Interview with Award-Winning Author Phoebe Stone
Get to know Phoebe…
Phoebe Stone is the author of six novels, some of them sleeper hit best sellers. The Boy on Cinnamon Street received four starred reviews and is currently on the Vermont Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award List and The Pennsylvania Keystone To Reading Book Award List. The Romeo and Juliet Code was a Boston Globe Top Ten Best Children’s Books of the Year 2011 and included in National Public Radio’s Best Books of the Year 2011. And in a starred review, Hornbook Magazine recently called her latest book, Romeo Blue, the best kind of sequel. Phoebe lives with her husband in Middlebury, Vermont where she paints in her spare time and when it’s warm out rides her bicycle everywhere, letting her hair fly around in the wind. For more info, visit her website.
What’s your idea of an ideal day?
When I was doing research for my newest book Romeo Blue. My husband and I went to Maine where the book takes place. We stayed in a remote rustic inn on the ocean and we played 1940s music in our car as we drove to various museums and historic houses and beaches and cliff walks. We spent days riding our bicycles around Portland and talking with people who had lived there during World War II. Then we would have dinner in a great place on the water that served local fish and local corn on the cob. Finally we drove back to the Inn and fell asleep listening to the ocean crashing right outside our window. Those are my favorite kinds of days. And those days inspired me and helped me absorb the flavor of Maine and the coast and I learned so much about how it felt to live there during World War II.
Have you been told you look like someone famous?
Yes, people used to say I looked like Cher. But then she got a nose job. So I look the way she looked before she got a nose job and she looks how I would look if I ever get a nose job, which I won’t. I like my nose.
If you were to get a tattoo, what would it be?
Oh I suppose I would get a lily. A lily might be really pretty in a tattoo. I like to garden and I paint bouquets a lot. I like flowers and I use them in my novels in various ways, like the field of red tulips in the end of “Deep Down Popular,” or the wild roses on the coast in Romeo Blue.
What has been one of your most interesting jobs?
I once owned a shop on Main Street. It carried vintage clothing and jewelry and also handmade clothing designed by me. I ran the shop for five or six years. Everyone who came to town always stopped into my shop and bought clothing or gifts. Lots of people too would just pop in and talk so I always knew everything that was going on in town. When I finally closed the shop because I wanted to paint and write, I missed it terribly and I often dream at night that I am going to open a store again. Having that store (called “Phoebe’s) was my first success in life and it changed me forever. It gave me a sense of self worth.
If you could have any question answered, what would it be?
Well, it’s the same question everyone wants answered, WHY?
If you were to perform in the circus, what would you do?
I’d have to be the clown because I don’t have trapeze skills and I can’t do tight rope. I can’t even think about heights! Maybe I could ride an elephant and wear a sparkly dress. I do love elephants, but circuses often don’t treat elephants that well. It just kills me when animals are mistreated. One of my earlier novels deals with a mistreated circus elephant that some teenagers attempt to save…Come to think about it, I wouldn’t agree to be in the circus. I would be picketing for the elephants outside the grounds!
What is one of the scariest things you’ve ever done?
Once when I was ten-years-old, a friend of mine led me and my little sister up onto a huge ladder and crane that were set up over the ocean in a fishing harbor in England. Perhaps it was some kind of loading apparatus. We climbed way out over the deep water on this rickety thing. Suddenly I looked down at the churning green ocean far below and realized how dangerous it was. I wasn’t scared for myself but I had my five-year-old sister with me. I carefully helped her as she edged her way down the ladder. I can still remember watching her little blue sneakers as she stepped down each rung. Yikes! Let’s change the subject!
If you could bring one character to life from your favorite book, who would it be?
Well, I like Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte because he was so madly in love with Kathy but I don’t think I would want to meet him. He was quite wild and surly and unpredictable and racked with passion. So I am fine with the way he exists in the shadowy dream world. There are some writers from long ago I would love to meet in person. I think I would like to have met the writer Gustave Flaubert, six feet tall, our first modern novelist, French. He wrote Madame Bovary. He seems to have been terribly brave and very brilliant, although somewhat reclusive. I have to admit to having a bit of a crush on him so maybe I couldn’t handle meeting him after all!
