Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Weekend on the Water welcomes Linda Urban

Linda Urban (photo by Julie Thompson)
How do your favorite books from childhood stay with you long after you've read them? For author Linda Urban, who joins our esteemed faculty at this year's Weekend on the Water retreat, they never quite left. In her interview below, she remembers a classic favorite that may just have you scouring for a copy if you haven't read it lately––or ever!

So: The Pacific Northwest. In November. What is it about our Weekend on the Water retreat that sold you? (I mean, I guess it IS going to be indoors...)
The location, of course, is a draw, but the truth is I'll go most anywhere to be around other writers.  There is an amazing energy that develops when people who are passionate about books and writing get together. I never fail to be inspired.

With books like Mouse Is Mad and The Center of Everything, you have shown that you can write successful books for children of all ages. Does the picture book versus the YA or MG novel compete in your brain for domination? Do you secretly enjoy writing one over the other?
I am a middle grade fiction writer––that's where my head is, that's where my heart is, and that's where my natural voice lies. I've written dozens and dozens of picture books, but most are lousy or formulaic and deserve their spot in the "Not So Much" drawer.  Mouse Was Mad surprised me, as did Little Red Henry––a picture book I have coming out with Candlewick. They feel more like gifts I stumbled upon than something I truly understand how to make.

What are three of your favorite books from childhood?
Thank you for asking for three OF my favorites, because there were far more than three. All the Ramona books, of course, and all the Little House books, too. Charlotte's Web. Little Women. Tuck Everlasting.  A Weekly Reader selection called The Winnemah Spirit by Carolyn Lane.

The book I want to tell you about, however, is a picture book called Andrew Henry's Meadow, by Doris Burn. Do you know the story? Andrew Henry loves to build things, but his inventions are not appreciated by the rest of his family. One afternoon, he packs up his tools and heads off through the woods and the swamp until he comes to a beautiful little meadow where he builds himself a house.  How I loved the illustration of that house––stone and wood and thatch, bungalow-like and sized for one. It was Andrew Henry's very own solitary place where he could build whatever he wanted without criticism or embarrassment. It was beautiful. 

A page turn later, another child appears at the edge of the meadow.  Alice Burdock shows up with bird cages and field guides, her passion for all things avian having been thwarted by her farmer father. Andrew Henry builds her a house, too. A tree house, with plenty of feeders and places to hang her binoculars. It is exactly perfect for Alice. 

As you might guess, more children follow and Andrew Henry builds each one a house of his or her own, a house that is perfectly suited to his or her passion for boats or mud pies or dress-up or tuba-playing. The meadow becomes a small village for kids and the things they love. I spent hours as a kid staring at those pictures, choosing one house or another as my favorite, wondering what sort of special place Andrew Henry would build for me if I emerged from the woods with my books and notepads and typewriter.

Of course, the families of the children worry and eventually the village in the meadow is discovered.  You'd think that this might be a disappointment for the reader, having this special, secret place exposed like that, but you'd be wrong. What I loved about this two-page spread in the book is that everyone––the kids, the parents, the siblings, the pets––are jubilant! Nobody is scolded, nobody feels guilty. It is all pure joy.

Can you tell that this is still one of my all-time favorite books? I think that is because it has such resonance for all of us who want to be recognized for the things that make us special––particularly when those things fall into the sometimes risky world of making art. Really, it is why retreats like this one are so important. So many of us who write for children are parents and have jobs and commitments that force us to put aside our writing. Most of the time we do this willingly. We love our families. The lucky ones of us even love our work. But when we can, for a day, for a weekend, we put all that other stuff aside and make time and space to honor our creative selves. And dang, if something powerful doesn't happen. We appreciate ourselves more––our distinct voices, our unique passions, our only-we-can-tell-them-stories. And if we're lucky, we bring that magic home with us afterward, just like Andrew Henry does.

How should Weekend on the Water, attendees approach this small-group event? As a writer, what would you do to get the most out of it? 
I think it is always a good idea to enter a retreat or a conference with an intention––a small statement of what you hope to get out of the experience. Maybe your intention will be to be open to new ideas. Maybe it will be to learn one new skill or technique. If we're clear about our intentions when we enter a setting like this, it can be very grounding. We stop comparing ourselves to others, we halt the inner critic in her tracks. All we need to do is be true to that intention and let the rest fall where it may.

You work in multiple genres. Do you work on multiple projects at once, or are you sequential? If you are having a hard time with something, do you take a break and switch over?
Most of the time, I am project monogamous.  Sometimes, I can work on a short piece -- a picture book or poem or essay -- while a novel is resting or with my editor, but this is not always fruitful.  What does seem to be a useful way to pass this time is reading and seeing films and going for walks and enjoying all those other well-filling activities.  All of it feeds my writing -- some in obvious ways, some more covertly.

Of course, this is about to change.  For the first time, I am working on a novel that will have a sequel and even as I revise the first, I am making notes and writing scenes for the second.  I know other writers do this all the time, but for me it feels wild and dangerous.

BONUS: What's your favorite drink of choice while working?
I write most often with sweet milky tea (PG Tips) at my side.  Sometimes, if I get in a rare evening session, I like a porter or in this still-hot-end-of-summer, a glass of Riesling, but too often this just makes me sleepy.

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