Interview: Children’s-YA Author Peni Griffin

Peni R. GriffinPeni R. Griffin’s books include: MARGO’S HOUSE (McElderry, 1996); VIKKI VANISHES (McElderry, 1995); THE MAZE (McElderry, 1994); THE SWITCHING WELL (McElderry, 1999), which was a 1993 finalist for Best Western Juvenile Fiction, the Golden Spur Awards. All of Griffin’s novels are set in Texas. This interview was conducted via email in November 1999.

All of your books are set in Texas. Could you talk a bit about your Texas ties?

I was born in Harlingin, in the Rio Grande Valley, but that’s a technicality. I didn’t live here to know it till I was ten when my dad was stationed at Goodfellow AFB in San Angelo, which is West Texas. I hated Texas at first. I hated every place that wasn’t Iowa, where both sides of my family were, and to this day there are many things about Texas that I don’t fit with. But this would be true where ever I lived — even Iowa.

Maybe, especially Iowa. And Texas has such an amazing history and diverse geography, and isn’t intimidated by other cultures the way many parts of America are, so it’s a great place for a writer to live. All the stories you could ever want are lying around on the ground like ripe pecans.

I didn’t really feel at home here till I came to San Antonio, though. San Antonio is physically a beautiful city and emotionally a good place for a natural outsider to live. It’s also a great place for someone history-minded. People have lived here for at least 11,000 years, and that history is always close enough to touch. It isn’t tucked behind glass in a museum here – people live in historic houses, usually haunted ones, and worship in historic churches, and go to shows in historic theaters, and aren’t self-conscious about it.

What can you tell us about the relationship between real Texas places and people and the fictional ones in your stories?

Well, let’s see —

In OTTO FROM OTHERWHERE, the fog-covered lake that Otto walks across and which can be seen from Paula’s bedroom window is Woodlawn Lake, formerly West End Lake, a local ornamental lake less than a mile from my house. My husband used to work across the street from it. This area was developed in the 20s or 30s and is usually referred to as the Jefferson area. Jefferson is the most beautiful high school in America, and the Jefferson area has many beautiful old residences – and some lovely industrial buildings – and some seedy commercial districts – and some old-fashioned, low-income apartment houses – all crowded together. The places Otto goes in his trip downtown all existed at the time I wrote, though the the tattoo parlor has been gentrified. And you’ll notice I couldn’t resist using the battle of the Alamo in conversation.

A Dig in TimeIn A DIG IN TIME, I used the same Jeffeson area. Because this was a time travel story, the city is much more of a presence. The two most important events are the riot in which Big Daddy participates and the 1921 flood, from which Tim and Nan rescue their infant grandmother. Emma Teneyuca, the little woman who reserved the meeting room for the communist meeting that sparked the riot, died this year after a career as a school teacher and I wish they’d name a street after her, at least. The 21 flood was the worst in the city’s history until October 1998, and was a turning point for us, as it led directly to the formation of the Conservation Society and the River Walk. The flood control projects undertaken at that time have resulted in a tourist mecca, and also in continued flood control efforts which triumphed in 1998. The ’21 flood killed 55 people in Bexar County.

The ’98 flood, which was much worse in terms of volume of water, killed six – none in the city limits. Don’t let anybody tell you history doesn’t matter.

HOBKIN is set in a small town in West Texas. The town of Britt is imaginary (named after the unsung Texas hero, “Nigger Britt” Johnson, whose story would be too long a digression here but is seriously cool). All kinds of elements came together here, but the two big Texas related ones are: I read in Texas Monthly magazine that in many of the small dying towns of Texas, there are properties that, literally, nobody owns; and my eclectic reading on the topic of the fairy phenomenon indicates that European fairies will attach themselves to families and follow them around, and that Indian tribes also told stories about little people.

SWITCHING WELL of course required a lot of local research and is based on the powerful sense of history you get from living in San Antonio. But it’s the sort of story that could be written about any place. Sure, if I had lived in Des Moines or Berlin or Paris the exact same premise would have worked out differently in detail, but it could have been done. Because there is no point to such a story without lots of factual details, the places Ada and Amber go are all real (but some are modified for the needs of the story – the Streicher Emergency Center occupies a house which, in real life, is a publicly subsidized day care center, for example), and all the public events really happened – including the TV schedule!

