Writer Laura Amy Schlitz '77 recently received Newbery honors for her latest book, Splendors and Glooms. We spoke to her for the winter 2012 Quarterly. The interview is reposted below.
Something about Laura Amy Schlitz ’77 hints of mysterious characters, extraordinary adventures, even a difficult quest or two. Perhaps it is her flowing white hair—today twisted into a loose braid and flung over her shoulder—and vivid blue eyes that are simultaneously twinkly and wise. Or maybe it’s that, at any given time, her conversation may leap from what can be learned by gazing into a fire opal to what to do with a marionette that refuses to wear green.
Schlitz, who majored in aesthetics at Goucher, won a Newbery Medal in 2008 for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village (Candlewick Press, 2007). The librarian at the Park School in Baltimore, she originally wrote the book as a collection of colorful monologues to be performed by students.
In her latest book, Splendors and Glooms (Candlewick Press, 2012), Schlitz weaves a complex tale about a scheming puppeteer, a privileged but lonely little girl, and a nasty witch (who may, in the end, be redeemable).
You’ve just published your sixth book. Can you remember the first time you wrote a story?
That’s hard to say because when children play, they make up stories all the time. You hear them under their breath saying, “The yellow car goes up and then he gets into the yellow car.” So I don’t remember writing my first story, but I think I made them up constantly. I think most children do, and why I went on making them up after most children stopped, I don’t know.
I do remember being in second grade when the teacher asked us: “What do you see when you see a stream?”
Other children said, “I see rocks” or “I see water.” But I remember closing my eyes and my hand shot up because I had seen something. And the teacher called on me right away because she knew I had seen something. I said: “The roots of the trees go down into the water.” That was something I had pulled into my mind with almost a physical effort because, until then, I hadn’t been aware of that detail. And when I pulled it into my mind, there was a sense of discovery.
Your books are rich with detail, and you seem to take great joy in finding those details. Why does it appeal to you so much?
Maybe it’s atavistic. Maybe we are all hunter-gatherers, and we are all keeping our eyes open to detail. To me, research has an adventure quality, and the story opens up to me as I reach for these details. When researching Splendors and Glooms, I went to London and visited the Dennis Severs’ House, where I got to see a coal fire and smell a coal fire. Did you know the smoke of a coal fire is brown, not gray like the smoke of a wood fire?
You also seem to take a very hands-on approach to that research whether it’s creating your own marionettes or going to a museum to gaze into fire opals before writing about either. Could you describe other steps you’ve taken to ensure accuracy?
Well, I do like sitting down with a reference book and doing research that way, too. But actually experiencing things helps you get inside the skin of your character. In this book, there is a scene in which I describe someone lying down on the ice, and so I put on a light dress, and I went outside when it was 11 degrees, and I lay down on the ice. I took notes about where I was cold and what my body did as I got cold.
Did winning the Newbery Award change your life—or how you approach your work?
I work three days a week now, and [she lowers her voice to a whisper] I don’t go to faculty meetings anymore. So that is a very concrete change in my life. But I don’t think it has changed how I feel about the writing. I thought it might, but the writing is always hard. It didn’t get any easier because I won this amazing award. It also doesn’t make me feel as if I have to write everything perfectly now, either. Because I can’t write perfectly; it is out of the question.
It can’t be done so, no, it didn’t alter the relationship between my writing and me. [photo of Schlitz] [photo by Joe Rubino]