Poetry Friday: The craft of verse novels, the value of randomness, and the perfection of “Tuck Everlasting”: an interview with David Elliott

As I mentioned here early last month, it’s been quite awhile since I’ve formally interviewed my friend and neighbor David Elliott – about 9 years, actually, in 2013.

I published our interview for the former “Poetry at Play” blog, which I reposted HERE. At the time, David’s poetry collection In the Sea (Candlewick, 2012) had just come out and On the Wing (Candlewick, 2014) was – well, on the wing – with a publishing date of 2014.

It’s funny…David and I bump into each other all the time at the local grocery store or coffeehouse, I have about 2 dozen garlic plants growing courtesy of some bulbs he’d pulled off his property last year, he even helped the previous owner of our house paint the interior before she sold it to my wife – yet for some reason I have yet to feature him here at the ol’ Triple-R.

So I decided that needed to be corrected!

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat, David! While you’ve authored several popular picture books and poetry collections, one of the things I wanted to do today is get into the nuts and bolts of writing verse novels, the popularity of which has really skyrocketed within the last 5 years or so.

Looking back at your first verse novel, Bull (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2017), how did you decide that a verse novel was the genre it required? I know you’ve said that Poseidon’s voice kept speaking to you (a wonderfully bizarre experience that only fellow writers can fully appreciate) before you realized what to do with it – but why verse rather than prose?

Years ago, long before I thought of becoming a writer, my very prescient wife gave me a copy of Richard Wilbur’s translation of Moliere’s Tartuffe and The Misanthrope. I am still amazed at what both Wilbur and Moliere were able to do, the fluency of those rhyming couplets, I mean, the way the metered language sounded so natural. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I think the seed was planted then for Bull and the other verse novels, too.

Of course, the myth of Theseus has its antecedents in Ovid, so verse seemed a natural, even appropriate way to tell the story. By the way, I’m not sure that I agree that it’s only writers who can appreciate the workings of the Unconscious, which is I think where Poseidon was speaking from. Dialogue between the deeper Self and the ego is available to everyone. It just requires a little practice.

Do you approach the structure/characterization/outlining process in a similar manner for both verse and prose novels, or do you use a different method of organization?

Oh dear. Organization? What’s that? While a book’s architecture is vital, I never know what it is until I’m in the middle of writing it. For me, it’s very analogous to Alice’s experience through the looking glass. Never linear, and often arriving frustratingly late in the process. Very messy. I worked on Voices at least six months before I began to understand even a little bit what I was doing. It turned out to be nothing like what I had proposed. I try as hard as I can to let the narrative tell me what it wants to be rather than forcing my own idea onto it. I try, I say, but I’m not always as successful as I would like to be.

You love experimenting with poetic forms, from classic formal verse to free verse to even concrete poems like the ones in Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2019). How do you decide which forms/styles to use? Is it strictly according to what you feel works best for a particular character, or is there more to it?

Once I understood that Bull was going to be in verse, I also understood that each of the characters in the story were going to have to speak differently. Poseidon, after all, is a very different entity from Ariadne. I was fortunate enough to have a copy of Miller Williams’ Patterns of Poetry on my shelf. I picked it up, closed my eyes, thought of the character, and then like a prankster with a phone book, thumbed through it, stopped randomly, pointed to a page, and whatever form was listed there is what I used for that character.

Idiotic, I know.

But I soon realized that the forms were shaping the characters in ways that I could never have imagined, so I’m not sure it was as idiotic as it sounds though I wouldn’t recommend it as a way of writing a book. Voices was a little more intentional, though it took me a very (very!) long time to find Joan’s voice. The Seventh Raven (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2019) was more intentional still.

(Matt’s note: You can read my post about The Seventh Raven HERE)

You’ve said you love the work of folks like Roald Dahl, Robert Louis Stevenson, Natalie Babbit, and several others. At this point in your career, can you share the influence they’ve had on your work?

I love Roald Dahl’s humor, his irreverence. But what I love most about him is the courage to bypass adults and speak directly to children. That subversive, almost conspiratorial element is in good part what makes him so appealing to so many kids. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of writing for the gatekeepers, all the adults who read children’s lit rather than writing for the kids themselves. Those are two very different audiences. I think Dahl understood that almost better than anyone else, and it is what I most admire about him and his work.

As for Stevenson, simply put? He knows how to tell a story. I read Kidnapped and Treasure Island almost every year, and each time I do, I get the same thrill I did when I read them first as an adolescent. There are very few books that do that for me now

Natalie Babbitt? There isn’t enough time. The only thing I can say is that to me Tuck Everlasting is a perfect book. Perfect. And I say that as a writer and a reader. I still get weepy at that prologue, and as for the book’s structure and sentence-level writing, don’t get me started. As I said recently in another interview, Lewis Carroll once wrote that fairy tales are “love gifts.” I never understood that until I read Tuck.

Here’s a question to make you think:  what would you love to write – genre, subject, anything – that you don’t feel you’re ready to write yet?

