This week, the Second Laird Miscellany reaches out to Carleton alum Virginia Zimmerman, who is living the English major dream. After graduating Carleton, she went on to graduate school in English at University of Virginia. She now teaches English courses at Bucknell University and writes children’s books. About a year ago, Virginia published her second book, The Rosemary Spell. Check out her thoughtful interview below where she answers questions about her time at Carleton, her approach to children’s literature, and the interplay between teaching and writing. Additionally, after you read her interview, take a peek at her website, http://virginiazimmerman.com/, which expands on some of the topics she discusses here.
Can you tell us a little bit about your newest novel, The Rosemary Spell? Where did your inspiration come from? I’ve heard that there are allusions to your time at Carleton woven into the novel–is this true? Also, how does Shakespeare fit into all of this?
The Rosemary Spell is a novel for middle-grade readers, which means it’s targeted at kids ages 8-13, but I’ve been pleased that it’s appealed also to older teens and many adults. The story is about a poem that contains within it a magic spell. Under the right circumstances, the spell causes a person to disappear, even from memory. The main character Rosemary and her best friend Adam find the poem in an old book hidden in a locked cupboard in Rosemary’s room. They come to suspect the book may have belonged to Shakespeare, and perhaps he wrote the poem. They accidentally disappear Adam’s sister Shelby, and they struggle, intellectually and physically, to get her back.
The novel is set in a fictionalized college town, and Rosemary and Adam visit the fictional college to do some important research, and some sledding! The town is based on Lewisburg, PA, where I live now, but the college is a mash up of Carleton and Bucknell, where I teach.
Shakespeare is at the heart of the story, and he was the primary source of inspiration for me. I did a lot of theatre in high school and college (I was president of the Players in 1991-92, and last I checked, you could still find my name in several locations back stage in Nourse), and I was familiar with the superstition about Macbeth. The story goes that Shakespeare incorporated an actual witch’s curse into the weird sisters’ lines in Act IV of the play. I always imagined that if that were true, and it is, in a way, then perhaps there is other magic elsewhere in Shakespeare. This is the foundation of The Rosemary Spell.
Shakespeare is also highly influential in that a major theme in the book is that we are shaped by what we read. As a teacher-character says, “We breathe Shakespeare like air.” It’s hard for me to imagine writing anything at all without touching base with Shakespeare in one way or another.
How would you say your time at Carleton shaped you as a reader, thinker, or writer?
Oh my goodness, that’s like asking me how my time as a human shaped my inclination to breathe! Every single thing I did at Carleton shaped me as a reader, a thinker, and a writer.
That said, I suppose your readers would value a more specific response. As an English major, I took a range of wonderfully enriching classes with professors who challenged me to think more deeply and write better. In general terms, I think reading long, hard texts on the trimester schedule taught me to be a better reader. Specific classes that stand out include a class on the nineteenth-century novel with James McDonnell, a seminar on the Shelleys with Connie Walker, and Shakespeare with Frank Morral. Of course, writing my comps essay brought even more rigor to my critical thinking and to my reading and writing.
I also learned a lot about literature by approaching it from other angles. I took several linguistics courses at Carleton, a lot of French literature courses, and a nice handful of religion and anthropology. All of these broadened my sense of what a text is and how one might go about analyzing it.
I could go on forever, but I’ll add just one more thing. The time I spent acting and directing at Carleton also made an enormous difference to me. Directing was really my first experience teaching a text, and I discovered I loved it and was pretty good at it. Acting is yet another way of getting inside a piece of literature, thinking about it, and making something of it.
In addition to classes on British literature of the nineteenth century, you frequently teach classes about children’s fiction from that time period to today. How would you say children’s fiction has evolved since then? Do you find yourself ever using techniques or forms particular to a different time period when crafting your own work?
