Q&A with author Margaret Peterson Haddix
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
As an author, how would you define the power of art?
Art has the power to uplift, inform, inspire, call to action, and—particularly with literature—arouse empathy. I don’t think society can survive without empathy, so I see that as especially important.
On a lighter note, art also has the power to entertain and provide an escape from a grimmer reality. Especially during challenging times, that’s valuable as well.
How has your relationship with storytelling evolved over time?
As a kid, I was mostly interested in storytelling for the stories themselves. In my early years as a writer, whenever I was asked, “What’s your goal for this book?” I would say, “Just to tell a good story.” It’s now been more than 20 years since my first book came out, and as I’ve heard from readers who grew up on my books, I am delighted when they tell me they learned to be brave because of my books, or that they chose their careers because of my books, etc. So I do think more about the messages embedded in my stories now. But, I think my first goal still has to be to tell a good story.
How has a piece from literature impacted you and why?
Until I was in seventh grade, I don’t remember reading any story without a happy ending. There might have been lots of adversity on the way to that ending, but the ending was happy. Then, in my seventh-grade literature class, we were assigned to read John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl,” and I remember being horrified at how unfair everything was in the story; it felt like the family at the heart of the story really had no chance. Later that same year, I read LES MISERABLES. Jean Valjean also faced a society where everything was stacked against him, but the themes of hope and love, and the power of redemption and second chances, are threaded throughout that story. I’m pretty sure I would find the book overwrought if I reread it now, but as a seventh grader I saw LES MISERABLES as the answer to my dismay over “The Pearl.” And, I think it helped shape my attitude toward both how to tell sad stories and how to deal with difficulties in life. I think it’s dishonest to pretend that there isn’t going to be misery for everyone at some point in their lives; it’s dishonest to tell stories where problems that are truly and painfully hard are too easily overcome. But, both in life and in stories, it’s important to look for and hold onto the glimmers of hope, the glimpses of light in the worst darkness.
Why do you believe people react differently to literature or to different works of art? What role do you believe literature plays in our lives?
Every reader brings different life experiences to any reading or viewing, so we all see through a different filter. If a piece of literature doesn’t speak to you, it may just be that you’re not the right audience. Or, it might be that it’s just not the right time in your life for it to be meaningful. But, it is a joy to see a piece of literature really connect with a reader. The right piece of art at the right moment can truly be life-changing.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
It is very important to have a diversity of voices telling stories, and it’s important to read a diversity of stories. Because we’re all seeing through different filters, I think it’s also important not to be too dismissive about stories that don’t speak to one reader, but are deeply meaningful for someone else. I wish for everyone that they find at least one book that speaks to them—ideally, I wish that everyone could find many books like that!