Tag Archive for Charles Dickens

James Preller Interviews . . . Carmen Deedy, author of “THE CHESHIRE CHEESE CAT”

As an author, mine was not the story of the wide-eyed boy who loved weekly trips to the library, the happy ritual of laden arms lugging home precious treasures. No, we didn’t do that stuff in my family. For starters, my mother didn’t drive. Besides I was a do-er, not a sit-around-and-read-er. So I came late to children’s books. The first time I read Where the Wild Things Are or Harold and the Purple Crayon, for example, was as a 24-year-old junior copywriter, living in Brooklyn in a railroad apartment, and working on the Scholastic Book Clubs. That’s when I first appreciated children’s literature, if you’ll pardon the expression.

I realized that there was more here than met the eye, that a children’s book, in the hands of a true artist, could be as psychologically deep and powerful as any other work of art. It changed my whole way of thinking about children’s books — and about what they (and I) could aspire to become.

I was reminded of that dawning while I read Carmen Deedy’s new book, co-authored with Randall Wright, The Cheshire Cheese Cat — a clever romp, certainly, a delightful fast-paced read, yes, a charming tweak on historical fiction, surely, but also . . . more. This is simply a lovely, near-perfectly rendered work, with surprising depth at its core, marvelously illustrated by the great Barry Moser. After reading it, I asked my friend Carmen if she wouldn’t mind answering a few questions. And look, here she comes now.

I take it the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub is an actual place on Fleet Street, in London, and you’ve been there. Was that for research, or did the idea for the book originate from that visit?

The blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the organizers of a lovely Welsh event, the Beyond the Border Storytelling Festival. In 2002, I was invited to tell stories on the grounds of a 13th Century castle. No lie. As if that were not fanciful enough, on our first night in London we stumbled (by purest happenstance) upon this gem:

My three daughters were with me that night and everyone began to talk at once. Rebuilt in 1667? Hadn’t the Great Fire of London taken place in 1666? That meant this inn had been rebuilt a mere sixty-three years after the death of Queen Elizabeth! Once inside, we discovered a place as enchanting, anachronistic, and mysterious, as we could have wished for. As we stood in the small entryway and looked around, one of the girls leaned toward me and whispered, “Best Harry Potter set, EVER . . .“

I’ll say. A more thorough investigation of the premises turned up this:

(Think of it as the British equivalent of “George Washington Slept Here.”)

The idea for the story came from a game of “What If?” What if . . . every mouse in London with means had come to the inn, in search of the best cheese in the realm? And what if . . . the cats were there for mice? But, what if . . . ONE of those cats hated eating mice. Rather, he secretly loved, um, cheese?

It struck me that here is a book that delights in language. You were inspired, in part, by words themselves. And you didn’t hold back.

We second-guessed ourselves more than once. Still, my fellow writer (Randall Wright) and I had decided from the onset that we wanted to tell the story in language that was reminiscent of books we had loved as children. If those stories engaged us, we would faithfully slog through unfamiliar words and odd phrases. And if we had prevailed, we reasoned, why shouldn’t today’s children be able to do the same? We decided to trust our young readers.

Oh, that’s interesting. I was just expressing a similar thought to my editor, Liz Szabla, about my upcoming young adult novel, Before You Go. It’s a story that takes some time to introduce characters, explore setting, set wheels in motion. It’s not plot, plot, plot every step of the way. On bad days, I worry about that: Does the book start too slow? Are those first 50 pages not dramatic enough? And ultimately I came to the same conclusion as you did, that I have to trust in my readers. That is, that they actually like to read.

I can’t wait to read Before You Go! Sounds wonderfully beguiling. When do I get that Advanced Reader’s Copy? Nudge, nudge.

Hold that thought. The book’s not out until July, and the ARC seems far away. I can’t wait for it, I’m super proud of it, but . . . we’re not here to discuss me. I’m sorry I brought the whole thing up. You were saying?

Once we decided to use words we loved, we dove into the text with semantic abandon. It was so liberating that, frankly, we went a little nuts. Before the Great Vocabulary Purging we had over six hundred higher level words—words that were not anywhere near the suggested lexile for middle grade readers. Worse yet, they had begun to interfere with the story. That was the deal breaker. We ultimately replaced, removed, or contextually defined over 500 words. Nonetheless, with a nod from our brilliant and long-suffering editor, we still managed to subtly retain many words of which we were particularly fond –– roughly seventy. We then added a glossary as part of the back matter . . . and decided, once again, to trust the young whippersnappers.

That’s the writing process, isn’t it? Get it all down on paper. You can always pull back in later revisions.

