“As I grew up in River Forest, Illinois in the 1950’s I seem to remember an early fascination with things that were funny. I thought that people who could make other people laugh were terribly fortunate. While my friends made their career plans, declaring they would become doctors, nurses, and lawyers, inwardly, I knew that I wanted to be involved somehow in comedy. This, however, was a difficult concept to get across in first grade. But I had a mother with a great comic sense (she was a high school English teacher) and a grandmother who was a funny professional storyteller—so I figured the right genes were in there somewhere, although I didn’t always laugh at what my friends laughed at and they rarely giggled at my jokes. That, and the fact that I was overweight and very tall, all made me feel quite different when I was growing up—a bit like a water buffalo at a tea party.
“My grandmother, who I called Nana, had the biggest influence on me creatively. She taught me the importance of stories and laughter. She never said, ‘Now I’m going to tell you a funny story’, she’d just tell a story, and the humor would naturally flow from it because of who she was and how she and her characters saw the world. She showed me the difference between derisive laughter that hurts others and laughter that comes from the heart. She showed me, too, that stories help us understand ourselves at a deep level. She was a keen observer of people.
“I kept a diary as a child, was always penning stories and poems. I played the flute heartily, taught myself the guitar, and wrote folk songs. For years I wanted to be a comedienne, then a comedy writer. I was a voracious reader, too, and can still remember the dark wood and the green leather chairs of the River Forest Public Library, can hear my shoes tapping on the stairs going down to the children’s room, can feel my fingers sliding across rows and rows of books, looking through the card catalogues that seemed to house everything that anyone would ever need to know about in the entire world. My parents divorced when I was eight years old, and I was devastated at the loss of my father. I pull from that memory regularly as a writer. Every book I have written so far has dealt with complex father issues of one kind or another. My father was an alcoholic and the pain of that was a shadow that followed me for years. I attempted to address that pain in Rules of the Road. It was a very healing book for me. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I was living out the theme that I try to carry into all of my writing: adversity, if we let it, will make us stronger.
“In my twenties, I had a successful career in sales and advertising with the Chicago Tribune, McGraw-Hill, and Parade Magazine. I met my husband Evan, a computer engineer, while I was on vacation. Our courtship was simple. He asked me to dance; I said no. We got married five months later in August, 1981. But I was not happy in advertising sales, and I had a few ulcers to prove it. With Evan’s loving support, I decided to try my hand at professional writing. I wish I could say that everything started falling into place, but it was a slow, slow build—writing newspaper and magazine articles for not much money. My daughter Jean was born in July of 82. She had the soul of a writer even as a baby. I can remember sitting at my typewriter (I didn’t have a computer back then) writing away with Jean on a blanket on the floor next to me. If my writing was bad that day, I’d tear that page out of the typewriter and hand it to her. ‘Bad paper,’ I’d say and Jean would rip the paper in shreds with her little hands.
“I had moved from journalism to screenwriting when one of the biggest challenges of my life occurred. I was in a serious auto accident which injured my neck and back severely and required neurosurgery. It was a long road back to wholeness, but during that time I wrote Squashed, my first young adult novel. The humor in that story kept me going. Over the years, I have come to understand how deeply I need to laugh. It’s like oxygen to me. My best times as a writer are when I’m working on a book and laughing while I’m writing. Then I know I’ve got something.”
Joan’s first novel, Squashed, won the Delacorte Prize for a First Young Adult Novel. Five novels for young adult readers have followed: Thwonk, Sticks, Rules of the Road (LA Times Book Prize and Golden Kite), Backwater and Hope was Here (Newbery Honor Medal).
Joan lives in Darien, CT with her husband and daughter.
Copyright © 2000 by Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved.
I recently emailed some questions to Joan about her novel Backwater, her books, and her writing. Here is our conversation. —Susan Hawk, Associate Director of Library Marketing (for Preview Magazine
Preview:How did the idea for your new book, Backwater, come about?
I had wanted to write a story with a hermit in it for a long time—I’m intrigued by folks who can live fully alone, and always wondered about the people in their lives that they left behind. There is a big part of me that is introverted—I’m sure that’s true of most writers. I can spend long periods of time by myself, so the hermit fascinated me personally. But I could never up and leave society like Josephine did—I do need people around me; and I’d really miss gourmet restaurants. Backwater, more than anything I’ve done to date, incorporates two very real sides of me—the gentle, misunderstood hermit, and the smart-talking teenager who is searching for voice and wholeness. As I got more and more into the story, I realized it’s a story about belonging—so often we think that belonging happens easily among people, and yet Backwater tries to show how complex belonging to a family can really be—what happens when relationships break apart and how they have to be repaired. As I wrote this book, I thought of the times I didn’t feel understood by people; remembered too often when I was surrounded by people whose styles were so very different than mine and how badly I wanted to bolt.
