Wednesday, September 15, 2010

An Interview with Pam Munoz Ryan

I recently had the opportunity to review Pam Munoz Ryan's, THE DREAMER, for Sacramento Book Review, which can be read at:( Now Ms. Ryan has kindly shared an interview with me from her press kit regarding the process of creating this wonderful book.

1. How did you come together to collaborate on this project? Were you familiar with each other’s work?
I have been a fan and admirer of Peter Sis’s work for a long time. Years ago, when I was in Chicago to speak at a university, I went to see his exhibit at the museum. Of course, as I walked the halls admiring the original art from TIBET THROUGH THE RED BOX and STARRY MESSENGER, I never imagined that someday he might illustrate one of my books. As THE DREAMER progressed, my editor, Tracy Mack, and art director, David Saylor, began to discuss who might illustrate the book. When they told me that they were going to send the manuscript to Peter, I didn’t allow myself to get too excited because I couldn’t imagine that he would say yes. For me, that Tracy and David even thought to pair us was a huge compliment When Peter agreed, I was, understandably, thrilled and honored.

2. Were you a fan of Pablo Neruda’s poetry before this project?
Yes. I had read some of his work as early as high school. Before I traveled to Chile in 2005, I brushed up on Neruda, Mistral, and the early works of Allende, especially since I was visiting their homeland.

3. Did you read any particular Neruda poems as inspiration as you were working on The Dreamer? What’s your favorite Neruda poem, if you had to pick one?
During the writing, I read Neruda every day. And lived with his memoirs and the biographies written about him, which included lesser known works. It is hard to choose a favorite because his writing was so varied. One of my favorite poems, that almost always makes me teary, is Pido Silencio (I request silence), especially the section that begins, “And I just want five things . . .” But for his whimsy and magical realism, I adore THE BOOK OF QUESTIONS. I find them encompassing: joyous and childlike, sad and complicated, simple yet thought-provoking. On this project, THE BOOK OF QUESTIONS inspired me the most.

4. Kids who might not be familiar with the poetry of Pablo Neruda will no doubt be riveted by the details of his childhood. Can you speak about some of the relevant themes in the books that readers will relate to—or that you related to?
I think that there are many elements in Neruda’s young life that will resonate with some readers: his strained family dynamics, his struggle for independence, his painful shyness, his desire to collect and organize mementos. And also, his suspicion and hope that there was something yet-to-be-discovered about himself that was magnificent – something that he had to share. I think that readers will identify with that feeling, too. When I wrote the book, I often envisioned a middle grade boy and girl as the potential readers – brooding adolescents, who might feel misunderstood and might be a closet poets. I saw them carrying the book around, and writing in its margins. That would have been something I might have done. From the fifth grade on, I was an obsessive reader and I carried favorite books with me, underlining and writing in the margins. I was also a day-dreamer and pretender, who could very easily slip into my own wandering thoughts. And like Neruda, I wanted to have a profession that had something to do with books someday, but coming from a blue collar family, that needed to translate into a job that paid the bills. That issue was never dictated or imposed. It was simply my reality.

5. It is not always an easy task for parents and teachers to get kids to relate to poetry, especially these days, with so many other forms of entertainment to compete with. Do you find it a challenge to interest your audience, today, with poetry?
During the writing of this book, I never once thought that this was a poetry book, per se. In fact, I was quite determined that it was not. I envisioned an integrated presentation of language, art, and the unanswered questions. I hoped, that based on the readership of my previous novels, that students, librarians, and educators will first see THE DREAMER as a novel – a novel about a boy from Chile, who traveled a challenging road that led him to become the most read poet in the world.

6. Who are your influences – is there an author or illustrator that has been a particular inspiration to you, or helped shape your work?
That is difficult to answer. I read heavily in the genres in which I write and I also read heavily in the adult market. I’m a fan of Carlos Ruíz Zafón and just finished one of his books. So my love of reading continues to shape my desire to write. As a reader, I have been enthralled. I have carried books to dinner tables, and to baseball games because I so wanted to continue reading. Likewise, whether I accomplish it or not, I very much want my readers to feel compelled to turn the page, to not want to put the book down. I have many colleagues whose work I admire. I’m not in a critique group but I often discuss my early manuscript ideas with Brian Selznick (THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET), and he does the same with me. The person who shapes my work the most, is my editor, Tracy Mack. She keeps me focused with her insightful direction.

7. How exactly does the writing and illustrating of a novel work? Does one part follow the other or are they done in tandem, the writing feeding from the illustrations and vice versa?
For THE DREAMER, the manuscript came first. Then, the text was blocked on the pages and Peter’s illustrations were added, taking the reader to another dimension.

