SELECTIONS FROM J.B. CHEANEY’S LIBRARY
The Middle of Somewhere, Knopf, 2007.
My Friend the Enemy, Knopf, 2005.
The True Prince, Knopf, 2002.
The Playmaker, Knopf, 2000.
J. B. Cheaney has written two young adult novels about Shakespeare and Elizabethan England, but doesn’t like reading Shakespeare. In Cheaney’s opinion, the way to enjoy Shakespeare is to watch his plays performed on stage. Cheaney loved everything about the stage and wanted to be an actor. “Growing up, I was an inadequate communicator,” she says. “I felt that I couldn’t express myself as me.” But she loved acting and Shakespeare helped her find her voice. “I’ve had three specific encounters with Shakespeare in my life,” she says.
The first was in her backyard when she was about eleven years old. Cheaney’s older sister loved everything Roman and decided they would perform Julius Caesar for their friends and family. Adapting the script from Richard Armour’s Twisted Tales from Shakespeare, Cheaney and her sister roped in their friends, held rehearsals, and manufactured daggers and shields from cardboard and aluminum foil. Cheaney played Cassius, a role she frequently reprises now in presentations about her books. At schools, Cheaney drapes an old sheet around her body in toga fashion and selects a student volunteer to play Brutus to her Cassius in the scene where Cassius draws his dagger and asks Brutus to kill him. “Very dramatic,” says Cheaney.
In Cheaney’s second encounter with Shakespeare, she played Helena in a college production of A Midsummers Night’s Dream. Cheaney learned to appreciate Shakespeare’s mystique and the way in which his plays were subject to flexible interpretations. During school visits, Cheaney re-drapes her old sheet like a Grecian garment. Playing Helena, Cheaney drafts a boy from the audience to play Demetrius. “The kids love it when I fall to my knees at his feet and say, ‘Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me, neglect me, lose me. . .’”
In Cheaney’s last encounter with Shakespeare, she took her children to see a production of Henry V. “I’d forgotten how good Shakespeare was and fell in love all over again,” she says. At the time, Cheaney had written four adult novels that were turned down by publishers. She was homeschooling her two children and had just finished writing threeWordsmith writing workshop books (Common Sense Press). “I wanted to get back to fiction,” she says. After watching the play, the first inklings of The Playmaker (Knopf, 2000) began forming in her mind. “The subject was so rich and had so many possibilities,” she says. In fact, Cheaney continued mining the richness of the period in her second book, The True Prince (Knopf, 2002), a sequel to The Playmaker.
Her next book, a middle-grade novel entitled My Friend the Enemy (Knopf 2005), is set in Oregon. Cheany used to live in Vancouver, Washington, and visited Oregon frequently, becoming acquainted with the climate and the culture. But setting alone isn’t enough to start a story; a group of ideas must converge into a plot or a character. Her son’s new job as a silhouette artist for Disneyland Tokyo piqued her interest in Japanese culture, specifically the way in which World War II is commemorated in Japan. The 9/11 terrorist attacks reminded her of the attack on Pearl Harbor. She tells students at school visits, “Your great-great-grandparents remember Pearl Harbor, but you remember 9/11. It was a lot like Pearl Harbor—we were attacked without warning by people we didn’t understand and who didn’t understand us.”
Cheaney describes her newest middle-grade novel, The Middle of Somewhere (Knopf, 2007), as another “happy convergence of a number of ideas that I had over the years.” About 15 years ago, Cheaney traveled through Kansas with some friends and visited the Chalk Pyramids—pyramid-shaped mounds of chalk shaped by the wind on the vast plains of western Kansas. Combined with articles on wind prospecting and a human cannonball, and the desire to write about a dysfunctional sibling with a challenging behavior or illness, Cheaney massaged all of these elements into her story.
Cheaney endows her characters with traits she finds admirable. Sometimes these traits are the best parts of her personality. Hazel Anderson from My Friend the Enemy is a dreamer like Cheaney was at the same age. Other times they are traits Cheaney wished she possessed. Her shyness as a child contrasts with Hazel’s plucky courage to act on her imagination, and Victoria Sparks’s proactive attitude to shape her destiny (The Middle of Somewhere). After completing a book, Cheaney knows what each of her characters will accomplish with their lives. “That’s why I got into fiction in the first place,” she says. “There are a whole lot of people out there to meet.”
After 23 moves, Cheaney and her husband finally settled in western Missouri. Writing from her home, Cheaney works about four hours a day, beginning in the early morning. When starting a new story, she writes the entire novel in longhand on college-ruled binder paper, double-spacing her lines for easy editing later.
One of Cheaney’s favorite memories is returning home after a visit to the main library in downtown Dallas. Cheaney curled up on her bed with her stack of newly borrowed books. Her folks were in the kitchen frying up hamburgers and potatoes and Cheaney was hungry—hungry for adventure. “I feel tremendously blessed to be able to write,” she says. “The world is so full. So much gets away. . .I wanted to catch a little of it between my fingers.”