Ellen Wittlinger wrote poetry and plays before settling on writing fiction for teenagers. She’s published ten novels, one of which, Hard Love (Simon & Schuster, 1999), won a Michael L. Printz honor award and a Lambda Literary Award. Many of her books are on the ALA Best Books lists. Her most recent novel is Sandpiper (Simon and Schuster, 2005). Read a February 2000 Cynsational interview with Ellen Wittlinger. For more information go to her website: www.ellenwittlinger.com.
We last spoke in February 2000, shortly after the announcement that your YA novel Hard Love had been named a Printz Honor Book. Looking back, in what ways did that recognition change your career? How about your own attitude and approach to your books and publishing?
Maybe the most important thing that winning the Printz Honor Award did was make me feel legitimate in my own eyes. Even though it was my third YA novel, winning a major prize gave me a feeling of acceptance in the field that I hadn’t had before. Suddenly I felt confident about saying, “Yes, this is what I do–I write novels for teenagers.”
I’m not really sure how it changed my career. I guess it gave me a certain amount of clout with my publisher that I didn’t have before, but then, clout is not anything I know what to do with anyway, so I probably wasted it.
And I was as proud, if not more proud, of winning the Lambda Book Award that year too. That was flabbergasting. It made me believe that I could go outside the boundaries of my white, straight, female, middle-class self and write about the characters who really interested me.
Since then you’ve published several titles, all with Simon & Schuster–Gracie’s Girl (2000)(read excerpt); What’s In A Name (2000); Razzle (2001); The Long Night of Leo and Bree (2002); Zig Zag (2003); and Heart on My Sleeve (2004). Could you give readers a very brief summary of each, and a line or two as to what inspired each story or the greatest challenge in writing it?
Gracie’s Girl is the story of 11-year-old Bess whose wonderful parents are so busy helping the less fortunate that they sometimes don’t have time for her. Bess reluctantly gets involved with the building of a homeless shelter in her town and meets Gracie, an elderly woman who’s been sleeping on the loading dock of a furniture store and eating out of the supermarket dumpster. Despite her misgivings, Bess has to help Gracie. This idea was born because my own children regularly spent time helping out at a local soup kitchen, and I realized just how much helping other people was also helping THEM.
What’s in a Name is a novel in ten short stories, each of which is narrated by a different teenager at Scrub Harbor High School. The town has been divided into those people who want to change its name to the more classy-sounding “Folly Bay” and those whose families have lived in Scrub Harbor for generations and have no intention of changing it to anything else. This battle reaches down into the high school and kids find themselves lining up along class lines. It’s also a book about stereotypes. The chapters are written by “the jock,” “the gay kid,” “the artist,” “the new guy,” “the politician,” etc. But as the reader gets to know what the person is really like underneath, how they feel personally, it’s harder to pigeonhole them. The impetus for the book was to take some of the high school stereotypes and break them down. Kids so often deal with each other as their stereotypes and not as real people, so I wanted my characters to confront each other and find out the truths behind the stereotypes.
Razzle was an entirely character-driven book. I’d been spending time on Cape Cod, in Truro and Provincetown, where I used to live, and I wanted to set a book there and people it with some of the offbeat characters who live in a place like that, at the end of the earth. I was at the town dump when I began to imagine Razzle working there, who she was, where she lived, and how she became an artist. The book grew entirely from that character–a girl who has little money, few friends, and a sparse and oddball family–but a great imagination and a lot of heart.
The Long Night of Leo and Bree is loosely based on an incident that happened to a friend of mine. After the tragic murder of his sister, Leo’s family falls apart, his mother becomes a drunk, and Leo himself begins to feel more than a little crazy with guilt. On a particularly bad night, he sees Bree out walking alone and kidnaps her with the initial idea of killing her as a kind of replacement for his sister. Instead, the two spend a long night locked together in a basement, figuring out what’s gone wrong and whether there is any way to save themselves.
Zigzag is the road trip novel I’d been wanting to write for awhile. There’s nothing like piling a group of people into a car and taking off for the great, empty western states. Of course, when the people are your grieving, crazy aunt and two cousins, the results could be unexpected. Robin is not in good shape herself as she tries to come to terms with the possibility that, between her boyfriend’s summer in Europe and his beginning college halfway across the country, she may be losing the love of her life. I wanted to show Robin (and my readers) that there’s always more excitement in life than you might think–you just have to look for it and grab it when you see it.
Heart on My Sleeve is written entirely in emails, Instant Messages, letters and postcards. It began as almost an exercise, to see if I could do it. And it was loads of fun. Chloe meets Julian at a college pre-frosh weekend in the spring. They like each other a lot and begin an email correspondence that lasts over the summer until they see each other again in August. They also correspond with friends and relatives during this time, both of them excited about what they feel is their burgeoning romance. I wanted to write a story about how we reveal ourselves to other people. When and how we tell the truth, and how we can misread each other’s words so that we hear what we want to hear.
