`I don’t think of myself as a creative person and I really think that’s true. You notice something and you wonder, “what if?”. It’s as simple as that.’
So, says Cynthia Voigt, highly successful author of the Tillerman series, who once saw a bunch of kids waiting in a station wagon and wondered what would happen if the person for whom they were waiting just never came back. How long would they wait? What would make a person not come back?
Her wonderings have culminated in an acclaimed series of books, one of which, Dicey’s Song, was a Newbery Medal winner. There will be no more. Their creator feels that she stopped at the right time -‘series can go on too long and then you lose it… I felt that I stopped at the right time… I knew it was right.’ Even so, this is not a series in the conventional sense. The reader should feel that each of the six is entirely different – ‘they tasted, when I was writing them, entirely separate… I see them more like a mosaic that tessellates. I conceived of them in that fashion.’
Her own secure family life was not a bit like that of the troubled Tillermans. She is one of three girls, added to by twin boys when she was twelve. The family was raised in Connecticut, later moving to Pittsburg. Certainly her parents did well by their children, unlike some, especially fathers, who appear in the novels. Cynthia freely admits, ‘If I were the parents of the person who wrote Tree By Leaf I’d be upset.’ Frank Verricker, the absent father in Sons from Afar, is probably best remaining that way and poor Brann in Building Blocks is left feeling ‘doomed to be the kind of kid who felt ashamed by his old man’. To be fair, not all of them are rotten enough to ruin the life of everyone, but many attract a fair amount of reader hostility.
For herself Cynthia professes to have strong maternal instincts and obviously admires her own son and daughter, who live with their parents in Maryland making them ‘East Coast Middle-of-the-roaders’.
She was educated in the fifties in Massachusetts, first at a girl’s boarding school and then at a women’s college, which later proved source material for one of the early books, Tell Me If the Lovers Are Losers. Here Hildy, the tragic character from North Dakota, is deliberately portrayed as alien to the world that she finds herself in and to that of most readers. Her puritan, moral, religious and social values, curiously highlighted by her appalling eyesight, contrast strikingly with those of Niki, the Californian girl, world-wise and steeped in more contemporary values.
These two characters have become the hallmark of Cynthia Voigt’s work. Few other contemporary authors portray character with such insight. Individuals fascinate her. She claims she’d love to grow up like the remarkable Gram in the Tillerman series -‘I would like myself if I could be like her’. She also has an affection for Bullet from The Runner. When her editor asked, ‘Who is this sullen creep?’, his originator retorted, ‘This is an heroic type … what do you mean sullen?’ She confesses now, ‘I think he’s absolutely wonderful. I would’ve loved to have had him in class. I don’t think he’d’ve liked me a bit. I would’ve loved to have hit my head up against his.’ Like the editor, not everyone professes Bullet to be the most endearing character, but Ms Voigt likes difficult people. In her years of teaching she has always got along with the difficult students and now she tends to write about the kinds of people that she freely acknowledges she used automatically to write off when she was younger.
‘Teaching taught me to recognise that everyone has his or her own life and they tend to try to do well by it, and to sit there and write them off is no way to see what is true.’
Her admiration of Bullet occasioned the only time so far that she has got into trouble with her characters. She liked him so much that she couldn’t bring herself to kill him off – ‘I thought of a way to do it without belying anything I’d done before, and I thought “I can save his life”. Then I realised that it just wasn’t honest and he wouldn’t have tolerated it and my reasons for not wanting to kill him off’, so Bullet died in the Vietnam war.
‘He almost made it, he was coming back, he was running and they -got him. We were covering him and at first we thought he was just – taking an obstacle, the way he did when he was moving fast, but – ‘
Such hard concentration on character has its traps of which Cynthia Voigt is well aware. Over the years she has become more interested in her characters at the expense of plot and she has gone further and further into their heads and away from what they’re doing.
`The Tillermans seemed to be much more about character. I used to worry about that, then I thought these things have their own shape and your job is at most a little pruning, maybe. You can belie the shape and really do a bad job by the story.’
The Callender Papers, her traditional Gothic Novel, is the most revised for this very reason – she needed to attend to the plotting. Likewise, Jackaroo, which she sets in an imaginary place that she calls `The Kingdom’. This is the same setting for an imminently due novel, On Fortune’s Wheel, which she confesses was hard work to plot, but with which she is immensely pleased. The two are her ‘Zorro Novels’.
As a teenager who longed to write, the young Cynthia was hugely enamoured of the heroic adventure story. Calling cards bore ‘Zorro’ as her middle name and the mat outside her dormitory door was a Zorro bathmat. The romantic notion of somebody galloping around putting Z’s on things and leading an heroic, secret life translated itself into Gwyn, the innkeeper’s daughter in Jackaroo, who was, she realised,
‘More at ease when she wandered about the countryside as Jackaroo than at any other time. It was odd that dressed up as Jackaroo she felt much more like herself. And in the disguise, she was free to do what she really wanted to do, much freer than was Gwyn, the innkeeper’s daughter.’
