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Friday, March 30, 2018

Juicy Secrets

In celebration of the release of my latest novel, Out of the Wild Night, I was interviewed by my amazing editor, David Levithan. David convinced me to share a few juicy secrets about writing, ghosts and Nantucket. Here goes:

David Levithan: Hello, Blue! I’m very thrilled to be talking to you today about your new novel, Out of the Wild Night. It’s been such a pleasure to work on it with you – you’ve written a ghost story that’s both heartbreaking and life-affirming . . . with no shortage of chills and spooks thrown in. Where did the idea for the book come from?

Blue Balliett: I first visited Nantucket in the summer at age eighteen, and fell madly in love with this magical place. Coming from Manhattan, I felt as though I’d stepped into a novel – all was mysterious, old, understated, steeped in stories, and made by hand. There were no skyscrapers, no wide sidewalks, and few right angles. As a shy kid who had always wanted to make books, I know I longed to write about Nantucket even then, but it wasn’t until I heard some stories about real ghosts a couple of years later that I felt I had a handle. The ghosts, oddly, gave me a reason to speak out and a place to hide as a young writer. Hiding behind ghosts! How funny -- I’ve never quite thought about my beginnings as a writer in that way.

DL: What has been your own experience with Nantucket ghosts?

BB: Hmm, well, I did have an odd experience on Nantucket that made me listen carefully to the strange experiences of others. Over a period of years, I then interviewed lots of people and recorded their stories. I learned that seeing a ghost wasn’t really an unusual happening on this island. I’ve always been a curious person, and of course the thought that this small community at sea was home both to the living and to an active group of the dead made my head buzz with excitement. Impossible! But not! Thinking about Nantucket’s ghosts has always made me happy if a little scared, as the idea of their existence breaks so many rules. I guess I’ve always been a what-if person.

DL: It’s always interesting to me how most ghost stories are at the same time universal and local. In talking to so many people about their Nantucket ghost stories, I’m curious if you found that there were any themes that kept recurring? How do you think the geography and history of Nantucket affects the ghosts that people experience there?

BB: When an old house changes hands and is renovated, many startled owners or workers report experiences they can’t easily ignore. A figure moving through a room or simply standing in a corner; knockings, latch doors that rattle, open on their own or slam, the distinct sound of footsteps or sometimes voices when there isn’t any explanation, objects hopping around on their own – these are the kinds of things that happen. Perhaps disturbances shouldn’t be surprising, as Nantucket’s old buildings were inhabited by a tough group who survived because they fought back. As people who lived off the sea and the land on a tiny island far from the mainland and far from outside help, they were resourceful. Their lives were mostly hardscrabble and their homes, although modest and practical, were their castles. Theirs, theirs, theirs!

DL: I’m struck, in thinking about Out of the Wild Night, about how writing about ghosts is very much writing about death, and writing about death becomes, in a very clear and moving way, a form of writing about life and what matters in life. Often, of course, there’s a fear of talking about such things with children, but I love how you embrace it and acknowledge life and death for what they are. Was there a certain approach you made, or certain things you kept in mind, knowing you were writing this story for a younger audience?

BB: I think I’m most myself when writing for kids, as I say what’s deep inside. As a young reader, I loved it when books spoke to me about the world without sugar-coating the hard things – like death or separation from someone you love -- so that is always in my mind. Life can be piercingly hard and painful, even at the youngest ages, and kids feel loss and hurt very deeply even when they don’t show it. I always hate to hear ‘kids bounce back,’ as it plays down the depth of their feelings.

Ghosts seem like a perfect vehicle for exploring the fact that life is full of death and vice-versa. The idea of ghosts gives me goosebumps but also makes me happy. I guess it’s reassuring. Their refusal to go away, not only on modern Nantucket but over many centuries and around the world, makes human life feel big, extraordinary, and filled with possibility. As an adult who’s still the kid I used to be, I love that feeling.

DL: As you are well aware, I love the character of Mary, the town crier who has one foot in the past and one foot in the present. What was it like to put on her shoes and see the story through her eyes?

BB: Amazing, truly. My character Mary is based on a real woman with that name who lived on Nantucket. I have a photograph of her, taken sometime in the 1880s. When I stepped into her shoes, imagining what it might be like to be the fierce, slightly grim person in this image, I felt like she and I then made this story happen together. She truly came to life in my head. It was a strange feeling, as if she pulled me into her world as I pulled her into mine.

DL: Do you think you’d enjoy being a town crier? In a way, is that what novelists do?

