Monday, November 20, 2017

Q&A with Ellen Wittlinger

Ellen Wittlinger is the author of Saturdays with Hitchcock, a new novel for kids. Her many other books include Hard Love and Parrotfish. She has taught at Emerson College and Simmons College, and she lives in Western Massachusetts.

Q: You note that the inspiration for Saturdays with Hitchcock came from your own life, and your Uncle Walt. How did the book develop from there?

A: The relationships between Maisie and her family are quite similar to those in my family--my mother also stayed home to care for her aging parents while my Uncle Walt, who to me was heroic, left our small town to make his name in a wider world.

Maisie's grandmother is also somewhat based on my own, although not the late-in-life marriage. But my grandmother also lived with us for a while after she got dementia, and I was as thrown by it as Maisie is.

So I began by using the broad outlines of my own family dynamics, but, as usually happens, the characters took on a life of their own. I always began the book with Mr. Schmitz at the Lincoln Theater, but it wasn't until I had grandma reminiscing about her past that I realized the greater purpose he had to fulfill in the story.

This is usually how I work--one thing leads to the next. I don't begin with an outline. Sometimes I don't have any idea at all where I'm heading, but I know if I keep writing, my characters are likely to rub against each other and I'll see what catches fire.

Likewise, I didn't foresee Gary Hackett's true purpose until about a third of the way into the book. The characters have to be with me for a while before I know what they're supposed to do. (And then, of course, I have to go back and rewrite much of what I've written before.)

Q: The book is set in a small town in Illinois. How important is setting to you in your work, and could this book have been set elsewhere?

A: Setting is very important to me in my work. I think people are products of the place they grew up, even if they don't like that place. It's always a part of you. And in this case, I wanted Maisie to live in a small town far from any large city which might give her more access to art.

In part because of her adoration of her uncle, and in part because she has large aspirations for herself, Maisie's goal is to leave the place she grew up (although already she sees the difficulties in this too) in order to be a film director.

If the book had been set in New York or Los Angeles, or any city of any size, Maisie wouldn't have to work so hard. She'd be seeing indie films whenever she wanted, she could go to lecturers or classes run by filmmakers. Her parents might not think of a life in the arts as a waste of time because they'd probably know people who did such things for a living.

But coming from a hardscrabble little town in the Midwest, Maisie's dream seems almost impossible--only Uncle Walt has made this incredible leap, so, of course, she idolizes him.

Q: Did you know how you'd end the story when you first started writing?

A: No, I didn't know how it would end until maybe halfway through the first draft. Often there's a moment where I just SEE what has to happen, and usually that means going back and making changes to incorporate the new idea all the way along.

In this book, the moment I knew how it would end came about when I realized exactly what the relationship between the three kids was.

Q: How did you pick the movies to include in the book?

A: That was the most fun part! I started by listing the movies my own children loved, many of which were not new at the time either. Then I added in old movies I loved, and finally movies I thought Maisie, in particular, would love.

Then I sat and watched old movies for hours! I'd forgotten so much, even about my favorites. And once in a while I just needed a particular kind of movie, and then I'd google something like "movies that make you cry."

In the end I could only use about half the possible movies on my list, but I'm happy with those I managed to shoehorn in.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have another middle-grade coming out next fall called Someone Else's Shoes. But instead of working on another novel, at the moment I'm writing some plays--for adults, not really for children. But who knows? If I get another good idea, I'll come back to novels for kids.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love getting fan mail. If you read Saturdays with Hitchcock and like it, please write me at I always answer!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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