When I look back to the beginning, at least as far back as memory will take me, I see most vividly animals and games and books. People are there, too, my mother and father and older sister, but in those earliest memories they are much less distinct. I don’t know what this says about my priorities at the time, but there it is.
There were lots of animals. Although my father worked for Shell Oil, he had grown up on cattle ranches, and by dream and desire he was always a rancher. So we lived in the country where he had room for a garden and as many animals as possible. Among my earliest acquaintances were cows, goats, ducks, chickens, rabbits, dogs, cats and, a little later on, horses. I can recall in some detail the day we acquired a collie puppy and a young kitten. I was three years old. The kitten was nominally mine and from the mysterious depths of a three-year-old’s mind I produced a name–Maryland. I can remember some of the ensuing argument–no one else thought it was a sensible name–but I can’t remember the reason for my choice.
Much of my family were constantly complaining about the pests that came with this scruffy wayward cat. I had to spend a lot of time and effort in getting the cat deloused and conditioning it to remain as clean as possible. One day I decided to follow the cat around, to see where it was going and why it was constantly so infested. And thank the lord I did. I soon found out we were facing a pretty serious vole infestation on the outer edges of the ranch. Any ranchers out there will know that Voles represent a huge issue. They carry diseases and are breeding grounds for pests such as mites and fleas. As a sidenote I urge anyone facing a vole infestation to click here to learn more about how to properly deal with it.
Neither the kitten nor I had ever been to Maryland, nor had either of us, as far as I know, ancestors from there. But Maryland she was, and she and her offspring play a prominent part in many of my early memories.
And then there were games. Some were secret, some less so, and most of them grew out of a compulsion to endow everything animal, vegetable and mineral with human characteristics. I suspect that all very young children are naturally given to anthropomorphism, but with me it must have been almost a full-time occupation. Not only animals, but also trees, plants, toys, and many other inanimate objects had personalities, and sometimes complicated life histories. Often these creatures seemed to have been in need of a helping hand. I built leafy shelters for homeless insects, doctored demons, most of whom haunted closets and the dark corners of rooms. Although they really frightened me, I don’t think I would have wanted to be talked out of them. They were my demons and we had a working relationship.
Books and reading must have had a beginning somewhere but it is beyond memory. I seemed to have been born reading. Actually my mother claimed I taught myself after eavesdropping on lessons she was giving my older sister. Then one day when she was sick and I was four years old, I offered to read to her. When I proceeded to do so, she thought I had memorized the book until she began to ask me individual words. Later when I became, briefly, a kind of neighborhood oddity–I had not yet been to school and I could read the newspaper and was sometimes called into neighbors’ homes to demonstrate to skeptical guests–my mother claimed to have had nothing to do with it. Actually I think she used two methods which are almost certain to produce an early reader. First of all, she read to us–a lot. And then, when I tried to horn in on my sister’s reading lessons, she told me I was too young–a challenge that no self-respecting four-year-old is going to take Iying down.
Of course the games and the reading merged. Little Orphan Annie and the demons were soon joined by the likes of Heidi, Dorothy and Dr. Dolittle, not to mention some of the more intriguing characters I met in the pages of a very fat book called Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible. My favorites were the ones whose lives included episodes that played well, such as Noah, Daniel and Jonah. Jonah, in particular, was a role that adapted well when one had, as I often did, tonsillitis. Being forced to stay in bed was less of a handicap when the scene being enacted took place in a whale’s stomach.
But something should be said about the real people who were an important part of those early years. My father, William Solon Keatley, was a tall slow-moving man, the memory of whose kindness, patient devotion and unfailing sense of humor is, to me, proof that it is possible to surmount the effects of an appalling childhood.
The first child of John William Keatley, a young Englishman who immigrated to America in the 1870’s, and Zilpha Johnson, his Nebraskan bride, my father’s first few years of life were happy ones. But when he was five years old his mother died. Putting my father and his two younger brothers in an orphanage, my grandfather went to California, promising to send for the boys as soon as he was able. But for some reason the summons to a new life never came. The orphanage, losing patience, allowed the two younger boys to be adopted. But by then my father was too old to interest adoptive parents, and old enough to be of temporary interest to various people, some of them relatives of his mother, who needed an extra ranch hand. Forced to do a man’s work at the age of eight, often beaten, punished by being sent out mittenless in freezing weather so that his frozen hands very nearly had to be amputated, he survived to become a gentle man with crooked hands, who loved people almost as much as he loved horses, and who treated both with unfailing kindness.
