Clare Vanderpool’s first children’s novel, Moon Over Manifest (Delacorte), won the 2011 Newbery Award. Her second, Navigating Early (Delacorte, see Banner review here), was released to critical acclaim in January of this year. Vanderpool lives in Wichita, Kan., with her husband and children. She answered a few questions for our inquiring minds.
Q. You mention on your website that you have a very strong connection to place in your hometown of Wichita, Kan. That sense of place came through strongly in Moon Over Manifest. Did you find it difficult to write about a new place (Maine) in Navigating Early?
A. It is always more challenging to write about a place one is not familiar with. I went on a research trip to Maine where I walked on the rocky beaches, saw their beautiful lighthouses, traveled farther north and took my own walk in the woods on the Appalachian Trail. It was fortunate that my trip happened to be in October during peak foliage. It was a beautiful experience being there and made for a great time for the boys in my story to be on their Appalachian quest.
Q. I read in an article that you are a member of the same Roman Catholic church that you grew up in as a child. How do your faith and your faith family inform your writing?
A. I would say my faith definitely informs my writing and in a reciprocal way, my writing informs my faith. I see the world through a certain lens that has been shaped and colored by growing up in a parish where I went to school and have chosen to raise my own children. I grew up in a faith that speaks openly and often about woundedness, sacrifice, hope, and redemption. Those are rich themes that find their way into my characters and their stories.
Another practical way that my church experience has impacted my writing is in the idea of fidelity. Whether it's Mass on Sunday, coffee and donuts in the church basement, school fundraisers, recess duty, or the parish picnic, I know the importance of showing up—being present. And when someone's not there, they're missed. At least that's what we strive for. We strive to be a community where everyone counts and everyone matters. I think this kind of interdependence is at play in my stories.
Q. Here's a question from my son: What have you learned by writing your books?
A. What a great question.
I have learned that
- my characters know more than I do.
- kids understand big things like forgiveness and redemption.
- writing is full of surprises.
- even characters (and real people) who you think are rotten can do great good.
- everyone has a story, and it's often different than the one you think.
- there is power in a story.
- And, according to my daughter, I'm a better writer than I am a cook.
Q. Do you share your work with a writing community as you write or is it a solitary vocation?
A. I have been in two different writing groups and they were both very helpful. In recent years, I have become more solitary in my writing. I tend to choose not to share individual chapters while I'm working on a book because there are too many things that aren't ready or even understandable until I go back and do a lot of editing and fixing. Having said that, a writing group was invaluable to me, especially in my early years of writing. There was so much I didn't know and was grateful to learn both in having my own work critiqued but possibly even more so in reading and hearing the other people's works in progress.
Q. While writing Moon Over Manifest you had four young children. How did you balance your writing with your daily life? What did you have to sacrifice?
A. It was a constant juggling match and sometimes I just had to put the writing aside for months at a time. I was always trying to come up with a system—working before the kids got up, working after they went to bed, and writing during nap times. But whatever I tried never seemed to last for long; the kids would get up earlier, stay up later, give up their nap times, etc. So there really was no magic formula that worked—no master plan but rather a certain tenacity that eventually won out. As far as what I had to sacrifice, I really didn't want to make big sacrifices. I knew my kids would only be little for a while, and I didn't want to miss out so I just plugged away and fortunately had no timeline or deadline in my head. So I knew I could work in fits and starts, but as long as I was making progress I could live with that.
Q. Ecclesiastes says "there is nothing new under the sun." Do you ever find yourself reading in another book something similar to what you've just written? If so, do you feel like you have to go back and change it?
A. Oh sure. There are sometimes elements that I'll come across in another book that bear certain similarities to something in my story. If I know ahead of time that a book is similar to mine, I won't read it. I don't want to be influenced by another story either by inadvertently adding something similar or in feeling like I have to take something out because it's too close. I like a lot of freedom to write the story I want to write. Have I ever taken something out or changed something? I can think of one time, but it was pretty minor.
Q. Moon Over Manifest was awarded the 2011 Newbery Medal. How has that changed your writing career?
A. Well, there are two words in that question that mean two very different things: writing and career. My writing has not really changed. I still have to stare at a blank screen, flesh out characters, struggle through story knots, wander down rabbit holes, and find my way back out. The career part has changed dramatically. The Newbery Medal comes with many wonderful opportunities to speak all over the country. I have loved this part, but it can almost become another career in itself if you let it. As I say, I have enjoyed these opportunities and have found that I have something to say about writing and stories. But for me, the writing has to come first so there is still a fair amount of juggling and balancing that goes on.
Q. Now that you are an award-winning children's author, do your children take reading suggestions from you? Are there any books that you all count as a favorite?
A. Yes, they do take reading suggestions, but I can't say it's because I'm an award-winning author—that only goes so far with teenagers. I have a nice collection of books—both for children and adults— and if one of the kids has a book report (probably due the next day) they will wander in and browse my shelves. I used to teach a summer writing camp for kids and my kids all participated, so I think I was able to sway them a little bit towards reading wonderful children's classics and going outside their favorite genre once in a while. My oldest son, a senior in high school, is reading Pride and Prejudice right now, but I can't take credit for that. It was a full-on assignment, and he didn't have a choice. But I did happen to have it on my shelf!
As far as a family favorite, there's probably a boy list and a girl list for that. The boys love all things Tolkien. And the girls are huge Rick Riordan fans.
Q. What are the three best books you read last year?
A. Freeman (Agate Bolden) by Leonard Pitts, Jr.
Gloryland (Sierra Club Books) by Shelton Johnson
A Place in Time(Counterpoint) by Wendell Berry
The Wednesday Wars (Clarion) by Gary D. Schmidt
(I know that's four.)And on my non-fiction list: One Writer's Beginnings (Harvard University Press) by Eudora Welty.
Q. What's it like to live so close to one of the best booksellers on Earth, Warren Farha of Eighth Day Books?
A. Awesome! I love Warren and Eighth Day Books. It is a warm and inviting store with a big bay window where the sun comes in just so. They have coffee and candy at the ready and good music that's not too loud. And they're all great people who love books and stories and beauty. Eighth Day Books is a special place . . . and it's within walking distance of my house!