Yesterday in Seattle, about 35 miles north of where "the real Ivan" spent 27 years at a Tacoma, Wash., strip mall, Katherine Applegate won the 2013 Newbery Medal for The One and Only Ivan (HarperCollins). Our review called Ivan "an animal hero that will take his place with other courageous and beloved animals such as Babe, Mrs. Frisby, Charlotte and Wilbur."
Congratulations! How do you feel?
I've been in a state of stunned disbelief. My first thought after I won was, "Oh my God, I have to give interviews," and the second thought was, "Oh my God, I have to give a speech." It's really gratifying because it was a story near and dear to my heart--because it's true and heartbreaking. It's resonated with kids. The best part of winning the Newbery is the idea that more kids will know Ivan's story.
Did growing up in Michigan engender your love of animals?
I was born in Ann Arbor and grew up in Grand Rapids. I love Michigan. I don't love the cold. I grew up with lots of animals, and I wanted to be a vet growing up. I worked for a vet in high school. I've always wanted to try an animal fantasy. If I knew how many people dislike animal fantasy books, I don't know if I'd have written it. I can't tell you the number of people who have come up to me and said, "I really don't like animal fantasy books, but I love Ivan." I had a wonderful editor, Anne Hoppe, and she said, "I know you want to write the gorilla book, so just write it."
How did you find out about the real Ivan?
It was a New York Times article with the headline, "A Gorilla Sulks in a Mall While His Future Is Debated." I was so shocked and moved. I thought it would make a fascinating story. It took some time to write first-person gorilla. By then Ivan had made it to Zoo Atlanta. He was in a strip mall in Tacoma, Wash., for 27 years. People were becoming aware of the needs of a primate, and the fact that he'd been alone all these years troubled them. They had to re-acclimate him after all that time alone. He never did have any progeny. But he had other gorillas, and sun and grass and trees. His life was much better than it had been.
Tell us about the thread with the circus animals, elephants Stella and Ruby.
I feel strongly about wild animals in circuses. To see an elephant in a circus breaks my heart. I think it's appalling, but I didn't want to be didactic, and I didn't want to overstress it. I just wanted to show what it might be like. I hope the more nuanced good guy–bad guy came across. There are many people who have animals in a captive setting who think they're doing the right thing. There are also really good zoos and there are really bad zoos.
Ivan died on August 20, 2012. He didn't live to see the story he inspired win the Newbery.
I'm sure he was quite a reader. [Laughter.] I went to Ivan's memorial service. I'd never been to a gorilla funeral. There were people who came from all over the world, people from Tacoma, people from Atlanta who'd visited him every week, the primatologist who got him moved, Charles Horton. But it took a real group effort to get him moved. He was quite a quirky gorilla, apparently. To see people gather over a western lowland gorilla was very moving. There's stuff I learned at that service I wished I'd known when I was writing the book.
Ivan may not have been a reader, but he was a painter, wasn't he?
The real Ivan had enjoyed finger-painting. I never got to see Ivan. When I tried to visit him in Atlanta, it was raining, and he's not a fan of the rain. But it was so personal to see his fingerpaints. Some of Ivan's paintings have been auctioned.
Was writing Home of the Brave (Feiwel & Friends)--your first stand-alone novel--different from your experience working on a series like Animorphs, or for imprints with clear guidelines, such as Harlequin or Disney?
Home of the Brave was a moment when I tried to switch gears. I love series because I love how voracious readers embrace those books. But Jean Feiwel was kind enough to give me a chance at my first hardcover stand-alone novel. The story arc with a series is a different pace than a free-standing middle-grade. I love middle grade, especially because the brevity appeals to me. It helps me control the plot. Plotting is hard for me. I like word choice, and I like rewriting. I'm more on the chamber music end of things than the symphony end of things.
How does it work when you write with your husband, Michael Grant--with Animorphs or your most recent novel, Eve & Adam? Does he do the plotting and you work on word choice?
It's much messier than that. It's like sausage and legislation, you don't want to see how it's made. [In Eve & Adam,] we were sure I'd take the female voice, and he'd take the male voice. We ended up writing over each other and under each other. It was fun because we were much more experienced [than when we worked on Animorphs] and there was much less ego involved. We wanted to do a rom-com, frothy sort of book. There was no marital counseling needed at all.
What advice would you give to writers?
The truth is, you have to have fun with it. It is fun. You have to do it because you love it, and if you love it, the rest will come. I think people forget that. They get tied up in questions of "Will I be published?," and at the end of the day, it's just about words on paper. And that's the part we all love--most of the time. --Jennifer M. Brown