Virginia Frances Schwartz
Profile by Dave Jenkinson.
The advice commonly given to new writers is to write what you know. However, if Virginia Frances
Schwartz ("Everyone calls me Gini"), had followed that counsel, then readers never would have met
the nineteenth century black slaves, Eliza and Phoebe, or the fifteenth century west coast Salish
brother and sister, Nana and Nanolatch, or a Coatian immigrant family living in Ontario in the 1920's
Gini was born on December 14, 1950, in Stoney Creek, a little town in the fruitbelt of southern
Ontario. "When I was growing up there on a small farm, it was a gorgeous place, with acres and
acres of rolling orchards for my playground. My grandfather called it 'a slice of heaven.' There were
a number of influences in my childhood that prepared me for a love of reading and writing, and this
was one of them. There was a sense of expansiveness there, by the shore of Lake Ontario, of
possibility. Beauty and space fed my imagination. I spent every moment I could out of doors. We
walked to the nearest store which was about a mile away. Then the Catholic Church bought a farm
right across from ours and built a church, convent and school. That's where I went to elementary and
middle school with nuns as teachers who were very strict. Later, I was bused into the city of
Hamilton to attend a Catholic high school. In those schools, I had some wonderfully literate teachers
who loved language and introduced me to hymns, Latin, French, poetry and novels."
"Another influence came along when the main library in the county was plunked down in an apple
orchard a block and a half away from us. I loved living so near a really good school and a great
library. The library was built when I was in the fourth grade, and my life changed once that library
came. We were poor and couldn't afford books. In the 1950's, the local availability of books for
purchase was very limited. We only had Woolworths' novels and comic books. I read voraciously.
The basement of that library was the juvenile section, and I read it through like it was candy. By the
fifth grade, after I had read the whole basement, I was moved up to this stairway between the kids'
books in the basement and the adult books on the sunny, upper floor. This was the ‘young adult'
section. The librarian and I made a pact. I had to promise to tell no one about this because my card
was only for ‘juveniles.' That made it seem even more delicious to me. Of course, I used to sneak
up to the adult floor, a place where you didn't see any children. I convinced the librarians there to
allow me to take out the historical fiction and mysteries. The library had a lot of historical fiction,
novels by Taylor Caldwell and Thomas B. Costain. I felt I had reached a secret land. Looking back
now, I can understand why I ended up writing historical fiction. It was the prize at the top of the
"As soon as I went to school, I sensed I was going to become a writer. All the seeds for that were
planted by how and where my family lived. We didn't have a television until I was 12, and so our
main entertainment was telling stories. We had a big extended family, and my grandparents and
parents lived together on the farm in a multi-ethnic neighborhood. Our neighbors were from
Scotland, Ireland, Poland, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Holland. On a Saturday night, if it was summer
time, we'd sit outside in the cool orchard to have our dessert. Perhaps 25 people, our neighbours and
family, would sit around watching the constellations pop out, build bonfires, and tell stories.
Everyone spoke with strong accents, brought delicious foods to share and had oral traditions. Images
of their countries floated in my mind as they spoke. My family was Croatian (my mother); Ukrainian
(my father); and Austrian, because my widowed grandmother remarried when she moved to the
farm. I heard all of these stories in many different languages. I became a listener, a sponge. I wasn't
a talker. I just absorbed it all. By the time I went to school, I had heard so many languages."
"But all those languages confused me. I was hearing Croatian at home and Italian from my
Then, my brother, who was a year older than me, came home from school the first week and said,
'You won't believe it, but they're speaking another language in school!' I was stunned. 'How could
this be?' By the time I went to school though, I was ready for English. It made sense to me. It had
rules, and I made the connection between speaking and writing, something I had not done at home.
My family had no time to read, and they only listened to the radio. There was no written material at
home. When I went to school, I was just fascinated that what came out of your mouth could also be
written down. It was like a magical thing to me."
Following high school, Gini studied English at McMaster University in Hamilton for a year, "but I
didn't like it because it was huge - 500 people in a class - and I felt like I was just swallowed up.
