Stephanie S. Tolan

Interview with Stephanie S. Tolan
by Laurie Rose
as part of a Young Adult Literature class
at The University of Maine

When did you begin writing?

"I started writing fiction when I was nine; Miss Schultz, my fourth grade teacher, was the first teacher who ever asked me to write a short story. It was a story about a baby volcano who accidentally started the first fourth of July celebration (this had nothing at all to do with American history!). I still have the story, neatly copied in ink. It's pretty terrible, but at the time I loved it because writing that story gave me my first clue that I could make the magic I had long known was in books. It still seems to me magical that the human brain can imagine whole worlds and people and stories, turn them into little marks on paper and then other brains can translate those marks on paper into images, into worlds and people and stories. We are remarkable creatures, we humans! Now, of course, we can use computers to send those little marks anywhere in the world instantly so that minds can connect around the whole world, if only those minds happen to use the same language. Amazing! "

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

"Ideas for stories come from anywhere and everywhere. In my early years as a writer I got lots of ideas from watching the Donahue show -- that was a different era, of course. An idea may come from a newspaper clipping, something I overhear in a restaurant (most writers are inveterate eavesdroppers), an experience I have, or a combination of all of these. One place I have never gotten an idea from is a kindly soul who wants to give me a "great idea for a book." If it's someone else's idea, it never seems very interesting to me. I need to have a real passion for an idea if I'm going to spend as much time on it as a book takes. So that really means that in one way or another, wherever the first spark comes from, the idea has to come from inside myself. "

How do you research your stories?

"I research my stories any way I can. Research can happen in libraries or on the Internet or from "real live experts" or it can be more direct. Sometimes my family is not so crazy about the more direct kinds. In The Great Skinner Getaway Mrs. Skinner is writing a newspaper column about wild foods. While I was writing that book my family had to eat thistles and milkweed and cattails and Queen Anne's lace so that I knew what all those things tasted like (and how kids might react to the flavors). In Witch of Maple Park Casey's mother tries to cook health foods for her catering service; during the writing of that book my long-suffering family got to try four kinds of seaweed, lots of tofu recipes and blue corn chips. Everybody liked the blue corn chips, but the others did not go over well. "

How long does it take to complete the research for a novel?

"Over the years I've averaged a book a year, but different books take different lengths of time. Welcome to the Ark took two whole years. On the other hand, I began writing Marcy Hooper and the Greatest Treasure in the World (a very short book) ten years before it finally got published. I wasn't working on it steadily all the time, of course. The fastest of all was The Great Skinner Strike. I wrote the first draft of that book in just two weeks -- then it took 6 months for revisions. "

Which of your novels is your favorite?

"Usually I say, like lots of other writers, that it's hard to pick a favorite. It's like asking a mother which is her favorite child. But now I'd have to say that Welcome to the Ark is my favorite, and not just because it's the most recent, but because it really is close to my heart. It's the first book of a trilogy, so I get to go on with the story, and I'm looking forward to that! "

Who are your mentors?

"This is an interesting question. I'm not sure that I have any mentors in the usual sense of that word as someone who helps one figure out how to do something successfully. Katherine Paterson is a good friend and we collaborate on writing books and lyrics for musical plays for children (our composer is Steve Liebman). If I need advice about some aspect of the book business, I'm likely to call her, so maybe in a way she's a mentor. But I'm much more likely to just think of her as a friend and colleague. "

What is your writing process?

"It's hard to describe my writing process because it has changed over the years. I used to just start writing and see where I ended up. Then, when I had to do an outline for a book in order to sell it to my publisher before I actually wrote it, I was forced to plan the story out ahead of time. I don't really like doing that because the outline can sometimes feel too structured. On the other hand, I've gotten used to it now so that if I were to start writing without knowing where I was going now, it might be pretty scary. My editor and I try to use the outline as just a general concept and stay loose so that I don't get too tied down. Writing's an adventure -- you never know exactly where it's going to take you, and sometimes you have to be willing to try a road you hadn't expected, no matter what your map says. "

If you could be remembered or known for only one thing that you have done in your life, what would it be?

"Now this is a very difficult question. If there were only one thing, I guess it would have to be helping a child believe in herself -- or himself of course. Most of the world is busy trying to tell children that they aren't good enough, aren't enough like other children, aren't really worthy of being loved. What every kid needs to know is that she is just exactly the person she is meant to be, and that -- no matter what -- she is absolutely and unconditionally worthy of love. If I could help even one boy or girl begin to really believe that, I'd feel as if I'd done what I was meant to do. "

How did you get involved with programs for gifted and talented children?

"I got involved in the whole subject of very bright kids because I had a child who was very different from other kids -- so different that nobody at his school knew what to do with him. As I tried to figure out how to get his really intense learning needs met, I discovered important truths about myself and my whole family. I began to realize how much hostility there is in the world toward unusually intelligent people, and how much harm is done to children who are forced to try to make themselves be like others when they really aren't and it became a crusade. Human beings are amazingly diverse, and we need to honor each other's differences, not try to force everybody into the same mold. We're much more interesting than millions of identical gingerbread cookies. "

Do you have a novel in the works?

"I always have a novel in the works! At the moment I'm working on another ghost story. My editor and I so enjoyed working on Who's There? that we decided I should do another -- but all I can say about this one is that it will be very, very different. Oh, no -- I can also say that for the first time in twenty years of writing books, I've set this one in the world my husband lives and works in -- the world of the theatre. (Actually, our son RJ works in that world now, too!) Anyone who knows theatre will know that that means that I sometimes work in that world too. (Most recently I did the set decoration for my husband's musical theatre season.) That's the sort of research my family likes me to do for a book! "

(This interview took place in 1997.)

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