All Writers Are Spies

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

I didn’t read Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh until I was trying to land a job as an editorial assistant in the children’s book department at Harper and Row Publishers. I read my way through every novel they’d published in the previous twenty years. Harriet was at the top of the list.

I recognized my kinship to Harriet the moment she told Sport in the first chapter that she has to take notes on the people in the subway because she’s seen them, and she wants to remember them. How did Louise Fitzhugh know me so well? The answer, of course, is simple: she was a writer. All writers are spies, going about the very important task of gathering their material, and when they’re on the job, they’re unsentimental, focused, indefatigable. “Spies don’t go with friends,” Harriet tells Sport. The life of a spy is a lonely one. I was the only girl in a family of six. I knew about being different, being on the outside looking in. Writing things down in my journal was my way of making sense of the world, from the confusing behavior of my parents to the cruelty of certain people who called themselves my friends to the irritating torments of my brothers. My journal was the one place where I could be completely honest about my feelings.

I was more careful than Harriet. I never took my spy books out of their secret, locked place in my bedroom, so fortunately, I didn’t lose any friends over what I wrote there. However, as my notes grew into published stories, a few family members began to have their misgivings. Soon after my second novel was published, one uncle warned that “every time Elizabeth writes a book, it’s like dodging a bullet.”

But I connected with Harriet in other ways. I realize now that when I came to write my fantasy novel, The Castle in the Attic, fourteen years after I’d read Harriet the Spy, I was channeling a version of Harriet’s nanny, Ole Golly. Harriet is devastated by Ole Golly’s departure. My character, William, feels equally desperate when he learns that his nanny, Mrs. Phillips, is moving back to England. Harriet works through her feelings in her notebook. William resorts to magic, but their motivation is the same: hang on to the one person who loves you despite all your faults. Do anything to keep her, and if she leaves you, do anything to bring her back, no matter the consequences.

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books