The Wild Girls Mother/Daughter Book Club in San Francisco chose To Come and Go Like Magic to read and discuss at a recent monthly meeting. It’s rewarding to know that girls on the West Coast are interested in a story set in Appalachia. I also feel privileged that my book was chosen along with great reads by Sharon Creech, Jane Smiley, Rebecca Stead and others. These California girls are serious readers!
They sent me some terrific questions, too, so I thought I would share. Anyone with additional questions? Please feel free to email me or comment at the end of this post.
Many, Many thanks to all the wild girls and moms!
1) Why did you choose to write/set this book in 1975?
I wrote many of the vignettes several years ago without thinking about a particular book or plot or time. It was only during revision that I decided on the mid-70s. During the late sixties and seventies lots of outsiders came to work, study, and volunteer in the hills as part of the Great Society programs. They brought the world to Appalachia, so to speak, and — through television, books, newspapers, etc. — introduced Appalachia to the world. It was an interesting time and I thought it would be a good setting.
2) How much of Chili’s life is based on your own?
Like Chili, I grew up in Appalachia in one of the poorest counties in the US, but my own family was not poor. Economically speaking, we lived below the US poverty level, but we were “middle class” by local standards. We had our own house, a car, a television (the first one when I was in third grade), and my parents ran a small general store much like Brock’s store in the story. However, we didn’t have luxuries — not even an indoor bathroom at the time — but not many people did in that area.
Also, like Chili, I grew up dreaming of traveling. I wanted to see the world and I would often write my own stories about places I had read about or seen in the movies. It was common, too, as in Chili’s story, for Appalachian families to have relatives living with them — uncles, aunts, cousins — because of lost jobs, divorce, and other family issues.
I had a lot of friends growing up as people in the hills tend to be very close-knit — families, friends, and neighbors. Some of the children I knew and played with were children from public assistance (welfare) homes. I got to know their families and the way they lived.
The setting for Chili’s life, as well as the local customs, traditions, foods, beliefs, etc. are very similar to the life I knew growing up. But the story and the characters are fictitious.
3) Is Miss Matlock based on a real person?
No. And yes! She is a combination of several special teachers, a little bit of me, and a lot of imagination. I acknowledge three teachers in my book because each was wonderful in her own way. The “trip to Mexico” vignette in To Come and Go Like Magic was based loosely on an imaginary trip we took in fifth grade. But the story — the students, events, and details — is totally made up. Another teacher encouraged me to write stories and plays; another introduced me to Shakespeare. Miss Matlock’s travel experiences are based on my own. Her tales of hiking in the rainforest, the volcanoes in the Andes, the mountains of Mexico, etc. are all places that I’ve hiked and experiences I’ve had. So, a little bit of me is in both the girl who dreams of leaving Mercy Hill and the adult who has traveled to many places.
4) Where did you do your VISTA work? Did you grow up knowing about/seeing VISTA workers?
VISTA workers first came to Appalachia when I was growing up. Local people had mixed feelings about them. The Appalachian hills had always been isolated and suddenly there was an influx of outsiders. When this area was first settled, the pioneers came through the Cumberland Gap headed west. Some families stopped and stayed in the hills. The vast majority (more than 90%) of Kentucky land was virgin forest at the time and the land and the people were sort of wild and free. This fostered close-knit families and communities and a place where old traditions and beliefs were continued. As late as the 1970s and 80s school kids in Appalachia were still singing songs and playing games that were sung and played in England and Scotland 200 years earlier! So, when VISTA workers from New York City and Chicago and Boston came into these towns talking about how they would change everything, some people naturally felt hurt and threatened. It took a long time for folks to trust each other. Sometimes they still don’t.
I didn’t work for VISTA. After college graduation, I was a social worker for the Kentucky Department of Economic Security, which was the public assistance/welfare bureau at the time. Members of VISTA worked with many of these same families and communities. When I moved to Washington, DC I also worked for a time on a US government contract writing ads in national magazines for VISTA and Peace Corps volunteers. I have also worked as an international civil servant in Washington, DC and done volunteer work in and for developing countries.
5) What was your favorite book in middle school?
It’s hard to choose, but I liked the classic stories best. Here are some of my favorites: Heidi, Lassie Come Home, The Swiss Family Robinson, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
When I was first out of college and traveling in Europe I loved Switzerland. So many places looked and felt familiar because of Heidi and all those wonderful details about life in the Alps. I enjoyed the wild adventures of Tom and Huck and I loved dogs. The Swiss Family Robinson, of course, was an amazing adventure and I always thought it would be the coolest thing to live in a tree house.
6) What do you think is the secret to happiness?
I think the secret to happiness is maintaining close ties with the people you care about the most, having a belief system or way of life that gives you strength, and finding a way to do what you love to do. For me it’s family, friends, writing, and travel. As I think about it…these have always been my “secrets” to happiness!
A number of other great questions are more specific about character, plot, and meaning. They wouldn’t make a lot of sense unless you had read the book. So…if anyone would like a copy of these, please email or add a “comment” and I’ll send them along.