Rebecca Stead – Inventing worlds

It’s nearly dark and it’s raining when we arrive at Random House in Pimlico, and we have to squeeze past the schoolgirls who are sheltering in the porch. They have some seriously good looking and comfortable chairs in reception. I could have sat there longer. We see agent Catherine Clarke walk past and the man fiddling with something electrical in the corner cracks a joke about it not being a bomb, before Clare from Andersen Press comes and finds us.

Rebecca Stead

I’m not really paying attention properly, so don’t realise we are being led to the office of Klaus Flugge himself. I somehow thought all of the offices were that lovely. Rebecca Stead is sitting at a table signing books as if there’s no tomorrow. Clare takes orders for tea and disappears off, leaving us pondering who should sit where. The photographer bosses us about, which is appropriate, seeing as she then sits in Klaus’s chair.

Rebecca Stead, When You Reach Me

Rebecca is concerned that we are about to video the interview, and I assure her we’re not. But I point out that I have watched a couple of online video interviews that she’s done, just to see what she’s like.

‘I can’t look at them…’

‘I thought you came across really well.’

‘I find them alienating.’ Rebecca laughs. ‘My friends say “you don’t look like yourself,” and my son said “you look weird.”’

‘You look perfectly normal and pleasant.’

‘Thank you, that means a lot.’

I admit that until a few weeks earlier I hadn’t even heard of Rebecca.

‘I was only published here a few weeks ago.’ Rebecca says she needs to get rid of the sweet she’s been sucking, and wonders aloud what is ‘classed as a garbage can?’ She runs around Klaus’s office searching, and finds a bin but she has no paper to wrap it in so gives up on that.

Clare comes in with the cake and glasses of water, introducing us to ‘the ginger cake and the marble cake and the little biscuity things.’

‘Marmite cake?’ asks the photographer.

‘What did I say?’ says Clare.

‘Marble.’

‘So yes, I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of me because I’ve been published here for the first time.’

‘So the first book was not published in Britain then?’

‘No.’

‘Will it be?’

‘Not as far as I know. Unless someone wants to snap it up? It has a couple of foreign rights sold, but not here.’

‘When You Reach Me is such a wonderful book.’

‘Thank you.’ Rebecca offers her thanks as though it’s the first time she’s been complimented on her medal winning story.

‘I really loved it, it’s great.’

‘Thank you very much.’

‘It was only after I’d read it that I realised that the television programme; that’s actually a real programme.’

‘It’s real, yeah.’

‘I thought you’d made it up.’

‘You know, I could have made it up, I guess, but I didn’t. Actually a lot of kids in the US don’t know that I didn’t make it up, because it was in the 1970s, so unless you’re a fan of the Game Show Network, which unfortunately is a channel in the US, you won’t have seen it. You can watch re-runs. My mother was a contestant on there when I was a kid so I did get to go and see it. So yeah, sometimes you just throw these incongruous things together, and you don’t know why, and that’s sort of what happened with this book. I thought I want to put these things together. I’ll just see what happens…’

‘Yes, because that competition didn’t need to be there.’

‘Yeah.’

‘It’s a nice quirky thing, the way they practise at home. And if you’ve actually been to the studio that explains how you know what happens and when. Dick Clark (the game show host) is real as well then?’

‘Dick Clark is real. He’s a sort of eternally youthful character, he’s a little bit of a joke, you know.’

‘If you saw him as a child first, he would have seemed quite old to you at the time.’

‘You’re right, when you’re a child you think people are old when they’re not. I remember thinking my sixth-grade teacher was just an old guy and I saw him again recently and I realised that when he was my teacher he was probably like 23 years old.’ She laughs. ‘He was ridiculously young, and kind of funny.’ She giggles and sips her water,  ‘I’m going to try that ginger cake.’

Andersen Press cakes

‘Yes, I’m very keen on the ginger. It’s nice.’

‘Do you think it’s all right to sit in this chair?’ the photographer asks.

‘Just mind the elephant.’

‘Yeah, I’ve been sitting in it,’ says Rebecca. ‘Apparently Klaus is a big Elmer fan.’

‘Oh yes, it’s Elmer, isn’t it? I gather you went to the Waterstone’s prize ceremony yesterday? We’ve just seen Candy Gourlay and she said to say hello to you.’

‘Yes, I got to meet her. It was really fun.’

‘But you didn’t win, either of you.’

