All About Adolescent Literacy

All about adolescent literacy. Resources for parents and educators of kids in grades 4-12.
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Transcript from an interview with

Tamora Pierce

Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Tamora Pierce, divided into the following sections:

Meet Tamora Pierce

Hi. My name's Tamora Pierce and I am a fantasy author of adventure fantasy for teenagers, although the bulk of my audience is actually everybody who gets it. My fans include guys, they include girls and they include adults literally from 20 to 80 at this point.

When I started to write in sixth grade, at my Dad's urging, I sort of thought that fame and fortune and becoming a famous novelist went with it. I didn't know enough about the industry to believe otherwise. In tenth grade, I hit a case of writer's block. This is not normal.

I have to caution the audiences I speak to — adult and kid. This is not normal. This does not happen to everybody. I have only ever met one other person this happened to. That block lasted five years. I wrote very bad poetry at that time. I have a flinch about poetry today.

I am slowly dipping my tootsies in the kiddie end of the pool of poetry now — other people's. I'm never gonna write it again. I wrote satirical stuff for the high school paper, I wrote stories that took place in a friend's science fiction universe, but I did not write my own original fiction until the summer before my junior year in college.

At that point, I didn't think of making a career of it. I didn't think of anything except writing. I just wrote. I wrote around my classes. And a year later, I sold my first short story and got the courage to take my only course in writing fiction. That and, a course in writing for film and TV, were the only writing courses I actually took in college. And, in fact, I don't advise writers to take writing in college at all. I believe they're far better served by taking as broad a range of courses in college — art, history, music, languages, psychology — because those give you a seed bed for your ideas.

My one regret about college is that I did not take history courses because I get so many ideas from history now and I'm sure if I had studied it in an organized way in college, I would get more ideas than I do now. But at that point, I just—I was writing. I hoped I might be able to make a living at it.

I was dirt poor. I had been dirt poor as a teenager. I was dirt poor in college. I was dirt poor after, so any extra money I made was from writing. In 1979, I moved to New York City and got a job with a literary agency and worked there for three and a half years. And by the time I was finished and they had actually sold my first series to Atheneum, I knew what the chances were of my being able to make a living as a writer.

So I knew that I was eight out of 10 — 80% chance that I was going to be fitting my writing in around a day job the rest of my life. And if I could just keep writing and do that, I was happy. So that's how that worked. There came a point in the early '90s where I realized I was making enough from my English and German royalties actually, not my American ones, that I could barely make a living as a writer. And that's when I started thinking about jumping ship from being an investment banking secretary.

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Little Women, brave women

I have writers that I love and I have books of theirs or I have single books by one writer that I love. But from moment to moment, I never know what will be my next favorite. I am sort of lately kind of narrowing down one pick that will hold me for a little while.

I will say, I will commit, that Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my eternal favorites, and Michael Hare's Dispatches. He was a journalist in Vietnam. He is also the guy who wrote the voiceover for Blade Runner — the movie Blade Runner. And his prose is very terse and yet very picturesque. And I love reading how he describes the war. He catches the craziness that was involved.

And beyond that, then I go to my favorite Georgette Heyer's and my favorite Barbara Hambly's and my favorite Diana Winchoses (ph.) and it just unspirals from there. When I was a kid, I read all of Louisa May Alcott 'cause that was what girls read. But as I got older, I sort of thought she was all girly and I was by then reading a lot of what were considered boy books at the time.

My Dad shared them with me so at the same time that I was reading Alcott, I was reading what were considered boy books — Edgar Rice Burroughs, Zane Grey, Moby Dick, Treasure Island, The Three Musketeers — and I loved that kind of book. I just wasn't finding girls having adventures in them.

And one of the things I came to appreciate later about Alcott was that her girls were really active, and I think that sort of imprinted on me. And I rediscovered it later as a writer that her girls were shooting archery, they were rowing, they were skating, they were running, they were sledding.

So I got that imprint of girls being outspoken and being athletic from her and — at the same time that I was reading these boys adventure books. And then that was the point at where I started writing. So I was writing adventure stories with girls in them because I wanted to see…I wanted to read these.

So I did what we do a lot of the time — I wrote what I wanted to read. And in seventh grade, I discovered fantasy or, rather, my English teacher guided me to discovering it. And that was Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. My favorite thing for a great deal of the trilogy from the Two Towers to The Return of the King was there was this woman, Éowyn, who disguised herself as a man to fight.