I also wanted to write something that took place in the Adirondacks, since my family and I go there to hike the high peaks and climb mountains. It’s a great love of mine and I got to share some of that by locating the hermit in the Adirondack Mountains.
In Backwater the main character, Ivy Breedlove, loves history. What made you think of a character who likes history? Did Ivy’s character start with that idea? Where have the inspirations for other characters come from?
Now, you have to understand that I am a big history nut, and I think it’s because I so believe in the lessons we can learn from the past and from others. So I naturally think of history as a link to character. And my 16-year-old daughter, Jean, is seriously thinking about becoming a historian, so I pulled greatly from her passion for the subject. Ivy’s character always had a love of history, but she really came alive for me when I also gave her a passion as a family historian—that linked the entire story together and brought the story of the Breedlove family into focus. What Ivy understands and learns in an even deeper way is that understanding history helps us to understand ourselves. She knows she is part of generations of people who have come before her—and she wants to understand what part of those ancestors are in her mind and emotions, too. People are who they are for many reasons—I think it’s important for teenagers and for all of us to think about that. In my characters I always look for something unusual that also has universal underpinnings. Ivy understands that she is living her history right now—she understands she has a responsibility to the next generation. I like that about her very much. Jenna Boller in Rules of the Road has a deep passion for selling shoes—not a sexy profession by any means—it’s an ordinary thing to be crazy about—just like loving history seems ordinary, even boring. But most things, ordinary things, can be made wonderfully interesting and fulfilling when they’re fueled by passion. I could have Jenna be crazy about selling ice cream and work at 31 Flavors, but there was something about selling shoes that spoke to me—kneeling down to help a customer try a pair on, working with feet, which are not the most glamorous part of the body. I look for ordinary interests that can be made fully alive. There’s great humor in that, I find, and also life lessons to be learned. When I create a character, I layer on their personalities—fears, desires, past experiences, then stick something nutty in the mix. I’ve always seen characters like that. I’m like that, I think.
Did you do any special research for Backwater?
My husband gave me a bird feeder a few years ago and I filled it diligently each time it got low so the birds knew they could count on me. Then once, as I was just starting Backwater, I’d forgotten to check the feeder and heard this cacophony of irritated tweets coming from my back yard. I went outside and saw that the feeder was empty and the birds were MAD I hadn’t filled it. They were sitting in the trees crabbing at me. It was very funny. I tried to incorporate some bird attitude into the book after that. Then last summer, in the Adirondacks on vacation, my husband, daughter, and I hiked a mountain we’d not been on before. It was a much longer ascent than we’d expected; we didn’t have enough food or water, and I was simply exhausted on the way down. It was awful. I was so weak, I was tripping and falling and yes, even crying. It was scary. And it forever changed the way I think about being prepared on the mountain. I pulled from some of those feelings at the end of Backwater when Ivy is pushed to the limit.
One last thing: When I was researching hermits for the book, I went to the Internet to see what info I could find. And I found, I swear, an entire section on solitude…hermit.org
It seems to me that it would be difficult to write a funny book. And you do more than that; balance the humor so its not glib, and use it as a tool for your characters’ growth. This looks even more difficult, and yet, you do it! How does this happen?
It is easier for me to think and write funny because I really have a humorous outlook on life. I truly see humor as a way to get through life—it’s an emotional tool for me. Humor helps me put difficult things in perspective. I see laughter as being a bridge between pain and redemption. I heard someone say once, when we can laugh about something difficult, what we’re really saying is that we’ve moved from the pain of it to the hope. But I don’t sit at my computer and the jokes just flow. My first drafts are usually quite serious because I’m getting the real serious underpinnings of the stories and characters in place. Then, in subsequent drafts, the humor becomes more alive because I know the characters and how they will react. There is a cautious dance between laughter and sadness. I work very hard to not be derisive in my humor—there’s too much of that in the world, I feel. Take Ivy Breedlove. If I tell you this is the story of a girl who is a passionate lover of history, it’s a safe bet the room will clear. But think about what that means. She’s always pulling from funny historical stories to help her explain the world. And the kind of humor I like streams from character. Not from some guy putting on a funny hat or making gasser noises.
Do you find the process of revision a hard or easy one—or something else between? For instance, in some notes about Rules of the Road, I saw that Nancy Paulsen [Joan’s editor] suggested making Aunt Agatha and Grandma into one character. How do you go back and do this?