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A transcript from our interview with Phyllis Naylor

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Phyllis Naylor. The transcript is divided into the following clips:


Feeding time for the imagination

I think that's where it all began, because my mother and sometimes my father read aloud to us every night until we were in our teens almost. Dad read the Mark Twain books, mother read the Bible storybook, The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, and they sang to us too. And many of their songs were really long epic stories. And I think that to me that's the happiest part of my childhood. And I remember when I would go away on a sleepover, I would so long for that. I would lay on the guest cot wondering what was happening at home and what I was missing. It was like feeding time for the imagination. And I think that's where my love of stories began. I really do.

I think that so much is the reader's enthusiasm. My mother loved to read, my dad loved to dramatize. And just listening to their voices taking on different characters, hearing them laugh with me, just as we would laugh when a teacher would read a story aloud at school, which was so wonderful. That was the best part of the day. It was the best part of school for me in grade school and it was the best part of growing up. That's what I remember most. It was just the interaction with the reader's enjoyment in mind that made it perfect.

I think I felt that if listening to stories was so much fun, writing them must be even better. And if I was hearing a mystery story then I wanted to create my own character and see if I could make them do something interesting, something exciting. And that took place, I think, when I was in about fifth grade I began making my own little stories, stapling them together. And especially on days that I was sick, I was given huge batches of scratch paper and I would make books and it was just … I had no idea what I was going to do with the books, but I loved doing it and then eventually I began really truly writing the stories.

And I'm sure it began with hearing them. And even today I love listening to books better than reading them. I think I take them in auditorily — is that the right word — rather than visually. And they're so well done now, actors and actresses read the books and it's a happy time all over again.

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Stay fresh, write every day

For one thing I never write the same type of book twice in a row. I don't do two Alice books in a row. I don't do two scary books in a row. Usually not even in the same age level. If I do a serious book for teenagers, then it might be an adventure book for middle readers next, then a picture book, once in a while an adult novel. I think then when I come back to that type of novel again I'm fresh, because I've done other things in the meantime.

I write probably six hours a day. I write in long hand. And I probably spend two more hours just the business of writing, reading over contracts, answering mail. Thinking; a lot of time is thinking. I think people don't realize how much of the time when you're doing other things you're thinking, taking a shower or doing the dishes, the laundry, you're always carrying around something in your mind that, to me it's like a checkbook that doesn't balance, you're going over it again and again and again trying to find that piece that fits in the plot that ties everything together.

So, four to six hours of actual writing and two more hours of thinking and doing the business. It's a full time job, really.

I don't write short stories anymore. Once I started writing books, that was it. I just love being in-depth in with your character. Sometimes I don't know how long a book will be and I begin it and I think this could all be compacted and written so that it takes place in a shorter time; I'm dragging it out unnecessarily. And other times I think I'm not getting into it deep enough; this will be a longer book.

So I don't set out really thinking this will only be… Editors say tell the story in however long it takes and that's just what I do is see how it goes.

Picture books are hard for me. They're really the hardest thing. They're very much like poetry and I'm not a poet. Every word has to be there in exactly the right order. In some ways I think it's easier to write an adult novel and write a whole paragraph than to write those two lines on a page, which have to connect so perfectly with the two lines before and the two lines after and the rhythm, although rhythm in adult novels is important too. But it's just, if you gave me my choice I would say I would rather write a 300 page novel then a picture book. But sometimes an idea is a picture book, so you just go with it and see what happens.

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Getting into character

I never write about a real person, except in my autobiography. I don't fashion characters after people I know. But certainly, events that have happened to me come into play. I might change them around; some are too embarrassing to even admit, especially in the Alice books. But they create the fuel, the spark for doing something. My son's characteristics come into the books, but very often I switch them around, so the older child has the characteristic of the younger one, so they can't see themselves. But of course they do. But mostly it's my imagination. But it's certainly based on things that have happened to me too.

I mean, I live every character. In Shiloh I had to be the mother, the father, and then I had to switch gears and become Judd Travers with the background that he had. Even I had to become the dog. There was a scene in which in Becky is rolling, a three year old is rolling around over Shiloh's back on the ground and I had to imagine myself, the dog, digging my claws in the ground so I couldn't be rolled this way and that. And you really have to … it's like an actor on stage putting on different hats and becoming one character after another. There's a close association between acting and writing, I think.

