Kathryn Lasky | Daughters of the Sea
September 25, 2009
Dr. Kent: Hello, and welcome to Sound Authors radio. We’ve been off the air for a little while this summer. It’s great to be finally back in the beautiful days of almost-autumn. About three days away from fall; I’m excited for that to roll around. I have two guests on the show today. I’ve got Kathryn Lasky, who’s the author of ‘Daughters of the Sea.’ It’s the first book in the series called ‘Hannah,’ and she’s a New York Times bestselling author. At the end of the show will be a fantastic musician. His name is Wayne Gratz, and he’s a wonderful solo pianist. We’re going to talk to him at the end of the show. But I’m excited at the very beginning to be speaking to a Newbery Honor winner, and bestselling author, Kathryn Lasky. Welcome to the show.
Kathryn Lasky: Oh, thanks! Glad to be back.
Dr. Kent: Well, tell me about this book, ‘Daughters of the Sea.’ It’s such a spooky cover. There’s a young lady, halfway into the sea. Tell me about this book.
Kathryn Lasky: Well, this book came to me a long time ago, and I’m not giving away anything when I say she is part mermaid. In other words, she’s not quite all human. But it’s not like ‘Little Mermaid,’ at all, although I totally admired the original story, by Hans Christian Anderson, and I love the Disney movie as much as anybody else, and watched it with my daughter when she was young. But I wanted to do something very different. So, first of all, it’s set in the late 19th century, and it’s quite dark. I wanted to avoid any of those, sort of, candy-colored, Disneyesque tones, so it’s set largely on the coast of Maine, and also in Boston. I think it’s a story that kids can relate to, particularly girls, because it’s really an identity quest in a way. So that’s what I can tell you.
Dr. Kent: Kids are more able to deal with dark topics these days. It seems like kids have a lot more difficulty than we do, a little bit. Actually, the other day, I was at a children’s movie, I believe, or a family movie. And the previews before those movies, gosh, they’re incredibly bombastic, and there’s guns and thunder, and it’s like they’re marketing to kids with this really dark stuff. So I guess it’s good that the book has some sort of dark overtones to it.
Kathryn Lasky: Yes, I don’t like to think of it as dark in terms of guns so much. There was a movie out six or seven months ago that didn’t have any guns or anything in it, that was incredibly dark. It was a children’s movie, and that was ‘Coraline.’
Dr. Kent: Right.
Kathryn Lasky: And I think the book’s brilliant, ‘Coraline,’ (I guess I should be plugging my own books), and I thought the movie was too. So there’s darkness and then there’s other kinds of darkness.
Dr. Kent: Right. You’ve got so many books. I remember, the last time I talked to you it was about ‘One Beetle Too Many,’ which is about Darwin, which is an amazing topic. But you have so many books. You’ve got nonfiction, you’ve got fiction, you’ve got books for small kids, for larger kids, and then for the largest kids of them all: for people like you and me. So, what is it like sitting down and then turning out a book like ‘Daughters of the Sea,’ which is very much aimed at that young market?
Kathryn Lasky: Well, for me it was wonderful. This was something I was longing to do for quite a while. There’s parts that you wouldn’t identify as being with the young market. I don’t like to think of them as “market,” I like to think of them as “readers.”
Dr. Kent: Right.
Kathryn Lasky: But, for example (and they might not get this, and I don’t even care if they don’t get it), but often when I describe this book to my friends (and I’m not trying to pat my own back, or anything like that, because I don’t think I measure up to this at all), but I say, “Imagine Edith Wharton doing mermaids.” Edith Wharton is one of my very favorite authors. One of my favorite books of hers, which I’ve read at least five times, is ‘The Age of Innocence.’ I love that elaborate, socially stratified world that she paints, or writes about: the ‘Gilded Age’ of New York. I tried to capture some of that in this book, and that was really fun for me. There is a darkness to that, in spite of it being the ‘Gilded Age,’ and there’s actually a kind of violence too, but it’s not obvious. I saw the movie, ‘The Age of Innocence,’ and Martin Scorsese directed it; I love the movie, it was one of those movies that I felt really lived up to the book. And I remember an interview where he said it was the most violent film he’d ever made. This is the guy who did ‘Raging Bull.’ I kind of tried to capture that sort of repressive atmosphere, and that kind of subtle violence in this book. I’m always plugging everyone else’s book: Edith Wharton’s and Martin Scorsese’s movies [laughs].
