Virginia Hamilton, the first black woman to win the coveted Newbery Medal, in 1975, was so honored for her novel "M. C. Higgins the Great," which also received the National Book Award, the Boston Globe/Horn Book award and the Lewis Carroll Shelf award. She and her husband, Arnold Adoff, himself a poet and anthologizer of poetry for young readers, live in Yellow Springs, Ohio, with their two children.
Most recently, Hamilton published "Justice and Her Brothers," the first of a fiction trilogy to be known as the "Justice Cycle." (The second volume, "Dustland," will be available next spring.) Adoff, whose life of "Malcolm X" was an ALA Notable Children's Book, has had two collections of his poetry released this fall, "I am the Running Girl" and "Eats." Both have written stories about interracial family life: Adoff, "Black is Brown is Tan" and Hamilton, "Arilla Sun Down."
Book world asked Adoff and Hamilton to take time off from writing, lecturing and household activities in order to interview each other.
ADOFF: Let's talk about our work and what we mean when we say you're a novelist and I'm a poet.
HAMILTON: Our kids go to school. I make supper. You mow the lawn. It's fairly traditional, and we happen to work at home.
ADOFF: But besides the ordinary part, one of us might get up at dawn to make an early flight to the West Coast. It's the transition from the home life to signing autographs that gets unreal at times.
HAMILTON: You love talking about what we do, to librarians, teachers and kids across the country.
ADOFF: Yes, but it becomes a juggling act, particularly, getting back to work on six projects that had been left in various, incomplete stages.
HAMILTON: I envy you your many projects. I work on a novel for a year or two. Each day, it's finding the same tone as before, and holding on to the enthusiasm for the story. What if some day I discover that the story is no good?
ADOFF: After 13 books in 12 years, have you had an idea that was no good?"
HAMILTON: Some have been better than others.
ADOFF: All have been exceptional.
HAMILTON: Thanks, but it's the possibility of the other kind that keeps me up at night.
ADOFF: Very little keeps me awake at night. I'm happy about what I've accomplished this year -- both my new books are examples of the poetic approach to narrative that I've been dealing with -- a series of poems that tell stories.
HAMILTON: It's said that I write poetic prose.
ADOFF: You write novels in which the language sings.
HAMILTON: I like that! But it's not necessary for me to concern myself with the novel form at first, the way you must be concerned about the poetic form. I begin with character, which reveals plot for me. I have time to let characters take on definition. By living, they create plot.
ADOFF: My poems live, too. And when you mention time, you are also speaking of space. I create a poem that has to come to life on a single page.
HAMILTON: Would you advise someone to become a poet or a novelist? Your own children, for instance?
ADOFF: I'm uncomfortable giving such advice. If someone is really good at writing and asks my opinion on a career, I might tell 'em to plunge ahead. But our kids are most concerned at present with being, not becoming.
HAMILTON: Yes, they're different from the way I was. I was never satisfied with my age at any time.
ADOFF: Neither was I.
HAMILTON: But out here in rural Ohio, kids seem to have more time to be themselves.While we lived in New York, with all the enormous numbers of humans, I was afraid the kids would grow up thinking they couldn't become anything new.
ADOFF: Large numbers of people can sharpen the senses. I recall what I thought was Leigh's first awareness of races. She said, 'Dad, look at all the different people.' I said, 'Yes, yes?' And she said, 'They're tall and short, and fat and skinny!' She found nothing unusual in different colors, but had sensed beyond them.
HAMILTON: I've been in New York twice in the past 10 days -- the last time, on my way back from the Soviet Union. It was a grand experience being a guest of the Soviet Writers Union at the Second Internatinal Meeting of Writers for Children and Youth. Writers from 45 countries participated.
ADOFF: It's important to stay in touch with New York and publishers, not just about our own work, but about the work of other writers.
HAMILTON: Right now I'm working on the third book of the "Justice Cycle"; it's going to be called The Gathering. I call them psychic fiction. The character, Justice, and her brothers -- Thomas and Levi -- have extraordinary powers and are able to mind-jump to a future earth.
ADOFF: We should mention that we read everything constantly. Writers must read.
HAMILTON: Yes. I read probably as much as I write.
ADOFF: We write for a multicultural/racial society of young people. We must keep in touch with all aspects of the society.
HAMILTON: We write for ourselves and strangers.
ADOFF: Definitely for ourselves, and we make strangers our friends.