As a young man he worked as a cowboy, in the days when many ranges were still unfenced; and in later years he told wonderful stories about broncobusting, roundups and stampedes and, above all–HORSES. He sometimes said that he might forget a man but never a horse, and I’m sure it was true. As a child I knew all his horses through his stories including Old Washboard who had an iron mouth and a penchant for hunting wild horses and who, on spotting a herd of wild ones, took off, completely ignoring the desires of his helpless rider who willy-nilly accompanied him on a mad chase, leaping gullies and plunging down almost vertical cliffs with wild abandon. Fearing that someday Old Washboard would tackle a cliff he couldn’t handle–“the only horse that ever scared me spitless,” my father would say–he chickened out and sold him to a gullible passerby; just as innumerable owners had surely done before.
It was not until my father was in his forties and the owner of a small horse ranch in Wyoming that he was contacted by his father. Warmly received by his father’s second family in California, he decided to relocate there. And it was there that he met Dessa Jepson, a thirty-five-year-old spinster schoolteacher, a cousin of his stepmother.
The Jepsons were Quakers. They had lived for many generations in Maine, the first Jepson arriving there in 1720, but in the 1870s several branches of the family moved west. My mother was born in California, the youngest of six children. Several years younger than her nearest sibling, she was born when her parents were middle-aged, and on the death of her mother she became her father’s housekeeper and companion.
I never knew my grandfather, Isaiah Clarkson Jepson, but he must have been a complicated and determined man. A farmer who had tried photography and teaching and who loved poetry, he doted on Dessa, his youngest daughter, and effectively discouraged her early suitors. She became a schoolteacher, attending UCLA when it was still Los Angeles Normal School, and devoted herself to teaching and to her father. His death when she was in her early thirties left her rudderless and she suffered what she later referred to as a nervous breakdown. On recovering she returned to work and was teaching in Yorba Linda, California when she met my father. It was a romance right out of Zane Grey–the bachelor rancher meets the lonely schoolteacher.
My parents were living in Lemoore, California when my older sister, Elisabeth, and I were born, my father having accepted what he thought of as a temporary job until he could get back to ranching. But the Depression deepened and, to support his growing family, he continued at a job he hated. It was after he was transferred to Ventura, California that my younger sister, Ruth, was born.
Like my father, my mother was a storyteller. Like his, her stories were true accounts of past events. Mother’s childhood was always very close to her and she had a tremendous memory for detail. She made the people and events of rural California at the turn of the century as real to me as were those of my own childhood in the 1930s.
Zilpha (in wagon) as princess with Elisabeth as attendant about 1933
So I came by my storytelling instincts honestly but, as soon became apparent, their acquisition was all that was honest about them. It wasn’t exactly that I was a liar. I don’t think I told any more of the usual lies of childhood–those meant to get you out of trouble or get someone else into it–than most children. It was just that when I had something to tell I had an irresistible urge to make it worth telling, and without the rich and rather lengthy past that my parents had to draw on, I was forced to rely on the one commodity of which I had an adequate supply–imagination. Sometimes when I began an account of something I had heard or witnessed my mother would sigh deeply and say, “Just tell it. Don’t embroider it.”
At the age of eight I became, in my own eyes at least, a writer. I sometimes say that I decided on a writing career as soon as it dawned on me that there were people whose life’s work consisted of making up stories. Up until then my tendency to “make things up” was one of the things that came to mind when I repeated that phrase about “trespasses” in our nightly prayers. The idea that there were people who were paid, even praised, for such activities was intriguing. I began as most children do with poems and very short stories, and I was fortunate to have a fourth-grade teacher who took an interest in what I was doing. She collected my works, typed them, and bound them into a book. I loved it–and her.
This early opus, while showing no great originality of thought or unique turns of phrase, does seem to exhibit a certain feeling for the rhythm and flow of words. The following excerpt owed its subject matter to a “social studies project” on China.
THE WATER BUFFALO Did you ever see a water buffalo, Slowly around a rice field go, Dragging a plow at every step? To plow a rice field takes lots of pep, So when the buffalo's work is done He goes down to the river to have some fun. He wallows down where the mud is deep, And shuts his eyes and goes to sleep.
My memories of my first five years of school are pleasant ones. I was a good student, although my abilities were decidedly lopsided. I could memorize a poem in a flash, but the result of multiplying seven times eight eluded me for months, until my mother printed this slippery bit of information on a card and pinned it to the wall in front of the kitchen sink where I was forced to stare at it every evening while doing the dishes. It worked, I guess. I’m not sure whether my hatred of doing dishes spilled over onto the multiplication tables or vice versa, but I’m still not particularly fond of either.
