In 1993 a certain New York Times article caught author Katherine Applegate’s eye. The piece, called “A Gorilla Sulks in Mall as His Future Is Debated,” focused on the B & I Shopping Mall in Tacoma, WA, where a 500-pound gorilla languished while the humans around him determined his fate. Something about this ape named Ivan lodged itself deep into the crevices of Ms. Applegate’s brain. It wasn’t until more than a decade had passed that she returned to it. During that time, she’d written a pair of Harlequin romance novels, the enormously popular “Animorphs” series (Scholastic), a multitude of books for children, and the verse novel Home of the Brave (Feiwel & Friends, 2007). After agreeing to write two novels for HarperCollins, she rediscovered Ivan’s tale. “I found it so tragic and so compelling, but honestly, I was not sure it would work as a book,” she says. “I really had my doubts.”
Now the newest winner of the Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children, Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan has brought new attention to an author who has worked tirelessly on books for children for decades. At 56, she and her husband, fellow novelist Michael Grant, live with their two children (Jake, age 15, and Julia, 13), a cat named Lightning McQueen, and a dog named Stan (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Bob, the dog in her Newbery winner) in Tiburon, CA. Says Applegate, we “can see San Francisco, Alcatraz, and Angel Island from our porch, unless it’s foggy.”
Funny and modest to a fault regarding her recent Newbery victory, Applegate spoke with me less than a week after her historic win.
What was the first thing you ever published?
I really made my way up through the trenches, and the first thing I published were psychology quizzes in YM magazine—I think it was called Young Miss. It was kind of like Seventeen magazine. So I did a lot of that, and the first book I published was a Harlequin romance. I’m almost certain that I will be the first Newbery winner to have published two Harlequin romances.
That’s a scoop!
You know, I’ll tell you something. They are very hard to write. You follow the formula. It was a really steep learning curve. And after that, I did a bunch of ghosting. So again, I was learning to write to a specific formula. I did, I think, around 17 “Sweet Valley Twins” [books].
Was following a formula valuable?
I think it’s a little like basic training. It taught me the discipline part of the writing. The stuff you want to get away with and you can’t, the continuity errors, and the inconsistencies in characterization. I think for me, it was a very helpful tool. The one thing I never really learned well was how to meet a deadline.
Did it feel natural to you to write for a gorilla?
Well, I have to say, I’m fascinated by animals, and I’ve always been fascinated by animal communication and experiments with primate communication, but I’m not a gorilla person. I’m much more comfortable with your basic Labradors. [Gorillas are] not cute and cuddly, and I think they’re profoundly intimidating because of their size and their strength. And that pensive sort of impenetrable gaze of theirs.
So I went into it not knowing. I didn’t know a thing about gorillas. I had had a gorilla in “Animorphs” that we’d use occasionally as one of the characters. That was back in the day before the Internet, and oh, man, it would have been so much easier to write with Google around. So, I’m sure it was rife with inaccuracies, but I had this nonfiction library that Michael and I used to try to keep track of data bits about animals. But we were writing a book a month, and the time frame for doing a lot of research about any given animal was pretty limited.
Did you consider writing Ivan as a nonfiction book?
Well, I tried—my attempts at nonfiction have not been entirely successful. Once I attempted a book about elephants on the savanna, and I got maybe two chapters into it, and I realized I was starting to make things up. [Laughter]
I was grossly unqualified to be writing nonfiction. So I pretty much knew going into Ivan that there was no way I should go near nonfiction per se. But I could follow pretty precisely what actually happened, and I did go to the Tacoma Public Library archives—they were so helpful—with my kids in tow, and dug through old clippings about Ivan. It was fascinating. I went back to the strip mall where he had lived, and they have this semi-shrine there. Once a year, they open up his cage, I think, on his birthday and let people walk through, and there were tons of clippings and tons of touching pictures from little kids and that sort of thing. So I got a pretty good picture of what his life was like.
Why did you decide to write the story in a sort of prose poetry form? Was it just to give Ivan a believable voice, or was there another reason?
I am not entirely sure. I tend to look at structure before I look even at plot, which is probably why plot is a struggle for me. I think about what the book looks like and how it feels. Maybe that discipline is helpful for me in terms of finding the right words.
But when I look at big sprawly novels, sometimes… my husband just finished [writing] 500 pages. I marvel at it, because it’s so symphony and I’m so chamber music. I just don’t think that way, and it seemed really appropriate that since I was working with an animal voice that it would be small and poetic.
But that’s kind of how I write anyway, left to my own devices. That’s why I love Twitter. That 140-character thing I can deal with, but Facebook to me is like, “Oh, my God, that’s so much more work, I can’t go there.”
Do you see yourself writing another novel in the same style?
You know, I think that there’s a danger in writing the same thing. Home of the Brave was definitely free verse, and I’ve done a couple of picture books where—well, you know yourself, picture books by definition are poetry.
They’re the haiku of children’s literature, yes?
I think I lean in that direction, but I don’t want to be redundant. I’ll have to see how it evolves. Right now, the book I’m working on is in sort of choppy blocks… bigger than Ivan, but smaller than a typical middle grade [novel].
You chose to put this story in the first person, which has made all the difference, I think, for your readers. Did you also consider other ways of telling the story?
Oh, yeah, I tried everything. I definitely wrote it in third. It seemed too distant. I wrote it in different kinds of first-person voices. I wrote it in big blocky narrative pieces. That seemed like too much. Name another way I could have written it, and I bet you I did it.
Was Anne Hoppe always your editor at HarperCollins?
