Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Interview with Author Elizabeth Withrop

Elizabeth Winthrop is the author of more than 50 works of fiction for young people. Counting On Grace, her recent historical fiction middle reader, has garnered much priase. It is an ALA Notable Book , a Jane Addams Peace Prize Honor Book, and a Junior Library Guild Selection.

1. I'm not sure if we choose our stories or if they choose us. What was the case with Counting on Grace?
Grace chose me. Absolutely. I was at an exhibit of Lewis Hine child labor photographs in the Bennington Museum in Bennington, Vermont and I saw this little girl leaning on a huge spinning frame in a mill. She's beautiful, but her eyes are wide and wary. She'd seen more of life than she should have at the age of 10. She was staring directly at me and she might as well have spoken out loud so clear was her voice in my ear. She said tell my story.

2. What were the challenges in bringing this story to printed page?
A spinning frame is an incredibly complicated machine to try to explain to someone, child or adult, who's never seen one. That was a major challenge. First I had to understand how it worked and then I had to translate that to a modern day reader. I also searched a long time for the right voice. I wanted Grace to come alive for kids today and I finally found the way to do that by telling the story in a first person, present tense voice. I've been told that the voice is what makes the book so immediate for readers. That's what I was hoping for.

3. You truly bring millwork to life in this story. How do you feel kids relate to Grace and Arthur today?
I think the kids in America know that if they had been born 100 years ago, they could have been Grace and Arthur. 12 hours a day, 6 days a week they would have been working a spinning frame or harvesting beets or shucking oysters. Sometimes when school feels like a tough place to be, the idea of working is tempting. You're not sitting at a desk all day. Adults don't seem to pay much attention to you if you just get your work done and bring home some money to help the family survive. But I hope the drudgery and exhaustion and despair of these kids in their trapped lives come through to readers. Grace and Arthur squabble and make up, break rules, keep secrets, take chances -- just the way kids do now. It's just that the stakes are higher, the consequences more devastating.

4. Your other novels, Castle in the Attic and Battle for the Castle are such wonderful works of fantasy, how did you enjoy delving into the world of historical fiction?
This is actually my third work of historical fiction. My first, IN MY MOTHER'S HOUSE (William Morrow), is an adult novel that opens in the great New York blizzard of 1888 and runs through to the 1970's. The second, DEAR MR. PRESIDENT, Letters From a Milltown Girl (Winslow Press) is set in North Adams, Massachusetts during the Great Depression. That is the book that first got me interested in mills in the Northeast. I love the way research for historical fiction can nudge the book in a different direction or can illuminate a character. But I have to be careful not to get lost in the research, to keep my eye on my story, on where my character is going and how I can get her there.

5. What can your fans look forward to next?
Another work driven by history but this time it's closer to home. I'm going to tell the story of my mother who grew up in Gibraltar, was evacuated in 1940 up the English Channel right through the Dunkirk rescue of the British Expeditionary Force and who ended up working as a spy in London during World War II. I'm not sure what form the book will take but right now I'm up to my eyeballs in research and loving it.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this -- I'm a huge fan of COUNTING ON GRACE. The new material sounds rich and fascinating. Can't wait to see what it turns into.

Rebecca Stead

Anonymous said...

Terrific interview! Elizabeth's point, that today's kids 100 years ago would have worked six days a week, reminds me that we all live privileged lives afforded purely by the calendar.

Thanks, Nan!

Rose Kent

Anonymous said...

Wonderful, detailed interview, Nancy! I loved how she identified both the technical aspects of spinning and not getting lost in the research, but trying to keep aim on the story as challenges in writing this historical fiction work.
I am completely intrigued by her work in progress based on her mother's experience. And I think I may run Withrop's comparison of today's children feeling drudgery at having to sit in school all day to the reality of working in a mill by my 8-year-old who is tempted to leave school, where he chafes at having sit for so much of the day, and start working.

Thank you,
Robyn Pforr Ryan

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this wonderful interview! Can't wait to read this.
Padma Venkatraman