A lifetime of stories: an interview with author Jane Yolen

"I communicate through story. While I don't always identify myself as a writer, I always identify myself as a storyteller."

 

Jane Yolen
Acclaimed author Jane Yolen. Photo by Jason Stemple

Jane Yolen visited Ringling College of Art and Design in January 2018 through our Visiting Writers Forum. As program coordinator, I had the rare treat of hosting this award-winning, iconic author, who published her 365th book in March.

The following is an excerpt of the oceans of wisdom about the world of writing that she shared during her classroom visits, meal conversations, student interactions, and evening events.

 

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It’s actually easier these days to name the type of books you HAVEN’T written versus those that you have: romance, westerns, arts and crafts, crossword puzzles, tell-all Hollywood biographies, political hatchet books, and porn. But one thing some people might not realize is how committed you are to poetry. In fact, you’ve written a poem every day for many, many years.

Is it fair to say that you consider yourself a poet?

I think of myself as a storyteller. Even my poems are very often stories. Simply put, I communicate through story. While I don’t always identify myself as a writer, I always identify myself as a storyteller.

 Let’s talk about stories more directly, then. As someone who judges a lot of contests, what’s one thing that commonly gets missed by newer storytellers?

The big thing they miss is arc. They don’t get that a story has to move from somewhere to somewhere else, and end in resolution. They’re great at openings, and they’re lousy at closings.

Endings are hard even if you think you know what the ending of a book is. Once you get there, it’s hard to end. Part of it is that you’ve been in that story for a while and you don’t want it to end. So there’s a little bit of reluctance for resolution.

That may be why we are so overflowing with sequels and prequels and stories with a 14-book arc. Just as their readers don’t want anything to end, the writers often don’t want it to end, either. Endings are hard.

 I’ve heard you mention that there are three types of books…

I tell my students that there are head books, heart books, and pocket books. One you write just for the money. One you write because it’s something you’ve always wanted to write – it’s important to your soul to write. And one you write because it’s interesting – it’s something you simply want to explore.

But if you’re really lucky, a head book or a pocket book can turn into a heart book. You can fall in love with it.

I recently had a conversation with Patricia MacLachlan (author of Sarah, Plain and Tall, among other fine books), who’s in my critique group. She’s been working on a series of books about a little dog. They’ve done well, so the publisher has asked for another and another. With the third book, though, she struggled.

I suggested that she make it a heart book. Some time later, she reported that “I found what it was I had enjoyed doing in the first two books, and I came back to it.” Patricia remembered the dogs she’d had over the years, and that third book in the series became a heart book for her, so it was far easier and more enjoyable to finish.

Sometimes that happens. But not always.

One of the many hats you’ve worn in the publishing world is that of an editor. Right after college, you moved to New York City and spent almost a decade in that role. How did that job inform your own writing?

I learned three things. First of all, I learned how to step back and look objectively at a piece of writing – mine or somebody else’s. Two, I learned how to spot really difficult areas in a person’s writing, such as story arc and character development – stuff I might’ve learned in college. But when you’re doing that kind of work in college, you’re dealing with work from the canon. It’s already published. You’re talking about what DID they do vs. stuff that hasn’t been perfected yet.

The third thing is, I learned what a good writer I was when I was reading other people’s manuscripts. I was realizing how much more I already knew and how much better I was than I thought. Maybe not as good as Ursula Le Guin, not as good as Peter Beagle, not as good as John Crowley, not as good as name-your-favorite-author, but I realized that I was pretty good. I could be better. I could be a lot better, honestly! But as an editor, working with people whose skills were sometimes less than mine – at that point – made me understand that I had nothing to be ashamed of despite me having a way to go.

You write about such a wide variety of topics – from the Holocaust to the Salem witch trials to pirates to Mary Celeste to the Wright brothers’ sister, to name just a few of the far-ranging subjects you’ve tackled in book form. Talk a bit about the importance of research in your writing process.

Some of us are lucky to live near major research collections. I live in the Connecticut River Valley that houses Smith, Amherst, Mount Holyoke, and Hampshire College, as well as the University of Massachusetts, the Eric Carle Museum, and the Yiddish Book Center.

But I still have my own research library that I have built up over the years, which includes: two complete sets of encyclopedias, as well as huge collections of folklore, poetry, children’s books, nonfiction (especially natural history and American and European history), books on writing, art books, cookbooks, biographies of writers, mysteries, science fiction and fantasy, and 19th through 21st century fiction. I haunt old bookstores and go to library sales, League of Women Voters sales, antique stores, and garage sales.

How do you know what you want to write about until it whispers in your ear? A book in my home does that often to me. I’d been collecting pirate books long before I wrote The Ballad of the Pirate Queens; I had books about Mary, Queen of Scots long before I wrote Queen’s Own Fool; I had books about playing finger games and handclap games 30 years before starting This Little Piggy; and when editor Bonnie Verburg called me up and asked if I wanted to write a book about Columbus from a Native American point of view, I already had three important books in my home library to get me started on my picture book Encounter.