After that, I decided that I wanted to make enough money to go away because I felt that I could no
longer stay in a small community. My boyfriend was at Waterloo Lutheran University, and all my
friends had left home to attend college too. So I worked for a year in a Hamilton library and made
enough money to support myself so I could finally attend college at Waterloo Lutheran. After going
to Catholic schools, it was funny that I went to a Lutheran college. I studied comparative religion and
English literature. I read the 'bibles' of every culture. There were no writing courses available, but
I remember belonging to a writers' circle and to a critique group. I'd have all of these unfinished
works in progress but never the focus to finish anything."
"Then, when I graduated, it dawned on me, 'What kind of job can you get with English literature?'"
Gini initially avoided answering the question by traveling, but then she married and "realized that
I have to make a living and have a job. I was married for about a year when my husband died in a
car accident. So, between his death and not knowing what to do, the juxtaposition of those events
catapulted me out of Canada. I was surrounded by a small community that was very concerned about
me because of what had had happened, and I also had no strong inner sense of direction. I didn't
really know what to do with myself, and so I thought, 'I'll go back to school again.' I applied for a
visa to go to school in New York City where I earned a Master's degree in Nursing."
"As a nurse, I liked to help people, but I didn't like the life style. I worked a lot of nights. I was much
more interested in holistic medicine than the conventional medicine I saw in the hospitals. So, I
studied ‘laying on of hands' and got interested in alternative lifestyles. I began to practice meditation
and yoga, and I became a vegetarian. I was searching to heal my wounds, like my characters --
Frances in Messenger, or Abram in Send One Angel Down. That's how I eventually met Neil,
a New Yorker, who was an ESL teacher and also taught yoga. He suggested, 'Why don't you sub in
my school on your day off and see what it's like?' I tried it. It wasn't life and death like my nursing
job, or tense, just fun. And books surrounded me once again, just like in my childhood. I felt at home
there and in my new country. Neil and I were married, and I began a new career as a teacher. I started
off by teaching fourth and fifth grades but didn't stay there too long because I was bored in the
classroom. I liked getting to know the kids as a 'family,' but I didn't like those four walls. I wanted
to catapult myself somewhere again."
"I was very, very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time because the New York City Board
of Education then began to turn me into a writer. From the early 1980's on, the Board was connected
to Columbia University and Lucy Calkin's 'The Writing Process' program. Many schools signed up
to be a part of her program, and they received grant money to send teachers to be trained in the
writing process. I had just switched schools, but I put my hand up right away. 'I want to learn how
to write. I want to be a writer. Send me! Send me!' So, my school approved my attending Columbia,
and I just fell in love with the way that they taught writing because they trained children to write as
real writers do. Transforming children into writers fed something inside me. I felt I had picked up
where I left off -- that child in me who dreamed of becoming a writer but didn't know how."
"Everything I learned there I applied to myself first and then to the kids in my fourth grade
classroom. Within several years, I became a staff developer in the school, and then my school
applied for a special magnet grant for racial integration. We had to come up with a theme, and a
number of us who loved writing suggested we become a School of Writing and Publishing. I became
the Writing Process Coordinator for the school's magnet program, working with one class at a time
along with the computer teacher, the classroom teacher and a paraprofessional. I also conducted
sessions to help teachers train their students to become writers. We had a lot of grant money, and my
room became a publishing centre. We actually ran off copies of our own books and had sixth grade
monitors trained to do the whole thing. Each year, we had a huge Authors' and Artists' Fair. It was
like a dream come true. It was the best job I ever had. The grant lasted for six years."
"In the Writing Process program, you study authors' techniques and use the picture book genre
mainly to teach elementary school aged students to write. Because of that, I ordered and read every
new book that was published. Our classroom libraries were jam-packed. It was serendipity, one of
those things meant to happen. It's how I became a writer, surrounded by books and a focus on
writing. I started my own daily notebook writing, and then studied at the New School in New York
City where they offer great creative writing courses, at a discount too, if you're a teacher with the
Board of Ed. From there, I joined critique groups on Long Island and then started my own group. I
tried to get published, but the longest battle is to get your foot through that door. It took ten long
years. The biggest step I took was to join The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.
