The collaboration that would become Maybe a Fox began many years ago in a freezing and dingy dorm at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where we were new both to the faculty and to each other. Alison’s roller bag had gone missing at the airport, and she remembers Kathi tilting her head in sympathy and offering, in that beautiful Texas accent of hers, to lend her a pair of pajamas. Kathi doesn’t remember that, but she does remember breakfast the next day, when the two of us loaded up our trays and scuttled to sit together at a small table between two huge pillars in the drafty dining hall, a table we sat at every day, three times a day, for each of the residencies we shared.

It was friend-love at first sight, and it was that very first week, when we were eating one of the many meals we ate together Between the Pillars, that Kathi suggested we write a book together.

“What kind of book?” Alison said.

“A book about two sisters,” Kathi answered.

Both of us had many other projects that occupied us, and the idea was tabled, although one of us would occasionally bring it up over the years. Then, about five years ago, Alison sent out a poem about a small red fox in snow as her Poem of the Week. Something about that little fox ignited both of us, and we decided to take the plunge and begin our book.

The ground rules:

  1. The book would be about two sisters who were somehow separated, and it would also contain a small red fox.
  2. Each of us would take on a new challenge in the writing, something she’d never done before as a writer.
  3. We would each write in a separate viewpoint, with chapters alternating between those viewpoints. 

After considering the sister possibilities –twins separated at birth? Sisters each living with one parent? One sister in prison and the other not? One sister alive and the other not?—we left it vague. Sisters, separated somehow. We figured the fox would appear on its own terms, when the time was right, so we didn’t worry about that. As for the personal writing challenge, Kathi decided to write in first person, since she hadn’t before, and Alison decided to write in the voice of the fox, since up until then she’d stayed strictly with humans.

We began the book by trading chapters weekly, sometimes more often if the muse struck. We worked wildly fast, most of the time, and the story gathered ground and impetus week by week. Kathi was fascinated by the fact that some rare rivers disappear underground. Alison was fascinated by the idea of an animal that could sense things from a world beyond this one. We tossed ideas back and forth, tried them out week by week, abandoned them if they were dead ends, followed them as far as we could if they felt powerful.

Eventually we realized that we were writing a book about maybes, about the way we as human beings try to answer unanswerable questions –what happens when we die? What happens with grief too big to stand? What happens when you can’t find the answers to what you most need to know?—and that sense, of both possibility and heartbroken wonder, became the core of the novel.

We wrote an entire, unwieldy mess of a draft in half a year. With the ongoing help of our wonderful agent and the massive efforts of our beloved editor Caitlyn Dlouhy, we rewrote that mess of a draft countless (literally, we have no idea at this point how many times we rewrote that book) times over the next four years. What began as an alternating-chapter, alternating-point of view method turned into a we’ll-work-on-the-whole-thing-together method. Where Alison once was the sole writer of the fox chapters, and Kathi the sole writer of the Jules chapters, we can no longer point to any voice or passage or chapter as belonging to either of us. We moved from emailed chapters to simultaneous Google doc revisions to taking turns separately revising the entire book (over and over).

At one point early on, Kathi flew up from Texas and we sat on Alison’s porch in Minneapolis and took turns reading chapters out loud to each other, pencils in hands, marking up places to revise. We laughed. We cried. We talked through every aspect of plot and character. We never once, strangely enough, argued. Kathi flew back to Texas and the rewrites continued for another three years. At some point along the way we began sending each other fox totems: a fox necklace, a framed fox photograph, a felt basket with a fox on it, fox notecards. Alison now sees foxes wherever she goes; like the characters in Maybe a Fox, she considers them good luck.

Maybe a Fox is so much a part of our hearts and souls at this point that we privately admit to each other we have no idea if it’s any good or not; it just is. We do know that we still, each of us, cry when we read the ending. Just like Jules and Sylvie in Maybe a Fox, we consider ourselves sisters. Sister Kathi, Sister Alison. Our book is made out of wonder and longing and struggle and love. We hope it finds a good place in the world.
Posted by michael at 10:03 AM Link to this post

The long and winding road that led to my novel Firefly Hollow began with some photocopied paintings that arrived in the mail one day. They were by an artist named Christopher Denise, and I spread them out on my big wooden dining table and stood there studying each one.

The idea was that I would write a picture book to go along with them. I love an assignment, but this one intimidated me. The paintings were just so damn beautiful. There was a vole wearing a little sailor's cap, and there was a cricket, and there was a boat and a river. There was the night sky and moonlight and the colors in each painting were like jewels.

