Oct. 01, 2014
I’m really excited that Atheneum / Simon & Schuster is publishing FIRSTBORN, my new novel for young readers, in the spring of 2015. It was a long time coming. It’s about wolves, and the idea first came to me on a wolf watching trip to Yellowstone in 2005 with Jean Craighead George. But I think I’m just as thrilled that S&S is first bringing out new editions of two of my older books, The Wainscott Weasel and Mean Margaret.
I must have started writing The Wainscott Weasel in 1990. A few years earlier I’d published a novel about rats set in New York City, so I thought it would be fun to do an anthropomorphic story in a more pastoral setting. Once I settled on the South Fork of Long Island, which I’d known since childhood, a first draft came gushing out—almost as if I’d fallen into a Coleridge-like trance, though I suspect it may have been more to do with the fact that I wrote it on a contraption called a computer. Till then I’d always written longhand on yellow legal pads, but I couldn’t resist the idea of skipping the horror of typing out a fair copy by simply pressing a button and having the finished product come spewing out of a printer. Unfortunately, the computer in question was a primitive IBM XT, and mine was a lemon. The hard drive crashed, and not having backed up the file, I lost the entire hundred and some pages. So I had to try to go back into my trance and transcribe the whole thing again. My other chief memory of that book’s formative stages was the helpfulness of the illustrator. Fred Marcellino, who’d previously illustrated A Rat’s Tale, liked the story but was having fits differentiating the weasel characters. Couldn’t I at least give my hero a distinguishing feature to set him apart? It got me thinking and led to my hero sporting an eye patch, which spawned a whole subplot that enriched the story a lot. As did Fred’s pictures, some in full color, almost unheard-of for a novel. The book was a true collaboration.
As was Mean Margaret, a few years later. I wanted to try my hand at a picture book, and I had a farcical idea of a little girl who devastated everyone’s life that touched hers. I must have rewritten it a dozen times, but every time I showed it to my editor, Michael di Capua, he sighed and shook his head. The story gathered dust in his file till his then associate, Holly McGhee, discovered it. She thought it had potential, and a dozen more revisions followed. No luck—till she asked a friend what was wrong with it. He said it looked like the outline for a novel. Within a month I’d produced a 118-page draft. This was clearly the right form, but it still needed a lot of work. We actually taped our editorial meetings so I could replay them later as writing aids! At the time I thought this was overkill, but later, when the book was nominated for the National Book Award, I realized I may have been wrong. This book, too, was much enhanced by illustrations—hilarious ones by Jon Agee.
I’m very grateful to Holly, and to Caitlyn Dlouhy, for helping bring Margaret and the weasels back to life.