In this interview, Sharon Creech talks to Noga Applebaum about her novel 'Unfinished Angel' and her writing life.
Sharon Creech lives in America where she writes full-time. Her novels have won many awards including the Carnegie Medal for 'Ruby Holler' and a Carnegie Honour Award for 'Love that Dog' 'Hate that Cat' published by Bloomsbury in 2008, is a celebration of language, poetry, cats, and dogs.
'The Unfinished Angel' is published by Andersen Press.’ This is a wonderful novel about social injustice, family, and the healing power of love. The story is vibrant and the setting is glorious. But what makes it truly special is the voice of the unfinished angel, and the relationship it forges with lonely newcomer Zola. Creech is a master at the height of her craft, and the way the airy beginning builds into a rich and satisfying conclusion gives the reader an additional pleasure – the pleasure of reading beautiful prose. The moment I finished The Unfinished Angel, I began to read it again. I suspect you will, as well.’
One review of The Unfinished Angel described it as magic realism, would you agree?
don’t know, because I’m not sure I know what magic realism is. When I think of magic realism I think of something that permeates the story from the very beginning. The only magical element in Unfinished Angel is that there is an angel, but everything else is realistic. So it’s not magic realism, just bordering on it, but I’m not an expert.
Including a fantastical element 'The Unfinished Angel was a relatively new departure from your previous work, the only other being The Castle Corona, which is essentially a fairytale – what made you choose that path?
I ’m not sure. I think there was a progression. The Castle Corona came about because for a long time I wanted to write about a castle. It’s hard to write about a castle in a contemporary setting, so that was drawing me to invent a fictional castle. However, I didn’t want to write historical fiction or be historically accurate. That would have been restricting and I wanted to be free to invent characters and processes, and even the structure of the castle, if I wanted to. It wasn’t fantasy – fantasy is not my love. I was staying pretty close to realistic elements, but I also had freedom. For example, I invented the wordsmith. That sense of doing something a little bit outside the conventions of realism was attractive.
With 'The Unfinished Angel', I had it in my mind for a while to write a story about an angel because my granddaughter told her first story when she was two years old like this: “Once upon a time there was an angel in Spain and the angel was me”. I thought that was so neat. Also at the time my husband took a job in Switzerland for a year. When I got to Switzerland I saw a tower and suddenly I know that this is where the angel would live. It seemed quite natural to have the angel there; I didn’t think about it as a fantastical element, to me the angel seemed real. She was as real as the other characters and I felt I was still operating within a very realistic world.
The angel says that it is not a boy or a girl, yet in a recent review Julia Eccleshare referred to it as a ‘she’, and you just said it again when answering the last question. How did you refer to the angel in your own head while you writing it, and why did you choose to make it gender-less?
When I was writing it I wasn’t sure if it was a ‘he’ or a ‘she’. I was waiting for the angel to give me clues. In one conversation I had Zola ask the angel because I wanted to see how the angel would respond. And when the angel said it was neither a boy nor a girl, I thought that sounds right. The angel could be more neutral or ethereal, if it was neither. However, it is very hard to talk about a gender-less being in interviews – you have to use a pronoun and ‘it’ doesn’t sound correct. So many people seem to think of angel as she, that I found myself saying ‘she’ but in my head I’m thinking ‘s/he'
In a casual poll among girls and boys who had read the book, most boys thought it was a boy, and most girls thought it was a girl, which is interesting.
In Unfinished Angel you touch upon the issue of illegal immigration, but just as a background, does the way the children are absorbed into the local community reflect your opinion on this contentious issue?
No, I’m so apolitical. As a writer my training is to see all sides of an issue, from each character’s point of view, so it is very hard for me to take a stand. I think it was just convenient plot element. The only thing that I felt deeply about was that wherever the children were from, they were taken care of, so I guess from that you can extrapolate that if we had immigrant children in the states, my instinct would be to say ‘take care of them’. If I had to make a political stand it would be, ‘you must nurture the children’.
You touch on a political issue in Walk Two Moons – the issue of what to call Native Americans and why.
There I take the stand of isn’t absurd that we focus on what to call them – that’s not the issue. I take an issue with a lot of PC. I was surprised that there were a couple of critics in the States who felt quite strongly that I should not have written that book because I’m not a Native American. The whole point of the book is that the protagonist is only part Native American, and people like me who only have a tiny bit of Native American in them and are assimilated are trying to figure out what it is all about.
