Mary Pope Osborne
(upbeat jazz music)
Hi, Mary Pope Osborne, it's so awesome to have you here.
Hi, it's good to see you. Thank you, thank you.
So I am an avid reader of yours, as are my daughters. Can you give us just a sense of the scope of your work, because it's sort of astonishing. How old were you when you wrote your first book, or what year was it? Who was in office?
Well I was a writer starting the early '80's, and I published YA's, young adult novels, and then I went on to retellings of mythology and folklore and fairytales and Greek myths, and then I wrote biographies and mysteries and picture books. I'd written about 20 books and published them well and loved what I was doing, and then Random House asked me to come in and talk to them about doing a series. And I was resistant 'cause I love doing different things and I love children's books because you can put amazing content within certain form, and then you can choose your form. It's almost like doing a sonnet, and I love that freedom...
and discipline that come together in children's books.
Did you always know that you were going to go YA? Was there any part of you that wanted to write adult novels?
No, my first book, Run, Run, as Fast as You Can published by Dial Press, back in early '80's, I didn't even know it was a children's book. But it was told from the point of view of a 12-year-old girl and when I finished it and shared it with a friend, she gave it to her agent who was a big New York children's book agent, and he got it published right away, so suddenly I was off and running, not only recognizing that maybe I could be a published writer, but that I should really learn to write. (laughing) So then I just threw myself into writing like I'd fallen in love, and I had the most wonderful self discovery of loving words, and falling in love with words and I would take all these note cards and take them around New York City and write in cafes and libraries and anywhere I could find. I'd write back and forth on the Staten Island Ferry just to get freedom to write 'cause my husband and I lived in about two rooms in a six floor walkup on Bleecker Street at the time. He was an actor and our lives were very patched together, you know, and kind of Bohemian. We worked, before that I worked in restaurants, I was a bartender, I did everything.
How old were you when the first book was published?
I was about 31, I think. So all of a sudden, everything was so exciting. So Random House, you know shooting forward about ten years, I'd had a good run and I was doing well, but I was looking for something new and different again, and they suggested a series, and I first said "I don't know if I want to get locked in "to the same idea over and over." But then I thought, what if I did time travel, and I could use mythology a bit, I could use history, I could use the relationship I had growing up with my twin brother, I could use you know, real life and fantasy life, but it took me a whole year to figure out how to do the time travel. In that year, I wrote seven different drafts of what seemed like a very simple idea, but it was too complicated and I needed to write it for second and third graders. I had a magic whistles, magic artist studio, magic museum, magic cellar, (laughing) and none of these worked, and then I was going to give up because I was working--
Tons of trial and error.
Tons of rewriting, tons and tons.
Were you getting discouraged?
Oh yeah. I was going to quit the whole idea and go back to another idea I was developing, mysteries with bugs in a cottage garden (laughs). And I actually did publish two of those books and I love them so much. But I was taking a walk in the woods of Pennsylvania with my husband Will. We had a little cabin out there we'd sneak out to on the weekends. And there was a tree house and it was all falling down and the kid who'd ever used it had grown up and gone away, and we said, "Oh, well I always wanted a tree house, I always wanted." And then, well what if you had a magic tree house and the kids went up there, rope-laddered up there, I don't know. It took us about 12 hours of discussion, but what if they find books in it? You open a book, make a wish. Woo, but you don't know where the tree house came from or who put the books there, and I did not figure out the answers to those questions until the fourth Magic Tree House book. I just, I was--
And it wasn't even necessary, truly.
No, in the beginning it wasn't, and that was the brilliance of my editor, Mallory Loehr from Random House, and she's still my editor as I work on the 56th one, because she was--
56. Can we just pause and say 56.
And Mallory just said, just get them there, just get them there. We'll figure it out later. And I said, "Well they're not going to know "the language when they get there." "It doesn't matter, these are for younger kids." It worked and then I had the first book, Dinosaurs Before Dark, after all that struggle and--
Can I ask, did you know you had it when you had it?
Yeah, I knew I had it.