Absolutely. My first drafts are pitiful in the extreme. It takes me four or five rewrites to stop cringing as I edit. And I swear, every few years I seem to end up sharing a table with an author who will drolly insist, “I just sit down and write without much revision at all.” Where do these people come from? I think they grow them under florescent lights in some green house in Nova Scotia.

In a crucial moment, the feline protagonist, Skilley, is advised by Maldwyn the Raven, “You want the truth, Master Skilley? Then find out just what manner of cat you really are . . . and brazenly, unabashedly, boldly, be that cat.” Of course, that’s the toughest task of all, isn’t it? Be yourself. Especially for a middle grader, looking at everybody else for social cues, who to talk to, what to listen to, what movies to like, how to dress, who to sit with, and so forth. Tough on cats, too.

Tough on Skilley, that’s for certain. But the careful reader may find that Skilley’s greatest challenge is not, in fact, protecting the mice, neither is it out-witting Pinch, or even returning Maldwyn to the Tower –– but rather becoming, well . . . Skilley.

“Outing” himself as a lover of cheese, as it were.

Here I am, world, my true self. Emerson had some thoughts on this topic . . .

Because the storyline is meant to appeal to a “chapter book” crowd, we tried to tackle difficult subjects by couching them in language that softened their gravity; friendlessness, abuse, betrayal, death . . . okay, and we spared Too.

I have to admit this here. Too was not meant to live. I mean, the mouse was DEAD until the near final draft. Great pressure was brought to bear, however; the Save Too lobbyists were small, but thunderous in their disapproval of her death. We caved. Since the book was released, I’ve had a couple of elementary readers tell me it was a good thing Too didn’t die or they would’ve been reeeeeeeeally mad. Phew.

I’m a pretty tough-minded person when it comes to stories. I want them to be true, not phony, and certainly not convenient. But that has to be balanced with an awareness of your reading audience. Their expectations don’t have to be met, exactly, but they do need to be considered. For that age group, I felt that Too’s survival was appropriate.

I confess that I was happy to pull a Lazarus for little Too.

Because I’ve heard you speak a couple of times over the years, I guessed that there might have been a bit of your father in the character Maldwyn. That no-nonsense, tough-minded advice the Raven gives about apologies:

“It is not enough to say you are sorry. You must utterly own the terrible thing you have done. You must cast no blame on the one you’ve injured. Rather, accept every molecule of the responsibility, even if reason and self-preservation scream against it. Then, and only then, will the words ‘I am sorry’ have meaning.”

My father is 87 years old and the finest storyteller I know; his stories are very real, and if they do teach you something, they don’t bludgeon you with truth. And he is funny. Funny is something Maldwyn doesn’t “do.” He’s a bit too self-important. And yet, I do adore Maldwyn. The old thing is petulant and snappish. And it would be easy, and understandable, to misread him. But I suspect that beneath Maldwyn’s curmudgeonish exterior there is a wealth of sadness and conflict. He has betrayed his Queen and his country (at least under the very strict code of honor he holds himself to), and yet somehow he knows, I think, that to forbid a bird his right to flight is a harsh sacrifice for Queen and country to exact.

You co-wrote the book with Randall Wright. What was your process for that –- and what led you to make the choice of collaborating. Pure laziness?

Nope –– paralyzing fear, more like; the fear of uncorking what might be an unending flow of words. I like perimeters; rubrics comfort me. I mean, once you tell picture book writers to disregard the word count, they are often undone for days. It’s . . . dizzying. Lucky for me, I met Randall Wright. Randall and I were working at a children’s conference. We were seated next to one another at a dinner table and quickly engaged in the requisite “So what are you working on?” author swap. I’d been recently toying with Pip and Skilley, so I told him the story.

Randall had published several YA novels with Henry Holt. He kept saying things such as, “It’s just like a picture book, Deedy. You just keep writing until you don’t have anything left to say .” Then he’d start laughing. I’ll admit I toyed with the idea of poking him in the eye with my salad fork — but I didn’t. As Pip would say, we weren’t close enough friends for that yet. By the time the meal was over, we had agreed to collaborate.

You guys seem really inspired by the literary tradition, particularly the multi-scene, fast-paced ending –- the mouse, Pip, melting away in the cooking pot, the ferocious battle between Pinch and Maldwyn, and Queen Victoria’s startling arrival. As writers, you must have felt like circus entertainers, all those plates spinning at once.

I’m afraid we made our own heads spin a bit. But we enjoyed building up to those final scenes. Admittedly, toward the end of the book we felt as though we were in the midst of a game of literary high-stakes Jenga. Can we add just one more element? Will the whole thing topple?

