The Middle Grade Fiction category of the Cybils Award didn’t exactly lack for nominations. So how do you go about selecting the best of the best? Well sometimes a book rises above and beyond the literary pack.
In A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, author Laura Amy Schlitz manages to combine great writing and an atmospheric text with situations and characters that kids will certainly find interesting. Betsy Bird and her Cybils Judges (Brooke Shirts, Sherry Early, Sarah Beth Durst, and Eric Berlin) recently interviewed Ms. Schlitz about her work.
Q. What is your earliest literary experience? Was there a teacher, librarian, or book that had a particular effect on you as a young child?
A. My parents read to me all through childhood. I can't remember a time when there were no books. I had a special love for fairy tales, which I’ve never lost. I was particularly struck by Hansel and Gretel when I was little; I remember hiding crusts of bread under the dining room table, so that if famine ever struck, I could save the family from starvation.
Two books that I recall reading with baited breath were Sara Crewe: What Happened at Miss Minchin's, and a child's version of Dickens. I don’t know what the Dickens book was called, but it was a small book, pale gray, about half an inch thick. I read it with horror and glee. It contained abridged versions of A Christmas Carol (ghosts!), David Copperfield (the cruelty of Mr. Murdstone!) Oliver Twist (sleeping next to coffins!) and Great Expectations (a wedding cake festooned with spiders!) You might assume that I was drawn to melodrama from an early age, but I also read sunnier books: Betsy-Tacy, the Little House series, Louisa May Alcott and the Melendy books.
Q. Who are some of your favorite authors?
A. I'm nuts for the Victorians. Dickens, of course, and the Bronte sisters and George Eliot and Wilkie Collins (I have a large collection of Wilkie Collins) and Mrs. Gaskell and Trollope. I also adore Robertson Davies. I love Eva Ibbotson, Kate DiCamillo, and Monica Furlong.
Q. Your book is full of wonderful characters. In developing these characters, did you draw any inspiration from real people that you've encountered?
A. Not so much. I'm not sure why, but I almost never write about people I know. On those rare occasions that I use real people as models, they’re people that I don’t understand. I think in order to write about something, you have to find it mysterious. Too much knowledge leaves the writer at a disadvantage.
That being said, I have to admit that there’s a little girl at church who reminds me of Maud. She’s younger than Maud—very wiry, with spectacles. I’ve seen her come to Mass in a frilly pink dress, turtleneck sweater and red cowboy boots. From the way she darts around the church, I can see that she’s a handful. I love her, but I’ve never spoken to her.
Q. What song or piece of music most reminds you of A Drowned Maiden's Hair?
A. I'm not sure I think that way. I've certainly never heard a piece of music and thought, "Oh, that reminds me of A Drowned Maiden’s Hair! But you know what I'd like A Drowned Maiden’s Hair to be like? The first movement of Mozart’s G Minor String Quintet. That melody line is charged with urgency. I'd love to write a book that could sweep the reader along with that kind of momentum.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. I'm working on two books right now. My second graders often ask me for “a book about a fairy"--which is quite a different thing from a fairy tale, of course; they want a book in which the fairy is the main character. My fairy-lovers are often quite interesting little girls, and too many fairy books are insipid. So I'm trying to write "a book about a fairy" that will suit my future wild women of America.
The other book is a Victorian Gothic. I need to keep my mouth shut about that one for a while yet.
You work as a full-time librarian, do you not? How on earth do you find time to write?
I'm a school librarian, so I rely on my summers. I try to write during the school year, but it's difficult. During the school year, I can manage a chapter a month if I'm lucky. During the summer, I can do a chapter a week. I wish I had more self-discipline.
That being said, I'm very lucky to be a school librarian. The Park School has supported my writing in every conceivable way. And the children are fantastic, they wake me up and they make me laugh. I do a lot of storytelling at work—the knowledge I’ve gained by telling stories to children is invaluable.
Q. What were you like as a child? Did you immerse yourself in melodrama?
A. I suppose I've always had melodramatic leanings. My parents were fond of telling me that I was not Sarah Bernhardt, which seems to indicate that I was a dramatic little girl. I was a lucky child, because I had a lot of time to play—pretending games, not soccer. I played with dolls and stuffed animals; I was a horse, a panther, a Civil War spy, a witch, a mermaid (if you drink water out of a seashell, it tastes like the ocean). I spent a lot of time in the cellar, dressed in mildewy taffeta and old chiffon gowns. I was a happy-go-lucky, curious, vainglorious child. I haven’t changed much.
About melodrama: I’ve been surprised by how many people have thought that the subtitle of my book is somehow pejorative. I love melodrama—I love it so much that I somehow missed the fact that it’s out of fashion. When I wrote “A Melodrama”, I was using the term in its nineteenth-century, theatrical sense: I was promising an old-fashioned moral conflict, a whiff of brimstone, a plot that alternates between sensationalism and comedy, and a happy ending.
Q. What is your favorite sentence in A Drowned Maiden's Hair?
A. Gosh, I don't know. I've just spent twenty minutes looking though the book, trying to find a sentence I especially like. I think I like "Maud shrugged." in Chapter 7, because that shrug says more about Maud’s history and state of mind than any words I could have put into her mouth. I also like: "I do not wolf my food as bad as I did". And of course, I like the first sentence, because it has received more than its fair share of compliments.