And at the end of the trilogy — this is a spoiler — at the end of the trilogy, Éowyn gives up being a warrior and, to me, that was the greatest betrayal ever because I saw no reason why she should give it up. She had her reasons, but I wanted her to stay a warrior. And so my adventure stories that I was writing took the turn into fantasy, but I was writing what I wanted to read again, the girl warrior. And I found Robert Howard after that, and Michael Moorcock was my third big fantasy shaper.

The rest of the fantasy I was reading was full of great aspirations and high legend and doom and terror and dark things in the night, and I didn't know any of that. I wanted what I did to be approachable and I wanted there to be girls having the adventures, too. Nothing against guys. I have plenty of guys in my books, but I wanted the girls to be able to have the adventures, too. For a long time… remember I said that I sort of thought Louisa May Alcott was girly.

Round about the '90s when I had written a number of books already, I started to think about her again and that was when I remembered and I started re-reading her again that all of her girls were incredibly active. But then I started to think also about how I was defining female courage and I came to realize that from my standpoint, the bravest character in virtually all the books I've ever read is not so much my own Alianne or not so much Jo March. Caddie Woodlawn is pretty good riding in the dark to warn her Indian friends about the whites coming to massacre them. That was pretty good.

But Beth March is my idea of real courage because Beth knows that there is scarlet fever in the city. This family has gone all her life and all of her mother's life doing charitable work with the poor and the sick. So she is fully aware of all of the dangers of entering an epidemic zone. She also knows, because she has been so ill so often, that she has what we would call an impaired immune system, that it's dangerous for her to enter an epidemic zone.

Yet when all her sisters are too busy to go help this one family they'd been looking after, it's meek, shy, scaredy cat little Beth who very quietly — no fanfare "look what I'm doing cause you guys won't do it." She packs up a basket and she goes to that family and she finds the children crying. The mother has just delivered the baby and the baby is sick and everyone else is sick.

And it's Beth who sends for the priest. She cleans up the baby who dies and she cooks dinner and she stays with that family until help comes. And she comes home in the winter night, she already knows that she's getting sick and she very quietly goes up to her room and goes to bed. To me, that is bravery. That is true bravery. And she made me think… Thinking about Beth March made me redefine my definition of female courage, and I've been building on that ever since.

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No tv until you get your work done

We all have our little rituals and things before we get going, and my day generally starts out where I'll go into my office and I'll look through my e-mail and then I have things that I do. I check the Astronomy Picture a Day page and Cute Overload and the World Earthquake Map to find out where the earthquakes are happening.

And then sometimes I check ICanHasCheezburger and then I check the webcam on the volcano Popocatépetl in Mexico and then I check my two news sources — BBC Online and MSNBC Online for my news. Lately, the last 10 months I've been doing a lot of political blogging. I don't think it's going to go away entirely, but by the time I've done all of that, it's usually getting around 3:00.

And, also, there are errands. I've been in physical therapy for my shoulder and my knee lately, which is lots of fun. Around about 3:00 or 4:00 I'm ready to start work. And the way I do it is not by hours; the way I work is by page limit. I have to make my page limit everyday or I can't watch television. Yeah, I have to make my page count before I can watch TV, and I like television. So when I'm starting out on a book, it takes that my start speed is usually about five pages a day because I am setting up characters. I'm setting up the plot. I'm setting up the themes.

And then as I get going I'm up to six or seven pages. And this is the speed I'm at now after more than 25—well, yeah, after something like 30 years of writing as a published adult. In the beginning I was happy if I could do one or two pages a day, but I've been at this a long time and usually I've been thinking about a book for a long time before I sit down to write it.

So that's why I can do so much at any one day. In the middle, I'm going to six or seven pages a day and by the time I hit what the people in the radio company I helped to start in the '80s used to call the "Pierce Juggernaut," which is I get everything all lined up in a row and all the little climaxes have happened and now there's this huge juggernaut of plot teetering on the edge and all I have to do is stand aside and let it drop.

And it goes barreling down on the characters and there's the earthquake and the forest fire and the war and the ground opens up and the palace collapses inside and the rats reign supreme over all. Then I'm doing 14 to 20 pages a day and I'm just sitting there typing madly, cackling like a fiend and saying, "Good stuff. Good stuff."

