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Author, Joan Bauer

Joan Bauer

About Joan Bauer

An Interview with Joan Bauer

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July 12, 1951 - "I was born at eleven A.M., a most reasonable time, my mother often said, and when the nurse put me in my mother's arms for the first time I had both a nasty case of the hiccups and no discernible forehead (it's since grown in). I've always believed in comic entrances.

"As I grew up in River Forest, Illinois in the 1950's I seem to remember an early fascination with things that were funny. I thought that people who could make other people laugh were terribly fortunate. While my friends made their career plans, declaring they would become doctors, nurses, and lawyers, inwardly, I knew that I wanted to be involved somehow in comedy. This, however, was a difficult concept to get across in first grade. But I had a mother with a great comic sense (she was a high school English teacher) and a grandmother who was a funny professional storytellerso I figured the right genes were in there somewhere, although I didn't always laugh at what my friends laughed at and they rarely giggled at my jokes. That, and the fact that I was overweight and very tall, all made me feel quite different when I was growing upa bit like a water buffalo at a tea party.

"My grandmother, who I called Nana, had the biggest influence on me creatively. She taught me the importance of stories and laughter. She never said, 'Now I'm going to tell you a funny story', she'd just tell a story, and the humor would naturally flow from it because of who she was and how she and her characters saw the world. She showed me the difference between derisive laughter that hurts others and laughter that comes from the heart. She showed me, too, that stories help us understand ourselves at a deep level. She was a keen observer of people.

"I kept a diary as a child, was always penning stories and poems. I played the flute heartily, taught myself the guitar, and wrote folk songs. For years I wanted to be a comedienne, then a comedy writer. I was a voracious reader, too, and can still remember the dark wood and the green leather chairs of the River Forest Public Library, can hear my shoes tapping on the stairs going down to the children's room, can feel my fingers sliding across rows and rows of books, looking through the card catalogues that seemed to house everything that anyone would ever need to know about in the entire world. My parents divorced when I was eight years old, and I was devastated at the loss of my father. I pull from that memory regularly as a writer. Every book I have written so far has dealt with complex father issues of one kind or another. My father was an alcoholic and the pain of that was a shadow that followed me for years. I attempted to address that pain in Rules of the Road. It was a very healing book for me. I didn't understand it at the time, but I was living out the theme that I try to carry into all of my writing: adversity, if we let it, will make us stronger.

"In my twenties, I had a successful career in sales and advertising with the Chicago Tribune, McGraw-Hill, and Parade Magazine. I met my husband Evan, a computer engineer, while I was on vacation. Our courtship was simple. He asked me to dance; I said no. We got married five months later in August, 1981. But I was not happy in advertising sales, and I had a few ulcers to prove it. With Evan's loving support, I decided to try my hand at professional writing. I wish I could say that everything started falling into place, but it was a slow, slow buildwriting newspaper and magazine articles for not much money. My daughter Jean was born in July of 82. She had the soul of a writer even as a baby. I can remember sitting at my typewriter (I didn't have a computer back then) writing away with Jean on a blanket on the floor next to me. If my writing was bad that day, I'd tear that page out of the typewriter and hand it to her. 'Bad paper,' I'd say and Jean would rip the paper in shreds with her little hands.

"I had moved from journalism to screenwriting when one of the biggest challenges of my life occurred. I was in a serious auto accident which injured my neck and back severely and required neurosurgery. It was a long road back to wholeness, but during that time I wrote Squashed, my first young adult novel. The humor in that story kept me going. Over the years, I have come to understand how deeply I need to laugh. It's like oxygen to me. My best times as a writer are when I'm working on a book and laughing while I'm writing. Then I know I've got something."

Joan's first novel, Squashed, won the Delacorte Prize for a First Young Adult Novel. Five novels for young adult readers have followed: Thwonk, Sticks, Rules of the Road (LA Times Book Prize and Golden Kite), Backwater and Hope was Here (Newbery Honor Medal).

Joan lives in Darien, CT with her husband and daughter.

Copyright © 2000 by Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved. In their monthly website feature, Rising Star, The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books says this about Joan Bauer's books, "While the general perception of young adult literature is that it's all dark and depressing, many worthy writers in the genre produce work of wit and hilarity. Joan Bauer is Exhibit A in this category; her characters' narration is smart, funny, and original."

