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Song of a Stargazer

Louise Hawes weaves poetry throughout The Language of Stars (Margaret K. McElderry Books), a fictional story inspired by a true event. At once lonely and lyrical, her protagonist Sarah embarks on a journey of self-discovery, gaining confidence through writing and self-reflection.

Tell us more about Rufus Baylor and how you developed his character.

Nearly 50 years after Robert Frost died, a group of teenagers in the town of Ripton were caught throwing a party in the famous poet’s historically preserved summer home. They’d vandalized and set fire to the place, but few of them were over 18. A resourceful judge, who couldn’t send them to jail, sentenced them to something some of them may have enjoyed even less—they had to take a course in Frost’s poetry! I asked myself, what if the poet in question weren’t Robert Frost, but an equally famous, Pulitzer-winning, world-renowned Southern poet, an octogenarian celebrity who makes his home in North Carolina, where I live? What if, unlike Frost, who’d been dead for decades when the vandalism occurred, my fictional southern bard is still alive when young partygoers trash his house? What if he decides to teach the course the vandals are sentenced to himself? And what if one of the students in this class is a 16-year-old girl who has a natural ear for poetry and wants to be an actress? What if these two form a bond and change each other’s lives? And what if …. Well, you get the idea. Once I started, I couldn’t stop!

The Language of Stars is your first book to include poetry. Why did you decide to incorporate that form, and how did it help bring the character of Sarah, Rufus’s protégée, to life?

Since most of my novel’s cast is studying poetry in lieu of doing hard time, I didn’t have much choice but to include poems in the book! I’d written and read poetry for years, had even drafted poems to serve as a sort of tonal benchmark against which I measured my prose. Yet I’d never actually published poetry before. Once my characters began writing poems, though, they had to be included in the book: naturally, I devised poetry for my Frost stand-in, Rufus Baylor. (Yes, I read everything Frost wrote prior to beginning work –including some surprisingly awful dramatic masques, based on Elizabethan models.) But I also included poems by several of the students in Baylor’s class, including, of course, Sarah.

It was particularly challenging to create the poetry Sarah writes because each poem is vital to the story, in at least four different ways: first, I needed to distinguish Sarah’s beginning-level efforts from the more sophisticated poems by her mentor; at the same time, I wanted to make clear the spark Baylor sees in her work, the promise that even she herself doesn’t recognize. In terms of their emotional content, it was also crucial that Sarah’s poems remind her (and my readers) of the parts of herself she’s been hiding, the parts that don’t fall under the headings of daughter or girlfriend or student. Finally, as readers move from poem to poem throughout the book, I want them to see growth, as Sarah, under Rufus’s tutelage, becomes more confident and daring, both in terms of poetic form and her own life.

Sarah has to work as a waitress and you worked once briefly as a waitress in Atlantic City. What’s the biggest lesson you learned from having to wait on people?

I like to think that life experiences, like books, give us gifts, rather than lessons. The gift that being a (very bad) waitress in that resort town gave me was a double whammy: sweat and humility. It was the summer before I graduated, and the hotel provided its young waitstaff with room and board, so we lived on tips. We got a break in the middle of the day, but morning and night? We worked really, really hard—much harder than I was used to working at college! That was the sweat part. The humble pie? That came when, despite putting as much effort into clearing from the right and explaining late orders with grace, as I put into my study at Swarthmore, I met with much less success. I couldn’t begin to match the high bar set by most of the elderly waitresses who’d been there for years.

It’s no coincidence, then, that Sarah takes away the same gifts I did from a job to which she is not particularly well suited: Sarah’s world, like mine, is not short on people who know more than she does about a lot of things. Meeting each of them opens doors, widens hearts.

You’re a faculty member at The Vermont College of Fine Arts, in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. How did your role as teacher help you shape The Language of Stars?

It’s a cliché to suggest that a teacher learns as much as she teaches, gets as much as she gives. But like so many clichés, this one is true: I am forever enlivened and recharged by the writers I work with in the program I helped found some twenty years ago. No one who’s written for as long as I have can claim smooth and happy sailing throughout their career; but whenever I’ve flirted with despair, with the notion that writing is less useful, less important, and oh-my-aching-heart far less easy than other work, my students have shown me why I persist. They know that books change lives and hearts; they know they have no choice but to do what their every sinew, fiber, and brain cell demands. They give me courage. I think this same rededication happens for Rufus when he encounters Sarah.

Then, too, there’s not a writing exercise in this novel that I haven’t introduced to my own students. Frost was a gifted teacher, though I can’t be sure, beyond antidotes and hearsay, what form most of his teaching took. Which is why Rufus Baylor, my fictional bard, borrows most of his class exercises from yours truly! From writing with music, to field walks, to blind typing, there isn’t one of Baylor’s “odd” pedagogical approaches that hasn’t been used by this “odd” mentor! In fact, I had to omit some of my far-out experiments (glossolalia, death haiku, clay characters) because, as my students have suggested, no one would believe them!