Although there were times when I would have gladly traded my proficiency in reading and writing for a little skill at something that really mattered to my contemporaries such as running races or catching fly balls, I had few problems in the small country schools I attended until the end of sixth grade. But then came the seventh grade in the big city of Ventura. Too young for my grade, having been advanced by a firstgrade teacher who didn’t know what to do with me while she was teaching reading, and further handicapped by being raised by a mother who hadn’t really faced up to the twentieth century, I was suddenly a terrible misfit. Still wearing long curls and playing secret games, I was too intimidated to make an effort to relate to girls who wore makeup and danced with boys. So I retreated further into books and daydreams.
Books! Books were the window from which I looked out of a rather meager and decidedly narrow room, onto a rich and wonderful universe. I loved the look and feel of them, even the smell. I’m still a book sniffer. That evocative mixture of paper and ink and glue and dust never fails to bring back the twinge of excitement that came with the opening of a new book. Libraries were treasure houses. I always entered them with a slight thrill of disbelief that all their endless riches were mine for the borrowing. And librarians I approached with reverent awe–guardians of the temple, keepers of the golden treasure.
It has occurred to me to wonder if I might not have faced up to life sooner if I had been deprived of books. (I know my father worried sometimes about the amount of time I spent reading. My father, not my mother. Her first priority was that we were safely and virtuously at home, with a book or without one.) Lacking a refuge in books, would I have been forced to confront my social inadequacies and set myself to learning the skills that would have made me acceptable to my peers? Perhaps. But then I wonder if it would really have been a fair trade. Would dances and parties and inexpert kisses by pimply contemporaries have made me happier than did Mr. Rochester, Heathcliff, the Knights of the Round Table and the many other heroes and heroic villains with whom I was intermittently in love? Who’s to say? In any event, I went on reading–and suffering–the daily agony of the pre-teen outcast.
Beyond my personal world of home and school and books and dreams, the Depression deepened. Although my father never lost his job, his salary was cut and cut again until he was finally unable to cover the mortgage payments and it was only the New Deal’s mortgage relief legislation that enabled us to keep our home. Like so many other families, we lived constantly under that sword of Damocles called the “pink slip.” My sisters and I, as well as many of our friends, knew about the slip of pink paper which might at any time be included in our father’s pay envelope, and we knew that the result would be the disgrace of “relief lines” and perhaps actual hunger. Sometimes as I walked past the “Okie Camp” that had sprung up on a neighbor’s vacant land–trying to pretend I wasn’t staring at the cardboard shanties, broken down cars and ragged dirty children–I fantasized that I belonged there; that I would turn in on the dirt road and as I approached the first crumbling shanty I would see my mother in the doorway. It was a game that both intrigued and terrified me.
As the first decade of my life ended, the times slowly began to get better. The Okie camps disappeared, people who had been laid off went back to work and salaries began to rise. And then one day when we turned into our driveway after a Sunday morning at church, a neighbor ran to meet us. The Japanese, she said, had attacked Pearl Harbor.
I was in my early teens during the war and I would like to report that I thought deeply about the issues involved and the terrible suffering that was going on around the world–but it wouldn’t be true. In spite of the fact that a Japanese sub once shelled an empty field not far from where we lived, and we had occasional air raid drills in our class-rooms, the war seemed distant and almost unreal. I wrote a few sentimental war poems and went on reading and dreaming. Years later when I visited Anne Frank’s apartment in Amsterdam and saw the pictures of movie stars on her bedroom walls, familiar Hollywood faces of the forties–treasured by teenage girls in California as well as those in hiding in Amsterdam–I was deeply shaken. I cried not only with grief for Anne but with shame that I had known and cared so little.
By the time I was in high school my social skills had begun to improve, and I became a little less afraid of my peers. I had some good teachers and made some exciting new friends, such as Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson.
Zilpha, late 40’s
And college was wonderful. At Whittier College, a small private liberal arts school in Southern California, originally established by Quakers, I grew physically and socially as well as intellectually. I discovered contemporary authors, politics, social injustice, psychology–and boys; men, actually, as the time was the late forties and campuses were full of returned servicemen. It was a good time to be in college. I learned a lot at Whittier: facts, ideas, and essences. Many of the facts have faded, as elusive as seven times eight, but I remember that Whittier taught me how little I knew; a startling concept to any new high school graduate. And even more important–how little anyone knew. Until then I had been satisfied that all possible knowledge was pretty much in hand, and as a student my only job would be to commit it to memory. What a thrill to realize that a lot of so-called facts were actually still up for grabs, and that decision-making was a part of learning.
