Adapted from the award-winning children’s novel, Seedfolks tells the story of the first year in the life of a community garden. We talk with playwright and author Paul Fleischman about his influences, writing for young audiences, and corn (yes, corn!).
What was the original inspiration behind Seedfolks?
Opening the newspaper and reading about a therapist who had her clients garden. That article pulled scenes from my memory like a magnet: my mother’s teaching veterans to garden at a VA hospital years before, my parents’ converting our yard into an Eden of fruit trees and vegetable plots, seeing cornstalks in an immigrant neighborhood I’d lived near in Albuquerque, my tutoring foreign-born middle-schoolers in English, my emigrant grandfather, adopting my Mexican-born sons. I’d originally planned to use the title Seedfolks for a book of nonfiction coming-to-America accounts. Instead, that idea got grafted to a fictional community garden’s first year in an immigrant neighborhood.
Is there a specific character in Seedfolks that you most relate to?
I relate to them all, though I almost never cut and paste from life without major alterations. Kim has never seen her father; mine was a writer who worked at home, but my mother had died a few years before I started the book, her ghost creeping into that chapter. Like Sam, I like to bring people together, in my case through books designed for performance. Big buff Curtis becomes maternal where his tomatoes are concerned and I felt the same way about the long row of beans I nurtured while I was writing the book.
How did you get started writing young adult / children’s literature? How is your approach different when writing for young audiences versus writing for adults? How about when writing novels vs. plays?
My father, Sid Fleischman, wrote for children, which no doubt put the notion into my head. Likewise the idea that I could write in any genre and for any audience I wanted, since he wrote screenplays and noir novels alongside his books for young readers. Each audience and format has its boons and limitations. With plays and screenplays, you get to dispense with description, but in return you need a story that can be told almost solely through dialog–a major challenge.
What type of theater/literature excites you?
The spoken word has always captivated me. I didn’t go to plays as a kid, but I heard my father read his books aloud to the family, chapter by chapter as they were written, a huge part of my education. I also grew up on radio and loved to listen to it late at night in the dark. I loved music and toyed with the idea of becoming a composer. The LP of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood changed all that and set me on my course: composing verbal chamber music for duos and quartets and larger groups. Though I’ve written standard novels and picture books, the lure of a consort and the synergy of performance are beacons that have never dimmed for me.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
Read a lot. That’s how we learn to write. A boon, since you get to pick your teachers and when to meet. And each one will introduce you to others. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, since that’s also how we learn. With luck, you have a taste for solitude and problem-solving and long hours. Pick a day job that’s not too demanding; I was a bagel-baker and proofreader, but never a teacher, so as to have energy left for writing.
If you were to plant something in a community garden, what would it be?
I’d probably plant corn, because you usually need a lot of it for pollination to take place. And because of my parents’ taking up our lawn and planting the first (and only?) front-yard cornfield in Santa Monica, CA. The ears wouldn’t be picked until the water was boiling. Then the melting butter, the march of your incisors down the cob, steam heating your cheekbones. The essence of summer…
Paul Fleischman’s books for children and young adults are known for bridging the page and performance. Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices has been rendered onstage by Word for Word in San Francisco and won the 1989 Newbery Medal. His novels, Bull Run and Seedfolks, use monologues from multiple vantages to describe battle and the birth of a Cleveland community garden respectively. Breakout, a mix of novel and one-woman show based on an all day Los Angeles traffic jam, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Using 52 voices to tell a high school senior’s story, Seek was performed at the Kennedy Center in 2006.
His plays include the one-act Mind’s Eye and the seven-plays-in-one parody of theatrical warhorses, Zap. His work for adults has been published in The New Yorker and includes the play Logomaniacs, an intellectual freak show exhibiting 26 real life word-obsessives. In 2012, Paul Fleischman was the United States nominee for the international Hans Christian Andersen Award.