Author Feature: Ellen Howard

Ellen Howard on Ellen Howard: “I’m a late-bloomer. Although I told and wrote stories from childhood (and gained some familial notoriety for keeping my little brother and sister awake after bedtime with said stories), there was an 18-year hiatus between the last story I wrote in high school and the first story I wrote for a college creative writing class in 1978 or so.

“But I was reading continually and compulsively from first grade right up to this afternoon. I’m told I traded my new tricycle for a picture book on the very day it was given to me. The unending battle of my childhood had to do with grown-ups wanting me to ‘go out and play,’ when all I wanted to do was curl up with a book.

“All that reading had to lead somewhere, and in my case it led to learning, on my fortieth birthday, that my first book would be published. I’ve been contentedly writing ever since–not for fame or fortune (which is a good thing), but for simple joy. I write to amuse myself, more than for any other reason, and stories have kept me happy all my life.”

As a young reader, were you enthusiastic about books? Do you recall your favorite(s)? What were the early signs of your fruitful imagination?

I figured something out pretty early, I think. In stories, we can live many, many lives. I feel almost sorry for people who live only their own life in their own time and place.

I’ve lived all over the world, in many different eras. I’ve been a girl and a boy and a rabbit and a man and a woman and an angel. I’ve been young and old, strong and weak, good and wicked. I’ve had countless adventures, faced tremendous odds, been in danger again and again. All in stories.

It’s not that I don’t love my own life. It’s simply that I want more, and I can have that more in the stories I read, the stories I write.

I wrote my first story in fourth grade, and illustrated it myself. I heard my first story before I could talk and read my first story when I was six. So many stories I can’t remember them all: But I do remember these: Baby Island by Carol Ryrie Brink, Twig by Elizabeth Orton Jones, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Only the other day, I read another good story: Where the Great Hawk Flies by Liza Ketchum (Clarion, 2005)(author interview).

What put you on the path to publication? What were the ah-ha moments? Were there any stumbles along the way?

I was so lucky: I wrote my first book, Circle of Giving, about 1981. I began sending it out to publishers in 1982. A wonderful writing teacher steered me to the great editor, Jean Karl at Atheneum and, on May 8, 1983 (my fortieth birthday), I received a letter from Jean accepting the manuscript for publication.

That’s much, much faster than most writers achieve publication. It has very little to do with the quality of my work and a great deal more to do with the loving support of several people–my husband Chuck, who made it possible for me to attend my first writing conference, where I met Zola Helen Ross and began writing my first story for young people; Zola, who referred me to Jean Karl; my mother who first told me the stories of her childhood which inspired Circle of Giving; and, of course, Jean Karl, who was my editor for sixteen years and eleven books.

Jean’s death gave me my first “stumble,” I must admit. It has been hard for me to write, knowing that she is no longer there to read it. But I have worked with other fine editors, Pamela Pollock, Margery Cuyler (interview), and Regina Griffin, and little by little, I’ve regained my confidence that there are other editors who will like my work.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Well, I’m afraid my advice isn’t particularly original. The truth is, we learn to write by reading and writing. We can be supported along the way. I often think that this is my function as a faculty member of the MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College. I can teach a few basic story-telling principles, but mostly I’m there to nurture the talent of others, a role I treasure.

My only real advice to new writers is to try to do something for a living that takes up as little emotional energy as possible. We can always make time to write, if we care enough to do so. But we need to leave ourselves the energy, the emotional stamina and the quiet that are the real necessities of the writing life.

You’ve served as SCBWI regional advisorin Oregon and Michigan. First, thank you for this service to the children’s-YA writer-illustrator community. I know RA positions require a lot of thought and work. What inspired you to take on these roles? What did you learn from them?

My terms as SCBWI regional advisor in Oregon and Michigan were tremendously helpful to me in becoming part of a writers’ community. But I didn’t know that would be the case. The truth is that I took the position in Oregon out of gratitude to SCBWI for receiving a Golden Kite Honor Award for my first book. I thought I should try to give back to the organization that so honored my book.

For those new to your work, could you briefly highlight a few of your more recent titles and offer some insights into the intial spark behind each?

Although I have published sixteen books since 1984, I’m sorry to say that only three of them are presently in print. The Gate in the Wall (Atheneum, 1999) was inspired by three summer holidays spent on a narrowboat, floating the canals of England. The canals were such a magical place that I knew on the first trip that I wanted to set a book there, but I didn’t find my story until the second trip, when we visited a restored silk mill and I discovered that many of the mill workers in the 1800s were children. Almost immediately, my imagination had created Emma Dean, ten years old, who has been working in a mill since she was seven years old. When Emma flees her hard life, she finds not only another, better life on a narrowboat, but also discovers that life can bring not just pain, but accomplishment, love and joy.

