& A with Margaret Sutton
From an interview at the University of Wisconsin
June 23, 1984
My question has to do with that sort of subconscious motive one has for writing.
Starting in the 1930s, you were working in a stenographer pool, with some male
boss up there, I suspect ~ do you feel, looking back at it, that your writing
about this Judy Bolton, a young woman who was dealing with the real world, had
something to say for young women of your time who were encountering the world,
going into the work force for the first time and confronting the male world on
its own terms? Was that part of your reason for writing about Judy, do you think?
No, I don't think so. I wrote about Judy because Judy was a part of me. I had
Judy from the time she was a spool (Judy Bolton evolved from an empty thread spool
which live-year-old Margaret changed into "a real little girl who had come from
Jupiter to play with me when my brother and sister were away at school.") and
I played when I was a tiny little girl. She grew up with me. I didn't realize
it. There were a lot of things that were going on in my subconscious that I didn't
realize. I was born with that story telling ability, I guess, because I started
telling little stories about my spool people.
I wanted to know if you felt. even subconsciously, that you had something to say
for young women especially who were going to have to deal in a competitive world,
show them they could do things that men could do.
Well, I was conscious of a feminist movement back then because, of course, we
were flappers and we were looked down upon by our Victorian parents and teachers.
After the [First World War) there was this change: girls had
gone into men's jobs. I went into the printing trade. I was only a year as a stenographer,
and then I went into the printing trade. I discovered that I was a strike breaker,
but I didn't know it. I did a lot of things because I knew so little about them.
For instance, if I'd known about the Stratemeyer Syndicate I probably never would
have attempted to write a series of books. I thought that Alice B. Emerson and
Carolyn Keene and all the rest of them were real people. And that was quite an
eye-opener when I found out they were just house names.
Don't you think that gives your books a special quality, the fact that they were
written by a "real" person who cared about the stories from beginning to end?
Well, I think that's the only kind of books we ought to have, really, because
I don't believe in companies like the Stratemeyer Syndicate. I'd like to see them
right out of business. Well, naturally ~ they killed Judy. I mean, if it hadn't
been for the Syndicate ... the Syndicate now has a monopoly on series books. People
ask why (series books) are dying. I think that's why.
Then Harriet Adams tried to tell people that she had written all the series,
but I knew very well it wasn't true, because I was there and I know she wasn't
writing when I first started writing.
I think this may be the demise of the series books. I think maybe they're doing
it themselves by writing such bad books that nobody will read them. I don't know.
But I'm very unhappy about the state of series books.
I came so close to getting Judy back into print. Harlequin
Books called me up from Canada. They were thinking about putting out a mystery
series, and then, for some reason or another, they've changed their minds. And
Scholastic Book Service was so close that my agent congratulated me, and they
suddenly changed their minds. Why? I don't know why. But there's something working
against you. I've seen it; it happens. It's really working against her [Judy].
She competes with Nancy Drew. I know that she was deliberately put out of print
because of Nancy Drew.
There certainly ought to be room for two such series.
I would think so. But, I read an article about Stratemeyer Syndicate, and they've
done that with other authors. Percy Keese Fitzhugh, for instance. His books began
to sell equal to the Stratemeyer books, and they deliberately put him out of print.
They do that. They want a monopoly, and they have one right now. I think we have
to do something about that. I don't know what; maybe stop buying them.
Did you ever write a Judy Bolton that wasn't published?
Number 39, The Strange Likeness. I did start it.
I may as well tell you what The Strange Likeness
is about. Judy, in the book, was going to go to Panama to follow her husband,
because he'd been sent there on an assignment and she felt left out. So she goes
to Panama and follows him, and discovers that he's on a secret assignment and
she can't even admit that she's his wife. So she has to live with a family in
Panama until he's free to see her.
Well. I went to Panama to visit my daughter when her husband
was stationed there, and that was in the '60s. They were having riots. Peter would
have gone down there to observe what was happening, and he knew it was dangerous,
so he wouldn't have taken Judy with him. But she comes down. And by the way, she's
pregnant. 'Cause I got tired of putting off Judy having a baby. They (the publishers)
kept telling me, "She can't have a baby, it'll make her seem too old." She really
wants to have a family. Well, in the end of this book she has twins. Peter and
Pam. I had it all in my mind, but I never really wrote more than the first few
chapters of it because they said they didn't want any more Judy Boltons.
So I tried to make Judy into a girl named "Rhonda". Came close,
'but it wasn't Judy. It was hard to do. I hated spoiling it. So I just never finished
Do you think that had something to do with the publishers' feeling that once Judy
had children that the game was over?
Well, why should it? They never gave me a chance to wind up the series. you see.
They killed it, and made me break my promise to children.
One of the ways in which Judy is different from Nancy is that she goes through
the whole maturation process. She didn't stay at one age.
I wanted Judy to become a mother, but the publishers wouldn't let her.
Other series characters had children.
Oh, yes, Pollyanna has children, and Anne of Green Gables has children. Ruth Fieldinq
had children. There was Ruth Fielding and Baby June, and Baby June got kidnapped.
That was a thrilling story. Dorothy, my daughter, was reading the Ruth Fielding
books. See, the Nancy Drews weren't out yet when I first started writing the Judy
Boltons, so they couldn't have been a pattern for Judy 'cause they weren't published
yet. I'd been reading the Ruth Fieldings, and some of them were pretty bad. They
had a lot of dialect in them. I avoided dialect pretty much.