Rebecca laughs.’I know, but she’s great. I liked her a lot, and I forced her to introduce me to David Fickling. I wanted to meet him.’ She laughs again.

‘David’s a character.’

‘He’s got an imprint in the US and I thought I want to meet him, so I said to her “will you introduce me to your editor?” At first he had no idea who I was. He always wears a bow-tie, is that right?’

‘Yes.’

‘I said “which one is he?” and she said “are you kidding? The one in the bow-tie.”’

Rebecca Stead

‘What does it feel like to go from being a rookie children’s author to actually winning the Newbery Medal?’

‘It feels wonderful, and yet also not different, you know, because what you’re trying to do is figure out what you’re doing next. That is something that doesn’t get easier. Life gets to be a little more fun, suddenly you’re invited to things and people say “oh I’ve heard of your book” as opposed to “oh, are you writing?” You are constantly introducing yourself, which is of course the regular publishing experience, and it’s one I think I will probably return to before very long. Which is fine, because the work of a writer is to be working and exploring and just being immersed in what it is that you’re trying to create. That path doesn’t seem to get easier. I’m working on my third now.’

‘Yes.’

‘And it’s good to clear my head and just get back to it, and say well OK, all these nice things happened but here I am again, and I’m just feeling my way the same as always. I think that’s a good thing. So the basic stuff doesn’t change at all, but I feel I know more people. I’ve gotten to travel and I went to Chicago for the first time in my life last year because of the Newbery, and that’s really wonderful. It’s beyond any dream I ever had, and there’s just this happy surprised feeling, and at the same time a recognition that it doesn’t change anything in terms of the work.’

‘No, but you’ll always have the medal.’

‘I spoke to Linda Sue Park, who wrote A Single Shard, which is a book that I love. It won the medal a while ago and she said “the best thing for me is that I get to travel, and I love to travel and it’s not something I could regularly work in, and now that can be part of my life.” She said “that will be there for you, if it’s something you want to do,” and it is. That’s kind of exciting!’

‘Have you been here before?’

‘Yes, but not for twenty years. I was here in my early twenties, and I was here for a month when I was eight. My Dad came here with his girlfriend – my parents divorced when I was really little – and my Dad had a girlfriend. She was coming here to work; it had something to do with her degree, and she had about a month’s work and so we decided we would all come. He got a flat in Camden Town, and I went to school here for a month.’

‘Cruel!’ says the photographer.

‘No, I liked it actually. I got to miss a month of school at home, and that was fun. And then I had this experience which I think is just great.’

‘If it doesn’t scare you.’

‘It wasn’t scary because I had the language, I could make friends and hang around. I remember roller skating and I didn’t have skates, and I remember a girl giving me one of hers, so we each went round with one.’ We laugh. ‘Not the most effective way to skate, but it was a nice thing to do. So that’s my earliest London experience. We went swimming and I learned to sew, and it was much more well rounded than at home.’

Rebecca Stead

‘Was your school at home similar to the one in When You Reach Me?’

‘Very similar. In fact the sixth-grade teacher in the book is based on my sixth-grade teacher, who was a really low-key understated kind of guy. At this time, especially in New York, where there’s a lot of progressive thinking about education, there was very little testing and there was lot of freedom and a lot of sitting around and saying “let’s invent worlds today,” and we’d sit around for two hours doing that. The pendulum has really swung in the opposite direction now, and I see my kids and it’s testing all the way and mini tests and preparing for tests and it’s a whole different focus and what we’ve seen is that it tends to go back and forth.’

‘Yes, it’s the same here.’

‘They were really not wealthy families, so we were the benefit of the programme called Teachers and Writers Collaborative, which is a programme that still exists. Film makers, cartoonists and writers come in to the school, they’re not teachers, so they’re not all focused on the teaching things. They’re very into the things that they do. They did projects with us, so we did film making and we put on a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at a theatre on Broadway near our school. That was a really great formative experience for me, and I think I was very lucky.’

‘You said it wasn’t a particularly rich neighbourhood, but I get the impression from the book that it was quite mixed.’

‘It was, and it continues to be although it’s a heck of a lot wealthier now. Quite gentrified, really. Then it was just a very plain, very mixed neighbourhood. There were buildings that were nicer and fancier, there’s the West End with the doorman at the building, and then there’s the other side of Broadway where I lived, which is a little more run down and it was a different feeling on the street and there was a lot more hanging out. You know, teenagers hanging out. They weren’t particularly hanging out to get you, it was just a different scene. That’s what New York is, within a very small space you have very different neighbourhoods.’

