Newbery Medalist Richard Peck has passed, and the world is a poorer place for it. Every time I heard him speak, he inspired me to be a better writer.
Richard Peck is a former teacher (and soldier). He quit teaching at Hunter College H.S., New York one day after 7th period. And that was 42 years and 42 books ago. His ‘A Long Way from Chicago’ won the Newbery silver medal in 1999; his ‘A Year Down Yonder’ won the gold medal in 2001. He was a representative of American writers at the first Russian Book Festival in Moscow, 2005.
What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?
My creature of choice–one that doesn’t exist outside the pages of a book –is a nameless British mouse who runs away from a snobbish and bullying school and finds himself briefly in a military unit called The Yeomice of the Guard, and has a very close encounter with Queen Victoria on the way to his discovery of his identity. He is, not surprisingly, the hero of my newest book, ‘The Mouse With the Question Mark Tail’, which I fondly hope is available at bookstores from Dial Books for Young Readers and in audio form from Random House Listening Library.
In a long career I have never gone near animal fantasy until my two most recent books. The other rodent drama is ‘Secrets At Sea’, which was a New York Times Notable Book for 2011. I am currently edging my way back to human characters after this detour through the world of mice who proceed on the premise that for every human doing a job there’s a mouse doing the same job, but better. Which is meant to raise a question about Queen Victoria’s mouse double.
Henry: What a fantastical and hilarious premise! Clearly, you have a knack for animal characters. Having read ‘Secrets at Sea’, I should point out that Richard’s mice protagonists are of a different breed than those of David Petersen’s ‘Mouseguard’, but no less heroic.
What is your writing process?
I write each one of my books six times because, like a teenager, I never get anything right in the first five tries either. The most daunting part is plot. I can never see the shape of the story in advance, and outlining reveals nothing. I have to surge along and pursue many a dead end before the story straightens out in later drafts. Then when I’ve finished, I throw out Chapter One and write a fresh one now that I know how the story ends because the first chapter is the last chapter in disguise.
Henry: Like a teenager? How about like any writer? And if rewriting six times isn’t enough work, Richard uses a typewriter! His last comment is a huge tip for aspiring authors, so it bears repeating: “Then when I’ve finished, I throw out Chapter One and write a fresh one now that I know how the story ends because the first chapter is the last chapter in disguise.”
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Writing doesn’t get easier but in fact it comes down to this: it’s easier to write than not to. Writing, like teaching, is something less than a profession but far more than a job. It’s a way of looking at the world, and hearing its voices.
And so my favorite part of writing is dialogue. I think story is conversation overheard. And I overhear a lot of them, all in the name of research, of course. I return this evening from London with London voices ringing in my head: the dealers at Covent Garden market and the rumble of the tap room. For after all, a story is only as strong as the voices that tell it. I tell all mine in the voice of a young character to increase the intimacy between the young readers and the characters on the page they might like to be. And writing in the voice of a young character keeps me, the alien adult, off the page and off the stage.
And so I’m young again at the start of every book. Reason enough to write.
Henry: Well sir, if you keep writing, we’ll keep reading.
This interview is also posted at the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.