Interviewing Janet Taylor Lisle
(left: Gabie - Tea End Blog | right: Janet Taylor Lisle)
When I was about 7 years old I read a book that allowed me to maintain my innocence and imagination while simultaneously giving me a peek into a world that I was not yet old enough to comprehend. Fast forward approximately 20 years later and here I am, interviewing Janet Taylor Lisle, author of “Afternoon of the Elves", the book that enlightened me as a child and when read years later, ameliorated my appreciation for humanity as an adult.
In the interview below, you will discover Lisle’s writing style and advice to other writers, her intent behind the masterpiece that is "Afternoon of the Elves", and why she is not surprised that I was intrigued by this book as a kid, and decided to just wait a-Lisle to read it later.
Gabie: In reading about you, I was able to take note that you graduated from Smith College in 1969 with a degree in English Literature and shortly afterward became active in VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). In seeing poverty, you were swayed to make this known and worked as a reporter for 10 years. How do you think reporting reality has helped you write the fictional and imagined stories, such as "Afternoon of the Elves"?
Janet Taylor Lisle: "Afternoon of the Elves" is a story about imagination, the power of a child’s imagination to transmute loneliness, need and shame into something she can live with. Some of the children I met in the public housing projects during my years as a VISTA volunteer were in hard situations. Their families were struggling. I was struck by how resilient many of these children were, and more than that, how creative they became at prevailing over incredibly difficult situations. As a journalist, I never could write about this clearly. Fiction came to my rescue. Through my character Sara-Kate Connolly, I was able to show a kind of reality unreachable by fact.
Gabie: How interesting, yes I completely understand this concept, "a reality unreachable by fact." Again, you graduated with a degree in English Literacy but did not "begin" writing until about 12 years later! When did you realize that you could write for a living?
"Afternoon of the Elves is a story about imagination, the power of a child’s imagination to transmute loneliness, need and shame into something she can live with."
-Janet Taylor Lisle
Janet Taylor Lisle: I was writing… all through school, through college and then in the journalism courses I took after graduation. Then I worked for newspapers, wrote articles for an art gallery, free-lanced for text books, and published poetry. A writer has to be a jack-of-all-trades to make it pay. What I didn’t recognize right away was my ability to write dialogue, the lifeblood of fiction. In my early 30s, as a lark, I took a course in novel writing for children. It all came so easily. I never looked back.
Gabie: Wow, very interesting that you had a knack for writing children's literature! In looking at your release track record, I noticed that new books of yours are usually released between 1-3 years after the latest release. Is there a pattern to how long it usually takes you to complete a story or does it vary?
Janet Taylor Lisle: As one of my editors once said: a book is done when it’s done and not before. Every story has a different timeline, some come easily, some run into snags along the way, or worse, big roadblocks. I have many unfinished manuscripts in my files, stories that just wouldn’t bloom for one reason or another. You never know. I’ve never liked signing contracts for my books until they’re more or less done, or at least the end is in sight.
Gabie: That is good advice, thank you for sharing that. Your work is created for children, which seems (to some) like a simple task. “Just write in an entertaining way and be done with it!” one may say. However, what would you say some of the challenges are with writing for children that may go unrealized by the inexperienced?
"...a book is done when it's done and not before."
-Janet Taylor Lisle (quoting her editor)
Janet Taylor Lisle: I think we can all agree that children are complicated people, as deep and full of hidden feeling as the adults around them. Their literature, the best of it anyway, must reflect this. In a way, it’s harder to write for children because as an adult you’ve vacated that highly sensitive world. How to get back there is the problem, and how to use language devoid of the show-off “literacy” that fiction for adults often traffics in. Sara-Kate Connolly advises her friend Hillary to “go slowly and quietly and look deep” if she wants to see an elf. The same could be said of writing for children.
Gabie: Amazing, yes one would think that it was simple, but children are deep thinkers too. I can see how it would be difficult to revisit this time as a writer of children's books. I applaud you for being successful!
Speaking of books for children, let’s talk about "Afternoon of the Elves". This Newbery Honor Book is a special gem for me. I read it when I was a child, around 7 or 9 years of age. I read it about 7 or 10 times searching “between the lines” for something that I knew I was missing. In my mind, there was more to Sara-Kate's situation than presented and what Hilary noticed about her was insight into a world that I didn’t understand, but wanted to. Does my experience surprise you?