Dr. Kent: Well, I’ll help to plug your book, ‘Daughters of the Sea: Hannah.’ You know, as a child I always thought mermaids were such placid, sweet, and beautiful creatures, but it’s really a fascinating creature. It’s not something that’s necessarily as Disney-like, as you said at the beginning; it’s not quite as Disney-like as we think, the mermaid. What kind of research did you do on mermaids in preparing for this?
Kathryn Lasky: I read a lot of literature; there are a lot of mermaid websites where people, real crackpots actually, think they’ve seen mermaids. That wasn’t the kind of research that really helped me. See, the thing about ‘Daughters of the Sea’ and ‘Hannah’ and the next three books (because each of these is the three girls who are sisters, and separated at birth; I don’t want to give anything away). These are very powerful, young women, and powerful women were not exactly evident or omnipresent in that era, 1899, that I write about. As a matter of fact, women were said to be high strung, nervous, all this. Of course, all the diagnoses were made by men. They were sent for cures and all of that. Well, most of us would have been high strung and hysterical if we had to live in that world. What Hannah and her sisters represent is an alternate universe to that rigid, stratified, chauvinistic society. They are powerful, these girls, but they have to struggle to find it.
Dr. Kent: In creating characters like this, it’s so interesting that you bring up almost the political issue. Do you think of the stratified society when going into a book like this, or do the characters sort of paint their own picture?
Kathryn Lasky: No, I thought of that going into it, very much. First of all, that’s why I set it when I did, when things were a lot more rigid.
Kathryn Lasky: Well, I talk with my publisher. I don’t have to write the whole book. I had a lot of talks with the publisher, the late Craig Walker, who was a real mentor of mine at Scholastic, and he died two years ago. He was the one who really encouraged me to go darker. My other series is the Guardians of Ga’hoole (which has been really popular) about the fantasy world of owls. That’s for younger kids. He said, “No, I want this to be older,” and, as you say, “darker.” He said, “But Kathy, I don’t think you realize how dark I want this to be.” And I said, “Oh, wow! I can’t believe it.” So I was very excited by this. When he said “older,” I can deal really honestly about issues of emerging sexuality, and all that, and I don’t have to do it in a graphic way at all. I think it would be spoiled. You have to face these realities. This is the kind of reader I’m writing for, and she is often battling with this. It doesn’t matter whether it was 1899 or now; harder then, probably, than now, but still. So I hope it’ll have resonance, because I’ve tried to be very honest about that, but I don’t think you need to be super graphic about it. I don’t think there’s anything distasteful in that sense.
Dr. Kent: In what way do you picture your reader when writing for different age groups? How do you picture your readers?
Kathryn Lasky: Well, I don’t know whether I exactly picture them. It’s sort of going into myself and where was I when I was that age, and what was compelling me. I think that I get a sense of urgency about my writing, I guess you’d say. Because if I just, say, looked outward, to picture a reader, well it’s just sort of like an anonymous figure. I saw something in the New York Times this morning about how they are training airport security people to figure out who might be a terrorist getting on a plane or whatever, and they set this sort of mannequin dummy up there; I understand that they didn’t want to do any sort of ethnic stereotyping, racial stereotyping, anything like that, but it was this just sort of figure. And if I would try to picture a reader like that, mine too would be this sort of a-sexual, androgynous, no-age person [laughs]. So I have to kind of dive into myself and remember where I was at 14 or 15, or 7 or 8. So, it’s a projection of myself, I hate to say.
Dr. Kent: What is the difference for you between 14 and 7 or 8 in writing the books? I noticed, just for example, in ‘Daughters of the Sea,’ which is a gorgeous book by the way -
Kathryn Lasky: Oh I know, I just think it’s so beautiful.
Dr. Kent: I wish they would print adult books this way: the print is nice and big, the pages are beautiful, and you can actually read it. Whereas the books that I usually pick up are printed so small. You’re immediately drawn into the world; I remember when I used to read books just like this. How do you write to an age group? I still don’t understand. So, you put yourself into the mindset of where you were?
Kathryn Lasky: Yeah, I have my little inner 8-year-old, or inner 14-year old, all worked in this very old body of mine, which I’m not going to admit on the air how old. I just sort of consult with that. I remember how I felt, feelings of disenfranchisement, embarrassment, yearning, trying to figure out things. For all age groups, for any age group I wrote for, the world is really a confusing place. These children are trying to figure it out. I’m still trying to figure it out as an adult, but they don’t still admit that the world is a confusing place, they just kind of bulldoze ahead and pretend that it’s not. And maybe that’s good, but kids are more honest. I don’t know whether I’ve answered your question.
