Interview Too

Stephanie S. Tolan

An Interview with Stephanie S. Tolan

Interviewer: You've been writing novels for children and young adults since the mid-seventies and your books have been generally well received by critics and readers alike. Being a writer could have been a life's work, or at least a fully engaging career. Why did you add the work you do with gifted children and their parents?

Stephanie S. Tolan: Because my son, who was born in 1972, turned out to be exceptionally gifted, and in the process of trying to find him an education that would meet his fairly extreme intellectual needs and generally make sense for who he was, I realized the extent of the problem this country has dealing with its brightest children. By the time I'd learned enough to help my son, I had learned more than most of the educators I encountered about who these kids are, what they're like, and what they need.

Then Dr. James Webb asked me to bring my writing skills to the work he and Elizabeth Meckstroth were doing on Guiding the Gifted Child, and before I knew it, I became a full collaborator on that book, helping to shape its philosophy as well as to articulate the information we had about how to meet the social/emotional and psychological needs as well as academic needs of these children. Soon after that book came out in 1982 it was dubbed "the Bible" for people trying to raise and educate gifted children. From that point on I didn't have much choice in the matter. I became a consultant to parents of children in the highest IQ ranges because that's the population least served and least understood, the population with which I had the most experience, and those were the people looking for my help.

Eventually I realized that the parents needed to pay attention to their own histories as they worked to help their children. Most of them had been gifted children as well, and were suffering to one degree or another from the fact that their own needs had not been met -- again I refer to far broader and more complex needs than those related to schooling. So now my focus is on the whole of the population and not only the children.

I: Shortly after Guiding was published, you wrote a novel, A Time to Fly Free about an exceptionally gifted boy who leaves school in frustration and works for a time with a wildlife rehabilitator. But nowhere in the novel is the point made that what drove this boy to run away from his school environment was his extraordinary mind. Why is that?

S: It was important to me that the character of Josh not be typecast as a "gifted child." For many people that label creates such negative feelings and assumptions, that the character and the book would have had two strikes against it before it began. I wanted people to understand this child on his own terms, without any automatic cultural baggage attached to his choices or those of his family. The book was more readily recognized as a book "about" home schooling than it was as a book "about" giftedness, though it has been used as a class novel in gifted classes in a number of school districts since it became available in paperback in 1990. It's out of print at the moment, but it may still be available through John Holt Associates, the homeschooling resource center in Boston. The truth is that none of my novels are "about" an issue, though important issues of varying kinds are almost always critical to each story. They are always "about" a character who is a very particular person in a very particular situation and setting.

I: In many of your novels the characters, though they aren't labeled as gifted children, seem to be gifted children. Is that because of your experiences with your son?

S: In part, perhaps. Certainly that's the case with A Time to Fly Free, since I based Josh, the main character of that book, on my son. But the fact is that most children's literature is written by writers who were themselves children who would be recognized as gifted under our current definitions. Since we write from who we are, our characters tend to be in some ways reflections of ourselves. Many writers write about gifted characters without knowing that they are doing that and certainly without conscious intention. I'd include myself in that group because for most of my writing life I didn't put the two aspects of my professional life together. Only two of my books have been written with the intention of portraying unusual intelligence in the central character. 

I: That brings up Welcome to the Ark, the first book in what is meant to be a trilogy. There is no doubt that that book deals with unusual intelligence. All four of the young characters are recognized as having extremely unusual minds. What led you to write that one, and what led you to make it a work of science fiction? All of your previous books had been realistic novels.

S: Well, that's an issue that is trickier than you might think. Certainly Welcome to the Ark is (as the other books in the trilogy will be) different from my other books. At the time it was written, the book was set in the near future, though time has since caught up with at least the major portion of the book, which takes place in 2000. The "future" setting allowed the book to be categorized as science fiction, though it isn't the "hardware" sort of science fiction about space travel and futuristic technology. But what the publisher considered science fiction in the story are extremely unusual aspects of the characters' minds, not all of which are actually fictional. The children do what they call "reaching," which is sending their minds out to merge with the consciousness of animals, trees, even such "inanimate" objects as mountains and clouds. Additionally, they have a kind of telepathic connection with each other. Eventually their telepathic connection allows them another kind of mental "power," to defuse imminent violence.

What many people don't understand about this book is that the characters are based on real children and the telepathic connection is one I observed while working with those children. This group, six kids between the ages of 6 and 12, with a mean IQ of 200+, communicated with each other without language during a session I was facilitating at a "learning festival." They were working on a "group novel" together and worked out the first scene in the ordinary way humans expect to work together, talking their ideas out and arguing back and forth as they went. But when the first scene was finished, I asked them to sit quietly while I jotted down what we had worked out so that we wouldn't lose it when we went on with the process. They sat quietly while I wrote. When I finished recording the first scene, I asked what happened next. Someone answered with a fictional event that was farther along in the story -- let's say scene four. I said we needed to decide what happened in between. All of them began telling me the same story and the hair on my arms and the back of my neck rose.

I: You mean that there was no more discussion of what might happen between scene one and scene four? They just told you what happened?

