Sunday, June 30, 2013

Interview with Children's Book Author Virginia Euwer Wolff

In 2011, Virginia Euwer Wolff, author of six novels for young readers, won the Phoenix Award for The Mozart Season (1991). The Mozart Season is the story of twelve-year-old violinist Allegra Shapiro who spends her summer preparing to play in a Mozart concerto competition. The Mozart Season also has the distinction of being my favorite book. 

Corresponding with and interviewing Wolff for Crenshaw Seeds has been a very special experience. Not only did she answer my questions; she also asked me questions about my life and work. I am grateful to her for the time and interest that she devoted to me and my writing endeavors.

During our correspondence, Wolff asked me if I could identify a special book that I had read when I was young and trace its influence through my life. This was my answer:
The Mozart Season was given to me when I was twelve, the same age as Allegra, and I remember thinking that, because of that book, twelve should be a very important year. For me, it was. I had just made a burst of progress on the violin, thanks to private lessons, which made me feel like anything was possible. I was obsessed with playing the Bach Double Concerto. Allegra inspired me as a violinist. I had also started taking ballet lessons with a new teacher, and so these two areas of my life, music and dance, were blossoming. 

Friends of my dad's gave me The Mozart Season. 
The book became very personal to me. I could imagine it unfolding in my house and Allegra practicing on my screen porch. I listened to the concerto that Allegra plays in the book (Mozart's Fourth Violin Concerto in D-Major) and hung up a print of Chagall's Green Violinist, the painting in Allegra's music room. 
The Mozart Season's greatest gift to me was the concept of seasons in life. Allegra plays softball in the spring and violin in the summer. It comforted me to read about a character who did things in phases and who was so passionate, with a child's seriousness, about everything she did ("Everything matters."). Maybe it helped me accept the way I love many different things (music, ballet, French) yet also do them "off and on" and am not a professional at any of them, save writing. 
Throughout The Mozart Season, Allegra learns words to describe her world and notes them on a list for school. One of Allegra’s new words is ‘tenacity,’ which, her violin teacher tells her, means “holding on when it would be more comfortable to let go.” It’s a concept built into The Mozart Season, which Wolff says was her hardest book to write. 
By the way: That Mozart Season,  so daunting, was a hugely valuable experience in so many ways, and one of them was this:  Knowing I was incapable of writing the book and  was keeping at it anyway, I kept drawing a triangle on a piece of paper: Deirdre, Mr. Trouble, Allegra. Those 3 points.  Knowing there was some kind of connective tissue holding them together. [APT: Deirdre is a troubled opera singer and friend of Allegra's mother; Mr. Trouble is a homeless man who loves music and dances at outdoor concerts.] Probably that repeated triangle (on yellow legal pads, on envelopes, on the car clipboard, in margins of things) has been more of a help than I've given it credit for being.  It showed (maybe a bit like a lab experiment that keeps failing) that tenacity would turn out to be my greatest strength as an anything: as a fiction writer, as a 2nd violinist, as a mom.  
 And I now have a template of hardness: "I finished The Mozart Season; I can finish whatever this difficult thing is." - VEW
The Phoenix Award, given to a children's book that did not win an award when first published 20 years earlier, seems particularly appropriate for this book. It hung on, and look what happened.

Another of Allegra’s new words is ‘empathy,’ or putting yourself in other people's shoes, a definition I learned from To Kill A Mockingbird. In her six novels for children, Wolff tells stories from the perspectives of many characters who are very different from each other: Nick, a teenage boy with a learning disability (Probably Still Nick Swansen, 1988, 2002); LaVaughn, a teenage girl living in poverty who gets a job babysitting the kids of Jolly, a single mother, batted around by life, who is only three years older than she is (Make Lemonade trilogy, 1993-2009); Allegra, a talented 12-year-old violinist (The Mozart Season, 1991, 2007); two sixth-grade softball teams preparing, in 1949, to play against each other and whose 21 members take turns narrating the story (Bat 6, 1998). Wolff is adept at putting herself in other people’s shoes, to the extent that after reading her novels, I wondered what her own writer’s voice was and what her shoes were like.

