Capturing a world between two covers
By HOLLY ATKINS
WONDERS OF FLORIDA
"Fiction helps us to celebrate the differences among us; it shines new light on our common humanity."
-- Suzanne Fisher Staples
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You've led such an exciting life as an adult. What was your childhood like?
Fisher Staples: Well, I was born in Pennsylvania and had a pretty ordinary childhood. I was a tomboy, kept a journal, loved to fish, have always loved to read, and I love animals. Among my happiest memories are of rainy summer days tucked up under the eaves of our family's rustic lake cottage, a gentle patter overhead, reading a book -- I was allowed to read what I liked. It helped me to learn who I was and where I fit into the world.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Fisher Staples: My sister and I started a newspaper when I was in third grade in Jermyn, Pa. But I've always kept journals, and I've always wanted to write.
You spent more than 12 years covering real-life stories, first as a journalist for United Press International and later for the Washington Post, before turning to fiction writing. Why the change?
Fisher Staples: I think I always knew my heart was in fiction. But it isn't easy to earn your living in fiction at first. Around 1979, when the American Embassy was taken in Tehran, and Islam suffered terrible press coverage in the Western world, I began to think about the news and how difficult it is to get people to understand the significance of world events relying entirely on the news. Fiction can do so much to help us understand why people behave as they do. But it wasn't until I took a three-year break from news to return to Pakistan that I had the time and opportunity to write fiction. During that time I worked on a contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development in the countryside. I collected dozens of notebooks filled with the stories of the women I interviewed, and they formed the basis for many of the scenes in Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind and Haveli.
Where do you get your ideas?
Fisher Staples: Anywhere and everywhere. I think I've always played a game that goes something like this: I read an interesting story about someone in a newspaper, or someone tells me an interesting story. Then I start creating different situations that might make the story even more interesting.
Stories people tell about their own lives always fascinate me. When I lived in India and Pakistan, I always was impressed with the superficial differences that might create situations that seem exotic in our culture -- but people's responses to those situations and circumstances are pretty universal.
Do you use real people as the basis for the characters in your books?
Fisher Staples: Usually I do. Shabanu and Haveli both are based on real stories told to me when I lived in Pakistan. Only one of my novels, Shiva's Fire, is completely fiction.
Do you have anything in common with your characters?
Fisher Staples: I think often my characters are different from other people in their stories. This actually was pointed out to me by Jinx Watson, a friend and scholar who teaches and writes about children's literature. Also, most of my characters are very independent from their parents.
Do you have any advice for kids who want to be writers?
Fisher Staples: Mainly to say that my journals have been very helpful. I refer to them pretty frequently, but I also believe that the act of writing down something of significance reinforces it in your mind. Also, I learn so much about writing just by doing it. Every story and article is completely different from every other piece of writing, and I learn something every time. Sometimes writing seems very difficult. And then I realize that I've developed faith in my ability to solve problems about writing. Often I move forward just thinking that if I keep working a solution will come to me. It's important not to give up.
Would you tell us more about those difficult times in writing?
Fisher Staples: Writing is difficult -- all of it. But some things make me keep coming back to it. For example, I love the feeling of working hard on a story, not knowing where it's going, and just digging in, trying to find a way. And then suddenly one day you see the shape of your story, and suddenly it's all there before you. I love that about writing.
I also love being able to work with my two standard poodles sleeping at my feet and taking a break to go for a walk with them. I love planning my own time, spending a whole day working on something and feeling as if only a few minutes have passed.
The hardest part of writing is the time that seems to happen in most stories, when you've begun and suddenly lose your way and can't figure out where to go next. That's when experience is important -- I've learned that if I just keep working I'll find a way through a story.
When kids read books such as Shabanu, they are presented with a culture and customs that are very different from those in America. I don't want to ruin the book for kids who haven't read it, but many of my students struggle to understand and accept the ending. Do you have any advice for students to help them deal with this difficulty?
Fisher Staples: It's impossible for us to look at a story like this without seeing it through our own cultural perspective. I had to learn during the time I lived in Pakistan that I couldn't judge people whose way of life is very different from ours. If I judged the people of Cholistan according to the rules of our society, I would never have learned so much from them, and I would never have been able to write these books. So I would say that it's important always -- not just when you're reading about another culture -- to keep an open mind and an open heart.
I understand you have contributed to a new book that has just been published. Could you tell us about it?
Fisher Staples: The book is Shattered: Stories of Children and War, edited by Jennifer Armstrong and published by Alfred A. Knopf. Jennifer wrote to me last spring and asked if I'd like to contribute a story. Ever since I covered the Soviet war in Afghanistan as a newspaper reporter, the stories that Afghan refugees told about what happened to them have stayed with me. My story is Faisabad Harvest 1980, about four children orphaned in the war. It is made up of details told me by refugee families in Pakistan in the early 1980s.
The power of prose
We read for many reasons. We open a science textbook to learn about photosynthesis, or turn to the newspaper to find out whether the Orlando Magic won last night's game. Maybe we just want to curl up with a good book and let the story take us far away from the here and now.
"My hope for Shabanu and Haveli and all good books about people who are different from us is that they will inspire us to grow beyond our limits to learn understanding. And that this understanding will foster peace in the world by teaching us not to fear differences but to become more compassionate people."
- Holly Atkins, a National Board Certified Teacher, is the language arts department head at Bay Point Middle School in St. Petersburg. Atkins, who has been a resident of St. Pete Beach nearly all her life, has been an instructor at the Poynter Institute's Writers' Camp and is the proud teacher of local and national award-winning student writers.
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