The remaining books — TREASURE BIRD, THE MAZE, VIKKI VANISHES and MARGO’S HOUSE are less intensely Texas-oriented, though the only one where the setting is of no real importance is THE MAZE. The others are set in definite places around town and their writing was influenced by local conditions – the rapacious gobbling up of country by San Antonio, at the same time that unexpected bits of country remain inside the city limits; a local tragedy; the subdivisions of cheap housing which upwardly mobile minority families are breaking their backs to make into pleasant places to live – but I expect these things are happening all over.

How do you go about researching for your books? Do you do it all in advance or as questions arise? What types of sources do you turn to?

I read everything I can find on a subject – newspapers, books, magazines, microfilm, maps, everything. It’s not possible to do everything in advance, but I find that when writing on historical subjects it’s best to empty your brain and research indiscriminantly for awhile within a set of broad parameters. The story will gradually take shape on its own, leading to specific quesitions which can be tracked down. Sometimes you get a surprise in the middle of the story. Liza’s sudden acquisition of a goat in the early part of *Hobkin* meant I had to take a special trip to the library and check out books on goat raising, for instance.

No amount of reading can take the place of real experience, though. When a story is set in a certain place, I have to know that place. I like to walk out my settings and pick houses for my characters to live in. I could never have gotten into Ada’s head, in SWITCHING WELL, if I hadn’t walked around her old neighborhood. You should handle whatever can still be touched that you’re researching, and you should never let an opportunity to research go by. I’m going down to the coast this winter to birdwatch and also to find out what the Texas coast would have been like for the German immigrants who landed there in 1848 on Christmas Day. I don’t know when I’m going to write that book, but this is a good way to get started.

Your books include time travel, mystery, realism, history, and more. What sorts of books did you like to read growing up? What sorts of books do you like to read now?

My first favorites were series mysteries – Bobbsey Twins, Happy Hollisters, Nancy Drew; then LITTLE WOMEN which led to historicals; then otherworldly fantasy. The books I have read the largest number of times are LITTLE WOMEN, LITTLE MEN, THE GAMMAGE CUP by Carol Kendall, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, MOOMINSUMMER MADNESS by Tove Jansson, and Christopher Isherwood’s BERLIN STORIES and LIONS AND SHADOWS. It’s gotten to where I enjoy these books, not on their own merits (which are however considerable) but for the emotional security they provide. If I’m in a certain kind of bad mood, these books are a big help.

I don’t need otherworldly fantasy that way I used to, since I now live in an exotic place, but I read “low fantasy” as much as ever. The world’s greatest living writer is Diana Wynne Jones. Other people I try to buy everything by (as opposed to being content to hunt at the library) are Lois McMaster Bujold (space opera), E. Nesbit (the grandmother of us all), and Arthur Ransome (the greatest hiking/camping/sailing books ever written).

But there’s so many good writers, past and present, to keep up with that lists are hopeless. I was always and remain an eclectic, voracious reader.

On my last trip to the library, I checked out:

  • An anthology of science fiction (THE OXFORD BOOK OF ALIENS. Don’t you love it?) and another of short stories for young adults about being trapped;
  • five YA thrillers — one ecological, two traditional mysteries, one mind-bending time-travel thriller, and BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE; (Cyn Note: BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE is by Annette Curtis Klause);
  • a Horatio Hornblower novel;
  • non-fiction — a history of birdwatching in America, a book about profiling criminals;
  • a couple of YA “problem” novels, one part of a series and one not;
  • and a Beverley Cleary humorous teen novel from the 50s.

Obviously I was in a thriller mood this trip. Another time I might get a stack of YA fantasies or happy family stories or historicals, or a bunch of “rumor books” about bigfoot, river monsters, UFOs, ghosts, or whatever.

How did you make the decision to become a writer?

The same way I decided to be brunette, female, near-sighted, and vegetarian. Okay, so I could have colored my hair, had a sex-change, and forced myself to eat meat when I don’t like it. But why? I’d still have been near-sighted. Some things you can’t help, and some things are too much work to deny.

What was your path to publication like?

Long and straight, with puddles. I wasted (?) a certain amount of tim because I, first, didn’t realize I liked children’s books best until I was in my 20s and, second, assumed for some time after that that I didn’t write well enough to write for children. I tried to write adult fantasy, short stories and novels, and though I sold a few short stories beginning in 1986 with one about the nereid of the San Antonio River, I didn’t make much progress.

Then I started to write a short story out of the notion of the young alien who walks out of the fog into our world, and realized that all the interesting things about this idea would happen to the kids, and that the short story was running long. So I changed the POV characters and wrote it as a book. I don’t remember where I sent it first, but the second place was Margaret K. McElderry books, and she took it. And the next book I sent her, and the next. But not recently.

