Beloved VCFA faculty member Louise Hawes is definitely a poetic star! Today we are celebrating the paperback release of her novel The Language of Stars.
But then Fry throws a party to end all parties. The small cottage museum it’s held in—the former home of world-famous poet Rufus Baylor—is ransacked and set on fire. When Sarah and the others are sentenced to community service and a poetry appreciation class, they think they’ve gotten off easy. Until Rufus Baylor himself shows up to teach the course...
Welcome to The Launch Pad, Louise! I was lucky enough to work with you in my third semester, and gobbled up The Language of Stars when it was first released. I'm thrilled that it is now available in paperback. Can you tell me what was the spark that ignited the story?
Stars was born in 2008, at a Vermont College residency. I’m not sure how, but I actually managed to pick up a local newspaper. (Where did I find the time??!!) I read an article there about a group of Vermont teens who'd broken into and vandalized the historically preserved summer home of the legendary poet Robert Frost. These kids held a party in the house, a bash that caused a fire and did thousands of dollars in damage. None of the party-goers, though, were over eighteen, so no one did jail time. Instead, a resourceful judge sentenced them all to take a course in Frost's poetry.
2008 AP photo of teenage vandals, attending their mandatory class in Frost’s Poetry
Could anyone resist a story setup like this? My author's "what-if" machinery kicked right in, and I asked myself, "What if the poet were just as famous as Frost, only he’s not from New England, but lives where I do, in the South? And what if, instead of being dead for decades, he’s still alive when his house gets destroyed? And what if he decides to step in and teach the poetry course himself? And what if one of the students in the course is a teenage girl who has a flair for words and wanted to be an actress? And what if…." Well, you get the idea. Once I started, I couldn't stop!
What a brilliant premise! I’m not surprised that your author’s “what if” kicked in. Once you started putting all of this together, who became your favorite character to write and why?
This novel is chock full of characters I loved writing—students, parents, teachers, the whole beach town of Whale Point (a thinly disguised version of Wilmington, NC). But my two favorites are the main characters, Sarah and the poet Rufus Baylor. And yes, I’m calling them both my favorites, because no, I can’t choose between them! Rufus Baylor, modeled on Robert Frost (whom I spent four years researching and reading), is an octogenarian, not the usual age of a YA main character. But his troubled past and almost childlike creativity make him the perfect mentor for Sarah, who shares some of the interests I pursued when I was a teen—writing, acting, mooning over the wrong guy.
I think it was the gifts these two have to give one another (gifts neither of them is completely aware of) that kept me writing. I wanted to find out how a world-famous poet and a sixteen-year old could possibly meet in the middle, much less change each other’s lives.
I’d like to ask a bit about your writing process. Do you write in silence or do you have a soundtrack?
Like a tomb! That’s the kind of environment I need when I write. I can’t possibly hear my characters’ voices if someone else’s creative world is tugging at me. I love music, you see, and though I don’t play a single instrument, I’m a “gifted” listener. All of which means I can’t give a blues song or a classical piece my full attention if I’m doing anything besides letting it take me; and I can’t surrender to my story, while I’m being swept up by, say, Desmond Dekker and the Aces. (“If you haven’t heard “The Israelites,” stop right now and go listen! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxtfdH3-TQ4 )
Desmond Dekker and the Aces—their sound rocked my young world!
But words and music are definitely kindred spirits! Which is why I invited a friend who’s the best blues guitarist I know, to set some of the poetry in The Language of Stars to music and play it at the launch party for the book.
Blues wizard Charlley Ward “plays a poem” from The Language of Stars at the launch
As for writing and listening to music at the same time, just no. In fact, when we were working together at VCFA, Jandy Nelson passed along a tip I still use—write with earplugs, not earphones!
Aside from Jandy's great tip about earplugs, how does teaching at VCFA affect your writing life?
Years and years (and years) ago, as an undergrad, I remember overhearing a stodgy faculty member complain that teaching was “bad for [his] writing.” Years and years (and years) later, I can testify to the very opposite: alongside the unending learning curve required by working with new, adventurous writers each year, comes continual growth and change. Seems to me, for a writer, that’s the equivalent of staying alive.
Do you have a favorite VCFA memory?
Yes, and I still have a photo of the infamous “Haiku Hike” up a mountain outside Montpelier. Former faculty members Phyllis Root and Sandy (Graham) Salisbury and I were so inspired, one residency, by a poetry lecture given by Ron Koertge (another former faculty member), that we used our precious free afternoon to compose haikus. Perhaps they weren’t as wondrous as I recall, since we chose to bring some “adult beverages,” in addition to pencils and a snack, up to the mountain top where we composed our verses—on paper bags. (We forgot paper.)
from left, Sandy, Louise, and Phyllis toast their brilliant haikus
Convinced we would earn kudos galore, we rushed back to campus and presented our brilliant poetry to Ron, who had chosen to spend his afternoon working toward a book deadline in his room. We stood, breathless, while he read our poems on the spot. And we stood, stunned, as he tore them up in front of us and dropped them in his waste basket. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a worse review, before or since. But at least, I was in great company!
I know that we at VCFA all feel we're in great company when you are on campus, Louise! Is there any thing you'd like to say about the reception to The Language of Stars?
Here's one of my favorite reviews! Leave it to a librarian to come up with “Blind Book Dates!”
The Language of Stars as a Blind Book Date. Love it. Very fitting for this book fo sure! Thanks so much, Louise, for being with us to talk about The Language of Stars.
Lou reads the poem that Charlley “played” at the launch party last June
Louise Hawes has written books for readers of all ages, including Rosey in the Present Tense, Waiting for Christopher, The Vanishing Point, and Black Pearls, a Faerie Strand. Her work has won awards from Bank Street College, the NJ Council on the Arts, the New York City Public Library, the Children’s Book Council, the Independent Booksellers Association, the International Reading Association, and the Young Adult Library Services Association. Louise helped found, and continues to teach at, the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program.
For more information on her books or to read some of her lectures on writing, please visit: www.louisehawes.com
For details about the Creative Playshops she and her three artist/sisters offer, check out: http://www.facebook.com/foursistersplay/
The Language of Stars
Margaret K. McElderry Books, Simon & Schuster
Hard Cover: May 30, 2016
Paperback: May 30, 2017
A Novel with Verse: Young Adult/Crossover