Today on the blog, it is my privilege to welcome the wise and wonderful Louise Hawes, who is here to talk about her young adult novel, The Language of Stars, the latest of her many novels. I met Louise my first semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she is on the faculty. Click here to read a synopsis of The Language of Stars.
Louise is represented by Ginger Knowlton. The Language of Stars, published by Simon & Schuster, debuted in May of this year. At the end of the interview, I’ll tell you how you can get this book. Now, let’s talk to Louise!
El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Louise: 1) I’m allergic to chocolate. I know, I know! Weep for me! 2) I’m part of a group that meets every week to share responses to our dreams. 3) Before I was an author, I was a sculptor, in wood and stone. 4) My three sisters and I give creativity Playshops all over the world.
El Space: The premise for The Language of Stars is so intriguing. What inspired its inception?
Louise: The summer residency schedule at Vermont College of Fine Arts must have had some “air” in it in 2008. Although VCFA’s students and faculty are usually busy morning to night, I somehow found time to pick up a paper, sit down, and read it! What caught my eye was a story about a group of teens arrested for vandalizing Robert Frost’s historically preserved summer home in Ripton, Vermont [below]. Because they were all underage, and couldn’t serve jail time, the teenagers were “sentenced” to take a course in Frost’s poetry.
I’m sure you can imagine how this article triggered my writer’s “What if?” machinery: what if the poet wasn’t Robert Frost, but a fictional celebrity poet from North Carolina—where I live—who’s done for the landscapes and people of the South, what Frost did for New England? What if this poet, unlike Frost, was alive when his house was vandalized? What if he decided to teach the course himself? And what if he met a young student who . . . well, you get the idea. I just couldn’t stop!
El Space: Your prose has such verve! I love your play script sections. Words and sounds seem very key in this book. Is this your first novel to include poetry? Please tell us how that came about.
Louise: I knew from the beginning that Stars would include both prose and poetry. After all, most of the characters in the novel are writing poetry instead of doing hard time! And two of the characters, Rufus Baylor, my Superstar Poet, and Sarah Wheeler, the 16-year old student whom he meets and mentors, hear the whole world talking to them. That’s where the snippets of dialogue, those play scripts, come in. Sarah, I learned after months of free writing with her, is a wannabe actress, and so this third format was included for her. The lines of dialogue in these scripts aren’t usually people, but things—plates spinning, furniture breathing, sand crabs busy under the beach. Everything has a voice!
And yes, this is first novel of mine that’s featured poetry as an integral part of the book. Actually, though, the poetry in Stars was the least difficult part of bringing this story to life. While the research into Frost’s life and work, which entailed reading everything he ever wrote and everything written about him, was a long, hard process, the poems? They flowed, they filled me up. You see, I’ve always read and written poetry. In fact, I often write a poem for each prose chapter as I’m drafting a novel—not for publication, but to provide an emotional benchmark, to make sure I’ve got the feeling tone I want. So poetry wasn’t new for me, but making it public was. I’d never thought of submitting it, instead I’d kept it private, close to the bone. So even though I’m a bit old to be a “debut novelist,” I guess, in that respect, Stars is a first for me!
El Space: What aspects of your personality, if any, did you donate to Sarah? To Fry? Why?
Louise: Wow! I can tell you’re an author yourself, Linda! We writers know so well that a large part of what we do is building bridges between ourselves and our characters, finding the parts of us that feed them. So far as Sarah, the teenage narrator of Stars, is concerned, there are a lot of bridges: once I’d free written with her—I keep a notebook of free writes for every book I work on—I discovered that she, like me when I was young, wants to be an actress. I even had a brief and supremely mediocre acting career out of college. I learned, too, that, like me and so many other adolescents, she cares achingly about what other people think, so much so that she has trouble finding herself in the mix. As for Fry, her popular, seductive boyfriend? He reminds me of that part, in all of us, that takes good things for granted until it’s too late. It’s funny, because just a few days ago, I got a letter from a reader who wrote me that, although she never expected to feel sorry for Fry, by book’s end, she did. I did, too. . . .
El Space: A poet mentors Sarah in the novel. Who mentored you as an author?
Louise: I am so grateful to you, Linda, for asking this question. It gives me a chance to pay tribute to a teacher I took for granted, someone whose role in my life I failed to recognize at the time. His name is Calvin Atwood, and he was my high school English teacher. He gave me my first book of poetry; I still have it, and it’s inscribed: “For Louise, who will find and give treasure . . . everywhere, always.” That’s a mantra I say every day now. What a blessing it is when someone believes in you that much!
El Space: So true! What writing advice would you like to share about writing for teens or about poetry?
Louise: Three other VCFA faculty members and myself put together a panel on poetry just a few semesters ago. We all wore berets and sunglasses and flounced to our seats as Dave Brubeck music played in the background. Then, of course, we took off the hats and sunglasses and got real. Our point? You don’t have to suffer or live in a garret or exist on some esoteric, unreachable level of sensitivity, to love, read, and write poetry. Its rhythms and music are as essential as a heartbeat, and often just as necessary for survival. So have fun and get down with poetry, don’t put it on a pedestal. Love it, don’t leave it. Feel it, don’t analyze it. Your life will be richer, wider, deeper for it.
El Space: What will you work on next?
Louise: I’m working on two novels right now—an historical fiction called The Gospel of Salomé—yes, she of the seven veils!—and a book for middle graders called Big Rig, about a father-daughter trucking team. I love having two projects going at the same time; that way you never get bored or over-stay your welcome with one story’s characters!
Thank you, so much, Louise, for being my guest!
The Language of Stars can be found here:
Chocolate allergy image from stickyj.com. Teacher image from globalcatalystgroup.com. Robert Frost from writingasaprofession.wordpress.com. Poetry image from annawrites.com. Sand crab from milkweedpods.blogspot.