When I picked up Moon Over Manifest, Hubby took a look at the author bio, and said, “You should interview her.” Of course, I thought, I really should. And then I put it off (sorry!) for various reasons. And then January came around, and Clare Vanderpool won the Newbery. I despaired; I’ve never interviewed anyone who’s won a big award (save Shannon Hale, but she’s awesome enough to let me interview her anyway), would Clare Vanderpool say yes?
Well, yes, busy as she is, Clare did take time out from her busy schedule to answer my questions about her book, her inspiration, and life after winning the Newbery.
MF: What inspired you to tell the stories of small-town Kansas?
CV: I’m a Kansas girl, so of course Kansas would be the first place I would look to set my story. I chose the real town of Frontenac for my fictional town of Manifest because my maternal grandparents are both from that area. What a stroke of luck that was, as Frontenac and other small towns in southeast Kansas have such a rich and colorful history that really drove the story. With the mining, bootlegging, immigrants, orphan trains, and the Spanish influenza, there was no shortage of drama and intrigue going on in southeast Kansas.
MF: Not many people think of drama when they think of Kansas, though there was quite a bit in our history. You tackled not one, but two time periods. What kind of research went into making that work, and making sure each was authentic?
CV: I did a great deal of research and loved every minute of it. I’m a very nostalgic person so poring through old newspapers, yearbooks, and magazines is a great way to while away an afternoon. I also read books on the Great Depression, World War I, the Spanish Influenza, and bootlegging along with the memoirs of a WWI soldier and the experiences of immigrants traveling through Ellis Island. I find it all interesting but the research/writing process is also interesting in figuring out which parts of the research feed the story and which ones don’t. I don’t care for a story that beats the reader over the head with the historical knowledge of the writer. For me, if it doesn’t serve the story it doesn’t go in.
MF: I agree: as a reader, it’s hard when there’s more historical information than plot. Was it hard (or not) to find the voices of your characters? Did you do anything in particular to find them? CV: The voice of the main character, Abilene Tucker, was very clear from the beginning. I knew she was a level-headed girl with her very practical list of universals – even though she does come to question those throughout the book. Some of the other characters evolved as the story went along. Shady’s voice developed quite a bit. He is a soft-spoken character and for his voice and his character to rise to the surface, I had to focus on his actions as much as his words.
MF: I know it’s hard to choose, but do you have a favorite character or scene from the book?
CV: This is a difficult question to answer. I love all the characters, even the prickly ones. I like the fact that some characters who have their flaws, have opportunities to redeem themselves. If I had to choose one favorite scene, it might be the one with Abilene, Lettie, and Ruthanne, out in the woods at night and Lettie has brought gingersnaps to share. It is in this scene that Abilene realizes that Lettie and Ruthanne know things about each other, unspoken things, through shared experience. For the first time, Abilene begins to question some of her long-held list of universals. And it ends with Lettie singing her down and out train song. The sad mixed with the sweet. I like that.
MF: Did you always intend to write for a middle grade audience, or did that just happen?
CV:Yes, I set out to write a middle grade novel. That age group just seems to be the voice and point of view I settle into.
MF: So, congratulations on winning the Newbery! That must have been quite the experience. What went through your mind when you got the call?
CV: When I got the call and realized it was the chairperson of the Newbery Committee, my heart started racing. I thought she was going to say that I had won a Newbery Honor. And I would have been thrilled. Then when she said it was the Newbery Medal, I went from thrilled to stunned and the tears started rolling. My husband happened to be home and he just stared at me wondering what was going on because a)I’m not normally a spontaneous crier and b)he had no idea the Newbery was being announced that day. I sputtered a few words of thanks but couldn’t say much. It was amazing.
MF: Amazing, indeed! How has winning the Newbery changed things (in your life, your writing, etc.)? Or has it?
CV: My professional life has changed quite a bit. I haven’t done much writing lately, but hope to get back into a routine soon. I have done many interviews and have received invitations to speak around the country. That is exciting as I plan to take my children along on a trip or two. As far as home life everything is pretty normal. We have one computer in the house and with a multitude of snow days, sick days, and assorted days off lately, I have had to beg, borrow, and steal to get time on the computer. My husband and I had a little sit down with the kids shortly after the award was announced and said our plan is to enjoy the whole experience, appreciate the gift that it is, and keep things normal at home. In other words we still shop at Target, nobody gets a cell phone until they’re in high school, and you still have to do your jobs – every week! They seem good with that.
MF: Sounds like you’ve got some good kids. Hopefully, they’ll enjoy the trips! Who or what inspires you to write?
CV: My inspiration revolves around stories. The stories I read as a kid, the stories I read now, and the stories that emerge in my head and wrap themselves around my heart. My influences as a young reader were Scott O’Dell, Madeleine L’Engle, Elizabeth George Speare. In fact, I noticed recently that those three authors won consecutive Newberies in the early 1960’s. I guess that makes them some sort of Newbery Triple Crown.
MF: I like that: the Newbery Triple Crown; I love all those authors, as well. Speaking of reading, what’s the most recent book you’ve read and loved and why?
CV: I just finished Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer Holm and loved it. There were parts that made me laugh as well as sweet, tender, and sad parts. Jennifer is a wonderful story teller and I love her sense of humor. I feel like I just spent time with Turtle and the Little Rascals.
MF: If you don’t mind me asking, what can we expect from you next?
CV: The book I’m working on is about a Kansas boy who is uprooted from his home and put in a boys boarding school in Maine. His story involves a journey, a quest really. Fortunately, I was close to finishing a draft of my current work in progress. I say fortunately, because if I hadn’t been that far along, I think it would be very difficult right now to be trying to create and flesh out the storyline. As it is, the story is clear enough in my head that I think I’ll be able to finish the draft before long and then begin the process of tinkering and editing. I would describe it as moving past the “M & M” stage (what I tend to eat when I’m staring off into space trying to figure out where the story is going) and heading into the “Buckle Down” stage which usually involves more concentration and fewer calories.
MF: Thanks, Clare, for your time!