Hello, Joan Bauer. Welcome to ReaderKidZ!
Would you mind telling us a little about your childhood?
My mom was a high school English teacher and my grandmother was a storyteller, so stories always seemed to be bouncing off the walls of our house. I always felt that stories helped explain the world. I always wanted to write, and I did write, short stories and poems and songs and pieces of dialogue. I grew up in River Forest, Illinois and I loved to bake and read and ride my bike and play my flute — oh, I loved that flute. I would practice every day, sometimes several times a day. I wanted to get so good — okay, confession: I wanted to be the best in the school I wanted to be first chair in the orchestra and when I was in 8th grade, I did achieve that. I remember the first time I ever went to the symphony orchestra. My music teacher took our class and it was a concert for young people — we sat in the balcony, and I was so excited by the sound of a full orchestra. For a long time I wanted to be a professional musician. I moved from the flute to the guitar, I taught myself to play. I wrote songs. Music was my joy. It still is!
I had lots of best friends over the years — we had lots of pets, like cats and a mangy dog my sister named Wolfie. We had parakeets and turtles and fish and hamsters. I actually snuck a hamster on an airplane — my dad bought it for me when I was visiting him in Des Moines. And I remember sitting next to a man in a uniform, and I had covered the hamster cage with my coat, but you know hamsters — they never stay still. Any my hamster Brennan wasn’t too crazy about airplanes, so he got in his wheel and started going round and round. The wheel was noisy and I tried to hum so the guy sitting next to me wouldn’t notice.
“What have you got in there?” he asked.
It was a long ride, but the guy didn’t turn me in. I never tried that again, although, since I’m confessing, I used to sneak my adorable kitten Love onto the bus. She had golden and cream fur and I had a winter coat with fake fur that looked just like her. So she would snuggle on my chest and her nose would poke out, but you could hardly tell because of my coat. We went everywhere together.
What sorts of things do you enjoy doing?
My hobbies are cooking, reading, and hiking. I like to ice skate, too, but I can’t stop very well–I lurch and flail until I slow down–it’s not very pretty, but I do have fun.
I didn’t have much of a nickname — people called me Joanie. I didn’t like my name, actually, I thought Joan was boring. I wanted to have an exciting name that ended in a vowel, like Samantha or Bianca. I think I spent a good part of growing up wanting to be a different person than I actually was. I was never a good dancer — I flunked ballet when I was little. I wasn’t good at sports — at least not back then, I found out later that I was athletic. I was the oldest of three daughters and a few times, when things got hard, I ran away. The hardest part of my life was that my parents got divorced when I was 8. I was so close to my dad and when he moved out, I felt part of my world collapse. My dad was an alcoholic and the pain of that was a shadow that followed me for years, but I’ve learned things from that experience that have made me resilient. My grandmother came to live with us — she was an amazing woman. She had the biggest influence on me creatively. She taught me the importance of stories and laughter. She never said, “Now I’m going to tell you a funny story,” she’d just tell a story, and the humor would naturally flow from it because of who she was and how she and her characters saw the world. She showed me the difference between derisive laughter that hurts others and laughter that comes from the heart. She showed me, too, that stories help us understand ourselves at a deep level. She was a keen observer of people.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
For years I wanted to be a comedienne, then a comedy writer. I was a voracious reader, too, and can still remember the dark wood and the green leather chairs of the River Forest Public Library, can hear my shoes tapping on the stairs going down to the children’s room, can feel my fingers sliding across rows and rows of books, looking through the card catalogs that seemed to house everything that anyone would ever need to know about in the entire world. I think the things that gave me great happiness were reading and listening to comediennes tell funny stories. Funny has always followed me — I love to laugh.
Why did you become a writer?
I became a writer because I love words, I love to play with them, and dance with ideas. I was always the kind of person who had a hundred ideas all bubbling up at once. I would read the dictionary — I’m not kidding!! I would study words and their meanings. I just had to write — it wasn’t something I picked, I think that writing picked me. When I’m writing a story, I’m really exploring how I feel about the world. I’m working things out in fiction and metaphor–things that I believe to be true.
I write in my office at home in Brooklyn — the walls are this wonderful shade of yellow, the rug is green, I have a fireplace in my office and a fine, fat chair that I curl up in and read my drafts. Right now, my office is kind of messy, but I’m going to be getting it organized in the next month. I have my daughter’s photography all around me when I write, I have a vase filled with peacock feathers, a rock that has LAUGH carved into it, two birdcages with plants in them, my guitar is leaning against the wall, I have more books than will fit on my bookcases. I love my office. It’s a magical place.
What’s the hardest part about writing a book? How long does it take?
The hardest part about writing a book, I think, is pushing through the first draft (especially the middle) and not giving up until it’s done. I have a sign in my office: NEVER, NEVER, NEVER give up.