‘What I find fascinating is that the children are “allowed” to go to a school where the other “kind” also goes…’

‘That is also something that happens less now. It was very mixed. In fact it was deliberate, my school was a third African American, a third Latino and a third white. It was how the school saw itself. It was a healthy place for a kid to spend time. It was a school where children of Columbia professors went to school with kids who lived in temporary housing and that was just the way it was and the teachers expected it and ran their community that way, and it worked.’

‘And I’m fascinated by this dentist, hiding away in the school.’

‘There were kids who got medical care and dental care in the school and I remember realising “oh, that means you don’t have money.” I remember having that thought. We didn’t have a lot of money; we didn’t have a doorman or anything, but at the same time we had a separate dentist. It’s interesting as a kid where you don’t see any of that for a while, and then suddenly you think “oh!”.’

‘So you hadn’t thought that someone looked poor?’

‘No, and I didn’t really get the shame, until I saw that the kids weren’t happy about it. I didn’t know that intuitively.’

‘A bit like free school dinners here.’

‘Yeah, we have a whole school lunch thing and also breakfast. Kids who eat their breakfast at school, are different from kids who eat their breakfast at home.’

‘And they need it.’

‘Yeah, because the family could use that; the kid eating their breakfast at school and that’s something that the government provides. In New York you get breakfast at school if you want it, but not everybody will take it.’

Rebecca Stead

‘It’s like a different world, really fascinating to read about. I’m from Sweden, so my school background is different again, but because I’ve got children who have gone through the English system, you see how different it is. I think I found that the mix you describe feels much more natural to me.’

‘I just saw my grandmother – and this is such a total aside’, she laughs – over the summer. I visited my grandmother and her mother is Swedish and came to the US as a 13-year-old from Finland, where they had been living, and she kept a journal and my grandmother’s younger sister translated this journal and it’s very interesting to read. It’s so much fun to talk to her about it. I’ve only recently learned all these things because you hit an age and you think “what’s the history of this, and why don’t I know and why have I never asked?”. That’s just on being Swedish…’

‘To move on to something totally different; does Marcus (in When You Reach Me) have Asperger Syndrome, or does he just seem like that?’

‘No, I don’t identify him that way, but he definitely sees the world differently. He has an unusual perspective, but I was not trying to describe any kind of profile in particular. I think of him as very, very smart for sure, and that gives him so much to think about, that his focus is drawn away from a lot of human interaction, so he misses things. It’s not that he couldn’t get it; just that his attention is elsewhere, because he’s got a lot going on that interests him and he really is kind of isolated by it, because there is no one to talk to, or maybe no one really expects him to be talking about these things.’

‘I found him really interesting because of being just that little bit different. The other characters strike me as regular children, whatever their background.’

‘Yes, he has that spark with Julia, when he realises that she is receiving better than anyone what he is saying. She doesn’t realise that she’s getting him in a way that other people don’t, because it’s her attitude. But he sees it. I like that moment. I think of her as closer to him than anyone.’

‘I started off thinking she’s shallow and horrible, and that she wasn’t going to be very important either, but she changed. It was nice to see. That’s what makes the book special. They’re not all stereotypes, they change together.’

‘They change and Miranda realises more and more who they really are. Some of them change and some of them are just more complex than she originally takes them to be. I think it’s a stage of childhood, where you are learning to challenge your assumptions about people. You’re realising that things aren’t always what you assume them to be. People aren’t always who you assume they are, and I like that idea.’ Rebecca laughs. ‘I don’t think we can stop making assumptions, but we can be aware that we’re doing it.’

Rebecca Stead

‘Your next book, is that totally different? I get the impression the first book is quite different too.’

‘Very different, and the next one is different again. I’ve only just finished the draft. There is so much work still to do on it, but it’s a contemporary story about a boy and there is a mystery. There is more than one mystery, but there is not a fantastic element. My first book was fantasy or science fiction, depending on how you define things.’ She laughs, ‘it’s about an imagined world and within the Greenland icecap and there is climate change science. So When You Reach Me is quite realistic in most of the action except some of what you accept at the end. The next one so far hasn’t got that element.’

‘Has it got any easier, writing?’

‘Uhmm, noo, it hasn’t gotten any easier. I do have faith more, that I can make my work better. You’re inevitably disappointed by what’s on the page, because you have some idea that just seems good enough that you want to start writing it, but then when it starts getting down there on the page it’s inevitably a disappointment.’ Rebecca laughs.