The rewrites, research, and fact checking, were endless, as well. And I loved it to bits. Truly. Research is my favorite part of writing. Since I’ve mentioned research, if your readers want to know more about ravens, Dickens, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, etc., please check out the new website: www.cheshirecheesecat.com

Oh, dear. This is awkward. I’m afraid there’s been a misunderstanding. I don’t actually have, um, what one might call actual readers, per say. I’ve had folks stop by, but usually it’s by mistake, a search gone terribly wrong. You didn’t think that this conversation would actually help your career in any way? That there would be . . . readers?

Sorry, kid. I’ve been to the blog and I’m on to you. You don’t have readers, you have FOLLOWERS.

Followers? I kind of doubt it. Besides, I prefer to think of them as my zombie hordes. And I mean that in the nicest way possible, people. Nothing a good dermatologist couldn’t fix. They are doing incredible things with embalming fluid and Botox these days.

As to the plate-spinning (love that) dénouement . . . well, it was meant to be a hat-tip to the Victorian detective novel.

I know you are deep into Dickens. Without thinking too hard, can you name one thing you admire about his work?

Hmmm. Names. He was brilliant at creating names for his characters. Here’s a sample: Magwich. Sweedlepipe. Drood. Pecksniff. Havisham. Pumblechook. Sykes. Bumble. According to Greenfield’s Dictionary of Literary Characters, Dickens created 989 named characters in his career!

Charles Dickens himself becomes a minor but crucial character in the story. In fact, you even write in the voice of Dickens in his journal. No shortage of guts, have you? I would have found that terrifying.

Randall wrote most of the first drafts for Dickens’ journal. Our system –– one that quickly emerged on that first writing weekend –– was for each of us to take on a chapter, which would then be edited or even rewritten by the other person. After the edit or rewrite, back to the original author it would go. We would continue to pass a chapter back and forth fifteen or twenty times before we signed off on it and moved on. I don’t know if this would serve as a model for other writing teams, but we found it to be a great system for us.

As to writing in dear Boz’s voice? I know, I know. Leave that sort of cheek to Americans. But we did so with fear and trepidation, truly . . . gulp. Next question, please? Would you like to know how old I am?

That sounds like a trick question. A trap! So I’ll sidestep that, thank you very much, in favor of another one. Barry Moser’s illustrations strike me as exactly right. How lucky are you to be so well published. Tell us about when you first saw his illustrations.

Barry is brilliant. Period. I first discovered him twenty years ago and have been his shameless acolyte to this day. As you can imagine, I was over the moon when he agreed to illustrate the book. Randall and I love every character that Barry’s keen mind and graphite pencil have rendered –– although I will admit the battle scenes are among my favorites. Huzzah, Mr. B!

Good luck with this book, Carmen. I’m so proud of you. It’s already received starred reviews from School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus — you must be thrilled. Look, I don’t read enough contemporary children’s literature to make an informed opinion on what should or shouldn’t win a Newbery Medal. However, I did accurately predict both The Graveyard Book (though I didn’t think it deserved the actual Medal) and When You Reach Me. Like most folks, I didn’t know about last year’s winner, Moon Over Manifest. (And by the way, that was very nice — to be surprised at a time when the so-called “kidlitosphere” has made it almost too easy to quickly and decisively form the illusion of consensus, even if, in reality, it represents only .001 percent of readers; to me, the Moon Over Manifest selection was as if the traditional establishment reasserted itself and said, “Not so fast, bloggers! We decide.”)

Anyway, about the Newbery . . . um, Carmen, are you all right? You look pale. Why have you got your eyes and ears plugged? Don’t you want to talk about the Newbery?


Okay, well, I can see that we’re out of time. I’ve just received word that there’s no more space on the internet. Please accept this hefty log of Kraft Velveeta Cheese as a token of our appreciation. And good luck with the book!

James Preller Interviews . . . Deborah Kovacs, Part Deux

If you missed Part One of the thrilling Deborah Kovacs interview, what are you doing here? Catch up by clicking here, then come on back.

Hum-de-dum, de-dum-dum.

Everybody else can watch this 40-second video while we wait:

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So, tell me, DJ, what makes a good interview from the standpoint of the interviewer. The research, the questions, the tone? What were your goals when you went into those interviews?

I wanted to connect in my own head and then in the readers’ heads with the real people behind those beloved works — to briefly see the world and their process through their eyes, and so, hopefully, to help their readers gain insight into both process and result. I am still very interested in the point of tangency between creators and their creations.