And I still manage to get it all done before my favorite TV shows come on. And what I then do is also everyday my friend Bruce Coville who is the author of Dark Whispers, The Song of the Unicorn, My Teacher is an Alien, Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher… Bruce and I read together.

So he'll bring over what manuscript he's working on and then I'll read about five or six pages of what I'm doing and he'll give me notes, and he'll read five or six pages of what he's doing and I'll give him notes. So we do that everyday, as well. And that's part of our process when we're both in town.

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Where Gene Simmons and Jeff Goldblum fit in

I'm not very good at making stuff up. Actually, this is true for everything. Nobody believes me, but I'm not. So I have to start with, if not someone I know, a performer or an actor, or even the character the actor plays, because that not only gives me someone's face, but how they move and how they react to things.

I had never seen my friend Alex in high school meet a woman from ancient Greek with her dress cut down to her navel, but I had a pretty good idea of how he would react if he met a woman like that. So, it also gave me what colors they would wear. It also gave me how their voices sounded, what their verbal idioms were.

For Numair and the Daine books, I picked actor Jeff Goldblum because I needed someone. Originally, I had cast actor Gene Simmons… the young Gene Simmons because I thought he was hot. And then I got to chapter four, and I was galloping along on the keyboard, I was having a wonderful time — and then I hit where this young girl who is seeing her family massacred, who ran crazy for a little while. She's broken. She's afraid she might run crazy again, and now she's going with trust and hope and a little fright to Gene Simmons.

And the little voice in my head is screaming "Do over, Man! Do over!" So, I went looking around for a male figure who could be her mage teacher and wouldn't frighten her to death. And, at the time, I was watching Earth Girls Are Easy, and actually a rather nasty little Canadian film called Mr. Frost with Jeff Goldblum playing the devil as a serial killer.

And Goldblum always, even now, has still that awkward, gawky school boy quality that had me riding the pony cloud calling Numair the "Stork Man." And he has that wonderful speech pattern of stuttering and stopping in odd places when he talks. And then when he gets talking, he will go on and on. And I realize he made a much better person for Daine to approach.

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The fandom

My fans are…: After the creation of the stories, they are my favorite thing about what I do. I tell people that my fans are cooler than anybody's and they think I'm sucking up. And then they meet my fans and they come back and they say, "You really do have fans who are cooler than anybody's" and I say, "I know."

I tend to attract among teenaged fans very intelligent fans, very idealistic, very passionate, very funny fans, so I hang out with them a lot. And among the adult fans, they tend to be very lively people, very interesting people, very bookish and the kind of people who don't shirk from reading teen books and young reader books because they're kids' books.

They, in fact, find that they enjoy those as much, if not more than their standard adult reading. They're also the kind of adults who get turned onto books by the kids in their lives. And there are adults now who came to my books when they were kids. At one point a couple of years ago when the Trickster books came out, I noticed my audiences were starting to include three generations of female fans.

And then there were the college ones who would write me e-mails saying, "I really loved your books when I was a kid and I saw your books on the shelf and I got one. I was afraid you'd suck, but I read it and you don't suck so now I'm reading all your books again."

That's the kind of fan I get. They create. They write. They fence. They do barrel racing. They do horse shows. A lot of them are in the military. A number of them — the adults… One of them is a flight controller for NASA. One of them is in the Israeli Army. One of them retired as a full-bird colonel from the Air Force. One of them was on the bomb squad in Chicago. So, as you can see, I have a wide variety of very cool fans.

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Too stupid to know when to quit

The first thing I always say is to be determined. Keep going. Do more because the more you do, the better you get, so you do more. At our house, we call it being too stupid to know when to quit. You have nothing to lose so you may as well keep going. And don't be discouraged by the fact that you're not finishing stuff. It takes you a while to develop mental and physical muscles to turn out a whole story. It's like when you first step foot on the track, you are not going to run the mile.

You are going to start out training for the sprint and there're gonna be days when you hate it, and you don't wanna do it, but the coach says I'll drop you from the team if you don't practice. So, you practice the 50-yard-dash, and it gets a little easier, so you run a little further.

