I met Clara Gillow Clark about twenty years ago, when we both lived in the same rural Northeastern Pennsylvania community. One day we sat in the children’s room at the back of our local public library and Clara told me stories of her childhood. Although it was many years ago, I haven’t forgotten that conversation. Certain things stuck in my mind: she had attended a one-room schoolhouse; she was the seventh child in a family of seven, and she was writing a book inspired by her mother’s life. That book became Clara’s first published novel, Annie’s Choice, and since then she has written five other works of historical fiction for middle grade readers. We are so happy that Clara is our creativity blogger this week. She speaks here about her writing roots… —Anne
The youngest child in a family who came from "a long line of farmers and readers," Clara Gillow Clark began school in a one-room schoolhouse and-when she wasn't wanting to be an inventor, archaeologist, geologist, missionary, or solo violinist-grew increasingly drawn to writing. After marrying and having a son, she read a magazine article on children's author Judy Blume, who, like her, was a stay-at-home wife who sold her own crafts before starting her writing career. Inspired, Clara Gillow Clark began commuting to writing classes in New York City, while juggling jobs ranging from teacher's aide to store manager.
Her long efforts paid off. "Now I work at home,"she says, happily. When she's not writing--or reading, or teaching writing, or talking shop with other writers--she enjoys baking, gardening, and walking the dirt roads bordering her little red house, surrounded by her own meadows, woods, and lake. "Walking," she says, "is a love I learned from my father, who took his sprawling brood on nature walks and taught us to stop long enough to really see things."
Clara Gillow Clark: The people I want to put in my books
“To me no man is himself; he is the sum total of his past. . .” William Faulkner
There are many reasons why I am a writer. I would say that the need to write came from the sudden death of my father when I was six and the upheaval of family and the ensuing poverty—not immediately, but certainly by my middle grade and high school years. But I ALSO became a writer because of teachers.
First there was my mean 2nd grade teacher, Miss Lampart. She wasn’t only mean, she was terrifying, somewhat like the teacher in Roald Dahl’s book Matilda. She wore spiky heels and lots of jangly bracelets; she had big red lips and long, red, very sharp fingernails, which she often dug into the cheeks of little second graders. At least she dug them into mine! Nearly every morning of second grade, when it was time for school, I’d tell my mother that I was sick and should stay home. Mostly, she made me go to school, but I got really good at play-acting illness and did stay home a lot. One day, Miss Lampart made me stay in at recess to write a story or poem to go along with my drawing of a rabbit. My best friend stayed in with me and encouraged me, “Hurry up and write something! Recess will be over,” she told me. I held my head and moaned, “I can’t think of anything to write,” I said. “Just write something!” she told me. So faced with my first deadline, I wrote a poem because a story was too many words. The poem turned out to be my first published piece, thanks to Miss Lampart. She was still mean, but I wouldn’t have had that wonderful feeling of accomplishment without her. So it was that ART got me into writing, and then it was MUSIC that taught me how to keep going.
I started playing the violin in fifth grade, and by sixth grade I thought I was getting pretty good. Not as good as Irene Wetzelberg the Concertmistress of the orchestra, but not bad. Then my music teacher taped me playing an etude from a Samual Applebaum book. I sounded like a screechy cat fight and wanted to end my failed career as a violinist. My music teacher wouldn’t let me. Thank you, Mr. Pierce, because I did keep practicing and I did get better! I ended up becoming the Concertmistress in high school, but if I had quit I never would have known or believed that I could do that! I learned that playing an instrument is a process, much the same way that learning to write is a process. You don’t start out writing publishable prose. At least I didn’t, but I knew that if I kept working at it I’d get better. If I’d quit the violin in sixth grade, I don’t think that I’d have become successful as a writer or have a book with my name on it. I am a writer because someone believed in my talent and wouldn’t let me quit. Believing in myself then was very very hard for me, but, now, fortunately, it’s only about every other day.
Later on there were others—my senior English teacher, Mrs. Chamberlin who submitted a poem of mine that was published, and Patricia Reilly Giff, who read an early attempt of mine and told me, “Oh, you are a writer!” Of course, I believed her and kept writing and writing and writing for ten more years before my first book contract came for Annie’s Choice.
Today I write historical fiction. I love to read history and to research, but what I really love are people. Not just people living now, but people who were alive before I was born. I want to know what they wore, what they did from jobs to favorite pastimes, how their lives were like mine and how they differed. I’ve been told that what I write isn’t really historical fiction because I don’t connect my stories to famous people or important historical events like war, for example. But what is more important than people in everyday life going about their business and creating the real fabric of our society? They are the people I want to capture, the people I want to put in my books.