Since 1996, I’ve written four books in the “Log Cabin” series, published by Holiday House. The Log Cabin Quilt (1996) and The Log Cabin Church (2002), beautifully illustrated by Ronald Himler are still in print, and they will be joined by The Log Cabin Wedding in the spring of 2007. The first book, The Log Cabin Quilt, came to me as no other book ever has, almost magically. On a long, boring drive, I “heard” Elvirey’s voice, telling of her family’s struggles in their new log cabin home. This is the way my mind keeps me amused. By the time I got home, I had heard the entire story in my imagination. I had only to type it up! I thought that would be the only “log cabin” story, but you can see that the story continued after that book was published. I think The Log Cabin Wedding is the end of Elvirey’s stories.

You’re an accomplished writer of historical fiction. What is it about the past that calls to you?

I think imaginations work differently in different people. I could no more imagine what the future will be like than fly to the moon! But, from the time when my grandparents, who lived with us, were telling about their childhoods and my mother was telling about hers, I have been imagining the past. Now, even my own childhood is historical! In 1993, I published The Tower Room (Atheneum), which was set in the year 1953, when I was ten years old. I was astonished when reviewers called it “historical fiction!”

What advice do you have for those writing historical fiction?

I’m a very old-fashioned writer (I still write on a typewriter and am computer illiterate.) So I’m an old-fashioned researcher too. Almost always, I go to books first. Those books lead me to other books and articles and sometimes to people. Since I love to read, all this is pure joy! And finding out things may be my second most favorite thing after reading.

My advice for historical fiction writers has more to do with the writer’s sensibilities than it has to do with research. If you are fascinated not only by what was done in the past and how it was done, but also with how it might have felt, then historical fiction may indeed be your forte.

But I am appalled by “historical fiction” that only dresses modern characters in period dress and allows them to think, feel and behave as people do now. People in the past, even people in other places in the world today, saw or see the world and life through very different eyes than ours. They “knew” things we think are silly; they worried about things that don’t even occur to us and didn’t worry about things that obsess us; they used different standards to judge things by. It is true that no one knows for sure just what it was like to live in the past, but we have many clues. I believe it is the responsibility of the historical novelist to explore those differences just as thoroughly as she explores our common humanity.

You were born in North Carolina and have lived in Oregon, Michigan, and Colorado. How, if at all, has your setting inspired those in your books?

You ought to realize by now that I only “live” part time in current home. I am always “living” in the books I read and write. So my books may very well be as much inspired by all those fictional places they are by my actual residence. I lived in North Carolina very briefly, yet the voices of my Southern relatives have influenced my voice, especially in the “log cabin” books. And a house in my neighborhood in Kalamazoo, Michigan in the 1990s inspired The Tower Room. But I don’t think I am in any way a regional writer. Rather, my stories come out of other stories–stories read and heard, stories of real people and stories of fictional ones that made me wonder, what would that be like?

You’ve published several books, writing for the picture book audience through the teen one. Is there one age range that particularly calls to you? Or do you have many “inner children”?

Someone once said that children’s writers were “cases of arrested development.” If that’s true, my development was probably arrested somewhere around the age of ten or twelve. Certainly, writing about the concerns, the feelings, the thoughts of girls from ten to twelve or so seems most natural to me. I’ve been writing a book about a ten year old boy, and that has been hard. And writing about contemporary teenagers is hard, because I don’t know their world, except as I know it through my grandchildren. The truth is, I scarcely remember my own teen years, but eleven is as vivid in my memory as yesterday.

As a reader, what are your favorite recent reads?

My favorite author is Rumer Godden, an Englishwoman who wrote for both children and adults for over fifty years. She died just a few years ago. Now I read her books to my younger grandchildren: Candy Floss, Holly and Ivy, The Mousewife, and many more. Of her adult books, my all-time favorite is The River, but I first read it when I was twelve years old.

These days I love Anne Tyler‘s books for recreational reading. Her ditzy characters remind me of myself and my family. The best book I’ve read in the last five years is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.

But I can’t end without putting in a plug for two of my own childhood favorites: Twig by Elizabeth Orton Jones and Baby Island by Carol Ryrie Brink. My granddaughters and I just read Baby Island together a few days ago, and I loved it all over again.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Well, I’m hoping that my novel about the ten-year-old boy who accompanied the explorer, La Salle, on his last journey will be next. I’m in the middle of a revision right now, and hope to find a publisher for it soon. It’s called The Red Cap.

But I’m also writing a new book, called The Queen’s Child, and set in the first year of Queen Elizabeth I‘s reign. My heroine, Mary Seymour, is based on the real child of Katherine Parr. We know Mary was born; we know she was living with her mother’s friend, the Duchess of Suffolk, for more than a year after Katherine Parr died. But then all mention of her disappeared from history. I am having great fun imagining what might have happened to her!

Cynsational Notes

Ellen’s first editor, Jean Karl, also was the author of How to Write and Sell Children’s Picture Books (Writers Digest, 1994). Note that some information may be dated, but it’s nevertheless a chance to “sit at the knee” of an editorial legend.