Susan Patron worked for 35 years as a youth services librarian for the Los Angeles Public Library before retiring in 2007, the same year she was awarded the Newbery medal for The Higher Power of Lucky (Atheneum). She has written a trilogy of picture books (the “Billy Que” stories) and an autobiographical chapter book, Maybe Yes, Maybe No, Maybe Maybe. She lives with her husband, René, a rare book restorer, in Los Angeles. For more info, visit her website.
Let the conversation begin!
Best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Write every day. I used to think this was simply about discipline. Now I know it’s about staying connected with the story and the characters so that the fictional world becomes an extension of my being. By writing every day, I live in two worlds: the mundane one of sandwich-making and teeth-brushing and bill-paying, and the imaginative one where I apply detail after detail like tiny mouth-to-mouth breaths, hoping to bring it to life. If I fail to check in every day, I have to work hard to re-enter that realm, which gives way to despair and self-doubt, also known as writer’s block. The only way I know to avoid it is to write every day.
What one word describes you?
Reticent. I’m a very private person. This makes me, apart from occasional hard-won grace on the written page, inarticulate and self-conscious. Thus I’m poor at self-promotion and social networking.
Easiest book to write? Hardest?
Lucky for Good, the final book in the “Hard Pan” trilogy, demanded to be written. I hadn’t planned on writing a sequel, much less a trilogy. But after finishing The Higher Power of Lucky, I realized there was more to Lucky’s story: she experiences this mad, wonderful, intense friendship with another girl and very nearly wrecks her deep and longstanding relationship with her boyfriend (not boyfriend) (yet) as a result.
That was Lucky Breaks. But on finishing that, once again I felt the narrative was incomplete. I didn’t know the answers, but I sensed that some hard questions about Lucky’s life remained. It broke my heart to write some of the scenes in Lucky for Good, and tears would pour down my face at times. This book was both the hardest AND the easiest to write. Hardest because it made me take Lucky to some painful places, and easiest because the characters took over, directing the action, and all I did was pay attention and write down what they said and did as fast as I could.
Tell us about the book you’re working on.
I just finished revising Behind the Masks, a historical fiction novel for Scholastic’s “Dear America” series. This started off as a huge challenge because the series requires a first-person diary format, a historical timeframe, and I was given a 9-month deadline. I’d never written in the first person, never attempted historical fiction, and generally take about two years (now that I’m writing full-time) to complete a novel. Amazingly, once I decided on the period (1880) and setting (Bodie, California, during the height of its gold rush), the story poured out of me and was very exciting to research and to write. A most delicious character, a tiny ghost, plays a significant role, and all the characters at some point wear masks to hide their identity, their desires, their power, their true selves. This book is scheduled to be published early in 2012.
Do you begin with character or plot?
My “Hard Pan” trilogy (Atheneum) actually began with setting: The first thing I knew about the story was that it would take place in a tiny former mining town in the eastern Sierra region of California. The harsh and beautiful landscape, with its powerful social and economic effects on daily life, was for me as important as any character. Actually it was the first character.