You recognized it.
Yes, and I believe in that.
I do too.
I believe that somehow things come through you and you go with recognition and you're not even totally responsible for it, and that happens to me constantly in figuring out plots and stories and themes. You're just receptive and then it's there.
I often feel like if I keep it, if I keep a problem in my subconscious long enough--
Somehow the knot will be untied. I'll either be walking, or I'll be taking a shower, I'll be sort of in a lower state.
And I'll think, oh, of course. Of course that's what I should do and if I just reverse that order, it'll be so much more interesting, or whatever it is.
And you feel that too?
Oh, definitely. And that's why I believe in taking breaks, and I constantly take breaks, whether it's to walk a dog or feed a dog or make a cup of tea. Anytime I'm stuck, and I take a break, and then something happens when I come back to the page. So I really believe in that--
Are you especially observant, have you always been observant? Because I feel like when I'm on those breaks and I'm looking for an answer, the key to making the break productive is to be really tuned in.
In the present.
To be in the present.
And not to be in the eddy of the piece you were working on.
Absolutely not. Like almost to set it aside--
And just to observe and be on the street or having your cup of tea and really tasting it.
That's where it's at.
Or looking out your window and seeing someone cut their lawn.
You know, like you need some strange input and some amalgam of incoming to, somehow it comes from that.
From being alert.
Yes, I think that's really, really true. And then I also feel that if you're really stuck, you're seriously stuck, you might be going up, barking up the wrong tree as they say. You know, you might really think of changing things radically. You can steer a story with a consciousness by knowing what your instincts are telling you, you know, take a break or change the direction. These things go on everyday.
Do you have a sense of how many projects or stories you've set aside?
Oh, dozens, you know, so many, oh man, so many. I've got volumes of shelves of books with subjects I never finished exploring, that just weren't right, or things I've researched and taken notes on, you would think I had written a million books for all the research I've done, but you know when it's right.
Yes, and don't you feel like that's an important rumor to dispel that there's so much failure that is behind every book.
And I don't know that people who are still trying to create their first story understand that, and so they take the failure to be a sign of something when really it's just sort of another day, I mean it's unbelievable how many wasted minutes there are in writing.
Totally, and I used to be friends with various people who'd gone to great writing schools and aspired to be published writers, and they always had writer's block and it was always so precious. Maybe because I was in a field of children's books they didn't really want to be in, it was different, but I felt like every word I wrote was a plus. And there were days when they went on and they got better, or days they were put aside. But, I never turned on my writing or myself as a writer, and when a child tells me they have writing block, I just stamp my foot and say, "No you don't "and don't ever say that again. "Just do it again tomorrow and the next day and the next. "Something will get better and better "and keep the joy, and don't get into this misery cycle "of writer's block."
Yeah, nothing's wasted. Actually sometimes I think, well today everything I wrote will not make it to the final manuscript, but I had to explore some things and I had to determine that that's sort of a dead end for me to set it aside. Elimination is a part of storytelling. It's actually a really powerful tool, is to decide what should be left out.
I mean the negative space is as important to any artist as the positive space.
That's right, and I also have found that something that was gonna be in this story pops up two books later.
I know, I love that. I love that, it's like finding. My grandmother used to sew and she never threw away scraps
Because she always found a use for them, even if it was seven years later and she would open up these little drawers and out it would come and it would be the perfect patch, and I think about that. I say, "Just save it."
Maybe, maybe it's going to be the perfect solution to something that you haven't even begun to start thinking about yet.
Yeah, and I think that relates to words and language. Fall in love with language, hang around it, as I think Auden said, and get to love it and know it and just think of it as fun. So I keep tons of notebooks for all these, what, 35 years I've been writing, and card files, and with ordinary words, with words that we forget about, but words that are what I call living words, you know like verbs especially.
Pop and tickle and things that, they ignite your body somehow, and I love the senses and I keep volumes on light and touch and smell. I used to go through catalogs when I was young and write down all the different colors they talked about for lipsticks and things 'cause it gave me, so when I came to the line, "One day his face was pale as a pearl," it was just there, 'cause all of this is in your unconscious and you've got this gift of language at your disposal all the time.
