Interview: Deborah Nourse Lattimore

Deborah Nourse Lattimore has been writing and illustrating books for young readers since 1986, including such titles as Cinderhazel, Zekmet the Stone Carver, and The Dragon’s Robe which was nominated for the Caldecott medal. To date she has almost 40 books published, as well as numerous magazine illustrations and articles, and, to top that, teaches at Otis College of Art and Design in the Marina del Rey area of Los Angeles. Deborah also happens to be an avid John Bellairs fan. We spoke with her about some of her upcoming projects as well as her appreciation for the works of John Bellairs.

Q: You’ve mentioned that you have some new material your agent is in the process of shopping around. Would you care to talk a little bit about that?

My new agent and I are just getting to know each other's tastes and inclinations and I'm lucky to have her in my life. My work goes from art and archaeology to slapstick and my agent has one new manuscript, a folk-tale with a crazy character in it, another manuscript which is just plain silly/funny, and a third manuscript which is all about archaeology. Other than that, I am working on several new manuscripts simultaneously, which is the way I've always worked.

Q: If readers would like to experience some of your work, where would you suggest they start?

A: What a nice question! I would suggest they begin with my book The Flame of Peace. I had a hard time finding a publisher who thought that the Aztecs would make a great picture book and when I landed at Harper & Row, I was thrilled. For my sillier side of life, I would suggest The Lady with the Ship on Her Head. And for my art at its most intense, I suggest The Dragon's Robe and The Sailor Who Captured the Sea.

Q: How did you first discover John Bellairs and what was that experience like?

A: It seems to me that I was drifting through the Beverly Hills Library, one of my favorite spots on earth, when I found The Curse of the Blue Figurine and I had to read anything with Edward Gorey's art on the cover. I can't tell you how simply fantastic it was to get into the Gothic, close-quarters feel of Bellairs' work. I was "caught" completely.

Q: What speaks to you about his stories?

A: There are a lot of things which speak to me in John Bellairs' books. For one thing, the main character is a loner, most of the time, even though he has a good friend. He is also awkward, slightly nervous, smart, good and valiant. I love these characters. I was an eccentric kid, too, and when I started reading about Johnny and Lewis and Tony, well, I suddenly felt as if I'd come home. I feel as if I know those towns, know the streets, the street-lights, the haunted parts of the cities; it's almost as if I lived there myself. When I get in bed at night and I need a friend and a familiar place to live for a little while, I get out my John Bellairs stories and I feel good again. And in today's economy, having a safe place to go is hard to come by.

I mentioned this to a friend of mine, Bruce Coville, who also loves John Bellairs' books, and he was surprised at how I felt "safe" inside these books. Bruce wondered how I could feel safe in a story where the characters are always in such peril, really awful situations. And I think the answer is this: danger is always part of life, crazy danger, psychological or financial or volatile situations, but engaging in the adventure the way Bellairs's characters do is a Great Ride, and, after all, they are unusual characters, too, aren't they? They are all extraordinarily brave, are they not? Isn't that wonderful?! I think so. Furthermore,the perils they face are usually supernatural and just by the sheer un-real-ness of it all I do not feel as if I were ever going to be in danger of finding myself stuck there.

Q: Would you happen to have a fond memory involving his stories you’d like to share?

A: Whenever I travel on a book or some other business trip, I pack a magazine, several books, and always a Bellairs novel. And what do I read? Bellairs. I was in a hotel in the Persian Gulf when all the hotel doors were locked because a small up-rising was going on outside. The phone lines were cut. But, I had a clean bed, a jug of water, and I most certainly had my Bellairs. All was fine. And, in one hour, the locks were lifted, and an Arab ran down the hallways of the hotel calling out that the Emir had put down the uprising. I stayed in bed and read. Thank you, John Bellairs.

Q: What is your favorite book of his and why?