And one more thing I owe to Whittier–my husband, Larry Snyder. We met first in the Campus Inn where we both waited on tables, and when I first saw him he was playing the piano. Six-foot-five with curly black hair and blue eyes, Larry was a music major who was also an athlete, a charismatic extrovert who was–and still is–a natural scholar, and a small- town boy who was born with a Ulysses-like yearning for new horizons. I liked him a lot. I still do.
But I was planning to be a writer. I wanted to live in New York City, in an attic apartment, and write serious novels for serious people. It’s a good thing I didn’t try it. At barely twenty-one with a new college degree, I had a sketchy instinct for self-preservation and all the sophistication of a cocker spaniel puppy. New York City would have eaten me alive, and that’s without even trying to guess what New York editors would have done to me. The pages that have survived from the period suggest that as a writer I still had the lively imagination of my childhood and some feeling for the sound and sweep of a sentence. But style, theme, subject matter, and even handwriting (I still didn’t own a typewriter) have a pronounced aura of puppy.
Facing up to the fact that I didn’t even have the money for a ticket to New York City, I decided to be practical. So, “temporarily until I got back to ranching,” I took another job–I decided to teach school. Only I was more fortunate than my poor dear father. I didn’t hate my temporary job. In fact, I liked it a lot. After the first year, which was a bit traumatic until I stopped being surprised when I told the class to do something and they did it, I developed into what must have been a pretty good teacher. I taught in the upper elementary grades for a total of nine years, three of them as a master teacher for the University of California at Berkeley, during which time my classroom was almost constantly being observed by teachers in training. I found teaching to be as rewarding as it was demanding, and I would probably still be at it if I hadn’t been lucky enough to have my dream-ranch become a reality when my first book was published–but that was later. And I also decided to accept Larry’s offer of marriage, which was probably the best decision I ever made.
Zilpha and Larry Snyder, June 18, 1950
Larry and I were married in June of 1950, and the next ten years flew by. They were happy years for the most part, although I sometimes think that if they hadn’t been I might not have had time to notice. During that time Larry was in graduate school at Eastman School of Music; taught for one year at Eastern Washington College in Cheney, Washington; and then, because of the Korean War, was in the air force in Texas, New York and Alaska, before returning to graduate school at UC Berkeley. In that period we moved fifteen times, I taught school in New York, Washington, Alaska and California, and we had three children. Our first child was born by emergency caesarian section in 1952 and died two days after his birth. Our daughter, Susan Melissa, was born in 1954 in Rome, New York and our son Douglas in Alaska in 1956. There were no further additions to our family until 1966 when our foster son, Ben, came to live with us. Ben was born in Kowloon, China and when he became a part of our family he was eleven years old and spoke no English. Three years later he was the valedictorian of his eighth- grade class. Ben is like that.
In the early sixties the dust began to settle a bit. Larry was out of school and teaching at the College of Marin north of San Francisco, and the children were in school, Doug, the youngest, in kindergarten. I was still teaching but there seemed to be a bit more time and I caught my breath and thought about writing. Writing for children hadn’t occurred to me when I was younger, but nine years of teaching in the upper elementary grades had given me a deep appreciation of the gifts and graces that are specific to individuals with ten or eleven years of experience as human beings. It is, I think, a magical time–when so much has been learned, but not yet enough to entirely extinguish the magical reach and freedom of early childhood. Remembering a dream I’d had when I was twelve years old about some strange and wonderful horses, I sat down and began to write.
Now comes the hard part. I’ve always maintained that I would never write an autobiography. To me, writing anything other than fiction is a chore. Take away the marvelous incentive of a world yours-for-the-making, and the joy dies. Thus, I once answered when asked if I would write an autobiography, by saying, “Not unless they’d let me make it up as I went along.”
But then I weakened and accepted the invitation to participate in the Something about the Author Autobiography Series, and up to this point I’ve found, to my surprise, that I’ve enjoyed it a great deal. But from here on it won’t be so easy.
My husband says that all authors’ autobiographies should be entitled “And Then I Wrote”. This, of course, has put me on my mettle to avoid, not only that phrase, but also anything even remotely resembling it while, at the same time, covering thirty-eight books and a computer game. After considerable though, I’ve decided to rely on the appended bibliography to provide chronology, while I deal with my years as a writer in a less structured way.
One of the questions most often asked of a writer concerns how he or she managed the giant step between being “would be” and “published.” Everyone has heard about the difficulties involved in selling a first book; the closets full of unpublished manuscripts, and walls papered with rejection slips. I’ve been known to answer such questions by blandly announcing that I sold my first manuscript to the first publisher I sent it to. It’s the truth, but not unfortunately, the whole truth; and I always go on to explain the less glorious particulars. But once when I made the initial pronouncement in a gathering of writers and before I could qualify it, someone said quite just)fiably, “Stand back, everyone. I’m going to shoot her.”
