Author Interview: Elaine Scott on Secrets of the Cirque Medrano

Elaine Scott on Elaine Scott: “I was born in Philadelphia and lived there until my father’s career brought the family to Dallas in 1952. So I’m really a Texan, though I claim Philly, too.

“Dad was a banker, Mother a homemaker who loved reading and writing. In fact, she had dreamed of a writing career of her own, but she never pursued it.

“Instead, she encouraged her children (my older brother, George, and younger sister, Kathleen) to write for pure pleasure. Often Mother organized writing contests. Most notably, when we adopted a stray dog and a battle ensued over who would name the pup. Mother’s solution? Whoever wrote the best poem about a dog would get to name him. Pencils flew across paper and…my brother won.

“I attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where I met and married my husband, Parker, who was in the oil exploration business. That business led us to Houston, where we have settled—with the exception of a stint in Lagos, Nigeria; in the early 1990s.

“Houston is where my writing career began: first with articles for regional magazines—all written for adults—and eventually, children’s books. After I wrote my first children’s book, I was hooked. With the exception of raising my children, I’d say writing for children is the most satisfactory work I’ve ever done.

“My family consists of my husband, Parker, two outstanding daughters, Cindy and Susan, who each live in Dallas—six blocks apart from each other, and three furry felines, LaVerne and Shirley, and their brother, Troy, who live and freeload with us.”

You last visited with me about your work in winter of 2001, not long after the publication of Friends! (Atheneum, 2000). Could you update us on your more recent back-list titles, highlighting as you see fit?

Poles Apart: Why Penguins and Polar Bears will Never be Neighbors (Viking, 2004): In early 2000, my book club (which has been meeting for over 37 years, mind you—w-a-a-y before Oprah!) read an account of Ernest Shackleton’s incredible voyage to Antarctica. I was intrigued, and thought it would make a great children’s book, and I enthusiastically began some research.

Then, in fall, 2000 Jennifer Armstrong came out with her amazing account of the same adventure, Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World (Random House, 2000), and I knew the definitive book on this topic had been written. But no research is ever wasted, and after pondering what to do with what I had gathered, I came up with the idea for Poles Apart and was delighted when Viking snapped it up.

When Is a Planet Not A Planet? The Story of Pluto (Clarion, 2007): This book began as an account of the discovery of Eris, a celestial body everyone thought would become the 10th planet in our solar system, but as I soon discovered—not so fast.

After debating throughout the summer of 2006, the IAU finally came up with a scientific definition for “planet” and Eris wasn’t one. Neither, they said, was poor Pluto. Now my book had to take a different slant, and it became When Is a Planet Not a Planet? It’s a challenge to write science in real time, but it’s also exhilarating.

Secrets of the Cirque Medrano (Charlesbridge, 2008). This book marked a return to fiction for me. I hadn’t written a novel since Choices (Morrow, 1989).

Congratulations on the release of Secrets of the Cirque Medrano (Charlesbridge, 2008)! Could you tell us about the book?

This is the story of Brigitte Dubrinsky, a 14-year-old orphan who must come to Paris to live with an older aunt and uncle, whom she really doesn’t know.

Impetuous and willful, she resents the drudgery of working in her aunt’s café, and the unpleasant personality of a young man who also works there. She longs for adventure and escape and thinks she may have found it in the Cirque Medrano, pitched at the foot of the Montmartre bluff.

Befriended by a young acrobat who also poses for one of the café’s customers, Pablo Picasso, Brigitte discovers that circus life is not what it appears to be. She becomes involved in a tangle of political intrigue and danger, and comes to redefine her own image of “home.”

What was your initial inspiration for writing this novel?

I loved “Girl With the Pearl Earring” and thought I’d try my hand at writing a piece of fiction that drew its inspiration from a piece of art.

My decision was reinforced when the education director from Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts asked me to help write some children’s programs for the museum. Funding for those programs evaporated, but my interest in art had been whetted. And I had been introduced to Picasso’s masterpiece of the Rose Period, “Family of Saltimbanques.”

You know, Picasso once said, “A picture lives only through the one who looks at it. And what they see is the legend surrounding the picture.”