They have up-to-date marketing information and offer great support, including Works in Progress
"Three of my books won the Society's Works-in-Progress Grants. That was encouraging to me as an
unpublished writer. Then, when I won the third grant for Initiation, (then called ‘Salmonwife'),
SCBWI said, "We can't do this again. You've had enough grants. Go out and get published!' And I
thought, 'Well, if it were that easy, I would!' However, one of the judges of those grants was an editor
at Holiday House, and she pursued me for Send One Angel Down, then a work-in-progress. She
had to wait a year for me to finish it, but in the meantime, I gave her If I Just had Two Wings. She
wasn't interested in it. Holiday House is very specific. They wanted first person only with a focus
on voice. I had no idea what voice even meant when I began writing novels. It's something that grew
stronger inside me and that I finally recognized only after years of writing. Based on what I had
learned editing Angel, I worked on Wings for another year. Originally, it was 400 pages before
I edited it down and sent Wings out again. This time, I followed the advice of SCBWI and sent
it to Stoddart who advertised that they were 'looking for strong female characters who are role
models'. They bought it just before Angel was published. In my cover letter to Stoddart, I said,
'My book, Send One Angel Down, is due to come out with Holiday House,' and Kathryn Cole,
then the children's publisher at Stoddart, knew them well, and she was happy to take a chance on
"What I didn't realize with Wings was its potential to reach and appeal to a Canadian audience
because the story concluded in Ontario, the end of the underground railroad. I think Kathryn Cole
realized that. Phoebe did the opposite of what I did. She left the States for Canada. I think a lot of
writing is autobiographical, but I don't recognize it in my own writing until much later. Phoebe is
a lot like me. She was always searching for a better place to be. Wishing consumed her. In my life,
a geographical move has always gone hand in hand with inner growth. It's something that both
Phoebe and I had to do before we could change our lives."
"When Kathryn from Stoddart called up my editor at Holiday House, her first question was, "Is
Virginia black?' I get that question a lot from my readers, and a big part of my public talks is
explaining why a white, middle class woman writes about slavery. I didn't intend to write about
slavery. I just wanted to be a writer. That urge to write a novel surfaced at the time I was teaching
fourth grade. In those days in the New York City school system, we had freedom to develop our own
curriculum. In my classroom, I was teaching kids about slavery which was chapter three in the social
studies book on American history, and the children yawned all the way through it. I thought, 'There's
either something's wrong with the books or with the way I'm teaching.' It was both! Because there
were no good books fiction-wise in the classroom about that period, I started to bring in books from
other libraries to excite the kids and also to acquaint myself about history too. When I was growing
up in Canada, the extent of my knowledge of black history was having a black teacher in high school
and knowing about the depots in Southern Ontario."
"I brought in books like Honey I Love, by Eloise Greenfield, which has a great poem about Harriet
Tubman, in which 'Harriet Tubman didn't take no stuff. Didn't come in this world to be no slave,
and wouldn't stay one either.' We acted out her poem in class, and the kids started to really get into
it. They wanted to know more, and so I read books like Ringgold's Tar Beach and Aunt Harriet's
Underground Railroad in the Sky. I also discovered Julius Lester's heart wrenching book, To Be
a Slave, which is for a junior high audience. We sat on a rug, and I would read parts of that book
aloud. The kids' mouths dropped open. They felt the pain of slavery. The slaves' stories bypassed
their minds and went straight to their hearts. They cried. It was that powerful. And I know that's
when the slaves' voices got inside me too."
"That summer, in one night, I read Alex Haley's A Different Kind of Christmas which is not as
well known as Roots. The book is about a plantation owner's son who's pro-slavery. He doesn't
even question it until he goes to college and meets Quakers, and then he changes his mind. He
transforms himself. He becomes a conductor on the underground railroad. The book stirred me up
so much, I couldn't get to sleep that night. At the time, I was writing daily in a writer's notebook, but
not working on books yet. I would receive whole poems in my head, lines that would come and go.