The truth is that I did send my first attempt to write for young people to Atheneum and it was, indeed, published there some time later. The other part of the story is what happened in between.
I was still teaching school that year and I began to write at night after a day in the classroom. I was a lousy typist and at that time I was completely unable to compose at the typewriter, so I wrote on a tablet, and my husband, whose fingers move almost as well on a typewriter as they do on the piano, typed it for me. Later, when the book was accepted, he bought me an electric typewriter and told me to get busy and learn to type as he didn’t intend to make a profession of typing manuscripts.
I didn’t exactly pick Atheneum because it was at the beginning of the alphabet, but it was nearly that arbitrary. It was recommended to me by our school librarian as a house that had recently published some good fantasies. But what I received when I mailed in my manuscript–“over the transom,” no agent, no introduction–was neither the rejection slip I fully expected, nor the enthusiastic acceptance of which I’d occasionally allowed myself to daydream. What I received was a long letter, two full pages, telling me what was wrong with my story. It was only at the very end that the editor, Jean Karl, stated that if I were going to be working on it some more she would like to see it again. I remember telling my husband that either she was slightly interested or I had just received the world’s longest rejection slip.
Of course I was going to be working on it some more. It never occurred to me to reply, “Who the hell are you?” as one well-known author is reported to have done when an editor asked for changes in his first manuscript. It was my first attempt to write for young people, and almost the only writing I had done for ten years. I knew I had lots to learn and I was delighted that someone was willing to help.
My first version of Season of Ponies was, among other failings, much too short to be a book for the age level towards which it was aimed. Jean liked the ending but wanted me to lengthen and strengthen the body of the story. I did, and she liked it better, but still there were problems. It was after the third complete rewriting that the book was accepted, and I became a published writer.
Being published, I found, makes a difference. It makes a difference to all writers, but there are, I think, differences specific to the writer who is also a wife and mother. Almost no one feels called upon to honor the working hours of an unpublished wife and mother who insists on wasting large chunks of time in front of a typewriter. But once she is published, friends are somewhat more hesitant about calling up for long midmorning chats, and recruiters for the United Fund, the PTA and Faculty Wives are a little less inclined to put her on the “readily available” list.
Susan Melissa, 6, and Doug, 4 in 1960
Within my own family, however, being published made very little difference. Larry had always been encouraging and supportive, and he continued to be. And my mother, who often lived with us, continued to bring her reading or mending into my room. “Just for the company, I won’t say a word.” She would say, “Go right on with your writing.” And I would try to, knowing that she was lonely and watching for the slightest sign that my attention was wavering and that I was, therefore, fair game. And, of course, published or unpublished, I was always fair game to the children. Rules concerning an off-limits area in the general vicinity of my typewriter during certain hours of the day were impossible to enforce in the face of such major crises as the need for financing an ice cream purchasing expedition, or the mysterious and momentous disappearance of a baseball, roller-skate, sneaker, or any one of numerous pets, including cats, dogs, hamsters, rats, snakes and one very large, very green iguana. The demand for my expertise as a pet finder was especially pressing when the snakes or iguana were involved, since grandmothers and other guests objected to coming across them suddenly in unexpected places.
But children do go to school, and after I stopped teaching there were the blessedly quiet hours of the school day in which to write, and the list of my published books began to grow, usually at the rate of one a year.
Ben, Wotan and Doug, 1967
My second book evolved from the remains of a manuscript written when I was nineteen years old, a novel for adults set in a fictional town in Ventura County during the Depression. The story, lustily begun, had run into plotting problems and had dwindled off in midsentence on about the forty-fifth page, but the setting and a few of the characters still intrigued me. Knocking a dozen years off the ages of the central characters I began the book again and the result was The Veluet Room.
I had not been a published writer for long when I discovered a new threat to my precious time at the typewriter, one which I had not counted on. I began to get invitations to speak or lecture. Many were requests that I speak in classrooms, and these, except for the loss of writing time involved, were never any problem. I was accustomed to the classroom situation, I enjoy interacting with children, and it was a thrill to learn about their reactions to my books. But a request that I speak to an adult group was a different matter. I accepted the first one because I was asked eight months ahead of time and I didn’t think they’d believe me if I said I’d already booked the date. And then it was such a long time away–perhaps the world would come to an end, or some other fortuitous circumstance would prevent me from having to face up to my commitment. But the day did arrive, preceded by many sleepless nights during which I lay awake wondering what my hosts would do when I collapsed in a dead faint at the podium. But both I and my audience of several hundred librarians managed to survive that one, the requests continued to come, and my terror when facing large bodies of librarians, teachers or writers, gradually diminished.
