“When I was little I wanted to be a vet, and designed my own animal hospital; when I was older, I wanted to be in theater and indeed spent quite a few years as an actress, lighting designer, and Jill of all trades–but no matter what else I’ve done (teaching, office work), I’ve always written. I think the first thing I wrote for fun outside of school, in addition to a few poems, was a story I wrote when I was around eight, called something like ‘The Valley that Turned into a Mountain.’ Later, at around thirteen, I wrote a ‘book,’ called Dogs I Have Known.
“One of the wonderful things about writing, which I discovered early, is that you can write just about anywhere, and you can write even if you have to do other things in order to make a living.
“I grew up during World War II, and because my father was in the Red Cross instead of actually in the service (he’d been turned down by the Navy because of poor eyesight), we were victims of the housing shortage when the war ended. We moved a lot, and partly because of that, partly because I had no siblings, partly because I was sick fairly often–and perhaps mostly because I came from a reading family–books very quickly became my friends. I read avidly as a child, and told myself stories most nights before falling asleep.
“I loved working as a classroom teacher, and for a long time I taught a correspondence course in writing. I’ve also worked as an editor, which in a way can be another form of teaching. But my main ‘job’ now is writing, mostly books for young people, although I also write occasional reviews and book-related articles. I also speak at conferences, often about censorship as well as about my books, and I visit schools to talk about writing.
“You can find more extensive biographical information about me in Volumes 6, 8, 12, and 147 of the Gale Research series Something about the Author (available in many libraries); the most recent (Vol. 147) has the most extensive and up-to-date account.”
You last spoke to Cynsations in September 2005, and you were then looking forward to the publication of Endgame (Harcourt, 2006)(see interview). Endgame centers on a boy who becomes a school shooter and the reasons behind that. You said, “Endgame grew out of Columbine and my strong feeling then and for years afterward that not enough attention had been paid to bullying as a causal factor.” Could you tell us about the response you’ve had to the book? What conversations has it prompted (I’m recalling a panel at ALAN last fall)?
I was honored and excited to participate in that discussion, with Patrick Jones, Julie Anne Peters, and moderator C.J. Bott, who’s the author of The Bully in the Book and in the Classroom (Scarecrow Press, 2004).
C.J. opened the discussion by asking for a show of hands from people in the audience who’d been bullied or who had been bullies, and started us off with definitions and some alarming statistics. We covered what bullying is, how it feels, how it’s been ignored and still is ignored; we talked about its long-term effects on bullies, their victims, and bystanders (kids who witness bullying). We also described ways in which some schools and communities have tried to combat bullying.
Patrick and I gave examples from our books and from life, and Julie read poignant letters she’s received from young readers who’ve been bullied.
C.J. closed by giving the audience an assignment: do something about bullying because “the lives of over 32,000 students depends on it.”
Responses to Endgame have been few, but fascinating. I’ve had a small number of letters from kids who’ve indicated, usually reticently, that they’ve had experiences similar to Gray’s (Gray is the book’s main character, and he is a victim of bullies).
I had a letter from a teacher who wanted a paperback edition of Endgame so she could hold a class discussion of it, and one from a student doing “a project” on the book.
One of the most interesting and gratifying responses was from a police officer–a “crime prevention officer”–who runs a literacy program called “Book ‘Em,” which is dedicated to heightening reading skills as a way of combatting crime. He was very interested in Endgame and I believe has booktalked it on several occasions. And a couple of people have been keen on discussing the characters in detail. There have been some good reviews, and the book’s given me the opportunity to have a few informal conversations at conferences about bullying in general.
But bullying is a tough subject, I think, for many people to face, let alone talk about openly, especially since generation after generation in this country has given it tacit approval by treating it as a normal part of childhood–a rite of passage that kids have to weather mostly on their own.
I’ve been encouraged, though, not only to see that the media have in the last few years been more conscious of the role bullying plays in school shootings, but also to see a growth in books and programs that treat bullying more realistically and responsibly than it’s been treated in the past. I hope those developments will continue to raise the public’s consciousness of this serious, ubiquitous problem in our schools and communities.
Congratulations on the 25th anniversary of Annie on My Mind! Could you tell us about the anniversary edition from FSG?
It has a lovely, romantic new cover, and in the back there’s a “conversation” between me and Kathleen T. Horning, Director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
It’s very exciting–amazing, too–that Annie’s still going strong after all these years and that I still regularly get letters from kids who’ve just discovered it, and others from people who describe their first encounter with it years ago and tell me they’ve gone back to it over and over again.
