The Library will be closed on Monday, May 27, 2024, in observance of Memorial Day.

Interview With an Author: Jane Yolen

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Jane Yolen and her latest novel, The Scarlet Circus
Author Jane Yolen and her latest novel, The Scarlet Circus

Jane Yolen is the author of more than four hundred books, including children's fiction, poetry, short stories, graphic novels, nonfiction, fantasy, and science fiction. Her publications include Owl Moon, The Devil’s Arithmetic, Briar Rose, Sister Emily’s Lightship, and Sister Light, Sister Dark. Among her many honors are the Caldecott and Christopher Medals and multiple Nebula, World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Golden Kite, and Jewish Book awards. Yolen is also a teacher of writing and a book reviewer. She lives in Western Massachusetts and St Andrews, Scotland. Her latest book is The Scarlet Circus and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What inspired you to collect some of your short fiction into these themed collections: The Emerald Circus, How to Fracture a Fairy Tale, The Midnight Circus, The Scarlet Circus?

I have a LOT of short stories sitting in old magazines, old collections, old anthologies. I began to reread some of them, wondering if any might grow into a novel, and realized—"Hey! < Editor-voice here> This should be in a collection of stories with a similar kind of vibe or theme." Having been an editor myself—five years at Knopf children's books, nine years of MY own SF/fantasy imprint at Harcourt—that's a POV that never leaves me.

What is your process for putting together these collections? Do you choose a theme (fairy tales, dark stories, romance) and then look for stories to include, or do you approach it in a different way? How do you decide which of your stories will be included?

I already know the kinds of stuff I write, so the first two books were easy to put together, although occasionally (as I was rereading through my old stuff) a story I had forgotten had just the right vibes for the collection I was working on. Although both the horror collection, The Midnight Circus, and the romance volume,The Scarlet Circus, both surprised me, as I would have said—before researching my old stuff—that I had not written that kind of story. Shows how wrong one can be about old pieces (and even some more recent ones).

You've published more than four hundred books of a lot of different types (picture books, fiction and nonfiction for children and adults, short stories, poetry, and graphic novels, to name a few). Is there a format or type that you prefer over the others?

Picture books are front and center here. I am basically a poet, and most picture books (at least, the ones I write) are extended poems. Not necessarily rhymed, but certainly lyrical.

In your introduction for The Scarlet Circus, you describe how you initially claimed that you didn't write stories about sports, cowboys, or romance and then prove that that claim was wrong. Is there a genre or type of story that you haven't yet written? Is there one that you want to try?

After searching for stories for these collections, I found out that I have written several sports picture books, one cowboy picture book, and (it turns out) a collection's worth of romance. I have done several children's middle-grade books that are either quasi- or full-on mystery novels. Two verse novels, one of which is not published...yet...and a hefty bunch of nonfiction books for both kids and adults. No adult memoir, or at least no recognizable one, although I have been thinking about it. Several of my pix books include true or semi-true stories about my life, my father's family's life in Ukraine, and my mother's family's life in Virginia. My children's life growing up. Owl Moon is a kind of romanticized and lyrical picture book about my late husband, who used to take our children owling. The child in the book is my daughter, Heidi. I once asked my agent if I should write under a pen name or two. She laughed and wisely said, "Too late!"

In your introduction to How to Fracture a Fairy Tale, you state that one of your awards set your good coat on fire! What happened?

I had just won the Boston (Boskone) science fiction award—the Skylark—for body of work in SF/fantasy. It was a wooden plinth, atop which sat a magnifying glass. Took it was a dismal New England February day...and set it on my large kitchen table, which is pushed up against a large picture window, so I could look at the award again and again. The next morning, coming downstairs, I smelled something burning and thought that I must have left the stove on— but NO!!! It was suddenly a gorgeous February morning, and the sun shone fiercely through the window, through the magnifying glass, and onto my good Scottish woolen coat, which was now smoldering and on fire. After a second's delay, I beat the fire out with wet towels and then called Bruce Coville, who had been the person who handed me the award in Boston. I told him the story and then added, "I am going to put this award where the sun doesn't shine"—and there was a long hollow silence from his end. I began to giggle. "I didn't say that!" I said and hung up, just as my husband came down the stairs to find out what was going on. But I do, indeed, keep that award where the sun doesn't shine. Not stupid here!

How did you settle on the circus theme for this series? What are your plans for this series? Will there be more collections in the future?

I didn't plan more than that book. It won an award. The publisher was interested in a second. It won an award, too. (No magnifying glasses.) So, the series of books just happened. I think that this is the last one.

What's currently on your nightstand?

Someone Else’s Shoes by Ellen Wittlinger, a dear friend who just died way too early. I am rereading all her middle-grade fiction I can get my hands on. She was a member of my critique group and died very suddenly a few weeks ago [in November 2022].

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, Diana Wynne Jones, Gregory McGuire, Patricia McKillip. I could add a dozen more.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Alice in Wonderland.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

The horror comics I borrowed from a school friend and read in the bathroom with the doors locked when I was a teen,

Is there a book you've faked reading?

NO! But there are books I did not finish, and books I stopped partway in, and books I will never read again.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Only if you mean including the cover lap copy!

Is there a book that changed your life?

Possibly my college reading of everything Dostoyevsky wrote.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Besides Alice in Wonderland? The complete Emily Dickinson poems and the complete Yeats poems? Possibly War and Peace, but be sure to make yourself a list of all the names, surnames, pet names, and family names of the characters—otherwise, getting through the first one hundred pages is almost impossible.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Moby Dick.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

My friend Ruth Sanderson’s award-winning scratchboard pictures.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

The start of a new book as I sit in my upstairs office, looking over the slated roof of my barn and garage in Massachusetts. Or a lovely cool summer day, reading a book in the back garden of my Scottish house.

What is the question that you're always hoping you'll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

"Are you ever going to stop writing?" My answer: "Are you ever going to stop breathing?"

What are you working on now?

A book of teen/adult wonderland stories and poems (and yes, they have been seen and not taken by Tachyon). A verse novel about the Lowell Mill Girls. A book of poems with my new husband (I am about to turn 84, he's about to turn 86) that's about the aging process, plus several picture books, and the libretto for three different musical projects with three different composers.

Book cover for The Scarlet Circus
The Scarlet Circus
Yolen, Jane