The Egypt Game was my fourth book, and a good one to look at as an example of the complexity of the only possible answer to a simple, and very commonly asked question; “Where do you get your ideas?” Children ask it poised on tiptoe, ready to run off and get some of their own, and adults suspiciously, as if expecting one to either: 1) Admit to having personally experienced every event described in one’s body of work, or 2) Own up to hereditary insanity. The only answer to the question is “everywhere,” and without meaning to be facetious, because in any one book the idea roots are many and varied; some of them easily followed while others are fainter and more mysterious.
For example, the beginning seeds of The Egypt Game were sown during my early childhood, as is true of a great many of my books. A fifth grade project on ancient Egypt started me on my “Egyptian period,” a school year in which I read, dreamed and played Egyptian. But my dream of Egypt was private and it was my daughter, many years later, who actually played a game very like the one in the story, after I had turned her on to the fascinating game possibilities of a culture that includes pyramids, mummies, hieroglyphic writing and an intriguing array of gods and goddesses. However, the actual setting and all six of the main characters came from my years as a teacher in Berkeley. The neighborhood described in the story, the ethnic mix in the classroom, as well as the murder, were all taken from realities of our years in Berkeley. So, as I tell children who ask me if I ever write “true” stories, all of my stories have bits-and-pieces of truth–true events, true people, true facts, as well as true memories and even true dreams (the real sound-asleep kind). But the fun comes from what goes on in-between and around and over the bits-and-pieces, tying them together and making them into a story. The inbetween substance is woven of imagination and that is what makes fiction fascinating, to write as well as to read.
And then there is another element, a mysterious idea source which, it seems, many writers tap from time to time, and its unexpected and unpredictable gifts provide some of the most exciting and rewarding moments in writing. One might call such exciting moments a lateral thinking breakthrough, serendipity, the light-bulb syndrome, or just sudden inspiration; an inspiration that seems to come from nowhere and to have no known roots. Whatever you call it, it’s the kind of thing that makes you look up from the keyboard and say, “Hey. Thanks a lot.”
The Egypt Game came out in 1967. We were still living in Marin County while across the bay to the east, Berkeley was leading the way in a world-wide explosion of protest. To the south, in San Francisco, the Flower Children were painting gracious old Haight Ashbury Victorians purple and living on love and LSD. And, in our own neighborhood, Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus was parked not three blocks away and Janis Joplin’s west coast hangout was just up the street. Larry and I marched in anti-war parades but otherwise mostly watched in wonder from the sidelines while lifestyles changed, traditions crumbled, and protest, drugs and violence became a part of American life– and our children entered their teenage years. It was not an easy time to be a parent or a writer of books for young people. Eyes in the Fishbowl, The Changeling, The Headless Cupid, and The Witches of Worm came from those years.
Zilpha in France, 1968
Also during those years Larry became Dean of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and we began to make almost yearly trips to Europe. In 1970 we spent a month touring France with our three children, who were sixteen, fifteen and thirteen at the time. Melissa chose the day we arrived in France to announce that she had just become a strict vegetarian; Ben, who had been working hard at being a typical American teenager, perfected an admirably authentic teenage griping technique; and Doug showed little interest in French culture other than patisseries, pigeons and stray cats. With the five of us cooped up together daily in a small rental car, Larry and I came to the conclusion that early teenagers, like fine wines, do not travel well. It was not until some years later that all three of them began to tell us how much they enjoyed that summer in France and how much it had meant to them.
In 1971 Larry took a position at Sonoma State University in Sonoma County and we moved to a one hundred-year-old farmhouse in the country near Santa Rosa, California. Larry was anxious to get out of administration and back into music and teaching and we wanted to get our children into a quieter, more rural atmosphere. We were also eager to own horses, a goal that was quickly accomplished after the move. I was out horse shopping almost before we were unpacked.
In our old house, mysteriously like the one I’d described in The Headless Cupid, I finished The Witches of Worm, The Princess and the Giants, The Truth about Stone Hollow and the three books of the Green-sky Trilogy.
Like so many of my books, the trilogy’s deepest root goes back to my early childhood when I played a game that involved crossing a grove of oak trees by climbing from tree to tree, because something incredibly dangerous lived “below the root.” Years later when I was writing The Changeling I recalled the game, and in the course of embellishing it for that story, became intrigued with the idea of returning to the world of Green- sky for a longer stay. The return trip took three years and produced three more books. Initially published in 1975, 1976, and 1978, the trilogy was later reincarnated as a computer game (published by Spinnaker Software of Cambridge, MA).
