Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Gayle Rosengren

Posted on: August 21, 2014

If you read any biography or interview of Gayle Rosengren, chances are you will hear the phrase: “Like Esther….” Esther is the main character in Rosengren’s debut historical novel, What the Moon Said. Apparently, Rosengrew drew a lot on herself to create Esther. For example, the two grew up Chicago but eventually moved to Wisconsin. They were also avid readers, loved to imagine, and enjoyed school. Both also wanted dogs and horses, but for a time couldn’t have them. (Actually Rosengren never did get her horse.) Finally, both are superstitious.

GayleRosengrenRosengren herself went onto attend college in Illinois, where she majored in Creative Writing and was the editor of the literary magazine. Never outgrowing her passion for children’s books, Rosengrew worked as a children’s and young adult librarian at a public library for several years. Along the way, Rosengrew also had stories published in magazines for children. And eventually she wrote What the Moon Said, which I’ll review tomorrow. Save the date: August 22!

The idea for What the Moon Said came from the difference between her mother and her grandmother. The first was super affectionate while the second, though kind, was not given to hugs or kisses and statements like “I love you”. Rosengren’s grandmother’s many superstitions and the Esther whom she imagined had yearned for proof that she was loved combined to “grow” Rosengren’s idea into a full-fledged novel.

As part of writing What the Moon Said, Rosengren read books about the Depression for the major events that were happening around 1930, the year in which her novel takes place. She also read books about Rin Tin Tin, superstitions, and life on a Wisconsin farm. While participating at a writing retreat, Rosengren met an editor who loved her manuscript and worked with her to heighten the tension. Now Rosengren has the fortune of writing full-time in her home, where she lives with her husband and a rescue dog.


ALLISON: You liked school. What are your most memorable school moments?

GAYLE: Here are some early ones: Seeing my first “story” in print in second grade in our elementary school newspaper; and wondering in kindergarten why the clay had to be so hard!

A later one–wearing glasses to school for the first time and being amazed and thrilled at the difference they made in how everything looked, but also remembering how it stung when a boy in my class called me Four Eyes.

ALLISON: What is the funniest moment you experienced as a librarian?

GAYLE: I did a Banned Books display and all the books in that display–Huckleberry Finn, Are you There God? It’s me Margaret, Bridge to Terabithia, Anne Frank, Charlotte’s Web, and more, FLEW off the shelves the moment the display was taken down!

ALLISON: You have always wanted to be a writer. What drew you to this field?

GAYLE: As a girl I loved reading so much that I wanted to write stories other kids would love too. What other interests do you have? Reading of course, but also movies, traveling, and spending time with my family and friends. Someday I hope to take some watercolor classes and also learn how to quilt. There never seems to be enough time to do everything I’d like to do.

ALLISON: How difficult was it to get published in Cricket, Ladybug, Jack and Jill and Children’s Digest? What was that experience like?

GAYLE: It was not as difficult as getting my book published but it wasn’t a walk in the park either. Those magazines are /were the best around for children and they had high standards. It was a great learning experience in writing fiction and especially tightening it to fit a given number of allowed words; writing cover letters and queries; and equally important, receiving rejections and developing the resiliency every writer needs in order to survive them. I was very excited to be published and encouraged to continue down the writer’s path, but perhaps most important of all, my publications were credits to include in queries and cover letters and elevated me to a more professional status in the eyes of the editors and agents I corresponded with. I think magazine writing is a terrific first step for new writers.

ALLISON: You worked as a copy editor. How did you get that position? Why did it interest you?

GAYLE: I was working in the reference library of a children’s publishing house and began helping the editorial department out when they were especially busy. I started as a freelance proof reader and then moved up to freelance copy editor. I was offered a position as a full-time copy editor when the company unexpectedly changed hands and the position was eliminated. I was very disappointed.

Writers nearly always work with other writers to have their work in progress viewed with more impartial eyes and receive feedback on any problems that the author may have overlooked. So really we all edit all the time, including the self-editing we do on our own work repeatedly before sending it out to an editor. Editing is just a different level of writing. And as a writer, copy editing work was way more appealing than my far less creative work in the corporate library.

ALLISON: What would be your favorite pet outside of a dog?

GAYLE: I imagine a horse might not be considered a “pet” by some people, but it would by me, and if I could I would definitely add one of these beautiful animals to my “family”.

ALLISON: How about favorite animal?

GAYLE:Elephant. No hesitation or thought required. I love everything about these huge but playful, intelligent, loyal and affectionate creatures.


ALLISON: If you traveled back in time, what would you like most about the Depression? The least?

GAYLE: I think I would most like the way families banded together to survive during this difficult time. But, like Esther in my book, I would least like saying goodbye to friends, or seeing people in soup lines or their furniture and personal items piled on the sidewalk when they were evicted from their homes. So horribly sad!

ALLISON: What superstitious do you hold to?

GAYLE: I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t been able to shake free of most of the superstitions my grandmother (Ma in the book) planted in me as a girl. Whether it’s being careful never to bring an open umbrella inside the house or put new shoes on the table, or whether it means tossing salt over my shoulder when I spill it, and never telling a dream or killing a spider before breakfast, these behaviors are so deep inside me that I can’t seem to root them out. Even though I know intellectually that there is no real power in superstitions, I find it much easier to close the umbrella, put the shoes on the floor, toss the salt, and keep the dream to myself and let the spider crawl away (until after breakfast) than not. Why tempt Fate?

ALLISON: How do you impart a sense of place in your writing?

GAYLE: Through all of the senses–visual descriptions of flora and fauna and buildings and objects of course, but also through sounds: of animals, machines, feet crunching on gravel or slurping in mud; through smells: of newly plowed fields or exhaust from cars or meals baking or pigs in a sty (ugh!); through touch: describing the scratchy texture of a towel or the sharp splinter that pierces a bare foot: and through taste: the sweet-tart juice of raspberries warm from the sun, the spicy taste of gingerbread, or sugar cookies melting on the tongue.

ALLISON: What kind of revisions did you make to What the Moon Said based on new research or editor suggestions?

GAYLE: At the suggestion of my wise and wonderful editor, Susan Kochan, I added more superstitions to the original draft of What the Moon Said and increased their significance to the plotline in order to create more tension in the story. A smaller change she also suggested was to soften Ma’s character a little so she wouldn’t seem quite so mean. Both suggestions were right on the mark. (Thank you, Susan!)

A correction I made when I researched something that I previously hadn’t, was to change the Christmas treats the children received from their teachers from candy canes to gingerbread men. Somehow I thought candy canes had always been around–or at least as far back as the 1930’s–but when I checked to be absolutely certain, I discovered that candy canes weren’t around until the 1950’s! This near bungle taught me not to take anything for granted, and I researched all kinds of other details afterward to make sure they were correct. Writing historical fiction is full of potential pitfalls for those who don’t respect the facts of the times, and this added an extra layer of work, stress(!) and responsibility to my writing.

ALLISON: What’s next?

GAYLE: Next is Cold War on Maplewood Street. It’s also being published by GP Putnam’s Sons/Penguin Young Readers and will be released in August of 2015. This is middle grade historical fiction set in Chicago during the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Like What the Moon Said, it’s a family story at its heart, but in this instance the family is mostly absent, leaving main character Joanna on her own to struggle with the very real threat of nuclear war, the strange behavior of a creepy new neighbor who might be a kidnapper or a spy, her love of horses and her feelings for a boy in her class who just happens to have one(!), and the shocking (and exciting) things she’s just beginning to learn about romantic relationships thanks to a certain book she and her best friend Pamela have gotten their hands on.

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