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Interview: October 2010

October 2010

Cynthia Lord follows up her Newbery Honor-winning debut, RULES, with TOUCH BLUE, in which 11-year-old Tess Brooks and a foster kid named Aaron try to save her island’s schoolhouse --- and the only home Tess has ever known.

In this interview with’s Donna Volkenannt, Lord talks about the stories and close-knit communities that inspired her second novel, elaborating on how a small island off the coast of Maine can make an ideal setting for a book and why isolated areas appeal to her as a writer. She also reveals why she decided to write a first-person novel in the present tense, speculates on the value of superstitions, and shares some of the books she enjoyed as a teenager --- along with some tips for aspiring authors. In TOUCH BLUE, the state of Maine is about to shut down an island’s only school because of the small student population. To increase the number of students, several families on the island have agreed to take in foster children. It is such a practical solution to the problem --- and a wonderful idea for a story. What was your inspiration for the book?

Cynthia Lord: My inspiration for TOUCH BLUE came from two real Maine islands. Before I was an author, I taught school on a small island in Maine. The entire school had only two teachers and 13 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. I took the ferry to and from the island every day, so I couldn't ever be late, or I’d get stuck on the wrong side of the bay! It was a wonderful experience.

When you’re working at a tiny school, staying open is one of the many challenges you’re faced with. While doing some research, I came across the story of another Maine island where the families had once adopted foster children to increase their school enrollment and keep it from closing. That story fascinated me, so I used that real, historical event, along with my own experiences as an island teacher, to create TOUCH BLUE.

TRC: TOUCH BLUE is an uplifting story with a strong sense of place. The setting is a close-knit community on a picturesque island off the coast of Maine. Why did you choose this particular setting?

CL: Having a sense of community is crucial on an island. People have to work together and depend on each other more than they do on the mainland. There are also different types of people on an island: tourists, summer people and year-round residents. As a foster child, Aaron doesn't completely fit any of these categories. So the island setting supported my themes of family and belonging, but it also forced my characters to deal with those questions more than they would have needed to do on the mainland.

Islands are also challenging places to live --- just getting groceries is a big process! --- and they’re full of strong contrasts and sharp boundaries. All of this appeals to me as a writer. In fact, the setting is often the first thing I decide on when I’m writing a new book.

TRC: Chapter one opens with the saying “Touch blue, and your wish will come true.” Each subsequent chapter begins with a good luck/bad luck saying that relates to what takes place in the chapter. What inspired you to use these charming sayings? And how did you go about finding or creating them?

CL: There is an element of luck to fishing, and many of the lobstermen I know follow some superstitions. So I already knew many of the most common boat-related sayings: it's bad luck to say "pig" on a boat (I met one lobsterman who wouldn't even let anyone bring a ham sandwich aboard!), never whistle on a boat, etc.

My editor suggested that each chapter could be titled with a saying or superstition. So I listed the superstitions I knew, and then did research to find some more. I needed a saying or superstition that worked for the chapter, but would also be reasonable for a girl in Maine to believe.

In the end, having lucky things is about wanting control over something that’s beyond it, and that felt very appropriate for both Aaron and Tess in the story.

TRC: Tess, the main character, is the 11-year-old daughter of a school teacher and a lobster fisherman. Aaron is a 13-year-old foster child with a bad attitude --- but he also has an amazing gift. How did you research or come to know so much about the lives of lobster fishermen and foster children?

CL: I live in Coastal Maine, and lobstering is a way of life for many people there. I have taught elementary school students who already had their own boats and lobster traps. I went lobstering myself several times one summer to get the timing and details down. And when TOUCH BLUE was in its final drafts, I asked lobstering families to read it and give me feedback.

As for foster care, I worked with two wonderful foster parents who opened their homes and hearts to me. They not only checked my details, but they talked at length about the rewards and challenges their birth children and the foster children face. I was even allowed to observe a few supervised visits between a mom and her young child, who was in foster care. I watched the case worker; I listened to what that mom said to her daughter, and I could feel the regret and shame and love in her voice. I always left those meetings with a heavy heart. It's a complex situation.

TRC: Tess is very superstitious. Throughout most of the book, she carries around good luck charms and believes that good luck floats out in the world, sticking to some people but not to others. Tess’s mother believes people make their own luck. Which side do you agree with?