8. In the author’s note at the end of The Dreamer, you give readers some very helpful background information about Pablo Neruda, and how you came to write his story. Can you tell us about your growing interest in Neruda, and your decision to write this book?
In 2005, shortly after my return from Chile, I was a conference with author and illustrator, Jon Muth. During a conversation, I mentioned that I’d just been in Chile and the subject of Neruda came up. He told me a story from Neruda’s childhood, about Neruda passing a gift to unknown child through a hole in the fence. I was intrigued and after the conference I found the essay Neruda wrote about the incident. That was all it took for an idea to plant itself and relentlessly hold on. Then, I received a beautiful book in the mail from a friend in Chile who knew of my affection for Neruda. The book was, in essence, children’s answers to selected questions from Neruda’s, THE BOOK OF QUESTIONS. I began thinking about a book inspired by THE BOOK OF QUESTIONS - something more substantial in text. One thing led to another and I wrote a picture book for older readers. But when it was done, David Saylor asked me to consider making it into a novel. The day before the request, I had just returned 32 books on Neruda to the library! It meant going back to square one, not only in rewriting the text, but to emotionally going back to a book I had “put to bed.” And back to all of the research. So, I will admit, that I had to be convinced. And that I shed a few frustrating tears. But I was convinced, and . . . thank goodness.

9. Are the details about Neruda’s early life factual? Can you tell us about the specific research you did while writing The Dreamer?
The book is a work of fiction that parallels his early years. In a sense, the book is a play, a script of his young life. I dramatized actual events, created dialog, added the voice of poetry, asked the reader questions, and then wrote it in what I hoped would be an appropriate format for my audience. (That is a very simple description compared to the actual tedious research and writing of the book!) In some cases I did not elaborate on some facts, only because his family dynamics were so complicated. For instance, as an adult, Neruda discovered that his Uncle Orlando was not his uncle at all, but actually his older step-brother. And his brother, Rodolfo, was actually his half-brother and did not live with the family until he was around twelve years old. During his younger years, Rodolfo had been raised by a midwife. I tried to give Rodolfo more depth than I could find in the research. Laurita was his half sister and she was close to Neruda all of his life. By all accounts, Father was as mean, as cruel and as dictatorial. In the research, I tried to discover the psychology behind his actions. Giving him dimension and not portraying him as all bad was the hardest part for me. One of Neruda’s biographers reported that their father made Neftalí and Laurita’s lives so miserable that they actually discussed how much better off they might be if he were dead!

10. One of the elements I loved about the book, and your writing, was they way you described Neftali’s (who later became Neruda) obsession with the staccato details of language. Can you tell us how about your decision to incorporate elements of poetry—rhythm, repetition, visual imagery—to tell the story?
I’m not sure there was a conscious decision. Sometimes the story is the dictator. It was clear that rhythm was a presence in Neruda’s life. So, I attempted to create a type of soundtrack. I wanted the reader to hear the persistent rain, the call of the chucao, the pounding ocean, and the monotony of the printing press, too. I hoped the reader would recognize the relationship between the simplest of repetitive sounds and poetry.

11. Neftali’s struggle is so relatable to middle-grade readers—finding your own voice, and the courage to stand up for yourself. But he has to deal with so much more at the same time—a brutal father, and the politically volatile atmosphere in Chile. This is a book that can be read for pleasure, but will certainly be a favorite for librarians and teachers as well. Can you speak to some of the themes that may have practical teaching applications?
The most obvious will be students’ responses to the questions, for which there are no right or wrong answers. The questions allow readers’ imaginations to extend the text beyond the page.

12. You have a devoted readership and are a prestigious, beloved author on the Scholastic list. Can you tell us anything about your future projects?
I have a trade picture book coming out after THE DREAMER. It is a fun and rollicking picture book called TONY BALONEY - about a macaroni penguin, and his best stuffed animal friend, an ostrich named Dandelion. Tony Baloney does not love trouble. But trouble loves him! It will be illustrated by Ed Fotheringham. I have also started a new novel. Both books are with Scholastic.

Thank you for such a rich sharing of your writing process, Pam.

Pablo Neruda is one of my favorite poets, and Pam Munoz Ryan is one of my favorite children's writers. I first discovered her when I read ESPERANZA RISING, and I am glad to see more of her books on the horizon!


  1. Thanks for another great interview, Elizabeth. Poetry has always fascinated me. I have heard a lot about Pablo Neruda’s poetry.

  2. Thanks, Rachna. That was another case of writer generosity for her to share it with me. I find that published writers are some of the kindest people around. As for poetry, I think it always helps to read some regularly. Poets have such a rich grasp of language and say things in such fresh ways. They open up possibilities for us non poets. (Well, I "dabble", but I'd be hard pressed to consider myself a poet.)


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