The Questions: Blue Balliett -August 2018
Blue Balliett, author of nearly a dozen childrens’ books, from “Chasing Vermeer” to her newest book “Out of the Wild Night,” has been inspired by the island where she met her husband and where they now live full-time. An avid reader, she finds time in the summer for swimming and reading most every day.
Q. How did you end up on Nantucket? Tell us your story.
A. I was born and grew up in New York City, in Manhattan. I’d heard stories about Nantucket as a place with good summer jobs, and so I headed here days after graduating from high school in 1973. I lived at Flossie Francis’ boarding house on India Street and thought I’d landed in heaven. The town, the water, the fogs, the past that wasn’t past – I fell madly in love with this island. I moved back right after graduating from Brown and struggled to stay by working as a waitress, a chambermaid and a very bad grill cook. A couple of years later, I met this guy, Bill Klein, and we fell head over heels. The rest is history.
Q. How did you become an author? What was your path? Why children's literature?
A. I was a non-stop reader as a kid and wanted to be an author by the time I was about 8, but had no idea how to do that. I majored in art history in college and was always curious about real-world events and objects that were also mysterious. When I was 22, I heard a number of startling accounts of “real” ghost and poltergeist activity on Nantucket and thought, “Wow, I should record these!” With author Nathaniel Benchley’s encouragement, I did that, using pen and paper to capture the oral history that became “Nantucket Ghosts.”
As for children’s literature, that only happened because as a mother and a teacher, years later, I saw a gap in the mysteries available to children, and decided to try writing what I couldn’t find.
Q. One of your first books, if not the first, was about Nantucket ghost stories. Living in an old Nantucket house, have you ever had an encounter with a ghost? If not, what was the coolest or scariest ghost story you've written about?
A. The first time I heard someone recounting such an experience, I was riveted. Huh? How could this be? Over the next few years, I heard at least 75 first-hand experiences shared by unlikely people of all ages and professions. After listening to so many accounts, I have to say I’m a believer. How could I be anything else?
We now live in a house in town that’s over 200 years old. The night before I’d planned to begin the first draft of “Out of the Wild Night” – my most recent mystery – I went to bed feeling excited about moving past the notes-and-planning stage. At 4 a.m., an old-fashioned lamp near my writing table clicked on by itself. It was November, freezing out and still pitch black. Peeking around the corner, I saw nothing, tiptoed into the room
and turned out the light. Diving back under the covers, I took it as a good sign – something in our house wanted me to hurry up and get to work on this book about ghosts and their island. When a different old lamp went on in the same room an hour later, I grabbed a sweatshirt, made coffee and got to work. No lights in the house have turned on by themselves before or since.
I’m just glad it was a light clicking on by itself and not a shoe flying through the air...
I’m not sure I could have written this particular book if the ghosts in our house hadn’t given me a thumbs-up.
Q. What was the inspiration for your first book, "Chasing Vermeer?”
A. In 1991, I became a teacher at the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School. I wrote “Chasing Vermeer” as a real-world mystery to read aloud in my classroom, and packed it with ingredients from my years with kids and my background in art history. Once finished, it became an international bestseller and Edgar Award winner that shot me into a new chapter of my life. Crazy. I’m still surprised.
Q. It seems that every writer has a process. What's yours and how do you stay disciplined?
A. I was 48 years old when “Chasing Vermeer” was published, and I’d been writing between jobs and while raising kids for most of my life. Discipline isn’t a problem. I find that being able to wake up and go right to my computer in my nightgown, without distractions, is a huge luxury. I have a morning brain, and the words and excitement are often waiting.
Q. Parents are often challenged with getting their kids to read. Any suggestions on how to instill a love of reading in kids and making them
A. Yes! If parents can read to or with their kids, that is always a biggie. Many kids are reluctant to read on their own, and I think most focus best when curious, or when they feel someone might understand or respect their ideas. Sharing the contents of a book helps, and all reading matters. I like to tell kids that the more well-written language you see or hear, the easier it becomes to communicate your ideas. Readers have power.
Q. What is the last good book you read, and what is on your nightstand or in your beach bag right now? Any favorite authors?
A. Right now I’m reading “Warlight,” by the masterful and elusive
Michael Ondaatje. Recently read: Simenon’s “The Train,” Walter Isaacson’s “Leonardo da Vinci,” “Do Not Become Alarmed,” by Maile Meloy, and an illustrated first edition of Steinbeck’s “Tortilla Flat,” found at the dump. I love William Carlos Williams and Patti Smith and so many others. Crockett Johnson, who wrote “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” is still a favorite.
Q. You've been on Nantucket a long time, and lived other places in between. What is it about the island that keeps drawing you here? What are the biggest changes you've seen in the last 40 years that make you cringe?
A. The natural beauty of this small island and the interwoven beauty of its community are both amazing, and I never take either for granted. However, there are so many recent pressures to become more like the mainland. The fad of gutting the old interiors of many of the island’s historic houses breaks my heart, as much of it seems unnecessary. When this happens, we toss out a unique piece of the island’s handmade history, one that will disappear if we’re not careful. I also worry about the affordable-housing crunch. Boy, is that a knotty problem. My characters in “Out of the Wild Night “do come up with a solution,” just saying . . .
Q. What's your idea of a perfect day on Nantucket?
A. My husband Bill and I love walking and biking in all weathers and seasons. We are swimmers, and we’ve logged countless hours in small boats. A perfect day could be a wild one spent with our children and grandchildren, or simply one that includes time near the water, a read on the sofa or in the hammock, and a warm coconut doughnut. Maybe two.
Q. If you could invite six people to dinner, living or from the past, who would you invite and why?
A. Johannes Vermeer, Alice Walker, Pablo Neruda, Shirley Jackson, Lao Tzu, E.B. White – all curious thinkers who chased truth, pressing on despite the odds. Even if Vermeer said nothing, he’d be fascinating.
Q. Favorite month on Nantucket and why?
A. June, as all is still so fresh and empty and quiet, and we once again have a yard rich with flowering weeds and bulbs, the first green leaves, and sun on the back steps in the morning.