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The third draft

I've always said that I think that writing a first draft of a novel must be very much like a director, starting your first rehearsal, you're just talking about who comes in where and who goes out and where you sit and that's exactly the first draft that I scribble on my clipboard is just almost, I can't read it the next day. It's just getting the characters where they go and seeing where the plot's going. And then the second draft is much more refined. It's the third draft I love because I know there are many more drafts to come.

There were two drafts before it, that got it going and a third draft I can just enjoy it and tinker with it. My husband gave me a gift once. It was a thesaurus or something, a writing book, and he had written on the inside may your life always be a third draft. And that's how I feel about it; it's just that midpoint where you know it's a novel and you know it's going to go, but there's so much that has to come, but you don't have to worry about it now.

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Growing up with Alice

Alice begins with my own emotions. I do have a good memory for almost every year of school, probably because something humiliating and embarrassing happened in every year. And I can remember that was the year that this happened and that was the year that that happened. And that really was the basis of the Alice books when they began, all the embarrassing things that… And, of course, girls then write in with "my Alice moment" they call it, and they tell me how they handled it.

And it's just grew into a whole lifetime of a girl and I hope that that comes through.

Well, when I wrote the first Alice book there was no thought that this would be a series. I just wanted to write about a motherless girl who's being raised by her father and an older brother who don't know diddley about bringing up a girl. And that's where the humor comes in. But reviewers kept saying Alice's many fans will await her next adventures and I said what? So I thought about it and told the editor that I would do a series if she could get older in every book that I did not want to be stuck in a sit com where the same birthdays and everything was group on.

Then when I started realizing that I was getting three months out of, I was getting three books out of every year of her life, I had to figure out how old I was going to be when she got to be 18 and you know I've been writing them for 25 years and you have to have sort of faith in your health and all the rest, and I thought once she gets to college and because I never had the experience of being a live in student at college, I don't think I would be capable, maybe, of doing a good job of her college years and by that time where they hang out, things they do would not be the same.

So I thought I can get her through high school pretty well and then after that, kids would say did she ever marry Patrick, did she ever have children, what did she become? So I thought, okay, I'll do one last book in which she starts out at 18 and then every ten years or five years, the next big thing that comes in her life I'll jump to that. And it worked. I just picked out the things that would show her development, show all the things that I think are important.

In the very last book, all the kids in her seventh grade class or many of them are supposed to come back and open the time capsule that they buried and read the letters that they wrote to their 60 year-old selves when they were back in seventh grade. And so many kids have said will we ever see that? Will they come back and will they read those letters? And I've assured them that will be in the final book. But that's all they know. So it's going to be fun when that comes out.

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The Alice blog

I think the comment I get most about the Alice books is that she is so real, probably every other letter, email says that she is so real, she feels just what I feel. And when the publisher set up the blog, the idea was that the kids would write to me about Alice and what she had done and what she was going to do next and I would tell them about the characters. And we do do that, but most of the questions are the Ann Landers' type: here's my problem, what do I do?

And I think they feel Alice has been through everything that I've been through and she's going to go up to age 60. Many of them know that the last book will take her from 18 to 60. So they probably figure that I've got her life all laid out ahead of her and that I know what to do. And I have to keep telling them I'm not a doctor. I'm not a psychologist, I'm just an enlightened grandmother, and here's my take on this. And it takes about an hour a day that I spend answering letters on the blog.

And some of the problems are really terrific and many of them are parent's problems, not their problems at all, but they feel that they must help somehow, they must … sometimes they feel responsible for a parent's divorce or what's going on. So, you try to be light hearted about some things and very serious about others. I keep a list of 800 numbers that I can refer them to if they're talking about suicide.

But also I get a lot of help from them; they're just, they have ideas, they know that … in fact, I first heard of Spirit Week from the kids, never knowing that Spirit Week, that it connected with the football games and pep rallies and everything. And they told me that they dress every day as a different costume at school. And this was a lot of fun. I never did that when I was in high school. So Spirit Week began appearing in the Alice books.

