An Interview with E. L. Konigsburg

by Leonard Marcus

The following is an interview with E.L. Konigsburg, author of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. That book, about two kids who run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, was a very big influence on Wonderstruck. This interview was conducted by Leonard Marcus on December 11th 1997.

Q: What kind of a girl were you?
A: Serious. Timid. A good student—that was the way I could make my mark.

Q: Did you have favorite subjects?
A: Anything that did not involve music or sports. I was hopeless at both. All through elementary school, our classes were divided into redbirds and bluebirds. The bluebirds were allowed to sing; the redbirds listened. I was a redbird. At Christmas redbirds were allowed to sing, but carols were all that was offered. Being Jewish, I did not think I should sing, but I wanted to, so I did. But when I came to the words Jesus or Christ, I hummed. Fortunately, gym and music were never given letter grades. (How could anyone give a redbird a grade when she was never allowed to sing?) When I was in ninth grade, I had my first course in general science, and I developed a deep interest in that subject. I was in love with logic at the time.

Q: What did you do for fun?
A: I liked to draw, and I loved going to the movies. My favorite movies were the ones starring Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire, and historical epics like Marie Antoinette. Until I was ten, we lived over my father’s store on the main street of town, and we played sidewalk games like Statue, May I?, and Hopscotch, and we could roller skate when the stores were not busy. Indoors we played Pick-up Sticks, Chinese Checkers (I was good at it), Jacks (never got past twosies), and lots of cards.

Q: Did you enjoy reading?
A: Oh, yes. My mother and father never cared what I read, but they did care when I read. I used to have what my family called “dishes diarrhea.” Whenever there were dishes to be done, Elaine would have to go to the bathroom. The bathroom was the only room in the house with a lock on the door, and I used to go there to read. I read a lot of trash—True Confessions magazines and that sort—which I hid in the clothes hamper. I remember crying so hard as I read the final chapters of Gone with the Wind that I kept flushing the toilet so that my parents wouldn’t hear me.

Q: What was it like growing up during the Great Depression?
A: The books I read as a child, such as Mary Poppins and The Secret Garden, were about people who had maids and spoke beautifully polished English. In contrast to this, in our Pennsylvania mill town, people during the depression were hiring out as maids, and my father lost a business. Some of my school friends spoke with foreign accents because they had learned English from immigrant parents who spoke with foreign accents. As a child, I never found any character in books whose life resembled those of my classmates, my family, and me. Years later, this made me want to write for children about things as they are—about people and places that my own children would recognize as real.

Q: How did you go about becoming a writer?
A: Aside from the fact that I have always been a reader—even as I majored in chemistry at Carnegie Mellow University—I have had only one formal writing course. As a freshman I was required to take a course in English composition that was designed to teach us to write about complicated processes in a simple, straightforward fashion. To this day, I cannot think of better training for a writer of children’s books.

Q: Are there some ways in which writing fiction is like being a scientist?
A: Both require discipline—and imagination. Einstein and Darwin could make their giant leaps because they asked the right questions. Giant leaps like theirs are made in the imagination.

Q: Why didn’t you become a chemist, after all?
A: I was in graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh when my husband finished his doctorate and found a position in Jacksonville, Florida. I had completed my course work but not the research project for my graduate degree. I detested the lab work—washing all those beakers and three-neck, round-bottom handblown flasks with ground-glass, custom-fitted stoppers that cost a gazillion dollars each and that had a bad habit of blowing up on me. I hated the smells and having to weigh everything down to the thousandths of a gram—called milligrams, if I recall. Besides, it’s hard to measure what you spill, and I spilled a lot. In a lab you have not only to measure everything—time, temperature, color, amount—you have to keep track of it all in fractions. I left graduate school to move with my husband to Florida. There was not then—and there is not now—a place where a person can get a graduate degree in organic chemistry in Jacksonville, so I took a position teaching science at a private girls’ school. I have never regretted my education in science, and I have never regretted leaving the lab.

Q: When did you write your first book?
A: When the third of my three children started kindergarten. We had moved from Jackson, Florida, to the suburbs of New York in the early 1960s, from the soft, gentle, mannerly suburbs of the south to the brisk, bustling suburbs of the northeast, but the regional differences did not matter because there was much more that was alike in my children’s lives than was different. I realized then that they were a genre: middle-class suburban. I wanted to see their lives documented in fiction because—strangely enough for a student of science to say—reading about it adds a measure of reality for me.

Q: Why do you write so often for children of about the age of twelve?
A: Because it is at that age that the serious question of childhood is asking for an answer. Kids want acceptance from the peers, but in two different, opposing ways: they want to be like everyone else and they want to be different from everyone else. So the question is: how to reconcile these opposing longings.

Q: Why have you often written historical fiction?
A: Those books have always started with an interest in art and with the people involved with that art. A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, for instance, grew out of my visits with my children to the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum’s collection of medieval art. I started wondering in particular about Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was wife to two kings and mother of two, and who struck me as essentially a liberated woman at a time when women were considered chattel. And so I wrote about her; her times were a watershed and she was magnificent.

