My first book was a work of unapologetic plagiarism. I must have been about six, and I loved a children’s book (which I still have) about a mouse named Molly who prowled around a department store when all the people had gone home.
The thing I loved most was that Molly, a cardboard figure on a ribbon, could move around the book as you turned the pages. I set out to create something just as wonderful… and almost exactly identical. (I think I managed to change the name of the mouse, but not much else.) So it is with writing, right? We aspire and we imitate.
From those inauspicious beginnings I went on to create works that were slightly more original but somewhat less compelling. The family favorite is “Sympathetic Seashells,” a mystery involving a group of kid detectives and walkie-talkies hidden inside conch shells. The drawing were rendered, if you can call it that, on an old 1980s Macintosh. Let me tell you, it was a piece of work! (And yes, thanks to my considerate/vengeful parents, I still have it.)
Well, maybe not too much has changed. I still draw inspiration from the work of other writers, I still love mysteries, and I still can’t draw. My work nowadays falls somewhere between fantasy and science fiction (I find the categories clumsy), and it is always inspired by history. I have studied history for many years, and work now as an academic historian. My focus is on colonial Latin America, so I am especially interested in questions of power, empire, and society. I’ve found that history and fiction work well together in my head. One encourages the other.
The books that shaped me most were the ones I read before I turned eighteen. I remember sitting between the bookshelves of my elementary school (in Clayton, Missouri) reading over and over again a version of The Wild Swans illustrated by Susan Jeffers. Later on, I remember devouring the books by Madeleine L’Engle, and then Ursula LeGuin. The words and images of these creators and many others oriented me in the world, suggesting the power of imagination, the importance of choice, and the broad reach of the discoverable world.