Check out my honest review of
Janet Taylor Lisle: The question most readers, both children and adults, come to at the end of "Afternoon of the Elves" is: Does this story live in the realm of fantasy or real life? In other words, does the writer (me) intend for her readers to think that Sara-Kate is a secret elf, in charge of an elf village? Or is Sara-Kate a wounded child with a good imagination who’s invented the whole elf thing to get attention from the girl who lives next door? As I wrote the end of the book, I found myself unable to answer this question.
I realized that the correct answer depended not on me but on who was reading the book. Most adults draw their understanding of Sara-Kate from their knowledge of psychology: clearly she’s a kid who’s neglected and in trouble. She uses her amazing ability to invent an alternate world for herself, one where she’s in control. For these older readers, the book is immensely sad, and also unnerving, since Sara-Kate comes to no good end. She’s simply snatched away to another narrative, leaving everyone to feel guilty about her. (And usually very angry at me for writing such an end!)
Children often read the book differently. Their concept of reality is more flexible. To many, the elves are real, and Sara-Kate is their defender. The village is magical, and when Sara-Kate leaves, Hillary inherits the wondrous task of caring for the elves in her own yard, a happier conclusion. Whether or not Hillary believes in the elves is an open question. Some kids will think yes, some will think no. Both views, to my mind, can be correct within the scope of the story. The ambiguity sets the book up for some great class discussions!
"I think we can all agree that children are complicated people, as deep and full of hidden feeling as the adults around them."
-Janet Taylor Lisle
Gabie: Exactly! I have to admit that I was one of those angry readers. As a child I knew there was something else to the story and not only did I not understand fully but I also felt that I needed more information to finally reach the conclusion. When Sara-Kate was just snatched away at the end, I felt that I would never know.
I believe that I conveniently lost the book and subconsciously found it a while later (only after my parents had paid for the lost book since it belonged to my elementary School Library) so that I could keep it and read it at another time, when I was older. Somehow I knew that I would discover what I was missing then. Can you elaborate on how you constructed the story so that young and older readers alike would have unique experiences?
Janet Taylor Lisle: So, the book really is constructed on two levels, one for the elf-believers and one for those who question their reality. Clues add up pretty perfectly on both sides. The side you come down on depends on what’s important to you as you read. Is the elf village just too amazing and beautiful to give up? Is it a place you’ve always wanted to come across, that perhaps you’ve even imagined yourself? Or, is it more important to you that Sara-Kate’s situation as an outcast child goes unrecognized by the community she lives in? Is this an outrage, or a sadness, or another example (perhaps you’ve been keeping track) of the myriad ways we undervalue certain children?
A child reader misses the wider social context of the story. Maybe that’s what you sensed, and had to wait to grow up to understand. Are children’s books allowed to have these deeper under-currents if the children they’re written for don’t immediately get them? Absolutely! That’s what makes children’s literature such a powerful art form.
Gabie: I agree with you 100%! I truly enjoyed my experience reading "Afternoon of the Elves" and this secret story hidden from my understanding. It inspired me to search for understanding as an adult. I love that about this book and I thank you for making that experience possible!
This may be an impossible question, however, I feel the need to ask each writer, novelist, author, etc. that I interview. Do you have a favorite book? If yes, which?
Janet Taylor Lisle: I’ve been a big time reader since I was small. No one book can cover all the various stages of me. The J.R.R. Tolkien Ring Trilogy gave way to Frank Herbert’s "Dune", which gave way to Dickens’ "The Tale of Two Cities", which was ousted by "Gone With The Wind", which turned me on to Faulkner’s South, which led to Joyce, Salinger, Virginia Woolf, which opened the way to Alice Munro’s amazing short stories, and on to Wallace Stevens’ poetry. Etc. etc. I’ve been reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy lately. What a story!
Gabie: Oh really? Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan, huh? I will have to pick it up. When I was a child, I wanted to write a children’s book that taught children to rhyme. The original copy was entitled “The Goose and The Moose”. Now, I still would like to do so but my aspirations for it have changed a bit. Did you write as a child and did you ever dream of being a writer as a child?