And they're so tickled when they see that I've taken their ideas and they send me long lists of titles for new Alice books. And I've used some of those too. So it's a two way street.

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Role models

I had several very supportive teachers. I didn't have any just like Mrs. Plotkin. But the point of Mrs. Plotkin was that Alice is so looking for a role model in that first book, her mother is dead, and she wants someone she can model herself after since there's no other woman in her household. And she sets her sights on beautiful Ms. Cole, a sixth grade teacher she wants so badly to be in her room, and doesn't get her. She gets homely Mrs. Plotkin instead and she does everything she can to get kicked out of that room. And it doesn't work. Mrs. Plotkin keeps her.

And she grows to love that teacher. And there is such a good relationship between them. And her whole idea of the adult woman that she wants to be, the ideal woman changes. And I like that transformation very much.

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The real Shiloh

Rex grew up in West Virginia and two of his college friends inherited some land in Shiloh, West Virginia, which is just a little place. It's a bridge and an old grist mill and an old school house. And that's about it. And they built their home there, their dream home, and we visited them several times. And on one of the visits, Rex and I got up early in the morning and we were walking along Middle Island Creek and I could see the reeds moving out along beside us and I knew some animal was over there following along.

And I went over to see and here was this terrified, dirty, thin tick covered dog, down on her, it was a female down on her belly just trembling and shaking. I've never seen a dog act that way before. And her tail was going and I reached out just to gently pet her and she was so terrified she kept shrinking away and I knew immediately she was an abused dog.

And so we kept walking and when it started to rain really hard we turned around to go back to the home of our friends and then she was on the path behind us, and we would move and she would move, we would stop and she would stop. And I don't know what made me do it, I turned around and whistled and she came running, leaping up, licking my cheek like she was completely transformed and followed us back to the home of our friends. And, of course, they let us in, soaked with rain and closed the door on this stray dog. And she was there all day in the rain, with her head on her paws.

And I just broke down. And our friends said you don't know how often we see this. People drive up from Sistersville all the time with a cat or dog they don't want and just open the door and push them out and hope they'll survive, but most of them don't. But I didn't se this every day. So to make me feel better we put the dog in Frank's car, drove back across Middle Island Creek — Rex and Frank did — and knocked on the trailer homes over there to see if anybody knew who this dog belonged to, and no one did.

So they just let her out beside a bicycle and a tricycle they said hoping that maybe children would take her in. But when we drive back to Maryland that day, Rex and I, he told me where they had let her out I cried all the way back to Bethesda. And he said are you going to have a nervous breakdown or are you going to do something about it? And if you say that to a writer it means write, it didn't help the dog, but it helped me get the feelings out.

And three weeks later we heard from our friends and they just happened to mention, they said remember that dog that was here, they said they went out for a walk the other day and she was still hanging around, we made the mistake of feeding her, letting her come home with us, then they gave her a bath, then we took all the tics off of her, we took her to the vet, she was pregnant and they fixed her, and they said we've named her Clover and she's the happiest dog in West Virginia.

So I wrote back and said I'm writing a book about that dog and I'm naming her Shiloh. So, it was a very exciting time. And they've had a good time with it because school buses come up with children looking for the real place where Shiloh lived and so it's been a happy time.

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The Newbery changes everything

The Newbery changes everything. It doesn't necessarily have to, but, some are more popular than others, many people hadn't even heard of Shiloh when it won the Newbery Award. But instantly you get the feeling this is the same book that it was yesterday, it's the same book on the shelf and if it hadn't won the Newbery would it just have faded off into the background? You keep wondering that and you know that many other books were up for it the same year, up for the award. You know that perhaps if it had been a different committee you wouldn't have won it, if the competition had been different. There are so many things.

But again, you have to admire the 15 librarians who read all those books and the judgment they made and just feel very, very grateful. And immediately of course the first day you hear about it your life just, you know, photographers arrive, flowers arrives, champagne arrived, and they say the next call you get will be the Today Show and you have to be in New York tonight. I mean, you can be pregnant here, you could need a haircut, you could need all kinds of things and suddenly your life isn't your own.