Could I write a picture book worthy of those paintings? I wanted to, and I tried. For about a year and half, I tried. But everything I wrote—and I wrote a lot—kept spiraling out into more story than a picture book, with its tiny word count and strict page limit, could handle.

So I gave up. "I'm so sorry. I could probably write a novel around these paintings, but I can't seem to do a picture book."

But it turned out that the artist was okay with the idea of a novel. Hello! I went back to the paintings and studied them with new, novelistic eyes.

What did I love most about them?

The colors. The tenderness in Vole's eyes, the gentle way he bent toward the tiny cricket. The boat and the river and the moonlight. I dreamed of writing a classic novel, one for all ages. I held in my mind the images of Charlotte's Web and Wind in the Willows and My Side of the Mountain. (If you're going to dream, I say dream big.) Because I had room to roam now, I made up two new characters, a firefly named Firefly and a boy named Peter, and I got to work. For years.

Four? Five? More? I honestly don't remember. What I do remember is writing three entirely separate books about Firefly and Peter and Cricket and Vole, and none of them worked. They were dark, heavy, full of anger and fear, at least in my memory, and memory will have to suffice, because I don't feel like unearthing those drafts for verification. The idea of them makes me tired.

I gave up on each of those drafts in turn. Put the paintings away. Took them out again. Put them away. Took them out.

What was the book itself about? What did the book want to be about, on its own terms? Where was its heart and soul?

The answers came to me slowly: Loneliness. Love. Longing.

All things that I remember so clearly from childhood. The enormous thoughts and worries and dreams that children hold inside them. Children live such deep, searching lives. Too often the grownups around them don't give them credit for that. They have forgotten, maybe.

So back to the beginning I went, determined to write a book about loneliness and love and longing. I gathered together three totems: a little wooden cricket, an illustration from the transcendent film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, and Fall and Spring: to a Young Child, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poem I first read as a child and which has haunted me ever since.


I kept the totems on the table as I worked—yet another try at this novel that I could sense somewhere in the ether, this novel that I so wanted to write—and gradually, over another year or so, the book took shape. The firefly and the cricket and the boy told me separately how lonely they were, and why, and how they each longed for a real friend.

Vole was harder. I had to figure him out slowly, over time.

In fact, everything about the making of Firefly Hollow was slow. The heart and soul of the book revealed itself to me only in the fullness of time, only on its own slow terms, not the faster ones I would've chosen. I even, for the first time in my life, had to ask for an extension on my deadline.

But here we are. Five-plus years from start to finish, my hope now is the same as it was in the beginning: to have written a classic book, one worthy of those tender, beautiful paintings.
Posted by elena at 08:08 AM Link to this post

You love an assignment. Why wouldn't you? So much easier than tromping around the lakes trying to sift through the zillion ideas that come floating up out of your scattered brain. If you worked for someone else who was always dumping unasked-for-projects on your desk, maybe you'd hate them, but such is not the case.

"It's your lucky day," said someone close to you during a phone conversation a couple of years ago. "I have an assignment for you."

Oooh! Goody!

"Yup, I know how you love an assignment," said the someone. "And here it is: a powdered doughnut*."

A powdered doughnut! Fabulous!

"Right?? It's the perfect story," said the someone, who could hear your happiness over the phone. "Don't say I never gave you anything."

This is just exactly the kind of assignment you most love. A single phrase. A single image. A single line from a song. A powdered doughnut: who could ask for anything more?

You immediately set to work. Work begins by picturing the doughnuts you have known: powdered, yes, but what about jelly--your favorite when you were tiny--and glazed, raised yeast and classic cake? Chocolate-covered Bismarcks, as they are known in the midwest, or Boston Creme, as they are known in the Northeast? Custard-filled. Apple fritters. Doughnuts with sprinkles, as they are known everywhere but upstate New York, and jimmies, as they are known nowhere but upstate New York.

And the granddaddy of them all: Persians, as they were sold at both Hemstrought Bakery in Utica, New York or in the back of Trumy's in Mapledale, New York. Nothing compares to a Persian. Oh, you miss Persians.

But you digress.

Doughnuts, we have gathered you here today to discuss the fate of one of your brethren: the powdered.

You write all kinds of books. You most like writing novels and you least like writing picture books. These two reasons--the most-like and the least-like, are probably why you focus on both novels and picture books. The ends of the like spectrum. The extremes.

"Like" isn't the right word, though. "Challenged by" is more accurate. Novels are hard, and they take you a long time because you never know what they're really about before you begin. That means you have to write, say, 900 pages before you start whittling and shaping what ends up to be, say, 220 pages. You have to create the granite before you can begin to chip it away to reveal the sculpture waiting inside.

