A Conversation with Richard Peck,
author of Fair Weather
Fall 2002

    Some copies of Fair Weather do not have this section.   Answers about the author for the Chapter 12 questions can be found here:
Question:  

Where do you  get the ideas for your books?  Did Fair Weather come from anywhere in particular?

  Answer:  My ideas come from other people's memories.  Two of my most popular books, A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder, are set in my dad's hometown, not mine.  Fair Weather really began when I was a kid and old men hanging out at my dad's filling station recalled riding the great wheel at the fair of 1893.  I wished then that I was old and could remember it. 

My novels are all about journeys.  My characters have to go out in the world to learn something they couldn't have learned at home.  That's a function of the book:  to give readers the permission to look beyond the self and the safe.  And so I don't start a novel until I know the journey.  Then I decide on the characters who would learn the most from that journey.

In Fair Weather Rosie finds her future in the Women's Building at the fair.  The murals on its walls are by Mary Cassatt.  The speaker of the day is Susan B. Anthony.  It's where Rose learns that women can paint pictures and make speeches and take stands.

Question:  

Have you ever been to a world's fair yourself?  What was it like?

  Answer:  I was born a few months after "The Century of Progress," the next great world's fair after the World's Columbian Exposition, and also in Chicago.  My mother says I went to that fair and prevented her from going on the sky ride, but I was prenatal and can't be held responsible.  Still, it must have left its mark.

The first world's fair I remember attending was the great one in Brussels in 1958.  It was dramatic:  a showcase of postwar revival in Europe and a subtle weapon of both sides in the Cold War.  I attended the New York world's fair in 1964-1965, but world's fairs were on the skids by then, being overtaken by theme parks.

Question:   What made you decide to write about the 1890's?   Answer:  I went for the fair because I wish I'd gone to it.   But more than that, it's said that the twentieth century began at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.  The fair was based on the premise that electronic technology would solve everything, a concept we're still struggling with.  Much of twentieth-century technology made its first appearance at the fair, including moving pictures and long-distance telephones.

Question:    What made you include historical figures like Buffalo Bill and Lillian Russell?   Answer:  I weave all my historical fiction around real events.  And since my own favorite reading is biography, I take great pleasure in giving roles to the real people who lived in that time.  Virtually every famous person of the time--political, theatrical, musical--appeared at the fair.  Some people were young, and just starting out, like Scott Joplin.  Others, like Buffalo Bill and Lillian Russell, were at the peak of their fame. Their brand of super-stardom did much to inform the twentieth century celebrity business.  In the novel, though, they are two ways of portraying Granddad...his old Civil War comrade-in-arms and the fabulous woman who is his dream of love and beauty.

Question:    Did you intentionally have country kids visiting the city?   Answer:  Yes, I intentionally turned A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way from Chicago inside out to create Fair Weather.  Grandma Dowdel ( in those first two books) became such a towering figure that I thought she would overwhelm any other grandmother I'd create, so I came up with Granddad Fuller.  And since Grandma Dowdel's grandkids came from Chicago, I decided to send rural grandkids to Chicago, and the great event of all times would have been that fair, and so the setting of the story was going to be 1893.

Question:    All of your characters feel so real.  Are they based on anyone you know?   Answer:  We writers don't take real people, change their names, and put them in our stories.  That doesn't give us enough credit for creativity.  We create characters from what we've observed of all the people we ever met, or read about.

Rosie and Lottie and Buster in Fair Weather are from kids, and I come from generations of farming people, who peered at the outside world from a great distance.  I create these characters from the memories of my family members and from books written about people living in the rural American tradition.

Granddad Fuller is my most nearly autobiographical character.  He wouldn't mind being Mark Twain.  (Look at how he dresses.)  I wouldn't mind being Mark Twain.  We neither one achieve our goals, but it's good to have role models.

Question:    You're the author of over thirty novels.  When did you know you wanted to be a writer?   Answer:  I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was four and my mother read to me.  She wove all these stories out of words, and they rose off the pages we turned together.  I learned the meaning and the music of words before I got to school.

Most people have to be something else on their way to being writers, and I was a teacher, an English teacher of course.  Once teaching had introduced me to the people I wanted to write for, I quit my job and went home to write my first word of fiction.  And that was thirty-one years and thirty-one books ago.

Question:    How has your teaching background influenced your writing?   Answer:  Teaching made a writer out of me.  I wouldn't have made it otherwise.

Writing fiction involves sticking your nose into other people's business--snooping and call it research.  From the first morning of my teaching, I knew things about my students their parents dared never to know.  Better still, I was their English teacher and so I saw in their writing things they'd never say aloud in earshot of their peers.

Another great gift my students gave me was the warning to avoid autobiography.  I soon learned that they weren't interested in what it had been like for me to be young long ago.  They'd heard those stories from their own parents, and they didn't believe any of that could have happened in a free country.  So I avoid the hazard of writing about myself in a novel meant for young readers.  A novel should never the be the autobiography of the author; a novel had far better be the biography of the person the reader would like to be.

Finally, I learned from teaching that nobody ever grows up in a group.  People grow up, if at all, one at a time in spite of the group.  That meant that in all my novels a young character was going to have to declare his or her independence from the almighty peer group in order to mature.

Question:    What's the hardest part of writing?  Do you have any rituals that help you through the tougher times?   Answer:  The hardest part of writing for me is starting and plotting.

I write from beginning to end, as if I'm reading the book, not writing it.  I revise endlessly, rewriting each page at least six times.  To show me how to shape my story, I keep other people's books on my desk to dip into when I'm growing lost in my own story--new books by my colleagues in the young-adult field and of course, always, The adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Writing is too hard to do alone; you need all the help other writers can give you.

When I finish the book, I take the first chapter and, without rereading it, throw it away.  Then I write the first chapter last, now that I know how the story ends.  It means I write the first chapter with confidence because the first chapter is the last chapter in disguise.

Question:    What advice do you give to budding young writers?   Answer:  

1.  Learn five new words a day.  A story is written one word at a time, and you need a larger supply than you have.

2.  Read the kind of books that you want to write.  Read to see how the author put the story together, and how the author phrased it.  Nobody but a ready ever became a writer.  You have to read a thousand books before you can write one.

3.  Find your way tot he library and mine its riches.  All fiction is based on research.  Befriend librarians; they can unlock the world.  Find that part of the library you belong it, and take up residence, because every book begins in the library in the hope it will end there.