A: Actually, I do not have a favorite. I have reread all of his books countless times. Right now I am reading about that weird creature under the bridge and so far, Lewis and Rose Rita are in the secret passageway overhearing the Capernaum Magicians talking about how to go about controlling the evil forces in town. That creepy experience they had out at the farm with that hole in the ground and then the weird beasty thing slowly approaching them really gets to me all over again, as if I'd never read it before. Isn't it great?!

Q: Do you have a favorite character?

A: I used to think John Dixon was the best but now I am loving Lewis again. I wish we had more Tony Mondays, too. Sometimes I think the smaller characters are pretty cool, like the slightly incompetent witch here and there, or the weird people who work at hotels or gas stations. I love them all.

Q: In your reading, have you found any other authors who remind you in some ways of John Bellairs?

A: Sorry, but there just isn't anybody like Bellairs. Strickland has done a great job of continuing the books and I am so glad he has. Thanks to the publishers, too. There just don't seem to be many Gothic middle grades like Bellairs out there. I do like AVI, and M. Mahy, and definitely Betty Ren Wright.

Q: In this fast paced, high-tech world of ours, do you still think John’s work has a valid place?

A: I happen to think we need John Bellairs' books now more than ever before. He captures a time and a place which is vanishing. It wasn't perfect; Tony Monday's parents have bad fights, Lewis and Johnny are missing parents, evil lurks everywhere. But the atmosphere of the clock on the mantel, a grandmother who cooks good, reliable meals, a grouchy but faithful professorial friend, a witch who loves all things purple and calls her best friend MushBrush, old radio shows, old opera houses, a car called a Muggins Simoon (really!?), tombs and churches and rhymes that seem to make no sense at all. These stories are self-contained, self-reliant and their inner workings coupled with the bravery of a young and slightly eccentric or lonely kid create a time and place, and space, which I hope will never disappear. I think everything going at Warp Speed would be awful. And don't get me wrong about computers being better than typewriters, but really!, going fast at everything does notinsure a careful read or study, or that information will be absorbed equally fast simply because it is delivered in a nanosecond. On the contrary, taking one's time to read and reread is what makes a reader fulfilled, satisfied, thrilled and happy, if you will.

Q: To a younger person who has never heard of John Bellairs how would you go about recommending his books?

A: I would probably start with one of Bellairs' weird rhymes, then talk about underground chambers, some very pale mask-like face flitting down a street in a faraway town called Duston Heights, a tomb with a slightly open door and then stop for a few seconds and smile. I'd suggest that there is a mystery afoot and, gosh! - I really hope it gets solved before it's too late!

Or, you could just read one or two paragraphs aloud from just about any of his books. Pick two readings that end with the main characters looking at each other, gulping hard, wondering what to do next and then let the young reader see where those paragraphs are on a page. Then walk away, leaving the book on a table.

Thank you for asking me about John Bellairs' books. When he passed away, I was thunder-struck. It felt as if I knew him, I'd lost a friend. I have the feeling that he was a complicated guy but then, aren't we all? And then, gosh, when I heard that his son had passed away, too, I was very, very sad. I hope his widow is all right. Publishing is a hard business. The contracts come and then, if the book isn't what is right on the market, the publisher can pull that book back and dump it at deep discounts, leaving the author high and dry. It's lucky any good books get in print at all. And the ones already in print need to stay available. Three cheers for John Bellairs' books! Hip Hip!

Comments

When I was teaching, Deborah came for a "Deborah Norse Lattimore Author Day" and she made an incredible contribution to the students. She came to share her passion for history, her talent with words and her creativity in illustrating. Finding all of those characteristics in one person is amazing!
Dolores said…
Isn't it wonderful how books, both Mr. Bellairs' and Ms. Lattimore's, can transport you to worlds and characters that are so 'fan'tastic!
Mea McNeil said…
Knowing the extraordinary work of Deborah Nourse Lattimore, I'd read anyone she recommends. Mea McNeil

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