‘It’s not the same.’

‘It’s not what was in here,’ she says, indicating her head, ‘and you almost feel like you’re killing it by putting it down, but what you learn is that you have to keep pushing past that stage and then learn how to lift your story up as high as you can. So now, I’m still disappointed by what’s there, but I’m better at thinking “well let’s just move on, it’s time to start pulling it up now,” so I get a little less stuck. I was talking to another writer who also happens to run marathons, and she was saying that she knows that mile nine is always terrible, it just feels awful; hopeless and hard and miserable. So far to go and you’ve come so far, and you’re hurting. She said that now she’s done it enough times, she knows that this is how mile nine feels. She was making that analogy, there is a point in novel writing that’s a lot like mile nine.’

‘Do you get to do a lot of events?’

‘Yes, and I could do more, but I have to limit it, because I have kids and the work-shaped space in my life is not big,’ she laughs ruefully, ‘and when I was JUST writing, it was big enough. You can’t write that many hours in the day, so I was the person in the morning and in the evening, and hopefully getting some food in before the kids got home, so we’d have food and hopefully get the house clean and all that stuff. If you start filling your time with events and visiting a school or travelling to London for the week, then first of all you have to get someone else to cover all that, and your kids complain. For a while it was a lot, and I said OK, this is a great thing; I need to  celebrate that these nice things happen, but then I had to say that it’s time to remember that there has to be writing going on.’

‘Yes, that’s the whole point, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah, you get kind of blue if you’re not writing and you’re walking around talking about how you are a writer but you’re not writing. You begin to have this weird disconnect like this voice “you’re not really a writer”. So I don’t do as much as I would like to do, in a world with endless time. But that’s OK. It’s not the main job.’

Rebecca Stead

‘I would guess you probably don’t find it difficult to talk in front of people? Americans seem to be good at public talking.’

She laughs, ‘you think? That’s interesting. I had to get used to it.’

‘I thought you get to do it as a school subject or something?’

‘Oh no, and in fact I was very shy in High School. I didn’t wanna raise my hand much or anything but I got over the hump. I used to not sleep before a school visit. It was horrible. That’s another good thing about the Newbery; I just got pushed way past my comfort point. I had one day in Chicago when I just sat in my hotel room crying. But getting stretched like that did leave me with some kind of “just do it”. I used to be a lawyer and I was fine, but it’s very different talking about your personal thing.’

‘I did wonder if you ever got to work in law, because I don’t think I read anything about that. Just that you trained and then there were the children.’

‘I was in practice in total for about seven years, but the last couple of those I was part time, and I shared a job with somebody else. When my younger son was born, I thought I’m going to work in a different way as a lawyer, because I was working as a public defender, which was great but kind of overwhelming. I went part time and I ended up doing a lot development work, like asking for money, and I thought I don’t want this to be my life, so a week before my youngest was born I left. I thought I’ll take six months and I’ll start looking, and instead I started writing. It was a struggle when I did; should I have a job or should I write? Luckily my husband was willing to support us. He just said to explore it, so that’s what I did.’

‘You’ve said you went out and bought a pile of children’s books, to see what they were like. Was this after your Very Serious Stories died?’

‘Yes, it was after the Very Serious Stories died, a little side thing I was working on while I was a lawyer. Yes, first I went and bought books I remembered reading as a kid. I had these memories, so I re-read some of those and my kids were so tiny I hadn’t read them novels and I hadn’t been reading children’s books. I went and bought David Almond, Jerry Spinelli and Linda Sue Park and a bunch of books that were just astonishing. I saw them in the shop and I read them and I just thought “wow!, you’re allowed to write great stuff.”  I found myself completely inspired and thought this would be a way to be joyful and also to imagine an encouraging readership.

Sometimes I’m very critical, so when you’re imagining a snarky adult audience… Kids are critical, but I think they want it to work. They’re critical if it doesn’t work because you’re letting them down, but what they would like is for it to work. I sort of imagine them pushing for you, and I think that when they read books they’re looking for good books, not to cut it down, and you can’t always say that of adults.’ She laughs. ‘Sometimes they’re happier if they can cut you down. Kids are fun to talk to, they are so smart and fun and open. I joked once that I wrote for kids and adults who are having a midlife crisis.’