Well, Secrets of the Cirque Medrano is the result of what I saw when I looked at that painting, which is hanging at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

It sure took a lot longer than my nonfiction! I’d say it took approximately three years between spark and publication.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

As primarily a nonfiction author, I had to keep telling myself it was okay to make things up! But because it was a historical novel, and some of the characters were real people—Picasso, Fernande, Apollinaire, Max Jacob—to name a few, I was determined to be as careful with their words as possible.

For example, I put no words in Picasso’s mouth. None at all. I let Apollinaire, Fernande, and Max Jacob do most of the speaking for him, and when they did, I took their comments from documented sources.

Paco, who is fictional, also interpreted Picasso but even then, I stuck to literary sources—right down to the pet mouse in the drawer of Picasso’s studio. My research kept the spine of the story twisting and turning.

As I researched Paris in 1904-1906, I came upon a de-classified CIA file that detailed the establishment of the Russian secret police in Paris—the infamous Okhrana, forerunner to today’s KGB. And in a bit of serendipity, I discovered that the Okhrana had had Picasso in their crosshairs. The papers also describe a young Polish girl—a milkmaid–whom they had turned into a double agent. This was pay dirt!

I returned to my original story and began to rewrite. Though Brigitte isn’t exactly a double-agent in the book, she does share an age and nationality with the young girl mentioned in the CIA files. And of course, I had to learn a lot about Picasso’s Blue and Rose periods and remain authentic to the paintings that are described in the text.

I owe many thanks to my brilliant editor at Charlesbridge, Judy O’Malley. She was crucial in helping me shape these disparate elements into a cohesive story.

You are well-known and respected for your picture books and non-fiction writing! How was the novel different?

As I said, making things up didn’t come easily to me, so creating an entire world out of whole cloth was a different kind of writing experience. But I loved giving my imagination free reign, getting inside my characters’ heads, wondering what animated them, pondering their hopes and dreams—it was a heady experience.

Why did you decide to make the leap to novel writing?

I wanted to stretch myself, to see if I could do it. I found I loved doing it, so there may be more.

You have been writing books for young readers for a few years now. What changes in the industry have you seen over the course of your career?

Well, publishers are definitely more crunched today than they were some years back. Companies are merging and are often owned by conglomerates that—at the top—have little to do with publishing. Profit is important for any company, and in publishing, money is tight. Books don’t stay on a backlist for any length of time. An author who might have been nurtured along in the past had better have some decent sales right away in today’s market. Editors are losing their assistants, and the pace is much more frantic.

Having said all that doom and gloom, I’d add that editors are still eager to acquire books they love, and authors are eager to write them. Today’s children’s books are outstanding—in both design and content. There will always be a place for another good book, written with passion and conviction.

In terms of craft, how have you grown as a writer?

I think I’ve learned the importance of trusting my own instincts—and that goes from making decisions on a topic–Is it fresh? Timely? Do I really care about it?—to deciding how it should be organized in order to be effectively presented.

I’ve also learned quite a bit about illustration—not that I have any skills in that arena. But I have been doing my own photo research, and that learning curve has been a big one and it’s also been a lot of fun, not unlike going on a treasure hunt.

I’ve also learned not to be afraid of my own voice, and I’ve certainly come to appreciate the value of first-hand research whenever it is possible.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

Take joy in your gift, practice it every day, don’t be easily discouraged, write what you love, and find a friend or a writing group where you can share your experiences.

How advice for middle-grade novelists?

All of the above, plus tap into the child you were when you were the age of your protagonist. For the most part, the things that worried you and thrilled you then are the same things that worry and thrill kids today (with adjustments for modern technology!)

How about non-fiction writers?

First-hand research, first-hand research, first-hand research. And a passion for your topic.

What do you do when you’re not in the book world?

I love to read, travel, teach adult theology, hang out with family and friends, and play with the kitties, one of whom is trying to “help” me write this response.

Here are her comments: “xxxci000e” (I’ve told her again and again that this is not interesting or elucidating, but she insists…)

What can your fans look forward to next?

Mars and the Search for Life (Clarion, Fall 2008); All About Sleep From A to Zzzzzz (Viking, Fall 2008); a couple of biographies (new for me), and another novel.