Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Marion Baeur

Posted on: November 20, 2013

MarionBauerAs promised, I’m going to interrupt November Zombie Fest with author interviews. Today I’d like to introduce you to Marion Bauer, the author of more than eighty books including On My Honor which won the Newbery Honor. In my teaser about her, I noted that she lived in a cement mill town in Illinois with her parents and an older brother. In earliest years her peers viewed her as a nerd and outcast, but during later years she gained acceptance by working on the high school yearbook. Many more life changes awaited including: marriage, foster children, exchange students, and a house full of pets. She also became serious about a writing career. In my interview with Bauer, I asked about these facts and others including about whether she ever got hold to hold a wolf as part of her research for Runt. She graciously answered my questions in great detail. Enjoy!

ALLISON: Did you ever get to visit your father at his job at the cement mill? Or did you father ever  share work stories? In either case, what’s your most memorable memory?

MARION: No, though we lived right next to it, immersed in the dust and the blast of its whistle for shifts and the bang and thump of the freight trains, I never visited the mill itself beyond running up to my father’s office for the mail. My father always said it was no place for a girl. And the memory that has stuck the hardest is his also saying, “The reason they call it work is because you don’t like to do it. If you liked doing it, no one would pay you.” He was a highly intelligent, college-educated man, so damaged by the Great Depression that he took a job much beneath his capacities and hung onto it with all his might. The mill finally closed when he was in his 50s, leaving him frightened and unemployed for a time. From my father I mostly learned not to be my father. Taking risks is hard, but living a life that refuses risks is harder. And doing work that I love is an imperative.

ALLISON: Your brother had several friends to run about with. Did you ever want to play with the boys? How did you entertain yourself?

MARION: I played with my brother, of course, but the kids in the mill housing, by the time we were school aged, formed a pretty segregated society. Boys and girls didn’t mix much. We were well outside of town, but most of the time there were one or two girls in the mill housing, and I used to make up stories for us to act out. When I was alone, I did the same thing. I made up stories to be acted out by my dolls or my collection of marbles (which represented people, of course, the standard size were kids, the shooters were adults) or hollyhock blossoms (beautiful women with wide, wide skirts).

ALLISON: Your earliest school experiences of being outcast partly due to your clothes reminds me of Emily of New Moon by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Growing up, did you ever read books about inspiring authors? What books did bring you comfort?

MARION: I don’t remember ever reading about an author. I’m not sure I quite realized that the stories I loved were written by people, at least not living ones. (And most of my books came from my mother’s childhood home, so the authors I knew were long dead.) But I suppose just about everything I read brought me comfort. In particular, I loved animal stories, especially the novels of Felix Salten—Bambi, Fifteen Rabbits. They transported me into a forest world that was thoroughly familiar—the mill housing was on the edge of a deep woods—which is probably what drew me to them so powerfully.

ALLISON: As a teen, you were focused and responsible. What was one of your proudest accomplishments?

MARION: I was the editor of the high school year book and the director of the yearly high school talent show. I wrote the script for the show, too. In high school I found a world where I could use my love of writing and where I could be in charge. It gave me a place to belong and to feel good about myself. A single moment? Perhaps the day the yearbook I edited came out.

ALLISON: Initially, in college you planned to pursue journalism. What turned you away from that idea?

MARION: Reality. I discovered very quickly that J School, as it was called at the University of Missouri where I went to study journalism, was a trade school. A very good trade school but just that. I was starving for an education in the humanities. So though I knew I might never be able to support myself doing the kind of writing I wanted to do, I stepped away from what had been not quite a long-time dream but certainly a long-time plan and went for the kind of education I hungered for: literature and creative writing and philosophy. Eventually I got practical and made another shift to qualify to be a high school English teacher, but from the beginning what I most wanted to do was to write stories, my stories, not some else’s.

ALLISON: Why did you and your husband take in foster children? Exchange students? How did those experiences impact you?

MARION: That was my doing. My husband was an Episcopal priest and totally consumed in his ministry. I found myself needing to make a contribution beyond our small family and my clergy-wife role, and since children were my world in those days and since I do best one-on-one, foster children and exchange students were the perfect fit. How did those children impact me? They made my world and my heart larger, much larger. And the gift—to me, I mean—of that giving remains to this day. As I respond to your question my daughter and I are gathering to spend three weeks in New Zealand and Australia visiting two former exchange students!

ALLISON: Since turning away from journalism, you have written all kinds of books for children of all ages. How did you become such a versatile writer?

MARION: I started out writing middle-grade novels. I chose that territory partly because I had fallen in love with such novels as an adult, having only discovered the more contemporary ones then, and partly because I had a lot of healing still to do over my own 11-12-13-year-old transitional time. (One of the best ways I know to bring about psychic healing is to write a story where the painful issues have to be faced and resolved once more . . . and once more . . . and once more.) It would be difficult, though, to navigate a forty-year career without changing the route now and then, and so, to keep myself fresh and interested and to keep selling, I began sampling other kinds of writing in the juvenile field. I have now published board books, picture books, early readers—both fiction and nonfiction, first “chapter books” as kids usually call them (I prefer the term young novellas), and middle grade and young adult novels. It’s all been part of stretching, of keeping myself engaged.

ALLISON: Which is your favorite novel that you’ve written? Picture book? Nonfiction book? 

MARION: My favorite is always the one I’m working on at the moment which, right now, is a young-adult novel called Blue-Eyed Wolf. When I look back, the favorites that stand out are usually in that position simply because they are my most recent, but sometimes something just hangs on my heart for a long time. Of my novels that are out there I’d put Little Dog, Lost, my most recent, a novel in verse, at the top of the list, but that may change with time. Runt holds a strong place, too.

My favorite picture books are seldom my most commercially successful ones. (That tends to be true of all of my books.) I still especially love The Longest Night, partly for what I brought to it—its language and its story—but also for Ted Lewin’s stunning water colors.

Nonfiction? That’s harder. I guess I’d have to start with What’s Your Story? I put a lot of what I know about writing stories in that book. Beyond that I might pull out my very young weather series—an idea I came up with myself rather than an assignment as most of my young nonfiction is—Rain, Snow, Wind and Clouds.

ALLISON: You indicate that you often do a lot of research for your novels. Before writing Runt, did you get to hold a wolf cub? (Wolves are my favorite wild animal!) What is your most amazing animal experience?

MARION: No, I have never held a wolf cub. Wildlife rescue centers are too respectful of their charges to allow that. But I did visit such centers and also areas in Minnesota where wolves live wild. And I read and read and read. What I do when I need to research is read until I have absorbed my topic, whatever it might be. I absorb it almost as though I am living the material myself. Only then do I begin to assemble my story, using what I have come to know. As I write I pull it out of my consciousness exactly the way I draw on my own lived experience.

ALLISON: What inspired you to write On My Honor?

MARION: On My Honor was based on a real incident from my childhood. It didn’t happen to me but to a friend of mine when we were both around 13. He and another boy whom I didn’t know went swimming in a local river, something parents forbade. The other boy didn’t swim well and he drowned. My friend was so frightened—and, I presume, felt so guilty—that he came home and didn’t tell anyone what had happened. I can still remember where I stood in my back yard when one of his younger brothers told me what had happened, and I can remember feeling, deep in my gut, what it must have felt like to be my friend that day. It was out of that profound feeling that I wrote the story.

ALLISON: Do you have any plans to retire from writing?

MARION: I’m holding my work a bit more lightly these days, but as long as my brain keeps functioning I hope I’ll be able to write.

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