childhood; C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, E.B. White’s Stuart Little and Trumpet of the Swan, and T. H. White The Sword in the Stone. These are often classified as “boy books” – thank goodness no one told me that!

 I think that’s why I can write stories like Under a War-torn Sky , A Troubled Peace , Across A War-tossed Sea, or Give Me Liberty that feature a male teenager coming of age and following ideals of hope and courage, even amid the destruction and hatred of war. Or Suspect Red, following the impact of national politics and rhetoric on two teenage boys during McCarthyism.        

There were also poetry collections. Favorites were William Wordsworth with his jubilation over daffodils and rainbows and Emily Dickinson who celebrated the world’s small glories, like bees, “the buccaneers of buzz.” Also, my mother read Charles Dickens novels to us at night, dramatically changing her voice for each character. Listening to Dickens, I learned about the hook of cliffhanger chapter endings. I also met up with Shakespeare early, and if I didn’t understand the plot lines I simply relished the pictorial language. I very much wanted to be the faery Puck. I still sit down with some Shakespeare when I need to be inspired to write image-infused descriptions.

What other authors would you recommend young aspiring writers to read?

For voice: Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, (her Shiloh trilogy and Alice series in particular), Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie, and Harper Lee’s magnificent To Kill a Mockingbird. For compassionate humor: Jerry Spinelli, Christopher Paul Curtis, and Carl Hiaasen. For outdoorsy coming of age: Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain series; for sports: Fred Bowen, Mike Lupica, and John Feinstein. For history: Elizabeth Wein, Monica Hesse, Rita Sepetys, Laurie Halse Anderson, Scott O’Dell, Karen Hesse, Ari, Lois Lowry. A wonderful series: Brian Jacques’ Redwall.   BUT there are hundreds more who are so very talented. In Storm Dog, Ariel has a reading list I’ve posted you might check out as well.

faq_4.gifWhy do you write about history so much?

I grew up just outside Washington D.C., very aware of history in the making. One of my first memories was of JFK’s tragic assassination. For days, my house boomed with the sound of anxious news broadcasts. Fast upon that came the killing of his brother Bobby and another man of eloquence, Martin Luther King, Jr. From my front door you could see the distant dark clouds hanging over the capital city as blocks of it burned with the agonized riots that followed MLK’s shooting. I came of age during the Vietnam War protests and then with Watergate. It would have been impossible not to have a sense of events changing the world and the way people thought. Which is why my first life was as a journalist. For twenty years, I was a senior writer with a Washington magazine, after spending high school and college editing and reporting for student newspapers or “stringing” for local papers.

But the real love of history probably came from knowing a number of elderly ladies in what was then a small town community. At garden parties, over fresh-squeezed lemonade, they’d talk and talk in musical voices and long anecdotes. They talked of history—but not about dates, battles, or political figures. It was personal, about how their relatives (or they) survived hard times, how mothers worried about their children during epidemics and wars, where they were when Pearl Harbor was attacked and how they helped the war effort afterwards. From them I learned that history is a very human drama and that the way to make it captivating, truly enlightening, and oh-my-gosh-tell-me-what-happens-next-intriguing was to focus on one individual’s journey through turbulent, trying times.

Why do you set so many of your novels in Virginia?

Music was my first love. I think nothing is as mystical or redemptive or more of a communion with the sublime in this universe or with one another. I play flute and piano. At one point I even hoped to perform classical music professionally. (I also thought briefly about being a vet but quickly found I did not have the necessary science aptitude!) These are all things that were such joy for me to contemplate and write about in my latest novel, Storm Dog.

Regarding my writing, I firmly believe that studying music made me a better writer. It taught me a sense of pacing, rhythm, and that any composition—whether of words or musical notes—needs motifs that repeat, morph, and resolve, plus flow and a sense of crescendo. I was thrilled to be able to incorporate the historical importance music, its capacity for protest, to liberate and connect us, in Give Me Liberty. Music has always been a way for humans to express and spread ideas and was particularly important as a political forum and as military signals during the American Revolution.

It seems like music comes into your novels a lot. Why?