I was lucky in that the boys were already grown and I think they were both in college at the time. So I could travel, I could do the things I had to do, I didn't have small children at home. But it's wonderful and scary, both at the same time.

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Saving Shiloh

After I wrote Shiloh I promised everybody I would not do a sequel, I wasn't going to be somebody that tried to keep it going and going and going. Then I got so many letters from kids full of rage against the villain Judd Travers and they said write another book and have Marty's dad by a gun and shoot Judd Travers through the eye, the ear, the heart, have his truck go over a cliff and burn up. They couldn't think of a bad enough thing to happen to him.

And I just couldn't leave them with all that rage. And so I thought, okay, I'm going to write one more in which they see more of his background and what made him the man he was. And I got halfway through that book and I thought how can I convince the reader that he's really changed and how will they know that sometime if he sees Shiloh off in the woods he might just resent the fact that he's now Marty's dog and shoot him.

What would he have to do to prove to Marty that he would never hurt Shiloh? And the only answer is he would have to risk his own life to save Shiloh. And so that's what happened in the final book Saving Shiloh.

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Words matter

You have to listen to the language of teenagers and to make it real you need to use the same expressions they do, and so I include some in the Alice books. As far as the words in Shiloh, thinking about Judd Travers, I have to become Judd Travers. I have to know how he walks, how he smells, what he eats, how he lives his life. And it wouldn't be Judd Travers if he didn't swear.

And there's a particular passage that children ask me about. Marty has come to, he has had to give Shiloh back to Judd Travers when he found out that the runaway dog belonged to him legally. And he says to Judd, wondering how he treats his dogs and knowing really how he mistreats them, what are their names and Judd says I don't name my dogs. Get, Scram, Out, and Damn It, that's what I call my dogs.

And kids say why did you use Damn It? If I had just said Get, Scram and Out, that's what I call my dogs, a grumpy old grandfather could have said that and we would laugh. But when he adds the Damn It, I say to children doesn't that give you pause, doesn't that, naming a dog that, doesn't that give you some idea what this man is about, that this little beagle could be given that name? It gives you a chill. You don't want to laugh anymore. It's not a grumpy old grandfather, it's Judd Travers.

And words, every word does have a great influence in the emotion. And a book is only valuable to the extent that it creates an emotion, draws an emotion in your reader. And if the reader isn't going to be as frightened and angry about Judd as Marty is, then the book doesn't ring true and it won't have the emotional impact that it does. So I carefully think about every word before I use it.

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Fortitude and family

For a long time I wanted to do sort of a Prince and the Pauper type story where a girl from the very rich family would trade places with someone from a poor family. And I thought of that book for years before I ever started writing it and I couldn't quite get how this would work. An exchange program perhaps? I thought maybe that would be the way to go about it.

But it wasn't gelling for me until there was a coal mine accident near Buchanan, West Virginia, where my husband had grown up and my editor at Delacorte wrote me, because all of my boys versus girls books take place in a fictitious town called Buckman, which is really Buchanan. And she said we just heard about the coal mine accident near Buchanan and I know that you are familiar with Buchanan would you ever think about writing a coal mine story about a coal mining family?

And I'd already written one years ago called Wrestle the Mountain, and my first thought was no, I've already done that. But then I thought oh, that's exactly what I need for this new book I'm thinking of, have the girl be from a coal mining family. I don't know why I felt that, I can't remember all the ins and outs, but it just seemed that it pulled everything together, and so I agreed to do it.

And that's really the climax, the one thing that made that book, so sometimes editors can just say exactly the right thing at the exact right time. But I remember when the Farmington mine blew up years ago, in Farmington, West Virginia, I think it was '78. I went to the library to get a book about a coal mining family to read to my two sons. I wanted them to know what it must be like to have your father go way down in the ground and in such a dangerous job, and I couldn't find anything, so I decided to write one myself.

And we went to Farmington, West Virginia, and I interviewed a miner and visited the mine, and had a lot of information and research left over from that, and then of course researched all over again, because changes have been made in mines. But I love that book because the mamaw and papaw in the book are my mamaw and papaw on my paternal side, although he was not a coal miner, he was a country preacher and she was a midwife, but their personalities are very true to the characters in the book.