The computer game transpired when I was contacted by a young computer programmer named Dale Disharoon. After Dale introduced me to the world of computer games, I wrote and charted, Dale programmed, and a young artist named Bill Groetzinger made marvelous graphics for a game that takes off from where the third book of the trilogy ends.
Zilpha and Larry at a party celebrating the 100th year of their house, 1977
In 1977-78, with our children grown and away from home, Larry and I spent his first sabbatical year in Europe. Larry, who is quite fluent in Russian and had done much of his graduate work on Russian music, had for some years been leading a UC Berkeley Extension tour to the Soviet Union during the summers. For his sabbatical project we traveled for seven weeks in Russia, the Baltic Republics, Poland and Czechoslovakia while he did research on contemporary music. It was an incredible trip, sometimes uncomfortable and often a bit dismaying, but never less than fascinating, and very productive in terms of Larry’s project.
When we finally reached Italy we were ready to settle down, which we did for four months in a lovely villa in the Tuscan countryside between Florence and Siena. During that time we alternated trips around Italy with long days of work, in which Larry compiled his collected data and practiced the piano, and I finished a novel for adults, Heirs of Darkness, and began a children’s book set in Italy (a sequel to The Headless Cupid entitled The Famous Stanley Kidnapping Case). “Just like Chopin and Georges Sand,” Alton Raible, who has illustrated many of my books, wrote, and then added, “Without all the coughing and spitting, I hope.” Our villa was part of a complex of rental units constructed from a country manor house and outlying farm buildings, and among the residents were writers, artists and academics from various countries. It was an environment molto simpatico and friendships we made there have been important and lasting.
Zilpha and Larry and a camel named Moses, 1985
On returning to Sonoma County I began work on a novel for young adults. It was a story concerning a teenage boy and a magnificent buck deer, and when I began to write I had in mind a fantasy about mythical animals. But A Fabulous Creature turned out to be one of those novels that seem to take over and direct their own development and I soon found I was writing a story that was quite realistic and that had a bit to say about one of my pet antipathies–the whole mystique of hunting. As had happened many times before, I suddenly said, “Oh, so that’s what I’m writing about.”
That backdoor approach to themes or “messages” has been a part of the scene for me since my first book, when I thought I was basing my story’s antagonist on Greek mythology and only discovered after-the-fact that I’d been writing about someone I once knew–and feared; and my unconscious theme concerned the evil that arises when selfish and insensitive use is made of a naturally dominant personality.
It worried me for a while, this rather haphazard approach to thematic material, and now and then I tried it the other way, starting a few stories with the intention of addressing a given problem. But it never turned out well. Plots went lame and characters turned into caricatures. After a while I decided that, for me at least, “messages” were best left to their own devices. I would mind my own business, which was to tell a good story and let “messages” take care of themselves. They could, and would, I found, and in more subtle and interesting ways than when marshaled by my conscious mind. A case in point were some books of mine that were endorsed by NOW (the National Organization for Women). The stories in question had been written before my own consciousness had risen very far, and I’d not set out to say anything in particular about liberation or equality. But the message–that little girls can be vital and original and courageous people–found an appropriate opening, and there it was. Or when Heirs of Darkness, which I’d set out to write as a straightforward, one-dimensional Gothic horror story (not for children) turned into an exploration of guilt, and its relationship to the passive/masochistic personality.
As the eighties began we were still living in Sonoma County. Larry had been lured back into administration serving as Dean of Humanities and then of the School of Performing Arts at Sonoma State University–and the pendulum of American Youth Culture had begun a dramatic swing. Liberal arts departments were shrinking, while business management and computer sciences burgeoned. Watching this new breed of hardworking, practical young people, it suddenly occurred to me that some of the present teenagers, were undoubtedly the offspring of the Flower-Child generation. And the next step was to wonder where teenage rebellion might take a child who had grown up in the hippie milieu. The result was another young adult novel, The Birds of Summer.
Blair’s Nightmare, a third book about the Stanley family and The Changing Maze ,a picture book fantasy illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak, were published by 1985, while Larry and I were again living for a year in Florence, Italy while he served as the director of the California State Universities’ Foreign Study Program. Among the side trips we were able to make that year was a nine day exploration of Egypt, a destination that had been high on my must-see list since I used to walk to school as Queen Nefertiti when I was ten years old.