Yeah, that's a little exercise I'm always doing is if I come to a dead end or I feel like a passage is kind of flat, then I kind of roll through my senses. Was there a lot of light in the room or not that much? Was she hungry? Was the chair comfortable, or was it hurting her back? And somehow that starts to open it up and make it a little more real, and gives me new things to explore on the page that I end up feeling like, oh that's what was missing.
Yeah, children love the senses. I remember as a child loving to place myself in the story, and they can so easily slip into a story through the senses, they're unaware that's happening but, I start almost all my stories with the way the weather was that day and the birds are sounding, or if the snow is falling, or if the light is dappling the floor of the forest. And you pretty soon, by my putting myself there, the kids there, we're off and running, literally off and running to the tree house and then when we land where we're going, it's always what time of day, and what's the light like, and what's the wind like, and then you start from that.
Yeah, it's kinda this orientation work.
Yeah, I like food too. Half of my books they sit down for a meal so I can have the pleasure of giving them that sensory experience. Or they're headed home for food like hot cocoa and cookies in the winter. Once I wrote a whole Tree House on a visit to the Serengeti Plain and there's tons of action and a little boy said, "the part I like best is when "they went home and had hot dogs." And I knew that I sort of liked that best, too.
Isn't that funny?
Have you ever wanted to write anything for adults?
Well, I wrote a play that was workshopped in New York many years ago, and I thought, oh, this is really exciting, 'cause it was really exciting to write and to see performed, but then I--
Was it especially difficult?
No, it was the weirdest thing in the world. My husband had taken a trip to Italy and while he was gone, I was in our cabin and in three days, I wrote a play about a weekend in my life when I was 23, and it just spilled out like, you know, it was just there, full form and Will came back after a short trip in Italy and he went, "How did this happen?" And I said, "I don't know." It was my family, it was stuff that happened in the early '70s that was sort of outrageous culturally, at my father's military school. So it was so exciting, I thought I would segue out of children's books and in to theater 'cause Will was in theater, but that was literally on the eve of Magic Tree House, and my whole life took a different direction when Magic Tree House was written because, not because it was the most creative writing I'd ever done, but because I got the best response from teachers and parents and little kids of learning to read. So then I turned to education. I'd never been interested before. I wrote for myself, I wrote all that mythology and folklore and YAs 'cause it pleased me, and suddenly I felt a bigger life. It wasn't as much about being a famous artist writer, it was about this other thing.
About making people love reading and love learning.
I think it was.
And love words and love story.
That took me unawares, 'cause I hadn't had that educational background or anything of that nature. It's been extraordinary.
The only person who has sold more books as a series is J.K. Rowling, right? Like, Harry Potter and then Magic Tree House.
Maybe that's true. I haven't checked other people's latest, but I know that if I am there, and I'm not just being modest because I think there is something to actually being there effectively, but I am there at the moment of a creation in a child's life when they cross the bridge. So the parents come to me in tears and some of the teachers, and the kids come with great joy, and I just have this extraordinary, I would suggest anyone write for seven and eight year olds and you'll be transformed because you're there to see the best of people. I've seen the most beautiful behaviors in people. I love to sign, I would once sign for 800, a thousand kids and if I could stay in touch with every child's eyes and touch them, I could get through it with energy rather than out--
Well, that was sort of maybe at the highest time of bookstore events. But if I look at the parents taking pictures of their kids, parent after parent after parent, I see such love on their faces. I mean, you can just only feel good after this. You feel this--
What an incredible engine for you. I mean, just so many things that people have to do to get ready to write everyday.
Because there's so much frustration and failure as we've said, and there's so much wasted sessions, which we've now debunked. But what an incredible flow of inspiration and motivation for you.
Well, you have to be careful or you feel too responsible. You'll feel like you could--
Fail to do more of what you've been doing. But I think I write my first drafts for two people only, and it's my husband and my editor, and I stick with that.