I recently emailed some questions to Joan about her novel Backwater, her books, and her writing. Here is our conversation. —Susan Hawk, Associate Director of Library Marketing (for Preview Magazine

Preview:How did the idea for your new book, Backwater, come about?

I had wanted to write a story with a hermit in it for a long time—I'm intrigued by folks who can live fully alone, and always wondered about the people in their lives that they left behind. There is a big part of me that is introverted—I'm sure that's true of most writers. I can spend long periods of time by myself, so the hermit fascinated me personally. But I could never up and leave society like Josephine did—I do need people around me; and I'd really miss gourmet restaurants. Backwater, more than anything I've done to date, incorporates two very real sides of me—the gentle, misunderstood hermit, and the smart-talking teenager who is searching for voice and wholeness. As I got more and more into the story, I realized it's a story about belonging—so often we think that belonging happens easily among people, and yet Backwater tries to show how complex belonging to a family can really be—what happens when relationships break apart and how they have to be repaired. As I wrote this book, I thought of the times I didn't feel understood by people; remembered too often when I was surrounded by people whose styles were so very different than mine and how badly I wanted to bolt.

I also wanted to write something that took place in the Adirondacks, since my family and I go there to hike the high peaks and climb mountains. It's a great love of mine and I got to share some of that by locating the hermit in the Adirondack Mountains.

In Backwater the main character, Ivy Breedlove, loves history. What made you think of a character who likes history? Did Ivy's character start with that idea? Where have the inspirations for other characters come from?

Now, you have to understand that I am a big history nut, and I think it's because I so believe in the lessons we can learn from the past and from others. So I naturally think of history as a link to character. And my 16-year-old daughter, Jean, is seriously thinking about becoming a historian, so I pulled greatly from her passion for the subject. Ivy's character always had a love of history, but she really came alive for me when I also gave her a passion as a family historian—that linked the entire story together and brought the story of the Breedlove family into focus. What Ivy understands and learns in an even deeper way is that understanding history helps us to understand ourselves. She knows she is part of generations of people who have come before her—and she wants to understand what part of those ancestors are in her mind and emotions, too. People are who they are for many reasons—I think it's important for teenagers and for all of us to think about that. In my characters I always look for something unusual that also has universal underpinnings. Ivy understands that she is living her history right now—she understands she has a responsibility to the next generation. I like that about her very much. Jenna Boller in Rules of the Road has a deep passion for selling shoes—not a sexy profession by any means—it's an ordinary thing to be crazy about—just like loving history seems ordinary, even boring. But most things, ordinary things, can be made wonderfully interesting and fulfilling when they're fueled by passion. I could have Jenna be crazy about selling ice cream and work at 31 Flavors, but there was something about selling shoes that spoke to me—kneeling down to help a customer try a pair on, working with feet, which are not the most glamorous part of the body. I look for ordinary interests that can be made fully alive. There's great humor in that, I find, and also life lessons to be learned. When I create a character, I layer on their personalities—fears, desires, past experiences, then stick something nutty in the mix. I've always seen characters like that. I'm like that, I think.

Did you do any special research for Backwater?

My husband gave me a bird feeder a few years ago and I filled it diligently each time it got low so the birds knew they could count on me. Then once, as I was just starting Backwater, I'd forgotten to check the feeder and heard this cacophony of irritated tweets coming from my back yard. I went outside and saw that the feeder was empty and the birds were MAD I hadn't filled it. They were sitting in the trees crabbing at me. It was very funny. I tried to incorporate some bird attitude into the book after that. Then last summer, in the Adirondacks on vacation, my husband, daughter, and I hiked a mountain we'd not been on before. It was a much longer ascent than we'd expected; we didn't have enough food or water, and I was simply exhausted on the way down. It was awful. I was so weak, I was tripping and falling and yes, even crying. It was scary. And it forever changed the way I think about being prepared on the mountain. I pulled from some of those feelings at the end of Backwater when Ivy is pushed to the limit.