Language is a key for your characters – many of them have distinguished ‘verbal ticks’ like Mary Lou’s ‘Lord’ and later ‘Alpha and Omega’, Gram Hiddle’s ‘Huzza’, and of course the Angel’s malapropisms – do these help you construct particular voices and ‘get into character’ or do you begin a story with these voices already in your head?
The voice comes first. I hear the little tick first. I’m very interested in dialogue and how people talk. For me so much of the character is the way they speak. It reflects on who they are. There’s a rhythm to the speech, and so those verbal ticks come out very early. I hope I don’t overuse them. I do like finding out what a character’s ‘little thing’ is because it is also then easier for me to move from one character to another I suppose. And they help young readers to identify a character.
Dead/abandoned and orphaned children are a common theme in your work – why and what is their significance?
A convention, often used in children’s literature is to get the parents out of the way so that you can focus on the child. It just seems to me that the character doesn’t have the freedom to find out who she is, doesn’t have the chance to test him/herself, if the parents are around.
It’s also about the vulnerability of children. If you take away their protectors, it heightens their vulnerability, and I want to explore this whole notion of how, being so vulnerable, they can find the strength to protect themselves or find other guides to protect them. The characters always come back to some sort of family structure – they reintegrate into their home or find alternative families.
Once the child has found their strength they become a part of the community, but they can’t become a part of the community until they do. It reminds me of the time I almost strangled the Unitarian minister. I was recently divorced, with two children, working full time and I had no money. I started to take my children to this church every Sunday, because it was a way for us all to get an hour of nice music and relax. The Minister decided to call upon me and tell me that he thought I needed to contribute to the community by joining one of the committees. I said, ‘before I can join any of your committees I have to get my life together, get a sense of clam restored’. In the same way a child has to straighten their mind, and they can’t always do it with the parent nagging. Sometimes children need the space.
Regarding the dead/missing children – I do try not to ‘kill’ them anymore, but the point is that when people die they still shape you, they are still there.
Love That Dog is a love song to poetry. A list of the poems Jack refers to appears at the back – which came first, the wish to write a book inspired by these specific poems, or were the poems chosen because they fit the narrative?
More the second. The poems organically came up as I was writing. The book was inspired by a poem by Walter Dean Myers and so it came out in the voice of Jack. I didn’t know I was going to write a book about poetry. I didn’t know there would be poems in it. They just came in. When the first poem arrived, on page 3, at the point that Jack responds to the poem about the red wheelbarrow, I realised that his teacher was presenting him with poems to help him say what she thinks he needs to say. I taught all these poems at various times, so I automatically knew what she would offer next for this boy. I think there is no greater treasure in the world than a good teacher.
How did 'Hate that Cat' come about?
I was receiving so many letters from students who loved 'Love That Dog' written in the voice of Jack, writing a letter to Walter Dean Myers. Hundreds of letters starting ‘Dear Ms Creech, you probably don’t want to hear from me’. One day I thought that since I hear him all the time, I should let him tell more, and 'Hate That Cat' seemed like a nice parallel. I started with the title and the voice. I also had a letter from a teacher saying that she had ‘looped’ with her students, meaning she remained their teacher for a consecutive year, so I realised it is possible, and I had Ms Stretchberry looped with Jack. One day, when I was promoting this book, a little girl, about nine years old, waited about an hour to say to me ‘I have a suggestion for your next book, could it be Flush That Fish?’ I think there probably will be another one down the road, because I still get the letters.
'Love that Dog' is about art as means to dealing with loss. Many of your books feature loss and grief – do you feel that your storytelling is therapeutic for the reader and for yourself as an author?
Maybe it is. I don’t think it is my main instinct for writing, but I think it inevitably comes up because that’s something that in an ongoing way concerns me. When my father died I started writing, he had a stroke and couldn’t speak for six years, and I felt it was up to me to use his words. In writing there was a sense of being able to deal with grief. It came up, and it evolves. In Bloomability, I was tired of people asking me why so many characters die in the books, so I made a conscious decision that in this book no one was going to die, and it was really hard. I think for me the one thing that reminds you how precious life is, is that it can be taken away, so I’m always working within those parameters. It was hard, when a character is in danger, to keep them alive, because it sounded phony. That book was dedicated to my mother, as it was the first time I included someone with an Italian background, and my mother was a little mad at me for not writing a little about her side of the family up till then, because I was always writing about my dad’s side. I had a copy of the galleys and I was on plane home to show them to her and she died of a heart attack while I was on-route. It was so traumatic – I kept all the characters alive in the book but I couldn’t keep her alive. I have made a greater effort not to have too many deaths since then. The dog dies in Love that Dog, but it is a dog.