Has your editor been your same editor all these years?
Oh, well that's such a wonderful relationship.
Oh, it's a blessing. In fact, this is extraordinary for publishing. In 25 years, the series had the same editor, the same art director, and the same illustrator, and the same agent for 25 years, and all the other team members have been pretty phenomenal.
And same husband.
Same husband for 41 years, so I'm really blessed with that, 'cause he was always encouraging me, he always said, when I wrote that first YA draft, everyday he said write more. I have to hear more, I have to hear more. Then he's a good editor and he'd help me and he was always there as a partner.
I only know I'm ready to release a book when my husband says it's good.
We're so lucky, 'cause there are people who--
We're so lucky.
Don't even share, can't share their work with their partners.
Well I can't share it with him for a long time. (laughing) 'Cause early reviews can be a little bit rough on me, but when he says, "Kelly, it's great."
Isn't that great? Well, I also have a writing sister, so my sister was my inspiration when I was young 'cause she was the one who'd bring poetry home and good fiction--
Is she older?
Yeah. She was my mentor. So about eight years into the series, Will had started the nonfiction line and then he wrote eight, and then he decided to write musicals based on the series, so now there are five musicals of Magic Tree House, but we turned to Natalie, who is living up in the Massachusetts--
Yeah, and said, could you take over the nonfiction. And now on her own, my name's on the books but she does all the work on the nonfiction and writing, she has done over 30. So we're a team and I totally trust and love her work, and we travel together or Will travels with me. So we have this ensemble, really.
Yes, and you're in these collaborative relationships, which I think, I mean, you're clearly an extrovert and you're a people person and so am I, and I find that the only part that really tortures me is the aloneness.
But really sounds like you have a regular collaboration going with this decades long team where you speak each other's language and finish each other's sentences, and I mean that's a real blessing.
Yeah, we all stay to our own lane, which is important 'cause nobody's looking over anyone's shoulder. My sister doesn't read my work, I don't read her work, I don't weigh in on my husband's shows until they're all done. But to add two more to our team, our best friends from New York, a composer and a playwright, moved up to live across from us in New England and they are also working on the musicals. So we have Randy and Jenny and Will and Natalie and then me. Each person doing their own Magic Tree House function and then you spread that out to all the kids and directors and schools and theaters that do the shows, say, or work at the publishing house, and it's been amazing.
What eludes you? What can't you do that you wish you could do better? What are you still striving for as a writer to the tension, character development, dialogue, like what's left for you after all this writing?
Maybe, when I started out I was pretty off the wall like with my YAs, and I think that actually got attention for myself and I was daring. I had a child die in the first book and it's really hard hitting, but that sorta got the attention I needed to get a published second book. And then the bug mysteries that I laugh about were truly the most creative writing I've done. They were sort of done one in the style of old Jelly Roll Morton songs and nightclub stuff from the early '30s and '20s and real wild things that I created. And then I wrote a book, Adaline Falling Star might be my favorite book, about a girl who is half Arapaho and half Kit Carson's daughter, which was true in history but we don't know anything about the real daughter, and she sorta takes a Huck Finn trip with a dog down the Missouri River and that all of me came in to play. All the craziness and the joy and the sadness and the dog love and everything. I miss that a bit 'cause it was so individual. Tree House is more there to get across to a young reader so it pulls in--
It has a really serious agenda.
Totally serious in that way. But I try not to make it formulaic. I want to keep it fresh and what does that is the different settings.
'Cause each is in a sort of a different voice of its place and time of where I go. Right now I'm working on one of the worst natural disaster in American history and nobody knows what it is.
It's not Katrina, I guess.
And it's not the earthquake.
It's eight time worse in death toll than Katrina. It was the Galveston hurricane of 1900.
Alright, there we have it. The Galveston hurricane of 1900.