One last thing: When I was researching hermits for the book, I went to the Internet to see what info I could find. And I found, I swear, an entire section on solitude...hermit.org

It seems to me that it would be difficult to write a funny book. And you do more than that; balance the humor so its not glib, and use it as a tool for your characters' growth. This looks even more difficult, and yet, you do it! How does this happen?

It is easier for me to think and write funny because I really have a humorous outlook on life. I truly see humor as a way to get through life—it's an emotional tool for me. Humor helps me put difficult things in perspective. I see laughter as being a bridge between pain and redemption. I heard someone say once, when we can laugh about something difficult, what we're really saying is that we've moved from the pain of it to the hope. But I don't sit at my computer and the jokes just flow. My first drafts are usually quite serious because I'm getting the real serious underpinnings of the stories and characters in place. Then, in subsequent drafts, the humor becomes more alive because I know the characters and how they will react. There is a cautious dance between laughter and sadness. I work very hard to not be derisive in my humor—there's too much of that in the world, I feel. Take Ivy Breedlove. If I tell you this is the story of a girl who is a passionate lover of history, it's a safe bet the room will clear. But think about what that means. She's always pulling from funny historical stories to help her explain the world. And the kind of humor I like streams from character. Not from some guy putting on a funny hat or making gasser noises.

Do you find the process of revision a hard or easy one—or something else between? For instance, in some notes about Rules of the Road, I saw that Nancy Paulsen [Joan's editor] suggested making Aunt Agatha and Grandma into one character. How do you go back and do this?

Actually, I like revision. It's the first draft I don't care for much because much of the writing doesn't sing yet and the humor hasn't found full voice. In revision, I've got the steel girders of the story and characters in place and I can begin to craft the words and feelings. It is hard, though, when you've been working on a story for a long time and you have to revise a big chunk of it, like deepening a character or changing their focus, or pulling one character from two. In the beginning of that I always think I can't do it—it was a lousy idea. And I really struggle. It's a bit like having one piece of furniture in a room re-covered and all of a sudden you realize all the other changes you need to make. You see, the chaos theory is at work in fiction. If you change a character, that change alters the story, and you have to alter how other characters will react. In Backwater, I was having trouble with the hermit. In the beginning I made her larger than life—she was a combination of this quiet artist AND Mountain Mama. That just didn't work—it was inconsistent with who I ultimately wanted this woman to be. So, unlike Rules of the Road, where I took two characters and made them one, here I took one character and made her into two. Mountain Mama was a late addition in this story and I feel she added an energy to it. It's really a fascinating process—thinking through a character—what are their desires, dreams, weaknesses, etc. Then watching them come alive before you. Somewhere in the writing the character becomes a real person to me and when I'm through writing the story, I miss them very much.

I also saw in the Rules of the Road files that you worked hard to make sure that if a girl was on the cover, she would look the way Jenna is described in the book—not prettified. I also noted that you heard librarians talk on this issue and you knew their opinions. Can you talk a little about this?

I think it's terribly important to be honest about what a story is, and the cover should certainly reflect that honesty. This is a world that is overflowing with hype and there is no group on earth that is more aware of that than teenagers. If we automatically assume that kids just want to read about overly attractive people, we've missed the boat. I don't write about people like that. If you gave me scads of money to do it, I would fail. Several years ago I was speaking at a regional library conference and the subject came up of prettifying characters on covers and those librarians rose as one, incensed at the practice and they said their young readers were turned off by that misrepresentation as well. We have to stare Hollywood down and determine to be real.

How important are outside opinions of your work? How do you keep in touch with those opinions?

I certainly care what people think of my work. The reason I write is to communicate, so getting feedback is important to me. The trick is in staying true to the story and not being unduly swayed by opinions. I have great respect for the librarians and teachers in this business. I have several people who keep me current, and I treasure their comments on my work and the marketplace. But I don't really review story ideas with them before I start a book, or ask if teenagers will go for the ideas. I believe that teenagers are interested in far more than the media lets on. Teens today have great depth, have known great suffering, and are truly getting ready to take their place in this complex world.

What is the writing process like for you? How long does one book take? Do you have a special place for writing?

