LIFE: Interview with Cynthia Rylant

I am honored today to welcome Cynthia Rylant to my blog! I have admired Cynthia’s books for years, so when Simon and Schuster invited me to do an interview, I jumped at the opportunity.  Cynthia is here to talk about her book, Life, which comes out this coming Tuesday. The illustrator is Brendan Wenzel, and I interviewed him last year.

Hi Cynthia, thanks for stopping by my blog! You have been a great inspiration to me as a writer.

Hello Dylan! Thank you for inviting me into your blog.

Tell us a little bit about your new book, Life. 

Life is another out-of-the-blue piece of writing from me. I just sat down one day and spontaneously put the words on paper. This is how most of my picture books have been written, without any pre-thinking or pre-planning, starting back when I wrote my first picture book at age 23 (When I Was Young in the Mountains). I have not been a “scheduled” writer, I don’t set aside a certain time or day to work. Every writer will find his or her own way to making books, and for me, just living an ordinary life and not thinking much about writing has been what has worked best. I do feel inspired by, and also envy, writers who work very diligently day after day and who produce big beautiful—and long!—books. But I learned early on that I am not made to be that sort of writer, so I don’t push too hard to fill pages with words day after day. I guess I am more poet than novelist. Too many words and I can’t find the center. And Life: well, I think it came up from a place inside me of a need to accept the inevitable big changes in life, changes that every thing, every creature, in this world must accept. We are all part of the natural world, and nature tells us that Life is about change. It is also about love. I think children will understand this.

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What inspires your creativity and your ideas for books, and have you always been into writing?

I can say that I have always had a child’s wonder and sense of play in my heart. But I did not know anything at all about children’s books until I was 23. I was raised in rural West Virginia, and I read mostly comic books as a kid then stepped up to paperback romances as a teenager. I had no large ambitions, and assumed I would just marry my high school boyfriend and live in Shady Spring the rest of my life. But, you know, I think we are not really in control of our lives. I look back, and as many people have said about their own lives, I see where one small and seemingly minor choice or event—walking down one street instead of another or seeing a certain billboard or losing a job—can turn us in the direction of our destiny. And so it was with me. Through a series of seemingly unrelated events, I wound up working as a clerk in a public library, and when I walked into the Children’s Room—the first time I’d ever been in the children’s department of a library– there was my future. Within a few months, I was secretly writing picture books (this was in Huntington, WV) and mailing them to publishing companies in New York. I kept this secret because I was embarrassed, I felt people would think I was completely unrealistic in my hopes to be published. But I wasa writer. I fell in love with the children’s books I saw in that library—Ox-Cart Man and The Animal Family are two that I found especially beautiful and led me to my own voice—and I could not help but write. Which is still happening, from time to time.

What can readers expect from you in the future?

Sometimes I think I have done my life’s work and the stories I had inside me have been told now. I don’t want to become predictable or outdated. I have been writing stories for 40 years. But the writing has never been the central part of my world. I raised a son, I had many dogs and cats, I repaired old houses and planted flowers, I watched a lot of good shows and read some good books, I sent letters to people who mattered to me, I enjoyed cookies and tea, I tried to trust God’s plan for whatever would happen next, and I said sad goodbyes when endings came. This is all where stories come from, you know, just living. I don’t have any advice for writers except maybe the same advice I give to children, which is just play a lot. For me, play was dogs and sticks. I owe a lot to dogs and sticks. But I do think, deep down, I was never in control of anything nor will be in the future. Small seeds are always being planted, even if we don’t know it. So I’ll see what happens.

What, ultimately, do you want readers to walk away with after finishing your books?

I don’t write to change the world, or to bring joy and peace, or to send a certain message. My books are just stories I think up. And without the illustrators who made all the stories better, more beautiful, often funnier, or, as happened with Brendan Wenzel’s work for Lifedeeper, there would just be some simple words on plain pieces of paper sitting in a drawer in my house somewhere, not amounting to a whole lot of anything. It is the combined contributions of many—intuitive editors, gifted artists, brave book designers—that my writing depends on. And which eventually makes something lovely that I end up talking about to a book person like you!

Thank you again, Dylan, for inviting me, I wish you all the very best, and have a good summer.

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