everything grows with love

Stories about My Experiences with Writers & Illustrators Who Bring Light into the World…by Bonnie Ingber Verburg

A Pen, a Princess, and a Lot of Rock Music: Snapshot of Robin McKinley

I met Robin McKinley a million years ago when we both had long hair and wore snakeskin cowboy boots. She was into “goth” and I was into “new music,” and she was writing The Outlaws of Sherwood, although I don’t know what the manuscript was called at that time. She simply referred to it as “Robin Hood.”

She came out to Santa Monica from Maine and stayed with my rock-musician husband and me for a while. In those days, we spent a lot of time hanging out at Skyline Recording Studio way up on Old Topanga Canyon Road, and I don’t recall what records Ira was working on back then, but there were parties with Bob Dylan and sessions with Joe Cocker and concerts where Ira played with all kinds of great rock musicians. We went to clubs and showcases and wore our outlandish clothes and crazy jewelry. She was the princess of goth. And of course Ira was writing and recording his own tunes, some with Britt Bacon and Carl Sealove and a lot of other talented people. Ira had a recording studio in our small home, so he was making music all the time, and Robin and I had a great time with all of it. Everything in my closet was either black or white, and I never combined the colors. One day I bought an unconventional sweater from a catalog–completely not my style. We were walking along Main Street after breakfast one morning, and she gave me a puzzled look. “You’re OK with that?” she asked. She pointed at my sweater. “Wearing pink?”

I fell head-over-heels in love with Robin’s books when I read The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown. Unlike most people back then, I read Beauty afterward.  She wrote books I could not put down, and sometimes I didn’t get my night’s work finished because I was reading something new by Robin. And in those days it was rare for me to work fewer than 80 hours a week.

Every morning Robin would go into my home office and work on the book. It was a tiny room someone had attached onto our tiny home–very dark and crowded. She explained her writing ability by telling me that she had a crack in her skull, and the words and stories came in through that crack. Since then, I have heard other people explain their brilliant writing in a similar way, but that is how she described her writing process, which was very mysterious to me. It was a mystery to me that anyone could write that well.

I don’t know how old we were, except that I am in my 50s now, so we had to have been close to thirty, but not much older than that. She had achieved highly unusual success for someone her age, and it was troubling her. She told me she felt tremendous pressure, and I don’t know what that was like for her. She had written Beauty, and it had been a wildly successful novel that knocked the socks off fantasy readers. Her second book was a Newbery Honor, and her third book won the gold. I’m sure it must have been enormously exciting to have that level of affirmation, but on the other hand, that is pretty heady for a younger person.

And how do you follow that?

Everyone (and I include myself ) was on pins and needles, waiting for Robin’s next miraculous novel to sweep us off our feet. Robin’s editor at the time was the legendary Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow, who had also been Virginia Hamilton’s editor (along with Janet Schulman and Ann Beneduce) most of Virginia’s career.

I met Robin because a new illustrator friend, Katie Thamer Treherne, had surprised me by bringing me all the finished picture-book illustrations for The Light Princess by George MacDonald, which he had published in 1864. They were intricate, gorgeous, and highly detailed, but in order to publish Katie’s art as a picture book, the original manuscript by MacDonald had to be cut. I decided to ask a “master” fantasy writer to tackle the job of cutting/editing it–not revise it or re-tell it, but edit it for length.

My first choice was Robin, and she agreed to do it. Of course she respected the writer and did a beautiful job.  I didn’t think her involvement with the project stepped on anyone’s toes, but it allowed an engaging, delightful picture book to come into existence (Harcourt) and bring that forgotten, light-hearted story back to contemporary bookshelves.

Along the way, I got to know Robin. And I state for the record that I did not understand Robin, and I never have, and I never will.  I’m not sure it matters, except I do not want to present a misconception that we were best friends. Everyone is different, every writer is different, every relationship with a writer is different, and this is no exception. Still, she is a genius, and this is a small collection of essays about my experiences with brilliant writers…and that includes the mysterious, complicated, wildly talented and unpredictable Robin. There you go.

At any rate, if you have read a few of the essays in Everything Grows with Love, you have seen that in my life, the process of publishing books is very personal. I have very personal passions for people and their individual visions, and it is usually a familial kind of thing for whatever reasons. Most of the time that works out well–meaning better books–and sometimes it backfires or goes south or drifts away into distance as is true with close relationships in the lives of most people. As well, I’m not saying this is the way editors and publishers should approach bookmaking. They should approach it however it works for them. This is what works for me. It has been at least two decades since I gave a rat’s ass how anyone else makes a book. This is how make books, and I don’t care what anybody thinks about it.

Meanwhile, back at the Robin McKinley snapshot (smile–I think Robin would like that little outburst, being the rugged individual and the maverick she undoubtedly still is)….  Robin taught me one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned about writing and publishing, and it has been invaluable these twenty-five years since. Some days she would go into my little study and come out feeling she’d written good fiction. Other days she would come out feeling she’d written terrible fiction. But what she said about it was this: At the end of the book, I can’t tell which parts were good writing days and which were bad writing days.

I always urge writers (and myself) to keep everything, no matter how bad it may seem. Because how you feel about your writing on Monday may be extremely negative, but in fact it may be the best writing you’ve ever done. I guess that’s true about a lot of things in life, right? You wake up after an argument with your sister, and the work you try to do that day feels wrong and inefficient and lousy. In fact, it may be the best work you’ve ever done. Why should it be any different with writing?

Robin kept the good and the bad and kept on writing The Outlaws of Sherwood every morning. She said it was taking her a lot longer to write this book because she felt the public’s expectations were deafening–my words, not hers.

People have told me that it is easier, emotionally, to win a Caldecott or a Newbery Medal after publishing a lot of books so you are better prepared for the celebrity and sudden fame and high expectations. I have known a zillion winners of those awards, and like their work, they are each individuals and very different.  But in Robin’s case, I think those medals were wonderful, and she so deserved them, but it may have made the rest of her career more difficult and challenging. I don’t know.

Katie Thamer Treherne, who created the paintings that led me to Robin, married a man she’d met on a pilgrimage, and they moved back to his ancient family home in Sussex, England, where she is probably now the mother of several grown children who have children of their own. Robin married the celebrated writer Peter Dickinson and moved to England with him. The last time I saw her was at a New York party given for them by her agent at the time. Robin and I stayed in touch for a little while, and the last photograph she sent me from England was a picture of herself with a tractor, in a beautiful British rose garden. She told me she was happy and very proud of the flowers in the photo. And I had to smile to see that like her own Beauty, she had become a lover of roses, and I hoped she was cherished by a prince of her own.

I think of Robin tonight and the people we were back then, and how we had no idea of what was before us. It was a unique time, kicking around those recording studios and being in publishing yet rejecting the stuffy rules of the business. We took great pleasure in drop kicking as many rules as we could out of the park.

Snap your fingers, and flash, more than twenty-five years have passed. What was once an irresponsible night on the town is rapidly becoming a ghost of a memory, and you want to catch it on your laptop before it vanishes. You gave up your cowboy boots long ago and have become a woman with a grown child, a publisher overflowing with stories, and a gardener with roses of your own.

Ah, the rose…that ancient storytelling symbol. Its entrance and its exit–and the people who cross over during that magical, transformational moment–can alter your life forever….

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