When I was very young, my mother wrote a mystery, Murder Leaves a Ring. It was set in our brownstone in New York and she included a floor plan of the apartment in the book, I guess so readers could search for clues. And Iris, the character who gets murdered slept in my bedroom. This didn’t freak me out. I was more interested in the fact that my mother was actually getting paid for making up stories.
This had a great effect on me, but so did the rich and colorful words my mother used, the grammar she explained, the groaning bookshelves in our apartment, and the things she said about writing. Here are two I remember: “Good writing is clear thinking.” (This is so true! If you don’t know what you’re trying to say, you definitely won’t succeed in saying it.) And, “At the beginning of a story you put your character up a tree; in the middle you throw rocks at him; and in the end you get him down.”
I was lucky in my family in other ways. My grandmother, Pearl, was an amazing storyteller with a beautiful storyteller’s voice. My cousins and I would sit at her feet for hours while she told about life in a small Texas town at the beginning of the 20th Century. There were shootouts in saloons, bandits, aggressive geese, tumbles out of barn lofts, and carriage rides from ranch to ranch with her father, a country doctor, who could snap the heads off sunflowers with his buggy whip. She made a vanished world come alive.
My aunt was a world traveler. She would go off to places I’d never heard of and come back with amazing art and artifacts, evidence that there was a whole great big world out there with people in it who were very different from you and me. I wanted to go to those places and learn about those people.
And as it that weren’t enough stimulation, all these wonderful women were artists in one way or another. So thank you, dear family, for giving me a world of creativity to grow up in.
Now I do creative things for a living. Over the past thirty-five years I’ve written and illustrated a lot of books (I stopped counting at fifty). I’ve written fiction and nonfiction, picture books and novels. Some I illustrated, some I didn’t. Whatever interests me, from Texas slang to Joan of Arc, I get to explore it in words and pictures, then share it with young readers.
People sometimes ask if I have trouble keeping a schedule. By this I suppose they’re asking how I resist sitting around on the couch in my pajamas all morning, eating bonbons and watching TV instead of going to work. I can honestly say that I’m far more tempted to go directly into my office (still in my pajamas) and let the rest of the day go hang (getting dressed, trip to grocery store, appointment with the dentist), because writing and making art are just about the funnest things I do. (The ghost of my mother is whispering in my ear, saying funnest is not a word; sorry, but it just seemed right.)
I am not alone in this. I’ve noticed that writers almost never retire. That’s because they don’t want to stop. Me, either. I can’t give it up because it’s part of who I am. I guess that’s the difference between a job and a way of life.