Sue Stauffacher was the self-described class clown in school. Funny and cocky, people though she was impervious to everything because she carefully hid her vulnerable, sensitive side. “People aren’t always what they seem to be,” she says. Today, Stauffacher (pronounced “stoff-ick-er”) finds herself writing about “girls who are tough on the outside, yet soft and mushy on the inside” to help people understand them.
Sarah Kervick (from Donuthead, Knopf, 2003), Harry Sue Clotkin (from Harry Sue, Knopf, 2005), and Althea Gibson (from Nothing But Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson, Knopf, 2007) are three of Stauffacher’s tough-girl characters. Althea Gibson, one of Stauffacher’s real-life heroes, was the first African American tennis player to compete for and win the Wimbledon Cup. In her latest book, Stauffacher describes Gibson as a stickball-playing, basketball-playing, running tomboy who had a knack for finding trouble until someone recognized the possibility lurking within her. Stauffacher, a long time fan of Gibson’s even before penning her picture book tribute, used Gibson as the basis for Sarah Kervick. Like Gibson, Sarah, does not shy away from playground brawls and seems to delight in bullying Franklin Donuthead to do her bidding. Sarah’s softer side is revealed when Franklin discovers her passion for ice-skating.
Although Harry Sue’s beginnings did not stem from the exploits of a groundbreaking athlete, they make for great conversation at a cocktail party. Stauffacher reviewed books for the Grand Rapids Press at the time that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was released. After racing through J. K. Rowling’s 800-plus pages in 30 hours, she dashed off a review and sent it to the newsroom. The eight-character “slug” she used to identify her review was HarrySue—Harry for Harry Potter, and Sue for herself. When she saw the slug in print, she thought, “I wonder what a character named Harry Sue would be like?” Stauffacher’s thoughts shifted to the at-risk kids she worked with and the Wireman comics she wrote for older kids with below grade-level reading ability. Her writer’s imagination came up with a tough-as-nails only-child of two convicted felons who longs to be sent to prison to be with her mother.
Harry Sue’s story it about hope and how what you want may not be what you need.
In a way, Stauffacher still plays the part of the class clown through her characters.Donuthead was born after September 11, 2001, after the devastating terrorist attack that introduced America to the fear with which many Middle Eastern and European countries already live. Franklin Delano Donuthead allowed Stauffacher to laugh at her fear because Franklin is afraid of everything. Around that time, Stauffacher “had her antennae out” for random safety-related statistics. Women’s magazines were fertile ground for the hazardous consequences of bee stings and sedentary death syndrome. But John C. Myre’s book, Live Safely in a Dangerous World, was a gold mine of information. She says, “It was written by a grown-up Donuthead!”
Franklin is compulsively tidy, quotes numerous safety statistics, and eats Bran Buds for breakfast. His best friend is Gloria Nelots, the chief statistician for the National Safety Department in Washington, D.C., whom he telephones at least once a week. Gloria has already offered Franklin a job when he graduates from college. “His saving grace,” she Stauffacher, “is that he doesn’t see what’s wrong with himself.”
Stauffacher majored in creative writing in graduate school at the University of Arizona and was trained as an adult fiction writer. “Books for kids were considered a genre,” she says and she was not allowed to write her thesis for children. “The longing to write for young people has always been there,” she says. After college, she wrote for newspapers and magazines before attempting novels for children. Stauffacher’s stories begin in her bed in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “I started when the kids were babies. My mind was so distracted after I left the bedroom,” she says, that she found she never sat down to write. She began keeping a notebook by her bed and wrote the initial draft of her stories during the early morning hours. Stauffacher says, “I was in a half-dream state and could really inhabit the story.” She freely admits that what makes this part of her writing process work is a supportive husband who is willing to get up with the kids and get their days started.
While the initial draft might be described as an organic awakening to the story and its characters, Stauffacher says the “revision process is bloody. I’m willing to cut that sucker up!” Before Harry Sue was published, Stauffacher scrapped the last 100 pages and rewrote them. In the first version, Harry Sue was convinced that her mean grandmother was hijacking the letters that her mother wrote to her from prison. After a read-through, Stauffacher’s husband said he never thought there were any letters—a comment which sent Stauffacher spinning in a whole new direction requiring additional research and a new ending.
“I’m not happy writing unless it’s pretty risky for me,” says Stauffacher. She pushes herself to explore the emotions and limits of her characters so their true stories emerge. “That’s where I like to be because it makes it feel alive!”