My interview with Jane Yolen
I usually post these interviews as soon as the next issue of Doorways Magazine is out. This time around, I was blindsided when I found out that I had "squamous cell" cancer in my sinus when I went to the dentist for a tooth ache this Feb.. I have subsequently undergone two major surgeries (the first to remove the cancer where I lost most of my upper bone, all of my upper teeth and my left eye). The second surgery was reconstructive. I still have six weeks of radiation to look forward to in the coming weeks. Enough about me.
This interview is one that I'm particularly proud of because I have been a fan of Jane Yolen's amazing imagination for years and it was a real honor that she allowed me, not only to interview her, but to touch on some very personal subjects. I hope you all enjoy it.
Doorways’ Interview with Jane Yolen
Jane Yolen, often called "the Hans Christian Andersen of America," admits to actually being the Hans Jewish Andersen of America. She is the author of almost 300 books, ranging from picture books and baby board books, through middle grade fiction, poetry collections, nonfiction, novels, graphic novels, and story collections. Her books and stories have won many awards, including two Nebulas, a World Fantasy Award, a Caldecott, the Golden Kite, three Mythopoeic awards, two Christopher Medals, nomination for the National Book Award, and Jewish Book Award. She also won the Kerlan Award and the Catholic Library's Regina Medal. Six colleges and universities have given her honorary doctorates. Her website is: www.janeyolen.com
Stephen M. Wilson: You write in a wide variety of genres—everything from poetry to children's & YA fiction to science fiction and Jewish literature. Do you derive the same satisfaction from each or are you drawn to a specific genre more often?
Jane Yolen: I love writing, and when a piece comes right, I am absolutely delighted. It really doesn’t matter to me if it’s a poem or a story or a novel. (Though I write a lot of speeches/essays, I have to say they are not as high on my Happy Index.) So the distinction for me is not the satisfaction per genre but rather when something surprises me, or catches in my throat, or makes me laugh/cry/gasp/sigh. I am, after all, the first reader of anything I write.
Wilson: You've written many things that could easily be categorized as dark fantasy; have you written anything that would be considered straight horror? If not, is that something that you might try at some point in your career?
Yolen: A couple of short stories might be considered horror. Two in fact made it into Years Best Horror. Some poems. But they are horror with a frisson, not a torn-apart body count. Though I have to admit, I have killed off folks in my books, and some with quite a bit of panache and dispatch.
Wilson: Speaking of genres, what does the term "Interstitial" mean to you and do you consider yourself and interstitial writer?
Yolen: Well, since I cross genre all the time--write songs into some of my novels, have books with pictures, done a novel as a script, written the life of Marc Chagall in poems, have done symphonic storytelling, had ballets made from my stories, and artwork from my poems for starters--I am probably as interstitial as you can get.
Wilson: Two of my personal favorite pieces of fiction that you've penned, The Devil's Arithmetic and Briar Rose, deal with the Holocaust in somewhat fantastical ways. If there is one lesson that you want people to take from these dark fantasies steeped in historical fact, what is it? Have you ever thought about tackling the subject sans the fantasy elements?
Yolen: For me, using fantasy elements makes the Holocaust approachable. It was a time so rife with horror, drama, and bizarre deaths, with astonishing acts of heroism and martyrdom, that telling it in a straight-forward for me (though not for other writers) is impossible.
Wilson: I'm not sure if people are always aware of how devastatingly thorough the Nazis were in their cleansing. One thing I personally think is important about Briar Rose is that it mentions some of the other "groups" that were affected by the Nazis such as gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics and homosexuals—the prince who awakens the sleeping beauty in your version is, in fact, gay.
Yolen: Before I began Briar Rose, I didn’t know Count Potoki was gay. I learned at the same time my heroine, Becca, learned. What a surprise! At that point I had to stop writing and learn as much as I could about the infamous (but rarely written about then) Pink Triangle Camps that warehoused and killed homosexuals, mostly men. Afterwards, a gay friend said, “Of course he was gay—he was the fairy godmother character in the book!” Ah, the subconscious is a terrible thing to waste.
Wilson: The film version of The Devil's Arithmetic was nominated for several Emmys and won the award for both its director and the screenwriter. Were you on the set while they filmed? What was it like to have such Hollywood royalty as Dustin Hoffman and Louise Fletcher involved with the film?
Yolen: I read the script and gave some notes, but was otherwise uninvolved with the film. But my husband and I were brought to Hollywood for the opening and made to feel a part of it then. In fact, Dustin Hoffman said from the podium, introducing the film to the 800 invited guests, “Jane, I hope you feel we did your beautiful novel proud.”
Wilson: Its star Kirsten Dunst has been a vocal fan of yours. Do the two of you keep in touch?