I always begin writing a book by not writing. I do a great deal of research before I get started. In Backwater, I researched hermits, historians, lawyers, how to be a family historian, winter hiking, to name a few, before I started writing. Then I write long bios of my characters—where they were born, what their lives were like, their dreams, fears, etc., before I even begin chapter one. Throughout this process, little snippets of conversation occur to me and I write those down, unusual character traits. I keep a bin in the closet of my office and when I run across an interesting piece of information about the subject I'm going to be writing about, I drop it in. Each book has taken different amounts of time to finish. Squashed took 1 1z2 years, Thwonk took 2 1z2 years, Rules of the Road took 7 months, Backwater took 9 months. I'm writing a book a year these days and that feels right.

I write in a small office I have in my home—it's about twenty feet from my bedroom door. I have lots of funny folk art in it—I'm always looking for things that make me laugh.

Why do you write? How long did you know you would be a writer? What keeps you going as a writer?

I write because I have to. I tried to stop a few times when things weren't going well many years ago and I couldn't do it. I love writing, and yet there are times when it is painfully difficult. I see the world through metaphor, and stories have always been a way for me to explain the world. When I'm writing, I'm trying to explain a part of the world to myself. I'm trying to work things out. As a child, I kept a diary and always wanted to be a writer, but never thought I could make a living at it. See, I do have a practical side. Writing was fairly easy for me and because of that I think I didn't take it as seriously as I should have. Before I became a writer, I was in space sales for ten years. Space sales sounds terribly ethereal until you realize that what I was actually doing was selling advertising in magazines and newspapers. I traveled all over the country, was successful at convincing advertisers to put their full-page ad in my magazine, but I didn't like it. I kept hanging out with the creative people, never thinking I was in the wrong profession. I kept shoving down the muse that was trying to whisper in my ear. I ended up with a few ulcers and was singularly miserable. It was then that I finally began to listen to my heart, quit my job, and started writing. I made no money in the beginning, which was horrifying, but oh so gradually I moved from journalism to screenwriting to YA fiction—and that's when things began to really come together for me. I understand Ivy Breedlove and Josephine the hermit in Backwater very well because I've spent a good part of my life trying to find the real me.

My faith in God, my family, and my close friends keep me going as a writer. I have great support in my life. I am truly blessed.

In what direction do you hope your writing grows?

I hope to go deeper into dealing with serious subjects through humor. I think there are places to mine that I haven't had the courage to search for yet. I want to develop a deeper understanding of family relationships, teenagers' relationships with their parents, particularly. What I like best about my own writing, I think, is my direct style—I don't go in for flowery prose—and I like the way I have my teenagers sound—tough, passionate, and unusual.

Tell us something about yourself as a teen.

I had a very hard time as a teenager. My dad was a very messed-up man—an alcoholic, married four times, a chronic gambler. I was trying to put the mess of that in perspective and was fairly miserable in the process. In school my writing really helped me. Again, I was trying to work things out. I wasn't a hugely magnificent student, but my English comp teacher was very encouraging to me. I worked from sophomore year on as a waitress and made really good money, so I had that to fall back on. I wrote stories even when they weren't assigned in class. I taught myself to play the guitar and was always writing songs and funny poems. I never had a huge group of friends—just a few really close pals. I'm still that way. My grandmother who lived with us (my mother and two younger sisters) had Alzheimer's Disease and we just had a very tough go there for many years. My dad committed suicide when I was in my early twenties. It remains the saddest day of my life.

How have these experiences (as a teen) affected your writing?

Because so much was not positive for me, I want to write positive stories. Because so much was painful for me, I want to show ways to overcome pain with emotional health, relationships, and humor. Because I desperately needed ties to my father, I write a great deal about complex fathers in my books. Because I never had a huge group of friends when I was growing up, I write about kids who tend to be loners.

When I was nineteen, I went to see my father, who was living in Iowa at the time, and I confronted him on several things, like Jenna did in Rules of the Road. I learned from that experience that there are times in life when we have choices—we can continue to be victims or we can move forward to be healthy people. I distinctly remember choosing emotional health. And I remember having to fight for it often because my tendencies sometimes were to get depressed or not try or give up. I am committed to creating characters that can be role models to teenagers—not perfect people by any mean—but ones who have struggled and come out on top. I believe with all my heart that even the most difficult backgrounds can be overcome. Each of my books has been a gift to me personally, because I've dealt with issues I needed to face (could I be a winner, in Squashed; could I ever be popular, in Thwonk; could I overcome being the child of an alcoholic, in Rules of the Road; could I reconcile my introversion and my need for people, in Backwater). Also, one of the regularly appearing themes throughout my work is something I've experienced first-hand—great adversity can, if we let it, help us to grow stronger.