There are other kinds of loses. In Walk Two Moons there a triple loss of mothers – one, because she changed into something you can’t recognise, one because she is shut away in an asylum and is incommunicative, and one dies.
It’s interesting to hear someone look at it as part of a range, because I’m always in the latest book, and I don’t have time to stand back and really look at these interesting parallels.
What about the boy in The Unfinished Angel? You insinuate that he is dead, thought at the end it is discovered that he isn’t.
I didn’t realise I was insinuating. I wanted us not to know at the beginning where Zola’s mother and sibling are. At first, I didn’t know if they would be joining Zola and her father. I thought they were, but I didn’t want them in the picture at the beginning because I didn’t want too many characters, and I wanted to focus on the girl, and she had to be there with an adult. My editor kept saying ‘I thought that boy was going to die’ and my daughter also said to me she was going to be angry if I let the boy die, and I wasn’t aware that I set it up so much like that, and I tempered it a little. I didn’t fully appreciate how I lead the reader. I can’t really kill a child now that I have grandchildren. I’m superstitious.
Your books are set in/based on places that you are familiar with like Ohio, Kentucky and Switzerland, all of which are described with much love and detail - do you ever consider writing a realistic novel about a place you never visited?
No, because I won’t be able to make it feel authentic. I feel that I have to be in that place. In the case of 'The Castle Corona', it is true that I didn’t live in 1500 but I have been to Italy and the places that I have been to became the setting. For a long time I wanted to set a novel in England, and even though I lived here, and could do the setting, I can’t do the speech because for the 17 years we were here we were in a cocoon of an American school with American students and staff, so I wasn’t hearing British speech every day and I don’t think I can do it authentically. I feel I have to have smelled the smells, experienced the weather, seen the landscape, and then so often a story comes out of a place.
In five of your earlier books the different protagonists cross paths with characters from the other novels, or come from the same places, so the effect is a literary microcosm. Why was it important for you to link them in such a way? Are you planning to add to this particular universe or create a new one?
With 'Absolutely Normal Chaos' and 'Walk Two Moons' it came out of bring a new writer – I didn’t know what to write next, so I thought I’d continue. Once I had continued I was really interested in the place, Bybanks that had come up and I wanted to write more about this place, and the easiest way to do it was by creating a little link, like a character who knew somebody. Then I discovered that the readers loved that. They wanted to know what else I will write about Bybanks. Since I didn’t want to write a series, a way for me to do a slightly similar thing was by putting such a link in each book. I liked the cleverness of it. Then I got to The Wanderer, originally the book began in Bybanks, and my editor in the State said I need to let go of Bybanks. I was crushed, but I took out Bybanks. If you knew I was thinking about Bybanks, you would recognise some of the characters, though they are not mentioned by name. I think my editor was right, as the book now stands on its own in a different sort of way. After that I moved away from that, but I still get readers asking about another book, and I would love to write one called Bybanks, which will bring all these characters together in some way, so perhaps it is down the road somewhere.
Much has been said about your depiction of close relationships between the elderly and the young – do you see similarities between these two phases of life? Does the fact that you are now a grandmother change your perspective in any way?
I think being a grandmother enhances my original perspective that the old often learn from the young, and the young learn from the old. The old learn this child-like ability to appreciate the small things, and the young learn a mature way to look at the world in a larger way. I see similarities in the way the older generation sometimes indulge in child-like behaviour, not from occasional dementia, but because they are suddenly free, and realise time is short, and want to have fun. Young people are at the point where anything is possible, and the old recognise themselves at that point but are also aware that so little is possible.
They are also both vulnerable.Heartbeat knows that he is close to the end, and feels very vulnerable because of it.
You are a prolific and acclaimed author, beyond the awards – which of your books are you most proud of, or most attached to?
Many writers compare their books to their children. For me each book represents between one and three years of my life, so it’s a bit like asking ‘did you like age 39 better than age 42?’ The books represent the best I could do at the time. If I think of The Wanderer, I see myself sitting in England in this tiny little room on the second floor, looking over the village road and every day I write this book about crossing the ocean. It encapsulated this whole year of my life, so it is special for that reason. Love that Dog is special because it really touched the hearts of so many people – children, teachers, parents - so many different ages come to that book. Walk Two Moons is special because it had its own life, way beyond anything that I imagined for it. Heartbeat because for me it captures that whole time of waiting for a child to be born. The new book is always the new baby. So, it’s hard to choose.
Thank you, Sharon Creech for talking to Just Imagine