I spent my twenties traveling, living mostly by the seat of my pants. I washed cucumbers in Greece. I ate curried goat with sultans in the Sulu Archipelago. I made popsicle sticks in Israel. I sang at a bar in Mexico. I sat with Berbers at the edge of the Libyan Sahara.  Along the way, I met a German girl who carried a violin she couldn’t play, a woman who became the Pope’s webmaster, a guy who had been involved in the FLQ ‘s kidnapping of Quebec’s provincial Deputy Premier, and many more.  I hope someday to be able to write about those years and those people.

So what’s up next on the ol’ publication timeline?

Over the next few years, I’ll have three more picture books in the Candlewick poetry series: next year, At the Pond, with amazingly beautiful illustrations by Amy Schimler-Safford; the year following, At the Poles illustrated by the great Ellen Rooney; and finally In the Sands, illustrator TBD. Next spring, Little Brown is publishing Color the Sky, illustrated by none other than Evan Turk. (I’m speechless at what he has done with a very simple text). I’m currently writing a spooky and adventure-filled middle grade with my son, which we’ll have an announcement about soon.

Wow, it’s great to hear you have three more of those poetry collections on the way! (You know I’m still waiting to see one about microscopic animals titled “Under the Slide” – that needs to happen, ha!) And I can’t wait to see what Evan Turk did with your words – he’s an incredibly gifted and stylistically unique illustrator. Well, thanks so much for taking the time to chat, my friend – and best wishes with Raven and all these upcoming projects.

Thanks so much, Matt. Always a pleasure.

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Speaking of poetry, I would be remiss to not congratulate my friend and longtime Poetry Friday family member Mary Lee Hahn on her FINAL MONTH OF TEACHING! Woo-HOO!!

Mary Lee is an incredible supporter, teacher, and writer of poetry who joined me, Liz Steinglass, Heidi Mordhorst, and Laura Purdie Salas two years ago in Baltimore at NCTE’s annual conference for our panel presentation on teaching poetry through “inquiry.” It was so nice to be able to meet these friends in person, having known them all for so many years through Facebook, blogs, and social media channels.

Happy retirement, Mary Lee – I’m guessing you’re going to be even busier now that you’re no longer working, ha!

L-R: Mary Lee Hahn, Liz Steinglass, Yours Truly, Heidi Mordhorst, Laura Purdie Salas

For today’s complete Poetry Friday roundup, head over to Wondering and Wandering, where Christie Wyman is not only celebrating Mary Lee’s career with poetry – she’s celebrating the fact it’s her birthday! Happy birthday, Christie!

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I continue adding to my “Wit & Wordplay” videos ! These videos were created for parents and educators (along with their kids) to learn how to write poetry, appreciate it, and have fun with it. From alliteration and iambs to free verse and spine poetry, I’m pretty sure there’s something in these videos you’ll find surprising! You can view them all on my YouTube channel, and if you have young kids looking for something to keep busy with, I also have several downloadable activity sheets at my website.

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You can purchase personally-signed copies of Flashlight Night, (Boyds Mills Press, 2017), Don’t Ask a Dinosaur (Pow! Kids Books, 2018)and nearly EVERY book or anthology I’ve been part of!

Click any of the following covers to order!

Just click the cover of whichever book you want and send a comment to the good folks at MainStreet BookEnds in Warner, NH requesting my signature and to whom I should make it out. (alternatively, you can log onto my website and do the same thing) They’ll contact me, I’ll stop by and sign it, and then they’ll ship it! (Plus, you’ll be supporting your local bookseller – and won’t that make you feel good?)

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19 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: The craft of verse novels, the value of randomness, and the perfection of “Tuck Everlasting”: an interview with David Elliott

  1. I love hearing about new poetry coming from David Elliott – BULL was my favorite verse novel the year it was released… great mentor text, too, for anyone wanting to write a book with multiple voices. Thanks, Matt!

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  2. Great questions, Matt. I loved David’s answers, some of which sound like poetry. I’m going to check out Tuck Everlasting at the library tomorrow because it’s been awhile, and I loved what he said about it. I’ll look forward to reading his travel book someday too. He met some interesting characters!

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  3. lindabaie

    Terrific to hear again from David Elliott, Matt, & to get excited about new poetry coming, too. I loved the creativity of Bull & a favorite is On The Wing (bird love!). Thanks for the interview!

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  4. I really enjoyed your interview and learning about David Elliot and what he had to say about Dahl’s work who I also admire very much, and about Natalie Babbitt. I very much want to read David’s books. Thanks.

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  5. “Fairytales are vessels of wisdom about the human experience!” Well said, David Elliott! Thanks for the great interview, Matt. The photo of you and the ladies is full of joy!

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  6. Michelle Heidenrich Barnes

    I can honestly say, I have never read an interview with David that I haven’t loved…including my own. 😉 (Thank you for this one, Matt!) David has such interesting things to say, and I have so much I can learn from him. I think I might be one of his biggest fans when it comes to verse novels. I recently finished Seventh Raven and fell in love all over again.

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    1. Thanks, Michelle! And yes, I know what you mean about such interesting conversations with him…whenever we see each other at the coffeehouse or wherever, a simple “hi!” often turns into a conversation that could take awhile. 😉

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  7. maryleehahn

    Thanks for this interview! Catching up with David’s newest few books is on my TBR list! Thanks also for your retirement wishes.

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