Newberry winner visits for talks on writing

Posted: Thursday, October 12, 2000

Award-winning author Karen Hesse doesn't just write novels. She cultivates intimate relationships with her characters.

It's a successful writing technique. Her books for young readers have been awarded some of the highest honors for young-adult literature, including the Newberry Medal.

"Writing the first few drafts is like falling in love getting to know all the nooks and crannies, getting to know the characters and the setting and plot," Hesse said. "After that, you know where you're going. Rewriting begins. And I love revision."

Hesse will be in Juneau this weekend to share her work and her thoughts on writing.

A meticulous researcher as well as a prolific writer, the Vermont author has developed some keen insights in the course of writing 11 books. Her books range from historical novels for young adults to picture books for preschoolers.

"She writes mostly historical fiction, but she's very adventurous with her writing style," said librarian Carol Race, who helped organize Hesse's visit.

Race said the book "The Music of Dolphins" is one example. It tells the story of a girl raised by dolphins who returns to the world of humans. The book starts out in large type and simple language and becomes increasingly more sophisticated, reflecting the girl's own language development as she learns to speak English.

"A Time of Angels" is set in New England during World War I and the devastating world-wide influenza epidemic, and it looks at the relationship between a young girl and an older German man thrown together by circumstance.

"It's a children's book, but it's an all-ages book," Race said. "I think the quality of her writing is such that all of her books are all ages. The language is approachable for younger kids, but the concepts are more mature."

The Friends of the Juneau Public Libraries will host a reception and booksigning at 7 p.m. Friday at the downtown library. Two programs Saturday, at 11 a.m. at the Mendenhall Valley library and at 2:30 p.m. at the downtown library, will give young writers and readers the opportunity to meet with Hesse. She said she hopes they will have read one or two of her books before they come. She also hopes to meet other writers in Juneau.

All events are free and open to the public. Space is limited for the Saturday workshops and participants need to preregister by calling 586-5303.

"I'm hoping to do a question and answer," Hesse said. "For people familiar with my work, it's easy (for them) to come up with questions. For others, I'm happy to talk about the writing process. Whatever sparks someone's interest."

She said she loves to read her work, and will if she's asked. She's bringing an array of books, including foreign translations, and a unique version of her book "Sable" that illustrates the entire book-making process from conception to finished product.

"I'll bring everything from the first draft to the contract to the galleys," she said.

Hesse's books undergo considerable transformation from first draft to finished book. She writes the first draft very fast, she said.

"Sometimes I don't eat or sleep. I'm just getting it down," Hesse said.

She uses spare, evocative, poetic language and tries not to burden the reader with too much detail, she said. At first, it's a very personal process. She revises her skeletal, emerging book page by page, and after four or five rewrites, she's ready for feedback. She may find she hasn't supplied enough detail, or that her story isn't connecting with other readers the way it does with her.

"So much is in my head. I assume things are clearer than they are, and it takes an outside reader," she said.



Like many writers, she works with a writers group, friends who can be supportive, critical and insightful.

"I bring a full manuscript, about the fifth draft, and they read the whole thing and I make revisions before it ever goes to the editor," she said. "Once the editor gets it, it goes through a whole new round of revisions."

Her book "Sable" went through 12 rewrites. Others have gone through even more.

"It could be a totally transformed book, and often it is," she said.

Another person she turns to for advice is the character she's creating. She has a collection of photographs, mostly of children, and after a few drafts she hunts through her pictures to find a face that matches her conception of the character.

"I look into the photo's face and eyes as I'm creating dialogue and action and ask, 'Would you say this, would you do this?' It keeps the character's voice very distinct and very consistent," she said.

When she wrote the Newberry Medal-winning novel "Out of the Dust" she found a Depression-era photograph by Walker Evans of a young girl in straw hat as her image of the character Billie Joe. She set the black-and-white picture on her desk.

"When it came time to do the cover, my editor went to a bookstore in Manhattan and she picked a photo she thought would work," she said. Unbeknownst to Hesse's editor, she had chosen the same picture.

Although her audience is primarily middle and high school-age readers, Hesse said she doesn't write at a particular age level.

"I never think about who the audience is. The work is so character driven if I tried to censor what the character says, I think it would compromise the book."

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