Susan Lynn Meyer is the author of three books for young people. Her latest publication, Skating with the Statue of Liberty, is the companion to her debut novel Black Radishes, which won a Sydney Taylor Honor Award and was named a Massachusetts Book Award finalist and a Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year. Both novels were inspired by stories she grew up hearing about her father’s escape from Nazi-occupied France and his early years in New York City. She lives with her family in Massachusetts and teaches literature and creative writing at Wellesley College.
I found Susan somewhat by chance, and lucky for me she agreed to do an interview. As it turns out, the two of us have a couple of things in common. Read on to find out more about Susan and her new book.
When you were writing Black Radishes, did you think there might be a companion book some day? Was Skating with the Statue of Liberty something your agent or publisher encouraged you to write?
No, I didn’t plan to write it ahead of time, but as I came to the end of Black Radishes, I realized that there were more stories I wanted to tell. My editor also liked the idea, and in fact she thought a third book might also be a possibility. We’ll see! I’m working on something different now, but I think possibly later I might want to take the story back to France and write something more about Nicole from Black Radishes and what happens to her after Gustave leaves for America.
Did you find it any easier to write Skating with the Statue of Liberty since you were already familiar with the main character and had previously done research on the time period?
Sadly, no. Not at all! There was a lot of new research to do about America during the war rather than France. And crafting the story was hard. In fact, writing Skating with the Statue of Liberty was much, much harder for me than writing the first book. I think this was partly because I felt I had something to live up to. I pretty much wrote Black Radishes thinking that no one except my writing group partners would ever read the book—which was freeing, in a way! With Skating I pretty much wrote and then threw away two entirely different novels before writing this one.
Skating with the Statue of Liberty takes place in New York City in 1942. How long did it take to research the book versus how long it took to write it?
All told, it took me about 5 years to write the book. I’d research, write, research, and write again, so it is hard to separate the two. I’d take the plot off in a new direction and need to find out something new. For example, I’d realize I needed to find out about the Red Cross in this period (though that ended up getting dropped from the book), or that I needed to learn the details of the postal system and how letters were sent between the US and Occupied France—that ended up being an important part of the book, and at first I wasn’t even sure that letters could have gone in and out of France at this time. But they did, and they were censored, which was very interesting to explore in the novel.
Skating with the Statue of Liberty explores themes of race and discrimination in the U.S. Did you ever worry about writing such hot-button topics?
In a way, no and in a way, yes. I feel a very strong pull toward writing about children in situations of real adversity. When I was a child, I kept thinking and thinking about what my father had gone through and what he had escaped, and his story was one I really needed to tell. Writing about the ways he both had and hadn’t escaped racism by coming to America was the natural continuation of that impulse. When Gustave encounters anti-Semitism at the inn, for example, he struggles to make emotional sense of the fact that this kind of thing is still happening to Jews even in America, even though it is much less extreme than what he has seen in Europe. And racism against blacks strikes Gustave as jarring in America (as it did my father), especially because the country is fighting a war for democracy, and he’s very sensitive to racism against blacks because of what he has been through.
The story pulled me in that direction. I didn’t want to get things wrong, though, and it was very important to me to research the experiences of black people in New York in the 1940s, through reading memoirs and listening to oral histories and through talking to people. I also felt it was very important to ask black friends to read the story for me while it was still in manuscript. So I wasn’t worried, exactly, but I felt I needed to write about the subject with a lot of care and attentiveness.
As you were researching segregation in the 1940s for Skating with the Statue of Liberty, you got the idea for a children’s picture book called New Shoes, which was published this January. How was the process of writing a picture book different than writing for middle grade?
Yes, while researching racial segregation in New York in the 1940s, I came upon the fact that is at the center of New Shoes—that in many places until the mid 1960s, African Americans weren’t allowed to try on shoes before buying them. I was so stunned by that fact (and by my embarrassment that I hadn’t known it before—I felt I should have), that I knew I had to try to write a story about it.
One thing that is very different in writing a picture book is that it is much easier to keep the shape of the whole thing in your head—I have trouble with that when it comes to novels. But it was a very hard story to write. I kept going back to it over the course of several years, knowing that the ending wasn’t right and trying something new. It was relatively easy to set up Ella Mae’s problem—she’s not allowed to try on shoes—but very hard to figure out a satisfying ending that to some degree resolved that problem but was also realistic for young girls to do and believable for the 1950s
Like me, you used to be a middle school teacher. Now you are an English Professor at Wellesley College. Do your students know you write books for children? How do you balance your scholarly writing with your fiction writing?
Actually, I wasn’t a real, full-fledged middle school teacher during the school year, but I taught for several years in a summer program for middle school students, teaching them literature and writing, while I was in graduate school. I’m still friends with some of them on Facebook!
Yes, my Wellesley students definitely know I write for children. Once a year I teach a creative writing course on writing for children, and it always has a long waiting list. It’s definitely hard to find time to do both kinds of writing because I’m a slow and meticulous researcher and writer. And I think I have to accept that that’s just how I am.
Also like me, I know you loved the Pippi Longstocking books by Astrid Lindgren as a I kid. (I decided long ago, if I ever have a beach house, I’m naming it Villa Villekulla!) What are some of your current favorite middle-grade books?
Pippi! Yes, I loved those books so much I once tried copying one over by typing it out (and I could not type at all!) so that I would always have it even after the original went back to the library!
I especially love novels with very compelling, believable main characters, and I know a book is good when I feel the desire to read it multiple times. Some of my current favorite MG novels, books I know I will go back to, are Michelle Magorian’s Back Home, about an English girl returning home after spending the war years in America, and Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming and the subsequent books in the Tillerman cycle. Dicey and her grandmother in particular are such individuated, deeply believable people.
Oh—and can I come visit you at your Villa Villekula if you ever get one?
And we seem to have even more in common! You started off as a math major at John Hopkins but switched to English and eventually got your PhD from Yale. I was a math minor at William and Mary but went on to get my MFA in Fiction Writing. Do you ever miss doing math? Do you think the part of your brain that used to do math has come in handy in your writing process?
No one has ever asked me that before! It has come up in my work as a literary critic—I wrote a paper once on mathematical imagery in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. It’s really important to Dickinson—I should go back to that essay sometime! But aside from a general tendency to be logical and intellectually rigorous with myself, I don’t think so.
What is your number one piece of advice for those writing historical fiction for young people? What is your favorite piece of writing advice in general?
My advice for historical fiction writers (and it is also something I need to remind myself) is that you can’t possibly learn everything you need to know before you begin writing. So start writing! As you go, you will make mistakes and/or find you need to research things. For example, I found I needed to research school lunch menus while writing Skating With the Statue of Liberty. That’s just not the sort of thing you can possibly know you’ll need to know until one character decides he wants to go buy an extra dessert!
My favorite piece of writing advice in general is one I also need to remind myself of: let your mind float free. I don’t write well when I sit down and try to write through sheer discipline. Discipline works for me for a lot of things, but not for fiction writing. I try not to forget to take a walk before writing. I start out generally knowing where the next bit I’m writing is going, and then I take a walk and let my mind float and dream and work out what will happen. I recently found out that my writer friend and agency mate Conrad Wesselhoeft does this too. Does anyone else out there?
I do that, too, Susan! I usually reread what I wrote the day before, try to write more, and then when I get stuck (which sometimes happens right away), I take a walk. Often I come back with at least one idea of how to proceed!
Thanks so much to Susan Lynn Meyer for this interview! Be sure to check out her books, Black Radishes, New Shoes, and Skating with the Statue of Liberty.