Friday, May 25, 2018

In Memoriam. A Conversation With Richard Peck from the 2013 SCBWI Conference

Our youngest Pen and Inker, eight-year-old Victoria Kroll did a wonderful interview with Richard Peck by telephone after meeting him at the 2013 SCBWI Summer Conference. Her mom helped her. The original interview was published in January, 2014. We are reprinting it In Memoriam. All of us at Pen and Ink revered Richard Peck's work. He will be sorely missed. 

In 2018 Hilde Garcia's class read his trilogy featuring Mrs. Dowdle, (A Season of Gifts, A long Way From Chicago, and Way Down Yonder.) They all wrote thank you notes to Mr. Peck, dated the day he died. Hilde will be doing a post featuring the notes. 
In the meantime, here is the original conversation with Mr. Peck.

 by Victoria Krol and Hilde Garcia

Pen and Ink met Richard Peck at the 2013 SCBWI Summer Conference. Hilde asked if she and Victoria could interview him for the blog. He said yes. It took some time and doing, but we finally connected.

Scene 1- The Call

Hilde: (The number on the screen is a NYC number I don’t recognize.) Hello?

Richard Peck: Is this Hilde Garcia?


Richard Peck: This is Richard Peck. (My heart skips a beat. My hairdresser waits patiently, blow dryer in hand.) Is this a good time for an interview?

Hilde: Umm, well, (I sound so dopey), I'm getting my hair styled for a party. Could we possibly do it in 30 minutes?

Richard Peck: (chuckle) Yes of course. You can call me.

Hilde: I know I said I would drop whatever I was doing to be at your disposal, but I don’t think I can drop the hair dryer.

Richard Peck: (chuckle) No, I don’t think you should.

Scene 2- The Introduction

One very excited eight-year-old, pen and pencil in hand, was waiting for me to run in through the door, with perfect hair, no doubt.

I am ready mom.

Me too.
(I am about to interview THE Richard Peck, author of more than 30 incredible novels. I am most certainly not ready.)

We run to the garage and set up our call. We dial.
Good evening, Mr. Peck. We are ready and the hair dryer is safely put away.    
That’s good.

Hi Mr. Peck, remember me? We met and I was wearing my Hello Kitty earrings.

Yes I do.  Hello Victoria.

  (To me, she mouths: “He remembered me!")

To Mr. Peck:  May I ask my first question?

 Yes, you may.

Scene 3- The interview

Why do you use a typewriter to write your stories and not a computer?
I use a typewriter because I have never lost a young reader to a typewriter, but I have lost too many to computers, games and texting.
My teacher says that we have to rewrite our stories to make them better. How do you revise your stories, because there are no mistakes in them at all?
I write each page six times because I don’t get it right the first 5 times.  Then when I get it right, I take out 20 more words because I wasn’t confident initially with the words I chose.  Then I go to the next page.
Why did you decide to become a writer?
I was a teacher but I couldn’t find things for my students to read that had any worth.

Well, that answers the question of what other jobs have you done.

Yes, it does. My students didn’t know it was stuff I had written.  And eventually, I had to stop teaching because I needed the time to write.

I had a teacher in high school for advanced English Literature, Mr. Harrell, who did the same.  He would write poems, essays, and short stories, and then have us analyze them for daily assignments or exams.  I never realized he was writing these original pieces of literature.  I simply thought they were from some famous writer I hadn't studied yet.  I think I figured out it was Mr. Harrell a couple of years after I graduated. I was in a college literature class and it suddenly dawned on me that none of those pieces were actually published.  Thank you, Mr Harrell. 
In The Secrets of Sea, you made the mouse, Louise, and the girl, Camilla, friends, and then their lives took a lot of crazy turns.  Why?  
Louise and Camilla. Well I created the story with three sisters. The older sister was bossy.  The youngest was the rebel.  And then Louise was the communicator even with human beings.  I often use middle children in my stories because they are good communicators. And taking the story through many turns is what makes it compelling.

So in essence the middle child or mouse becomes your reliable source of information.
Mrs. Dowdel (from A Season of Gifts, A Long Way Down from Chicago, and The Year Down Yonder) is a completely unique character. 
Yes, she is unparalleled and works her way into your soul the more you read of her in each of those books.

Is she inspired by someone you know?

She is inspired by all the old ladies in my house. I had a grandmother that was six feet tall with a crown of snow-white hair, that lived in that house and in that town.  My dad told me the story so in a way, these stories are his, and I felt they had more poetry than my own, so I wrote them. I will share with you something serious, too.  Mrs. Dowdel loved her grand-kids, where my own grandmother didn’t.

    (This was whispered to me, and Mr. Peck obviously couldn’t see Victoria’s face, which was both excited and sad.)

