Marsha Wilson Chall

Marsha Wilson Chall


How has per­son­al expe­ri­ence influ­enced the writ­ing of each of your books?

All writ­ing is fil­tered in some way through a writer’s life expe­ri­ence, so every sto­ry has a sto­ry and a per­son behind it. I wrote One Pup’s Up (2010) and Pick a Pup (2011) in antic­i­pa­tion of adopt­ing a pup­py, some­thing I’d nev­er had the priv­i­lege to do until then. I’ve loved and lived with some great dogs and the tra­di­tion con­tin­ues with the newest addi­tion to our fam­i­ly, a pup named Scout. She picked us as much as we picked her!

Of course I’d already writ­ten a fairy tale about a French dog in a book named after him, Bona­parte, long before Scout’s arrival. My father’s majes­tic dog, Hank, inspired me to write a sto­ry about an intel­li­gent, talk­ing dog (I think dogs do talk—we just don’t have smart enough ears); and my son Rob­bie begged me to write about a boy, for once already. So I did and showed the best part of a dog’s love for his boy and a boy’s loy­al­ty to his dog. C’est bon.

Some­times I’ll hear a sto­ry that ignites my imag­i­na­tion, like one about a gyp­sy wed­ding in Spain’s Andalu­sian Moun­tains. I was enchant­ed by the exot­ic set­ting and descrip­tion of the cer­e­mo­ny so much that I read about the gyp­sy cul­ture for many months. What I even­tu­al­ly wrote had noth­ing to do with a wed­ding, but about the priv­i­leges and bur­dens of pow­er. If a woman believed she raised the sun and need­ed a vaca­tion, what might hap­pen? The gyp­sy sto­ry sparked Rupa Rais­es the Sunbut what kept it burn­ing was a need to resolve my own life at the time. I dis­cov­ered through writ­ing this tale that I, like Rupa, could take a day off now and again and the sun would also rise.

In my chap­ter book, Mat­tie, imag­i­na­tion and expe­ri­ence com­bined to cre­ate a spir­it­ed sec­ond-grade char­ac­ter who, like me, loved school and friends but thought boys belonged on Plu­to. An author’s best revenge is to live life twice, so I invent­ed the lit­tle broth­er I nev­er had named Emmett, whom Mat­tie sells; and a class­mate named Jeb who, through (bad) luck of the draw, becomes Mattie’s Valentine.

A strong con­nec­tion to place, the land beneath my feet, feeds me spir­i­tu­al­ly and is often expressed in my work. Though fic­tion­al­ized, the roots of four of my pic­ture books run deep in their respec­tive set­tings. Up North at the Cab­in depicts my own and my family’s unguard­ed affec­tion for the cab­in get-away expe­ri­ence, a change of place, pace, and atti­tude. My adult daugh­ter Lind­say relives her child­hood each Memo­r­i­al Day as she water skis an icy-cold Leech Lake. Gen­er­a­tions of my fam­i­ly have vaca­tioned and cel­e­brat­ed hol­i­days on north­ern lakes, espe­cial­ly the the biggest day of sum­mer, the Fourth of July. In Hap­py Birth­day, Amer­i­ca! I record­ed these large fam­i­ly gath­er­ings doing my best to name every rel­a­tive (and to spell those 37 names cor­rect­ly, which I did with one noticed excep­tion). In homage to a fam­i­ly tra­di­tion of sug­ar­ing with friends in north­ern Min­neso­ta, I wrote Sug­ar­bush SpringThis annu­al rit­u­al sig­naled not only a nat­ur­al clock, but also the depend­abil­i­ty of nature’s gifts in the deli­cious form of maple syrup. The onset of win­ter on the prairie is por­trayed in Prairie Train, the sto­ry of a girl’s first solo jour­ney to vis­it Grand­ma in the big city. Her glam­orous ride on the grand Great North­ern 1924 Ori­en­tal Lim­it­ed is soon derailed by a for­mi­da­ble bliz­zard. Her con­fi­dence shak­en, fear seeps in, as icy and grip­ping as the scream­ing prairie wind. I was nev­er strand­ed on a snow­bound train, but my grand­moth­er was. I imposed my own love of train trav­el (a lit­tle lat­er than 1924, how­ev­er!) with her expe­ri­ence to cre­ate this rite-of-pas­sage sto­ry. A new book, A Secret Keeps (2012), is set on my fam­i­ly’s farmstead.

Tell us a lit­tle bit about your writ­ing process and the devel­op­ment of your books.

I used to write the first drafts in long­hand, but I am becom­ing more flu­ent on the com­put­er. I can type faster than I can write for one thing. But ideas still ger­mi­nate on scraps of paper and grow or die in note­books or fold­ers. Some­times it’s slow labor, com­plete with false starts, shal­low breath­ing, and the con­firmed belief that some­one else should do this. Rupa Rais­es the Sun, for exam­ple, was draft­ed, revised, over­hauled, trashed, and res­ur­rect­ed sev­er­al times over a course of sev­en years. But when I know the full arc of the sto­ry (I wish that occurred reli­ably), it can deliv­er itself. Up North at the Cab­in showed up one day after a few months ges­ta­tion. Of course it was spank­ing new and required many drafts plus some unusu­al research. My edi­tor ques­tioned whether the lake named in the book was known as Lake Mille Lacs or Mille Lacs Lake. I can­vassed about 50 tourists around Minnesota’s sec­ond largest lake to hear what they called it—Lake Mille Lacs or Mille Lacs Lake. Most took the easy way out and dubbed it “Mille Lacs.” But I need­ed “Lake” for the extra beat, and dis­cov­ered that the over-thir­ty set to which I belonged said Lake Mille Lacs; the younger crowd reversed it. I aligned with my peers in that deci­sion. In research­ing Sug­ar­bush SpringI learned from the pres­i­dent of the Min­neso­ta Maple Syrup Pro­duc­ers Asso­ci­a­tion that the area sur­round­ing Lake Mille Lacs sup­ports the sweet­est maple trees in the state. Per­haps that influ­ences their dis­po­si­tions, too, but “sweet” meant sug­ar con­tent in that con­text. And if that isn’t fas­ci­nat­ing enough, con­sid­er my research to unearth one of the two remain­ing Class P‑2/482 “Moun­tain” type steam engines for Prairie Train in Will­mar, Min­neso­ta at the Kandiy­ohi Muse­um. There, the cura­tor and I were able to col­or-copy old Great North­ern Cal­en­dar engines to show the pecu­liar shade of green engine paint the illus­tra­tor could not find in East Coast muse­ums and libraries.

