Tell us a bit about your family. Helga: Out of Hedgelands(and the Wood Cow Chronicles series overall) have been written with the irreplaceable assistance of Barbara, my beloved wife, and our two children. Indeed, some of the essential “research” into the history of the Wood Cows has been conducted during the odd hours of family reading and storytelling “around the campfire” as we say—even when there was no campfire! This research continues and grows richer as our children have begun their own careers and families and the storytelling expands across generations and continents.
What is your favorite quality about yourself? Well, actually, my goal is to live a balanced life, so I have several “favorites” I try to develop. I certainly can’t claim to have mastered these, but there are four qualities that I strive to live: first, enthusiasm and perseverance in the face of challenges; second, a smiling face and general happiness; third, seeing things with my own eyes and not relying only on the word of others; and fourth, finishing a task I have begun.
What is your least favorite quality about yourself? On those days when there is a possible choice between work and taking a hike in the mountains, the mountains, for the most part, win. J
What is your favorite quote, by whom, and why? “You must work – we must all work to make the world worthy of its children.” Pablo Casals. I believe we must all work to make the world worthy of its children—all its children. I am filled with wonder at the systematic way we ignore the needs of children and youth in our society. It astonishes me how passionate we can become for a week or two when particularly tragic violence occurs involving children, while the wholesale needs of vast numbers of children and youth seemingly does not disturb the national discourse at all. And, this is only the overt violence, if we mention the other putrid conditions that beset children in our society, we can only wonder at the deafening silence. Yet, these children are our children also.
Why is there so much interest and eager sympathy shown towards the slaughtered individuals In Connecticut, for example, while for thousands of others there is none? I can only come to the conclusion that our society simply values some children more than others. I leave the question of what criteria we apply in making this distinction to all of us to ponder. It is my sincere conviction that, without serious consideration of that great question, nothing will change–even for those in such places as Newtown. My heart breaks as I remember those killed—but my heart has been breaking long before this. When will we value all children? We must all work to make the world worthy of its children—all its children.
What are you most proud of accomplishing so far in your life? Having raised two children who appear to be far better than I am.
What is your favorite color? I like all the diverse colors and hues when they mingle together as in a delightful flower garden. Many colors are more glorious to me than one.
What is your favorite food? I like many kinds of foods, but it’s pretty hard to beat a plain old plate of rice and lentils with some kind of hot spice.
What’s your favorite place in the entire world? I am a native of the Great Plains of the United States, having grown up on a farm in the Platte River Valley of western Nebraska. I love the wild beauty of the Plains and nearby Rocky Mountains—the too hot, too cold, too empty, too full of life extremes. Typically, the awesomely diverse and the awesomely stark are much the same, even as they are different. Although I have lived in Michigan, North Carolina, and British Columbia, the western plains, high mountains, and desert are in my heart. If you cannot find me at my desk, I’m likely out hiking these places.
How has your upbringing influenced your writing? My parents read to me and took me to the library from the time I was a wee one. That helped me become a voracious reader. My elementary teacher emphasized writing and gave us many writing assignments that asked us to create stories. And, of course, growing up on a farm, I developed a fondness for animals, especially cows!
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated? I wrote many stories in elementary school and many more outside of school. I’ve enjoyed writing and storytelling all my life, so far as I remember.
When did you first know you could be a writer? Having a career in the academic world has meant that I’ve been writing non-fiction professionally since the time I was in college. I’ve been writing fiction and other creative forms for longer than that and people have enjoyed my storytelling for a long time. In the 1990s, I began publishing short stories and that was the first time I began to think about writing in a professional sense.
What inspires you to write and why? Virginia Hamilton’s collection of African-American folktales – The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985 – brought the meaning and power of fantasy alive for me in ways I had not previously appreciated.
The title story (which concludes the book) imagines slaves escaping the brutality of slavery by magical flight—soaring away over the heads of the Master and his Overseers. It is important to know, however, that what is really occurring in the story is that some of the slaves are remembering and recovering the magical ability to fly that had been theirs in Africa. The wings on which they had flown in Africa were lost during the Middle Passage and slavery ground that memory out of the people’s minds. It is the recovery of the magic that was always inside, but forgotten, that brings freedom to the “people who could fly.”
