Peni R. Griffin is an award-winning children’s and YA novelist. Her books include The Ghost Sitter; 11,000 Years Lost; Margo’s House; Vikki Vanishes; and Switching Well. She lives in San Antonio. Read An Interview with Peni R. Griffin (note: my site is under redesign; if the link doesn’t work, try the search engine).
What’s new in your writing life since we last chatted?
Looking at your website, I see that the last time I interviewed for you The Ghost Sitter was still in production under its working title, Sparkler Susie. Since then, it’s done spectacularly well for me, winning the William Allen White Award (the first-ever state children’s book award and the only one that is presented with cheerleaders and a parade) and having not only a hardback and paperback release, but being picked up by Scholastic BookFair for a shocking amount of money up front. (Ambitious readers should be aware that the amount of money it takes to shock me is much, much less than the amount it takes to shock J.K. Rowling. It wasn’t enough to pay off the house, alas).
And then there was 11,000 Years Lost, the Book That Ate My Life. For a large chunk of the time since the last interview, I have been nearly obsessive on the subject of the American Pleistocene, the setting of this time travel story about a modern girl who lives with mammoth hunters. If I have a shot at literary immortality, I think this book is it. My fantasy is that my funeral will be attended by the archaeologists who finally sort out the bizarre and confusing mess of evidence concerning this period, and they will all stand up and say: “I decided to be an archaeologist when I read her book.” It took me ten years off and on to do, was researched twice and substantially re-written three times, has lots of lovely backup material (map, family tree, glossary, etc.), and is even a fun read. I’ve never been prouder of anything in my life.
A short story also came out in Marilyn Singer‘s Anthology Make Me Over: 11 Stories About Transforming Ourselves (Dutton, 2005). My story is called “Vision Quest” but does not take place in the Pleistocene. I did have to research vultures to write it, though.
Do you have a new/upcoming book(s) to tell us about?
I’m supposed to. Between the cracks of writing 11,000 Years Lost, I wrote two other books, and one (with the working title of Abnormal Street but generally referred to in conversation as “the happy family serial killer story”) has received interest from the editor who worked with me on GS and 11,000. Only, she wants me to to a significant revision, and I can’t.
Without going into details, 2005 has been the Year from Hell, primarily on the health front. No one’s died, thank goodness, but the year’s not over yet. By the standards of people who went through two hurricanes, I’ve had it easy, but compared to my normal life, my family’s in a bind. Now that things have settled down, I seem to be taking time to fall apart a bit.
Reading the end of my last interview, about how to act when life smashes you flat, was ironic, because now life has smashed me flat and I can’t do what I most loved to do. It’s like missing a limb – except, the limb is a chameleon’s tail. I know it’ll grow back.
Sometimes I even feel growing pains. A couple of weeks ago I woke up from a dream in which I was handed a sequel to 11,000 – written by someone else! It was awful, involving a cave with a time machine and characters from the Pleistocene traveling to 1900 and wearing pink. I woke up with the first paragraphs of a real sequel forming in my head. Only that’s not what I’m supposed to be working on and I can’t possibly commit to another big research book right now and anyway a hurricane came along and distracted me. (And anyone who thinks I can just use the research from the last one doesn’t know me or the state of American paleoarcheology very well.)
If so, could you give us some insight into how this book(s) came to be?
11,000 Years Lost started with the mercenary motive of writing “another Switching Well.” SW was always my big seller, because Texas schools picked it up. I didn’t want to write a sequel. You should only do that if you have more stories to tell about the people and places and ideas in the first book. If people want the same story again, they’ll read it again. You need to write something that has the elements that made the first story popular and is still all-new.
So I was thinking about writing something that could tempt the schools again, and that would be equally interesting to boys and to girls – because face it, Switching Well is kind of a girly story and half the population of most schools, including many of the girls, aren’t girly at all. So I figured the schools were tempted by the local history angle, and there’s lots of history to choose from in Texas, so I started paying attention, in the course of my regular reading, to time periods that could excite me enough to write about them. That turned out to be the Pleistocene. Oh, boy, do I love the Pleistocene!
All I can remember about how Abnormal Street started is the mental image of a girl coming downstairs in a strange house and finding a guy raiding the refrigerator. That was the image; the stuff I knew about the image was that the girl had just last night come to stay with her cousins to escape from the serial killer who murdered her mom, and the guy at the refrigerator has been thrown out of his house in the middle of the night for being gay and has let himself into his friend’s house because it’s where everyone in trouble winds up.
I don’t know whether this was part of a dream or not; the combination of image and complex backstory instantly understood is certainly dreamlike. The concepts I’ve been chasing since then are that Brownie (the girl) wants to live in a Lenora Mattingly Weber book but has stumbled into a YA thriller. Her cousins, meanwhile, are Texas hippies thrown into a 70’s problem novel mileu. Also meanwhile, the killer is indeed after Brownie, not because he’s afraid she saw him and will testify but because he’s sure she saw him and allowed him to kill her mother, so he wants to recruit her to be his sidekick murderer.
You see why I’m having a little trouble whipping this plot into shape. Getting all these elements to work and play well together to become the dazzling thematic masterpiece inside my head is a bugger even when I’m on my game.
How about children’s/YA books that you’ve read lately? What are your favorites and why?
I’ve gone on two Diana Wynne Jones binges this year. She’s so masterly, and no matter how savagely she treats her characters it all comes out right in the end. Just watching a pro like her riding a complex plot like a cowboy riding a pegasus is heartening.
My big novelists in the recent past have been Elaine Marie Alphin (whose Simon Says depicts my interior universe with such fearsome accuracy those who love me can’t stand to read it) and Neal Shusterman, but they’ve both been too raw for me this year.
I’ve done a lot of comfort reading. Ironically, some of my comfort reading is stuff that would have been too controversial to publish when I was the target audience, like David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, Brent Hartinger‘s Geography Club and Order of the Poison Oak, Julie Anne Peters‘ Far From Xanadu – the idyllic post-heterosexist town of Boy Meets Boy is particularly relaxing to be in. I find the fact that these books can be published now reassuring. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor‘s Alice books are also cheerful and funny, which is important to me right now.
I’m indulging a taste for historicals (Iain Lawrence, The Wreckers/Smugglers/Buccanneers; Catherine Jinks, the Pagan series; Louis A. Meyer, Jacky Faber – 19th century seafaring adventure; Emily Updale, Montmorency) and fantasy (Mary Hoffman, Stravaganza; M.T. Anderson, Whales on Stilts; the Borderland shared world, and of course all that Jones).
And I find I really love Margaret Peterson Haddix, although (or maybe because) her stories are, at base, paranoid adolescent fantasies.
What are your writing goals for the immediate future?
Just getting back to doing it is the Big Numero Uno. Once I’m back, I’ll revise Abnormal Street and then – I can’t see that far ahead.
Cynsational News & Links
How To Make Self-Editing Easy by Margot Finke from The Purple Crayon.
An Interview with Rebecca Hogue Wojahn from Ellen Jackson’s Secrets of Success column. Rebecca “has recently sold a picture book, Evan Early, to Woodbine House and has recently acquired an agent for her YA mystery novel, A Richness of Martens. For the past two years, Rebecca has sold articles to Highlights for Children, Faces, Cobblestone, and Appleseeds, but she is now focusing on the middle grade and young adult book market.”