Music was my first love. I think nothing is as mystical or redemptive or more of a communion with the sublime in this universe or with one another. I play flute and piano. At one point I even hoped to perform classical music professionally. (I also thought briefly about being a vet but quickly found I did not have the necessary science aptitude!) These are all things that were such joy for me to contemplate and write about in my latest novel, Storm Dog.

Regarding my writing, I firmly believe that studying music made me a better writer. It taught me a sense of pacing, rhythm, and that any composition—whether of words or musical notes—needs motifs that repeat, morph, and resolve, plus flow and a sense of crescendo. I was thrilled to be able to incorporate the historical importance music, its capacity for protest, to liberate and connect us, in Give Me Liberty. Music has always been a way for humans to express and spread ideas and was particularly important as a political forum and as military signals during the American Revolution.

faq_2.gifWhy do you include so many horses in your stories?

Historically horses were VERY important (both as transportation and companionship), so it is authentic to include them during certain time periods. But in both Give Me Liberty and Annie, Between the States, the horses (Vixen and Angel) grew in importance without my really planning it. Inspiration is a funny thing. Sometimes characters or situations creep into a book with their own force. My daughter is an accomplished rider, an eventer, a former National Champion with USPC (pony club), and the bond between her and her horses as they trained to compete was a beautiful and truly moving thing to watch—clearly the seed for the horses in my novels. I also ride, but purely in an amateur mode! I consider one of my greatest accomplishments, though, to be learning to drive the horse trailer—and back it up and park it which is even harder!—without hurting anyone.

Why is there French dialogue in Under a War-torn Sky and A Troubled Peace? I don’t speak French.

Because most American flyers didn’t either. When they were forced to bail out of their planes, they fell out of the sky onto territory occupied by German-speaking Nazis with their only hope for survival being French-speaking civilians. Including snippets of French lets you experience briefly (and only slightly) the discomfort, the confusion, even the terror those boys must have felt during WWII. The French strangers they were depending on could just as easily have been collaborators as Resistance fighters. Also, those passages (which are always basically translated for you in the next paragraph) give you a chance to see how very clever you are. I purposefully chose French words that mirror English ones. Most times, you can figure out quickly what the French person is saying.

What influences your writing most?

My children, even now as adults! Gifted and imaginative storytellers, they are my muses, my first readers, and as a gifted professional screenwriter and theatre director, they are particularly astute editors for character development, theme continuity, authentic dialogue, and meaningful, gripping plot twists. I get no “fat” or “vague” prose by them! Both of them have traveled with me to places like France and Italy as I research my historical novels, and help me gather facts. They are incredible sleuths and scholars and the best of companions on these adventures.

When they were young, their interests and concerns sparked my choice of subjects. Sometimes they inspired the story itself. The Hunter and Stripe picture book series, for instance, started as bedtime stories for my son when he was dealing with some playground issues of peer pressure and competition. (See the ALAN Review article for more specifics about the books and my children’s impact on them.) One of my favorite characters, Vladimir, in Suspect Red, a well-read, jazz-loving, saxophone-playing, sizzling point guard is very like him—something I realized consciously only after creating the character.

A great lover of art museums, my daughter was the one to introduce me to Ginevra de Benci, the young, proto-feminist poet in Leonardo’s first portrait, and the only work of his permanently housed in the U.S. (In Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art)—the heroine of Da Vinci’s Tiger. And I came to know and be enthralled by the Schuyler Sisters—Peggy becoming the fascinating “wicked wit” protagonist of Hamilton and Peggy!because as a young theatre director she absolutely had to see Hamilton and its impact on the paradigm of possibilities in theatre. I got to tag along!

Can you tell how much I love them?

I also love writing for teens—they have a way of cutting to the pith of a matter, brook no baloney (as my Dad would have said), and have not yet been conditioned to accept compromises or apathy. Their righteous indignation at the injustices of the world also prods me as I write.

Which do you like best writing, picture books or novels?

I like them both and enjoy the variety. That’s one of the glorious things about writing for a living—every day, every story is different. A writer is always learning. As a journalist, among other things, I wrote about soccer star Mia Hamm, I followed doctors who saved babies born three months too early, I watched a choreographer create a new ballet, I profiled a woman who’d been attacked, handcuffed, and thrown off a bridge into a river and survived. Researching my novels, I’ve learned about flying airplanes, how carriages were made in the 1700s, read exquisite 15th century poetry and learned more of artists who influenced Leonardo, discovered a farmer who became a double-agent, and learned of women who refused to succumb to survival-selfishness and kept one another alive in concentration camps by sharing scraps of food.