I think for me, it’s so important in interviews to stay alive to the moment. You know, to hear what’s being said and to respond. That’s why I’m disappointed by so many blog interviews, which are obviously just somebody typing out answers to a list of questions. Which is fine and good, just don’t call it an interview.

What I love about writing is that well-chosen words can retain their liveliness even centuries after they are first put down.

Oh. I guess what I love about writing is the cash money bling. But we’ve always been different that way!

Since last we worked together, you’ve written many books for children, often based on your passion for ocean life. Any particular favorites?

I have written a lot of books, both fiction and nonfiction, many of which draw upon the natural world. Years back I wrote a novel called Brewster’s Courage, a co-creation with my friend, illustrator Joe Mathieu, about a black-footed ferret who rides his bicycle from South Dakota to Louisiana to pursue his  love of Cajun music. I’ve always had a soft spot for that book.

Can we talk about that a little bit? I mean, here’s a fine book that you’re immensely proud of, and now it’s out of print. It can be a disappointing profession, can’t it?

That was something I had to learn to accept. It happens to all of us. But whenever I engage one-on-one with kids through that book, or any of the others, really, it’s still a huge kick. My reasons for writing it and the reaction I get to it have always been consistent, so I try to get joy from the first-hand experiences and try not to let the bigger picture cloud my thoughts.

My personal coping strategy is to I cry myself to sleep, muttering “It’s not fair, it’s not fair.” But whatever works for you! Tell us more about some of your titles.

Another book I loved writing was Noises In the Night: The Habits of Bats, for which I spent some time in the jungle in Panama with a group of amazing tropical bat researchers.  I wrote several books in conjunction with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, including one about exploring the deep ocean, another about the crazy glow-in-the-dark jelly animals that look like fireworks and nightmares (that one was called Beneath Blue Waters: Meetings with Remarkable Deep-Sea Creatures, co-authored with Kate Madin), and another about what it’s like to go to sea on a research cruise.

What’s so compelling about ocean life, anyway?

So unexplored (estimates vary but it’s commonly stated that less than 10% of the ocean has been explored). Imagine that. Central to earth’s climate. The source of life on earth. The greatest untapped sources of energy. Shipwrecks. Doubloons. Those incredibly weird fish that have fishing rods growing off the ends of their noses.

Not to mention some other fantastic ones like Opisthoteuthis agassizii, also known as “Dumbo.”

And probably my all-time favorite, Vampyroteuthis infernalis (loosely translated as “Vampire Squid from Hell”).

That’s disgusting, DJ, you’re like totally grossing out my Nation of Readers. So what are you writing right now?

My two most recent books channel the brain waves of a dog who hangs out at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston (Catie Copley and Catie Copley’s Great Escape). I’ve got two other projects underway, one a memoir, one a poetry project. They may converge at some point, or the memoir may spend its energy and then make room for something else.

There’s also a novel that’s been “in development” for a very long time. I’ve got some nonfiction ideas that I’m pretty excited about as well. I’m also READING like crazy, piles (virtual: Kindle) of manuscripts and books every week. And on the “side” I’ve also been reading everything Dickens wrote. This will, of course, occupy me for the rest of my natural born days. How did he do it?

He drank a lot of Red Bull. But it’s surprising: Dickens keeps coming up around here. Lewis Buzbee mentioned him in an interview, then Carmen Deedy sang his praises, now you. Who would have figured that he’d be today’s “It” boy. What have you learned from him?

I’ve become immersed in his characterizations, both those in his novels and those in some of his earliest published work. As an exercise and perhaps eventually something more, I’m experimenting with character sketches inspired  by Dickens’ Sketches by Boz, his first published book.

I understand that you are now Editorial Director of Publishing at Walden Media. What in the world does that mean? Did they give you a nice chair? Free office supplies? What?

REALLY nice chair. Office supplies. Popcorn. Filtered water. Occasional Pelligrino. Our publishing group is a small division of the film studio Walden Media, which is based in Los Angeles, though our group is based outside Boston. I am Editorial Director of the group, so am responsible for the acquisition and publishing of a small but growing list of between 6-10 books a year mostly targeted to middle-grade readers. We worked on a joint-venture basis with Penguin Books for Young Readers for four years (2004-2008). We published a lot of great books with Penguin, the highlight being Savvy, a first novel by the incomparable Ingrid Law, which racked up a slew of honors and awards, culminating with a 2009 Newbery Honor.

Our movie colleagues are currently developing Savvy as a feature film. Since late 2008, we’ve been in partnership with HarperCollins, where we’re launching a joint imprint called Walden Pond Press in January. Our first book on the list is the heee-larious Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who is also the author of Millions and Framed.  It was originally published in the UK, where it was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

Last year, as I recall, you attended some kind of open panel discussion about the year’s best children’s books at ALA. I remember, because you kindly wrote to tell me all the nice things they said about my book, Six Innings. What was that like, sitting in on that process?

