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Between the Lines

Interview with Cynthia Rylant
Mr. Putter & Tabby Write the Book
Cynthia Rylant

Mr. Putter has decided to write a book—a mystery novel, to be exact. But being a writer is way more challenging than it looks. There's all that empty white paper to fill, all those tasty snacks to prepare (and eat), and then there are the naps. This delightful new addition to the Mr. Putter and Tabby series is a tribute to good stories, delicious snacks, and wonderful next-door neighbors. And with its hilarious send-up of the challenges of the writing process, it's sure to become a favorite with aspiring authors of all ages.
Cynthia Rylant is the acclaimed author of more than eighty books for young people, and her novel Missing May received the Newbery Medal. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Q: Your first book, When I Was Young in the Mountains, was published in 1982 and is largely autobiographical. Over the past twenty years, how have you seen yourself evolve as a writer?
A: I don't reflect on my writing, so I think maybe someone other than me could give a better answer. But I think I initially had the enthusiasm of a child when I became a writer at age twenty-three; then the pragmatism of one who needs to pay the rent, desperately (I considered series, which I did not think I'd want to write); and now I think I long to find a way to put what I have lived, how my heart and mind have changed over time, into meaningful, beautiful language. I am writing poetry because it seems the way I can say things that have meaning that is almost beyond language. Poetry is a hint, I guess, a whiff, of the depths of the heart.

Q: How much of your writing incorporates real-life events and characters?
A: Gosh, nearly all of it is spun from my real life. Not necessarily specific events in the books, but things that matter to me. Things I love or am troubled by. Insecurities and longings. I think maybe my writing is very much about my own longing, even the simpler books like Mr. Putter and Tabby.

Q: Growing up in West Virginia, attending college to become an English teacher, and finding a job as a children's librarian—when did it become clear that writing was your future?
A: I was twenty-three, a master's degree in English from a small West Virginia school in my pocket, and working at a public library to pay the bills. I was transferred to the children's department. I had never been in the children's department of a library—I grew up isolated in the country. And I fell madly in love. In love with Randall Jarrell's The Animal Family, Donald Halls' Ox-Cart Man, Marjorie Flack's The Story About Ping. Something deep in me lit up, and I knew my calling. I got some typing paper, some Wite-Out, and a copy of Writer's Market at the mall. And I began to write. When I Was Young in the Mountains was one of my first pieces. Written in one sitting. I was on the right path for me.

Q: On your Web site, you describe your first publishing experience as exciting. To quote you: "I was standing in my yard when I read her [a New York editor's] letter, and I was so excited that I yelled to the mailman, who was about four houses down, that I was going to be published!" Now, with more than eighty books to your name, how would you describe your feelings when you publish another book?
A: I still feel proud. I still glow a little, feel like I've done something good.

Q: You have a genuine love for animals and that love shines through your writing. Animals are often featured in your books, for example, Little Whistle, Tabby, Zeke, and Lucky. Are any of your beloved pets the inspiration for these or any of your other lovable characters?
A: Some of my pets have appeared in my books. But mostly I imagine animal characters with the same sincerity I imagine people characters. I give them emotions and quirks and wishes for their lives.

Q: In Mr. Putter & Tabby Write the Book, you epitomize the challenges of the writing process. How much of this tale is based on your own experience?
A: It is completely my experience. Managing the anxiety of trying to find the story, the words, the art that's buried deep inside me somewhere. I move furniture. I eat cookies. I move more furniture.

Q: What task will this companionable duo tackle next?
A: Umm, I think they are going to drop the ball.

Q: Tell us about your forthcoming book Boris, which is scheduled to be on bookshelves next spring.
A: Boris is a book of poetry with my cat—Boris—as the listener to many of my thoughts about living. It is about our shared life and its meaning for me.

Q: You write for many audiences—from toddlers to young adults. When you come up with a story idea, how do you decide which age group to write for?
A: I don't decide, usually. I just hear the story in my head. Words come out, fill up the pages, and there it is: poetry.

Q: Imagine someone who has never read your work. Which Harcourt book or series would you like that person to read to gain a first impression?
A: Maybe The Van Gogh Café. It's not too many pages, and there's hope in it.

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Cynthia Rylant

Cynthia Rylant

Mr. Putter & Tabby Write the Book

Mr. Putter & Tabby Write the Book