Judy was the only one that did grow up, since Ruth Fielding.
Oh, Nancy Drew jumped from 16 to 18. And. of course, the Bobbsey Twins don't grow
up. They may have grown a couple of years. Their dog got old and died; I never
could understand that. Well, I shouldn't make jokes on the series books, but some
of them really were a little far out.
One thing I noticed about series books is that very often they seem to aim at
what seems to be a prescribed length. Did your publisher tell you that the books
should be a certain length?
Not in the beginning. And then [I was told] that my books were a little harder
to edit than the Nancy Drews, and I said, "Why?" Then I was told how they were
doing them. And I said, "Well, I could do it that way, if I'd ever been told."
They had a formula in mind.
Well, they would type the Nancy Draws up page for page, so that they would appear
exactly as they appeared in the printed books. Well, then I started doing that,
and it really made it easier to visualize them on the page.
Would You tell us something about Pelagie Doane?
Oh, yes. Pelagie was a dear friend. I first met her when she did the jacket for
The Invisible Chimes. That's one of the most beautiful of the jackets.
I was so impressed with that jacket that I asked the publishers it I could take
it home to show my family. Dorothy had a brand new wristwatch, and she'd broken
it. And I was on Cloud Nine, going home with this thing to show my family and
I came in through the door and my husband was really yelling at Dorothy for breaking
her wristwatch and Dorothy was crying and the dishes were sitting there waiting
for me and I thought, "Uh-oh. Here I am a great author with all this going on
nobody appreciates it, and..." I dropped from Cloud Nine very fast. I realized
that I had the same problems that other people do, even though I just signed a
contract and had this beautiful picture [dust jacket art].
But the feeling of being on Cloud Nine didn't go away altogether.
That's when I first met Pelagie, and then she became a very
good friend, and we used to invite her to parties, and ~ I think I told this story
before: One time she came over when my son Tommy was little, and heard his bedtime
story, and asked if she could write it down for her. I'd just make it up as I
went along. A year later she called up and said, "I sold our book." I said, "Our
book? I didn't know we had a book." She'd illustrated the story and made a cute
little book that was published; it was a little stocking-filler book. Very cute
little book; wish I had a copy of it. My son has his copy, but that's all there
is in the family now. That's what happens: authors give all their books away,
and then they don't have them anymore.
Did you have a formula that you followed
I never think of a book as having a formula. I don't work that way I do plan my
books ahead of time; I plan them and write out a plot. As a matter of fact, Grosset
and Dunlap insisted on that,
You can't say that if you've read one Judy Bolton, you've read
them all because the plots are very different. For instance, when I wrote The
Name on the Bracelet, they told me I couldn't use that plot because it involved
mixed-up babies in a hospital, and it had never been used. They weren't very much
for using plots that had never been used before. But I had a lot of original plots,
and I saw them copied by the Syndicate. As soon as I did the original plot, then
they'd come out with something similar.
Do you have a favorite Judy Bolton?
I don't have a favorite.There are some that I know aren't quite as good as others.
For instance, The Vanishing Shadow wasn't quite as
well written because I didn't know about viewpoint; I'd never studied writing,
and I'd shifted over the viewpoint quite frequently in that book.
But didn't the books have a special quality to them that had to do with personal
incidents they were based on?
Yes. They all had something. You think of the book, and ask me what the real thing
that suggested it was, and I can tell you.
The Haunted Attic~
When we moved to town [when I was a child] we moved into this house. and there
was a little thing in the ceiling where you went up into the attic, and we went
up there and we actually did find an old bird cage and an old packet of love letters,
and we actually did find out who wrote the love letters, So that much of it was
actually true. And then of course I used the "What If" technique. "What if there'd
been jewels hidden in the tree?" and "What if [the woman] that lived there before
was a fence for a bunch of crooks?"
Well, actually, the house did have a bad reputation. She wasn't
a fence for a gang of crooks, but she was not a very nice woman. I remember when
I was a little girl, these men came to the door, and my mother practically shut
the door in their faces, and said, "A decent family lives here now!" And I said,
"Mama, why were you so rude to those nice men?" She said, "They weren't nice men.
Don't ask any questions about it." But I figured out later that the house had
a bad reputation, and that's why my father got it so cheap.
The Invisible Chimes: that was Dorothy's favorite. That
was the one that was based on the hiding place that she, herself, found under
a floorboard in her room. The Seven Strange Clues was based on when our
school burned down. We never did find out who set the fire, but, of course, Judy
I did want to say one thing in closing. The Reader's Digest,
in July, 1951. had an article: Acts of Faith in a Time of Peril". The part that
I liked in this was, "We have a responsibility to preserve the treasures of the
spirit, which we hold in trust from the past. There must be no break in the chain
by which what we most cherish is transferred to the future."
Well, I've cherished the series book. I hope it lives. I hope
that this isn't a memorial service for it. I want to see it live, and if there's
anyone here who writes ~ or wants to write ~ series books, I want to encourage
them. Because I do think it has a future. I think eventually children themselves
are going to demand a good series. And there has to be another good series. I
won't be writing it, because I'm 81 years old. After all, I think one of the reasons
Grosset took my series was because I was so young.
I don't want to end on a note of bitterness, though. I just
want you to know that I do cherish the books, that I loved writing them. I loved
the feeling that my experiences went into other lives. that they weren't lost.
I don't know exactly how to express it, but I feel so grateful to my readers.
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