Any and all attendees of the midwinter meeting of the American Library Association are welcome to observe the deliberations of a group of librarians who determine the Best Books for Young Adults. They pull together a list of about 250 books, and discuss them all, then winnow down the list to their final selections. Your wonderful book was one of the titles under consideration, and it was a real thrill to hear all the great things they said about Six Innings. I figured you’d want to know what they were saying, so I took notes and sent them to you.

And I appreciated it, believe me. As you know, sometimes the universe seems indifferent to our best efforts. It’s so important to get that validation — even if, on some levels, we must proceed on faith when we don’t get it.

That’s one reason why school visits are really important. And you’ve got to admit, it’s pretty fun to be the “special visitor.”

I know that after a while those trips get old, but there’s nothing like it during the “proceeding on faith” phases.

Tedd Arnold told me that he felt it was important to keep in touch with young readers — what makes them laugh, what makes them tick — especially after his own kids got older. He said, “I don’t want to lose track of their squirmy little reality.” You must have been thrilled when Savvy was named a Newbery Honor Book.

Probably one of the best days of my life. It was such a powerful YES to all of us who believe in the book and in Ingrid Law, in her spectacular storytelling ability. I still get a lighter-than-air feeling when I remember the instant we got the news. I know that many of my friends and colleagues in the children’s book world have experienced such peak moments on more than one occasion, but I bet they would all agree with me that certain special moments are frozen in an amber glow forever.  Having collaborated with you in interviewing so many living legends way back when, it has been a thrill to be part of the team bringing a brand new legend to the world.

Any favorites for this coming year?

I loved The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z by Kate Messner and Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies by Erin Dionne. Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins is beautiful as well. Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine is incredibly moving. I recently read When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, and just thinking of it makes the theme song from the Twilight Zone play in my head. On the non-fiction side, I loved Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman.

You haven’t changed a bit, Deborah. You still have that same infectious enthusiasm for children’s books. I talk to you and I want to go read something. Where does it come from, do you think? Were you one of those little girls with your nose constantly in a book, dreaming of how one day you’d become an author?

Yes, I was. But the impetus to see myself as a writer as well as a reader goes back to a visit that Sydney Taylor (All-of-a-Kind Family) made to my school library when I was in fourth grade. I can still see her in my mind’s eye.

Reddish hair in an old-fashioned upsweep, long skirt, sitting on a tiny elementary school library chair, bookshelves behind her, awe-struck kids in front of her. I loved the books she wrote, and THERE SHE WAS. REAL.

A nice memory, and important for us jaded, gin-soaked authors to remember. Okay, lightning round. Five favorite children’s authors (note: you don’t need to list me, it’s assumed):

The list roves and changes, but here are current faves.

1.   Ingrid Law because I love the way the people in her books connect with each other.

Could you expand on that thought a little bit?

The central family, the Beaumonts, are outsiders because they have a family secret which is that at the age of 13 each Beaumont comes into a Savvy, a special supernatural power, which has to be brought under control, or scumbled. They are a fiercely loving tribe, who watch out for each other and protect each other from the unkind japes of the heartless folks who surround them. They are shy outsiders, at least at the beginning of the book. But by the end, the family members at the core story learn how to trust others and open themselves up to possibilities of friendship and love.

Thanks. But you still have to finish your list.

2.  Katherine Paterson because I love her dry frankness.
3.  Ann Scott-Moncrieff,  whose out-of-print classic, Auntie Robbo, is a book I reread often for its crisp and delicious characterizations. (JP Note: the entire book seems to be free online, here.)
4.   Madeleine L’Engle because she gives young kids the tools to imagine worlds beyond.
5.   Patricia Wrightson, an Australian author not well known in this country whose Nargun and the Stars was one of the scariest books I’ve ever read.

I heard the new Palin book is pretty frightening, by the way.

Oh, did she write a book?

Don’t you watch “The Late Show” with David Letterman? He’s mentioned it a few times, including some writing tips. Five favorite songs?

You could substitute many Beatles songs for #5, and this list does change, but CURRENTLY any one of these would do at just about any time.

1.  “Waterloo Sunset” by Kinks
2.  “Steal My Kisses” by Ben Harper
3.  “Yellow Moon” by the Neville Brothers
4.  “Moondance” by Van Morrison
5.  “Run for Your Life” by The Beatles

Any favorite websites you could recommend?

