Scott O’Dell was my friend and mentor. That’s a tall statement considering that I met him only once. But that day changed my life.
I was a young staffer at The New York Times, harboring a secret ambition: to write novels. But how? Writing a novel seemed far out of my depth. However, writing a feature story about a novelist might be a stroke in the right direction. So I set up an interview, hopped a train at Grand Central, and headed north to Westchester County, New York.
Who was Scott O’Dell? Probably the most acclaimed young-adult author of his generation. He had written nearly two dozen books, including the classic Island of the Blue Dolphins, and garnered a barrel of prizes: the Newbery Medal (for Dolphins); three Newbery Honor Awards; and the Hans Christian Andersen Award for a body of work.
Scott greeted me at the station. Now 85, he looked time-chiseled and fit, with a shock of white hair, barrel chest, and deep tan. We climbed into his big car, and he peeled for his home on Long Pond. He seemed to enjoy speed.
The interview was supposed to last about two hours, but it filled the morning and lapped into the afternoon. We broke for a late lunch.
“Enough about me,” he said, over seafood chowder. “What about you? What do you want to do with your life?”
I stammered out the true contents of my gut: “I want to write novels.”
“Well, then, write them.”
“But I don’t have time. I don’t know how.”
He planted a hand on the table and leaned close. His blue eyes sparked. “Now listen—listen!”
Writing is about starting. Start simply, even if it amounts to no more than 15 minutes a day. Open an empty notebook and on page one write: “I want to write a book about…” Then write: “I want the main character to be…” It’s okay to write in fragments. It’s okay to use weak verbs. Just write. Spill all of your ideas into that notebook. On about day five, or seventeen, or fifty-five, something will happen. A light will turn on. You will see the way.
Writing is about finishing. He liked to quote Anthony Trollope, the English novelist: “The most important thing a writer should have is a piece of sticking plaster with which to fasten his pants to a chair.”
Writing is about reading. Soak up all the great books you can. He loved Willa Cather’s spare, lyrical prose style, singling out her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop.
Writing is humble. Let your forebears guide you. He followed Hemingway’s advice: Stop your day’s work at a point where you know what is going to happen next. That way, you’ll never get stuck.
Writing for young readers has a special reward. Scott told me that before he discovered young audiences, he had only a tentative commitment to the craft of writing. Now it was strong. “The only reason I write,” he said, “is to say something. I’ve forsaken adults because they’re not going to change, though they may try awfully hard. But children can and do change.”
Before driving me back to the train station, Scott took me out on his deck and pointed to a grove of trees across Long Pond. During the Revolutionary War, a teenage girl had sought refuge from the Redcoats in a cave hidden by the grove. For years, she had drawn on her wits and fortitude to survive. After learning this bit of local history, Scott had crafted one of his best novels, Sarah Bishop.
His message was simple. Good stories are everywhere. You don’t have to look far. Open your eyes.
We corresponded for a few years, and he kindly critiqued my awkward early efforts at YA fiction. Years later, I read that he had been working on his last novel, My Name is Not Angelica, in his hospital bed, just days before his death at age 91.
Scott taught me many things about writing, but one stands out. Writing is about perseverance. Never give up.