In her essays, her email correspondence with me and this interview, I’ve had the privilege of finding out a little bit about Virginia Euwer Wolff writing as herself. Her characters make cameo appearances in her own narration—or maybe she makes them in her novels. The voice is empathetic, always.
- Katie Crenshaw/APT

Virginia Euwer Wolff. Photo Credit: Sonya Sones. 

Virginia Euwer Wolff is the winner of many prizes, including the National Book Award, in 2001, for True Believer, the second book in the Make Lemonade trilogy. She plays the violin and writes in Oregon.

Why do you write fiction? Why don’t you use your own writer’s voice more, either as an omniscient third-person narrator or as a nonfiction author? 
Good question.  I don't feel at all confident of my voice as "omniscient" (such an odd concept, isn't it?) narrator.  And, actually, the second sentence of Catcher in the Rye is an apt explanation.  I do like to try the essay form at times, though.  I think a good reason to write fiction is that a truth can slide into the story without raising its voice to the level of sermon or polemics.
In the first place that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. - J.D. Salinger
Why did you give many of the kids in Bat 6 poor grammar? Did you think about the irony of writing a novel narrated by characters who are not particularly good writers? For example, here's Darlene, one of the many narrators of Bat 6:
But then there was sunny days too at times and Coach would send us out running to condition our bodies and get endurance. He did not run with us on account of he is getting along in years. 
Ah, the grammar in Bat 6:  I selected their syntax very carefully.  I tried to get up against their jawbones, to listen meticulously to the way they spoke.  These kids live in the hinterland [APT: 'hinterland' is another of Allegra’s words, by the way];  there's no television yet; lots of the families have rather a hardscrabble life and not much education. ...* These kids learn to speak from their parents; their mothers are their role models (which is also why the girls are inclined toward a gossipy turn of mind), and grammar isn't a huge priority with most of them.  Aki speaks the most flawless grammar, as I'm sure you noticed. [APT: Aki is Japanese.] Further, in country towns of this kind, perfect grammar tends to be ridiculed.  (I can't count the times...)  ... I don't think any of my narrators or characters is a novelist.  I don't expect that of them.  I hope each book is about interesting persons, but not necessariy about writers.  As a matter of holding to my own set of language standards, though, I will point out here that never, ever in anything I've written has a character replied, "Whatever."  Never, ever.   (In the book I'm working on, I might actually do that.  But it will require of me a huge leap backward.)
*[APT: ... indicates I have omitted something from Wolff's original response in order to keep the interview moving along.]

You grew up the daughter of educated parents in a big house on an orchard. How did you learn what it was like to be LaVaughn, the protagonist of the Make Lemonade trilogy, who grew up in a city housing project with a mother who, although she abstractly valued education, hadn’t had much herself? 
Just after college I lived in New York.  Hell's Kitchen, Queens, the Upper West Side.  Their sonic, visual, and olfactory impact has stayed with me.  But from early childhood on I've been a lucky girl in that I've known extremely poor people and extremely rich people.  For instance, the workers who did the hard labor in all weathers in our orchard; the ditch-walker whose job it was to walk miles and miles and miles of the irrigation ditch--also in all weathers--to check for leaks, beaver dams, eroded banks.  (Many more examples available on request.)  And everybody in my family worked hard.  My father (a Princeton graduate) gave up lawyering in Pittsburgh to clear land and plant an orchard in Oregon.  When he died, my mother (a Reed College sociology major and a fine pianist) ran the orchard by herself.  I don't think I knew any kids beyond about seventh grade who didn't have summer jobs, and I don't remember dating any boys in high school who had completely clean fingernails.
Somehow our mother made it clear to us that the only thing that separated us from the poor-grammar-and-too-little-dental-care kids was in our set of opportunities.  An incomparable lesson.  

