For nearly 30 years, Cynthia Rylant has been telling stories for children via more than 100 much-lauded books: novels, poetry, short stories, nonfiction and picture books, two of which she illustrated. Her beloved characters include Mr. Whistle the guinea pig and Tabby the cat, and perhaps her best-known creation, 12-year-old Summer from the Newbery Award-winning Missing May. The characters in Rylant’s new book, The Beautiful Stories of Life: Six Greek Myths, Retold, are of a different sort: Zeus, ruler of the universe; Hades, god of the underworld; and several other gods and goddesses. The author gives us her take on these age-old stories in simply but powerfully told tales of immortal men and women who are fallible nonetheless. She corresponded (alas, not by winged messenger, but plain old email) with BookPage from her home in Lake Oswego, Oregon, where she lives with her Corgi and two cats.
Where did you grow up? Were you an avid reader?
I grew up in a coal-mining family in southern West Virginia, and actually read few books, as there was neither local library nor money. I did read tons of comic books and Nancy Drew mysteries, which I could get at the five-and-dime store.
How does the child you were inform the author you are today?
I didn’t see real children’s books–picture books, Charlotte’s Web, etc.–until I was 23 years old and happened to see a display in a shop in Huntington, West Virginia. I picked up a book, Ox-Cart Man [the Caldecott winner by Donald Hall], fell in love with it, bought it, and that was beginning: I knew I must write like that. I had never met a writer, but I started anyway. I found publishers’ addresses and I mailed off stories. When I was 24, my first story was accepted: When I Was Young in the Mountains. I have been writing ever since.
Did you have another job before you became a full-time writer?
When I was 27, I went to library school because I needed the foundation of a job, though my intent was to be a writer. I figured being in a library would be a good compromise. I earned an M.L.S. at Kent State, but worked in a library for only a year. I managed to earn a living (a modest living!) writing and doing school visits, which allowed me to be an at-home mother to my son, whom I raised alone.
Looking back on your career as a writer, do you see changes in yourself and your life reflected in your work?
Over the years, I’ve needed to try new things–new genres, illustrating–anything I could do to keep the work fresh and exciting. I could not bear to be a writer of only one kind of book, over and over, even if it made me rich. So, I bounce around!
How did you become interested in Greek myths? What sort of research did you do for The Beautiful Stories of Life?
I didn’t know anything at all of mythology. I found out about the myths when I read a book about archetypes, meaning that people have personalities that "fit" those of the gods and goddesses. (We all know someone who is a Zeus, for example.) From there, I decided to read the original myths and bought a few books, such as Bulfinch’s Mythology and other basic texts. Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes was great, too.
Why do you think the Greek myths have such enduring appeal? What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I could see–as many mythologists have noted–that buried in these strange tales were deeply human stories we all live in some way. We all feel false pride, we all trust the wrong person, we all become obsessive, we all fight for love, we all try to control fate. I wanted to tell the myths my way, from the heart, to illuminate our shared frailties and beauties. Without, of course, getting on too high of a horse . . . there’s something about myths that intimidates most people.
The illustrations are lovely! Do you choose the artists you work with?
Some are chosen by the editor, with my approval, and sometimes I ask for someone specifically. I had no one in mind for The Beautiful Stories of Life, but one night, I was watching a local Oregon TV show and they did a segment on an artist named Carson Ellis. I saw her paintings and I knew she was the one. Luckily, Carson said yes! I’ve never met her even though she lives 20 minutes away. Eventually I will.
What are you reading now?
Just the newspaper, the New York Times. Sometimes I am just tired of books, so I take a break and read the paper and watch a lot of TV!