Sometimes I would write them down, but mostly I didn't. This one night that I read A Different
Kind of Christmas was different. I 'saw' Phoebe's face. It just appeared in my mind. It was really
late, long after midnight, and then I heard the words, 'Phoebe was dark as a shadow and just as
quick,' and it wouldn't stop. It came with such a force, and I thought, 'Oh no. I'm trying to go to sleep
here. What is this?' I knew that I'd better get up and get this down. This was the first time that I did
that. I get a lot of 'visitations' at night like that, and I don't get much sleep because of it. Luckily it
was summer time, and I wrote for about two hours."
"The next morning when I looked at it, I was happy that I had stayed awake and finally written the
words down. I realized it was the beginning of a book. Phoebe's face was so powerful that it stayed
with me. What came out that first time became chapters one and two of If I Just had Two Wings.
Wings was my first book, but it was published second. Wings took a long time because, with
it, I was learning how to write. I picked a hard book for my first book because it's a journey book.
In each chapter, Phoebe and her friends meet new characters and travel to a new place, and it had to
be historically correct. Looking back now, I should never have picked that as my first project. I
worked on it a while and then put it aside. When I sent it off to publishers, they wrote real 'rejection'
letters back, not form letters, to encourage me to keep working on it to get it right. That helped. But
it never seemed to be done. I was almost ready to give up on it when I sent it to Kathryn Cole at
Stoddart. The writing spanned about four years."
"Send One Angel Down came out of the research for Wings when I came across a short
narrative about a slave named Eliza and how she won her freedom. Its characters are imaginary, but
the root details of the story are historical. In this book, which is set on a southern plantation, I wanted
to show the day-to-day life of a slave. It deals with the abuses and degradations that slaves endured.
That abuse is embodied in the characters of a boy named Abram who is so full of worry and sorrow
and of his Aunt Charity who is sexually abused. Angel is based upon this true story from the
Federal Writers Archives. I became fascinated by these stories because they were written in the
slaves' own voices and were so accessible. It took me right back to the storytelling of my childhood.
That's where Julius Lester's To Be a Slave is from too. If you read the original slave narratives
from the archives, they are written in a heavier dialect, and the stories are just incredible. I found
them at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture which is a non circulating research
library in New York City. I have spent whole days there, arriving when the sun is up and leaving
long after it has set. That's where I found the story of Send One Angel Down."
"It was just a little story of about eight sentences, with a loose plot. It stayed in my mind, but I
couldn't entertain it much because I was working on Wings, and so I photocopied it and looked
at it again and again. That's how I know to go with a story - if it never, ever leaves me, and if it
reverberates inside of me. I get a lot of ideas, but I don't have time to explore them all. It's the voice
that cries out the loudest that I listen to. Finally when I felt that Wings was in a 'form,' I would
send it out to a publisher and get another rejection. In the meantime, it would give me three months
to work on Send One Angel Down. When I wrote it, the story about Eliza was told by a true
character called Dr. Daniel Dowdy. I thought that was a real silly name, and I kept searching for a
new name. As soon as I decided that his name should be Abram, the story came. It just started to
gush out. Abram had been waiting a long time to have his say, I guess. I used first person when I
wrote it. This was also a first for me. When you're using first person, voice is more accessible.
Character filters through better and, inadvertently, in a magical way, you're telling your own story
"After a while, Abram wouldn't shut up. He went on for pages and pages! I remember in a writers'
group critique after I read it, they said, 'Oh, Abram needs a life. He needs a girlfriend. He needs some
activity so he won't talk so much.' I thought, 'What's he going to do on a plantation? Nothing much
except work. But what about dancing?' And so he gets into drums. I was into drumming when I was
a teenager. I gave him a girlfriend, Miss Layotte, a Creole girl. None of that was in the first draft.