I enjoy reading what those in the Kidlitosphere have to say.

It’s late at night, you are sitting peacefully. There’s a drink in your hand and you are rereading a favorite book. What’s the drink? What’s the book?

The drink is Cointreau.

The book is Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey.

Well, DJ, my producer is waving frantically and it looks like we’ve run out of time. I really enjoyed catching up with you. You worked at Sesame Street during the heady Don Music days, wrote a wide variety of books, chatted with the most respected authors in children’s literature, edited manuscripts, worked on movies, on and on — and at the absolute center of everything you’ve done is your love for children’s literature. If not quite fame and glory, it sure looks like a brilliant career to me.

As a parting gift, please accept this 6,000 BTU window air conditioner (with remote!) that typically cools 150-250 square feet — just in time for the holidays!

Sorry, shipping not included.

By the way, here’s a fascinating TED program with Marc Pachter on “The Art of the Interview.” As always, I have a lot to learn.

By Dickens: Rewriting Christmas

Charles Dickens has been wildly (and unexpectedly) popular around here lately, with children’s authors speaking about him in revered tones, and not just because of the holiday season.

As Carmen Deedy, author of 14 Cows for America, told me in a recent interview:

I just re-read Great Expectations this summer, and there were places  where I laughed out loud. What a wordsmith, what a keen observer of human nature. Dickens made you see the human being within the characters. Why, even the loathsome and repulsive Miss Haversham (the elder) becomes a pitiable creature by book’s end. And his descriptions, and the marvelous names for his characters . . . ya know, I AM aware that it’s not cool to love Dickens anymore. I mean, a full page devoted to describing a room? But, oh, what a room . . .

What’s more, author Lewis Buzbee — in another recent interview — revealed that his new title, due in Fall, 2010, will be called The Haunting of Charles Dickens. And just the other day, I saw that my cyber-friend and fellow author, Kurtis Scaletta (Mudville), recently blogged a strong defense of Mr. Dickens’ great works. The money quote:

When people disparage classics as boring, stuffy books nobody wants to read, it’s clear they haven’t read Dickens, whose books are crammed with excitement, great characters, and everything we want a novel to be. That’s hardly surprising, since what we expect of a novel has largely been formed by the works of DIckens in the first place.

Oh, and that’s not all, dear friend of jamespreller.com. In an upcoming interview (we’re almost done!), author and all-around “book person” Deborah Kovacs gushes about Dickens, too. I’m telling you, it’s in the air, the great revival of interest in the old master.

From The New York Times:

Charles Dickens left behind one, and only one, manuscript for “A Christmas Carol,” the tale he wrote in 1843 of an unfeeling rich man and the boy who pricked his conscience. Kept under lock-and-key for much of the year at the Morgan Library and Museum, the manuscript is not widely available, one reason, perhaps, why it has been all but impossible to track the many revisions Dickens made to the manuscript as he struggled to get his story right. A high-resolution copy of the manuscript’s 66 pages, which you can examine below, may finally change that.

Ángel Franco/The New York Times

Click here you can examine each page of the manuscript, even toggle back and forth between hand-written and typed versions.

To read more about Dickens and the story behind this classic ghost story, written under financial pressure (that great motivator, fiscal panic!), click here and enjoy. For book lovers and those who enjoy the writing process, Christmas just came early.

One thing Carmen Deedy was wrong about: these days, it is very cool to like Dickens.

James Preller Interviews . . . Carmen Deedy, author of “14 Cows for America”

I was happy when I came across the book, 14 Cows for America, written by a long-lost friend, author and storyteller Carmen Deedy. We’ve since exchanged a few emails, caught up on our lives (to the extent that’s possible), and shared the unlikely hope that maybe someday we’ll find ourselves in same place at the same time. Usual stuff: “We’ll have lunch!” To date, it’s happened exactly once. In the meantime, Carmen is someone I’ll be rooting for, cheering from the sidelines. A true talent and a smart, singular woman. Today, I’m glad you’ll get to meet her. Because look, here she comes now . . .

Carmen, wow, great to see you again. We’ve met only once, a long time ago. Was it Paris, sometime after the war?

The Germans wore grey, I wore blue –– or was it plaid?

Oh, wait, I remember now. It was at a convention center in Raleigh. My bad. It’s so easy to confuse the two. So it’s been about fifteen years. At that time, as I recall, you had recently published The Library Dragon. Between then and now, your career has really blossomed.