For me, this stimulated an important insight into the meaning and power of fantasy. Imagination is often the only tool we have in breaking through the barriers or chains that limit our possibilities. The main point of fantasy, I would suggest, is its liberating influence. When we rely on imagination to enter worlds or experiences that are not otherwise available to us, we gain access to an infinite range of degrees of freedom. Running on imagination, our minds and hearts are no longer bound by such “obvious” constraints as common sense, the speed of light, or prejudices of mind. Fantasy enables us to experiment with the infinite frontiers of what is possible and impossible, believable and unbelievable. These are pathways that fantasy opens up for us.
Hamilton finishes the epilogue to “The People Could Fly” by expanding on the idea with which she began:
“The People Could Fly” is a detailed fantasy tale of suffering, of magic power exerted against the so-called Master and his underlings. Finally, it is a powerful testament to the millions of slaves who never had the opportunity to “fly” away. They remained slaves, as did their children. “The People Could Fly” was first told and retold by people who had only their imaginations to set them free.”
I take Hamilton’s central point to be that the most memorable and extraordinary fantasy tales are not merely entertaining flights of fancy or slight journeys into magical realms for the sake of passing time. The tales that leave a mark on us affect the way we look at the world so drastically that we never quite return to the way we used to see things. We gain new perspectives without which we can no longer explain the world. Our capacity to hear things that, in our “common sense” world, are unheard and unheard of, is one of the degrees of freedom we can preserve for ourselves and offer to others. And, for children—kids of all ages—these degrees of freedom are precious and worth nurturing. That is why I write.
What genre are you most comfortable writing? Children’s stories are my favorite genre—especially fantasy. I have worked with children up through middle school for years and enjoy learning from children about how they hear and see the world.
What inspired you to write your first book? At a point some years ago, my wife was traveling extensively for her work. On one international trip she was gone for a bit more than 10 days, so I decided to begin working on a novel during that time. That provided a good beginning and I continued.
Who or what influenced your writing once you began? The biggest influence on my writing for children has been striving to think like a child, which requires paying close attention to children and trying to experience their world. Who or what influenced your writing over the years? In terms of writers, some of the genre writers I have most enjoyed include JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Cathrynne Valente, and Brian Jacques. In the background, behind those apparent influences, lies the fact that I cut my teeth on Dr. Seuss and other silly picture books and later became a great fan of Calvin and Hobbes and the Far Side comics. Those influences emphasized the power of humor and taught me the importance of imagery and visual absurdity as part of storytelling. Additional influences include some classics like Don Quixote, the works of Dickens and Dostoyevsky (which include fantastic elements), and the music of the US Civil Rights Era. I also rely on some places and environments that offer compelling inspiration for the settings of my stories. Some of those places can be found on my blog at the following link: http://blog.woodcowbooks.com/2012/11/16/places-that-inspire-the-wood-cow-chronicles/
What made you want to be a writer? From the time I was young, I have enjoyed writing and storytelling. Because my main career has been in education, including creative writing, writing has been a natural part of my life for many years. It has just gradually evolved to include a wider range of venues and formats.
What do you consider the most challenging about writing a novel, or about writing in general? Creating enough focused time to write several chapters, or the equivalent, at roughly the same time. I write best if I can begin writing and keep going for several hours straight. Throughout most of my life, that has been a challenge.
Did writing this book teach you anything and what was it? This is my first book intended for e-readers. That requires attention to some format and editing issues that are not encountered in editing for print. Because of the flexibility provided in e-reader displays, the appearance of pages on the reader can change considerably. I learned that, during editing, it helps to look at the text display under various e-reader conditions so that you can provide a good reading experience.
Do you intend to make writing a career? Writing has always been a part of my career. I am writing more now than in the past and see that portion of my career to continue expanding.
Have you developed a specific writing style? I like to think of my writing as trying to move “beyond the box” of people’s expectations. I try to develop characters and storylines that go against “normal” expectations. I’m drawn to eccentric, unexpected characters: those who surprise because they hear a distant galaxy, see a different music, create their own fragrance rather than get hooked on a soundtrack; the child who has her own ideas about how the emperor is dressed; the lunatics and rebels who tell stories on the boundaries.
What is your greatest strength as a writer? Trying to provide something that people find surprising and unexpected. I’m told by readers that they like being unable to predict what will happen next.