But you love writing novels because they take so long. You can wander and meander and not have any idea where you're going but it doesn't matter. You're open to serendipity. Take me wherever you're going, novel, you think, I'm just along for the ride. As long as you manage a couple thousands words a day, that's good enough.

Picture books, ugh. They're the other end of the length spectrum, because they're usually no more than 300-400 words, and they are so very hard for you. Trying to get one right is like capturing a firefly inside a jar and hoping it doesn't die before you can figure out why it's all lit up like that. (That analogy makes no sense and yet somehow it does make sense, to you anyway.)

The love and the hate, that's what you like. That's what challenges you. The safe middle, oh no. Perish the thought.

Again you digress. Back to the powdered doughnut.

This was one of those rare, so rare, so horribly rare, books that just kind of wrote itself. The Sheriff! His deputy! And their mission: to bring a dozen doughnuts safely home!

Writing it made you laugh the whole way through. You sent it off to the someone who'd given you the assignment in the first place.

"I knew you'd love this assignment," she said, and then she started cackling in that semi-maniacal way she has. "Good job."

"Off it went to a fabulous editor--thanks, Nancy Conescu, for your smarts and your humor--and then to a fabulous illustrator, who came up with all those fabulous illustrations--thanks, Isabel Roxas, you little genius you---that made you laugh all over again. Fabulosity all around.

At some point in the whole process, you and the editor and the illustrator all sat around a restaurant talking about doughnuts and laughing. Here's hoping that The Case of the Missing Donut makes you laugh, too, along with some little kid you love.

*Doughnut became donut when I crowd-sourced the spelling on Facebook; the vast majority came down firmly on the side of donut. (Apologies to all the traditionalists out there. It hurt me too.)

Posted by elena at 12:08 PM Link to this post

Making up people in my head and spinning them out through my fingertips onto the keyboard is easy, but I can't make up place. In each of my novels, the settings have been places where I've lived for decades, where the landscape is rooted in my heart, drawn up into my body through the soles of my feet. It took me more than twenty years to set a book anywhere outside the southwestern Adirondack Mountains, where I grew up. That is still the place I call home, still the place where, when I step off the plane at the Syracuse airport, I can relax. I'm home now. Home.     

* * *     

          Once there was a childhood full of space. Long stretches of stillness. A deep sense not of loneliness but alone-ness. This was in far upstate New York, in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. There were three little girls, sisters who dressed up for Easter, and for the first day of school, and never else.

          The oldest woke every morning to the sun slanting through pines at the far edge of the field across the road. She stood outside in the darkness before bed and looked up at the stars glittering thickly in the heavens, diamonds on black velvet. When she lay her head on her pillow her ears were drawn inward to the depth of the surrounding silence, and the shushing of her own heart was all she heard.

          There was a giant maple tree at the end of the driveway. Every summer afternoon the three sisters gathered there at three o’clock, and their mother read aloud to them.

          There was a dirt road that meandered down the hill and through the woods and over a wooden bridge that spanned the brook to a far meadow.

          Down the dirt road there was a swamp that – if they jumped from hillock to hillock – they could cross without getting their feet wet. In the midst of the pine trees that grew on the other side was a clearing made holy by its thick carpet of pine needles, by the sunlight sifting through outstretched branches. The sisters called it their pine tree house.

          There was a green insulated knapsack that their mother packed bologna sandwiches in, to take down the dirt road, across the swamp, to the pine tree house, for picnics.

          There were blackberry canes down the dirt road, bending over the brook. There were green paperboard berry boxes that they carried down the dirt road to the blackberry canes. Burst of sweet juice on tongue. Fingertips pricked by thorns. A curving scratch on a knee, beaded with blood.

          There was a broken-down barn filled with hay. A rope swing tied to a rafter. Three little girls heaving hay bales into stacks, pushing out tunnels in those stacks, making a hidden fort. There was a flashlight and a book being read in the silence and darkness of the hay fort. A girl listened to her sisters running on the hay above her and shrieking as they swung out on the thick rope swing.

          There was a tree house built by the oldest that neither of the younger two could manage to climb into. The girl took her jackknife and carved her initials into a slender branch: A. R. M.

          The dirt road? Still there. The pine tree house, still there, and the broken-down barn, and the holy pines. The giant maple, gone. The scratch on the knee faded to a whispery white line. And the three sisters grown to women all, their shadow baby selves still wandering the dirt road of their childhood. The A.R.M. is fat and pillowy now, cradled in the embrace of the branch that healed around it. And the girl who carved it is sitting right now in a bagel shop thinking of Neil Young, who wrote, “All my changes were there.”

