Enjoy Part 2 of my interview with acclaimed children’s author Mary Downing Hahn, in which I finally learned how my favorite childhood book, Wait Till Helen Comes, came to be. If you missed Part 1, On Childhood and Libraries, you can read it here.
On Writing Wait Till Helen Comes
I have to confess to you that Wait Till Helen Comes is my all-time favorite book.
So many kids tell me that.
I read it 16 times.
Oh my gosh!
I loved that book.
What is it about that book?
I don’t know!
I don’t know either!
It actually, so I read it all those times when I was growing up. Then I went to Johns Hopkins and got my Master of Liberal Arts and I’d been working full-time as an editor for a textbook company and then I was in grad school part-time, so for years I really didn’t read for fun. I read for work and I read for school. And then when I finished my degree I needed to read something that I didn’t have to analyze, and I went to the library and again I got Wait Till Helen Comes. It was just this book that I always turned to when I need something to just sort of fall into. So I’d love to hear how you came to write that book.
OK, well it started actually the way a lot of my ghost stories start. I go somewhere and I see something, and it starts me thinking. And an idea gradually grows out of the setting. And in this case, my daughter, Kate, was, I think she was in middle school, and she knew some kids whose parents had moved into an old church in Howard County, maybe half-an-hour’s drive from Columbia. But more out in the country, at least then it was. There was an article, actually, in the Columbia Flier, which I’ve often thought I should try to find, but I can’t remember what year it was. There was a family that moved into the church, and I thought, “Oh, isn’t that interesting.” They built this big addition on the side. …
Kate asked me one day if I would take her out there, she wanted to visit her friend. So I said yeah because I really wanted to see this place. So I drove her out there. … I noticed when I got out of the car that there was a hedge at the end of the parking lot. And I don’t know, I’m just nosy, I guess, I just for some reason wondered what was on the other side. Don’t ask what I expected to see—a maze, a swimming pool, I don’t know. I didn’t expect to see a graveyard. It just struck me as funny then, you know, like “buy this church and you get a graveyard as part of the deal. Nice quiet neighbors!”
So looking at it, it was really neglected. It was all overgrown with weeds and vines. It was probably around this time of year so there was a lot of growth. And I thought, “Whoa, this is such a spooky little graveyard.” There was this great big oak tree with ivy growing all over it, crows up in branches cawing just added to it. I thought what would I have done if my mother and father had decided to buy a church, a house, anything with a graveyard right behind it. I was terrified of graveyards when I was little. I was really probably the biggest scaredy cat and crybaby in College Park. I was afraid of everything. You name it. The witch under the bed, the monster in the closet, the graveyard, ghosts, whatever, I was afraid of it. I wouldn’t even read anything scarier than Nancy Drew for years.
Did you point your shoes in opposite directions by your bed [like in Stepping on the Cracks]?
No, actually I didn’t! Somebody told me about that. That was a story that somebody told me that I should have done when I was little but my family didn’t have that superstition. I thought, darn, that was a great idea!
So here I am and I started thinking about how I would have felt, how scared I would have been. And then I thought what if the graveyard really were haunted? And what if the ghost who haunted it was a really scary little kid? What if somehow she made contact with the girl in the house? But I thought, no, I don’t want the main character to be the one she gets in touch with … I’m making the whole story up, asking myself—this is what I tell kids, this is how you get your ideas to write, you say, well what if the graveyard was haunted? What if the ghost was a little girl? What if the ghost was really nasty and dangerous and what if she caused a lot of trouble? And what if no one except one child believed in the ghost? And everyone else said, “Oh, Heather’s just going through a stage or something, she’s just being difficult. She’s very imaginative, there’s no ghost, don’t be ridiculous.” So that’s how the idea for the story grew …
But I was working on a novel called Tallahassee Higgins at the time and that was one of those novels where the character, not only in the book, but in my head, is very headstrong, and she wouldn’t do anything I wanted her to do. Every time I’d start writing she’d have some idea about something she wanted to do. Sometimes it fit into the story and sometimes it didn’t, so I had to keep pulling her back. “No, we’re not doing that now, maybe later. Maybe you can do that in some other book but not in this book.” So I was really slaving over it. In fact I’d already sent it to [my editor] Jim and he’d sent it back, and I was working on revisions. So I said I can’t do this Helen—except I don’t think I had the name—I can’t do this ghost story until I finish Tallahassee Higgins.