What do you hear from teens about your books?

It's terribly gratifying to me to hear from teen readers. I had a girl tell me she wished I was her mother, I had another girl send me a beautiful watercolor painting of her standing by a sunset trying to figure out her life. I hear from boys, too—a group of them in California who had read Thwonk wrote and told me they thought Thwonk was about a boy, since the cupid is the most important character. Most of the kids who write to me talk about liking the humor and the character development in my stories. One girl told me some very difficult things about her father dying. It's wonderful to have a story I write touch a chord in someone to the point that they would write me about that. It's a privilege, I'll tell you.

You mentioned that you have a teenage daughter. Does she give you ideas for books?

It's great to have my own YA in the house. My daughter Jean is 16 and a huge supporter of my work. She quotes my characters to me thinking she knows them better than I do. I do throw ideas to her and she is excellent at zeroing in on teenage interests. She and her friend (both great history lovers) were very helpful to me when I wrote Backwater. She is one of the world's great teenagers—not that I'm prejudiced.

What are you working on now?

A novel about honor in politics. And yes, it's fiction.

Text copyright © 1999 Joan Bauer, published by G.P Putnam's Sons, a division of Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers

In Peeled, Hildy finds inspiration as a journalist from her late father, often writing to make him proud. As an author, who are your inspirations?

My grandmother is an enduring inspiration to me – she was a storyteller, quite famous in her day, and knew how to tell a story that could make people laugh and cry while poking gentlefun at the world's absurdities. As a writer, one novel has inspired me more than any other -- To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I still go back to that story to learn how to create memorable characters and put them in a setting that will stand the test of time. As far as being inspired by journalists, I grew up in Chicago and was a huge Mike Royko fan (he wrote for the Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune. Royko was tough and funny and that combination really caused his voice to be heard. I was greatly inspired as a young adult by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's investigative reporting at the Washington Post during the Watergate years. What a time that was in our country, and these two young reporters sniffed out the biggest political story of the decade and ran with it against the odds. I suppose I gave some of their courage to Hildy Biddle, my sixteen year old reporter in Peeled.

Peeled has a mysterious angle to it. How was writing Peeled different than writing your other novels?

I found writing an actual mystery to be very difficult at first. In some ways, I believe, all novels are mysteries in that the author leaves clues for the readers about the story and the characters. But plotting an actual mystery challenged me. When I write I'm not always sure where the story is going, but with a mystery, you have to know in advance and lay down those clues, so I was forced to think a great deal about plot early on. Once I did, though, I had great fun thinking through all the elements of intrigue and misrepresentation. I found out that I'm much sneakier than I actually knew! I had great fun crafting Hildy Biddle's character and realized about midway into the writing that part of the way she learns is through trial and error as a journalist, so I have her growth as a journalist intersecting with the growth of the fear happening in town. I found that to be a fascinating way to develop the plot.

Your characters all have mottoes, life goals, or rules to live by. What words have resonated in your life?

[Keep the same quotes] One of the things I tried to show in Peeled is how words have such power for good or for bad. Hildy enters a kind of war of words – she's trying to find and write the truth, while frightening slogans, headlines, and signs are being displayed all around town.

Which of your characters is your favorite? Which one was the hardest to write?

Every time I'm asked this question, I seem to add another character. Honestly, I don't have an all-time favorite one, but I do have some special relationships with Jonathan the cupid in Thwonk; Jenna, Mrs. Gladstone, and Harry Bender in Rules of the Road and Best Foot Forward; Ivy in Backwater; Grandpa in Stand Tall; Hope and G.T. in Hope Was Here; and now Hildy and Baker Polton in Peeled. I've always said that I can tell when I've got a real character by how hard it is to say good-bye. My secret fantasy is that I could throw a party at the Welcome Stairways Diner and invite all my favorite characters to dinner.

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