I’d like to focus on your latest release, Sandpiper (Simon & Schuster, 2005). Could you tell us a bit about the story?
Sandpiper is a girl whose been in a downward spiral the last few years. In an attempt to attract boys, she began having oral sex with them in middle school, but somehow her relationships never seemed to move past that point. By her second year of high school, she’s sick of herself, sick of the boys, and furious with her father who also has trouble seeing beyond her suddenly voluptuous body. She meets a mysterious boy who she’s seen walking all over town. He won’t tell her his name so she just calls him The Walker. It’s clear he has secrets he won’t tell anyone, but Sandpiper is ready to divulge her secrets, and, because he seems so serious, even wise, she decides maybe The Walker is person who can help her figure things out.
What was the initial inspiration for creating this book?
There’s been so much written lately about middle-school age girls performing oral sex on boys. It seems to have become almost an emotionless rite-of-passage. It seemed to me this couldn’t be good for these girls in the long run, for their self-esteem, or for their feelings about their own bodies. I wanted to follow it through and see what happens to a girl like that when she’s a little older. The story of The Walker is based on a story I heard (not to give anything away) which also seemed to be the kind of trauma a teenager would be hard pressed to recover from.
What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?
Most of my books take a year, more or less, to write. I didn’t do much research for this book, so it may have taken a little less. It was fairly smooth sailing until the end which I rewrote several different ways. I wanted drama, but not melodrama–sometimes that’s a difficult line to walk. And what kind of relationship did I want these two to have by the end? Would I make it clear or leave it up in the air? Would there be a trial? Those were the hard questions.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?
One of the challenges was to write a poem in Sandpiper’s voice to end each of the chapters. I’d really wanted to do this in a book for a while, and I thought it suited Sandpiper better than any other character I’d had. I started my writing life as a poet, so it was fun to dig back into that way of expressing myself. But, of course, it wasn’t really “my” poetry, it was hers, so that was sometimes a struggle. Did the poems sound too much like MY poetry? What was HER voice like?
The other difficulty was deciding how much to say about Sandpiper’s sexual experiences. I didn’t want to shy away from that aspect of things because, after all, that was the impetus for the book. But I think, as a YA writer, you’re always very aware of where the line is. Will this sentence keep the book out of high schools? Middle schools? Is it worth that? I want the book to be widely read–I think this topic is very relevant to kids today–but dealing directly with a subject like this can whittle down the number of kids who ever have access to the book.
Of your own recent reads for the children’s/YA audience, which are your favorites and why?
I loved Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins (HarperCollins, 2005), Totally Joe by Jim Howe (Atheneum, 2005), Looking for Alaska by John Green (Dutton, 2005), and Margaux with an X (Candlewick, 2004)(or just about anything else) by Ron Koertge (author interview).
I also love the new stuff by Brent Hartinger, David Levithan, Rachel Cohn, and Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci (Candlewick, 2005). There are some fabulous new young writers coming along. Oh, and Feed [by M.T. Anderson (Candlewick, 2002)], though not so new, is one of my all-time favorites.
As you can probably tell from this list, character is ALL for me. Well, character and humor, which all of these writers do very well. I don’t care what the character is doing (although I know I should) as long as they invite me into their engaging minds. Oh, and my very, very favorite YA book, now 15 years old, is Celine by Brock Cole (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989). Every character in that book is fabulous and hilarious, even when they’re poignant and sad.
What can your fans expect from you next?
In summer 2006 a novel called Blind Faith will be out. It’s about how people deal with death, and particularly about the MCs mother who turns to a Spiritualist church to try to contact her dead mother’s spirit. Then in 2007, Parrotfish will be out. I can’t wait for this one–it’s the most fun I’ve had writing a book in ages. It’s about a female-to-male transgendered boy coming to terms with his identity in high school. And it’s funny.
An Interview with Ellen Wittlinger from Authors Among Us: Children’s Writers Who Are Or Have Been Librarians.
Author Profile: Ellen Wittlinger from Teenreads.com.
Cynsational News & Links
Best of 2005: Illustrators’ Gallery from PaperTigers.org. Featuring children’s literature of South Asia and the Pacific Rim.
Cheryl Harness, author-illustrator of The Remarkable Benjamin Franklin (National Geographic, 2005), is the featured author of the month at Embracing the Child. See also the featured illustrator, Frank Ordaz.
I’m blogging lately on Spookycyn about chocolates, Christmas, tea, and the perils of brainstorming a manuscript while walking on the treadmill.