Lots of us country kids went on to college and cleaned up our fingernails, our math and history skills, and found out how much we didn't know.  I for one knew I was lucky.  Just HOW lucky? That wouldn't occur to me for decades, when Jolly and her adorable and dripping children came into my mind.  But it was because of my advantages that I was able to approach that book, because I had seen Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author  off-Broadway and it caused readers' theatre to stick in my mind, and eventually the threads came together.  Years later.  
When we are going about getting our liberal arts education we spend a lot of time and energy finding out how wrong we are.  It's a privilege that the uneducated don't get.  I try never to forget that.  

In working on Jolly's and LaVaughn's story, I knew the experience of being poor in spirit, overwhelmed by the presence of tiny, precious lives, panicked that I might be doing motherhood all wrong,  fearful of failure.  At those times absolutely nothing seemed to separate Jolly from me.   Only because I live in words--have done so since early childhood--am I able, on lucky days, to find some language for some of that.  

In your 2011 lecture upon winning the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children's Literature, you say that children's literature is often about "the moment of the fork" in life's journey, the point at which the path splits and people have to choose one direction over another. Where was the fork in your life? 
Oh, gosh: So many!  But the one that had the most directorial effect was the summer of my 16th birthday.  I misbehaved so remarkably that my widowed mother saw only one option: Send that girl to boarding school, let them turn her back into the darling daughter who used to be so easy to love.  Not entirely unrelated: I had also begun reading substantial books.   So I left home with my suitcase, the violin and the typewriter she had recently bought for me, and from there I went farther away, and farther, and decades later came back home with some comeuppance and some earned seriousness and much better manners.  By then, my mother was in dementia and could no longer play the Handel piano and violin sonatas we had played together when I was a teenager.   (By the way, my misbehavior was purely 1950s.  We postwar kids did not do sex or drugs.  Instead we did alcohol, nicotine, foul language, and vast amounts of necking).  What occurred to me many years later is that my mother would have adored having a child of hers be an author; she just couldn't abide the horribly awkward steps I was going through en route to turning into one.  Motherhood ain't easy.  

Are you inspired to write about people you know, à la Harriet the Spy? Doing so runs the risk of angering the people in question, again, à la Harriet. Have you navigated that territory? I ask because on the "writing" page of your website, you tell people to be careful whom they show their writing to and cite H. the S
No.  My family is off limits.  My friends are off limits.   Like a lot of fiction writers, I tend to use single traits or gestures from people I've known, infusing them into fictional characters.  So far, nobody has seemed to catch me at it.   What I do openly is give my characters some things from myself.  For instance, I'm kind of a loner, and I've given each of my protagonists a bedroom of his/her own, in which to do private thinking.  (One girl in Bat 6 does not have her own bedroom and she mopes a bit about it .)  I did base one teacher loosely on a teacher I had had, and I did it as a tribute, and by the time I did it she was elderly and appreciative, and Oregon-style modest, in that she said she hadn't done anything special, just tried to be a good teacher.  When I advise people to choose very carefully whom to show their writers' notebooks to, I think of the looks of a.) scorn, b.) indifference, c.) artificial interest that I've learned to avoid.  In fact, I never show my drafts to anyone except my editor.  (I cite Harriet the Spy because she's such a vivid example.)

Marc Chagall's the Green Violinist hangs in Allegra's music room, my childhood bedroom, and the Guggenheim Museum. Image from 
Your morning routine involves practicing the violin, then writing while listening to music. Do you love music more than words?  
Probably.  When the unspeakable or the indescribable occurs, I usually go to music rather than to poetry or sculpture or prayer.

