by Samantha Ferguson
Young adult author Peni Griffin was born in Harlingen, Texas and currently lives in Texas with her husband, Damon. So far, she has written twenty-five books, including 11,000 Years Lost, The Music Thief, The Ghost Sitter, Margo’s House, The Maze, The Brick House Burglars, The Swithching Well, The Treasure Bird, Hibkin, A Dig in Time, and Otto from Otherwhere. Her interests in archeology have provided Griffin with a great resource for many of her books. I recently interviewed Griffin by email to learn more about her life as a Texas writer.
Samantha Ferguson: What led you to choose to write for young adults and children rather than a different age group?
Peni Griffin: Here’s the thing about adult books: broadly speaking (and recognizing that all generalizations are false), they aren’t as good as children’s books. When I reached the age of reading adult books, I was disappointed in their quality, for the most part. They were thematically shallow, simplistic, and not much fun to read. Many were simply annoying. Most the exceptions were in genre fiction; and in my favorite genre, fantasy, most of the good stuff, marketed to adults in paperback, was in the children’s section of the library in hardcover. This was back in the late 70s, early 80s; the marketing has changed some since then. Back in the day, fantasy books only wound up in the adult section of the library if they had sex scenes in them – and by the way most of the sex scenes I’ve ever read that weren’t distasteful and embarrassing were in YA books, where they tend to be hilariously honest. But that’s a whole different rant. Anyway, even in science fiction (which was far more likely to be shelved in “adult” in those days) I discovered that the genre books I liked best were “really” YA or MG, in that they were highly accessible to growing minds. Children’s and YA books were optimistic even when sad, and interesting on every page; and they dealt with complex themes in complex ways without taking themselves too seriously. Picking up a random adult and a random children’s book, at the same time, almost always resulted in finding that the children’s book was better written by every criterion I could apply.
Anyway, for years I wrote fantasy short stories for magazines and tried to plot out novels for adults, because I assumed I didn’t write well enough to write for children. But I started writing a story about a boy wandering out of the fog above Woodlawn Lake on a cold morning, from Someplace Else, and I realized as I was trying to write it that all the interesting stuff happened to the children. So I wrote it as a juvenile novel (Otto from Other where) instead of as an adult short story, and I sold it (as a complete novel out of the slush pile, which is virtually unheard of these day) to the second place I sent it and I realized, good enough or not, this is what I can write.
You don’t get all that much choice in what you write, honestly. There’s what you do well, and there’s what you do less well. There’s the book that beats against your brain trying to get written, and there’s all the ones that sulk in the back of your head and won’t come out into the light.
SF: What is the most rewarding thing about writing for children — and the most challenging?
PG: Kid brains are so responsive! They’ll write asking for permission to name dolls after your characters. They’ll send you book reports about your books (and meticulously point out your flaws). They’ll give you credit when at most you were a facilitator, like the kid who writes and tells you that this or that book of yours was the one that marked the moment that they learned to read for pleasure, and went from failing in English class to all A’s. I didn’t do that – they did that. They picked up my book at the right time, is all. But how great is it to be the author of the book they picked up at the crucial moment? Even when I’m not hearing from them, I know that every day contains the possibility of some kid picking up one of my books and having a thought I couldn’t ever have had myself, that they couldn’t have had if they hadn’t picked up my book. No matter how discouraged you feel on any given day, no one who has published a book that children read has lived in vain.
The most challenging thing for me personally is just to sell the books. I have no entrepreneurial spirit and I couldn’t sell water in the desert. (For one thing, I’d feel obliged to give it away.) I’m the kind of person who wants something less the more people try to sell it to me, with the result that I have no idea how to go about persuading someone else to pay me for anything, no matter how worthwhile I know it to be. The days of plopping entire books into the slush pile and being discovered by a perceptive editor are long gone – editorial staff has been cut to the bone at most publishing houses, and with the best will in the world, they don’t have time for that. So I have to write queries. Which have to be short. And I don’t know whether you’ve noticed this, but I’m a little prolix. J Writing stories is the thing I’m best at in the world; writing queries isn’t the thing I’m worst at overall, but it’s the hardest writing chore I know. Plus I hate, hate, hate contacting strangers. Some days it’s so bad I’m paralyzed with it. But if I don’t do it, I can’t sell anything, so, there I am.
SF: What got you interesting in Archeology, so much so, that you used it to write 11,000 years Lost?
PG: I’ve always been very keen on the idea of The Past, these deep layers of time on top of which present reality is built. Barring time travel, archeology is the only way to access the deepest layers of time. And archeologists access the people in those deep layers in an intimate way inaccessible to other modes of learning. Touching a tool, or a toy, or an artwork that is older than you – older than your language – literally older than God (or modern concepts of God anyway) and being able to recognize the humanity of the hands that made it is a profound thing. No one thing got me interested in archeology. I was pretty much born that way.
SF: You have posted on your website: “Some books are part of your contractual obligation to the universe, and this is mine.” Did you feel this way about any of your other books?
PG: Not to the same extent as I did with The Music Thief; because never before and never since has the universe worked so hard to enable it. If you look at Idea Garage Sale posts on my blog, you’ll find that a lot of the ideas I’m tossing out there are things that are not mine to write – the Native American historical epics and so on. On the face of it, The Music Thief was one of those ideas – a protagonist from a culture I only know as an outsider, with a talent and an access to music that I don’t share. (I can’t listen to music the way other people do and it’s clear to me that I don’t experience it the same way. So it’s very odd that music is part of so many of the characters I write. Don’t ask me how this works. I have no clue.) But the world kept throwing what I needed at me. An awful lot of what I needed I got as part of and parcel of two temp jobs I had at UTSA – I was literally getting paid to research it. And when I discussed the story with Hispanic people I was working with, people who were far more qualified than me to write it except that they weren’t the ones with the idea and the literary ambition, they all urged me to write it. So I did. Anything else would have been gross ingratitude toward the universe. I don’t believe in Larger Forces Guiding Us, but a part of me is convinced that somebody, somewhere, has picked up that book and been profoundly changed in some positive way. Even if it was just someone throwing the book across the room and saying: “If that ignorant white lady can get that into print, there’s hope for me” and gotten on with whatever work of their own was stalled out or being put off.
SF: A lot of your books seem to be fantasy related. Is there a specific subject matter within the fantasy genre that you like writing about more so than the others?
PG: I love time travel, obviously. I also love the sense of Otherness – because don’t we all live a skin’s distance away from fascinating, exotic Otherness that we’re too used to notice? I love how much easier it is to tell the truth with fantasy than it is with “realistic” fiction. Because “realism” isn’t any more realistic than other genres; it’s conventions just look more like the reality we’re trained to see than “genre” fiction, and as a result it is handicapped in stripping the layers of gunk off our perceptions and helping us see clearly. The world is infinite; our brains are finite; we can only fit small portions of reality into our heads at any one time, and fantasy clears out much larger fields of view than genres that merely rearrange the furniture in our brains.
SF: Your books seem to require a lot of research. So far, what is the most interesting subject you have spent time researching?
PG: The most interesting research subject is always the one you’re currently researching. That’s the nature of the beast. The current state of Pleistocene archeology is such that you can literally find out something brand new about it every day of the year, so that’s certainly one that keeps on giving. But when properly approached, everything is interesting.
Peni Griffin runs a blog with her husband where she posts ideas that she get for writing, The Idea Garage Sale. You can find more about the author at: http://penigriffin.blogspot.com/