How did you get the idea for The Rosemary Spell?
I wove together different strands to craft The Rosemary Spell: a belief that we make ourselves from the books we read, a conviction that poetry involves a complicated magic, a desire to pay homage to my grandmother who suffered from Alzheimer’s, a familiarity with the drama of living on a river that floods, and a fear that being forgotten might be the worst thing of all.
You teach literature written for adults as well as for children, so why did you choose to write books only for children?
The truth is that it never occurred to me to write fiction for adults. A lot of children’s authors say that they didn’t set out to write for children, that they just told the stories they wanted to tell and children turned out to be the right audience. But I actually did set out to write for young readers. Stories help us figure out our world and ourselves. They give us models for how to face things that are frightening or painful or even wonderful. They teach us to read life. Books for adults do all those things, too, but children are still working out who they are, so they are a very special audience. The books they read can become part of them. I know when I re-read books I loved as a child, I discover pieces of myself that I took from those books and wove into the fabric of my being.
What are your favorite books?
More than any one book, I love the feeling of getting lost in a good book. It’s like being underwater. The regular world is still there, but it feels muffled and far away. The book holds me up, suspended by a fascinating story or fascinating words. But, unlike being underwater, I can stay in the magical world of a book for a long time, until I’ve enjoyed every last word. When I finish a good book, I read the author’s bio, the acknowledgements, even the copyright page, just trying to stay in that world as long as I can. When I finally do come up for air, I am always delighted to find that the real world is a little changed for me because of the book.
Yes, but you didn’t answer the question. You must have some favorite books.
I do, but the list is always changing, and different books are important to me for different reasons. The books from my childhood that mattered a great deal to me are A Wrinkle in Time and A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Recent books for young readers that I admire (or wish I’d written) include When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead and The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. I love the Harry Potter books and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I also read books written for adults, and when my students ask me what is the best novel ever written, I always say Middlemarch by George Eliot.
Has writing for children affected the way you teach literature?
Yes. Being a children’s author gives me a richer understanding of all literature, and that helps me facilitate my students’ learning. We talk a lot in class about the decisions authors make, and I definitely have more insight into this topic as an author. Of course, every author is an individual who makes his or her own decisions, so my personal experience doesn’t necessarily apply to other authors, but it’s still helpful.
I would say, however, that teaching has affected my writing more than the other way around. Reading and rereading and talking about books again and again have taught me a great deal about how books work. Every time I read C. S. Lewis’s description of Lucy passing through the wardrobe into Narnia, I learn something about how to write magic, and every time I teach that scene and talk about it with a new group of students, I learn something more.
What is your writing process?
I set out with a general plan, but sometimes details or bits of dialogue make the plan unfold in a different way than I had expected. I like to write for about two or three hours at a sitting. I start by revising the last thing I wrote in the previous session and then move on to writing something new, usually a chapter. I write pretty fast and then spend a long time revising. Before I revise, I get lots of feedback from friends who read what I’ve written, and I also try to spend some time away from my drafts so that I can see them more clearly when I return to them. This is what “revise” means – to see again.
Are your books based on true stories?
I like to think of the relationship between the real and the fictional as being like the story “Stone Soup.” The stone is something real, but then so many other ingredients are added to the pot that the stone just becomes the thing that started it all.
There is a lot of truth in the stories I tell, but only pieces of them are based on real events. For A Sketch in Time, I drew heavily on the experiences of my three children adjusting to living in Barcelona and going to school in a new place and a new language, but I tweaked the characters to make them work for the story. For example, Micah is loosely based on my older son. I also drew on family stories about the Civil War and mixed in a heavy dose of historical research, but the things that actually happen to the characters in the 1930s are made up.
Some of the things in the novel that are most real are just pieces of the surroundings. For example, the desk where Celia finds the pen is actually a desk we have in our apartment in Barcelona, and a lamp that breaks in Sils is based on a lamp that shows up for half a second in the credits of the TV show Downton Abbey. Many of the places, like the Parc Güell, are real, and the Pennsylvania town of Cookfield, where the children live, is based on my home town.
In The Rosemary Spell, the characters also live in Cookfield, and they go to places that really exist, like the Susquehanna River and the herbarium at the university. They also go sledding in the grove, which my kids do in real life. As with A Sketch in Time, lots of details in the book are real, including the locked cupboard in Rosemary’s room. That cupboard exists in my house and was stuck shut for many years. I was enchanted by fantasies of what might be locked up in there. When I finally got it open, it was empty, but The Rosemary Spell came out of that cupboard, so there was magic in there after all.
Click here to read an interview with Bucknell on “Why YA Lit Matters” (December 2015)
Click here to read a middle grade Q&A with Fearless Fifteeners (November 2015)
Click here to watch a video of me reading at Marble House; Q&A follows (September 2016) — NOTE: I start reading around minute 17:00.