In 2013, I went to a literary arts festival in Portland and ended up with a new friend: Susan Hill Long. I’d taken the train down so was able to read Sue’s novel, Whistle in the Dark, on my way home. It, my friends, is a perfect novel and was my favorite read of that entire year. When Sue’s wonderful The Magic Mirror came out, I hosted her at my home in conjunction with a book launch event at Secret Garden Bookshop. Sue had carefully baked adorable gingerbread squirrel cookies for the launch. . . cookies that our Winston thought she’d brought for him. He ate them. All of them. As in every single one. Try as I might I could not find replacement squirrel cookies on short notice and yet Sue is still my friend. I really connect with her characters and their “messy selves,” and admire the way Sue sets scenes with a skilled, deft hand. Her books are full of heart and, even though the newest deals with an absent mother, there’s warm humor to spare. Sue was my Write Space with Kirby Larson and Friends guest just last night; if you missed our conversation about label-makers, messes and getting the words down, you can listen to the replay over at IGTV. In the meantime, you NEED to read The Care and Keeping of Freddy (Simon and Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books). Your heart will thank you for it.
I don’t know about you, but I have two Brother P-touch label makers. When I determined to turn over a new leaf and get organized, I couldn’t find the machine I already had, so then I bought another Brother P-touch.
Point being, I’m not organized. At all. I’m a stasher, a dumper, a maker of heaps. I can’t find things! (Except my husband’s car keys or wallet – in which cases my skill is uncanny.) I’m an equally dis-organized writer. My notebooks are a mess. I can’t put my hands on the thing that would codify my kitchen cabinets, facilitate the filing of taxes, chart the flow of life and make it work. Likewise when I write in my notebooks, I promptly misplace the notebook, or the line of description, or the overheard snippet, or the passage that might change the course of the story and make it work.
This is not my debut. FREDDY is my fifth published novel. Why can’t I do it properly? Without the fruitless seeking, dead ends and distress? Why can’t I do it without all the unreasonableness of being the way I am??
Yes, well, that’s too bad, but it’s also the point, right? Especially when we’re writing a story for a middle-grade person, isn’t that just what we’re talking about? The comedy and misery of being the way we are?
In my book THE CARE AND KEEPING OF FREDDY, Georgia is suffering the comedy and misery of being the way she is—a kid whose mom gave her a pet bearded dragon and then left town, a kid trying to make sense of the confusing way the adults in her life behave, navigating the many changes in her life. Life is messy for Georgia and her friends. Life is messy for most of us, for sure, in ways no number of label makers can fix. I have to believe my messy self helps me understand my messy characters. Maybe that’s just an excuse to buy another P-touch.
Back in my writing room, here’s what I recently did: I went to Target and I bought six plastic dishpans. Into each, I can dump whatever notebook or research or geegaw (got that from you, Kirby!) goes with that project. I can stack the dishpans. I can take them where I’m going. Maybe my days and my writing would all be better if I weren’t the way I am, but I can work with it, see? And maybe Georgia can work with her messy situation while being the way she is.
Oh, and no sooner had I purchased the second P-touch than I found the first one. Anybody need a label-maker?
In addition to THE CARE AND KEEPING OF FREDDY, Susan Hill Long’s books for young readers include JOSIE BLOOM AND THE EMERGENCY OF LIFE; THE MAGIC MIRROR: CONCERNING A LONELY PRINCESS, A FOUNDLING GIRL, A SCHEMING KING, AND A PICKPOCKET SQUIRREL; and WHISTLE IN THE DARK. Special recognition for her work includes a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year; Bank Street Best Books; The Eloise Jarvis McGraw Award for Children’s Literature (Oregon Book Awards); and the Katherine Paterson Prize. She lives in Oregon with her husband and two daughters and their rascally dog Pippin.