Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Author Interview: Linda Ashman

Today, dear readers, I am lucky enough to talk with the lovely Linda Ashman, author of bazillions of great picture books including M is for Mischief, Babies on the Go, and Starry Safari (among many others). I reviewed her latest book, Come to the Castle, a few weeks ago for Nonfiction Monday and I love, love, loved it!

ATL: First of all, thanks so much for talking with me! I've loved lots of your picture books and Come to the Castle is definitely one I'm eager to share with my library patrons! You've written great picture books about all kinds of different subjects. How do you come up with the next idea? What inspired you to write Come to the Castle?

LA: Ideas appear in so many ways, and their origins seem to be different for each book. For example, Stella, Unleashed: Notes from the Doghouse came directly from my aging dog, Nicky, sitting beside me in my office. At 14, I knew she wouldn’t be around much longer, and wondered what she’d tell me if she could speak. M is for Mischief came from my son Jackson’s fascination with naughty behavior when he was little. Rub-a-Dub Sub started as a first line and a rhythm that kept going through my head—but refused to develop into anything else until a year later when I pulled it out of a file again. And sometimes ideas don’t develop the way you expect them to: Babies on the Go began as a collection of poems about nocturnal animals. As I began doing research and taking notes, I discovered that many animals had really interesting ways of carrying their babies (this discovery probably had something to do with the fact that I was pregnant at the time!).

COME TO THE CASTLE had a fairly strange genesis, given that I’ve never been very good at remembering historical periods, rulers, dates, etc. I started it in 2003, shortly after the Iraq War began. I was distressed at the state of the world, and wondered if any time in history was as turbulent and violent as our own seemed to be. This got me thinking of a Medieval Torture Museum my husband and I visited in Italy years before, and the horrendous torture devices on display. Somehow this led me downtown to the medieval history section of the Denver P
ublic Library, and from there—eventually—to books on castle life in 13th Century England.

When I don’t know what I’m going to work on (and I usually don’t), I take out my idea files—several manila folders filled with 14 years worth of scribbled-on scraps of paper and partially-completed manuscripts. I’ll pull out a few things that seem to have potential, then start playing around with them. With any luck, something will develop
into a story.

Can you tell us a little about your process for researching Come to the Castle?

“Process” is a very nice word for what would more aptly be described as flailing around—I really had no idea where I was going initially. I started by browsing through big, beautiful books on the Middle Ages, till I narrowed my focus to castles, and then to British castles. That, of course, led to more books, and to lots of note-taking. Daily Life in Medieval Times by Frances and Joseph Gies was very helpful in the beginning. At some point I’d done enough reading and research that the story and characters began coming to life and I could begin writing.

You probably found way more information than you could actually fit into the book. What were some of your favorite facts that didn't make it into the final book?

You’re right—there definitely were other things I thought I’d include. I found the medical beliefs really interesting—the balancing of the four humors, bloodletting, various superstitions, the unsanitary conditions that contributed to illness, and all the botanical remedies. I managed to touch on some of this in The Doctor poem, but thought I’d be able to work in more. Since the whole idea started with the Torture Museum, I thought I might have something about crime and punishment—but much of it didn’t seem appropriate for a children’s book. Also thought I’d work in something about women’s make-up (made from sheep fat) and the clothing of the time—fortunately, Steve Schindler’s detailed illustrations covered that beautifully.

One of my favorite spreads was the gong farmer because it was so unexpected (and funny)! Did you always intend to include that particular castle job or is that something that you stumbled across in your research?

I didn’t know about the gong farmer until I started doing research But as soon as I read a description of the garderobe, and the
poor guy who had to clean it, I knew it would be in the book. I love this illustration, and love how they changed its orientation to get a sense of that long, disgusting, chute!

If you had to be one of the people in the castle, who would you like to be? Who would you least like to be?

Oh, I think the Earl has a pretty fine life relative to the others; I’d opt for his role. And what could be worse than being a gong farmer? Although I don’t envy the daughter much, either, being married off to some unsavory fellow at such a young age.

What are some of your favorite nonfiction books for kids? And what do you like to read in your spare time?

I don’t read a whole lot of non-fiction for kids, but I admire the visuals of the DK Eyewitness books. I also like Judith St. George’s So You Want to Be . . . series, illustrated by David Small, and Kathleen Krull’s Lives of the . . . (and What the Neighbors Thought) books illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. I recently picked up Hey Batta Batta Swing by Sally Cook and James Charlton (illustrated by Ross MacDonald) and When Royals Wore Ruffles by Pamela Jaber and Chesley McLaren—both very clever and fun. And I think Kadir Nelson’s We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball is a masterpiece.

As for my own reading, I seem to favor books that address how to maintain your sanity, live simply, and connect with something deeper amidst the noise and bustle of daily life. I love Thomas Moore’s books, Anne Lamott’s essays, Robert Benson’s Digging In, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and the memoirs of Karen Armstrong and Sue Monk Kidd. As for fiction, recent favorites include March by Geraldine Brooks and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows. And, as a gardener, I’ve got stacks of gardening books around the house—though they’re really more for feeding fantasies of some future glorious garden than for actually reading.

Okay, I've definitely added some books to my TBR list now. ;) Linda, thanks so much for talking with me today! And blog readers, run (don't walk) out to your nearest bookstore or library and pick up Come to the Castle and an armful of Linda's other excellent picture books!