My favorite scene to write was the scene at the opera. Writing that scene allowed me to relive my first opera (Andrea Chenier!) and the night when I fell in love with that sublime and absurd art form.
The hardest scene was the penultimate scene, when Joan braves the storm and goes to see David. There are seven characters on stage in that scene—in general, the more characters are on stage, the harder a scene is to write. Joan is the narrator and is intensely preoccupied with her own feelings, but she has to drop enough clues so that the reader can infer what’s going on with the other six characters. It was also a scene where many secrets are revealed, which mean I needed all my organizational skills. It took me many drafts to figure out when a certain character would say X, so that another character would respond with Y, enabling secret Z to be brought to light.
It hadn’t occurred to me to think about whether or not I’m proud of that particular scene. When I’m actually at work on a novel, I’m too busy fussing to be vainglorious. The pleasures of conceit come later, when my publisher has added a gorgeous cover, and the pages look so crisp and clean and official.
How long did you work on THE HIRED GIRL?
THE HIRED GIRL was a wonderfully swift book. It took me less than two years to go from first draft to first submission.
Was there an AHA! moment along your road to publication where something suddenly sank in and you felt you had the key to writing a novel? What was it?
No. Part of the frustration of writing is that you’re always inching your way along in the dark. I used to think that if I were really a writer, or if I were doing it right, there would be those AHA! moments, when the bright light would shine out, and I would feel fulfilled and serene and confident. But writing isn’t like that. It usually feels messy and murky and tentative and jerry-rigged. What’s different for me now is that I can say to myself, “Okay, I’m groping in the dark here, and I have no idea what I’m doing. But that doesn’t mean the novel is doomed. I’ve been here before. This is how it feels to write a book.”
What's your writing ritual like? Do you listen to music? Work at home or at a coffee shop or the library, etc?
Well, first I procrastinate. I hold the cat on my lap; I do acrostics; I check my e-mail; I putter around the house. At some point it becomes more stressful to procrastinate than it does to write. When that happens, I visit the bathroom and get myself a glass of water. I unplug the telephone. Then I set myself a manageable task: one half-hour of work, or one page of writing, or one round of read-through-and-revise. I always make it an easy task. If I set myself a hard task, I wouldn’t have the courage to sit down to it.
Once I’ve made up my mind, I fasten my rear end to the chair. (It helps to have a substantial rear end—good ballast.) I keep my hand moving. Most of the time, I fall into a sort of fierce trance—I work long beyond the single page or half hour. I never listen to music; I’m concentrating.
Sometimes I go to a museum or a coffee shop or a public garden. The rule is, I can do whatever I like: have a frozen mocha with whipped cream, loll in the gazebo, or revisit my favorite statues. But I can’t come home until I have pieces of paper with writing on them. The writing doesn’t have to be good, but there have to be many pages that are covered with ink.
What advice would you most like to pass along to other writers?
It’s completely counter-intuitive, but you have to be gentle with yourself. The work is hard and frightening. If you start bossing yourself around like a drill sergeant, you’ll never get anything done. I think of my writing self as a sort of hysterical, imaginative little goblin. If I don’t treat her tenderly, she’ll revolt, and I won’t get a thing out of her. Be good to the goblins. That’s my advice.
ABOUT THE BOOKThe Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz
Fourteen-year-old Joan Skraggs, just like the heroines in her beloved novels, yearns for real life and true love. But what hope is there for adventure, beauty, or art on a hardscrabble farm in Pennsylvania where the work never ends? Over the summer of 1911, Joan pours her heart out into her diary as she seeks a new, better life for herself—because maybe, just maybe, a hired girl cleaning and cooking for six dollars a week can become what a farm girl could only dream of—a woman with a future.
Inspired by her own grandmother’s journal, Newbery Medalist Laura Amy Schlitz relates Joan’s journey from the muck of the chicken coop to the comforts of a society household in Baltimore (Electricity! Carpet sweepers! Sending out the laundry!), taking readers on an exploration of feminism and housework; religion and literature; love and loyalty; cats, hats, and bunions.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORLaura Amy Schlitz is the author of the 2008 Newbery Medal-winning GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES! VOICES FROM A MEDIEVAL VILLAGE, illustrated by Robert Byrd, and the 2013 Newbery Honor book SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS. She is also the author of A DROWNED MAIDEN'S HAIR: A MELODRAMA; THE NIGHT FAIRY; THE HERO SCHLIEMANN: THE DREAMER WHO DUG FOR TROY; and THE BEARSKINNER: A STORY OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM, a retelling illustrated by Max Grafe. Her newest novel, THE HIRED GIRL, traces the story of a farm girl who escapes her hard scrabble life in 1911 rural Pennsylvania, and journeys from the muck of the chicken coop to the comforts of a society household in Baltimore (Electricity! Carpet sweepers! Sending out the laundry!), taking readers on an exploration of feminism and housework; religion and literature; love and loyalty.
Schlitz lives in Baltimore, where she is a lower school librarian at the Park School.
Have you had a chance to read THE HIRED GIRL yet? Do you set small goals for yourself before each writing session? What kind of creature is your writing self?
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