‘I’ve never read A Wrinkle in Time, but I get the impression that I ought to.’

‘I wonder what you’d think of it?’

“When I interviewed Meg Rosoff she happened to mention it, and it was her favourite and she was particularly keen because she shared a name with the heroine.’

‘Oh yes, Meg.’

‘And she said they looked the same. I think she was very conscious of what she looked like, so it was exactly her kind of book.’

‘What’s great about that book, is that it’s very different. I don’t know if it’s a book you’d see published today. There are lots of abstract ideas and people are having conversations that are really “out there”, and I love that it doesn’t underestimate its readers and also it takes seriously all of that self-doubt that we feel in childhood.’

‘I’d never even heard of the author. Sometimes you know you’ve not read a book but you at least recognise the title, but there’s so much coming from America that’s totally unknown here.’

‘It’s true. I’m surprised how unknown Madeleine L’Engle is outside the US, actually, because she’s big to us. Clare told me that she’d read it the other night.’

Rebecca Stead

‘If I could have got hold of it between reading yours last week and coming here today, I would have.’

‘I hope that if you read it, you’ll like it.’

‘If it inspired When You Reach Me, and if you liked it, and Miranda liked it and my favourite author liked it, there must be something there.’

‘There’s definitely something there, for sure. She also wrote journals about her life and marriage and she lived in New York and she also liked to live in the country and she writes about those experiences. She was a really interesting woman.’

Our time with Rebecca is up, and I thank her, saying I hope she’s not feeling too tired.

‘I’m OK, I’ve just been dropping things, losing things all over London. I lost my passport at the airport. That was good…’ she says ironically.

‘Good place for it…’

‘I’m to get there at six in the morning and I should pick up this phone and say such and such and if it doesn’t work, just say that chief officer X knows about this, and it’s in the safe, and I can just see myself at six am and someone saying “what?” So I’ll just come back here and throw myself on their mercy. I hope it works, but it was a stupid thing to do. You’re not supposed to just drop your passport.’

‘At least it’s not lost.’

‘I left my coat somewhere, and I left a pen-drive, with a lot of images that I needed, somewhere else and it’s all going to be mailed back to me apparently.’ She laughs again.

After the obligatory request to have my book signed, we are led out of Random House by Clare, and I think to myself that Rebecca’s freestyle school seems to have paid off. Maybe it was all that inventing new worlds which helped her write a Newbery Medal winner.

(All photos by Helen Giles)

8 responses to “Rebecca Stead – Inventing worlds

  1. I always like to test my powers of recall after reading a good interview, which that was. So, here goes:
    Cake, cake, cake, there was a picture of cake…different types of cakes, arranged on a cake plate, yes lots of cake, cake, cake…
    I’d better go to the kitchen.

    In all seriousness, these are always great interviews with useful insights.
    Congrats to Rebecca, and as ever to BW and PW. Nice work.

  2. I can tell you didn’t read to the end, Keith! There wasn’t JUST cake.

  3. Pingback: The Rebecca Stead interview | Bookwitch

  4. What a good interview with a wonderful, smart woman, who is a great author, to boot.
    I wrote on an earlier post here that I knew Rebecca when she was about 11. I worked with her fantastic, and also smart mother, Debbie Stead, who is one of the funniest women one can ever meet. She would have us laughing so hard we thought we’d burst; she could have been a stand-up comedian.
    And occasionally, she’d bring the adorable, and charming daughter to work.
    And then Debbie left the job, and I thought about both of them once in awhile.
    And then all of a sudden I saw Rebecca’s photo–and that of her sons– with an article in the New York Times about her success in writing children’s books. And I knew exactly who she was, as she looks exactly like her mother.
    I send my best wishes to her, and hope she has further successes in writing and publishing.

  5. A charming interview. I’m emailing this to one of my friends who is a big Stead fan.

    And Kathy, what a small world it really is sometimes.

  6. I actually meant to mention your connection with Rebecca, Kathy, because I too like the small world effect of blogs. But I forgot. It was almost midnight and I was looking at all of three hours of sleep, and zzzz.

  7. Pingback: Keep believing, Keep pretending « allymalinenko

  8. I really enjoyed this interview. So glad you let Rebecca just chat away. I’m a grownup but I just finished “When You Reach Me” for a course. Fantastic book! So looking forward to reading more of her stuff.

    I especially appreciated her description of how you start writing your great idea and it’s a disappointment but you just keep on with it and make it better.

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