Yeah, the hurricane hit unawares the people were. It brought water in from the gulf and water in from the bay and the whole town was lifted and flooded and blown almost away and the heroics of the people that I have so many first person accounts from that event. And Jack and Annie, of course, they're gonna get caught in the middle of it, so I've been living it for the last month and it's just an astonishing story and you never hear about it.
Oh, you must've been so delighted when you got wind of it. I mean, that such a fun part--
Wind of it, yeah. (laughing)
Yeah, got wind of it. No pun intended, no pun intended. Do you ever feel terribly distracted by the ancillary parts of writing and publishing like cover design and book tours and bestseller lists and contracts? Can you keep your head really in the creative part?
You do get distracted.
No, I try not to. 'Cause other people are so helpful doing that for me. You asked what part I regretted not being able to fulfill more. On the creative end, I answered, but on the practical end, I feel really bad that I haven't been able to make the visits I'm asked to make or really personally answer every letter and I get so many poignant requests that I can't fulfill and that just makes you feel rotten. 'Cause you know people will be hurt and you just know you're not humanly able to do it, but that's a burden. I try to do the things if they come through me of a child who's very sick, a child who's, you know, Make-A-Wish Foundation. But you get some painful information that you can't really--
Act on all the time. That could be a full time job.
'Cause it's millions and millions and millions and millions of copies sold.
So that's millions and millions and millions of readers.
And some percentage of them, which would end up being quite a lot of people--
Would love to be sitting where I'm sitting right now.
Well, and they're so giving, you know? Little kids will send you food, they send you homemade jewelry, they send you pictures of themselves and they make things for you, and write their own stories--
You're everybody's favorite third grade teacher, that's who you are, you know? (laughing)
You have this moment, this little moment in time.
And it had to be stories. It could never be a textbook.
That wasn't your interest.
No, no I didn't know anything about how to write a textbook. I just set out to be an eight year old boy and I, somehow I think, could imagine myself easily as that.
Were you a tomboy?
'Cause I was a twin and then I had a brother twin and then a brother a year younger, so mom would just dress the three of us alike and send us all out into the same fort and games and we lived outside different army posts and just played make believe night and day in the woods on our bikes. Had a lot of freedom.
And I played with boys all the time.
Yeah, I have two older brothers and I was the same kid.
So we just have a few more minutes and I wondered if I could ask you my little speed round--
Of questions, are you ready? Name a book you wish you had written.
Oh, shoot. I love the book Sarah, Plain and Tall. I wish I had written that. By Katherine Patterson.
Not by Katherine Patterson! No, by Patricia MacLachlan I believe it is.
We'll make sure that that's right.
Please, yeah, oh my gosh.
What was the last story that made you cry?
Oh, the last story made me cry. It was certainly something from the Galveston hurricane. Yeah, that's filled with stories that make you cry.
Partially the sadness but also partially the heroics?
Yeah, the loss people took and rose above to rebuild. But they'd lose all their family and then be out there the next day with hammer and nails. It was phenomenal.
Yeah, that's what gets me.
There's the loss and then there's the survival that--
Yeah, that's very poignant.
If your mother wrote a book about you, what would it be called?
Oh, My Sweet Little Dolly. (laughing) She was very Southern. She was from Alabama and she always talked to me in these, you know, she'd call me and ask me about my bad back and leave a message. Honey, I just wanted to know how your dear precious little back is doin'. (laughing) It was very strange.
Who can't you live without, creatively speaking?
My husband, Will, yeah. He's everything.
If you could get everyone in the world to read one book, what would it be?
Oh, let's narrow that. If I could get every high school graduate to read one book--
It would be Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder about Dr. Paul, escaping me his name, but it's a fabulous book about a fabulous man who's a doctor in Haiti and he now has an organization for health all over the world. He's in Africa. But that is such a purposeful book about having a meaningful life. I give that to all my high school graduate friends.
Mountains Beyond Mountains.
Mountains Beyond Mountains.
Thank you so much. It's such a fun--
Oh, thank you.
I mean, I could talk to you for like five more hours. I don't know how long these guys are here for, but I can hang around.
Thank you. (upbeat jazz music)