Author Finds Himself A Long Way From Chicago

April 14, 2002

Beth Frank, Hullabaloo Contributing Writer

Richard Peck, multiple award-winning author of more than 20 children's books, visited Tulane this week as a part of Tulane's Trial Balloons program. Peck was recently honored as one of the 2001 National Humanities Medal winners at the White House.

One of Peck's novels, A Year Down Yonder recently received the Newberry Medal, and was the sequel to his Newberry Honor book A Long Way From Chicago. "Books must be better than real life or no one will want to read them," Peck said. "Books are not what is, books are what if."

Peck spoke before a group of Tulane students studying children's literature as part of a creative writing class on Tuesday afternoon. He gave the class several tips on how to write a novel.

"We don't write from experience, we write from observation. Don't ever write about yourself. Give yourself more freedom than that. No one wants to read your diary but your mother," Peck said. Peck's works, while written for children, carry important life themes. "One of the messages I write is that you can never be completely sure about yourself and you can never be completely sure about others."

Some of his novels have touched on the betrayal of friends. "I never villainize the parents of my characters; my readers do that to them anyway. In my books the villain will be the peers," Peck said.

Peck also explained how he developed the idea for A Long Way From Chicago. He received word from a friend that there would be a collection of stories published involving the theme of guns. Peck wanted to "take a shot at it," but did not have any work written that could be submitted.

"You can't say you will write a short story without having done it, that's very freshman year," Peck said. So, Peck began working on a comedy involving a trigger-happy old woman and her shotgun. The story was published in the collection, and later grew into a Newberry Award winning novel.

A Long Way From Chicago addresses the connection between the very young and the very old. Joey Dowdel and his sister Mary Alice leave their Chicago home to visit their grandmother for a week in August of 1929. The grandmother is anything but conventional, and Joey and his sister begin to look forward to her antics as they return to visit her over the next eight summers.

A Long Way From Chicago cuts through sentimentality by using an effective device -- humor. The reader takes part in making soap, illegally trapping catfish using the sheriff's boat and baking the county's best gooseberry pie. Peck also spoke about the importance of constantly editing your work and using research in your stories.

"When I get writer's block, I have learned never to leave the house. I go back to a previous page and rewrite it. They say editing and rewriting on a PC is easy. Well it's not supposed to be easy. It's supposed to be hard. I find that I rewrite each page six times and so will you. Every sentence I put down is wrong until I change it."

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