Marilyn Nelson was born in Cleveland and was raised on several military bases. Her books include "The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems," which was a finalist for the 1998 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the 1997 National Book Award and the PEN Winship Award; "Magnificat"; "The Homeplace," which won the 1992 Annisfield-Wolf Award and was a finalist for the 1991 National Book Award; "Mama's Promises"; and "For the Body." She has also published two collections of verse for children, including "The Cat Walked Through the Casserole and Other Poems for Children" (with Pamela Espeland). Her honors include two Pushcart Prizes, two creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship and the 1990 Connecticut Arts Award. Since 1978 she has taught at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, where she is a professor of English. Her latest book is "Snook Alone" (Candlewick), which is illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering.
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
From the 2010 National Book Festival
Most recently, you wrote Snook Alone. Where did you get your inspiration for this book?
The old friend I call “Abba Jacob” lives in a hermitage on an island in the Indian Ocean. While visiting his hermitage for some time of quiet reflection and long talks about meditative prayer, I got to know his three little dogs. One of them, named Snook, became my favorite. During the visit I happened to read a magazine article about a couple of dogs which had been cruelly abandoned on a remote unpopulated island. I suggested to “Abba Jacob” that that story, with some crucial changes, might bring give both children and adults a deeper understanding of the essential quiet longing of faith and of the inner transformation to deep compassion, brought about by meditative prayer. He agreed. He regularly spends time in solitude on remote islands, and has been deeply involved in the struggle to preserve one particularly beautiful, remote atoll (an atoll is a ring-shaped coral reef or a string of closely spaced small coral islands, enclosing or nearly enclosing a shallow lagoon) from being developed as an attraction for game-fishing tourists. He gave me a map of that atoll and made a little map of one of its islands, showing me where a dog might find fresh water, describing the flora and fauna of the island, and telling me what else a dog might encounter there. I wrote the story after I came home.
You've written many books of poetry for children. Do you have any special favorites among them?
Of course, each book is different, so I love each one for a different reason. I love Carver: A Life in Poems because I’ve loved George Washington Carver since I was a child, and because reading and writing about him made me love him even more. I love Fortune’s Bones because it brought me to a deeper understanding of something essential about life and death. I love Sweethearts of Rhythm because I love Jerry Pinkney’s illustrations.
What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?
When my children were young and I was teaching full-time at a university, I faced many challenges, trying to find enough time to write. My challenges now are mostly internal: for example, the challenge of self-doubt. But there are also external challenges like telephone solicitors and email!
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing poetry or stories?
Read. I still believe in libraries and books printed on paper, so I still recommend going to the library and browsing, reading things that look interesting. I recommend reading things that are challenging, or even difficult. Don’t be too lazy to look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary! In my opinion, reading is much, much, much, much, much more important to young students who hope to be writers than writing is.
Can you suggest a fun writing topic to get them started?
I think it would be fun to try to imitate the “reverso” poems Marilyn Singer wrote for her recently published book, Mirror, Mirror. (Note: A reverso poem has one meaning when read down the page and perhaps an altogether different meaning when read up the page.)
How do you decide on topics for your books?
The subjects present themselves to me in various ways. With Carver, I was planning to write a hagiography (the biography of a saint), and had gone to Germany to research the life of a 12th Century saint named Hildegard of Bingen. I had just come home from that research trip and was sitting at my desk sorting through my thoughts when the phone rang: It was an old family friend, who said, “I think you should write a book about George Washington Carver.” With Fortune’s Bones, the director of the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, CT called and asked me if I’d be willing to write a poem to honor a skeleton in the museum’s collection. With The Freedom Business, I happened to move to the town where Venture Smith (the subject of my book) is buried.
How important is research in the development of your books? Can you explain the process as well?
Research is very important. I go to libraries. I Google. I travel to relevant places. I take notes. I make timelines. In the writing process I try to incorporate the information I have gleaned from research into formal poems.
What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?
Turn off the TV and the VCR and the videogames. Read, as role-models. Talk about what you are reading; share your enjoyment of what you are reading. Read to the children.
Can you tell us about any new books that you will be working on during the coming year?
I’m trying to figure out how to write a book for children about the troubled situation of Israel/Palestine.
Do you have a website where young people can learn more about you and your work?
I don’t have a website especially for young people. But I do have soulmountainretreat.org/marilyn_nelson.html.