I’ve been meet­ing at least month­ly with my reg­u­lar writ­ers’ group or “lit­ter­mates” (we clawed and squirmed our way into the writ­ing world togeth­er) since 1987. I’m also very for­tu­nate to be a part of semi­an­nu­al writ­ers’ retreats with oth­er children’s authors. I wouldn’t have per­sist­ed with some of my sto­ries with­out their strong and able support.

When did you start writing?

I’ve always writ­ten. As a child I kept diaries, wrote plays and pup­pet shows, and sum­mer­time neigh­bor­hood news­pa­pers (“Chuckie’s Ton­sils Out at Last!”). When my moth­er dis­cov­ered my ado­les­cent poet­ry and won­dered if we should see a psy­chol­o­gist, I real­ized that writ­ing too close to the bone could be trou­ble. In col­lege, I rapt­ly read the writ­ings of a lot of dead guys—you know the ones—and allowed my only cre­ative writ­ing instruc­tor to sub­mit my sto­ry, “The Spines,” (I’m still embar­rassed) to the cam­pus lit­er­ary con­test, which I grudg­ing­ly won and all I could say was “go fig­ure.” That was one weird sto­ry, and if that’s what inspired praise, I only want­ed to do laun­dry the rest of my life. I recall an appear­ance by Rod Ser­ling of Twi­light Zone fame and the writ­ing awards cer­e­mo­ny that spring as near­ly the same event. Besides, when I men­tioned to my par­ents that the Eng­lish Depart­ment rec­om­mend­ed grad­u­ate study out East, they changed the subject.

Being a “writer” scared me. The stakes seemed too high, or maybe too low—drunkenness, debauch­ery, being dead. I faced my own mor­tal­i­ty when my moth­er died and read C.S. Lewis and Auden for con­so­la­tion, but found lit­tle relief. Where I did find it was through the urgent redis­cov­ery of a very mor­tal, con­crete world, the same one I’d always explored with my chil­dren, but now through a new fil­ter. What if this were the last time I’d ever see a tulip? Or what if this were the first time? Eudo­ra Wel­ty said that “chil­dren, like ani­mals, use all their sens­es to dis­cov­er the world. Then artists come along and dis­cov­er it the same way, all over again.” So I wrote to inter­pret and pre­serve experience—to cap­ture it so it could nev­er be lost.

A friend recent­ly remind­ed me of the axiom that work should be play with a pur­pose. Writ­ing to me is that kind of work; like play, I lose track of time, in the same mirac­u­lous way I did as a child in the back­yard cre­at­ing minia­ture worlds that slipped imper­cep­ti­bly into nightfall.

Why do you write for children?

I was awak­ened to children’s lit­er­a­ture by read­ing pic­ture books with my kids. The lush illus­tra­tions and poet­ic lan­guage appealed to me. I took one class, then anoth­er, and stud­ied craft in work­shops for two years. I learned to rel­ish children’s fresh, con­crete, unself-con­scious dis­cov­er­ies of the world. Writ­ing for chil­dren allowed me that joy of expe­ri­enc­ing the world over and over again for the first time. Adults lose this child­like appre­ci­a­tion through over-com­pli­ca­tion. I like to make the com­plex sim­ple. Not sim­ple-mind­ed, but pared down to the essen­tial. Wal­ter de la Mare said “Only the rarest kind of best in any­thing is good enough for the young.” And I’d say that chil­dren are the best kind of peo­ple we have to offer. Like the pedi­a­tri­cian, I’m work­ing with fresh mate­r­i­al, not the dam­age of a lifetime’s wear and com­pli­ca­tions. It’s great work if you can get it.

Talk about teaching …

I’ve been for­tu­nate to receive the schol­ar­ship and encour­age­ment of so many fine writ­ers and now con­tribute my sup­port through school and library vis­its, young writ­ers’ work­shops, and stu­dent men­tor­ship in Ham­line University’s MFA pro­gram in Writ­ing for Chil­dren and Young Adults as well as pri­vate work­shops. I love inter­act­ing with read­ers and writ­ers of all ages. In fact, it’s not an exag­ger­a­tion to say that books have brought the world to my door. Though I’ve not trav­eled exten­sive­ly, I’ve dis­cov­ered many lands through books and from the oppor­tu­ni­ty to teach inter­na­tion­al stu­dents and to read to them in adult lit­er­a­cy class­es. Teach­ing crit­i­cal and cre­ative writ­ing for chil­dren’s writ­ers at the col­lege lev­el has giv­en me that rare chance to study children’s lit­er­a­ture and the writer’s craft so that I learn what I know and how it’s of val­ue. Teach­ing teach­es the stu­dent and the teacher. Pla­to said that she who dares to teach must nev­er cease to learn. I learn some­thing about the way sto­ries work every time I read, teach, or write one.