That's 'layering,' and all those goodies don't come out in the first draft for me. A book keeps changing
and stretching in ways you can't imagine, the longer you live with it."
"During the writing of Send One Angel Down I cried a lot. Slavery was a heavy subject, and I
think I expressed through my books many of my own stories. They were transposed in ways that I
cannot explain. I didn't sit down and plan that, but it happened, and so it was therapy for me to write
those books. When I look at my two books about slavery, in a very strange and mysterious way, they
are a lot about my mother and her life. She was an abused person, and I worked out a lot of things
I wasn't able to talk about to others. Slavery became a metaphor to tell about something I deeply felt.
It was a vehicle for me to express things that I had hidden inside myself. Even my brother, who grew
up in the same household as me, did not pick this up when he read the book although I feel it's right
there, inside the words. Messenger was my way of going back and giving a tribute to my mother.
Most of the story is true except for the way that it ended. In the book, I give her a gift, a different
karma. She ends with this feeling that her life is wide open and she's going to marry Johnny. In real
life, this did not happen. As I was writing Messenger, I had a sense of urgency. Just before it was
finished, my grandmother died. She lived the longest in my family, outliving both my parents. My
grandmother was a vivid presence in my life. She was her own story."
Finding time to write is a challenge for Gini. "My best time is in the summer when I write my first
drafts. I'm very disciplined in the summer, and I write practically every day then. During the school
year, I write on Saturdays for at least four hours. I also just grab little times here and there weekday
evenings, but it's never, ever enough. Writing is an obsession. I do my drafts with No. 2 pencils. I
love them. I write my novels in a big notebook. When it gets really messy, with notes in the margin,
inserts and additions, at that point I'll take out my computer and type a new draft. It begins to take
on a new form then that is exciting to see. When I wrote Messenger though, because those were
my childhood stories, a part of my subconscious, so much came through at once that I couldn't keep
with the writing. With that book, I typed directly into the computer, but then my wrist started to hurt
because I was doing it so fast. So I tape-recorded it from the first draft. That's something I would
normally do towards the end of a book when I feel the manuscript is almost together. I read it out
loud into a recorder, chapter by chapter, and then I lie down in the dark and listen to myself reading
it back. I catch a lot of problems that way. Before I hand a manuscript in to an editor, I always have
to do that. If it's nice weather, I curl up outside on the chaise lounge, close my eyes, and do the
listening in nature."
Initiation had its genesis from listening to the radio. "One day on National Public Radio, I heard
a Kwakiutl regeneration myth about a Salmon warrior, and it haunted me that these warriors believed
that they could change and transform themselves into salmon. I'm fascinated with transformation.
That's what I write about. Native Americans also had this affinity to the natural world that's so
different from today's culture which is materialistic. While I live primarily in NYC, I also have a
farmhouse in a rural area in the Catskills. That's where I love to write. That's where I first began to
write Initiation. I gathered all these books about the west coast and just read. I would go for long
walks and images began to form about that warrior. That was a very rainy summer; it rained every
day. My childhood friend Jean who, at the time, lived in Penticton, BC, said, 'We're bathing in
sunshine out here on the west coast. Why don't you come out?' It was serendipity because there I was
just thinking about the west coast. We booked a flight immediately. While my husband, Neil, and
Jean ran around Vancouver's Chinatown, I went to the Musuem of Anthropology at the University
of British Columbia where there are these ancient totem poles reaching up in high space surrounded
by windows and light. I just sat there beneath them day after day, and I started to hear the voices."
"It was a girl's voice, a pained voice like that in Angel. I said, 'Oh, this is it! I've got to write this
new story,' but I couldn't at the time. I wasn't even published then. That's how far back it went. I
wrote some blurbs down, kept it in my mind, and kept reading, plus Jean would send me any
nonfiction books she could find. Then Neil's childhood friend retired to Whidbey Island,
Washington, and so we started going out to the west coast every holiday, exploring and kayaking.
