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Words of wisdom from Carolyn Meyer: everyone needs a couple of flying pigs. (Or at least small flying pig figurines.)

On to the recap of her very first appearance for her latest book in the Young Royals series, The Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Carolyn treated us to a brief look at her early career as a writer for The New Yorker. The only trouble, she said, was that The New Yorker didn’t realize she was in fact writing for them: everything kept coming back and never seemed to end up in the magazine. Eventually she found her way to children’s books, and The Wild Queen is the seventh in her series on the turbulent early years of characters like Elizabeth I and Cleopatra.

A few brief questions from the audience:

Why historical fiction? Because research is easier than writing. Also because Carolyn is fascinated by the constricted lives these girls led, and how they managed to make their mark on history under trying circumstances.

Where does she do her research? Entirely on Google. (Another joke.) Okay, some Google. But also the local university and public libraries, and by traveling to the place she writes about. She didn’t travel to Britain for this book, but previous visits supplied plenty of scenery and facts.

How does she decide who to write about next? Often, one book will lead to another. Many of the figures in the Young Royals series are linked in some way: Queen Elizabeth and her sister (Bloody) Mary Tudor; Catherine de Medici and her mother-in-law Mary, Queen of Scots, who was also Elizabeth’s cousin.  But people like Marie Antoinette and Cleopatra just beg to be written about, without any connection to other books.

All this, and homemade scones from Alamosa Books.

 This is part of a series of interviews with New Mexico children’s writers to celebrate the state centennial in 2012. (1)

Carolyn Meyer has made a career of writing historical fiction for young people. Her books include the Young Royals series, The True Adventures of Charley Darwin, and the main subject of this interview, Rio Grande Stories. Written in 1994 and republished more recently with an author’s introduction, Rio Grande Stories is a composite novel written in the voices of students at Rio Grande Middle School in Albuquerque; it’s also a collection of brief essays on New Mexican history, a guide to doing local history projects, and a beautiful example of what happens when children become aware of their own particular place in the world. Welcome, Carolyn!

Your book Rio Grande Stories is like a pocket-size tour of everything that makes New Mexico unique: the cultures, the food, the settings, the traditions. How did you put it together? Did you know most of the stories before you began writing, or did you discover new elements as you wrote?

 I had the germ of most of the stories when I was figuring out what to include. For instance, my husband, Tony Mares, makes an appearance in the story about Padre Martinez of Taos. When I met him, he was an actor wearing a priest’s  cassock and traveling around the state giving performances as Padre Martinez. (He was also writing a play called “Death Comes for Willa Cather,” which should let you know where the author of Death Comes for the Archbishop stands in our household!) And I did meet people who claim to be descended from Padre Martinez, so that story was easy to figure out. None of the others was quite that easy.
 
In the introduction to the reprint, you say that you learned a lot of New Mexico history from listening to your in-laws. What other kinds of research did you do? Did you have any unusual experiences doing research for the book?

 
I spent a month at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, teaching writing classes in exchange for use of their wonderful little library and a chance to wander around Espanola, dropping in on a guy who painted low-riders, attending pueblo dances, watching potters, and using the bulging “vertical files” at the library. There was certainly plenty of material available; the hard part was inventing believable characters in stories that would stand up on their own.
 
You also mention that RGS has inspired real students to undertake family/community history projects of their own. Have you seen any of these projects? What have you heard from teachers and students who have done this?

 

Schools in Capitan and Loving, NM, invited me to spend several days in each, working with students and developing interviews with locals. Both schools produced books based on their interviews. And I was invited to a middle school in Virginia where the 7th grade had spent a semester creating their own book. They threw a big party for the families and the people they’d interviewed, and I was the guest of honor with my name spelled out in M&Ms on a series of cupcakes. I’ve heard of other schools with similar projects, using RGS as a model, but I’ve not been involved with them.

 
Your series The Young Royals doesn’t take place in New Mexico, but let’s talk about it anyway! Of all the figures you’ve studied (Marie-Antoinette, Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, Catherine de Medici, and many more), whose life was the most fascinating? Which was the most difficult to research? How do you approach the business of getting inside the head of a historical figure? Have you even wanted to write about someone but abandoned the project for lack of sympathy with them?

 

The most challenging, and therefore the most fascinating, was Cleopatra, because so little is actually known about her: when she was born, who her mother was, what she looked like–minor details! So I had to invent practically everything. Then there was the problem of getting Elizabeth Taylor out of my head. A real problem was deciding where to end her story–her life got really interesting when Marcus Antonius entered the picture, but by then she was much older than my usual readers. Getting inside the head of any historical figure–not just Cleopatra’s–isn’t much different than getting into the head of a contemporary teenager, because the issues are pretty much the same: absent fathers, domineering fathers, jealous sisters, petulant brothers, controlling mothers, vengeful stepmothers, inappropriate boyfriends, unloving husbands, and the fear that  you’re never going to grow up, never be beautiful or happy or in control of your own life. The background changes, the clothes, the food, the customs are different, but the emotions are eternal, and that’s what I try to tap into.

 
The Professor’s question (in honor of Vaunda Nelson’s bookselling great-uncle, who started a bookstore with only 5 books): If you were going to start a bookstore with 5 books, which would you choose? These don’t have to be your five personal favorite,desert-island books, but the 5 that you would most want to share.

 

My true colors will show here:

A  dictionary that includes etymology, because our language is so rich and our vocabulary so extensive and drawn from so many sources
A grammar book, one that isn’t too stuffy, because our complex language is so elegant when it’s used correctly
A contemporary translation of the Bible, because the characters, their stories, and the imagery are unequalled
A simple bilingual book (any language) with pictures to introduce a reader to the beauty of an unfamiliar language 
A blank book to write down ideas and observations, but not such a pretty blank book that you’re afraid to write in it
 
Since this is a series in honor of the NM centennial, what are some of your favorite books set in New Mexico or by NM authors?


Río Del Corazón and Astonishing Light: Conversations I Never Had With Patrociño Barela, two collections of poetry about New Mexico and New Mexicans, by thoroughly New Mexican poet E.A. “Tony” Mares – referenced above as “my husband” and “an actor…giving performances as Padre Martinez.”  I make no apologies for including books written by a spouse, because they are indeed among my favorites. (No apologies needed! I think that’s wonderful.)
 
What was the best piece of writing advice you received when you were starting out, and what would you pass along to other writers?

 

“Accept criticism.” I deal with it much better now than I did sixty years ago, and I actually welcome it and learn from it. But criticism is only useful when it comes while the work is still in progress. Once the book is published, you’re better off ignoring it.

 
 Most importantly, have you ever actually traveled through time to research a book? Kersten Hamilton can travel forward at the rate of one second per second, but I thought perhaps you had discovered some other means in order to get all those books written.

 

Time travel? No–just long hours of work in the present. 

 Thank you, Carolyn!
Carolyn’s newest book is The Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary Queen of Scots, which will be published by Harcourt in the fall of 2012.
 
 1. Read more interviews with children’s writers in New Mexico here.
 
2. Carolyn Meyer’s website.