How many hours daily do you write? Do you use a computer or a pen and paper? A tape recorder? Can you describe your writing space – or are you mobile in that you can write anywhere?

I’m afraid my answer will disappoint folks who hope that wearing certain clothes, or sitting in a special chair, or even offering a prayer to Thoth, the Egyptian God of Scribes, will help smooth their writing angst. Not where I live! First of all, I’m not the sort of person who can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time, so no music or coffee shops for me. Second, although I’ve built myself a lovely, light-filled workspace at home, I teach and speak and am on the road a lot. So I need to be able to meet deadlines anywhere, not just when I’m curled up and cozy. My ritual? Start writing when my feet hit the floor in the morning. If I don’t, if I check my email, explore the internet, answer the phone, or read the paper, I’m doomed—I follow one distraction after another, and before you know it, I’ve written nothing. As for pen and paper, that’s reserved for my free writing; the drafts themselves are done at the keyboard. Short answer? I’m hardcore when it comes to writing: I sit down and do it.

What was one of your favorite books when you were 15? Who do you read now (when you’re not writing), and can you recommend a few books?

When I was an adolescent, editors hadn’t yet discovered (and helped to create) the separate market for young adult literature that exists today. So, amoeba-like, I read blindly and indiscriminately whatever adult books came my way. This blob-meets-book approach led me to some fine literary companions, as well as to some rather strange bedfellows. (Yes, I’ve always had a teetering tower of books waiting bedside!) When I was ten, I devoured books like The Caine Mutiny and Marjorie Morningstar, not because I understood them, but because they had the allure of being “for grownups.” At 15 and 16, I’d reached the stage where I “crushed” on writers I loved, reading everything they wrote. Two of my most passionate crushes were ee cummings, a poet who writes like a novelist, and Thomas Wolf, a novelist who writes like a poet.

Today? I’m still an omnivorous reader, devouring widely and only sometimes wisely. Currently, I’m reading: Mary Oliver’s newest volume, Why I Wake Early, and W.S. Merwin’s Garden Time. (These two “senior” poets restore my faith in the power and insight of age; they are each growing more simple and clear with time, light as balloons and filled with truth and grace.) The Bone Clocks, 600 pages of brilliant, if uneven, dystopian fantasy from David Mitchell, an author whose characters rival his world building in complexity. And for the sheer and ticklish fun of it, a children’s chapter book by George Saunders, one of my favorite authors for adult readers. The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip will be a birthday present for my 6-year-old granddaughter, as soon as I figure out how to sew a stuffed Gapper (round, flame-colored, with spines and hundreds of eyes) to go with it!

Did you like to write when you were at Swarthmore College, and were there any faculty members who helped shape your writing style?

Swarthmore has made wonderful strides in terms of the arts since I attended. In my day, though, there were no creative writing or arts courses offered. I wrote for The Phoenix, of course, and for the Halcyon but both staffs tended to insist on the truth, so my fictional muscles didn’t get much exercise! I did enter a playwriting competition sponsored by the Little Theater Club (there was no Theater Department or academic credit for theatrical studies), and had the thrill of seeing a one-act I’d written come to life on stage! As for painting, which I’d also done quite a bit before college, I remember we had to take the main line into Philly to paint from a live model.  Happily, times have changed, and I’m impressed by the wide range of creative opportunities students now have right on campus!

Was there a point in your life when you knew that YA fiction was where you belonged? Or do you prefer the novels you have written for adults?

I never sit down with the intention of writing for a particular audience. Instead, I sit down with a character or characters whose story I need to tell. What form that telling takes is the result of my working with my characters, shaping their experiences, bringing them to life. I don’t choose a point of view, a tense, or even a setting before I start. But once underway, I seldom change the format that comes as the story unfolds.

The result? I’ve written all over the map: my MFA studies concentrated on short fiction. (My thesis was on garden imagery in Eudora Welty’s work.) The University of Mississippi, which hosted me as a John Grisham Visiting Author, published a collection of my short fiction for adults, and I’ve written a group of dark, “grownup” fairy tales that was published by Houghton/Harcourt. I’ve written a graphic novel, a picture book, middle-grade chapter books and biographies, and yes, lots of novels for young adults. The Language of Stars, though it’s been marketed chiefly to young adults, is a title I consider cross-over, and my readers seem to bear this out: I’m getting as many letters and emails from adults as from teens.

Currently, I’m still ignoring genre “boundaries.” My works-in-progress include The Gospel of Salomé, historical fiction centered around the 12-year-old whom the Bible suggests danced off the head of John the Baptist; Big Rig, a novel told in two viewpoints, by a former English-professor-turned-truck-driver, and by the 11-year old daughter he homeschools on the road; and a collection of poems about the bittersweet end of a long life, My Father Meets Alzheimer’s and They Go Away Together. When people ask me if I’m ever afraid of running out of ideas, I tell them that what scares me more, is running out of time to follow through on the ones I have!