Dr. Kent: But let me go back to you as a 7- or 8-year old. Did you read kids’ books?
Kathryn Lasky: Oh, sure!
Dr. Kent: What kind of books do you remember?
Kathryn Lasky: Well, of course picture books. I remember a lot of fairy tales. I remember we had a volume, I think they were Chinese fairy tales, and I can still just picture the illustration. There was one called ‘Little Peachling.’ I wanted to change my name to Peachling Lasky. I loved the Wizard of Oz books; I read them all. I loved Peter Pan. You have to realize, when I was a kid, there weren’t wonderful people writing like Lois Lowry or S.E. Hinton. YA fiction, which is what this is called, ‘young adult fiction,’ hadn’t really quite been discovered yet, so you read maybe ‘Little Women,’ that kind of classic stuff; you read ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ I loved ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. That’s what I read. I do remember in the eighth grade (I came from a family of readers, so you’d see them all sitting around with books, not too much television at all), I started reading the books my parents were reading, and they were sort of mildly shocked when I was reading things like ‘The Naked and the Dead’ by Norman Mailer, which I adored, and I was only 13. I once had the great opportunity to meet him about a year or so before he died. I told him, “You know, I read ‘The Naked and the Dead’ when I was 13 years old” and he said, “You WHAT? Your parents must have been crazy!” Maybe, but I read it! I also remember reading ‘Exodus.’ Leon Uris’s books, I loved those.
Dr. Kent: Wow.
Kathryn Lasky: I loved WWII books.
Dr. Kent: I grew up reading in a very similar way; my parents would be shocked because of the books I would pick off their shelf. I think for some of the most voracious readers that is part of the experience, but the world has changed so much. I don’t know if my folks had allowed me to be in front of the television more hours, or to have a video game player, or, now a’days to text all day long. There is this Harry Potter craze, they’re buying your books, and they’re buying lots of people’s books. But how have things changed, what do you see?
Kathryn Lasky: Well, I’m not really sure. My kids are now in their late 20s and their late 30s, and they were really always voracious readers, and they watched TV more than I did. There is this whole mass/pop-culture thing, and I think that has impacted kids an awful lot. Because I think it gives them heroes who are not really heroes. I mean, Paris Hilton, what the hell has she ever done? Oh, I didn’t mean to say a swear word. Or Britney Spears? So pop culture has had an unfortunate impact on us. Maybe I’m getting off here, but these three events that have happened in the last ten days with the congressman, Joe Wilson, blurting out at the president; Serena Williams, that was really vile; and Kanye West. I think these false heroes have been so fortified by the press that they’re invulnerable, and you notice none of them has really apologized in what I would call a significant way. And yet, they are all over television. Kanye West, he was on the Jay Leno show the first night. I haven’t seen any of Serena’s endorsements being cut yet; she was fined $10,000.
Dr. Kent: Right, and the senator’s comment actually made his points known.
Kathryn Lasky: Exactly! People have been pouring money into his campaign. Now, they have been pouring money into the opponent’s campaign, but they’ve kind of drawn even. I find that really peculiar. So, I think, is it because of television? I don’t know, but there were magazines when I was around as a kid, and they didn’t lionize people like this.
Dr. Kent: One thing I like about a book so much is that, for example, I look at the cover of your book, with ‘Hannah’ and here’s this character, and I can, as a child, or as a young adult, page through that book and for a week or for a month, or for a couple days, depending on how quickly they read, they are connected to that character. Tthat’s one amazing thing about books that you don’t get with video and those kind of things.
Kathryn Lasky: Yes, the relationship with a character is a lot more intimate with a book because you are not provided with the images of the people. It’s much more of a collaborative experience between the reader and the author. You build that character in your mind, and that’s part of the fun of it. Even though this girl, whose absolutely beautiful, on the cover of ‘Daughters of the Sea,’ even though that’s her image there, you can have that in your mind, but you are going to start to build on that as the reader if you’re really a good reader. You’re going to see how she moves her head, or how her eyes glint, or something; you have to kind of fill that in as the reader. Now I help them of course through my writing, but it’s just so much more active on the part of the person, an immediate experience, if we can call a book that, then it would be on television where it’s just all spoon fed to you.
Dr. Kent: So, what other projects are you working on now? You’ve written so many books, I’ll bet you couldn’t even list them all.
Kathryn Lasky: No, I can’t, I’ve written a lot. I don’t like to talk about what I’m writing at the present ever. Because, like right now, I’m thinking, “Gees! I was so smart four months ago when I wrote that book,” and now I feel so dumb; I’m trying to get through these hurdles. I’ll only go so far as saying it’s a historical novel.