This is a question my students and I work to answer over a full semester in my Young Adult Fiction class at Bucknell. I can’t offer a comprehensive response here, but I’ll make some observations. When Lewis Carroll published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, it was a radical notion that literature might serve the primary purpose of entertaining juvenile readers. Earlier literature had mostly been didactic in nature. In the twenty-first century, especially in a post-Harry Potter literary landscape, the entertainment value of children’s literature is a given.
Another interesting shift in the genre has more to do with cultural ideology. In the nineteenth century, children’s books that depict encounters with people from other cultures, races, or times place emphasis on how those encounters offer the children the chance to shore up their identity as white, British or American, and mostly middle class. In contrast, the past few years have seen an explosion of books that complicate and challenge received notions of identity by giving voice to those who see and experience the world differently. In a world where difference often seems insurmountable, children’s books may offer a slow and steady way to overcome prejudice.
As for borrowing older techniques in my own writing, I had great fun attempting to write in the third-person, storyteller voice of E. Nesbit. As an exercise, writing as Nesbit taught me a lot about narration and point of view, but in the end, it was only an exercise. The voice was too old-fashioned and distant for me. However, my next book, which my agent is just about to send out to editors, is a revision of E. Nesbit’s 1906 The Story of the Amulet. As Neil Gaiman did in The Graveyard Book (a retelling of Kipling’s The Jungle Books), I start with Nesbit but quickly go in a different direction and make the story my own.
You say that you set out to write for young readers–when did this idea take form for you? Have you ever considered branching out into adult literature? According to an interview in a Bucknell publication, you place an incredible amount of importance on the role children’s books play in the process of development. Does this induce a fair amount of pressure in approaching this category of writing? What are you hoping children take from your stories?
Honestly, I have never wanted to write for adults. I don’t even want to write YA. Middle grade is my writing home. The middle grade audience, children between the ages of eight and thirteen, are in the process of becoming themselves, and what they read matters a great deal. Most of us can think back and recall a specific book that really made a difference—for me, it was Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light—and I aspire to write books that might matter to these blossoming people. As your question suggests, this aspiration brings with it a considerable amount of pressure. Yet, I don’t think much as I write about impacting readers. My focus is on the story and the characters and the world building. It’s only when I’ve finished that I start to think about how the book might matter.
I’m not sure I want children to take anything from my stories. Rather, I hope my stories will illuminate elements of themselves already present but perhaps unrecognized. For example, I got a wonderful letter from a girl who set down The Rosemary Spell to go check her own bookshelf for the magical Shakespeare book at the heart of the story. She said she knew it wouldn’t be there, but she was compelled to look anyway. For this reader, my story awakened a sense of the importance of books and a thrilling, if skeptical, notion that magic could be real. I didn’t put those notions in this girl’s head. I just created the conditions for her to find them within herself.
On your website you mention that teaching affects your writing. What is it about this mode of discussion and synthesis that makes it such an enlightening process? What is your favorite part of teaching?
On a very basic level, teaching affords me the opportunity to re-read key texts at regular intervals and talk about them with smart people. I try to change up the books I teach, but certain texts, like the Alice books, are so foundational that I end up teaching them at least once per year. Despite this frequency, the discussion is always different, and I am always learning something new, about these specific books and about the genre.
We talk a lot in class about audience. Children’s books differ from books written for adults because the author is almost never part of the target audience, and the intended readers generally don’t acquire books for themselves. Thus, an adult writes a book for children that must appeal also to the parents, teachers, and librarians who will buy the book and put it in children’s hands. This complexity vis-à-vis audience is fascinating to me, and discussing it with students allows me to advance my own thinking about how audience matters. For instance, as a writer, I’m mindful that my books must appeal to the children for whom they’re written but also to the adults who curate reading for those children.
I talk a lot in all my teaching about making knowledge. The texts we read are knowledge spread across pages and bound. The conversations we have and the analytical writing we do are knowledge of our own making. And all that knowledge comes together in a discussion that happens in the classroom and in an essay and on the shelves in the library and on the invisible fibers of the internet. The moment when students sit up and realize they are part of something so vast and so vital is my favorite part of teaching.