Interview: Children’s-YA Author Ellen Wittlinger

Ellen Wittlinger is the author of HARD LOVE (Simon & Schuster, 1999), a Printz honor book, as well as LOMBARDO’S LAW (Houghton Mifflin, 1993) and NOTICING PARADISE (Houghton Mifflin, 1995). This interview was conducted via email in February 2000.

What sorts of books and authors did you enjoy as a girl?

I was an avid library user, but had very little direction from my parents, who both worked, as to what to read. So I read whatever I found. That series of orange biographies was probably my first chapter books, after which I found the “young adult” section of the library which in those days consisted of Betty Cavanna and Maureen Daly and a few others–mostly coming-of-age novels. And then I sequed into murder mysteries and plays. Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams were great favorites. An eclectic mix.

How about your favorite books and authors today?

In the young adult field I greatly admire Brock Cole, Virginia Euwer Wolff, Chris Crutcher, M.E. Kerr, Lois Lowry, Katherine Paterson — lots of others too. I would have to say Cole’s CELINE and Wolff’s MAKE LEMONADE top my current list. But I still read adult fiction too, all sorts of people, but Grace Paley has always been one of my favorites. And I still like to read plays too.

Were you always a writer or did you come to it from another field?

In college I majored in Art and thought I might be a painter. I wasn’t very good at it, but I loved using the materials. It’s the one thing I miss. As a writer it’s just you and the blank page.

I understand that you’ve also published poetry for adults and have written plays. Can you tell us a bit about that? What is it like writing for different genres? How does it affect your YA writing?

I don’t tend to do all these things simultaneously. I wrote poetry first, for many years, and published in many magazines, and one book. But then I really did a complete switch and started to write plays. I loved doing the plays, but the process of getting them staged was so difficult and time consuming that I began to write fiction, first for adults, and then for young adults. I like having used so many genres, and I would like to go back to playwriting at some point. You’ll notice that many of my YA characters like to write and in writing down “their” writing, I’m able to dip back into some of my other genres.

I’m told you hold an MFA in writing. How would you describe your experience? How did you benefit (or not) from it as a writer?

I have an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop which does have a great reputation. The best thing that happened to me there was that I began to take myself seriously as a writer, to WORK at it. I met other people who were in the midst of a similar process and that was certainly valuable. There were other problems though–too many large egos among both students and faculty–that I found hard to deal with. My years there were not easy ones, but I don’t regret the time either.

What inspired you to write for teenagers?

I was a children’s librarian for a number of years and it was then I “discovered” all the wonderful YA writers. Even when I wrote for adults I often wrote about teenagers– I think those years are the most fascinating–so I decided to try writing directly for that age group.

Have you ever considered writing for younger readers?

I have a middle-grade novel coming out this fall. And I’ve written picture book stories too, but never managed to sell any. Actually, one of them will be published in Spider magazine, but I’m not sure when that will be.

How would you describe yourself as a teen?

Like many of my protagonists, I was something of a loner. I had friends, but they certainly weren’t the popular kids, and I sometimes felt like a wierdo. Of course, now I know that most teenagers feel that way at some time, but when you’re in the middle of it, you don’t realize that.

Can you share a bit about your path to publication?

My first YA novel, LOMBARDO’S LAW was picked from the slush pile by the editors at Houghton Mifflin. I’ll be forever grateful for that–they started me on my way. This was not the first YA novel I’d written, just the first to be published. I’d been writing, one thing or another, for many years by that time and was no stranger to the likelihood of rejection. You have tolearn to steel yourself against taking it personally. Houghton also published NOTICING PARADISE, but after that it seemed I couldn’t sell anything for awhile. Now things are moving again.

Can you talk about your writing style? How has it grown? In what new directions are you trying to push yourself?

The thing that comes easiest for me is writing dialogue–I guess that’s the playwright in me–I love coming up with things for people to say to each other. For me, that’s where the dynamics of the work lies. I think what I’m getting better at is weaving the numerous strands of the story together into a strong whole. I’m working on a novel now that’s darker, less humorousthan the others. It’s a new direction and doesn’t always feel comfortable to me, but you can’t keep writing the same thing over and over either.

What part of novel writing comes easiest to you? Plotting? Characterization? Theme?

Definitely characterization. In fact, as soon as I get a character or two, I have to name them before I can write a thing about them–they have to become full people to me before I have any idea what they might do. Theme isn’t usually difficult, but it’s a less rational procedure–it happens as I go along. Plotting can sometimes be miserable and has been my downfall in the past. I think I’m getting a little better at it, but it’s still the hardest part of writing for me.

What are the greatest challenges to you as a young adult book author?

Having started out as a writer for adults, I find it annoying how little respect is given to people who write for children and young adults. As though this art is a simple one. And the people who seem to respect it the least are those who write for adults, who should understand the difficulties of writing in any form. It’s just frustrating.

