Sharon Creech's college literature and writing courses and her experiences as a high school English teacher led to a career writing for young people. She is the best-selling author of the Newbery Medal winner "Walk Two Moons" and the Newbery Honor winner "The Wanderer." Her other works include the novels "Heartbeat," "Granny Torcelli Makes Soup," "Ruby Holler" and "Pleasing the Ghost," as well as the picture books "A Fine, Fine School "and "Fishing in the Air." Her most recent book is "The Unfinished Angel" (2009). She lives in New Jersey.
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
From the 2009 National Book Festival
What sparked your imagination for your recent book The Unfinished Angel?
I'd been trying to write a book about an angel ever since 2003, when my then-two-year-old granddaughter told her first story: “Once upon a time in Spain there was an angel, and the angel was me. The end.” I loved that and wanted to know more about that angel, but I couldn't 'catch' the voice or the story until nearly five years later when I went to Switzerland with my husband for the year. We were staying on the campus of the TASIS School in Montagnola (also the setting for Bloomability), and one of the most prominent features of the campus is a tall, old stone tower attached to a villa. As soon as I saw that tower, I knew it was where the angel would live.
You have written both novels and picture books. How does the writing process differ for each genre?
A picture book feels more like a poem, in which one clear image is rendered in the fewest, purest words. It is not easy to write a memorable picture book. The images that come to me are more often suited to the larger canvas of the novel, where there is more room for parallels and contrasts and complications. I like to roam.
What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?
The challenges change and evolve. Right now, the biggest challenge is being able to clear the decks and make time for the extended work a novel requires. I like to be immersed in the story and to be free of obligations—no company, no events, no travel, no cooking, no cleaning! My head needs to fill up with the book, and when it does, there is little room for anything else. Fortunately, my friends and family know there are times when I need to be in the world of the book, and they let me go there.
How did your experiences as high school teacher impact your writing career?
I learned more about story and about people during those teaching years than I did in all my previous years of formal education. I saw what interested readers and what did not, and I learned how alike we all are—whether from Japan or Germany or Spain or America or China or Russia–and also how unique each individual truly is.
How do you decide on themes for your books?
When I was in school I hated that word 'theme'—I didn't understand it. My impression of the theme of a given book was never what the teacher said it was, nor would it fit into a compact phrase. If the writer did not say, “This is my theme,” then how could there be one 'right' theme?
I never think about theme. To me, books are about people and places, and a story is the following of a group of people in a particular time and place. I'm not able to say what my own themes are, but if readers want to suggest some, they are certainly welcome to do so. Just know that there are no 'wrong' ones.
How important is research in the development of your books? Can you explain the process as well?
Ah, research. This is another area that is hard to define and explain. Often, it feels as if most of my research has already been done before I'm aware that I will write a particular story. This is because the characters and places that interest me for stories arise from people I have encountered and places I have lived or visited. When I begin to reshape these 'known' elements into story, I want pure imagination to be at work. I don't want to be limited by 'research,' by facts.
Having said all that, though, every book requires some checking of facts, and this I do in lulls between chapters. Sometimes I will set off for a place (Switzerland, Kentucky, England) to refresh my memory or I will consult reference books, but I try not to let the research overtake the initial impulses for the story.
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?
Read a lot and write a lot. It's simple advice, but it works. You don't have to know 'the story' before you begin. Feel free to experiment, to try a lot of different styles and topics, and to have fun. Write about the people and places and things that interest you. You can start with anything—with that stone or that gate or that dog or that man. Don't feel that anything has to be perfect or that everything has to be finished.
Can you suggest a fun writing topic to get them started?
Choose a painting or photograph that interests you and pretend that you are either a person in the photograph or someone on the edge of the scene. Describe what you see and what you are thinking. I like this exercise because the artist or photographer has already selected composition, color, tone, detail, mood, and if you now render the same image(s) in words, you are likely to come up with something intriguing.
Do you have a website where young people can learn more about your work?