BB: Yes, I love that idea, that we scribblers are really town criers! Mary was a shy person before she found herself needing to become brave enough, after death, to become a ghostly town crier, ringing her bell and shouting through her horn. The idea of doing something so loud makes me cringe and I know Mary was cringing too, at least at first. . . .

DL: One of the themes that runs through all your books is the importance of home. Can you talk a little about why this speaks to you (and readers) so strongly, and how it appears in Out of the Wild Night?

BB: Home can be any place and any size, but it’s where all of us hope to find peace and safety, right? If home is a happy place, it’s where you relax, become invisible to the rest of the world and allow yourself to dream. I’m well aware of how painful it is for a child to feel home changing because of adult distress, or even to go back and forth between homes if your parents have parted ways, which was my experience. As an adult living in Chicago, I’ve spent time in many homeless shelters and with people who’ve lived for years without a home. I never take the gift and privacy of a home base for granted, and my wish is that none of us ever do.

It seems logical that a person’s spirit might linger in a home after they’re no longer alive -- a spooky thought, but it makes sense to me that some part of us saturates our surroundings, and I love the thought that ghosts might feel inspired to hang around and influence those who are still living.

DL: And in Out of the Wild Night, the homes aren’t just a touchstone for the individuals’ memories – they’re also repositories of the community’s history. And yet . . . the homes are threatened by people who show no regard for this history. The word preservation takes on a soul here that goes well beyond architecture. I’d love for you to tell us a little about where this strand of the story came from, and what you’d love young readers to take away from it.

BB: When I first saw Nantucket, I was bowled over by the old, intact nature of so many of the island’s seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century wooden houses. The past was still here! For centuries, owners preserved these houses, only repairing what was needed. The oldest of these structures are sturdy, having been built with wood that remains sound – wide boards from first-growth trees or sometimes from shipwrecks, and a history of being lived in and loved by people who hated waste. Whether you’re a visitor or year-round Island resident, until recently there was a general sense of feeling lucky to be able to experience a place that belonged so clearly to another time.

Sadly, the last fifteen years or so have brought a wave of owners who are less interested in these houses as treasures from another time, and want the interiors to look modern and serve twenty- first century needs. The exteriors of Nantucket’s old structures are protected by local and federal rules on historic preservation, but the insides are not. Many of these Quaker homes, filled with history and unique detail, have been gutted. Doors, mantels, windows and floors are taken to the dump. Latch fittings and nails made by a blacksmith are tossed. The destruction of so much that has been valued and passed down is heartbreaking to those of us who feel these handmade houses have a life of their own. And if we feel this way, imagine how a ghost might feel. . . .

There are old, under-appreciated buildings in every community across every country in the world, and my hope is that the kids who read Out of the Wild Night will perhaps see these creaky structures in a fresh way. All are filled with layers of living. All tell stories, as Nantucket’s old homes do, to any who look closely and imagine. New isn’t always better. It’s often a lot less interesting, and besides -- there is wisdom in reusing and restoring old spaces. Any ghost can tell you that.

DL: Another theme that you return to often is the power of curiosity. I think it’s safe to say that you write some of the least passive characters in children’s literature – they aren’t just investigating mysteries, but they are also investigating the quirks and wonders of life itself. When many mysteries use the plot an end in itself, you always use the plot as a springboard for wider examinations. What compels you to do this? Do you always know what your characters will discover, or do you find yourself discovering alongside them as you write?

BB: I love open doors that invite you in and narrow paths that twist out of sight. I love books that propel the reader forward, allowing them to see the familiar world in new ways. For whatever reasons, I’ve always wanted to push the limits of what’s possible in everyday life, even as a kid. I remember hanging by my knees from two rings, outside, at about age seven. I thought, Wow, if I pull my legs out really fast, I’ll be able to flip around and land on my feet in the dirt! Even if most kids can’t do that! I decided to try. Of course, I ended up landing right on my head. The shock of that clonk is still with me (hopefully not in more ways than one!).

As a kid, I was thrilled by the feeling of looking into real-world mysteries, and dreaming that I might be the one to figure them out. As a parent and then as a classroom teacher, I loved watching kids’ faces as they thought about the same thing. Maybe it’s just about succeeding where adults have failed . . . . It’s delicious to feel that all things in this miraculous world of ours are possible, if not likely – and that any of us can perhaps stretch the rules, even of life and death.

My characters most definitely have taken me along on their adventures, surprising and educating me – perhaps the characters in Out of the Wild Night most of all. Before Mary Chase came along, I would never have believed that a ghost could tell such a story.