Do you believe that the emotions of music transcend those of real life?  
That's a strong way of putting it, but yes, I think I do.  When we think of the greatest moments of Bach, Brahms, Mahler, Mozart, we willingly let them say what we can't.  And the sexiness of Dvorak's chamber music: Rarely can any of us convey that in real life.  (Or maybe I just haven't met the right people.)  And the profundity and the merriment in Beethoven: Sometimes I just listen to his first piano concerto and stare out the window and wait for those spine-resonant cascading scales and I know for a few moments that life has nothing more endearing to offer.  One of my goals is to play, with some degree of amateur competence, the second violin part  of every movement of every quartet he (Beethoven) ever wrote.  (I've been working on that project with three friends: a homeopath, a circuit board maker, and a midwife.)  His late quartets provide us with a journey down into the well of profundity that I can't imagine experiencing any other way.  But my man is Brahms.  The German Requiem can be the healer for whatever ails me, and it gives me excellent cries in the bargain.   I'm not likely ever to find language to say any of this.  

When my father died I was 5 years old.   Brahms' First Symphony became my own personal music (we had a wind-up Victrola).  Decades later, the Sibelius Violin Concerto became mine (although I've never played it).  And later, "Eleanor Rigby" came unbidden into my mind in a silent apartment and provided the sound track for my first book for young readers.  (But the song isn't mentioned in the book, just as the skeleton doesn't show through muscle and skin.)  After September 11, I bought Helene Grimaud's CD of Brahms' Opus 117 Intermezzi.  They got me through that winter.  I don't know how to paraphrase or interpret any of these events.  

And I know about the 20th century partly through Shostakovich.  No adequate words for that, either.

Is it that the sumptuousness--at the Brahms extreme--and the purity of the straight line--I'm thinking of Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel--say what we would if we could?  Answer questions that we've been fumbling toward figuring out how to ask?  Give us lessons in how to live if only we could reach through the veil?  

And I'm sad to say that I really do see the truth in the remark that's attributed to Aaron Copland: "If a literary man puts together two words about music, one of them will be wrong."

Would you call the perspective-taking of fiction writing empathy?
I hope so. 

From The Mozart Season:
     When the orchestra started to play the second half of the concert, the same dancing man from before started dancing. He had his same clothes on. He danced the same dance, forward and back and around, and he had the same concentrating look on his face. Some people watched him, some people pointed at him, some people didn't pay any attention to him at all. Just like before.
     Deirdre stared at him and let out a loud whisper. "Aaaahhhh." Then she whispered, "Why on earth doesn't somebody dance with that man?"
     Nobody said anything. My mother and two of her friends just sat there.
     "Well, why doesn't somebody?"
     I shrugged my shoulders. "I don't know," I said.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

A la mode: Why Brooklyn's Old-Fashioned Pie Shops Can Be Disconcerting

As I wait for the owner of the Blue Stove, the Williamsburg pie shop and café, to come speak with me, I steel myself to hear her say, “Actually, I never made pies until I opened a pie shop. It seemed like the kind of thing that hipsters would like, so I did some research, ordered some memorabilia on eBay, and here we are. I don’t eat pie, myself.”

She doesn't say that at all. Rachel McBride, whose voice and movements are small and flat, has a classic story to go with the establishment that she opened in 2009. Her mother, Glen Martin, always made wonderful pies when Rachel was growing up in upstate New York. Glen had learned to bake from her grandmother, McBride’s great-grandmother, who cooked and baked on a blue woodstove that perched on gray metal feet, like the claws of a bathtub. After her mother died, Rachel decided to open a pie shop in her honor and to use her great-grandmother’s stove as the centerpiece. With its warming drawers above and those peculiar feet, the blue stove seems more like a dressing table than a kitchen appliance, particularly in its current capacity as milk-and-sugar station (and namesake) at the Graham Ave. café.

The Blue Stove has a style summed up by the phrase “home is where the heart is.” Some of the baristas wear bandanas tied floppily around their hair and half aprons with pockets. The mismatched dishes might have come from a church rummage sale. On the blue stove, bottled milk sits in a pail of ice and spoons are stored in those blue-and-white-speckled metal cups I associate with Girl Scout Camp.