So finally, I guess I sent in the revision of Tallahassee Higgins—I knew it wouldn’t be the end of it—and I started to write this ghost story, and it practically wrote itself because I’d thought so much about it beforehand, much more than I usually do. I really had it thought out in my head. So I wrote the whole thing, I think, probably in four or five weeks.
Yeah, I know, usually it takes me at least half a year to get a manuscript together, and a lot of times longer than that. So this was amazing. He hadn’t even sent Tallahassee back. So I thought, oh, I’ll just send him this. And I had entirely a different title for it then. OK, let’s see if you think it was as bizarre as Jim thought it was. I was going to call it The Little Snakes of Silver Throat because I’d read this poem by Thomas Lovell Beddoes, who was one of those 19th century English poets who went slightly mad and spent time in an insane asylum. And he’d written this really creepy little poem about walking through a graveyard and these little snakes of silver throat come coiling out of the tombstones and whisper, “come with us, come with us, leave the mortal world, come with us.” I thought it was a terrific title and I thought, I didn’t even know if I would have to get permission, but I would use the poem in the beginning so people would understand the title, you know how people do sometimes with a book.
Well Jim said, “I love this book. It’s great. I don’t even want you to do much re-writing but please re-think the title.” He said, “Call it something simple, couldn’t you call it The Ghost of Harper House? Or The Haunting of Helen or Heather or something like that.” I said, “Jim, do you know how many books start that way? The Ghost of Some Place, The Haunting of Some Place. No, no, no, my title is so good.”
I was still, of course, in the library at that time and I had to go out and do book talks in schools, you know to encourage kids to come to the library and check out books. I learned early that I couldn’t just go there and talk about wonderful books by, say, Penelope Lively or these wonderful English writers because kids would get all excited about them and then I’d see them look at them and this look of discouragement come over their faces because they knew they were too hard for them to read, and that made me feel bad. So I would always take along something that I thought they could read. A lot of times it was Malcolm Schwartz’s, he had three anthologies, I think, of ghost stories for kids, they were all pretty good. Ghastly illustrations by Steven Campbell.
One of them was a story that’s been told and re-told many times, called Wait Till Martin Comes. It’s about a man who goes to a house seeking shelter during a storm. He’s never been afraid of ghosts, the house is haunted, but he’s not afraid of ghosts. And this cat appears, a little cat, and the cat says something to him and he says, “What did you say?” And the cat says, “Wait till Martin comes.” He says, “Who’s Martin?” And the cat says, “Wait till Martin comes.” And this cat was little. But then a bigger cat comes out, and a bigger, and a bigger cat, and they all say, “Wait till Martin comes.” By the time one comes out that’s almost as big as a horse, the guy gets up and he runs to the window, and he says, “Just tell Martin I couldn’t wait.”
Well as I’m telling this story, it’s going through my head, “Wait till Martin comes … Wait Till Helen Comes: A Ghost Story. To make Jim happy, we’ll have the subtitle, A Ghost Story.” And he bought that and it was good. That’s how it got its title. I still think one of these days I’m going to write a book and I’ll call it The Little Snakes of Silver Throat.
Wait Till Helen Comes. Performed by Ellen Grafton. Audio published by Brilliance Audio.
Obviously, this means I have to go back to Maryland to find the actual real life graveyard that inspired this book! Join us tomorrow for the final installment of my interview with Mary Downing Hahn, in which she shares her thoughts on writing and how publishing has changed over the last three decades.