CL: I fall in the middle! I think that work opens more doors than luck. But I also know that sometimes good things and bad things just happen, and we can't control them. What we can control is how we respond to and deal with both good and bad situations, and what we end up learning from them.

I have a few superstitions of my own. For example, I have a fortune from a fortune cookie taped to my computer monitor. It says, "Your talents will be recognized and suitably rewarded." I taped that little strip of paper to my computer monitor as a joke one day a long time ago. The next week, I sold my first book! That book was RULES, and it went on to win a Newbery Honor. Now, I'm afraid to remove the fortune from my monitor!

TRC: Your writing here is vivid and appealing, and the characters are realistic, especially Tess and Aaron. Why did you decide to write the book in first person, present tense?

CL: Thank you! I am interested in the motives and thoughts of other people, and that often suits the first person best. As for the present tense, I wish I could say I had a grand plan and reason, but I didn't. As I wrote, the words simply came onto the page that way. Present tense adds immediacy, but it is harder to deal with the passage of time, because everything is happening “in the now.” So there are definitely plusses and minuses to using the present tense.

TRC: Tess mentions a few books she has read, including ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. What were some of your favorite books when you were a girl?

CL: Oh, I loved so many! But ANNE OF GREEN GABLES by L. M. Montgomery, THE MOUSE AND THE MOTORCYCLE by Beverly Cleary, THE BORROWERS by Mary Norton, THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND by Elizabeth George Speare, FOG MAGIC by Julia Sauer, THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER by Barbara Robinson, and the Nancy Drew series were a few of my favorites.

TRC: Since the release of TOUCH BLUE, what response have you received from foster children, social workers, or the parents of foster children who have read the book?

CL: So far, it's all been very positive. As a writer, I care deeply about not harming the real people who live the lives of my characters. It is something I think about a lot as I'm sending a book out into the world.

TRC: What message do you hope readers will take away after they turn the last page of TOUCH BLUE?

CL: Kids today live in all different kinds of families. As Tess says to Aaron, "You can belong in more than one place." I want readers to end TOUCH BLUE with a sense of hope that no matter where you lay your head at night, you always belong to all the people you love and all the people who love you.

TRC: You have been a teacher and are now a writer. Why did you decide to become a writer?

CL: As a child, I loved to read and imagine and tell stories. I used to make up new stories about the book characters I loved. I think that's when I started to become a writer.

But if you had asked me as a child if I thought I could become an author, I would have said no. My parents are two smart, wonderful people, but they aren't readers. So most of the books I read as a child came from either my school, my public library, or through the Scholastic Book Clubs.

As a child, I definitely thought authors weren't regular, ordinary people like me. But I was wrong. Ordinary, regular people write books all the time. The only exciting life you need to lead as an author is the one you lead in your imagination.

TRC: What advice do you have for young readers who want to become writers?

CL: For me, the hardest part of writing a book is simply getting a whole first draft done. So my best advice is to keep going, and don’t let yourself stop when it gets hard --- every book and every story will have those hard parts you have to push though.

Here are my own two rules for a first draft:

Dare to be bad. By that, I mean dare not to be perfect. Dare to keep writing, even if you worry that what you're writing isn't very good. Every writer feels that way sometimes. With the first draft, the goal is just to finish it.

Just get it done. You can’t fix what doesn’t exist. So finish that first draft without worrying if it’s good or not. You’ll make it good when you revise it.

TRC: You have an Internet presence, including a website and a blog. How has having a presence on the Internet affected the way you connect with readers and other writers?

CL: The Internet has been a wonderful blessing for me. It allows me to get to know other authors and readers. I have to be careful not to let it take over my writing time, but I love being able to meet and stay connected with readers.

TRC: TOUCH BLUE is your second novel, following your award-winning and highly acclaimed debut, RULES. What are you working on now?

CL: I had a picture book that came out last February. It's called HOT ROD HAMSTER, and it's illustrated by Derek Anderson. We have a companion book coming out next year. It's called HAPPY BIRTHDAY, HAMSTER. So that's in the final stages right now.

Over the summer, I also started a new novel. This one is set in New Hampshire, which is where I grew up. I love dramatic settings, and the mountains of New Hampshire are wild and beautiful.