Q: Do you have a daily work routine?
A: I get up, get dressed, and I come to work. Work expands to fill the time available. That’s especially true of housework. So in order to have time to write when my children were young and going to school, I had to train myself not to make a bed or wash a dish until after they had come home from school at lunchtime. I am training myself now not to answer the mail until the afternoon. I am having serious talks about this with myself!

Q: Do you have a special place to work?
A: Oh, yes! I used to work in a converted bedroom at home. Now I have a marvelous studio behind our house where I can write and do art work. When I look out in one direction from my studio I see a marsh and if I swivel my chair around, I see the Atlantic Ocean. I can’t believe I’m here.

Q: Do you know from the start how a book will end?
A: Yes. First, I know my characters. I also know an important incident that will come in the middle. As I write, my characters take me up to that incident, then past it, right up to the ending foretold.

Q: How do you get to know your characters?
A: I begin writing. As I continue, I fall in love with some characters and not with others. In Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, for instance,I based the little girl who is called Cynthia on a girl I really didn’t like who lived in the apartment house where we lived when I wrote that book. I started out not liking Cynthia—and I didn’t like her when I finished the book, either!

Q: Why, by the way, do some of your books, including Jennifer, Hecate..., have such very long titles?
A: When I finished Jennifer, Hecate...I didn’t have a title for it. I thought, If I were to ask my oldest child Paul what it was about, he would say “Oh, it’s about a girl and a witch and a toad...” So I put all those names together in what I thought was a rhythmical pattern. It’s been my experience that kids just love saying the names.

Q: Why do you sign your books “E. L.” rather than “Elaine” Konigsburg?
A: When I began writing in the mid-1960s, I thought it was not important for readers to know whether I was male or female. Also, I was a great admirer of E. B. White, so I may have thought that it would bring me luck to submit my first manuscript as “E. L.” But if I were starting out today I would use my first name.

Q: Do you revise much?
A: Sometimes yes and sometimes no. You have to do justice to your work. I wouldn’t want to hand in a sloppy manuscript.
I write the book and then I go back in. Sometimes, I blank out whole pages and re-do them; other times, I dab here and I dab there, in just the same way that, as an oil painter, I paint over a spot, let it dry...touch it up, ..., let it dry,..., until it is right.

Q: Do you, like the title character in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, have files of research materials?
A: I do. I’ll clip an article when it first catches by interest, and file it away. I have a file called “Strange,” another called “Political Correctness,” and another called “Baseball and Jewish.” I have a file on Barbara McClintock, a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist I’m fascinated by. I have files on each of my children.

When I was starting work on the book that became The View from Saturday, I had the character of Ethan clearly in mind. I had the image of him boarding the school bus, and of Julian entering the bus. I knew that Julian would say that his father was going to make over an old farm house as a bed-and-breakfast inn or “B and B.” And that’s when I took a walk along the beach and remembered that I had in my files a short story called “The B & B Letter.” As I walked on I remembered two other stories in my files, and realized that they were all connected by the same theme even though they had been written over a period of years.

Q: Do you do other kinds of research?
A: When I was writing From the Mixed-Up Files I went with my children to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They posed, and I took Polaroids of them as Claudia and Jamie. We went all through the museum and ate at the restaurant. We also visited a bus yard in Connecticut.

Q: How do you know when a book is done?
A: There are two ways. It’s partly a matter of instinctive knowledge: I just know. But it’s also when my characters have completed their journey, when I’ve taken my people where I knew they were going.

Q: What do you tell children who want to write?
A: I always tell them to finish. I tell them that a great many people have talent, but that the difference between being a person of talent and being a writer is the ability to apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair, and finish.

I once had the chance to look at the first draft of E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, a book I love. I was already an author then and was having trouble with the book I was writing. It was wonderful for me to see that Charlotte’s Web didn’t happen all at once, either. E. B. White had to work at it.

Q: What is the best part of being a writer?
A: This answer may sound a little rehearsed, and in a sense it is because I have thought about it a lot. Here goes: W. H. Auden has said, “Rite is the link between the dead and the unborn.” I believe that reading is a rite as well as a right, and books are the link that can be shared without your having to be there. For example, one of the things on my life-time check-list of things I wanted to do before I die is see Baryshnikov dance, and I did get to see him dance. But I can never share that experience with my grandchildren. You had to be there. But with books you can share the experience. And from the mail that I get, I know that my books are a link—teacher to student; parent to child; friend to friend; country to country. Being a link between generations and across borders is the best part of a lot of very good parts, all of which are immeasurable—even in fractions, and it sure beats breaking glass in an organic chemistry lab.

Leonard Marcus is one of the world's leading authorities on children's books and their illustation and an award-winning writer for kids. He is the author of many popular books, including Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon; Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom; Funny Business; and the just-published Annotated Phantom Tollbooth. Leonard is a founding trustee of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, a long-time reviewer for the New York Times Book Review, and a frequent commentator on television and radio. Visit his web site: www.leonardmarcus.com.