Real disguises, smokescreens, masks, tangible or otherwise, are a common motif and an often used image (which Cynthia finds rewarding to explore) in many of the novels. Masks that her characters show on the outside belie what’s going on inside, separating the public face from the private one. `I like kids to recognise that they are wearing costumes, not to draw any moral conclusions, just to be able to say, “Yes this is a costume”, it lightens everything up and they’ll be freer to move in and out of roles.’
For her own part Cynthia confessess that she’d like a more unusual or’ glamorous persona, maybe like the blonde cheerleader Izzy in Izzy, Willy-Nilly, the type that as a girl she both envied and despised. Since Izzy ends up in a wheelchair, this book gets sold as an anti drink-driving book, but its author reveals, `I think all of us look like Izzy. It’s just that most of it is invisible. We’re all tottering around at the end wondering whether we’re going to fall down or not. We’re all marked and that’s why I think it works.’
Cynthia Voigt seldom comes close to, revealing how much of herself goes into her novels. She doesn’t like to contemplate that, because to do so might trigger too much self-control and `I’d get stiff and start stumbling and trip. Like in the classroom, if you become too conscious of how much of yourself you are revealing to your students, that’s not good.’
She has been out of the classroom for two years, but her lively conversation is often illustrated by teaching analogies. She loved the job, but admits that essentially she prefers to stay at home and write and is delighted to find herself doing it. Yet she doesn’t consider herself a professional – ‘a word that’s not entirely clean in my vocabulary’.
`I write, I think, in a novel rhythm. I’d love to turn out good sonnets. That’s like cutting a diamond just right… I write because I write and the way I write is because it’s the way it interests me to write… You have an idea and the idea has its own natural size and you can abort it or stretch it out, but the ideas I have been having are novel ideas… I will try anything in my closet with my typewriter, but I don’t come out very often.’
On a good day a couple of hours of genuine work is considered profitable, a first draft often taking six to nine months. Cynthia is only happy when a couple of ideas are in the melting pot, but even then many end up in drawers because they haven’t worked. `I feel deeply about things and occasionally a professional thought occurs – The more successful I am, the less confident I am – which I think is probably good.’
She is sceptical about any strong political motivation in her work and then, on reflection, decides she is a humanist and, if there’s any feminism, it’s because she feels that women and girls need to be careful about believing what they are told about themselves. Dicey believes that she can make a success as a boat builder in Seventeen Against the Dealer despite the odds –
‘Dicey Tillerman always had things planned out so she could get to where she wanted. Where she wanted to get to was being a boat builder … Just because nobody had done something didn’t mean Dicey couldn’t.’
Similarly with racism in the Tillerman books, where settings are meticulously authentic. Prejudice in these novels had to be met head on, especially in Come a Stranger. `These are American books and it’s part of American life. I raised a few questions about it. What do we really think? What would we really do?’
About future plans the author is cagey. She doesn’t talk about her ideas in public because – ‘I don’t know until I’m through with them how I’m going to do them and they’re so fragile. I want to make what I’m going to make out of them and then anything can happen and that’s ok – but I want them left alone to do my part in them.’
Long may the author who professes to `like hard thinking and daydreaming’ ask `what if?’ and produce such excellent fiction enjoyed by an extraordinarily wide range of admiring readers.
Photographs by Richard Mewton.
Cynthia Voigt’s novels
Homecoming, 0 00 184306 0, £6.95; 0 00 672459 0, £2.99 pbk
Dicey’s Song, 0 00 184147 5, £5.95; 0 00 672566X, £2.50 pbk
A Solitary Blue, 0 00 195664 7, £6.95; 0 00 672683 6, £2.50 pbk
The Runner, 0 00 672804 9, £2.25 pbk
Sons from Afar, 0 00 184295 1, £6.95; 0 00 673367 0, £2.50 pbk
Seventeen Against the Dealer, 0 00 184782 1, £6.95; 0 00 184784 8, £5.95 pbk
Tree By Leaf, 0 00 184435 0, £6.95; 0 00 673769 2, £2.75 pbk
Building Blocks, 0 00 672929 0, £2.50 pbk
Tell Me If the Lovers Are Losers, 0 00 672927 4, £2.50 pbk
The Callender Papers, 0 00 672983 5, £2.75 pbk
Jackaroo, 0 00 191112 0, £6.95; 0 00 673611 4, £2.75 pbk
Izzy, Willy-Nilly, 0 00 184423 7, £6.95; 0 00 673377 8, £2.50 pbk
Come a Stranger, 0 00 184126 2, £6.95; 0 00 672928 2, £2.50 pbk
All titles are published in hardback by Collins and in paperback by Lions.