An Interview with Author Jane Yolen
Picture books. Young adult novels. Beginning readers. Essays. Poetry. With over 300 books to her credit its hard to find a category in which author Jane Yolen hasn’t made her mark.
Jane divides her writing time between Massachusetts and Scotland. A full time writer, she is well known among children’s writers for the motto “butt in chair,” which is, according to her, the best way to get the job done.
She took time to share her wisdom about writing and to tell us about an honor that has come her way. In addition to her writing for children, Jane is known for her work in folklore, an area she feels each and every author should study.
WOW: First of all, congratulations. You will be giving the next Andrew Lang Lecture at St. Andrews in Scotland on November 1st. That’s a huge honor–J.R.R. Tolkien gave that lecture. How did you react to the call?
Jane: I was hesitating and then they said, “You’ll be the first woman.”
WOW: Your talk is “Fakelore vs. Folklore.” What is Fakelore?
Jane: About 30 years ago, I was talking to the American folklorist Alan Dundes. He was trying to reprint an essay I’d done on Cinderella. He mentioned the term fakelore, and my hackles went up. He was quoting Richard M. Dorson. What they both meant was folkore is that which a folklorist gets in the field from a respondent. Someone tells them a story that they’ve had in their family for years. Fakelore covers everything from retold folktales told in books to Angela Carter, and Hans Christian Anderson and other authors, including me, who make up stories with folk elements.
What Dorson missed is that a lot of that goes back into the folk culture. The Grimms were held up as the great collectors of folklore, but it’s come out in the last 15 to 20 years that many of their respondents were middle class, French Huguenots who had come to Germany with books of their own stories. They weren’t German stories but were set down and became part of the culture.
I am lecturing about how we remake our stories to fit our cultural needs at that time.
WOW: Why is it important for today’s writers to study folklore?
Jane: Often younger writers today don’t read the oldest folktales. They read retreads of retreads of retreads. They read Tolkein but they haven’t read anything that he had read—the old myths, the old legends, the long poems from the folk tellers, whether it's Beowulf or the sagas. They take as their template Tolkein rather than the deeper, older gods.
And then the next group comes along and they take their template from those who took their template from Tolkien.
WOW: What are writers going to gain by going back to these older tales?
Jane: Folklore takes you back to our common core in ways that a lot of our entertainment today doesn’t. Modern entertainment skims along the top of emotions, or it goes the other way to show you the wicked, horrible things that can happen to you if you go into the woods in the middle of the night.
Folk tales show us what we have in common whether it’s a Cinderella story or an overcoming the troll story. These folk tales teach us about a common humanity which is something we tend to forget in times of war, in times of famine, and in times of fear.
WOW: What should they study?
Jane: I would start with the Pantheon Library of Folklore. You have Calvino for the Italian, the Grimm, Asbjornsen from Scandinavia. Pantheon has a whole library of collections. I did one for them called Favorite Folktales from around the World. Folklore is so broad that sometimes you have to narrow it. You have to read just Cinderella stories. Alan Dundes did Cinderella: A Casebook. My piece in it is “America’s Cinderella.” You can look at the folklore of a particular country. Or you can say, “I want to know stories from around the world about strong women.” Or about aging. I wrote Gray Heroes: Elder Tales from around the World, which are tales from around the world about the aging process. You could read the Andrew Lang Colored Fairy Books, the Blue Fairy Book the Red Fairy Book, the Green Fairy Book, etc. Just start reading. There’s so much out there.
WOW: All of the folklore that you’ve studied feeds into your writing. With over 300 books to your credit, you’ve written fantasy and historic, picture books and poetry and young adult and much, much more. What do you have to say to writers today who are worried about building a platform?
Jane: There are two things. One, follow your heart. Two, be smart and don’t branch out too soon and too early. I was able to do it at a time when we weren’t worried about branding and platforms. It is a very different world out there now.
As a writer, if I wanted to repeat the same thing over and over, I’d take a job at a factory. It would pay better. There would be benefits.
I have a very low threshold of boredom. So repeating something is very hard. I love my How Do Dinosaur books but if it was the only thing I was writing, I would shoot myself.
In a single week, I will write several poems, work on a picture book, write a chapter of a novel, and research on something else. In some ways, I’m still in high school where you have seven different classes. That set the mold for how I work today.
WOW: What about the writer who is still trying for the sales that they need to build a career? What advice do you have for them?
Jane: You can grow into writing many different things, but you have to somehow make your name first. That’s hard to do today. A publisher will take your first book and then give you one more. If you’re still struggling for sales, the third might have to be under a different name.
This is a problem because very few people write that big book the first time out. Very often, especially if they’re young, they simply don’t have the writing bones yet. When we reward someone for a book that’s not that worthy, but became popular off the bat, how do they learn to get better?
There are organizations. There are critique groups. There are classes. There are conferences. One has to cultivate a learned patience. The French biologist George-Louis de Buffon said that genius is a long patience.
I really believe that’s true. To become a good writer isn’t something that happens, POOF, overnight. We begin as apprentices. We become journeymen. If we’re lucky, we become masters. Just because you make a lot of money doesn’t make you a good writer. The problem is that many people today are equating best seller with good writing. I love good writing. Don’t write as good as . . . write better than. We need to aspire, not settle for.
WOW: Do you have any final words of encouragement for our readers who are juggling family, jobs and so many other things and struggling to find time to write?
Jane: Instead of thinking of the family and the other stuff as dragging you away from writing, think of it as filling your cup. That is what you’re going to write from. I wrote in the midst of having three children, a marriage, traveling, and bird watching. We were involved in our children’s education. We even had a craft center in our barn. These things became a part of what made me the writer that I am. You have to live life to have something to write about. You can always find time to write, but you first have to do some living as well.
Find out more about Jane Yolen and her work at her website.
Author Sue Bradford Edwards blogs from the desk in her office at One Writer's Journey.