What books are you reading right now?
Oh, I am reading Daphne Du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek. She’s a good writer actually, undervalued, I think. Her writing is poetic and her stories are riveting. Her sense of place is thrilling. Her main flaw was that she was popular, a best seller. In literary terms, it may take a few years to wear away that stigma!
Name someone who supported your writing journey outside of family members.
Oh, I had several wonderful teachers in high school who praised my work and empowered me. That’s what praise does; it is a direct line to power and inspiration. If it’s real and heartfelt, it works like magic. I had a teacher named George Bower in high school who was a poet and writer himself. In fact, he had been an editor at The Atlantic Monthly and for some reason ended up teaching high school English. He liked my poetry and read one of my poems aloud to the class. I will never forget that. He also introduced me to the poetry of Dylan Thomas. And read it aloud, stressing the sound and music of the words.
Was there ever a time in your writing career where you wanted to seriously give up? If so, how did you find the motivation to continue?
Oh, it happens all the time. When someone doesn’t like one of my books and says so prominently online, I just want to quit. I get so upset!! Then somebody else sends me an email and tells me how much a book of mine means to them and I get really happy. I just dance around the house. Then I go back to work. It means so much to me when my world of words reaches someone in a good way. That’s really all I am about. That’s what I live for. And I rise and fall with my readers.
What’s your favorite writing quote?
Well, someone said something about writing a little every day…a few words or a page perhaps. Wasn’t it Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird? And it’s wonderfully true…just a little bit every day and then after a few months, you have something.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Keep a journal. Listen to good literature read aloud on CDs. It helps strengthen your auditory understanding of writing. For me, the sound of prose is crucial and the rhythm and lilt of the words play a very important part. Write all the time (that’s why I suggest keeping a journal.) And read, of course. And don’t give up. Don’t criticize your work until the first draft is done…Let yourself go where ever you wish and don’t step in with harsh eyes until it’s all done and needs to be reworked. Then be the critic and editor…but for the first round, let the creator be free and unfettered. Even over the top!
What inspired you to write your first book?
I am always trying to capture the essence of my childhood. It was such an intense and magical time for me. It wasn’t always positive but it was always powerful. And I long in some ways to have that intensity back. I long to experience all the mystery and confusion and joy of life as a child again. How crisp and bright the light was and how dark were the shadows. My first novel All the Blue Moons at The Wallace Hotel was about my childhood. But then in a way all my books are about that, veiled in one form or another.
What do you think you do best in your writing? Bragging is encouraged.
Forgive me if I tell you that I like my characters. They seem to happen on their own and I can’t really take credit for them. When I am on a roll, I feel like I must just be the typist!
What books have most influenced your life?
The Bronte family and their books have had a huge impact on me. They were some writer sisters and a brother in 1800s England. They were cut off from the world, living in a house together on the moors and they had to turn inward to their imaginations and their creativity for entertainment. They remind me of my family…my mother and sisters after my father died. All of us wrote and we lived on a mountain in Vermont and were very lonely much of the time.
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Actually my latest book Romeo Blue is my favorite of all my books. I always wanted to write a book about love and war and families (fathers in particular) with a sweeping scope. And I think I managed to do it with Romeo Blue. Writing that book really quelled a great longing. I got what I wanted on paper. Some of my other books I want to change lots of things. But of course you can’t. Once it’s printed, that’s it.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing? What comes easily?
It’s always a little scary and tense writing the first draft of a novel because I don’t have a clue at first where the book is going to go. Then suddenly an ending will come to me and I’ll write it and that helps a little. But at first it’s always like walking through an unknown forest, hoping the path you took will get you home.
Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
There are so many wonderful writers around these days. I dare not pick a favorite because it changes weekly! When I finish reading a book I usually become that writer’s biggest fan…until I read another one. I like the quote “A book is only as good as its reader,” meaning that how much you get out of a book depends on how deeply and openly you read that book and how much of yourself you put into it as you read. Not long ago I was a judge for a children’s book prize and I had to read hundreds of books one summer. The thing that struck me was that they were all good. Or at least most of them. Yes, this is certainly the golden age of middle grade and YA literature!
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