And it gets a little easier, and it starts to look suspiciously like fun. And so you keep going and you keep getting better. It's the same with any of the arts, actually. I mean, what I'm saying is as true for painting or sculpture or music or acting as well as writing.

The more you do, the better you get. So you do more. Even for carpentry this is true, or weaving. You have to build up the muscles that will take you further. And unfinished stuff is still worthwhile because each word you put on paper improves your grasp over the tools of the craft, the language.

The most important thing you can do once you finish something is to rewrite it at least once. Rewrites are what you do to keep yourself from looking goofy. I don't know about anyone I'm talking to here, but I have this pathological hatred of looking goofy in public which is why I read what I did the day before and correct it, why Bruce Coville and I read to each other and correct it, and why I go over the manuscript by hand when I've finished it.

And that's one draft for me is it's already undergone three little rewrites. Jane Yolen does six to seven rewrites before she hands a book in. My friend Sarah Beth Durst who just published Out of the Wild, she told an audience she does 30 rewrites, and we all went (gasp).

But she does them differently, and I actually took a leaf out of her book for this. She will go through the manuscript with the main character and just rewrite everything for the main character. And then she'll do it for another character. And then she'll do it for the description.

And then she'll do it for the dialogue. So she takes out chunks. I actually took a letter from her book for Bloodhound, the book that's coming out in April of 2009, and I went through and I rewrote everything to do with the cat and the dog. And for the dragon story I've got coming out next year, I went through and rewrote everything to do with the dragon and the horse because that way you just focus on that one aspect that may be problematical.

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An excerpt from Trickster's Choice

I'm going to read a couple pages from Trickster's Choice — the first chapter. This is the story of my first girl knight's daughter, Aly. And Aly has come home.

George Cooper, Baron of Pirate's Swoop, second in command of his realm's spies, put his documents aside and surveyed his only daughter as she paused by his study door. Alianne — known as Aly to her family and friends — posed there, arms raised in a Player's dramatic flourish. It seemed that she had enjoyed her month's stay with her Corus relatives.

"Dear Father, I rejoice to return from a sojourn in our gracious capitol," she proclaimed in an overly elegant voice. "I yearn to be clasped to your bosom again." For the most part, she looked like his Aly. She wore a neat, green, wool gown, looser than fashion required because, like her da, she carried weapons on her person. A gold chain belt supported her knife and purse.

Her hazel eyes contained more green than George's own, and they were set wide under straight brown brows. Her nose was small and delicate, more like her mother's than his. She'd put a touch of color on her mouth to accent its width and full lower lip, but her hair… George blinked.

For some reason, his child wore an old-fashioned wimple and veil. The plain white linen covered her neck and hair completely. He raised an eyebrow. "Do you plan to join the Players then?" he asked mildly. "Take up dancing or some such thing." Aly dropped her pretense and removed her veil.

The embroidered cloth band that held it in place and her wimple. Her hair, once revealed, was not its normal shade of reddish-blonde but a deep, pure, sapphire hue. George looked at her. His mouth twitched. "I know," she said shame-faced, "Forrest green and blue go ill together."

She smoothed her gown. George couldn't help it. He roared with laughter. Aly struggled with herself and lost to grin and replied, "What, da?" she asked, "Apart from the colors, aren't I in the very latest fashion?" George wiped his eyes on his sleeve. After a few gasps he managed to say, "What have you done to yourself, girl?"

Aly touched the gleaming falls of her hair. "But, da," she said, voice and lower lip quivering in mock hurt. "It's all the style at the university." She resumed her lofty manner. "I proclaim the shallowness of the world and of fashion. I scorn those who sway before each breeze of taste that dictates what is stylish in one's dress or face or hair. I scoff at the hollowness of life."

George still chuckled, shaking his head. "Well, da. That's what the students say." She plopped herself into a chair and stretched her legs out to show off her shoes, brown leather stamped with gold… with gold vines. "These look nice."

"They're lovely," he told her with a smile. "Which they is it that proclaim the hollowness of the world?" Aly flipped a hand in dismissal. "University students, da. It's the silliest thing. One of the student mages brewed up a hair treatment. It's supposed to make your hair shiny and easy to comb except it has a wee side effect. And, of course, the students all decided that blue hair makes a grand statement." She lifted up a sapphire lock and admired it.

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