Yolen: Alas, no, though her lawyer tried to take out a free option on Briar Rose.
Wilson: What do you think it is about fairy tales, or märchen as the Germans call them, which still make them both fascinating and relevant to today's readers?
Yolen: They are talking about real emotions, telling true stories, through the medium of metaphor. People used to understand metaphor better than I think we do now. But these stories are so potent, they refuse to die.
Wilson: You mention in the introduction to your poetry collection, The Radiation Sonnets, that you had "always been wary of the poetry of personal pain, leery of self-exposure." At the time you penned those sonnets, your husband David Stemple was battling cancer. How much did writing help you get through those days?
Yolen: It was the ONLY thing that got me through that awful time. I did no other writing, just tended to him and at night, after he was—finally—asleep, I would creep upstairs to my attic writing room and write down the poem that I’d been thinking about all day. Making sense of that single day, and not any other. Living really in the moment.
Wilson: You wrote in the afterword to that collection that David had chosen "wisely" not to read the sonnets. Did he ever do so before his death in 2006?
Yolen: He read a few of them, not all. Not even a majority of them. And of course he read none of the poems that I wrote in the three months that he was dying. Though ironically, he was writing his own poems then, though he was not a poet, and I got to read and critique all of them. He worked and worked on them because they helped him make sense of his own anger, denial, and I think his writing led him eventually into acceptance. That and his amazing protean mind which encompassed so much. The children and nieces and nephews called him “The Man Who Knew Everything,” which is on his gravestone. He was an astonishing man. The world fascinated him.
Wilson: Much of the poetry that you've written in the past few years address both your mourning and the healing process and also deals with the subject of aging. In your opinion, what is it about poetry which lends itself so well to this kind of emotional catharsis?
Yolen: In fiction, the characters have their own lives. They may start as a gloss on the author’s life, but they move on from there. In poetry, especially confessional poetry but in other poetry as well, the poet is not writing characters so much as emotional truth wrapped in metaphor. Bam! Pow! A shot to the gut.
Wilson: What are your thoughts and opinions on the supernatural? On God? Have those changed in any way since losing your husband?
Yolen: I am really a living here-and-now kind of person. Not a heaven-expecter. However, there have been so many of what we in the family have called “David moments” that it is startling. And I don’t know how to fit those into my world view.
Wilson: You’ve collaborated with all of your children; what is that process like with someone that you are so close to?
Yolen: The first time I collaborated with each of them, it was a bit fraught. Could I critique them without making them feel Mommy is saying bad things? Could they critique me when I had already such a reputation? We got through that nonsense pretty quickly. And now we trust one another implicitly—and listen carefully to one another all the time. (Though I am still faster than all of them!)
Wilson: Even with your success as a writer—the best-sellers, the awards, the honorary doctorates, the films—you still belong to a writing group. Explain the importance of these kinds of groups to both you personally and to writers in general at whatever level they might be.
Yolen: My writing group is 8 professional women writers. We are strong-minded and yet vulnerable (as all writers seem to be), spread across the genres, and totally committed to one another, both as friends and as writers. So we can be very carefully sharp about critiquing and at the same time absolutely assuring as to our
appreciation of the writing abilities on display. Quite simply, these women hold my back.
Wilson: What do have in the works right now?
Yolen: Whosh. That’s a long list. I have 40 books under contract, all but 10 already totally written. The new books I worked on this summer include: the copyedited DRAGON’S HEART, 4th book in the Pit Dragon Chronicles; a book of farm poems for children with poet friend Rebecca Kai Dotlich); a book of poems about the life of artist Marc Chagall (with poet friend J. Patrick Lewis); a short fantasy novel called TRASH MOUNTAIN; a novella with son Adam about dragons and the Russian Revolution; first third of an adult fantasy novel written with friend Midori Snyder called EXCPT THE QUEEN; first third of a children’s fantasy novel with Adam called BUG; finishing a picture book of poems AN EGRET’S DAY with photographer son Jason; finished a picture book with daughter Heidi called NOT ALL PRINCESSES DRESS IN PINK; and half of a comic book picture book with friend Bob Harris called PRAMAZON & THE DIAPERS OF DOOM. Of these, the ones sold are: DRAGON’S HEART, Russian Revolution dragons, EXCEPT THE QUEEN, BUG, EGRET’S DAY, and PRINCESSES PINK. The rest have gone off to my agent to try and sell. Oh, and a few other things.
Wilson: Thank you for being so open and allowing me to touch on some highly personal subjects. And thank you for sharing your wonderful poetry with Doorways’ readers.
Yolen: My pleasure. Really!
Print issues of Doorways Magazine are available to order at: http://www.doorwayspublications.com/