If you didn’t catch my story about reconnecting with my old library’s copy of Wait Till Helen Comes in preparation for interviewing my favorite childhood author, Mary Downing Hahn, you can read it here. I had the privilege of meeting Hahn at her home in Columbia, Maryland, where we talked for two hours and I could have easily listened to her for two more. With a sharp sense of humor, the 76-year-old Hahn quickly made me feel at ease, and we laughed often. She indulged my many questions and I have done my best to condense our lengthy conversation into digestible pieces for you here. Please enjoy all three parts, On Childhood and Libraries, On Writing Wait Till Helen Comes, and On the Process of Writing and Publishing.
On Childhood and Libraries
I read your newest book, Where I Belong, and I noticed the dedication [“For nemophilists everywhere”]. Are you a lover of woods?
I am. I played in the woods whenever I could when I was a child. That was one of the things I hated about leaving my childhood, was leaving all those long days exploring the woods. The woods were just endlessly fascinating to us. We were not allowed to go there, which is probably one reason they were so fascinating. I don’t know if you’ve read Stepping on the Cracks, but it’s got a lot of autobiographical material in it. All those times that Margaret and Elizabeth sneak down across the train tracks, right from my own childhood. My mother, I don’t think ever did know how often we disobeyed and went where we weren’t supposed to go. That was the excitement. Being in the woods, anything could happen. Magic, or something scary. Once we were chased by some boys who were really scary. You never knew when you might come across some kind of tramp in the woods, a hobo, because the train tracks went through the woods and they jumped off sometimes at College Park as the train slowed down for University of Maryland power plant, I think. So you just never knew. They were full of all this danger and mystery and excitement. They were forbidden.
Do you think that kids today still have those adventures?
You know, I ask myself that so often. I think, is it just because I live in the suburbs and children here in the suburbs are so, I mean it sounds like a cliché but it’s really true, they’re very programmed. And they’re not … we have all this open space in Columbia, all these trails through the woods and creeks and bridges. My friends and I would have been in those woods every single day. They would have been a wonderful woods to explore. Just great. There are deer and just … it’s a wonderful place for kids. But I’ve never once, in all the years I’ve been walking on those paths, seen any kids playing by themselves. I just don’t think it’s done. You don’t see them at all unless they’re with their parents, and then they might ride along on their bikes with their parents on the weekend. But a bunch of kids together on bikes? I just don’t see it. But I think in small towns, once you get away from this whole suburban mindset, I think there kids probably still do. At least I hope they do, that it’s not like the story of the father who told his kids to go out and play and they said, “Play? What would we play?”
One of the things that I really loved about re-reading several of these books was that it really just transported me back to being 10 years old and that freedom that I had to read all day and I didn’t have any responsibilities. We lived a few blocks away from the library. I used to ride my bike to the library several times a day. I’d go to the library and I’d get an armful of books and I’d go home and read all of them on my porch swing, and then I’d take them all back to the library and I’d get some more.
And they’d say, “Good grief, here she comes again!”
Yes, I knew all the librarians. I really was just completely transported back to that time in my life when I was reading these. Do you get that when you’re writing them?
Yeah, I do. I do. Particularly with Stepping on the Cracks, I remember waking up one morning and wondering what was happening in Europe, you know, like in World War II. It’s a funny thing when you’re writing. Most of my books, there have been a few maybe that I wasn’t as absorbed in as others, but something like Where I Belong, I was totally absorbed in that book, and it’s like the characters come to life. And they just take over the story. They kind of lead me. I can think of several books where I felt like, including that one, where it was like Brendan was just telling me the story and I was just writing it down. Another one that was like that even though it was just kind of entertainment was A Gentleman Outlaw and Me—Eli. I really felt like the girl narrator of that story was just perched on the edge of my desk. I could hear her voice, I could think of all the things she would say and do, and how Calvin, the outlaw, would act, and it was just so much fun to write that book. I loved writing it.
But you were so much luckier than I was. The library was not near our house and it was very, very small. It was next to the doctor’s office, practically, so whenever we went to the doctor, that was my reward if I was good and didn’t cry when I got a shot, we could go to the library. But the children’s section at the library was really pathetic. It was like some shelves under a staircase. It didn’t take me long to read all of those. And then in the summer the BookMobile came and it wasn’t until I grew up and went to work for the library that I actually realized it had come all year round but the only time I was able to go to it was in the summer because I was out of school. So that was a really big summer event, was going out to the corner of Dartmouth and Calvert Road and waiting for the BookMobile. “Here it comes, here it comes!”
So when you were at the library, when you were working as a librarian, did you ever recommend your books to kids?
No. It was really funny because I had re-married and my last name was Jacob, and that was on my nametag. So, a couple of times, I got myself into difficulties with kids because, as I remember, a little girl came in once and she said that she wanted a book by Mary Downing Hahn. I don’t remember which one it was. It might have been Jellyfish Season. So I took her back to the shelf to get it, and I’m thinking, “Should I tell her I wrote this book or not? Yeah, maybe that would interest her that I’m the person who wrote the book.” So I said to her, “Did you know this was my book?” And she said, “No, I thought it was the library’s book.” And I said, “No, I mean it is the library’s book, but I wrote it.” And she looked at my nametag, and this kid, oh, you couldn’t pull anything on her. She said, “But your last name’s Jacob. This book is by Mary Downing Hahn.” She’s looking at me like, “You liar. How dumb do you think I am?” I said, “Well, yeah, I know, but when I write my name is actually Hahn, but I got married again …” Why am I telling my whole life to this bratty kid? Who’s looking at me like she doesn’t believe a word I have to say about it anyway. So she left with the book. At least she didn’t put it back. But I’m sure as she left she was thinking, “Yeah, probably if I’d gone in and asked for Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret she’d have said she was Judy Blume.”
Sometimes when I went on book talks, I’d take my book with me and just mix it in with all the other books. And I remember this kid had asked me what that book was about, so I started telling them what Wait Till Helen Comes was about and this other kid raised his hand and said, “That wasn’t what it was about!” And I didn’t want to say, “Well I wrote the book.” I’m not going to say that. So I said, “It’s not?” And he was right with what he said. It was just a matter of interpretation, but it just cracked me up. I’m the writer of this book. It was as bad as the time I took one of those Advanced Reader tests, one of those things where you do the questions on the book. I did that for Time for Andrew and missed one. I thought it was a matter of interpretation.