That’s a generous assessment, old friend. Actually, I spent a whole lot of years as a single mom, and for nearly five of them I did very little writing.  School author visits, a good bit of editing, but writing? Not so much. Getting three lovely and creative and maddening young women through adolescence while keeping the roof over our collective heads pretty much sucked every ounce of creative life out of me. “I am woman, hear me whimper,” was the sum and substance of my feminist credo in those days.

I’m fuzzy on the timeline. You’re an internationally known storyteller who has performed at The Kennedy Center and the Folger Shakespeare Library.  You gave a talk to the TED folks –- and I’m pretty sure they invite only brilliant people with fertilizer ideas worth spreading. You were (or still are?) a regular contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Did that all happen after the girls were grown?

Nope. Just wasn’t doing a great deal of writing. The aforementioned events were short and sweet and helped bring in the bacon, as it were. But I couldn’t seem to carve  out many stretches of time to write during those years.

Do you see yourself as primarily a storyteller, rather than a writer? What’s the distinction?

The distinction? Um, the WRITING STUFF DOWN part. Storytelling, on the other hand, is the ancient art of live narrative. In other words, someone (preferably carbon-based, as opposed to a dvd, mp3, etc.) opens his or her mouth and, without props, video enhancement, sets or backdrops, or fellow performers, conjures up an entire world –– makes something out of nothing if you will –– employing only the spoken word.

Ah, but I didn’t answer your question.  Do I think of myself as a writer or a storyteller? Short answer: a writer. Nonetheless, one art form informs the other.

How does a person become a professional storyteller? Do you just hang out a sign on the front lawn? I mean, forgive me, but it seems like such a phony baloney job. Bankers must look at you and say, “You re a . . . what?!”

My dear Mr. Preller, if I am applying for a loan, I never say I’m a storyteller (and, by the by, saying you’re a writer doesn’t gain you much traction with the banking lot either).  I say raconteur. It’s sooooo continental.

I know as a writer of children’s books, I’ll often get those baffled looks from some folks at parties after they ask the usual question: “So: What DO you DO?” You know who I mean, the guy in the suit with the big job. And he’ll always follow up my answer with another question, not even bothering to feign disinterest, “Any books I might know?” This from a guy you can’t imagine having read a children’s book –- even as a kid. So I’ll answer something like, “How ‘bout those Yankees!”

I think it’s pretty common for most people, particularly those who don’t make their living from writing, to read a children’s book and think, “Piece of cake.” When I hear that, I usually smile sweetly, lean in, and whisper, “Dare ya.” The truth is, of course, that children’s picture books do not occupy the same place in the literary world as, say, the works of Leo Tolstoy. But you do have to say a lot with a little — and in that respect, writing a picture book is kind of like taking War and Peace — and turning it into a haiku.

When you started as a storyteller, an old friend came to see one of your early shows. Afterward, she told you, “The truth? I don’t think you’re a storyteller.” How did you overcome that? Is there enough ice cream in the world to heal that wound?

Never underestimate the curative powers of Rocky Road, my friend.

Where do the stories come from?

Brooklyn, NY. It’s the last place you look. But I suppose you want an answer that’s a bit more serious-minded, so I will say this: stories swirl around us constantly: in the subway, at the lunch counter, around the corner from the cereal aisle. They are everywhere, vying for the writer’s attention. Tragically, I can be a mite distractible; I know I’ve let some great ones pass me by.

Your new book, Carmen, 14 Cows for America . . . wow.

What a remarkable story, beautifully told. It’s already gotten some great press. You must be thrilled.

I am very happy that it’s been so well received.

There are a lot of great lines in the book, but the ones that conclude the book really hit me:

“Because there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded,

nor a people so small that they cannot offer mighty comfort.”

Those words were especially resonant, like a bright, burning quiver shot to the heart. Do you remember when you first wrote those words? Did you realize –- you must have realized! -– how good it was at the first instant?

I have a nameless elementary school girl to thank for that.  Not the precise words, of course, but the sentiment. She reminded me of Aesop’s fable –– the lion and the mouse –– big things need small things, said she. From the mouth of babes.

Yes, but you heard her. You listened. Maybe that’s the real secret to good writing.

Maybe. Then again, maybe I just got lucky.

It’s an interesting perspective to think of 14 Cows as a retelling of “The Lion and the Mouse.” How did the book come about?

I read about the gift in April of 2002 in The New York Times. I sat on my porch stoop and wept. It would be many years and a great deal of research later before I would hold a finished manuscript and eventually find the protagonist, Kimeli Naiyomah, and ask for his blessing. Little did I know that he would join us as a sort of cultural consultant, and even adding his own end note to the book. It has been, in many ways, an strange and wondrous and indescribable journey.

