Yesterday I heard the sad news that Zilpha Keatley Snyder passed away. Ms. Snyder was one of my writing heroes and is one of the greats of children’s literature. In 2010, I had the privilege and honor of talking to her on the phone for a Creative Spaces interview. I’m reposting that interview today in her memory.
Thank you, Ms. Snyder, for your literary contributions to our world. My childhood and the path I’ve taken as an adult have both been greatly influenced by you and your words.
I discovered Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s books around third or fourth grade and became a huge fan, reading every book of hers my library had in its collection. The Egypt Game is an all-time favorite. My childhood best friend and I (and occasionally her younger brother too, because he matched the role of Marshall) played our own version of the Egypt Game, which as I remember it, amounted to sitting in the dirt behind a grove of pine trees in the corner of her yard. This paled in comparison to the exciting things that happen in the book, and I’m not sure that our version of the Egypt Game lasted very long. But the love for the book and Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s stories remained.
Fast forward a dozen or so years, I was working at the Linden Tree children’s bookstore while I was going to grad school and discovered there was a sequel to The Egypt Game called The Gypsy Game. (I was shocked that I could have missed this, but there was a simple explanation: it was published in 1997, 30 years after the original.) Because I was in graduate school for writing, trying to unravel for myself the mysteries of “how do I become a writer,” I was now not only interested in the books but the writer behind them. So I sought out more information on Ms. Snyder and discovered this essay, which I found thrilling to read both as a fan of her work and because of the informative and practical information she offers about her process.
For this interview, I had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Snyder on the phone, so the answers that follow have been transcribed from our conversation. If you’re interested in learning more about Zilpha Keatley Snyder, I highly recommend reading her autobiography posted on her website. You can also connect with Ms. Snyder on Facebook where she occasionally shares photos and recent news. If you’d like a more thorough tour of where Ms. Snyder lives, there is also a 20 minute video interview available through Good Conversations. (You will need to register for a free trial in order to view the entire video. There is an excellent collection of author interviews on this site though, and it looks like a worthwhile subscription for a school or a library.)
I have a room on the third story of our apartment. It’s a big room that is meant to be a bedroom, but I use it as a study. I have lots of bookcases and bulletin boards where I post different things. I have a bulletin board with pictures that kids have sent me. I used to get a lot of these, but now that most of my fanmail is email, I no longer get kids’s pictures so much. I also have a lot of files up there and my desk.
However, now that I have a laptop, I very often sit in the living room. My room up at the top of the house tends to be colder in the winter and hotter in summer than the rest of the house. So I very often just sit in the living room on the sofa with my laptop and write there. There’s just the two of us in the house now, my husband and I, so it’s fairly quiet and private.
Well, that varies. My husband and I go to the gym three mornings a week–Monday, Wednesday, and Friday–to work out. And so I used to write in the mornings but now I write mainly in the early afternoon. I don’t work as many hours as I used to. There was a time I might write five or six hours a day, but now it’s more like two or three.
My room upstairs faces back behind our house which is just a wooded hillside and gives me the feeling that I’m a long way from anything. There’s nothing out there but deer trails and redwood trees. So that’s probably my most favorite thing about that room, along with all the pictures on my bulletin board.
Downstairs, I like that I’m close to the kitchen where I can get a cup of tea easily (that’s where I’m sitting right now). It has a nice view out big front windows, so it’s a pleasant place to sit.
I don’t know if you’d call it a ritual, but one thing I have done for years is when I start a new book I start character sketches of the main characters. When I used to do it in a notebook I would leave a whole page for each of them or important characters, and I would add new things as I began to figure them out because I didn’t know the characters that well at first. Now of course I do it on the computer. I just add to them when I think of new information. And it’s very helpful, because I’ve found that in writing the character sketches I very often get plot ideas. A person with a certain type of character, certain view of life, would be apt to have a particular problem that could be worked into part of the plot.
Absolutely nothing. I don’t listen to music or anything. Oh, sometimes I have to–my husband is a pianist and if he’s playing the piano . . . But anything that might have words in it would be very distracting.
Tea. I drink several cups of tea a day. As for snack, I try to avoid that. Although I generally try to keep a bowl of what I call snacking fruit available. Very often grapes or cherries or something like that.
Oh, I don’t know. Not being interrupted? Which is hard to come by because there’s the phone and front door and time to do various things during the day. But . . . well, I know–just getting interested in my characters. When I’ve gotten to know them pretty well then I’m curious about them, and as I write I discover more things about them. And that’s one of the greatest interests for me in writing.
When I first began to write, my first book I wrote all out in pen and ink on a pad. My husband, who types very well, which I think goes along with being a pianist–very fast typist–he typed it for me. Which was very kind of him because I’m sure he didn’t think I was ever going to sell it. After that I started working on a typewriter. I could do action and sometimes narration, but I never could compose very well on the typewriter because if you make a mistake then of course you have to try to erase it or throw the page away and get a new page. So anything the least bit difficult, I would keep a pad and a pen right by the typewriter and write it out. Now, of course, there’s the computer. I love working on the computer.
In the past I would write the first chapter or so, just getting the feel of the story and the point of view of the main character. But then I would take a lot of time and do plotting. At that time I would write what I thought of as a plot page. When I was teaching I would say it was like writing a book report before the book has been written. Just a very short form of the story, but with a general idea of what the ending is going to be like. I find it very difficult to write without some idea of the ending. I know there are other writers who say they just start writing and see what happens, but I don’t seem to work that way very well. I always seem to get my characters into a mess that I can’t get them out of, a situation that doesn’t mean anything. I try to have a plot page.
Years ago, when writing some very difficult young adult books, I would outline chapter by chapter. I’d have a page for each chapter with a line down the middle. On one side I’d write the action or what is to happen in this chapter. And on the other I’d put information or narration, which would be narration that gives the reader more information about where the story is going. And I would try to work some action in with some narration so it wouldn’t get boring.
Well, my husband of course. But if you mean some figure in history or writer of the past, then maybe one of the Brontes.
I remember one thing my first editor told me, that was Jean Karl at Atheneum. My first book was fantasy and quite a few of my books have been. She said: If your story is a fantasy, you must let the reader know what the basis is, what the underlining factor is for the fantasy. You can’t have magic happening here and now with no reason for it, no thing it arises from, no cause. The reader begins to feel there’s no need to worry because something magical is going to happen that solves this problem whatever it is. So you have to limit the magic in some way and make it have a basis.
Get to know your characters well, and keep at it.