Most kids don’t like to go to bed, but I did. I was the oldest of five kids, and our house was always filled with shouts and yells and bangs and crashes. Bedtime was a precious private space, away from the bangs and clangs—bedtime was not a time for sleep! In the top bunk, I could get away from the chaos. I could barricade myself with pillows and spin out one of the magical stories always simmering in my mind.
Bedtime was also a time for singing. My dad sang to us every night; each kid got two songs. (Ten songs a night—that’s a lot of songs!) We kids were lucky: my dad (a professor of mathematics and statistics at the University of Chicago) had a lively interest in music (as well as in painting, acting, and languages). He sang us a lot of
American folk songs but was also interested in Scottish ballads. Those ballads, with their melancholy stories and haunting melodies, seeped into my blood; they flavored the stories I wrote inside my head, a new installment every night, night after night.
But I never thought I’d be a writer. In fact, I never thought I’d be much of anything, because I was such a lousy student. I daydreamed instead of listening to the teachers; I read instead of doing my homework. Reading was the only thing I was any good at. I was rather shy and solitary, but I don’t think I was lonely. After all, I had a universe of friends inside my head.
I was most truly myself outside school, which is perhaps why I loved the year I left the American school system to spend fifth grade in Denmark. Denmark was a fairytale place, home of the great fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen. I read his stories over and over, especially The Snow Queen and The Little Mermaid.
My memories of that year come to me now as though through a magical lens: the statue of the Little Mermaid rising from the gray waves of the Copenhagen harbor; myself at Christmas, wearing a crown of lighted candles; the Snow Queen’s palace, present everywhere in the dark afternoons, the drifts of snow, the moon-shot ice.
In my late teens, however, I became self-conscious about being the outsider, the oddball, and I began making an effort to fit in. In order to join the crowd, I thought, I had to set aside my nighttime imaginings. And so I did. I had been spinning stories for seventeen years; it took only a moment to stop. I remember that moment vividly, the moment I turned away from magic. I remember my bedroom, the brown carpet, the blue sleeping bag, the deep afternoon shadows. Yes, it was the decision of a moment, but it lasted for years. I spent years pretending to be just like everyone else—pretending even to myself—and after college, I went to law school, just like everyone else.
Law school was miserable; practicing law was even worse. I now understand why: I was like a square peg squeezed into a round hole. A lawyer’s mind works entirely differently from the way mine does. A lawyer collects information from the outside (research and interview) and uses it to convince you that something in the real world is true. My strength is gathering information from the inside (imagination and memory) and using it to convince you that something imaginary is true.
After five years as a lawyer, my life turned around. I took a vacation to visit my sister, who was then living in Barcelona. How I envied her life! She had very little money, but her life was rich in the ways that mine was poor. She had time to dwell in the world of ideas and imagination; she had a community of friends with common interests and values. She’d take walks! She’d meet her friends for coffee, and they’d talk—and talk, and talk! That trip to Barcelona jolted me out of my misery and boredom. I saw clearly that I had chosen a false life for myself, and within two weeks, I had decided to quit my job and live in Spain.
I intended to do nothing in Spain but eat tapas and read, and so I brought with me as many of my favorite children’s books as I could. (See my FAQs for books I loved as a child.) If you’d asked me then why I decided to bring them along, I might have said something like, “They’ll be such fun, won’t they, after all those boring legal documents!” But I’m convinced now there was something very smart operating below the level of my conscious mind, something that knew what it was I needed. Once I began reading, I thought, “I love these books! How could I have gotten so far from what I truly love!” From there, it was just a small step to beginning to write them myself. And so it was that I came around full circle, back to my oldest, truest passion.
It was a big step, however, to getting published. That took fourteen years. After a couple years in Barcelona, I ran out of money and returned to my hometown of Chicago, where I became the children’s book buyer for a wonderful independent bookstore, 57th Street Books. I worked there for about thirteen years, and all the while, I was writing.
Let us return now to my memories from fifth grade: The Snow Queen, The Little Mermaid, the crown of lighted candles. Let us see how the magical moments of my childhood have crept into my novels. The heroine of my first novel, Well Wished, puts on a play of the Snow Queen; she wears a crown of lighted candles. The heroine of my second novel, The Folk Keeper, resembles The Little Mermaid: she is half human, half sea-creature; she must choose between land and sea.
Life circles round on itself. I sing to my own kids, just as my dad did. I live again in an academic family, in a college community. I have circled round to The Little Mermaid, round to The Snow Queen. I am back to reading children’s books, back to spinning stories.
I have come round again to magic.