When you think of the book, what are some of the memories that come to mind?
Many memories–let’s see! A special one is of how enthusiastically my Farrar, Straus and Giroux editor, Margaret Ferguson, was about it when she first read it, how completely she understood exactly what I was trying to do and say with the book, and how enormously helpful she was (and still is, always!).
I also remember how I struggled with point of view while I was first drafting Annie. At first I wrote the story in the first person from the main character, Liza’s point of view, then switched to the third person, and finally went back to the first for the main story, which is a flashback, but used the third for the very short sections that take place in the “present.”
I remember being nervous about how the book would be received and how surprised and pleased I was that it was greeted mostly with enthusiasm. And of course I have many memories of the brouhaha that occurred eleven years after Annie was published, when it was burned and banned in schools in Kansas City in both Kansas and Missouri, and of the courageous high school students who sued (successfully) to have it returned to school library shelves in Olathe, Kansas.
If you could go back twenty-five years to the Nancy you were then, what would you tell her?
Oh, my! I guess I’d tell her that Annie was going to have a long life, and that LGBT literature for and about LGBTQ kids and kids growing up with GL parents was going to grow and become a recognized, viable genre. I’d tell her, too, that our community would make great strides in achieving equal rights, and I’d probably also tell her that by the time Annie on My Mind reached its 25th anniversary, its author and her partner would reach their 38th, which would also be their third as a legally married couple in Massachusetts!
Congratulations also on the publication Hear Us Out! Lesbian and Gay Stories of Struggle, Progress, and Hope, 1950 to the Present (FSG, 2007)! What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?
In a way, Hear Us Out! developed over a period of many years, for as I explain in the introduction, way back in the ’60s I started writing what I thought was going to be a collection of short stores, called Aspects, about being gay. But eventually I abandoned that project and concentrated on writing novels instead.
Much later, though, after Marion Dane Bauer (author interview) accepted a story of mine, “Parents Night,” for her wonderful anthology Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence, I began writing stories again, and after a few years, I started thinking of doing a collection of my own.
When I realized story collections need some kind of glue to hold the stories together, I hit on the idea of dividing the book into sections according to decade, introducing each section with an essay describing the gay rights movement in that decade, and following the essay with two stories that could have taken place at around the same time. I started with the ’50s since that was the era in which I was a teen, and went right up to the present.
What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?
I’m not sure exactly when I started putting the stories together or when I started writing the essays, but I was working pretty extensively on the book for around two years, although I probably started thinking about it and writing notes to myself about it long before that.
I assume that by major events you mean events that I felt were essential to cover in the essays. There were actually many important ones–landmarks, if you will–events like the founding of early gay and lesbian organizations and publications, the beginnings and growth of gay-friendly religious organizations, the early demonstrations and marches, the founding of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop (which was the first gay bookstore in the world), the Stonewall riots, the publication of John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip (the first kids’ book with gay content), the murder of gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, the founding of the Hetrick Martin Institute and the Harvey Milk School, the founding of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, the founding of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, the beginnings of gay-straight alliances in US schools, the removal of homosexuality from the list of mental disorders by the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association, the AIDS epidemic, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the long battle both before and after it over the position of gays in the military, the beginnings and continuation of long battles about gay marriage and about adoption of children by same-sex couples, the major court cases: Romer v. Evans (which defeated an amendment in Colorado that would have prevented gays and lesbians from going to court to fight discrimination), Bowers v. Hardwick and Lawrence v. Texas (both of which were cases about the repeal of sodomy laws; Bowers failed and Lawrence succeeded), and Goodridge v. Department of Health (which established legal gay marriage in Massachusetts), and all along the way, highlights of the ongoing struggle against discrimination against LGBT people.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?
Although I love doing research, it’s the area I found the most challenging as I worked on Hear Us Out! I knew I wanted to include as much material as possible showing the effect of the gay rights movement on kids, but I also knew that for the first few decades, there would be very little in general, and even less that was positive, for of course until the ’80s or so, few if any people believed that kids could genuinely be queer. (I use the term “queer,” by the way, not as the pejorative it used to be, but as a term that includes all of us–gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual; I also still use the more traditional term “gay” to do that, although that’s often not quite as inclusive.)
