August 11, 2020

Helen Frost

A contagious love of poetry
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Acclaimed author Helen Frost is well known for her historical novels in verse, including Salt and Crossing Stones. She returns to verse in All He Knew, which explores the little-known experiences of children in state-run psychiatric institutions in mid-20th-century America through the story of a fictional boy named Henry. We spoke to Frost about her personal connection to the story, researching history and the power of poetry.

In the author’s note at the end of All He Knew, you share that the book’s story was inspired by your husband’s uncle, whose experiences have much in common with Henry’s. When did you begin to think about writing a book inspired by these experiences?
Beginning in the mid-1980s, I listened to Maxine Thompson, my mother-in-law, as she talked about her brother Shirley; she said she had always wanted to write about him “to give him the life he never had.” Over the course of several years, she composed seven poems that told his story, and we worked together to put them into a small chapbook called The Unteachable One.

After that, when I was teaching writing to children in institutions of various kinds (though much different from Riverview), I often put out books of poetry and asked the children to find a poem that meant something to them and share it with the group. Someone always selected The Unteachable One. I don’t know whether it was the title or the small size of the book that attracted children, but I was always touched to hear those poems read in the voices of young readers, and they often inspired children to write brave and honest poems of their own. Perhaps it was during those years that I began to think about how I might explore this story more fully.

Riverview, the institution where Henry is sent, is fictional but based on real places. What kinds of research did you do to represent Riverview in your book? Where does research fit in to your creative process?
That part of my research was very difficult—not hard to find books, photographs, film, documentaries, letters, etc., or to find people who wanted to share their own stories, but so hard to really take in what had happened in those institutions, not only in the ’30s and ’40s, but well into the ’50s, ’60s and even the ’70s. I remember a friend whose mother had a baby in 1968 telling me, “We had to put it in an institution.” That word—“it”—still haunts me, as well as another word she used to describe the baby, which we thankfully no longer use.

We have so many stories about wars, and much respect is given to those who agree to fight in them. I hope readers will pause to consider that making a conscious choice about whether or not to participate in any war is difficult and highly personal, and that different choices can be equally worthy of respect.

I wanted to walk around the grounds of the institution where Maxine’s brother lived, but it has since been turned into a prison (which says something in itself), and I was only able to view it from a distance. I did go with a friend, Leslie Bracebridge, to walk around the grounds of an abandoned institution near where I lived as a teenager, and we talked together about what life had once been like there. As such institutions closed, Leslie has helped to create small group homes for adult women who are released, and she shared with me many stories based on what the women have told her.

I do a lot of research before I begin writing, but as I write, more questions come up and further research is required. I renew my library books multiple times and have a lot of internet bookmarks in a computer file for each book I write. And as people learn what I am working on, I hear many firsthand accounts from friends and family about different aspects of the book.

The character of Victor, a conscientious objector who brings much-needed compassion to Henry’s life at Riverview, was inspired by memoirs written by those who served in institutions like Riverview during World War II. How early on in the process of creating All He Knew did Victor emerge as a character? What do you hope readers take away from his role in the story?
I’ve long considered writing a children’s biography of William Stafford, a poet and World War II conscientious objector who I admire deeply and met on numerous occasions. I’d spoken to his son, the writer Kim Stafford, who encouraged me to do this, but I hadn’t been able to find a way to approach such a biography. At some point, it occurred to me that the two stories—one based on Maxine and her brother, the other springing from William Stafford’s memoir, Down in My Heart—could come together as one book.

I hope the reader experiences the delight in language that I enjoy as I write. I hope my love of poetry is contagious.

I had written many poems about Victor as I was beginning Henry’s story, but I’d set them aside, as I tried to focus more sharply on Henry and to some extent on Molly, Henry’s sister. After reading an early version, my editor Janine O’Malley said that she’d like to know more about Victor. I sent her the crown of sonnets and she loved it; from then on, Victor became a more central character.

Later in the process, my understanding of Victor’s character deepened when I learned that Al Rath, a relative I knew as a child, had worked in a psychiatric institution as a WWII conscientious objector and was influential in the profound changes that occurred during and after the war.

We have so many stories about wars, and much respect is given to those who agree to fight in them. I hope readers will pause to consider that making a conscious choice about whether or not to participate in any war is difficult and highly personal, and that different choices can be equally worthy of respect.

The relationship between Henry and his sister, Molly, and Molly’s letters to Victor are particularly touching. Can you talk about how Molly’s character emerged? What choices did you make in creating her character?
Molly’s character is strongly connected to Maxine, who wrote the poems in The Unteachable One, so that voice was with me from the start. Soon, though, Molly became very much her own character. It was important to have an outside observer with a close connection to Riverview who could express outrage about the institution—not only for her beloved brother Henry, but for all the children who lived and died there.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of All He Knew.

You’ve chosen to write Henry’s poems in free verse, while Victor’s poems take the form of sonnets. How did you arrive at this structure? What are some of your favorite sonnets, for readers who’d like to read more of them?
I love the sonnet form, and particularly the challenge of composing a crown of sonnets. I have included such a crown in books for children (Room 214) and young adults (Keesha’s House) as well as for adult readers. It’s a great form for exploring something complex or difficult. Two of my favorite sonnets are John Donne’s “La Corona” and Marilyn Nelson’s A Wreath for Emmett Till.

Did you know from the beginning that you would write All He Knew entirely in verse? How was your creative process different as you created this verse novel versus novels you’ve written partially in prose—and how was it the same? What do you hope the verse forms add to the reader’s experience of the book?
At the beginning, no, I didn’t know very much about the eventual structure I would find for the book.

I sometimes begin a first draft in prose or free verse, knowing that it is likely to find a different form later on. Once I have a sense of the characters’ voices and the direction of the story (typically after writing about 60 pages), I often start over and write in a way that is closer to the final form.

Writing in poetry, like reading good poetry, makes me pay close attention to the sound and nuance of each word and to how the lines and stanzas appear on the page. I also love the way writing in poetry creates surprises—not just helping me say what I already know or intend to say, but leading to discoveries that may deepen or change the direction of the story in an organic and interesting way.

Whether the final version is in prose, free verse or formally structured poetry, I hope the reader experiences the delight in language that I enjoy as I write. I hope my love of poetry is contagious and that the work I put into the writing is unobtrusive, at least upon a first reading. I know that some young readers don’t care about this, and that’s fine; they’ll still hear and feel the poetry, but a few do pay close attention. I think about a sixth grader stumbling over her words as she tried to tell me what she loved about The Braid, finally settling on, “It’s just . . . you know . . . how it’s . . . MADE!”

Can you say a little about the connection between Victor’s parents and the characters in your book, Crossing Stones?
Yes, although saying “a little” may be challenging, as this is bigger than these two books. I recently found an early draft of The Braid which I had titled Diamond Willow, which would later become the title of a different book. I’d been intending to create a multigenerational story in one book, each representing the point of a diamond. That intention has been obscured by now, but it is still possible to follow a thread of genealogy from the sisters Sarah and Jeannie in The Braid as they are separated in Scotland in 1852, all the way through to Willow in Diamond Willow in the early years of this century. Ollie and Muriel in Crossing Stones speak of “Grandma Jean’s best dinner rolls” and “Great Aunt Sarah,” referencing Jeannie and Sarah. By the time Jean shows up as a spruce hen in Diamond Willow, she represents Willow’s great-great-great grandmother. In All He Knew, Victor is Emma and Ollie’s son, and (you’re hearing it here first!) he may also be related to Willow. Thank you for asking!

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All He Knew

All He Knew

By Helen Frost
ISBN 9780374312992

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