In the matter of owning books for research, be over-prepared.

One of the things that distinguishes a Jane Yolen book is how they have a solid sense of pacing – such good control of the flow of story. Is that something that was natural? How conscious are you of that?

Every chapter is a part of the story. Every chapter has its own flow. It doesn’t always have to end in a cliffhanger – I think that’s a mistake that people who are writing a particular kind of book think they need to do. But each chapter has to be part of a greater narrative arc. Sometimes chapters will end in a cliffhanger, but sometimes they’ll merely end at a stopping point, a breathing place.

Every chapter is a part of the story. Every chapter has its own flow.

To me, knowing how to do that well comes from reading a lot of novels and recognizing what works and what doesn’t work. I’ve read some recent novels that I didn’t like – I won’t name them – because they lack three things that I think are important to a really good novel.

  1. No sense of landscape. The landscape is just missing.
  2. Lacking punchy language. The language is flat.
  3. No understanding of arc, both the smaller arcs of the chapters or the larger story arc.

With some of these books, it’s just constant invention, one thing after another with flat characters. There’s no real growth in a character. That’s something that has to be there for me as a reader.

Probably the biggest fault I see in books these days – and it’s partially the editor’s fault when they insist “Get on with the story!” – is that the stories lack a real sense of landscape. One of the things I love so much about Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and Robin McKinley’s Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast is their deep understanding of landscape, not only as a place to walk through but landscape serving as a character.

Speaking of books you love – I KNOW that you’re a big fan of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Why is that a go-to when you talk about picture books that work?

It’s an onion book. Every time you read it, you find another layer. Even though it’s only 10 sentences, 37 pages, 337 words, you ask another question each time you read it.

Some of the questions: Who made Max’s wolf suit? His mother, probably. (We only see the mother – we never see the father.) Maybe she made it. She certainly allowed him to wear it.

How many times a day does he wear it? Does he only wear it when he’s making mischief of one kind or another?

I’ve asked myself: Do mothers still put somebody to bed without supper? Lock the kids up without eating?

But at the end, the supper’s still hot. So he hasn’t been there as long as the “almost over a year” might suggest. Going to where the wild things are is part of his play, his own healing, his own calming himself down.

There’s a lot going on in that book – if you just read it once, you never get it all. You just get the little story. But it has stories upon stories within it, and I want to know more. Some of it I’ll never know, and some of it I can guess at.

But you’re content not knowing.

That’s right. Yet each time I read it, I’m finding out a little bit more.

Let’s back up and talk about the picture book world in general. What do you notice about it these days? How has it changed in the decades you’ve been publishing picture books?

In some ways, picture books are easier to produce now. We have technologies we didn’t have 30, 40 years ago. The issue might be that we’re producing too many, not too few. We’re swamped by the number of picture books being published now. New little companies are rising all the time, and some do wonderful books – Creative Editions and companies like that. They do beautiful, interesting, articulate books.

The schools, though, have less and less money to buy books, and the parents of the kids are finding other ways for kids to have a reading experience, whether it’s online or interactive things, so the audience is shrinking, the buying power is shrinking, yet we’re coming out with even more picture books. So maybe we’re coming to a crisis.

The number of picture books I’m putting out a year certainly isn’t helping! [laughs]

Thanks to 365 published books, you’ve been blessed to be able to work with some of the greats. But not all of them, though. Who are some kidlit people you’d have loved to partner with, now or in the past?

Certainly the Dillons [Leo and Diane]. Maurice Sendak and I talked on and off about doing a book together. Eric Carle and I tried to put a book together – it didn’t work out.

I’d love to write a book with Neil Gaiman, but that probably won’t happen. He’s the cat who walks alone. Yes, he did adult books with Terry Pratchett, but right now, he’s so busy writing his own books that he doesn’t have time for anything else.

There are a lot of younger illustrators whose work I adore. Dan Santat is one. Fred Koehler is another. I’d love to do more work with Dennis Nolan, too.

I’ve been very lucky. I’ve worked with some of the best illustrators on my books, and I’ve written novels with some terrific writers as well.

Yet if none of those I’ve mentioned happen, I’m quite happy with what I already have.

You recently wrote a touching, final goodbye to Ursula Le Guin. When your own career is over, what are some things you’d like others to say about you, your life, and your career?

I hope they’d say that I wrote three or four really important books that will last. Owl Moon. The Emperor and the Kite. You Nest Here with Me, a heart book that I wrote with my daughter, Heidi. All three of my Holocaust novels – The Devil’s Arithmetic, Briar Rose, and Mapping the Bones. However, I find that every reader of mine loves a different set of my books.

That I was generous of spirit with other writers and illustrators.

That I helped smooth the way for some who were up and coming.

That I never met an idea I couldn’t find some way to work with.

 

Ryan G. Van Cleave is the author of 20 books, and he runs the creative writing program at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. Web: ryangvancleave.com.

 

 

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