Dr. Kent: Great. That takes a totally different brain, it’s like, a marathon and a 1-mile or something. They’re completely different kinds of books, right?
Kathryn Lasky: Yes, but they’re all marathons in my mind [laughs]. They’re different; the problems, oddly enough, turn out being the same. For all of the books I do, people say, “Oh, fantasy, you can just make it up” or something, like with Guardians of Ga’hoole, or even mermaids. There’s an enormous amount of research I have to do. For ‘Daughters of the Sea,’ for ‘Hannah,’ she starts out as a scullery maid in a very wealthy Boston household. I had to do enormous research to learn about the household staff in that era. Part of my research, I have to admit, was rewatching ‘Upstairs Downstairs,’ one of my favorite public television shows ever. I got a hold of laundry manuals from that era. I had to find out what the salaries were for these people, all that kind of stuff. Luckily I enjoy research. It’s a lot of work.
Dr. Kent: Wow. What is your advice for up-and-coming writers? I know there’s something like 400,000 [books] published every year, and yet, I’ll bet a lot of the fiction writers aren’t doing the hard work behind some of this. How does an author go about doing the research?
Kathryn Lasky: I have to admit it really helps with the Internet now. The other thing I have to admit is, I live in
Dr. Kent: They collect them.
Kathryn Lasky: The Fish and Wildlife Department calls up universities and says, “Hey, do you want this snowy owl?” or whatever. And they say, “Sure!” and then they fix them up and they stuff them and stuff like that. Or they accidentally might get shot during hunting season, but this is a treasure trove for me. That’s one way I do research.
Dr. Kent: I’m excited to hear about the film coming out. In just looking at that series, it’s become a part of your identity, and a part of your life. It makes me think of people like J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. How do you feel when you write these books? Now you know these characters, now you know what their world is like, and how they interact with one-another. Is there a point where you get tired of it, or you’re taken over by it? Or do you just enjoy going back to that world when you write these books?
Kathryn Lasky: No I never get tired of it. I guess in a sense I am taken over by it, but I know when a series is finished. The owl series is finished. I don’t want to beat a series to death. It came to a logical conclusion. I go on, I find new things to do. I have an off-shoot from that series called ‘The Wolves of the Beyond’ that will be coming out; I think the books will be in the bookstores in December. So, life goes on. One of the things that I thought about when I first got into writing children’s books are there are certain authors, illustrators, who keep doing the same book over and over again. Not a whole lot, and I won’t mention any, but I just thought, what’s the point of that? If I ever make it as a children’s book author, the big attraction is in not pushing a time clock; you don’t exactly have a boss, and you get to get up every morning and reinvent the world, so why would you want to keep doing the same book? I don’t know.
Dr. Kent: So you get a rush off of being able to, sort of, recreate the world.
Kathryn Lasky: Yes! So I just don’t want to keep doing the same things. I want to try new things. That’s why I like doing nonfiction.
Dr. Kent: So how do you recreate a world using nonfiction? You sort of take the events and then shape them a little bit?
Kathryn Lasky: I think I just look at the world. My husband does the illustration for the nonfiction books; they’re photographs. We’re doing one now on spiders, it’s really neat. He was a National Geographic photographer.
Dr. Kent: You’re OK with him getting up and close with spiders?
Kathryn Lasky: I had to, too! I was not a big science buff when I was in school. It was taught in such a stupid way. Even the books, the nonfiction books back in my year, were really boring; they were like textbooks. I just took a whole different approach. It’s not that I have to manipulate the facts and the science. You said, ‘shape’ them, but I know you didn’t mean ‘manipulate’ them. I just look at it in a different light from the way, perhaps, people who used to write nonfiction forty years ago did. First of all, I think that it was the texts were always so cut and dry. They’d say something like, ‘The wonderful world of asteroids.’ Well, as soon as they say, ‘The wonderful world of asteroids’ (and there were a lot of these books that said, ‘The fabulous world of volcanoes,’ or whatever), you already know that this person is not that enchanted with this world of asteroids or volcanoes, cause why do they have to blab about it in that way on the cover of the book? I want the kids to discover the fabulousness without me using an adjective like that. Also, in my nonfiction books, I don’t like to necessarily answer every question. I think that’s false, because I don’t know all the answers. To me, it’s much more successful if I can provoke the kid to raise questions than if I can answer questions.