I love the chapter in A Long Way from Chicago entitled “Shotgun Cheatham.”  Why did you decide to have the cat jump out of the coffin?
Mom, why wouldn’t you?  That was the funniest chapter I have ever read.  A cat jumping out of a coffin, but everyone thinking the dead person was still alive.
(chuckle) Well, the cat in the coffin was from a story I heard as a child.  The idea intrigued me and stayed with me throughout until I finally wrote it down.  And here’s a little something about Mrs. Dowdel.  She is a free thinker.  She doesn’t care what other people do or other people think.  She decides what’s right.
I think she’s a great example of what our current generation lacks, this moral compass, which guides each and every individual. Everything about today’s world is about mass mentality and conglomeration.  Free thinking is a lost art.
Yes it is.
Mr. Peck, have you read The Harry Potter series?
I haven’t read all of it.  I don’t really like fantasy and witches and all of that business.  But it wouldn’t be bad to be J. K. Rowling. (Another chuckle).  Not every character is for every child.
Which is why we need so many writers, to write for each child.   
So true.
Our principal’s book club chose to read A Season of Gifts. It was amazing to see how many children -- and in some cases, very young children -- identified themselves with Mrs. Dowdel and Bobby and how many of them understood very well the scene in which Bobby is bullied into the privy. It seems a universal feeling.

Principal Atikian's Book Club - Morning Meeting
Bullies are mean. Mr. Peck, did you write your stories about your time in school and places you lived in or visited?
I am very fond of geography and when I grew up, classrooms had maps.

Imagine that!  Well, I am happy to say that my classroom has one map.  
Good.  I’ve never written a story about a place I haven’t visited. I tried once, but it didn’t work. My newest book is set in the gardens of Buckingham Palace.  It took me a long time to get into the gardens because they weren’t public until recently, but once I visited them, I could write the story.  It wasn’t enough to look at photos for me.  I had to be there. 

Now, the three books that feature Mrs. Dowdel were about my father’s home and I did visit that house.  On the Wings of Heroes and Dreamland Lake are about my hometown and my experiences, though I doubt you can find those books in print  anymore.
Well, I'll just have to pay a visit to Amazon or eBay and see what they can turn up for me.
 Do you have a favorite character that another author wrote?
Yes of course, because I am a writer. My teacher in the 4th grade gave me a book about a boy named Huck Finn, and then I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of  my life.
I love that story too!  I also love Phyllis and Ruth Ann in A Season of Gifts.  What inspired you to make the sisters so different?

Yes, they are quite opposite aren’t they?
Here’s another story about a middle child. The brother is very protective and that I find interesting. Having three siblings in my stories always fascinates me even though that wasn’t the case for me, as it was only my sister and I, and I was the oldest.

Also, in A Season of Gifts, these kids are PKs- Preachers' Kids- and where ever they live, they are watched and judged for everything they do.  Ruth Ann ends up becoming a little Mrs. Dowdel. This is an example of how your characters become living people and will do and say things that don’t seem to come from you, the author.
Mr. Peck, I am a writer too.  And I was wondering if you had any advice for me?
Yes.  Learn five new words a day.  Every book has a new vocabulary.  You want to use words to create new worlds.  And you need more words than you and your friends use every day.  If you are going to be a writer, you need to collect words.
I will do that, I promise.  I do have one more burning question.   
Well, you spelled Ruth Ann with an E at the end of Anne.  My middle name is Anne with an E like the main character Anne in Anne of Green Gables. Well, with or without an E, she’s a great character and you are a great writer.  I love your stories, all of them that I’ve read so far.
Thank you, Victoria.

Mr. Peck, it was an honor to have your book selected by our Principal for her book club and to have so many children inspired by Mrs. Dowdel. Many of the students in our club drew their own version of the cover for A Season of Gifts and I promise to send you photos of our bulletin board.
 That would be wonderful.
I hope to see you at the next SCBWI conference in LA next summer, Mr. Peck.
 Look forward to it.

We hang up the phone.

Scene 4- The Aftermath

Hoo Boy.
My daughter and I sat in euphoria in our garage studio, trying to linger in the glow of the interview, letting the words fall on our memory.

We were on our way to a holiday party for the teachers at our school, and couldn’t help bouncing on our way there.

There are magical moments in life, moments you know you will not forget. I remember turning 19 and waking up in Paris. I remember holding my children the day they were born. As a child, I remember the day I won the school’s spelling bee at age 8.

And for my daughter, I think this become her first of what I hope will be many magical moments, the evening she interviewed Richard Peck. I have to say, I was quite impressed with her poise, her calm, her questions. She is a greater woman at 8 than I could ever have been, even now in my 40’s.

I will add this magical moment to my collection and she will use it to start hers.

Thank you, Mr. Peck.