Following our return to the states, Delacorte Press published And Condors Danced, a story set at the time and place of my mother’s childhood in rural Southern California. In the next few years, Squeak Saves the Day, a fantasy about tiny forest people, was followed by Janie’s Private Eyes, a fourth book in the Stanley Family Series. Libby on Wednesday, a story inspired by the many talented aspiring young writers I have been privileged to meet, came out in 1990. And in 1991 there was Song of the Gargoyle, a story which relates the adventures of a thirteen year old boy and the mysterious beast who becomes his constant companion. Set as it is in the Middle Ages, this book required a great deal of fascinating research, including the exploration of real castles in Europe. Fool’s Gold, a contemporary story set in the picturesque gold rush country of California, tells the story of fourteen-year-old Rudy, whose social aplomb contrasts strangely with the mysterious attacks of abject terror that have begun to torment him. And in November of 1994, Cat Running was published. Cat’s story again evoked childhood memories of the Great Depression and of what it meant to the children of the nineteen thirties. The Trespassers, 1995, is set in the Big Sur country on the California coast and involves a brother and sister who discover the secrets of a deserted mansion. In 1996 a series of slightly shorter novels center around the exploits and adventures of a group of kids who live around a cul-de-sac called Castle Court. The four Castle Court Kids titles are: The Diamond War, The Box and the Bone, Ghost Invasion and Secret Weapons. In 1997, after many requests, pleas and demands from readers for a sequel to The Egypt Game, I finally got around to The Gypsy Game, which begins with Malanie’s answer to April’s question, “What do you know about Gypsies?” March of 1998 saw the publication of Gib Rides Home, a story inspired by my father’s tragic childhood and his later life as a cowboy and trainer of horses. In 1999, The Runaways was published. This story, set in a tiny town in the high desert, centers around the plans of three young would-be runaways. These widely diverse adventurers include Dani, who is determined to escape the desert in order to return to the beautiful redwood country from which she came; Stormy, a dyslexiac whose lack of reading ability does nothing to discourage his love of stories, and the books which provide them; and Pixie, a fearless follower of uninhibited fantasy.
As we approach the new century Larry and I continue to enrich our lives by travels which, in the last dozen years have included Japan, China, Thailand, Singapore, Java, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, as well as and many countries in South America. In April, 1998 we were in India and Nepal, and in May, 1999, Israel and Jordan.
So there it is, the story of my life and work, and while sticking to the facts wasn’t easy, or nearly as much fun as fiction, I’ve faithfully done so. “See Mom, no embroidering.” But before I sign off there’s just one more question I’d like to address. And that is–why?
Once, some years ago during the question and answer period after a lecture, a man asked me why I wrote for children. “Do you do it for the pocket book, or just for the ego?” was the way he put it. He didn’t give me any other choices, but there is another answer. The ego and the pocket book are affected, of course, at least minimally; much of the time only too minimally. But the maximum reward is simply–joy; the storyteller’s joy in creating a story and sharing it with an audience.
So I write for joy, my own and my imagined audience’s–but why for children? Unlike many writers who say that they are not aware of a particular audience as they write, I know that I am very conscious of mine. Sometimes I can almost see them, and they look very much like the classes I taught, and often read to. And, like those classes when the story was going well, they are wide-eyed and openmouthed, rapt in the story and carried out of the constraining walls of reality into the spacious joys of the imagination.
I began to write for children by accident, through the fortunate accident of nine years in the classroom. But I’ve continued to do so because over the years I’ve come to realize that it’s where I’m happiest. It is, I think, a matter of personal development (or lack of it, as the case may be). There are several peculiarities that I share with children which, like having no front teeth, are perhaps more acceptable in the very young, but which, for better or worse, seem to be a part of my makeup.
First of all, there is optimism. Since growth and hope are almost synonymous no one begrudges a child’s natural optimism, but a writer’s is another matter. It’s not fashionable to write optimistically for adults, nor I must admit, even very sensible, given the world we live in today. But my own optimism seems to be organic, perhaps due to “a bad memory and a good digestion” (a quote that I can’t attribute due to the aforementioned failing).
Secondly, there is curiosity. Mine is as intense as a three-year-old’s, but where a three-year-old’s most obnoxious trait might be asking “Why” several hundred times a day, I am given to eavesdropping on conversations, peering into backyards and lighted windows, and even reading other people’s mail if I get a chance.
And thirdly there is a certain lack of reverence for factual limitations and a tendency to launch out into the far reaches of possibility.
So I enjoy writing for an audience that shares my optimism, curiosity and freewheeling imagination. I intend to go on writing for some time, and though I may occasionally try something for adults, I will always come back to children’s books, where I am happiest and most at home.