Children's Author Discusses Imagination in Stories and Life

Author Rutkoski talks about the books and advice that shaped her.

This past summer a new novel burst onto the children’s literary scene. A story set in an enchanted world where man can manipulate matter with only his mind, “The Cabinet of Wonders,” written by Marie K. Rutkoski, relates the story of a 14-year-old girl named Petra who seeks to recover her father’s eyes from the prince of Bohemia. This past Tuesday, Rutkoski returned to Harvard, where she earned her Ph. D., and spoke with The Crimson about the limits of fantasy, the maddening appeal of Henry James, how Mercator globes have influenced her work.

The Harvard Crimson: You say that you grew up with three younger siblings and that you used to tell them a lot of stories. Were there any that resembled “The Cabinet of Wonders?”

Marie Rutkoski: Not in terms of things that I told my siblings. There are certainly stories that I used to tell myself as a kid that did influence “The Cabinet of Wonders.” There’s a scene in the novel where there’s a flood that bursts through the castle, and one of my favorite things to do when I was a kid at school was imagine what school would be like if there was a sudden flood. It was sort of fun; I imagined sitting on a floating desk and paddling away. So I guess I was used to the idea of looking at an ordinary theme and imagining it as extraordinary.

THC: When you write fantasy and you ask us to suspend disbelief, how do you know the limit?

MR: It should be credible, and I tried very hard to make at least the possibility of its existence seem real. For example, for Astrophil [a mechanical, magic tin spider that is Petra’s constant companion], I mention how metal amplifies sound, so that Astrophil can actually speak and even shout. He also eats oil. When you are “world building,” people will oftentimes judge how well you built your world. They want to know: Is the culture believable? Does it feel like it has a history? I try very hard to pay attention to details.

THC: How did Harvard influence your work?

MR: Research on the Renaissance. One of the things that always fascinated me about the Renaissance was that it was a time both of great scientific discovery and also of superstition and belief in magic. And so it was a period in which Galileo invented the telescope, but also a time when hundreds were burned at the stake because people thought they were witches. I would come across strange little details, and I don’t know how much people believed in them or not, but for example, in the Renaissance people had this expectation that children had the potential to be magical creatures, and that was something I was really interested in.

THC: You’ve said that during your time at Harvard you read many books that were so beautiful you “cried and laughed and raged.” What were some of these books? Were those sources of inspiration for your own writing?

MR: There were a few books that made me do all three—for example, “Portrait of a Lady.” Reading Henry James always makes me so upset. I love Henry James, but at the same time you want to take his characters by the shoulders and shake them and say, “Wake up!”

THC: Is there anything that someone said to you about writing that really stuck with you all these years?

MR: [James Allen McPherson, who teaches at the University of Iowa,] was the first person who really pushed me to think about not just how you write, or the elements of creative writing, but also why you do it. What are you trying to accomplish by writing whatever is possessing you at the time? I guess one of the most magnificent things a novel can do is to change your perspective on the world, and to give it some sense of wonder, and that’s what I find so exciting in writing fantasy, especially fantasy for children. Because already I think children have a very special and unusual way of seeing the world. I mean, I thought when I was a kid that I could communicate with ghosts by using my grandfather’s old Underwood typewriter, and I thought that if I didn’t put paper in it I could somehow type letters to the dead. I guess what really excites me is the prospect of [cultivating] a sense of the strange and the wondrous.

The second was something that [English professor] Gordon Teskey said in a lecture. He was talking about how with poetry or literature or art it’s a little bit like taking a tree and making it into a table. The table is completely different from a tree, but in some ways it reveals the very heart of the tree, because you can see the grain of the wood in a way that you can’t when the tree is living and has bark. This is what art does. It takes nature and somehow reveals its very essence through craftsmanship.

THC: You teach during the day and write at night. How you do transition between those two aspects of your life? How do you balance them?

MR: It can be difficult. But on the other hand it can be really rewarding. For example, because I was preparing a class to teach at Harvard, I happened to go to the basement of the Lamont Library and saw the Mercator globes, and as soon as I saw [them] I knew I just had to put them in my book. And they became so important that the title of my second novel actually became “The Celestial Globe.” I tend to be magpie-ish. I see something pretty, and whether it be [an object] or an idea, I think, “I want to keep it! How can I put that in [my novel]?”

THC: Any advice for aspiring writers?

MR: If the right story doesn’t come to you now, it’s okay. You have many years ahead of you. Somewhere down the road there will be a story you were meant to tell. You just have to have faith.

—Interview conducted, condensed, and edited by Naomi C. Funabashi.