S: Exactly. As if they had all seen the same movie and were sharing the telling of it. I asked them how they had come up with the story line, and they were surprised at my question. "The same way we came up with the first part," one of them said, and the others agreed. They didn't realize they hadn't talked it out. Their "telepathic" interaction had felt so natural to them that they didn't even realize they were doing it until I pointed out that not one of them had said a word aloud. I'd been in the room with them the whole time. There was no talking. The process had somehow taken place only in their minds.

I: You said the mean IQ of this group was over 200. That's pretty rare, isn't it?

S: Extremely rare, though not as rare as we used to believe. These children had met only a couple of days before -- they came from all over the country and had been gathered specifically to let them interact for the first time in their lives with other children as astonishingly bright as they. I hadn't expected them to get along, since their differences from each other were extraordinary, in both interests and specific academic gifts. But from the moment they came together it was almost as if they recognized each other. In spite of their differences, they were almost immediately "at home" together.

I: So you think it was their intelligence that allowed this telepathic communication?

S: I thought so at the time. After all, I'd never seen people able to do this before. Much of what these children could do in "normal" mental processing seems impossible -- one of them, for instance, had gotten a 750 out of a possible 800 on the math SAT when he was 8 years old. So it seemed likely to me that this "paranormal" processing was also part of the difference between their minds and more ordinary minds. Now I suspect that all of us can do far more of this than we realize, and maybe it was the sheer "horsepower" they brought to their interaction that allowed it to happen so easily and on so complex a scale. I'm not saying that what these kids had wasn't different, only that it wasn't as different as most of us think. My husband and I have been married for 36 years, and we find that very often we get onto the same mental wave length, so to speak. Sometimes we even say exactly the same thing at exactly the same time, when the subject is one we haven't been talking about before. This most often happens on a car trip when we are both quiet for a while, our minds in what might be called free float. Then at the same time we'll say the same thing. It's always eerie when it happens -- it's just not as spectacular as what the children did that day.

I: Back to Welcome to the Ark. If the telepathic capacities the characters have could really be available to real children, is there any way in which the book fits its sci-fi categorization?

S: Sure. "Reaching," or merging consciousness with nonhuman life forms or objects, while certainly not regular human mental processing, has been reported throughout history by indigenous peoples, psychics and mystics, and one of the children in the group was able to do that. But I made up the idea of the children having the same dream, and also their ability to use their minds in concert to defuse violence. Those aren't things that the real children I knew actually did.

On the other hand, since the book came out, I've been contacted by some teenagers and young adults who have, in fact, been dreaming the same dreams. Not only are they sharing dreams with each other, they say the dreams are almost identical to the ones the Ark kids dream. Only one of the "group dreams" they have told me about is different from the ones in the book, and it turns out that the primary image of that one is the visual image that I had hoped would be the jacket art for the hard cover edition. The only reason it wasn't was that the artist who designed the jacket did not create the image I had described. It's possible that the kids who have contacted me could have made up the idea of having group dreams that matched the book; but how could they have made up a dream whose image was the image I meant to put on the jacket -- the image that was never used? It wasn't one that anyone would readily think of from the book itself. So -- I revert to Shakespeare about all this: "There are more things, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

I: Is the second book of the trilogy coming out in the near future? Ark was published in 1996.

S: Yes, Flight of the Raven is to be out in the fall of 2001. I hope there won't be quite such a time lag with the third one. I get extremely impatient messages from Ark readers about when they can expect the next book. I don't have so many impatient readers as Rowling does with the Harry Potter books, of course, but they do let me know they aren't happy with the delay.

I: Meantime, your most recent book, Ordinary Miracles, is a prequel to your earlier one, Save Halloween!, which was published in 1993. Had you always planned to write more than one book about the Filkins family?

S: No. It wasn't until my editor said that she liked the family and thought another story about them would be a good idea, that it occurred to me that I'd like to use one of the other kids in the family as the main character in another story. It couldn't be a sequel because I wanted to use one of the twins as the central character and in Save Halloween! they were already in high school. If the second book took place after the first, it would be solidly a young adult book, and I didn't want this particular story to be outside the range of the intermediate reader. So my editor and I decided that we would jump back in time. Ordinary Miracles is set approximately a year before its predecessor.

I: You've written four books about the Skinner family and two about the Filkins family. Do you expect to write sequels or "prequels" to any of your other books?

S: I won't make any predictions. Readers often ask for sequels, and I used to tell them that once I'd finished a story about a particular character I was really done with that character. But I find the idea of related books to be really intriguing. In television writing it's called a "spin-off," and a number of writers -- Madeleine L'Engle and Cynthia Voigt spring quickly to mind -- do this. I may do it again myself.

I: Any expectation of taking your work in a totally new direction?

S: I wouldn't think of it as "taking my work" in a new direction, which would imply that I wanted to change the direction it was already going, but I am engaged in a project unlike any of my previous books. I'm working on a collection of personal essays intended for a general adult readership. This sort of writing is called creative nonfiction, and I'm having a really good time exploring it. I've written nonfiction and I've written creative fiction. Just as I put my "novelist" self and my "gifted consultant" self together when I began the Ark trilogy, I feel as if I'm putting my imaginative self and my intellectual self together to do this project. I have a strong sense that the new millennium is going to be about moving beyond duality. Maybe that's what I'm doing!

This interview was conducted in 2001.

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Last modified: February 20, 2009