What are the greatest challenges to you as a children’s and young adult book author?

Getting the manuscript back in the mail.

I’m serious. Writing can be easy or hard, depending on where my head is at today, but I don’t worry about the audience. I can trust them. And I know I write well because my rejection letters say so, and I have continual hope (though I’m sometimes exhausted) that someday, some way, I’ll be able to quit my day job; but the hardest thing I ever do is pick out a publisher, find out who the editor du jour is, write a cover or query letter, and mail it off, knowing that the editor may go to another house next week and in any case already has a stack of queries and manuscripts that could, if carelessly set afire, burn down the whole block. That part wears me out.

What do you love about it?

Everything else. Writing is fun. Revising is fun. Seeing your name in print is fun, and so is getting a check (when you get one). And the audience is wonderful. My husband loaned his copy (he keeps copies of all my books on his desk at work) of TREASURE to a co-workers kid and it came back with this sticky note on it: “Thank you, Mrs. Griffin.” I keep it on the freezer at eye level. Another kid read OTTO FROM OTHERWHERE in the car when his family had to drive to Florida for his grandfather’s funeral. It was the first book, but not the last one, that he ever read all the way through, and his English grades went from C to A in the next semester; and he thought all this was important enough to tell me about. A little girl I would have said was too young to read *Switching Well* by herself wanted to name her dolls after Ada and Amber. And so on.

Why would anybody want to write for grownups? They’re all take and no give.

What part of novel writing comes easiest to you? Plotting? Characterization? What’s most difficult?

I’m not very good at plotting, per se, but fortunately the distinction between plot and character is not an essential one. The plot is what the characters do, and once I know my characters, I know what they do.

Characters are the easiest part. By the time I’m secure enough to write a story, the characters are complete in my head and I can mentally turn myself into them any time I need to. The thing that is hard for me in every story I write is deciding what to leave out. I tend to write long (gee, you wouldn’t have guessed that from this interview, would you?), and have to keep cutting, sometimes till it hurts. I don’t think I conveyed well enough in SWITCHING WELL the impoverishment of the natural environment around San Antonio over the last hundred years – but Amber and Ada were not intrinsically interested in birds and plants, so most of that got left out or cut.

Sometimes I need help on plot elements that don’t spring directly from character, or which need to be decided before I know a character well. The device for switching Ada and Amber in time was like that. So was the rationale for hiding the treasure and the means of setting the clues in TREASURE BIRD. When I’m stumped, I talk to my husband, who is a logical thinker with a good sense of how things are done, as opposed to why things are done, which is my department.

In what ways do you think your writing has changed over time?

I’m doing more of my cutting before the words go onto paper these days. When I started writing I was imitative — isn’t everybody? — and didn’t understand how other people read books. I found my own voice quickly, but I’m still learning to anticipate how the audience will tend to read something, and what things are going to throw the publisher. I’m gradually getting less squeamish about hurting my characters, a process which involves hurting myself.

Could you tell us a bit about your next book?

The Ghost SitterThe next book you’ll see with my name on it will be SPARKLER SUSIE* (or not; the editor is trying to find a title she likes better and getting nowhere), a realistic ghost story. Fictional ghosts tend to be played for laughs – which strikes me as perverse but doesn’t stop me reading them – or terror; but “real ghosts” (and I’m not committed to the idea that ghosts are real) are pathetic, harmless, and confusing.

This story takes the assumptions of modern ghost belief, primarily that ghosts don’t understand that they’re dead and must be helped to “move on” toward some unspecified place they’re supposed to be, and examines how, if that’s true, the phenomenon works. How, after a few years, can you not know you’re dead? Part of the story is from the POV of the ghost, Sparkler Susie, who was blown up by a firework 50 years ago, and part is from the POV of Charlotte, the girl who moves into her tract house and assumes responsibility for helping her.

This is an ordinary ranch-style house, btw — why should all the haunted houses be lovely Victorian mansions that most people can’t ever aspire to live in?

CYN NOTE: this book was eventually published as THE GHOST SITTER.

What advice to you have for aspiring young writers?

Learn to type. Don’t limit yourself. Read indiscriminately. Write every day. If you marry, marry someone who can stand to be alone a lot and is good at the things you’re bad at. If you don’t marry, make friends on the same principle. And when life has squashed you flat and you feel you’ll never get up again and there’s no point to any of it – go outside with some blank paper and a writing implement and sit and watch whatever passes by and let the sun soak into you, until you get the energy to write again, and then write.

Write anything. No goals, no ambitions, no need to show it to anyone. Just because that’s what makes you feel good.