What do you love about it?

Everything. I think the teen years are the most exciting, if often the most hurtful, time of anyone’s life. You’re doing everything for the first time — it’s your birth into adulthood. I love reading about it; I love writing about it.

Where do you write?

I have a small writing room in my home. It’s overcrowded with books and papers, but it’s my nest.

Do you use a journal?

I’ve kept a journal off and on over the years, but I’m not currently keeping one.

Can you share the story of your being notified about finding out that HARD LOVE received a Printz honor award? Had you heard any buzz beforehand? Did it come as a big surprise? How did you celebrate?

Well, I’d always heard that the Newbery winners are called early on the morning of the announcement and they often don’t believe the phone call is real. The Printz folks seem to be following the same protocol. The chairperson of the committee called and asked if I minded being put on the speaker phone. She’s told me she was calling from ALA so I was pretty excited. A few people had said they thought I might be a contender, but you never know whether to believe that kind of thing. So, yes, I was surprised and thrilled. I couldn’t think what to say and I think I mumbled, “Wow. Amazing.” Or something like that, and I could hear the whole committee laugh. I bet it’s fun to make those calls.

As for celebrating, I was going to a children’s writer’s conference the following week anyway, and that turned out to be a great celebration. Also, some friends had a lovely luncheon for me.

What impact has this recognition had on your writing and your career as an author?

I think it’s still too early to tell. Certainly I’ll have more name recognition now, but I don’t know what this award will mean in terms of sales. I don’t think anyone does yet. I will say it has made me feel both more confident of my abillities and a little bit scared of having to live up to the award.

How long did you work on HARD LOVE? Did the story change over time? Did the characters do anything that took you by surprise? What inspired the story?

Hard LoveThe actual writing of HARD LOVE took about six months. The way I work is to write and rewrite and rewrite the first couple of chapters until I feel like I’ve got the whole pretty much figured out–then the rest of the writing goes more quickly. The biggest surprise to me was when I realized John’s mother didn’t want him to touch her. That just sort of came out as I was typing, and then I realized how important it was, how it would really effect the entire book. Now I see it as kind of the lynchpin of everything. As for, my inspiration, it was coming across zines and realizing how effective they would be in telling a story. Also I wanted to have a gay or lesbian character who was unapologetically gay, matter-of-factly gay, so that guided the story too.

In HARD LOVE, your main characters are involved in the zine scene. How did you become interested in zines? How did you research them? Do you have any favorites? In what ways did this interest provide opportunities to reveal them as characters?

A good friend of mine has a daughter who was 15 at the time and making her own zine. She also had stacks of them for me to look through at her house. I then sent for copies of my own and also wrote a letter to some of the kids who wrote them asking how they got into zines, what the world of zines was like for them, etc. I got some great answers and some very interesting magazines. My friend’s daughter’s zine was called LOOKS YELLOW, TASTES RED which I thought was a wonderful name–good zine too. As I said above, having them write their thoughts and feelings in their zines seemed like a terrific way to see inside their heads. And also to see what things they were willing to reveal and what they wouldn’t reveal.

Was there ever a time when you debated between whether to tell the story from Marisol’s point of view?

To tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure at the very beginning if John was gay or straight. But I KNEW Marisol was a lesbian, and I think I felt some initial constraints because I’m not gay myself and there’s always that fear that people will say, “You haven’t been there—you don’t know what you’re talking about.” But the more I wrote, the less worried I was about any of that.

My feeling is that people have more in common than these differences of gender or sexual orientation or even race, to some extent, would have you believe. Down deep, we all want love, want to be needed, need acceptance. This trumps everything else.

What opportunities were afforded by telling it from John’s point of view?

I’m not sure, to tell you the truth. I just started out inside John’s head and it felt comfortable there. There’s probably another book I might have written from Marisol’s point of view, but it would be a very different book.

John is more hidden, from himself and everyone else, he’s the one who has more changing to do, so I wanted to be with him on the journey.

HARD LOVE is a book that looks as hip as it reads. How much does design matter? Were you pleased with the presentation of your words?

Very pleased. I had asked Simon and Schuster if it would possible to make the zine pages look different from the rest of the book, possibly to make them look like a zine really looks. But they went beyond my wildest expectations. The cover was actually done by a former zine writer/artist. I think it’s a beautiful job.

Can you tell us anything about your upcoming book, WHAT’S IN A NAME?

NAME is written by ten different characters–each one gets one chapter to tell their story. But as the stories accumulate you learn how all these kids are interrelated, and how even the most obviously self-assured among them aren’t necessarily who their peers think they are. It’s about identity and finding your place in your community.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

First of all, read as much as you can–decide for yourself which writers you really love and why. Read as a writer, to figure out how it’s done. And then write, write, write. Get a thick skin. Write some more.