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To me, with such a huge story, I’m impressed by your economy of language. I would have been overwhelmed, not knowing where or how to begin. How did you find that voice? Did you have a first sentence, an image? I guess I’m asking, what was the door that first opened for you, allowing you into the story?

I was at the Carson McCullers House, in Columbus, Georgia.

I had been granted a writing fellowship and was having a devil of a time getting the story down. I should note here that this was, by now, 2007. I had notes, articles, documentaries, and sundry documents that I had compiled and hauled to Columbus; it amounted to years of research and only served to further overwhelm me. I wasn’t new to picture book writing and well knew the perimeters. I had fewer than 32 pages to work with. I was near despair, when I woke up one morning and reminded myself that this was a story for children, and needed to be told simply, just as I would have liked to hear the story when I was a child. To sustain a sense of immediacy, I opted for the present tense. That kept it simple, as well.

Well, you succeeded brilliantly. Lightning round. Five favorite foods?

My mom’s arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), Vietnamese Bubble Tea, chicken pot pie, watercress salad, Thai mango and sticky rice,  coq au vin,  my dad’s empanadas . . . sorry. It’s not that I can’t count, it’s just that I LOVE food.

Nobody makes a good chicken pot pie anymore.

Or yeast rolls. What ever happened to yeast rolls in school cafeterias? Now it’s low-fat granola bars. I tell you, my friend, we are witnessing the de-evolution of our race.

As my mother would say, “We’re going to hell in a hand basket.” Still one of my favorite expressions. I love channeling my parents that way, filling my mouth with their words. Now that my father is gone, I make a point of keeping those echoes bouncing around. It’s strangely satisfying to repeat a phrase that he used to say, keep it alive, like a postcard with “Love always” written on the back.

I know what you mean about those voices that linger in our heads. My wonderful and wickedly wise dad love of Cuban aphorisms. Among my favorites: Our wine may be bitter, but it’s our wine. (This one in 7th grade when I was complaining about my mother, my hair, zits, and the banality of reading Steinbeck.) He who laughs alone is remembering his own mischief. (This, when I caught him sitting at his desk, howling to himself, in what he thought was a solitary moment. I never learned what marvelous memory he was recalling, but it only served to increase his mystique as a Man of Mystery.) And my favorite, one that touches on love and true camaraderie, When you cry, I taste salt.

That’s a beautiful line. Of course, the bitter wine aphorism reminds me of a great line spoken by Lt. Frank Drebin in “The Naked Gun” movie: “It’s a topsy-turvy world, and maybe the problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans. But this is our hill. And these are our beans!” Next impossible question: Five favorite books?

Shadow of the Wind, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Charlotte’s Web, Great Expectations, The Book of Unholy Mischief.

A diverse, challenging list. What do you admire most about Dickens, or if you prefer, Great Expectations?

Well (coyly), one of my new books (not out yet) is about a street cat, a tower raven, and Charles Dickens. I just re-read Great Expectations this summer, and there were places  where I laughed out loud. What a wordsmith, what a keen observer of human nature. Dickens made you see the human being within the characters. Why, even the loathsome and repulsive Miss Haversham (the elder) becomes a pitiable creature by book’s end. And his descriptions, and the marvelous names for his characters . . . ya know, I AM aware that it’s not cool to love Dickens anymore. I mean, a full page devoted to describing a room? But, oh, what a room . . . (I am officially out of the nerd closet now, and I want you to know I’m okay with that.)

Five things about your native homeland, Cuba, that you miss?

My family, heat that penetrates your bones, my first language, cobble stone streets made for perambulation, the sea and its sticky brine perfume.

Politics, briefly: What is your hope for the future of American-Cuban relations? I have a friend from England, a drummer, who visits all the time and loves it there. I’m jealous of him, and jealous of Sky Masterson.

I wish there was openness. Am I wrong about that?


Okay, you are on your front porch at your home in Georgia, peaceful under the stars. There’s a song playing and a drink in your hand. What’s the song? What’s the drink?

Carlos Gardel singing “Volver” . . .

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. . . accompanied by a whiskey and soda, twist of lime.

Thank you very much, Carmen. It’s really great to catch up with you again. I mean this: I’m so proud of you and all that you have done with this lovely, meaningful book. I hope it finds a place in every library in America. As a parting gift, please accept this (still warm!) cheeseburger from Sonic Drive-In.*

Does it come with plantains?

* No Masai cows were injured in the making of this cheeseburger.

Note: If you enjoyed this interview with Carmen Deedy, you might also like this recent interview with author Lewis Buzbee.

Let’s close with Carmen telling a story . . . for that happy-go-lucky TED crowd.

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