I grew up as the oldest of nine children, and my parents were each one of eight children, so we always had tons of relatives around. I grew up swimming in stories. I got them from my grandparents; I heard them from my wild Irish uncles; I traded them with friends and cousins. And I read them in books.
Books really opened my eyes. I started reading sports stories and then branched off into everything else. I have always loved books. As a kid I’d finish reading the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, or The Call of the Wild by Jack London, and would say to myself: “Man! Wouldn’t it be unbelievable if I could write a book that would affect other people even half as much as this book affected me!”
These books taught me many things–mostly the power of words. In junior high and high school I was lucky enough to have a few teachers who gave me the space and the encouragement that allowed me to keep writing. When I didn’t get that encouragement, I wrote secretly in notebooks. I wrote for myself.
In college, I participated in two foreign study programs, first in Tonga in the South Pacific, and later in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Travel has always been a passion of mine. After college I traveled around the world as a tour leader. Wherever I went I paid attention, and I used my notebook to jot down strange facts, details, impressions, insights, ideas for poems, character sketches, local slang, etc. When I was 21 my brother Bob (age 17) was killed in a car accident. This tragedy had a huge impact on my whole family. Bob’s death would be the catalyst for my first novel, Fig Pudding.
The death of my brother stirred up a hornet’s nest of emotions inside me–anger, grief, guilt. I needed some kind of container to hold all those feelings. It was around that time that I started reading poems. Poems appealed to me because they were short and intense–they aimed straight for the heart. I started writing poetry. For years my friends and family held a big poetry reading around the end of the year. These were B.Y.O.P. parties: Bring Your Own Poem. We sat around a big circle listening and reading poetry far into the night.
When I was about 28 I went back to school and earned a masters degree in fiction writing from Columbia University, in New York. I got to work with some wonderful writers (Richard Price, Gail Godwin, Edmund White) who left a mark on me. We had regular workshops where students would sit in a circle and respond to each other’s work. At that time I began working New York City classrooms as part of the Teachers College Writing Project. I was helping teachers develop better ways of teaching writing. I lugged a big bag of books from class to class, and shared them with students to spark their writing. I didn’t plan it, but I fell in love with books by William Steig, Cynthia Rylant, Katherine Paterson, Gary Soto, John Steptoe and others. I decided to try to write books for young readers. But it would take several years and many rejection letters before my first book (I Am Wings: Poems About Love) got published.
Most writers specialize in one particular kind of writing. Not me. I have published novels, poetry collections, nonfiction, books for teachers and picture books. I find that each form comes with its own particular pleasures and challenges. Many writers suffer through agonizing bouts of writer’s block, depression, or worse. So far I’ve been lucky to escape all that. I write quickly.I enjoy visiting schools, talking with young readers and writers. But I’ve also learned that I need more solitude than most people so I can listen to the words and lines and character’s voices inside me.
If I could have chosen it, what would have been the perfect career for me? Playing center field for the Boston Red Sox, of course! But becoming a writer is also a dream that has come true. I love to write. I love getting up every morning and mucking around in sentences, playing with stories, trying to build my city of words.