Again this year, most sessions of Spalding’s Festival of Contemporary Writing will feature combinations of diverse forms of the written word. For example, Luke Wallin — whose many books include “Conservation Writing,” and who has taught fiction, creative nonfiction and writing for children and young adults at Spalding — will be reading his short story “Monster,” following a playwright and preceding a poet as one of six offerings this Saturday evening.
One of the highlights of the week is sure to be the appearance by author Patricia MacLachlan, whose list of noteworthy books includes the children’s classic “Sarah, Plain and Tall.” Her reading will be Wednesday, Nov. 18, at 4 p.m. LEO recently had the opportunity to speak with MacLachlan, who took the call in her writing office (“it’s the biggest mess you’ve ever seen in your life”) while awaiting news on the birth of a grandchild.
LEO: “Sarah, Plain & Tall” is part of a series. At what point did you know there’d be more than one book?
Patricia MacLachlan: That’s Glenn Close’s fault. I blame her entirely. She recorded the audiobook for “Sarah,” and there were people asking me to do movies. I said to her, “Why don’t you do it?” She said she was busy with something else — but I said, “I’ll wait for you,” which was very smart of me. Then she said, “Let’s do a trilogy. You can write more, right?”
LEO: When you’ve written about the characters before, is it a different process to start a new book?
PM: I don’t have a view of an entire book when I begin a book. I just begin with characters. And so, I’m a participant in the book. That’s what makes it kind of risky and dangerous — I don’t really have full control for a long time.
LEO: Writing for children — has it changed in recent years?
PM: The economy has changed publishing a bit. I tend to write softer, more cerebral, episodic books — because that’s how I tend to think of life. And so I’m not high on plot. I think the bottom line in publishing has made certain kinds of books — that are softer — less viable. And so I’d hate to be starting out today, writing the kind of books I write.
However, I always felt that writing for children was harder than writing for adults in that there are many layers: There are things for the children in them, and there are things for the adults. So, you can read “Charlotte’s Web,” and there’s something for a 4-year-old, something for a 12-year-old, and something for a 90-year-old. That’s the challenge of writing children’s books.
LEO: Spalding’s festival will have students and authors in various phases of their careers. You’re a person who’s mastered the craft — what do you get out of that kind of event?
PM: I like to talk to writers who want to write for the same reason I like to talk to children who are writing in class. We’re all basically at the same spot: We have a blank page in front of us every time we begin. Children are always amazed. They think we’re so smart, we writers who get published. They think that we get it right the first time. I have to take them my many drafts to show them. I have my teachers — editors — who encourage me to write over and over.