An Interview With Elizabeth Winthrop

Photo of my father, Stewart Alsop interviewing LBJ

You grew up in a writing family didn’t you?

Yes, my father was a journalist. Stewart Alsop. He wrote a syndicated column with my uncle Joseph Alsop for the Herald Tribune. In their prime in the 50’s, they had a readership of 25 million. In the days before television. But the writing goes back farther than that. My great grandmother, Corinne Douglas Robinson was a poet. And her brother, my great great uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, wrote thirty eight books. Of course, he was also the president of the United States, but it’s the writing I like to focus on.

So you were related to Alice Longworth and Eleanor Roosevelt also?

Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth 1925-1931 with his wife Alice Roosevelt Longworth in 1926

Yes, they were my grandmother’s first cousins. Alice and I were good friends. I spent a lot of time at her house near Dupont Circle. She loved to gossip with me about the people who were coming to our house for dinner. And she had a needlepoint pillow on her couch which read “If you have something nasty to say about someone, come sit by me.”

I never met Eleanor, which was too bad. I realized the other day that I was fourteen years old when Eleanor died and nobody had bothered to introduce me to her. That gives you an idea of how the Roosevelt connection was taken for granted when I was growing up. They were simply another branch of my father’s family.

What was it like growing up in Washington, D.C. as the daughter of a world famous journalist?

Strange and exciting. My father’s best friends all worked for the news media or for the CIA. Information is power in Washington and my parents entertained the people they were trying to get information from. My father had gone to Groton and Yale with ambassadors and spies and writers and government officials. They were his good friends. They were always playing this cat and mouse game.

How did that affect you as children?

I have five brothers. The three oldest ones and I became a kind of loose knit gang of marauders. We spied on the adults. We dug a bomb shelter in the front yard, we ran a private telephone system through the sewers of Washington into the house of the CIA man responsible for the Bay of Pigs, we took secret tape recordings of my father’s dinner parties. The adults spied on each other. We spied on them. In the end my brother was kicked out of Groton School for bugging the headmaster’s study and taking tape recordings of the faculty meetings. He was famous in boarding school circles. I’m told at Groton, he’s still a legend.

Eleanor Roosevelt

You wrote somewhere that writing novels requires a great deal of research. Can you give us some examples?

I wrote two popular books for children called THE CASTLE IN THE ATTIC and THE BATTLE FOR THE CASTLE in which a boy leaves this world and travels back in time to England in the middle ages.  For those two novels, I researched castle construction, medieval weapons, rats, the plague, and healing herbs.  When I came to write COUNTING ON GRACE, I visited the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts so I could learn how to doff bobbins, I researched old photographic techniques and I found out all I could about Lewis Hine.  And then when the book was done, I spent months searching for Addie Card, the little girl in the photograph. It’s a good thing that I love to do research!

You’ve written over forty books for children including THE CASTLE IN THE ATTIC which has won many awards and has sold over a million copies. How do you explain its popularity?

CASTLE is a fantasy book. Ten year old William goes back to medieval England to undo a wrong he has committed against someone. There are wizards and dragons and swords in the book, but it is very grounded in today’s reality. And without being didactic or moralistic, there is a strong sense of right and wrong in the book. William hurts someone through his own selfishness and he has to put himself in danger to clean up the mess he’s made. I think kids (and adults) are looking for that.

Also with the whole language movement, teachers are using the book in their classes to teach the Middle Ages. I certainly wasn’t thinking about the fourth and fifth grade curriculum when I wrote the book, but lots of kids come to it for that reason. I get letters that say, “Gee, I didn’t think I’d like your book because we had to read it in my class but ……”

Is it difficult to switch back and forth between writing for children and writing for adults?

It’s a matter of voice. I hear a different voice in my head when I’m writing for adults and when I’m writing for children. And point of view.

In a children’s book, you stay very tightly in the protagonist’s head. It keeps you from getting preachy and moralizing. The adult in me is screaming, oh my god, don’t do that, it’s dangerous. But you can’t write from that place when you’re writing for children. You have to let your characters make mistakes.

I’m glad that I can switch back and forth. When I’ve been working on a novel for two years, I like being able to write a picture book for young children that might be finished in a week or sometimes, rarely in a couple of days. Picture books bring me back to language and poetry, the short novels for children force me to focus on plot. All of these tools are of course, vital when I work on fiction for adults. It’s all writing. Librarians and booksellers need to slot the books into different age groups so they know where to shelve the books. I don’t.

Can you talk about the subject of your next book?

Not yet. If I talk about a book too much, I find there’s no good reason to write it because I’ve gone and talked it away.