If you are wondering how it is possible that Jane Yolen could be the author of more than 300 books, consider this fact: She has three writing rooms. Or this one: She works on seven books at a time.
She might be most beloved for her many, many books for children -- "Owl Moon," "Briar Rose" and "Sister Light, Sister Dark," or her funny dinosaur series ("How Do Dinosaurs Go to School?" "How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food?"), or her graceful, lovely picture books (such as "The Seeing Stick"). But she is also a writer of novels for adults, and short stories, and graphic books, and histories, and fairy tales and poetry.
It is poetry that will bring her to the Twin Cities next week, when she speaks at Hamline University on Monday and at the Loft Literary Center on Wednesday. Her latest book, "Things to Say to a Dead Man" (reviewed Sunday in the Star Tribune), is a collection of tough, angry and loving poems about her husband, David, who died of cancer in 2006.
We caught up with the busy and prolific Yolen last week.
Q: Describe your writing room.
A: I have three writing rooms, actually -- two in Massachusetts and one in Scotland, where I have a summer house.
To understand why so many, though, you have to know that I have a bad back and sitting for long periods at a desk is hard for me. So Writing Room No. 1 is my late husband's office, where the big computer is ensconced and all my books on writing in general, on writing for children and children's lit live. But I am rarely there for long. Writing Room No. 2 is the TV room, where I sit in a comfortable stuffed chair with my laptop and write to my heart's content. If someone else is around who wants to watch TV, I can take the laptop elsewhere, but that's usually only at holidays when grandkids come to visit. Writing Room No. 3 is the Scottish house, and again the TV room, another comfy chair. The only constant, besides the laptop and the chair? A cup of decaf tea, one slight teaspoon of sugar and a dollop of milk.
Q: What is your writing strategy -- do you have rituals that you maintain?
A: Fingers on keyboard, tea at elbow, GO! If I get stuck or stumped, I play several games of online Boggle to get back in the mood.
Q: How do you get past writer's block -- or the distraction of the Internet?
A: See Answer 2.
Q: Do you have a favorite book from childhood?
A: Many, many -- here are my five favorites today. (If you ask tomorrow, you may get a different answer.) Munro Leaf's "Ferdinand." James Thurber's "The White Deer" and his "The Thirteen Clocks." Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Secret Garden." Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book," and Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island."
Oh, you say that's six, not five? Well, that's why I'm a reader and writer and not an accountant.
Q: What books do you re-read?
A: [Herman Melville's] "Moby-Dick," anything by Isak Dinesen, "The Bat-Poet" [by Randall Jarrell and Maurice Sendak] and Emily Dickinson's poetry.
Q: What's on your desk?
A: Which desk? Which soft chair table? Books, books and more books.
Q: Where are you right now? Describe what you see.
A: In Scotland. Outside I can hear the blue tits calling. It has already sprinkled once today, and now the sun is shining. I can see the garden from the window, and a single rambling rose, dark pink with a white underbelly. On the coffee table in front of me, my teacup and a bowl of hummus. (I have already eaten the celery.) Some correspondence I am trying to wrap my head around. And Beryl Markham's "West With the Night." I have just finished Jacques D'Amboise's "I Was a Dancer" and need to shelve it.
Q: What are you reading right now?
A: See above. Also, am trying to get into Alison Weir's historical novel about Lady Jane Grey ["Innocent Traitor"], but it's no "Wolf Hall" [Hilary Mantel's tale of Henry VIII], not by a long shot.
Q: What's been the best place so far to do a reading?
A: Depends if you are asking about poetry, children's books, genre books, short fiction. Each has to do with audience, attention (mine or theirs) and whether as I am reading I am revising in my head so not paying attention to anything but the story, or if I am enjoying the piece myself.
Q: Which authors have inspired you?
A: James Thurber, Robert Louis Stevenson, Isak Dinesen, Robin McKinley, Patricia MacLachlan, Randall Jarrell, Emily Dickinson, all for very different reasons.