Phyllis Reynolds Naylor was eating a bowl of shredded wheat when the American Library Association called to tell her she’d won the Newbery Award for Shiloh (Atheneum, 1991). Then, The Today Show called to invite her to appear the following morning. “My husband was out jogging at the time, but he said I was standing on the front porch waiting for him and the first thing I said was, ‘I have exactly 24 hours to lose 30 pounds!’”
Naylor has been a writer her entire life. In fifth grade, she remembers dashing home from school to search through the wastebaskets trying to scrounge up enough scratch paper for her stories. She’d write her words on the top of each page and draw her pictures at the bottom. Naylor didn’t write her stories for audience approval; she wrote them because it was “gratifying to make a little book.”
When Naylor was 16, her former Sunday school teacher asked her to write a story for the church school paper. “Mike’s Hero” was Naylor’s first and only baseball story, for which she received $4.67. Over the next two years, Naylor submitted several dozen stories to the school paper, most of which were accepted. Then she had an epiphany. “Why am I wasting my marvelous talent on this small school paper? I could be writing for the big magazines.”
Apparently the editors didn’t agree with her assessment, because none of them bought anything! She began to think she had no talent and her Sunday school teacher had only humored her. Naylor wrote to every editor to whom she’d submitted stories and withdrew them from consideration—planning to burn the whole lot. All of her stories were returned to her, except one. In its place she received a $60 check. The fact that someone who didn’t know her liked one of her stories kept her going. Then she sold another. And another. Today, Naylor has written over 2,000 short stories and 100 books.
Story ideas come to Naylor “like bees at a picnic.” She sees story possibilities in the small, every day things. A trembling, starving dog that followed her home in West Virginia, forced her to put all of her other work aside and write Shiloh. An immigrant on a train, who recalled how frightening his first U.S. train trip was because he didn’t speak English, is the seed for a new book called Emma’s Fortune. There are times when Naylor actually commands herself not to think of any new ideas because they intrude on her current projects.
Naylor is well-known for several successful series. She’s actively adding to “Boys and Girls”, “Alice”, and the “Bessledorf” mysteries, averaging about two series books and one stand-alone book per year. She knows her characters’ personalities intimately and can write their escapades off the top of her head.
Naylor usually writes the first two drafts of her series books on Amtrack while traveling to speaking engagements or school visits. She revels in the uninterrupted time—no phone calls, no email, nothing. Each chapter is written in Naylor’s unique shorthand and immediately copied over so she can read it clearly. After the first two drafts, she types the story into the computer. Her husband is her first reader, followed by her critique group, then her editor. According to Naylor, “an awful lot of work goes into revision. Art is an elusive thing. Sometimes you don’t know why a story’s not right.” Ice (Atheneum, 1995) went through 18 revisions, and a recently sold 500-page novel for adults took 18 years to write. “I never want to read those two books again!” quips Naylor.
According to Naylor, “the best part about writing is the moment a character comes alive on paper.” She doesn’t know how she makes her characters seem so real, but if her fan mail is any indication, her readers strongly identify with Alice, the Malloy girls, the Hatford boys, and Bernie Magruder.
Naylor lives in Bethesda, Maryland with her husband, Rex. When she’s not writing, she loves to snorkel, swim, play the piano, and visit her two sons and their families. But according to Naylor, “I’m not happy unless I spend some time every day writing. It’s as though pressure builds up inside me, and writing even a little helps to relax it.” Naylor assures her readers that she will go on writing as long as she can hold a pencil.