I could feel how that salmon myth would come from setting, and I was just hooked. I returned as
often as I could to the coast, visiting archives and museums and conferring with First Nations
members in Alert Bay and Port Hardy. During the time I met these natives, several elders had died
during the process of gathering their oral histories. ‘Knowledge will disappear with them,' I was told.
'We must write it down and pass it on to future generations. Ours was an oral tradition only.' When
I wrote Initiation, I wrote it one summer really fast upstate. I wrote it in first person, one voice,
and it seemed to me to be really flat. So it just sat while I turned to other work."
"Then, three years ago, I had a sabbatical and needed to identify a project for the Board's approval.
I decided to work on this novel with a mentor from Empire State College. She was an interesting
teacher and an artist who collected Native American masks. The day I was supposed to begin the
rewrites for this mentor turned out to be September 11, 2001. The world changed that day. The
events of that day forced me to rethink global society, racism, war, and peace. All of my values
seemed to be shaken. I thought I was a peaceful person, but I churned with fear, outrage and even,
revenge. I could not work on the book for seven months. The sabbatical was slipping away. My
mentor kept discussing it with me. I worried it would never be written. But what really happened was
I could not write the same novel I had planned. What it needed was time to incubate and reform
itself. And I needed time to mourn for the innocent ones and to return full circle to my true beliefs.
All of that process infiltrated Initiation without my planning. It was just there whole, ready to be
said, as soon as I set my pencil to the page. I wrote a new beginning for it. It begins with rage and
revenge and ends with forgiveness and atonement. I love novels written in multiple voices and
wanted to try that. I thought of using the grandmother since I was so connected to mine, but then I
said, 'No, this is for children so it's got to be the brother who speaks' I wrote it in two voices, and it
seemed that it lifted it up. It was more mysterious and provides multi dimensions where one person
doesn't know something about the other person. It's like a secret knowledge. I wrote a new draft of
Initiation on that sabbatical."
"Then Stoddart went under, and Wings had sold out all copies and wouldn't be reprinted. I was
beside myself, and I didn't know what to do. I decided, 'I'm not going to worry about it because there
is nothing I can do.' Fitzhenry & Whiteside bought Stoddart and Wings. I had the new manuscript,
Initiation, and they wanted to see it too. The F&W editor is Ann Featherstone who's in Victoria.
She's very lovely, deep, and intuitive. She looked at the manuscript for Initiation and said they
wanted it. And of course, she added, "I want you to do something else with it too.' Kids never
understand this. They think a book comes out whole."
"Ann said, 'You know that Noh character, the slave. She's the most interesting character.' I said, 'I
know, but I don't want her to steal the book.' We both agreed that she had to be more present. In the
initial draft, I didn't put her voice in until nearly the end. Ann said, 'You've got to "up" the voice. It's
got to come earlier because she's so important to the story.' I knew intuitively that Ann was right, but
I also knew that it was going to be a lot of work. It was then November, and I had to finish it by April
and I was working full-time. When I started putting Noh's voice in, the whole story changed because
she altered the dynamics. There was a lot of rewriting because Noh went off and did her own stuff.
To me, she was a very, very compelling character, since I have always had an interest in shamanism.
Because Ann lived on the west coast, she was able to verify many things. For example, I wanted to
use more swimming metaphors in the book because I love to swim, but she told me I couldn't
because the water is so cold. I was also able to bounce a lot of things off Judge Scow, a
Kwakwaka'wakw elder, who reviewed it during the rewrites. I was nervous about that, but he seemed
satisfied that the story had been told with respect for his culture and would give the non-native reader
a better understanding of the values and history of the First Nations people."
"One reviewer said Initiation was a bold thing to do. I don't think it was bold. I had no choice.
When something comes in and wants to be told, and it comes in strong enough and it gives me help
and I hear the words in my head, I go with it. If I questioned everything, I don't think I'd write any
books. I speak in the voice of a slave, a Native American, and an immigrant. I do it from my heart
with respect, research and thought. I live with the ideas for many years. I know voice appropriation
is an issue, but, I accept that imagination is a-cultural and multicultural at the same time."
