An Evening With Patricia Reilly Giff

Originally Posted: Dec 30, 2009

by Newsletter staff

“If I published, anyone can publish,” two-time Newbery Honor Winner Patricia Reilly Giff declared at the SCBWI Metro New York Tuesday Professionals Series in April.

“When I began, I never thought it could happen to me.” A lifetime of professional success later, she has learned otherwise. “It’s hard work,” she said. “But if you want it enough, it’s going to happen.”

In the course of a lively, casual hour, Giff touched on a wide range of topics, including publishing practices past and present, her own history as a writer and the insights into creative practice that have kept her on publishers’ lists for decades. Two themes in particular kept recurring: the relationship of the reader to the book and the relationship of the writer to the process of writing. The themes are related, as Giff quickly made clear.

“I spent my childhood reading,” she said. “Elsie Dinsmore, Pollyanna, The Secret Garden… I loved those books. I loved the tears I shed over those heroines. Their problems were so dramatic! So tragic!”

Giff acknowledges that her childhood favorites were books of their time that “couldn’t be published today.” Their settings and concerns are very far removed from contemporary audiences. Yet they continue to be read, devotedly, by new generations of fans. “What doesn’t age about those books” Giff said, “is the emotion the author brings to the story.”

She sees that emotion as the central link between author and reader. “Never mind the beautiful phrases. If you have that emotion, everything else is secondary.”

Giff’s journey from reader to writer was not a direct one. She went through six majors at college, beginning with English (“I suffered through Pope and Dryden”) and finally ending up in Education. 20 years of teaching followed, as well as marriage and motherhood. The deferred dream of writing came back to her one snowy morning when she looked out the window and said to her husband: “If I wrote a book today, I wouldn’t have to go to school.”

She came home that evening to find that he had built her a writing room out of two closets in their home. Giff’s first sale was the picture book Today Was a Terrible Day (illustrated by Susanna Natti), bought by editor George Nicholson, who later became her agent. Her titles include the 1998 Newbery Honor Winner Lily’s Crossing (Delacorte, 1997), the 2003 Newbery Honor Winner Pictures of Hollis Woods (Wendy Lamb Books, 2002), the 2003 ALA Notable Nory Ryan’s Song (Delacorte, 2002) and the Polk Street School series (Random House 1984-1997).

With experience came understanding of the different parts of a writer’s job. From choosing which prospective project to develop (“You pick it and it’s a hard choice then you decide to be in love with it”) to troubleshooting when a project gets hung up (“There’s usually something wrong with the central problem”), Giff sees the writer’s work as driven by passion for character. “In order for a book to survive a long time, the author has to be in love with her protagonist,” she said. She sees this as central partly because an author’s passion will be contagious, inspiring similar attachment on the part of the reader. It is also practical, since the author will be spending a lot of time with the protagonist of any book she writes and ‘if it bores me, it will bore the editor.”

Giff recalls finding herself growing impatient with one protagonist she was writing and figured out that the character’s self-pity was getting in the way of her appeal. Giff corrected the problem. “As young as she is and as powerless as she is, your protagonist cannot feel sorry for herself,” Giff said.

Giff was similarly unequivocal about the importance of revision: “Revising is the heart of it. You can’t get away from it,” she said. In a six page revision letter from an editor, she explained, “the first paragraph will be love, followed by five and a half pages of what’s wrong.” A writer has to be able to deal with the difficulty both of the mechanics and the emotion of up-ending a text she has grown attached to but, as Giff said, “If you have to do it, you have to do it.”

Since 1990, Giff has shared her love of books by selling them as well as writing them: she and her family run The Dinosaur’s Paw, an independent bookstore in Fairfield, CT named after one of the books in the Polk Street School series. Through an evening dedicated mostly to sharing enthusiasm about the sometimes-lonely craft of writing, this author of more than sixty titles had a way of making the whole unlikely enterprise of authoring seem wonderfully possible.

“Action, dialogue, description,” she said. “You have nothing else to do in a story. If you write a good book, it’s as simple as that.”

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