Dr. Kent: Absolutely. I’d like to go back to the point when you talk[ed] about things that have been going on in the media, and you brought up Paris Hilton. What can books do, like ‘Daughters of the Sea?’ We’re all very grateful to the Harry Potter series for bringing kids back to books in some ways. But, why should we keep books on the shelves? Why should we keep having our kids read?
Kathryn Lasky: Reading makes us human. I think that’s the best answer. I’m quoting a critic that I just adore, George Steiner; he used to write a lot for ‘The New Yorker. Language is a human thing, and he said, “To read well is to take great risks.” It’s making ourselves vulnerable to new ideas; it’s connecting us in a way that media, television, that kind of stuff, can’t. Popular culture can’t. So, I think it’s allowing us to explore our humanity and reinforce it. I got a kind of disturbing letter today from a parent. I have this new book, a picture book for very young kids, and it’s called, ‘Two Bad Pilgrims.’ It’s about these two little boys who were on the Mayflower: Johnny and Francis Billington. They were pretty rotten kids, and so were their parents. I discovered them when I was writing a longer historical novel in the ‘Dear America’ series, about the Mayflower and all of that, which I did years ago. I found the Billington boys, and they were really bad. They almost blew up the Mayflower; they got bored, they started playing with matches in a cabin where all the gunpowder was stored, so you can imagine what that would have been like. Anyhow, they were caught. Then they went on and did other rotten things. They were rude and impious. Everybody thinks that the pilgrims were such goody-goods, but they weren’t. Some people did not come for religious reasons, they just came to start over, and the Billington family was the 17th century equivalent of a most dysfunctional family. I thought, these kids, they are really engaging; they’re naughty little pilgrims. So I did this book. And it’s funny, this guy writes this letter to me today and he’s appalled that he had to sit down and read this book to his kid, because I use such bad language. Now, I didn’t. I don’t consider when Johnny Billington tells somebody to “Shut up” [bad language], but that was what he said: “Shut up. Why would you ever use that word in a book?” Or, when he calls one of the pilgrims a stinky old geezer. He felt that I was doing a disservice, wait, I’ll find it here. “I became very uncomfortable reading to my 8-year old content like ‘shut up,’ ‘no fair.’” Has this guy been around kids? Here’s another one, ‘stupid old geezer pilgrims,’ or ‘if I have to mind these brats’ as one of the ladies says about these awful guys, and so on. “I had to tell my daughter how inappropriate the behavior and language was after each page.” Now these were the only things I said in this book. There are no curse words at all. “I understand the point you were trying to make, but couldn’t it have been done in a more tasteful manner? Don’t you think children are exposed to enough of this?”
Dr. Kent: Kids are exposed to much worse.
Kathryn Lasky: They are, and my first reaction is, I love this! I love that this guy sat down with his daughter and had a discussion about a book. So I’m not that mad at the guy, to tell you the truth. Now I’m not going to change what I did because of it, and I think he’s not a person who reads very much. I don’t think he knows about writing too much. It’s his right to think or say that it’s inappropriate, but it’s my right as a writer to practice the craft to the best of my ability. And that’s a big part of that.
Dr. Kent: You had a very important point which is it is so important that parents sit down with their children and talk to them. What a wonderful thing that is.
Kathryn Lasky: Yes, I wish more would do it. I think that this guy’s sort of a hero.
Dr. Kent: I’m looking at the cover of that book, ‘Two Bad Pilgrims,’ and it looks awfully fun to me. I would’ve loved to read that as a kid.
Kathryn Lasky: Yes, I think it is pretty fun.
Dr. Kent: As a kid who wasn’t necessarily the best of the kids, I was always looking for one of those books that spoke to me as one of the bad kids. It’s been such a pleasure talking with you, and I hope we do this again. You have so many fun books, I imagine every two or three weeks we could talk about a brand new book, right?
Kathryn Lasky: Sure! I’ll do it. No, not every two or three weeks, I don’t have them coming that fast.
Dr. Kent: Not quite that quick, but it’s an exciting array. ‘Two Bad Pilgrims’ is available, that just came out. And of course, at the beginning, we were talking about ‘Daughters of the Sea: Hannah,’ and that’s just the first of how many? Three?
Kathryn Lasky: There will be four in all.
Dr. Kent: Four of them, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful book, just to pick it up. Do give it to your kids. Looks like a gorgeous book, and it reads the same way. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you.
Kathryn Lasky: OK! Good talking to you too, thanks so much.
Dr. Kent: And I’ll look forward to the next time.
Kathryn Lasky: OK! Bye bye.