Thanks to Around the World in 80 Days, Lisa Graff became a reader. Until fourth grade reading was not high on her list, but for some reason she still can’t fathom, Jules Verne’s classic appealed to her and she borrowed it from the library. “I pinned blankets to the wall [of my room] with thumbtacks and read the entire book inside that fort,” she says. “I’d never been so wrapped up in a book before.”
Graff became a writer, in part, because she loved to eavesdrop as a child. “I wanted to know what people were doing, what they were talking about, what was going on, and how things worked,” she says. “I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to be a writer, but I think that curiosity…helped me become [one].”
Her older brother received a lot of praise from the family for his science fiction stories. “I would write stories because I thought it was cool that he did, but my stories weren’t that good. That wasn’t the thing I felt I really excelled at as a kid. I was really good at math and science, and thought I was going to be a doctor. I didn’t see myself as a super creative person.”
Yet after she started college she switched from premed to linguistics and psychology, and continued to write novels for kids in her spare time that no one ever saw.
During her junior year, Graff studied abroad in Italy, and was required to do a year-long language project. Her professor knew she wrote children’s novels and suggested she translate one into Italian. “The idea was to translate something I had written to improve my Italian, but it made me see that my novel was really bad,” she says. During the translation process, she realized that she’d used English words because they’d sounded good. “I didn’t know what they meant. It was such a good look at the details of language and how every word is so important.”
After graduation, Graff says, “I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do with myself and my degree in cognitive linguistics.” Graduate school in New York City—the hub of the publishing world—seemed like a great place to check out a children’s writing program because she loved writing yet had no formal training. She sold her first two books on the day of her thesis reading. “That was a very exciting day for me!” she says.
Still an eavesdropper, Graff used the New York subway as fodder for characters before moving to Pennsylvania. Even her own life is not immune to mining for a story. Albie in Absolutely Almost popped into her head one day in part because she never felt as smart as her genius older brother.
Annie from Umbrella Summer is partly based on an experience Graff had as a child. “I ended up changing all of the facts, but the emotions are real,” she says. “When I was nine my older brother got very sick and went to the hospital for a long time. I became a bit of a hypochondriac…that’s how I dealt with that trauma, which as an adult I found interesting.”
And A Tangle of Knots, long-listed for the National Book Award, stemmed from a reality television show about weird businesses. “One of them was the unclaimed baggage center,” Graff says. If you lose your luggage during air travel and the airline cannot find you to return it, they have a right to sell the contents through this center. “I knew that I wanted to set a book in a store like that,” she says. “It took me a year to figure out what the story was because at first I didn’t realize it had fantasy elements to it. Once I clicked onto that, everything [fell] into place pretty quickly.”
Graff prefers revision to filling up her blank computer screen with words. “I hate writing first drafts,” she says. “I write them very messily, I don’t pay attention to language and I overwrite, a lot. Then I will do several drafts that are really big revisions.” No character or scene is safe during this part of the process. Her editor generally sees a manuscript for the first time after several drafts. Occasionally, when she is stuck, she’ll forward what she calls “a giant mess.” Before A Clatter of Jars, the companion to A Tangle of Knots, went to print, Graff says she conducted “a thorough line edit to be sure that every single word was the exact one I wanted. I ended up cutting 8,000 words from the manuscript!”
Frequently children’s authors write for the specific age group uppermost in their memories. Graff’s emotions and dreams from her middle-grade years shine brightest. In eighth grade she recalls an assignment to memorize 50 prepositional phrases. Students were required to take the test again and again until they achieved a score of 45 out of 50. Graff passed with flying colors because she sang the list, in alphabetical order, to the tune of “A Whole New World” from Aladdin. “It’s a skill that stuck with me,” she says, because she can still sing it. Ask her when you see her at a bookstore signing.