Back in the ’50s, many of us who knew we were gay or thought we might be soon discovered that it was almost impossible to learn anything about it–again, especially anything that was positive or even anything that made sense.
Homosexuality wasn’t talked about; one didn’t see gay people on TV or in the movies or read about them in books or newspapers, so many kids who felt same-sex attractions thought they were “the only one.” In the early decades, I had to rely primarily on the stories alone to show how being LGBTQ affected kids.
Another research challenge was to reconcile opposing or varying accounts of some incidents. That, of course, is a challenge in almost any research into historical events of any era. And still another challenge, especially in the final essay, was to keep up with the fast-moving developments in the same-sex marriage struggle right down to the last moment–November 13, 2006–that the book’s production schedule could accommodate changes.
I tried my best to include the most up-to-date information possible–but I did have to caution readers in a few places that by the time they read the book, many of those developments will have progressed, changed, and/or even been resolved.
I was blessed all along in having constant help and support from the folks at FSG–my editor, Margaret Ferguson, her assistant, Beth Potter, and FSG’s truly amazing copyeditor, Elaine Chubb.
More globally, as you’ve watched the progress of YA fiction what has delighted you? Surprised you? Frustrated you? What do you anticipate for the future?
What has delighted me is the wonderful progress we’ve made, and the exciting changes: the demise of queer characters as defeated victims, the move toward LGBT novels in which being LGBT is a given or doesn’t overshadow all other parts of the story, the move toward writing about universals from a queer perspective instead of only about about the difficulties of being queer, the fact that we’re beginning to have humor in our books now.
We’re in a transition period as a genre, from the early days when our books were–understandably–dark and gloomy to a time when not only can we concentrate on queer kids who aren’t particularly downtrodden, even when they face homophobia, but can also, I think, join other YA authors in experimenting with literary forms.
We have some really terrific people writing kids’ books with LGBTQ content now, and not only writing them, but also apparently committed to continuing to write them–and that’s truly wonderful. It’s also wonderful that queer characters appear more and more in YAs focused on straight kids, acknowledging and reflecting our presence in the human landscape.
It frustrates me that although there’s a pretty steady stream now of YAs–even young YAs–with LGBTQ content, that stream is still only a brook compared with the torrent of YA books in general. But there’s no sign of that brook’s stopping, and it seems also to be growing, and that’s encouraging.
What advice do you have for beginning writers?
Read–read–read–anything and everything, and think about what you read. And write–write–write–anything and everything. Study what you’ve written when you’ve written it, put it aside for a while, study it again, and revise it. Like almost all of us, you’ll probably find it needs revising. Someone once said that writing isn’t writing; it’s rewriting, and I’ve certainly found that to be true. As you grow and develop, make sure to read books, stories, poems, and/or plays of the kinds you think you might like to write, but continue to read other things, too.
How about those building a career?
Do all the above, but also read books about writing, and writers’ magazines, too. Talk to writers, go to writers’ conferences if you can, join a critique group (don’t feel you have to stay if you don’t like it or if you find it isn’t helpful), take a creative writing course, consider joining a professional organization like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, explore authors’ websites and online writing groups and courses. Many of these things can not only help you with the act of writing itself, but can also teach you about the business of writing–especially about how to submit and market your work.
What do you think was the best decision you made for your writing?
Hmm–probably to work toward the day when I could quit my day job and concentrate on writing, and then deciding to actually do it when I finally could.
What would you do differently if you had the chance?
Find a way to be able to spend more time writing! I’m still trying to work that one out. As one progresses as a professional writer, one often finds that other, related activities are important to pursue, too–conferences, school visits, interviews, correspondence, book promotion, etc. These things are fun and valuable, but they do cut into the time one has at one’s desk and in front of one’s computer or typewriter or lined pad!
What are your favorite recent reads and why?
I just finished re-reading a book called A Darker Place by Laurie R. King. The reason I re-read it was that I was going to a writers’ conference and her books are enthralling, well written, and make excellent airplane and escape reading. As I write this, I’ve been reading books I need to read for various work-related events and tasks, but this summer I hope to be able to concentrate on other reading as well. I’d like, for example, to re-read a biography of my favorite author, Virgina Woolf, along with re-reading Woolf’s own books so I can study what the biographer says about them. And I’ll be reading lots of new or almost new YA books this summer, too.
See Nancy’s newly redesigned and relaunched author site at www.nancygarden.com.