"Also, I'm a strong believer in the collective unconscious. I believe that there are ideas 'out there,'
and they come to us and want to be said. That is the writer's job, to be the voice of those who cannot
and have not expressed themselves. Writers listen and become the tellers of truth that need to be told.
In my books and in life, I always root for the 'underdog', the one who is left behind, the one with so
much potential that is covered or perhaps crushed, the disenfranchised. There is something about this
kind of character that makes me want to speak out. The fatherless narrator Frances in Messenger.
The captured slave without a voice, Noh. Nana, the girl who cannot follow the ways dictated by the
male hierarchy of her tribe. Aunt Charity, in Angel, the victim of abuse and shame. I think that's
why I wrote about slavery too."
"There are lots of reasons why I wrote about slavery but one is that I know that today's children need
to revisit it. How can they analyze prejudice if they never understood slavery? They need to examine
it because the racial and religious disharmony in our world today threatens to destroy us. Writers can
open up hearts and reveal that maybe people are different and this is one of the reasons why--this is
what happened in the past. Inside, we are all the same, but history has separated us. I know I could
get into a lot of trouble for all that, but I have to take the risk."
"Recently, I've been working on my first contemporary fiction novel for Holiday House. A writer's
supposed to write what they know, and this is my attempt to do just that. I've been a teacher of
writing for about 13 years. I teach all grades from grades 1 through grade 6. I do notebook writing,
but we also make books. I know pretty well how to channel kids into being excited about writing and
reading because reading's a big part of what I do. I have a feeling that I know what goes on in their
minds when they write, what gets them stuck. I see a lot of 'bottom' kids; I see kids with severe
emotional problems who are bright enough to write sometimes but can't; and I see blockages in kids
because they don't have the tools to express themselves. They just have a veil between them and
what they can achieve, and I feel that. I was like that too when I was young. There was a lot more
that I could have done and achieved, but I was introverted and into my own thoughts. I feel that kids
need someone to help them get it out."
"Right now this new novel is called 'Kidwriters,' and it's about how kids learn to write. It's told in
multiple voices. It's about how good writing from quality literature influences them, how lessons
filter through differently with different kids, but also about how kids learn from one another because
I see a lot of that in my classes. If I get through to the toughest guy in the class, and he responds to
me orally, it breaks through a lot of other barriers in the other troubled kids. It's like a wave goes
through the class. If I can get through to them, I'm going to have good writing. Though it's
fictionalized, the book contains tons of my lessons. I use authors like Gary Paulsen and Cynthia
Rylant, and I give all the lessons away in the course of the writing, and so I think the book is really
for teachers too."
With that manuscript off at Holiday House, Gini says, "I'm back to slavery. My editor in New York
is a Quaker. I live in historic Flushing which was founded by the Quakers, and we are surrounded
by historical houses, including the original Quaker meeting house which goes back to the 1600's. It
has such incredible vibes because it was built by the founding fathers who established religious
freedom in New York City. They fought with Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch governor of New
Netherland, to obtain the freedom to practice their own religion, the main reason they emigrated to
America. They met secretly in the woods before they could legally have this meeting house. I can
walk there so I go there frequently. The Quakers right now are very involved in the Peace Movement,
and so I'm following all that. I'm now writing a novel from a white girl's perspective about the
Underground railroad, but it's also a little bit about Quakerism. I don't know if it's going to work out.
You never know. The girl's going to discover Quakerism and the Underground Railroad. It's a
quasi-mystery historical fiction, but it's more of a story about discovery of the self and finding a
place in the world."