Janet Taylor Lisle: I wrote little stories in grade school but my spelling and grammar were so bad my teachers despaired, and I got frustrated. The action was real and live in my head, but I couldn’t translate it into words on the page. My father wrote short stories when he came back from WWII. He’d served, somewhat traumatically, as an American bomber pilot flying out of England. (I’ve written about this in my YA novel "The Art of Keeping Cool".) I aspired to write early because of him, and considered fiction a “noble art.” It was years before I had the skills to make fiction, though. Later, the word “noble” no longer seemed to apply. Fiction is a harum-scarum operation in which you invent everything, plot, characters, landscape, voice, dialogue, pace, climax, resolution, and hardest of all, an end. Very sweaty work. A lot of editing and rewriting.
Gabie: Yes, I agree, Fiction to some may seem easy and a roller coaster of an imagination but I can certainly see how it would be challenging! What advice would you give a writer who wanted to write for children?
Janet Taylor Lisle: I don’t think there’s much difference between good writing for children or good writing for adults. I guess the mistake many people make is thinking that children are unformed, that they have somewhat simple interests and one-dimensional views of the world, so it should be easier to write for them. But it’s not. Kids appreciate depth and complexity. They don’t like being treated as simpletons. Using fewer words means the ones you choose are more important. (Think poetry) Shorter books aren’t easier to write than longer novels. My best advice for any writer is to read the books being published in the field you intend to try for. Look at how the stories are made, and in the beginning, copy what sounds good to you. It will come out sounding different because you rewrote it. No one will know you borrowed stuff! You can get original the next time around.
Gabie: That is such great advice to writers who may be overwhelmed about originality. I know that I really appreciate children's books and have always wanted to write one but fear that I will sound like the writers I admire. Your advice takes the edge off!
Now that I have rediscovered you and am able to even do a blogview with you here on Tea End Blog, I want to add your other books to my library. What are you currently working on and what book would you suggest that I begin with?
Janet Taylor Lisle: My next novel will be out through Atheneum in spring, 2017. "Quicksand Pond" includes a mystery, a murder, a raft and a family that arrives in a summer community for a seaside vacation that turns into something quite else. In summer 2017, Atheneum is also reissuing my 2003 YA novel "The Crying Rocks", a contemporary story that draws on the hidden history of Native Americans in my home state of Rhode Island. You know, one of my best books is the shortest. "The Lost Flower Children" is an ingenious little story that encloses a fantasy within another fantasy within a world of reality. Check it out!
Gabie: For sure I will check them out! I am excited to add them to my book shelf already!
Tea End Blog is a blog of tea and literature. I like to ask my interviewees what they are reading and what they are sipping. It may be obvious what you are reading, but tell us anyways! What are you currently reading and what tea do you like to sip (if you like tea at all).
Janet Taylor Lisle: I’m a lapsang souchong black tea lover. Anne Tyler’s new novel, "A Spool of Blue Thread", is on the table beside the couch in my writing room. When I can’t think of the next sentence, I head over there and read another chapter. She’s a good writer!
Gabie: I enjoy a lapsang souchong too! Matter of a fact, I performed a review on one that I picked up while visiting a friend in South Carolina (Lapsang Souchong from The Spice & Tea Exchange). I love how you read good penmanship to obtain inspiration!
Well, that is Tea End of our blogview! Thank you very much Janet Taylor Lisle for your time, inspiration and your wonderful writings! Can you tell everyone where they can find you?
Janet Taylor Lisle:
Amazon Author Page: Janet Taylor Lisle
I would like to take this moment to express my gratitude to Janet Taylor Lisle and her willingness to help me make the experience of reading "Afternoon of the Elves" a full circle. When I was a child, enthralled with your book and writing style, I never imagined that the lady who’s picture I referred to occasionally on the inner back cover of the book would be the same lady that I would have the opportunity to interview on my blog and be yet again inspired by.
I hold your writing style, your insight and your love for children’s literature near and dear to my heart and I intend to make room on my bookshelves for many more of your books. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to engage an appreciative reader and may you continue to engage many other readers, young and older, for many more years.
Check out my honest review of Janet Taylor Lisle's favorite tea!
Do you agree with Lisle when she says "I don’t think there’s much difference between good writing for children or good writing for adults."
Why or why not?