Welcome, Nancy. The book's jacket flap copy says your birthday is in October, and you used to have Halloween parties with cold spaghetti guts and peeled grape eyeballs when you were growing up. My brother and I always "haunted" much of our house for the neighborhood kids, with the same yucky attractions. (One year his costume was even a haunted house! He's an engineer now.) Have you always loved Halloween like I have?
Yes! I've always loved getting to try on being someone--or something--else. (Writing lets me do that, too!) I very reluctantly gave up trick-or-treating about age 16, and was very excited getting to do it again as a parent.
When my kids were young, they loved the Headless Horseman story. We would gather around a pumpkin lantern in the dark and listen to it on tape together. It was shivery and delicious--a great tradition.
ON A WINDY NIGHT features a boy walking home from trick-or-treating, getting more frightened with each step through the woods. Illustrator George Bates has done a fun and amazing job "hiding" scary elements in the environment - clouds start out resembling animals then morph into ghosts and monsters, for instance. How did your story idea come about?
One windy October night in 2001, I was thinking about how we humans, with our wild imaginations, can scare ourselves better than anyone else can. Listening to the wind rustling through the dried cornstalks in my husband's garden as I swam in our backyard pool, I wondered--as I sometimes do about sounds--how would you spell that? I decided cracklety-clack. Poetry often comes to me when I'm doing something rhythmic, like swimming, walking, or rocking. The refrain popped into my head:
Cracklety-clack, bones in a sack.
They could be yours--if you look back.
Then I got the first stanza:
On a windy night, on a winding road,
A boy walked home with a heavy load.
That much was a gift. But then I had to figure out who was the boy? What was he carrying? What was the story? It took years to come together--after I had my own lost-in-the-woods-at-night experience!
[I LOVE the refrain, "Cracklety-Clack, Bones in a Sack!”]
Did you suggest illustrator notes, or was the artist on his own?
I specified only that the boy is in a skeleton costume walking home with a trick-or-treat bag, which bangs against him as runs faster and faster. I also hinted at what happens on the last page. The rest of George Bates' fantastic illustrations came from his own very fertile imagination!
How tricky is it to write rhyming text?
Very! It came to me in rhyme, but the temptation is to let what rhymes influence where the story goes. My first version was not in very good rhyme. I had to rewrite it in prose to understand exactly what the story was, and what words I would use to best describe it. Then--when the emotions were fresh from my own experience--I was able to put it back into good rhyme that speeds up as the boy does. There were still a few weak spots, which my editor, Susan van Metre, sicced me onto right before it went to press. Under deadline pressure, the solutions came to me. I'm thrilled about getting the text just right on this one, because it is so hard to tell a story well in rhyme.
Was it a challenge to create a scary - but not TOO scary - story for the very young? How did you manage that?
During the scariest times in my life, it has been humor that pulled me through. So it was natural for me to find humorous asides along the way. That was my editor's vision from the beginning, too, and she guided the art and the text in that direction.
What inspires you as a writer, and can you give us a hint about what else you're working on now?
As I child, I spent a lot of time playing in the woods behind our house with my siblings and taking care of animals (horses, cats, and a dog). Animals and nature have been lifelong inspirations. Recently, I spent two years writing environmental curriculum for my former home state of California. So much of my latest work relates to the environment--water, wind, rivers, and how animals court, to name a few.
Any "tricks" you might want to share with aspiring picture book writers?
The only "trick" I know is to keep at it. If you believe your work is something of value that kids out there need, keep on plugging to perfect it and promote it. My SCBWI critique groups have been my greatest help along the "winding road" to publication.
Thank you so much for visiting, Nancy; it was a real TREAT!
Learn more about Nancy and her books at http://nancyrainesday.com