From the late 1920s to the 1950s, Guthrie wrote the words to more than three thousand songs, including “This Land Is Your Land,” a song many call America’s unofficial national anthem. With a remarkable ability to turn any experience into a song almost instantaneously, Woody Guthrie spoke out for people of all colors and races, setting an example for generations of musicians to come. But Woody didn’t have the chance to find everything he was looking for. He was ravaged by Huntington’s disease, just like his mother, and died in a mental institution at the age of fifty-five.
Award-winning author, Elizabeth Partridge has taken the life of this songwriting genius and woven in his lyrics, and other rich materials to create a touching and highly entertaining portrait of a true talent.
Mostly it’s what I have to NOT have around me. Any distraction that is available, I’ll take it. So I write in a little room that has only music, books that have to do with whatever I’m working on, and a few beautiful things to look at — a couple of lovely photographs my father took. I often stare at the one that is a picture of looking out a window into redwood trees.
Where do you write?
In a tiny room with the shades down. Otherwise I want to go outside, hang out with my chickens, or go for a walk.
What time of day do you get your best ideas?
Ideas can come to me anywhere, anytime. Usually the best ideas come when I am doing something else—walking in the woods, showering, gardening, driving somewhere. Falling asleep and waking up are good times too, because the conscious mind is drifty. Usually I get more ideas when I am alone, although not always. I try to keep paper nearby and write them down quickly, or they vaporize.
Describe your writing uniform.
Usually sweat pants and a T-shirt. I used to just get up, make a cup of tea, and wander into my writing room so I wouldn’t get distracted by doing other things, but sometimes I would get so absorbed in what I was doing that I never got out of my pajamas. I answered the door a couple times in my pajamas in the afternoon, so now I change into sweatpants.
Whom do you share your writing with first?
My husband is a great brainstormer and loves to talk with me about ideas. Once I have a manuscript, I have several writing friends who look at what I have done and give me feedback.
Do you read reviews of your own work?
Of course! I like to know what is being said about my books. Mostly they say a lot more good things than bad things.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Witch Child by Celia Rees and The Four Agreements (a Toltec Wisdom Book) by Don Miguel Ruiz.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I had lots of favorite books. David and the Phoenix was one, because David had so many cool adventures with all kinds of mythic creatures, and then had to save the phoenix’s life. Mistress Masham’s Repose was another favorite. The Lion’s Paw and The Silver Sword were amazing (and terrifying) books about kids who had to pull their lives together after WWII. As a teenager, my favorite book was Dune. I read it over and over again.
What was the first book you remember reading, or being read to you, as a child?
The first book I remember reading myself was Dick and Jane. Unlike many people who think they were stupid books, I loved them. I remember cracking the reading code and being so excited. I also thought they had such cool, quiet lives on these shady tree-lined streets.When I was about six, I was given a great big fat anthology. It was full of stories, from very simple to really complex. I felt like I would never, ever be finished reading it. I thought I would always be able to open it up and read a story I had never read before.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Not till I was in my mid-thirties. Unlike many writers, I had zero interest in being a writer when I was a kid. And when I was in college, the only class I did really badly in was a writing class I had to take. It turned me off to writing for a long, long time. Then I had two kids and started reading to them, and remembered how much I loved kids’ books, and I started writing for the first time in my life. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be a writer, as I wanted to see what I had inside me, and the writing seemed like a great way to find out.
What were you doing when you found out that your first book was accepted for publication?
What did you treat yourself to when you received your first advance check?
Don’t remember this either.
What’s the best question a teen has ever asked you about your writing?
Why do you keep chickens when you can buy eggs at the store?
Tell us about the experience of writing this book.
This has been a wonderful, difficult, beautiful book to write. While I was working, I had a very strong sense of Woody’s presence. I listened endlessly to his music, read everything I could find written about him and by him, and pored over his photographs. I was amazed at how brilliant Woody was. He could really turn any experience into a song. I was also shocked at what a difficult person he was to live with. As I got into the last few chapters of the book, I cried every time one of his friends died, and when Woody died, I felt miserable. It took me a while to realize that he really was dead, and has been for some time, because I spent so much time with him for about two years.
There was also incredible serendipity while I was writing the book. I kept running into people who had known Woody. It even turned out he had played at a house party right next door to where I live! The latest serendipity is that Lane Smith, who is an incredible illustrator (he did Squids Will Be Squids, and Math Curse) turns out to be a Woody Guthrie fan, and did the cover of my book as a tribute to Woody. Lane totally captures in collage art the wonderful, chaotic, creative, wild Woody.