And I think that's the one time that I've gone against my rule of taking characters who I know. And although they're not really the same people, it's very much my grandfather's fortitude and their love of family and their creativity in dealing with very difficult things that come through I think in that, I hope so.

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Blinking bloomers!

Emily's Fortune was a nightmare in a way. Years ago, I wanted to write a teenage suspense story called Girl on a Train in which all I knew is there would be a teenage girl hiding on an Amtrak train with somebody there trying to kill her. And I couldn't think of enough places she could hide on a train, I know Amtrak very well, because I've gone all over the country on Amtrak. So that just sort of petered out.

And I thought well, maybe a smaller girl, but then how would a smaller girl be traveling alone on a train? So then you go back in history and you think well, children did at some time travel across the country. But then it wasn't just a train it was a stagecoach. And so I thought, alright, she'll go part way by train, part way by stagecoach. And then I began researching stagecoaches and it was such a mistake.

I just wanted to see how many people could fit into a stagecoach and where they stopped. And I know the Butterfield route went from St. Louis to El Paso and I knew exactly how long from each stop and how many days and how many stops. And by the time I put all that in the story it was reading like a geography text. It was so anchored to reality, to real places that all of the fantastic silly things didn't jive.

So I had to throw out everything that I had researched, give imaginary names to everything, decide myself how long it was going to take from one place to another and just use a few things, like how many people could fit in a stagecoach and rewrite it all over again. You just have to turn your head around 380 degrees, I mean, it's just… it's hard sometimes. It's just plain hard.

But it doesn't read like that, I don't think, it reads like a lark. And the editor wanted something that would carry you from one chapter to the next, a cliff hanger. And I remember those old Uncle Wiggily books each story ended with and so if the spoon doesn't fall off the table or some stupid thing. And so each of my chapters ends with what in blinking bloomers do you think she saw next or something like that.

And so that was a lot of fun. And kids really read it and think it's just a lively tale and I think oh, you don't know all the work that went into this.

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Villains and buffoons

I love humor. In fact, whenever I speak to a group of children the one question I always get is if you could only write one kind of book for the rest of your life what would it be? And the answer is humor. You can get through a lot of things in life with humor. I know that in my autobiographical book, A Crazy Love, for adults, there is a trace of humor through a very difficult time in my life. But you laugh when you read this book too because it has a very tragic ending. But if the whole book is just serious there is no relief.

And I think that even in a humorous book you need serious things so that you can appreciate the next humorous thing more, you're not laughing like a sitcom all the way through. It's just a fine balance I think. But humor is just a wonderful thing to relax a reader, to make your character more human. I know that in Emily's Fortune this Uncle Victor who is the real villain and is trying to get her ten million dollars that she's inherited, also has a fear of women.

And kids brought that up the other day when I was talking to a group of children, he's scared of the women that are after him in his life and it makes him sort of a buffoon, so it tempers his villainous and makes him more believable. And they enjoyed that. And I've got to remember that because I'm doing a sequel and I'll have to keep their comments in mind.

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Advice for young writers

Willa Cather once said that the most formative years in a writer's life is between the ages of 8 and 15. And I tell young people that and I say remember, those of you who are going to become writers have already begun, you're already observing and remembering and feeling and putting yourself in place of something else and that is the basis of being a good writer.

The question that I get very much from kids is I love to write but I can't think of anything to write about or nothing ever happens to me. And I tell them sort of as a gimmicky thing, think about the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you, or the most frightening thing that every happened to you, or the saddest thing, or the happiest thing, and just write a few lines about it and then turn it around, make it happen to someone else, make it end differently, add things onto it, turn it over to your imagination, give it wings.

So you're starting with something very emotional within yourself. You have a lot to give it. And then see what your imagination can do with it. And I get good responses that way.

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Finding the story's center

In my own writing without even thinking about it, that's what forms each book I think. There is some nugget, something that's happened to me or that I feel very strongly about and I don't set out to teach a lesson or preach anything it's just that… When I wrote Shiloh, for example, I had no idea that it w

"You may have tangible wealth untold. Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you can never be — I had a mother who read to me." — Strickland Gillilan