One remarkable pleasure of attending a national SCBWI conference is the opportunity to hear the very best writers and illustrators in the industry talk about their lives and craft.
In recent years we've heard from Judy Blume, Norton Juster, Bruce Coville, and Richard Peck, just to name a few. To that luminous list we can soon add Gary Schmidt, who will go down as one of the great geniuses of children's literature.
How did a PhD in medieval literature lead you to the very top of the children's book industry?
They do seem like rather separate endeavors, don't they. And I suppose it must seem strange; sometimes it seems strange even to me. But I suppose, if you had to choose the very best storyteller in the language, I think you'd choose Chaucer. He does so easily, it seems, what I flail at: tell a great story that has, beneath it, large understandings of what it means to be a human being in this broken, hurting world. I mean, if you want to read a tale about sorrow and loss, read "The Knight's Tale." If you want to meet a character filled with hope, read about the Wife of Bath. If you want to understand the nature of the peacemaker, read about the Nun's Priest. And on and on. The great narratives of the Anglo-Saxons and Middle English writers are sustaining for any writer, no matter what audience, no matter what genre. In the end, I feel incredibly blessed to be able to have one foot in each world.
Can you describe your process of writing a novel for us? Do you plan a lot? Write every day? Tear out your hair?
It does seem that writing a novel should have a complex plan, and maybe someday I'll figure one out. But for now, I follow Steinbeck's pattern of 500 words a day per project. I usually try to work on two or three projects at a time, and for each I give 500 words--unless it's a teaching day, when I usually work on only one project. I start at the opening to the chapter I am working on, and read and revise up to the sentence at which I stopped. Thus by the time a chapter is finished, its opening pages have been revised eight or nine times.
Any project begins with voice. I have to have the narrator down before I begin serious work on the book. I do not use an outline; I want to mirror the experience of my reader when turning the page. So I start each day, not having much of an idea of what will happen. After a year I usually have a first draft. Then comes the hard revision of plot, character, setting, tone, meaning. That is usually another year, year and a half.
All of this is done on a 1953 Royal. That means I type the book six or seven times, usually on the backs of old galleys. I know this is inefficient and slow--that's why I do it.
Do your students at Calvin College know you're the guy who wrote The Wednesday Wars and other heartbreaking and hilarious books? Do they pay extra-close attention as a result?
I teach at Calvin College in a department that is full of amazing colleagues. They are writing poetry, short stories, fantasies, critical editions, literary criticism, children's books, devotional work, satire, journalistic pieces, memoirs, movie reviews--I mean, just about everything under the sun. I am often humbled by their skills. And students, I think, see us in a kind of collective way; they're proud (I hope) to be part of a department where there is so much great production. I feel that way too.
How is writing a picture book different for you from writing a novel?
Picture books are very hard for me; that's why I've only done a handful. They are so lean, so tight, so sparing in their language and singular in their focus. This is wicked hard for me, since I love the novel form for its expansiveness, for the room to develop and consider. There is also the issue of illustration, since with the picture book the writer must leave room for the illustrator's investigations. I've worked with some terrific illustrators--most recently the amazing David Diaz--and it's been wonderful to see what they have done to bring two visions into a single artistic experience--even though it's hard for a guy with a lot of New England blood to release this much control. I think in the end, though, I'm more comfortable with the novel form.