Viorst doesn’t remember giving the phrasing that much consideration: “I think it just came,” she said. She has a similar way of describing how she knows which book ideas are worth pursuing: “The best I can do is, it’s like a ‘ding!’ You’re writing and then something starts falling into place and you hear or feel a ding. And it just feels — it’s going to be okay.”
In her decades-long writing career, Viorst, 82, has heard that ding 37 times — while writing poetry for children and adults, fiction and nonfiction books, and three musicals. Make that four: “Lulu and the Brontosaurus,” based on Viorst’s children’s book of the same name, will be enjoying its world premiere at Imagination Stage in Bethesda later this month.
Viorst is feeling “patriotic” about the whole thing, to see the show produced in her neighborhood (she has lived in Washington with her husband, journalist Milton Viorst, for more than 50 years), and at the theater where she takes her grandchildren. “It’s a big thrill that something I’ve done is going to be there and be part of that story of the work that they’ve done.”
Lulu was born on a rainy day in Maine when Viorst was trying to entertain two of her grandsons, then ages 9 and 11, and had exhausted various forms of entertainment. She started telling stories, and out came Lulu. “We’re all marching around the living room, ‘I’m gonna, gonna, gonna, get a bronto-bronto-saurus,’ ” she said. “And we all sort of liked this difficult girl and her tantrumy, spoiled-brat ways.”
“Most of the characters I have in my children’s books are grouchy or annoyed about something, or are calling each other unfriendly names,” she said. She was sitting back in a chair in her living room, her brown hair tucked behind her ears and her legs crossed, speaking between sips of iced tea and bites of M&Ms. “Like my own kids, they’re not honeys and sweetie pies and little angels. They’re kids. Sloppy, dirty, stinky. Lulu, I pushed the envelope a little further, I think, than I have. But I really liked her.”
Viorst wasn’t exactly an angel, either. At age 7, she was sending poems to the women’s magazines her mother read. Because her mother’s favorite poem was Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” (as those Poe wrote about were wont to do, Annabel Lee wound up dead: “In her sepulchre there by the sea — / In her tomb by the sounding sea”), Viorst thought that “if you didn’t have a corpse in it, it wasn’t a poem.”