A Conversation with Gary D. Schmidt, Author of Okay for Now
In Okay for Now, Doug is introduced to, and falls in love with, the work of John James Audubon. What inspired you to develop a story around a book of Audubon illustrations?
Like Doug, I came upon a copy of Audubon in a library by surprise. It was the Flint Public Library, which I was visiting. Flint is a town ravaged by the economic recession, and I thought at the time that this library could make a lot of money by selling this book, but they had decided to keep it so they could display it. What an honorable choice that is! And that encounter became the beginning of the story—suppose they had made a different decision.
Do you remember your first encounter with Audubon? Do you think Audubon’s drawings hold the same appeal for today’s kids that they do for Doug?
My first encounter with the first edition wasn’t until graduate school, where the University of Illinois displayed a copy in their Rare Book Room, changing pages regularly. I was stunned by the size and beauty of the book. Could a kid relate to a work like this today? Does great art become dated and uninteresting over time?
What made you decide to return to the world of your Newbery Honor-winning book, The Wednesday Wars? When did you realize that Doug Swieteck had his own story to tell?
I really hadn’t meant to. This book began with a completely new world, a completely new kid. BUT, he kept sounding a lot like someone familiar. Still, I resisted, figuring I could have a kid sort of like Doug, and I began again with that in mind. But very quickly that didn’t make any sense after a while. I mean, why shouldn’t it be Doug? And that’s when the kid stood up and said, “Finally, you got it right. Start over.” And I did.
Your editor, Virginia Buckley, called The Wednesday Wars “a comedy about serious things.” How would you characterize Okay for Now?
Virginia had it just right—a comedy about serious things. This is a comedy about serious things, too, but again, more in the Shakespearean sense—a story about two communities at war, coming together. It’s not as ha-ha funny as The Wednesday Wars, because Doug is a more beat up kid than Holling. Or, to put that another way, in The Wednesday Wars, much of the really serious stuff is out in the world—the assassinations, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement. In this book, much of the serious stuff is inside Doug.
Are there any similarities between your childhood and Doug’s in Okay for Now?
I share more with Holling [Hoodhood, from The Wednesday Wars] than I do with Doug—though there are some important connections. Both of us struggled mightily with our reading, for example. And most of the good teachers that populate this novel—particularly Mr. Ferris—are based upon real teachers that I had that I admire. (The business with Clarence the rocking horse is true, by the way.)
You have a PhD in medieval literature, and teach English courses at Calvin College in Michigan. How did you come to write books for children and teens?
I write for the huge pleasure it brings, to create a work that a young reader would pick up. I write academic books as well, and they bring their own sort of pleasure. But it does, too, seem to me that we as a culture need to be bringing our best work to our children—our finest and most important resource, though we rarely act that way as a society. But they are, and I want to be among those who see as their artistic mission the bringing of fine art to kids.
Okay for Now already counts many adult readers among its numerous fans. Do you write with a particular audience in mind?
I write first for a middle grade audience. But a book for young readers should, as well, speak to adult readers. C. S. Lewis called it axiomatic that a book enjoyed only by children is by definition a bad book; W. H. Auden asserted that though there are good books only for adults, there are no good books only for children. I think they’re right. After all, a book that speaks to a younger age, speaks to adults who have once been that age.
Doug struggles with—and then comes to appreciate—Jane Eyre. Is there a book that you had a similar experience with as a teen? Is there a particular work of literature that opened up doors for you, as Jane does for Doug?
Jane Eyre, for one. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for another—the greatest stories told by the language’s greatest storyteller.
What other books and authors have influenced you?
Katherine Paterson is huge here. I don’t think anyone writing for young readers is unaffected by her work. Lois Lowry and M. T. Anderson are also hugely influential. Though I don’t write fantasy in general, John Christopher’s storytelling is terrific for me. Patrick O’Brian is one of my favorite authors, powerful in his economy; and Dickens and Trollope, those thumping good Victorians. In terms of language, Hawthorne. In terms of character, Avi. In terms of voice, surprisingly, Stephen Jay Gould and Darwin.
Your books are remarkably complex. Okay for Now is no exception, with its multitude of different characters and subplots. How do you maintain the many threads of your stories while writing?
I do think that life is remarkably complicated, and I do want the novels to reflect life. We don’t live one plot at a time; in fact, even a powerful plot is placed, normally, in the midst of other plotlines in which we are living. So I try to remember that life is complex, and that even a kid in middle school is balancing a lot all the time. The trick is to keep each line interesting and ongoing—you don’t want to lose one—and to make sure that they all respond to each other.
Is it true that you work on a typewriter? Do you feel the typewriter is important to your creative process?
I type all of my stories on a 1953 Royal typewriter. You can’t believe how hard it is to get typewriter ribbons for a 1953 Royal. The thing is made of gray steel, and heavy as sin. I use it because it slows me down. Anything that can slow down the creative process is valuable to me, since it makes me consider things—every word—again and again and again.
What are your thoughts on the growing trend of reading books on digital devices like phones and iPads?
The way of the future. Our children and their children will be very, very comfortable with this format, even if current adults are not always so comfortable. And if this is a format that can attract more readers—well, fine.
You’ve been working with Virginia Buckley for some fifteen years. What influence has she had on your work?
Virginia has been huge in my work. Our first novel together was The Sin Eater in 1996, and we’ve been working together ever since. Virginia has a great sense of a novel’s structure and progression, of characters, of language. She is acutely aware of how everything in a novel has to work together to keep interest, establish meaning, and tell a great story. So I’ve learned more from her than I can ever articulate. Plus, she comes up with great titles!
Any hints about what you’re working on now? Any chance of a third novel in the vein of The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now?
I’ve recently finished a fantasy—I know, out of character—and I am indeed working on what will probably be the third and final Wednesday Wars book—this one from Meryl Lee, who has moved to the North Shore of Massachusetts to a prep school. But that’s still in the Royal typewriter.