Rebecca Stead Asks the Big QuestionsRebecca Stead has spent her whole life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the setting for her novel When You Reach Me (Wendy Lamb/Random House). For sixth-grader Miranda, the possibilities in that neighborhood seem at first to contract--the day her best friend Sal gets punched by a stranger and stops spending time with her--and then to stretch boundlessly when she begins to make new friends, especially Marcus, and to receive mysterious notes from someone who seems to know her future. On Monday, the book won the 2010 Newbery Medal.
Oh my god. I'm still taking it in. It's pretty wonderful.
Does the neighborhood feel different to you now?
No. I always walk around thinking about all the layers of history in this neighborhood because I've really never left it for any long period of time. I think, 'If I could be standing here in 100 years, and I turned in a circle, what would I see?' That's still with me, and that's the kind of stuff that inspired the book in the first place. I think it's the same, just better because I'm so happy.
Was writing your debut novel, First Light, different from writing your second, When You Reach Me?
It was very different, for a whole bunch of reasons. When I was writing First Light, I had so much doubt about my ability to get to the end of a book. I spent at least three years revising it. There was a lot of small work, first with a critique group, and a lot of intense work with Wendy Lamb. There was a lot of fear and doubt because that's how it is with your first book. It felt like hubris to think I could be a "real" writer. The first book was a lot of getting past that. I owe a lot to the people I was working with in those years, especially to Wendy.
So with When You Reach Me, I started out in a different place. It was such a different process because I decided to use a lot from my childhood, like the setting, and I tried to channel my sixth-grade self. That was a gift of material, and material is the hardest thing to come by. It was kind of hard and sort of daring to make that decision. I thought, 'Am I really going to go back to my place of growing up?' Once I decided to do that it was easier.
Writing about time travel can't be easy.
There are a lot of challenges in trying to create this kind of puzzle. It's full of these wild ideas and technical impossibilities, but I want it to have its own internal logic. Every time we changed the story, either Wendy or I would find a new reader. We wanted to make sure we had fresh eyes on every draft, because we weren't sure what we'd taken away. People would tell us, "Here's where I got tripped up," "Here's what I found inconsistent." I had some way too complex ideas because I didn't know everything that was happening when I started out. Happily, I was able to let them go and stick with the idea that the simplest solution would be the most elegant and satisfying solution.
Are you a re-reader?
I believe--and this is not an original idea from me--that really strong writing yields more every time you read it. That's why I return to Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies and William Maxwell's So Long See You Tomorrow--which I re-read over and over because I think it's a perfect book--and Alice Munro. That's something I strive to do, to create work that yields something else on the second reading and something else on the third.
Did you read and re-read A Wrinkle in Time?
Originally when Miranda was carrying around A Wrinkle in Time, it was a reminder to me that she was a reader who was stubborn and passionate, but she wouldn't give it up, she wouldn't let other things in. She was a bit narrow-minded. A lot of the story, for me, is about her leaving one stage of life and entering another. I wasn't at all sure that we were going to leave A Wrinkle in Time in there. It's such a meaningful book, and so many people feel a connection to it. I didn't want to throw it in as a prop. We talked about taking it out.
But another part of me wanted to leave it in there because it's such a brave and wonderful book, and it's not afraid to talk about the small insecurities we have and carry with us throughout our lives. But it also has these wild ideas about the universe and the struggle for good. So what we decided as a group--Wendy and the people who were reading for me--was to see if we could make the connections between my story and A Wrinkle in Time a little deeper. I tried to see Madeleine L'Engle's story from different perspectives, like Marcus's perspective. It yielded these new ideas about the ways that stories can color characters' perspectives about time and what's possible. I think kids talk about huge things that we stop talking about when we're older.
Your book does that. Kids start it over as soon as they've finished it.
I visited a fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade group on Friday. I said, "You can ask me questions while I'm signing, but nothing really hard, because I might misspell your name or something." One student came up and said, "I hope this isn't a hard question: How do you understand time? Is it a loop or what is it?" We had some discussion about it, and of course I couldn't sign books while we had it. He wandered off to his bus still thinking about it, and I thought, "We should all spend more time asking ourselves these big questions." One reason I love writing for this age group is that the kids are so smart and focused and able to wrap their minds around these ideas.
You are clearly comfortable with the idea of time travel.
I think time puzzles are fun and people love them. I never get tired of them--ever. On some level, it's just that humans struggle with the idea that there'll be a time when we're not here. Sometimes when I'm standing on a corner, I think what will be here in 100 years, because it feels impossible that the world will go on without you or that it existed before you. Even though intellectually we know that, it's hard to accept. --Jennifer M. Brown