Robin McKinley
Twenty Hundred Words: An Interview

I was interviewed recently...

...by a nice lady who either neglected to tell me or I neglected to take in the fact that she needed about twenty words from me, rather than twenty hundred. So rather than waste the remaining nineteen hundred and eighty, I thought I'd hang them all on the web site. (In her defense, or perhaps more to the point in mine, she'd done a lot of homework on me already. I'm not used to people doing their homework.)

— Robin McKinley



Where were you born? Will you please tell us an anecdote from your childhood?
I was born in Warren, Ohio. My father was in the Navy and my parents, having sensibly tried to get pregnant when my father was due for shore duty in the States, succeeded . . . whereupon my father was instantly assigned to a ship overseas. My mother went home to her parents in Warren so that she didn't have to have me by herself in a strange town.

I had my first riding lessons in Japan. My father was stationed on a ship docked near Tokyo, but this time he could bring his family. Every Saturday a big bus turned up in front of the tiny military-dependents complex that included all the shops plus the movie theatre, and a lot of kids got on and went to a riding stable nearly two hours away, run by Japanese. I was nine years old. My first lesson was on a tired, old, patient bay gelding named, implausibly, Playboy. A Japanese man who didn't speak much English put me in the saddle and Playboy on a longe rein. (A longe rein is a particular kind of long rein.) We walked soberly out to a small riding ring, away from the big ring where people who already knew how to ride were having an exciting lesson over fences. Playboy ambled in a circle around my teacher, who barked a lot of directions at me in a heavy Japanese accent that I probably wouldn't have understood except that I had memorised everything I could find to read about How to Ride (I had been horse-mad for years). Head up! Heels down! Sit up straight! Elbows in! Hands low and together! I wasn't touching the reins yet, of course — they were knotted on Playboy's neck, and the longe rein the teacher held was clipped to the bit in his mouth. Me holding the reins would come later, when I was steady enough in the saddle not to jerk his mouth. When my teacher barked at Playboy and he broke into a trot, of course I thought I was being hammered by sadistic goblins. Everyone who has ever tried to learn to sit or post to a trotting horse thinks they're being hammered by sadistic goblins at first. (And think of the poor horse.) Eventually you learn to let the motion toss you gently out of the saddle and tell you when to touch down lightly to be tossed up again. (I was learning English style, not Western, and sitting the trot comes later.) I was exhausted and blistered by the end of that first half hour but triumphant — I was finally learning to ride.

What are your hobbies?
I have no free time because I have too many things to do in it. (I don't actually like the word 'hobbies'; it sounds trivializing. Important spare-time activities are anything but trivial.) I read a lot. I have too many subscriptions to too many magazines about too many things — my favourite is called Country Smallholding and it's about running small farms; I like the livestock articles the best — and I buy so many books that even in this big house there are piles of them in most of the corners. (A common exchange in this household: Me: We need more bookshelves. My husband: We need fewer books.) I've been horse mad all my life; I owned a horse for a few years but found I couldn't afford it, so I have to ride and fuss over other people's. I fell in love with gardening in the same instantly besotted way that I fell for my husband, when I moved over here (Hampshire, England) from the States (Maine) to marry him. I am particularly obsessive about roses; there are about five hundred in our garden, and I have planted about 450 of them. My husband has always gardened: that's how I happened to try it. (I also take hundreds of photos of our garden and other people's, which in theory I keep in files, but in fact tend to leave in heaps all over my workroom floor.) I run twenty-five to thirty miles a week: it's good plotting time: the brain goes into high gear with the body. And I'm learning to be a bell ringer — this is English change ringing, where you ring hideously complicated patterns that make my poor non-mathematical brain curl up like a frightened hedgehog, and needs split-second timing or you go 'clank'.

What would you be if you weren't a writer?
Unhappy.

Have you always been a great reader? Who were your favourite writers when you were young?
I read compulsively and voraciously as a child. I still read compulsively and voraciously except I've learnt to do — and to enjoy — all these other things that take up time too. As well as, rather to my own surprise, developing a, you know, life. I was a solitary child and was under the impression that I couldn't learn to do anything much in the real world (except maybe ride horses), so I might as well concentrate on reading, which I was genuinely good at. Sometimes I miss that single-mindedness and all those hours spent immobile in a chair or a bed or on the floor, but when it comes down to it I would rather have a life, and just possibly I read too much (blasphemous thought) when I was a kid. On the other hand, I started making up 'how to have a life' out of what I read, so it was books that got me there in the end.

