Q: How was writing Milkweed—your first historical novel—different from writing your other novels?
A: Research is what made it different from my other books. I usually do little research, but there was no avoiding it here. I made my bookseller happy by buying a load of books. I read parts of all of them for the next four or five months, then started writing.
Q: Would you mind telling us about the two people you named in your Milkweed dedication?
A:Bill Bryzgornia, a lifelong friend of mine, died shortly before the book came out. He was of Polish descent. He is mentioned briefly in my autobiography, Knots in My Yo-yo String.
Masha Bruskina is the name of a young woman who was publicly hanged by the Nazis as a warning and an example to partisan opponents of the occupying forces. I had seen the picture of her execution in a number of books over the years.
Q: How much of Misha’s character and situation is based on history, on reality? What about the other characters?
A:Many of the events and details of the story are true. For the most part, I made up the characters. There were, in fact, orphans who had no memory of mother or father and who, it seemed, simply materialized on the streets of war-torn Europe.
Q: Why did you decide to show the reader what happens to Misha when he grows up rather than ending Milkweedwith him still a child?
A: Because I wasn’t telling the story of the war; I was telling the story of Misha.
Q: How did you decide on the names of the characters?
A: As always, I chose them because they sounded right for the story, the time, the place. In a few cases, I actually changed names on the advice of a few helpful prepublication readers who knew 1940s Poland better than I.
Q: Do you have any favorite historical novels?
A: Johnny Tremain.
Q: When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
A: Eleventh grade, around the time a poem of mine about a football game was published in the local newspaper. I guess it was largely a matter of timing. I was sixteen. My dream of becoming a major-league baseball player was fading. The imperative to find my course in life was upon me. I was shopping around for who I wanted to be. And here this writing thing seemed to reach down and pluck me out of the crowd. I mean, it wasn’t forced, it wasn’t planned. Nobody assigned me to write a poem after the game. I didn’t try to get it published. I didn’t seek the resulting notoriety. All this pretty much just happened to me. What I did was just apply a little common sense: I like to write, I seem to be pretty good at it, people seem to like what I write (admittedly a lot to conclude from a single poem)—ergo, I’ll be a writer. Simple!
Q: If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, whom would you choose, and why?
A: Tie: Loren Eiseley, the anthropologist and poet/essayist, and Sonny Liston, former heavyweight champ.
Loren Eiseley because he’s often the answer when I’m asked, “Who is your favorite writer?” It’s incredible that he wrote so well, considering that he was a scientist. I love his insights and perspectives on humankind and the universe. . . .
On the way home to St. Louis after winning the heavyweight title, Sonny Liston looked forward to a hero’s welcome, looked forward to receiving affection from the people who had regarded him as a hoodlum and a monster. When he stepped off the plane, not a soul was there to greet him. It broke his heart. I’d like to ask him about that day. I’d like to dump a teacup of confetti on his head.
Q: What do you consider the most rewarding part of writing books for young people?
A: Feedback from readers. The most common kind, of course, is fan mail. I’m proud to say that one particularly nice letter was submitted by the reader/writer to a fan mail contest run by the Library of Congress, and it won. It was about Crash. Some of the most heartwarming reports I get are from teachers and librarians whom I meet personally at conferences and book signings. When a teacher with tears in her eyes tells how a book “saved” a student of hers, I know I’m in the right business. I remember a letter from a teacher in Georgia. She told me the kids in her class had a choice one day: they could go eat lunch, or they could continue to listen to my book. Every one stayed for the book.
Q: Do you ever use suggestions from readers in new books?
A:I tell readers that if I use an idea of theirs in a book, I’ll give them credit in the acknowledgments. This paid off for one student, who gave me the idea for one of the School Daze books: Who Ran My Underwear Up the Flagpole?
Q: What advice do you have for young writers?
A: For me, there are many little rules, all superseded by one Golden Rule: Write what you care about.