The more period detail I notice, the less authentic it feels to me. The hipsters there, with yellow pads and their novels, wearing jeans and plaid shirts or vintage, full-skirted dresses, are stylized in a different way, and I have my doubts about them, too—I doubt that they can really be supporting themselves and sitting in the pie shop.

Less than a jog away, in Greenpoint, is another pie shop, Pie Corps. The color scheme is sky blue. The tables flaunt the woodenness of their planks. There are old-looking pie tins tacked to the walls.

In Gowanus, at Four and Twenty Blackbirds, it’s more wood, curtained windows, a decorative scale suspending a sack of coffee beans above the counter, and baskets, baskets, baskets. Like The Blue Stove, Four and Twenty was also founded by people who inherited their baking talents: sisters from South Dakota whose aunt made pies at a family restaurant back at home. This shop, too, has a story; it’s not Wal-Mart opening a chain of pie shops.

In fact, every shop I visited was unique. So why do they seem so cliché? The feeling is similar to that sense of disappointment when you enter a vintage clothing store and see rack full of nearly identical rabbit-fur vests that you thought were so special when you saw one alone, a hint of white and softness, on a rack of stiff, brown furs in a smaller shop.

I think it’s The Little Prince problem. The little prince’s flower and the fox he tames are special to him, but to the rest of the world, they are unremarkable, no different from any other flower or any other fox. I want to think that my pie shop, The Blue Stove, is “unique au monde,” unique in the world, and it’s not. I visited five different pie shops today, each with a story, each with a claim to uniqueness. But think of them all at once, and The Blue Stove becomes just another pie shop.

That’s New York for you: dry cleaner on every block.

The Little Pie Co., in Manhattan, is the oldest of the pie shops I visited. Founded in 1985 by performing artists looking for side income, it has more tradition, as a store, than the other pie shops, yet is seems the most modern. It has red leather booths, new-looking wooden tables and chairs, standard, plastic and metal napkin dispensers. I feel more comfortable here than at the other pie shops, less afraid that I am being somehow duped.

I think The Little Prince problem is more troubling in the case of pie shops than in the case of, say, dry cleaners because pie shops are meant to be special. At pie shops, everything is just so with roots in family history. I don’t want to know that there are other similar pie shops, but it’s impossible not to. At The Little Pie Co., which is not trying to be ostentatiously unique, there’s less room for disappointment.

In the booth next to me, a group of high-school-aged girls are discussing their favorite musicals. Of course, Phantom of the Opera and Rent, two of my favorites, come up. One of the girls says that she had fallen in love for the first time not with a real boy but with the phantom. Then they start talking about Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), a French operetta-style movie starring Catherine DeNeuve.  When I first saw it, this movie seemed like it was made for me: français, musique; amour. I’d picked it out from the movie offerings at the local library and, eventually, learned the words by heart. And here, by chance, I was sitting next to other people who had loved the same old French movie. Is nothing truly unique?

That’s what irks me about these pie shops. That there are so many of them, each with a story, each so carefully cultivated, assaults one's sense of uniqueness. Of course, we know that our lives are not as unique as they seem. Of course, many young Americans will have watched and loved a given French film. Yet because we only really know about our own lives, they still seem unique. Visiting five pie shops in a day shattered their semblance of originality.

Well—not exactly shattered. I was cynical from the beginning. I knew that pie shops were “a thing.” But I was still disappointed, maybe even more disappointed, when I learned that The Blue Stove had a really nice story—and seemed cliché anyway.

And as I sit here trying to capture that feeling, I have the same sense of foreboding. The fear that my miniature, overwrought existential crisis is no different than anyone else’s, that even if I do capture the feeling, do find unique words to express it, that there are other Ashleys doing the very same thing on their blogs, with their pen names, and that when lined up on a rack in the Goodwill store that is Google, my feeling, my life, will not matter.