* * *

A Place that Wants Only to Take You

away from everything you know
into everything that was known.
You and your sisters, clutching berry boxes.
Brambles next to the pond, canes yearning over the creek.
Blackberries, thick tapered bodies
like bumble bees, darker than blue.
Work your way down the creek without knowing.
Drift away from this sister and that one.
Find your way into the heart of the patch.
This is where you are – a still summer day.
Your hair red-brown silk,
drifting waistward.
Sweet tang of berries
on your tongue.
Drone of insects.
Beat of sun.
Faraway days.

* * *

This Is How It Was
You sat on the couch
and I climbed in your lap.
You shook out the paper and
then folded it in half, and
again into quarters, and
then smoothed it straight.
I leaned back against your
giant chest and waited.
You pointed to each panel
and read the black and white
marks above the bright picture.
When you finished one quarter,
you turned the paper over and
read the next, refolding,
smoothing, and turning.
It was Sunday.
We called them the funnies.
Your voice was a bass rumble
reverberating in my ears and chest.
Sometimes, these days,
this is the kind of memory that comes
floating up from the other, louder ones.
Your finger pointing at the words
rising above bright pictures,
leading me from page to page.

* * *

Longing for the Dance (a villanelle)
What were you faithful to, back then, alone
long nights when those in other rooms slept on?
You’d look out at the stars, those nights you spun
a world of other places, all undone
from your small self, so still in the small bed
that you were faithful to, back then, alone
in dark that held the sky, the moon. First one
breath in, then two, then three. Always awake
you’d look out at the stars, those nights you spun
out lives where you were grown, were not the one
without the skin to make the hurt, hurt less.
What were you faithful to, back then, the lone
girl that you were, with dreams you told to none
for fear they’d not come true, would disappear?
You’d look out at the stars, those nights you spun.
Long gone now, then. Long years have taught that none
of those who dream are lost, can be undone.
What were you faithful to, back then, alone?
Look now. Look at the dreams, the stars you spun.


Posted by elena at 10:07 AM Link to this post

When I first moved to Minneapolis, I took a job teaching Chinese at a big public city school. I was new to teaching, and teaching--especially grades K-12-- is wonderful but exhausting. I would power-teach three to four days a week and then ease into the weekend by reading aloud to my students for the last half hour of every class on Friday. I rationalized this activity by choosing only books--novels, memoirs, collections of stories and essays--that had something to do with China.

I had made a bunch of giant pillows out of corduroy and foam, and every Friday these big old teenagers--the hockey players, football players, cheerleaders, loud kids, shy kids, street kids, rich kids, kids who barely spoke English--would arrange themselves on the floor, and I would begin to read. There was never a sound in the room, but all eyes were on me and everyone was listening.

Those were peaceful, happy Fridays. I sat on my desk swinging my legs and reading. There were no windows in the room, and I had brought in lots of lamps so as to avoid the overhead fluorescence, and the lamplight pooled on my students' faces, which in that light and that time were beautiful, every one of them.

Later, I would see those same teenagers walking around in the halls carrying library copies or used paperback copies of the books I was reading to them.

My first baby was born not long after this, and at first he had a tough time being in the world. I sensed while he was still inside me that he wasn't ready to be born yet, and it proved to be true. Lights and sounds bothered him greatly, and so did scratchy tags and wool sweaters. He needed to be carried constantly or he would scream bloody murder, so carry him constantly I did, in a contraption I called The Red Thing.

I cooked with him in the Red Thing, cleaned house with him in the Red Thing, went to the bathroom with him in the Red Thing. The only time he was out of the Red Thing was when he was on my lap and I was reading picture books to him. Which I did for hours. Hours and hours and hours--years and years--of picture books. Me and my boy.

Take a minute and do something right now, will you? Close your eyes and go back in time as far as you can, to the first book you ever remember loving.

Maybe you don't remember the title or author. Maybe what you remember is opening it up and burying your face in it and smelling that picture book smell. Maybe you don't remember the book at all, in any way; maybe what you remember instead is the sensation of being read to, of sitting on the lap of someone who loves you, their arms around you.

Driven, impatient and high-strung person that I am, it is hard to slow myself, hard to find peace. But when I look back on my life, it is the memory of those hours reading--first to my students, and later to my baby boy--that brings me stillness, and solace, and warmth.

Writing for children is my way of welcoming them to this enormous world, anticipating the wonder and pain and delight of the lives that await them. It's about knowing that they will need to be brave and strong to live in this world, and that they will end up going places they never could have imagined they would go. It's about wanting solace for them, and warmth, and peace.

I write for children because I love them.
Posted by elena at 02:11 PM Link to this post
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