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Meet the Author: Q&A with Tommy Hays

by Kathy Stewart

*This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Kids & Books.*

Author Tommy Hays shares thoughts with Kids & Books Editor Kathy Stewart about his latest novel, What I Came to Tell You, his first book for younger readers. Hays is executive director of the Great Smokies Writing Program at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.

Q: What I Came to Tell You represents a change for you, from writing books for adults to writing a book being marketed for teens. Do you consciously think about audience when you write? 

A: I don't usually think about audience when I write.  This book was originally inspired by wanting to write a book that would appeal to my children who were nine and 12 at the time.  I had read a lot of children's books with them and on my own as well, and I found myself being attracted to the aura of innocence that seemed central to the best children's books.  I found these books to be a real relief from reading and writing fiction for adults which is often full of cynicism and irony.  And by aura of innocence, I don't mean naïve or sentimental, I mean sincere, honest, unafraid to look at hard things and yet unafraid of hope and wonder. And so I set out to write such a book, a book that younger readers would relate to but also one that adults like me who might be looking for a break from that heavier adult world would welcome. 

Q: Art and creativity are major themes in this book, where the main character, Grover, finds creating woven pieces out of natural materials a comfort after his mother's death. Was Grover creative before her death, or did his losing his mother serve as a catalyst? 

A: Grover has always been an artist, although he might not have thought of himself in quite those terms.  He's always drawn and made things and has a reputation as an artist among his classmates.  I allude to that in a paragraph about a drawing he did of his principal. 

Grover's class quieted down as they passed the principal's office.  They could see her at her desk, working.  Unsmiling and gray-haired, Mrs. Dillingham resembled George Washington so much that an anonymous artist had drawn a picture and taped it to the front door of the school.  That the drawing was too good to have been done by anybody but Grover was not something Grover had thought about when he'd taped it up.  It was two years ago, and his class had been studying the American Revolution.  Like most of his art, the picture had just come to him:  Mrs. Dillingham stood at the front of a boat with her arms crossed over her large chest while teachers rowed her across a river.  It was titled, Mrs. Dillingham Crossing the Delaware.  Mrs. Dillingham never said anything about it.  Instead she had it framed and hung it on her office wall.

However, I do think that Grover turned to the weavings, to his art, as a refuge, as solace and as a way to express his grief.  Of course he wasn't thinking any of that.  To him it was simply that making the weavings was all he could bear to do.  He didn't intellectually understand that he was giving body to feelings but that was exactly what he was doing.    

And there's another aspect to his art which I think of as spiritual and profound.  That in the doing of it he loses himself and in losing himself he feels connected to something bigger than himself. 

Tommy Hays' writing space

Q: Your web site references environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy. Has nature been a large influence in your writing?

A: I believe it has.  With this book, I did want to explore the importance of the natural world for children.  When my son was a little boy he used to go into a bamboo thicket in our neighbor's yard and make all kinds of things.  And his sister often joined him.  They would spend long afternoons in the bamboo.  It was unstructured time, outside, which they gave structure to themselves, by working and playing in the bamboo, making things like gates, ladders, spears, swords, blow guns, and flutes.  When the Bamboo Forest is threatened in the book, Grover feels it in his soul, to lose the Bamboo Forest would be to lose an important part of himself. 

I think as writers it's important that we get our characters out of their rooms and houses and institutions and see how they interact in the natural world -- the woods, a park, a river.  I love to hike and be out in the natural world; there's a rich emotional life in the natural world and I think as writers we are duty bound to explore it.  It doesn't mean we have to write about the Alaskan backcountry or the Grand Canyon.  It can be something as small as a yard or a neighborhood creek or in Grover's case, a bamboo thicket.    

Q: In a previous interview, you noted that while you didn't set out to write about specific life events, they often became a part of your writing. Can you speak to writing as a way of working through issues and/or life events?

A: I'm not a research-based writer.  I worry that I'll spend too much time researching and never write the book.  My research is living my life, being a husband, a father, a friend, a teacher.  I tend to use the landscape of my life, my family, my friends, my community.  It's not that I'm working out my own issues in my writing, at least not consciously, but I'm drawing on the world that I live in to create a new world to explore through my characters.  I love writing novels because I love the ongoing dialogue between my daily life and the fictional world of my characters.  If I immerse myself in my characters' worlds and in their lives then it taps into all of who I am, which includes my experiences, my daily life.  Yet I often don't really see this connection until after I've written. 

What I Came to Tell You grew out of having children and wanting to see the world through the eyes of my children.

Q: Thomas Wolfe is a thread woven into your book. As tweens read What I Came to Tell You, do you think they'll be inspired to read his works?

A: I hope so.  I think his writing is especially wonderful for teens.  I remember reading Look Homeward Angel as a teenager and feeling like the big emotions of my life had somehow been met in Wolfe's great novel.  He writes with huge passion and high drama, and I think many teenagers would find a kindred spirit in Wolfe.  

I wanted to embody the Asheville of Grover's world, and Wolfe is a central figure in Asheville's rich cultural history.  The Old Kentucky Home, Wolfe's mother's boarding house, is right in the middle of downtown.  So it felt right to make Grover's father the director of the Thomas Wolfe Museum.  The neighbor girl (Emma Lee) loves Wolfe and has read all his books.  She's a sophisticated reader for her age.  Grover, on the other hand, hasn't read a single one of Wolfe's books, they put him to sleep.  Perhaps he's not old enough yet to appreciate Wolfe or perhaps he resents Wolfe for keeping his father so busy.  Probably both. 

Q: What's currently in your stack of to-read books?

A: I just got back from the Decatur Book Festival in Atlanta where I was on a wonderful middle grade authors' panel with Elizabeth O. Dulemba (A Bird on Water Street) and Deborah Wiles' (Each Little Bird That Sings).  I also have Sheila O'Connor's Keeping Safe the Stars.  Sheila has invited me to be on a panel (writers who write novels for adults and younger readers) at the 2015 AWP Conference.  I met Canadian YA writer Nicole Winters this summer at the Wild Acres Writers Retreat and have TT Full Throttle in my stack. 

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