My favourite authors in terms of influence are probably Kipling and Tolkien; they are the ones whose footprints I can most clearly see in my own work. (Including, I have to say, in rebellion, chiefly about the existence of women and girls as active members of society and active havers-of-adventures. Kipling and especially Tolkien seem barely to have noticed that women exist.) But I had lots of favourites, from Walter Farley's Black Stallion books to James H Schmitz' The Witches of Karres, which is set up to be a series, but he never went on with it, drat the man. Yes, I read more men authors than women; I wasn't interested in 'girls' books' which didn't have anything I would call adventures in them, and I wanted adventures. Eleanor Farjeon and E Nesbit were honourable exceptions, but their girls still tended to be, well, rather girlish, even when they had adventures. I read a gift copy of Monica Edwards' The Summer of the Great Secret to pieces, which had a my sort of girl in it plus my sort of adventure — plus a heavenly cream-coloured half-Arab pony — but she was an English writer and not published in the States, and I didn't get my hands on the rest of the series till I was a grown-up.

Where do you get your ideas?
My most dreaded question — many authors' most dreaded question — because everybody always asks and there is no answer. I have no idea where I get my ideas. It's how I'm built. I have an imagination that gets sparked off by things, and produces stories. Everything that interests me feeds my imagination, and so I am in the extremely pleasant position of needing to follow my interests so I can do what I do, which is write stories. Having said that, it is brutally hard work, running a high-octane imagination and then sweating and grinding away at getting the resulting stories down on paper. I love my life and wouldn't want any other, but it is not easy.

Where do you work?
I have a workroom or an office, where my computers live (and in their off hours scheme new ways to drive me round the bend), and where I work (when they let me). I am a fairly obsessive story teller however, and have a laptop, so I can bundle it up and put it in a knapsack and take it with me when I'm away from home. (My fondest wish at the moment is electrical outlets in the armrests of airport waiting room chairs, and seats on airplanes. This would mean, heh heh heh, that when I don't feel like working I can still run games. The limitations of battery life at present make Alice at 35,000 feet only an attractive daydream, and I am nailed to text-only occupations.) My best brain hours are usually in the morning, so I'm at my desk then. The afternoons are usually mental mush, and are the time for gardening and walking dogs. I get back to my desk most evenings I'm not bell ringing.

When did you decide to become a writer?
I never 'decided to become a writer'. It's not like that. I've been trying to write down the stories in my head pretty well since I first learned to print the alphabet. It doesn't get any easier, but if you're lucky you do begin to learn the craft. When I was twenty-four I wrote down a long story about Beauty and the Beast. To my astonishment somebody published it. People have been publishing other stories I've written since then. I'm still astonished, but I'm very, very grateful that I get to do this for a living. I'd be writing anyway.
Do you have any techniques for overcoming writer's block?
I don't think I get the traditional sort of writer's block. The stories are always there, but periodically I get myself into an Eeek I Can't Possibly Do This state, and then, of course, I can't. It's like anything else, if you gnaw on your own nerve hard enough, it will snap. The trick for me is being able to tell when I really do have to go away and leave myself alone about a story for a while, and when I'm just trying to get out of the hard work of writing, and need to be got after with a stick.

Do you remember Newbery books from your childhood?
In fifth grade well-intentioned librarians tried to force me to read Newbery Medal books because they felt I had reread The Black Stallion quite often enough and my horizons needed broadening. My utter loathing of anything with a sticker on the cover dates from then. I grew up knowing that stickers on the cover meant Grown Ups Think This Book Is Good For You But It Will Bore You To Death. I still can't recall Hitty: Her First Hundred Years without blanching.

What was your response to learning you had won?
And therefore, my first reaction to being told that I'd won the Newbery was, Oh, no! No child in his or her right mind will ever pick up Hero again! (Or, for that matter, Sword, which was an honor book and so had a sticker too.) I have been told, severely, that the Newbery has changed since I was in fifth grade. I have read a lot of more recent Newbery winners and honor books and it's true, they have changed, but I'm sorry, I still approach anything with a sticker on the cover with caution.

Has the Newbery had an effect on your career?
Rather unfortunately, winning awards is a useful shorthand for people who are too busy to investigate further. The world is big and full of things to do and see and learn, and not everyone is going to choose to immerse him or herself in children's literature. The people who don't, and want good books for kids, are going to buy things like Newbery winners. And librarians automatically buy Newbery winners — it is incredible what a Newbery will do to your library sales figures that year — because people ask for them. And the Newbery doesn't go away; once you've won it, you've always won it, even if it's getting a little hoary with age, as mine is. I am uncomfortable with the whole Having Won An Important Award thing, because awards aren't a perfect system, and lots of good books get overlooked for no good reason. They just didn't 'win' anything. But I'm as bad in areas where I know less than I know about children's and YA literature. If I want to buy a computer game, how do I decide, for example? I read the reviews and look for stickers on the covers at the shops. You have to hope that people who want good kids' books also talk to people who read kids' books, like children's librarians and people like me, so they don't always have to depend on stickers on the covers. Just as I ask my more computer-oriented friends what games they've liked recently.

Back to top.