Gayle Rosengren On Finding Inspiration in the Present to Illuminate the Past

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always included in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewee’s mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today's guest for the WHAT is Gayle Rosengren author of WHAT THE MOON SAID and COLD WAR ON MAPLE STREET. Gayle has worked in both the children's and young adult's section of public libraries, and as a copyeditor for The Pleasant Company, which produced the first American Girl books. In addition to her MG novels, Gayle has published short stories for children in Cricket, Ladybug, Jack and Jill and Children's Digest magazines.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

Yes and no. I had wanted to write a story about the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 for quite a while and had made a start on it more than once, but I didn’t really get serious about it until I realized how many people had never heard of it. I couldn’t imagine that a week that had brought our country the closest it had ever been to nuclear war had been forgotten! It seemed the fact that “nothing happened” meant it wasn’t important, whereas that was precisely the reason I found it of great significance. Nothing happened. The Soviet Union and US didn’t let pride and ego be their guide. They talked. They negotiated. And war was avoided. Isn’t there an invaluable lesson to be learned from this? 

So I wrote my story and finished it a few weeks shy of September 11th. The first attack on our own soil. I thought how frightened kids had to be seeing the twin towers crumble over and over again on TV and the focus for my story shifted ever so slightly. How does a parent or a teacher address the very natural fear of another person, especially a child?

Thus, communication became the underlying theme for my story. It was already there, but it wasn’t as strong as it could be, so I developed it more. The underlying message became, “When you have a problem or a worry or a fear you can’t handle on your own, speak up to a trusted adult in your life. Just by saying the words out loud the burden is lightened substantially. Talking about it makes it seem more manageable. Sharing it is comforting. Let’s face it; no one likes to suffer alone.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

In this instance I already had much of the plot. I had based the story on my own experience of that frightening week. Some images remained vivid in my mind: John Fitzgerald Kennedy's special news announcement the night of October 22nd; the clusters of frightened kids on the playground the next morning, the bold headlines in the newspaper that week. I had a brother who’d been in the navy a few years earlier, so I decided to give my main character a brother in the navy who was smack in the middle of the action around Cuba.  

This gave her one more reason to be afraid of what might happen—not just to her but to her beloved brother. And instead of a mom who was open to talking about the possibility of nuclear war, I made Joanna’s mother a Great Pretender, refusing to admit that she was frightened herself, especially for her son, and eager to act as if there wasn’t anything to worry about, redirecting the conversation whenever Joanna did try to talk about her concerns, insisting everything was going to be fine. And that works for a 5 year-old and maybe even a 9 year-old, but not so much for a 12 year-old.

Do you draw any inspiration from the world around you, or do you use writing as pure escapism?

What was happening around the world definitely impacts what I write. In this case the book was published in August of 2015, before everything went completely off the rails. The wars in the Middle East were raging on and terrorism created a constant level of fear that really shot up if you had to fly and go through airport security. But it’s what’s been happening more recently in 2017 with North Korea that brought back all the emotions of the Cuban Missile Crisis and therefore made me think about my book all over again.