I’ve traveled centuries, marveled at the human spirit, found inspiration and warning, and tremendous hope in what is magnificent in the human spirit even as we are threatened by the worst in it.  Students often ask me how much money I make – I always answer that a writer is rarely rich monetarily, but she is certainly rich in spirit.

Who is your favorite character?

Oh dear, I hate this question. But you almost always ask it when I visit schools, so here goes:

Characters become like children. I love them all for different reasons and in different ways. In Under a War-torn Sky, I’d like to have the courage and sophistication (and the wardrobe!) of Madame Gaulloise, I marvel at Henry’s tenacity and ability to care about others in the midst of war’s cruelties and little Pierre’s compassion, his hope. In A Troubled Peace, Claudette delights me with her fiery idealism and personality. (I swear she wrote herself—much modeled on my daughter!)

I was so taken by the real-life Peggy Schuyler’s bodacious intelligence, her brave devotion to her siblings and father it was a true honor to recreate her in Hamilton and Peggy! (I also admit to falling a little in love with George Washington, Lafayette, and a philosophizing double-agent named Moses Harris.)   In Flying South, I love how Alice insists on trying to figure out people; Edna represents the strength and dignity of those in the Civil Rights movement. I learned so much from Abbess Scholastica in Da Vinci’s Tiger, ached and dreamed with Ginevra, and couldn’t help but be amazed by that real young woman’s fierce independence and the one remaining line of her verse—“I beg your pardon, I am a mountain tiger.” How could I NOT want to learn more about her!?

In Give Me Liberty, Basil makes me laugh, Moses makes me cry, and Nathaniel reminds me of how much bravery it takes to grow up. I am very proud of him at the end of the book. Suspect Red is full of yearning, inquisitive, artistic young people I’d love to spend hours and hours listening to—and the siblings, Richard and Ginny, Vlad and Natalia all have large dashes of my children’s personalities and interests in them. I now have a real fondness for Wesley and Charles of Across a War-tossed Sea, and a great admiration for their typically British pluck, resiliency, and droll sense of humor.  Storm Dog’s sassy, idealistic Ariel takes me home to the hills of Virginia, the allure of a catbird’s song, the sheer delight in dance, the incantation of music, and the salvation of unexpected friendships.

So... I can’t pick one.... can you?

When do you write? Where do you write?

Mostly in the early morning and in my home office, which I am happy to report is sunny and serenaded by wrens, chickadees, and mockingbirds. Its walls are covered with photos of my children and their artwork. So it is very conducive to creative thought, although it was never a quiet ivory tower! My training as a journalist makes me able to write whenever and wherever. I’ve outlined chapters on plane trips to visit my son at college, have edited pages waiting for his many athletic matches to start, and come up with many an idea while sitting in carpool line. One of the best came to me as I hid in a horse trailer during a thunderstorm at one of my daughter’s horse rallies. When I’m driving and have a “eureka!” moment, I pick up my cell phone and leave myself a message.

How long does it take you to write a book?

It depends. Some picture books I’ve written in a day. But then I refine and tighten several times over. For my historical novels, typically it takes me about eighteen months, the longest work being the research. I can work faster if I need to, though. To catch the Hamilton wave, for instance, I got that assignment, researched, and wrote Hamilton and Peggy!  in ten months. That was an insane, all-hands-on-deck, 24-7 marathon, though, that I wouldn’t recommend!

What slows me up during the writing phase is if I have a hole in my knowledge, which I have to stop and research. I hate that because I lose my rhythm! For A Troubled Peace, for instance, when I was writing a chapter that included Henry borrowing a bi-plane I realized in the middle of a paragraph, that I didn’t know EXACTLY how cranking the propeller kick-started the engine or how to land it. Luckily, a very nice man at the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in New York answered my telephone call and explained. But the point of that is—if you’ve done your research and planned out what you want to say, you can sit down and write, your imagination well-armed and ready!

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