Yeah, and you know Ivan would not be Ivan without Anne. Honestly, it was the most collaborative and fun adventure I’ve ever had with an editor. I was working on another animal fantasy, actually, and struggling with it. Anne finally looked at me, and she said, “You know, you really want to write that gorilla book, don’t you?” I said, “Yeah, I really do.”
I attempted to be very journalistic and follow the true story of the real Ivan, but it was a pretty passive story. There wasn’t a lot happening. When I had originally submitted the concept to her, I had envisioned a fictionalized element, and Anne said, “Look, why don’t you go back and try it, because right now it’s really short and I’m going to have a hard time selling a template.” So, I went back to my original idea, and it really fell into place. Anne loves words the same way I do, and so we could go back and forth for three days trying to get a sentence just right. I love that. She’d say, “No, that’s not quite right.” “OK, we’ll try again.” And when you have that experience with an editor, you just feel so lucky.
The real Ivan passed away on August 20, 2012. It must have been kind of bittersweet publishing Ivan the same year that he died. I know you didn’t get a chance to meet him, but you attended his memorial.
Oh, that was so touching! And I almost didn’t go because, you know, announcing to the family that I’m jumping on a plane to go to a gorilla funeral can be met with a certain amount of concern. But it was really amazing.
There were maybe 100 people. There were people from all over the country. His keeper was there and a primatologist who had been vital in getting him moved and people who just loved him. People came who had grown up seeing him in the malls when they were little kids going in every Sunday and seeing him, high-fiving the glass….
They had a big wall with letters of tribute, many from children. His photo was in the middle and people talked about their experiences with him. He was apparently quite a quirky guy. Ivan hated to get his feet wet. He did not like dampness, and when he went outside, one of his quirks was that he would take a burlap coffee bag, which were regularly supplied to the zoo by a local coffee supplier, and put it under his butt and under his hands. He would slide around on the ground and get around that way.
So hanging up was a burlap bag to signify his passing. It was lovely to see that a gorilla whose life had been so tragic in so many ways still had brought together all these humans.
I was looking at the villains in your novel and in this year’s Newbery Honor books, and I have to say, they’re usually very black-and-white. In Splendors and Glooms, the bad guy could not be more evil. In Three Times Lucky, the villain is pretty bad. And in Bomb, he’s Hitler. But Mack, who’s Ivan’s keeper, is the least black-and-white. He’s got the most gray. He’s the most human, I’d say, out of all the baddies. Where did he come from?
I really, really struggled with that, and thought about that a lot because I have not met the real live people who were involved with Ivan’s life. But I am convinced from what I’ve read that the feelings about him were very complex. It was a nuanced and complicated affair. I think they probably loved him very much in their own way.
I know that one of Ivan’s caretakers, who had worked there for quite a while, traveled to see Ivan when he was reacclimated at Zoo Atlanta because she was a figure that he knew. And, you know, I think kids are very capable of understanding nuance and of grasping that life is more gray than black-and-white. It was so important for me to get that across.
One of the things that I’ve heard about your book is that it’s an animal book for people who hate animal books. And Nina Lindsay, who blogs at SLJ ’s “Heavy Medal,” even went so far as to say of it, “the animal’s gestures feel true and vivid and consistent so that I believe in each character as the animal they are.” Did you turn to anything for animal inspiration? Did your pets sneak into the story in any way?
Well, Bob, a dog who is a small sarcastic sort of sidekick to Ivan, was inspired in part by my own little lap dog. I used to have big galumphy mutts around the house and this dog, who in my home is known as Stan, is a little Chihuahua mix with a deformed paw. And he’s kind of bratty and yappy—all the things you would expect from a little dog. He actually served as a wonderful inspiration for Bob.
Do the illustrations of Bob resemble Stan?
That was what was so remarkable, the sketches came back from Patricia Castelao, and I thought they were so wonderful! I loved the way she managed to make Ivan substantive and accessible and almost cute because, let’s face it, that was not an easy task. But when I saw the dog, I went, “Oh, my God, that is Stan!”
Had she seen pictures of him?
No, no. It was just a remarkable coincidence.
So, the story everyone wants to hear is the story of getting “the call” from the Newbery committee.
Well, I was in a Residence Inn in Richmond, Virginia. My sister had just turned 50, and we were celebrating. My daughter Julia was with me and she had a really lousy bug and a fever so I had decided to stay over another day. I was busy Googling Expedia, trying to figure out what I was going to do plane-wise, and I looked over and the phone rang. It was around 9:30. I saw Seattle, Washington, on my iPhone, and I thought, “Seattle?” And then it clicked and my heart sort of stopped, and I picked it up and when they said “Newbery Medal,” honestly I thought there must have been some clerical error. I think I said, “Are you sure?” I was just sort of stunned. I’m not sure how long I sat there silently just blinking in disbelief. But I finally said, “This is the coolest moment since I gave birth to my son and adopted my daughter,” and there was a long pause, and then I forgot that I hadn’t mentioned marrying my husband. I quickly added that. There was some laughter. Then they said, “Are you sure there aren’t any other life events you want to add?”
You weren’t even aware it was that day?
I hadn’t really—I think it was probably a nice thing to have been traveling and doing other things because it had sort of left my radar, which made it even more of a shock. I don’t think I’ve quite absorbed it. That it’s for real.
Actually Michael, I believe, tweeted after the announcement: “I am married to the 2013 Newbery winner who will now make me do dishes for the rest of 2013.” True or false?
You know, it’s funny, someone read that to me in an interview I was doing. I hadn’t seen it, but I was thrilled and delighted. And I have to tell you, I came home last night and did the dishes. So there you go.
Elizabeth Bird (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a children’s librarian at the New York Public Library and blogs at “A Fuse #8 Production” on SLJ’s website.