My Life & Books

Wildcats on the Roof


Los Angeles was a frontier town when I was born there on May 23, 1898. It had more horses than automobiles (we went to town in a rubber-tired buggy with a red fringe on top), and there were more jack rabbits than people! The first sound I remember was a wildcat scratching on the roof of our house. 

We moved a lot, but never far. To San Pedro, which was a part of Los Angeles, and Rattlesnake Island, across the bay from San Pedro, where three-masted ships sailed by. To Claremont, just east of Los Angeles, at the foot of Mount Baldy--sagebrush country where descendants of the first Spanish settlers lived. And to Julian, an old gold-mining town southeast of Los Angeles on the Mexican border, in the heart of the Oriflamme Mountains, the ancestral home of the Diegueno Indians. 

That is why, I suppose, the sound of the sea and the feel of the frontier are in my books. And why many of the people I have written about are Indians, Spaniards, and Chicanos. 

I graduated from Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, California, the brightest boy, my teachers said, they'd ever had or hoped to have. I thought so, too. However, when I went to college I found to my great surprise that I was not the brightest young man in the world. Indeed, I found that most of my classmates were brighter than I was. Things had been so easy in elementary and high school, I hadn't needed to study. What's more, I didn't know how. That is why I wandered around from school to school--from Occidental College, to the University of Wisconsin, to the University of Rome, to Stanford. My first book, nonfiction, was published when I was twenty-five.I like to travel, chop wood, do stonework, plant trees and flowers. I wage lively contests over my vegetable garden with deer, rabbits, fox, skunks, water snakes, geese, ducks, possums, squirrels, chipmunks, and otter. I seldom win. 

Stories from My Memories


Island of the Blue Dolphins, though it is based upon the true story of a girl who lived alone on a California island for eighteen years, came from the memory of my years at San Pedro and Dead Man's Island, when, with other boys my age, I voyaged out on summer mornings in search of adventure.One day we left the landlocked world and went to sea, each of us on separate logs. From the forests of Oregon, the logs had been towed into the harbor in great rafts. They were twelve feet long or longer, rough with splinters, and covered with tar. But to each of us young Magellans, they were proud canoes, dugouts fashioned by ax and fire, graceful, fierce-prowed--equal to any storm.We freed them from the deep-water slips where they waited for the sawmill. Paddling with our hands, we set to sea--to the breakwater and even to Portuguese Bend. We returned hours later, having circumnavigated the watery world. Some mornings, in sun or rain, we searched for devilfish among the sea-washed rocks off Dead Man's Island. 

Stories from History


Many of my stories, however, did not come from memory. Sarah Bishop, for instance. During the American Revolution, in the midst of the battle for New York, Sarah fled from the city and found refuge in a cave on Long Pond in northern Westchester County. (From the windows of the house I live in now I can see her cave on the hillside. Children come from all over to visit it in spring and summer.) What Sarah did during those years she hid from the war I can only imagine.Whether remembered or imagined, all of my stories are in a certain sense written not for children, but for myself, out of a personal need. Yet all of them exist in the emotional area that both children and adults share.Writing stories you hope children will read is more rewarding than writing for adults. Adults are not good correspondents. But if children like your books, they respond with thousands of letters. 

What Readers Want to Know

What Children Ask

Children ask a lot of questions. One of the most frequent is, "What's the most important thing a writer should have?" Anthony Trollope, the great English storyteller, said that it was a piece of sticking plaster with which to fasten your pants to a chair. I agree. Writing is hard, harder than digging a ditch, and it requires patience. Children also want to know where you went to school, when you published your first book, how long a book takes to write, where ideas come from, and what your hobbies are.

Sometimes children write letters you wish they hadn't. Like the girl in Minnesota who wrote and asked a dozen questions. To have answered them all would have taken hours. After a week, when she didn't hear from me, she wrote again. She said, among other things, "If I don't get a reply from you in five days, I will write to another author I know. Anyway, I like his books better than yours.And yet letters from children, these acts of friendship, help to make all the work worth doing. 

How I write

I used to write on an electric typewriter. I was a chain smoker in those days, and when I quit smoking (many years ago) I found that the typewriter was a part of this very bad and addictive habit, so much so that I couldn't go near it again. I began to write with a pen on a yellow pad.When I first started to write, I worked from seven in the morning to five in the afternoon. Now I wake up at four in the morning and lie in bed for an hour in a state between waking and sleeping, going over what I intend to write that day. I get up at five, walk the dog, and eat breakfast; I start working at six and quit at noon. Not really quit, for the story lives in the back of my thoughts until I go to bed, and then in my subconscious.The research for a book usually takes two or three months, the writing another six months. Research is what I enjoy most. I often write of events, people, and backgrounds that I know little about, just because I want to know more. 

Finding a Story

Ideas for stories usually come from reading history. Thus I encountered Kukulcan, who ruled the great Maya nation, and Quetzalcoatl, who ruled the Aztecs. I learned that although they had different names, they were the same god.  this strange coincidence, and from my journeys through Mexico, Guatemala, and Costa Rica, came two stories -- The Captive and The Feathered Serpent.While finishing these books, I read about the Spanish conquistador Pizarro and made a trip to the cloud city of Cuzco, high in the Andes, and to the headwaters of the Amazon Basin, home of the Incas. From all this came the idea for a third book of a Maya-Aztec-Inca trilogy.