"I'm ready now to go back to slavery after having had a break. I've visited the Underground Railroad
depots in southwestern Ontario which happened to be about six hours from where I grew up. As I
said earlier, there was no focus on black history when I was growing up, but now they're designated
historic sites like Uncle Tom's Cabin. The depots seem to be in the middle of nowhere surrounded
by corn fields, and they're probably very unchanged over the years. At Uncle Tom's Cabin, I met his
great-great-granddaughter. There's an awesome feeling there. It's haunting. The first time I visited
the sites, I stayed for about a week. Once, in the Chatham site, which is the depot Phoebe walks to,
I was led around by a tour guide. She was talking and talking and talking. I had traveled all the way
from New York, and all I wanted was to listen to the silence because the corn fields around there are
so so silent. From silence comes the words and images I use to write with. I wanted to absorb what
it was like back then, and so I wandered away and soon found myself standing in a cemetery. Down
at my feet were two tombstones. At my right foot, the tombstone said Phoebe and by my left foot,
the tombstone said Eliza, and those are my characters' names from Wings and Angel. I felt that
I was meant to write those books."
Writing historical fiction requires doing research, and Gini says, "Researching is a bottomless pit.
You have to keep doing it while you're writing. In Initiation, with every second word, the research
came up again. 'Did they have this? Did they have that? Was the floor of their winter huts sand or
wood?' You can't really write if you're always stopping to answer the questions, and so you have to
do in-depth research before you begin and then again after you have a really rough draft. You've got
talk to as many people as you can and read as much nonfiction as you can. The research helps form
the book, but then you have to pick and choose what to use because, if it's too heavy historically, the
kids are not going to read it. I'm not writing history. It's historical fiction, and so it's a softer
approach. I want kids to know, but I want to 'know' too. 'Am I right?' I have to also trust that my
intuition senses some truth, and the research enhances."
"Here's an example of that bottomless pit of research. In Send One Angel Down, I use songs
throughout. When my editor bought the original manuscript, I had only a couple of little songs in it.
I'd found a 'born song' that they sang when a new child was born: 'Go ring them bells. I heard from
heaven today. Go ring them bells.' I had a butter-churning song: 'Come butter, come, the king and
the queen are standing at the gate waiting for some butter and cake. Come, butter, come.' This was
my first book, and this was when I really realized what editors do. My editor worked on it for three
months, and, when she gave it back to me, she said, 'Oh, Gini, I really like those songs, so you've got
to find more. I want a song in each chapter, and I want you to tighten the theme of that chapter
around that song.' I thought, 'Is she crazy? The book is written!' I was planning to go on summer
vacation upstate. To do what she wanted meant going back to the Schomburg because you can't find
slavery songs in just any library. Once I began that next round of research, the book travelled in
unexpected ways. Whole chapters needed to be rewritten, but the book turned out so much better.
I found a song for Miss Layotte that expresses her loneliness, and then I found more angel songs, and
renamed the book. Songs changed the whole thing."
"As I was finishing Wings, (then called ‘Phoebe's Dream'), I was writing one evening when my
husband said, 'There's a program on at midnight tonight on National Public Radio. It's called 'Songs
of Slavery.' I wrote and wrote until midnight and turned it on. It was Bernice Johnson Regan who
has the most incredible voice. She reviewed the whole history of the songs of slavery and how if was
influenced by African traditions and how it, in turn, influenced the blues. This song, 'If I Just Had
Two Wings...,' came on, and I just stopped and said, 'Phoebe's singing this. It's her song!' So I wrote
that song into the book. It became the new title. Just those simple changes affected the whole novel.
It brought a grace into it that it didn't have before. That's how a lot of things happen for me, by
coincidence, and from this book I learned that you've got to continually do the research because you
never know when you're going to need it to enhance what you're trying to say."
"Phoebe's a daydreamer, and so am I. I was a big one as a child. You've got to dream to write books.
I dreamed of being a writer. To me, it was like reaching the other side of the earth. I didn't know how
to get there. As a writer, I spend time slowing down and trying to be in the moment. Practicing
meditation and yoga help me do this. So do long walks across the hay meadows upstate, swimming
laps in the pond on the hilltop, and studying the way clouds pass by overhead, heading far away. I
begin to listen carefully, much the same way I did as a child, to the ideas and words forming inside.
I write fast and keep a notebook beside my bed because the best ideas light up my mind at night. My
characters find me. They have stories to tell. And they seem to know I am waiting for them. I think
you have to have strong wishes and dreams to get somewhere to achieve something. If you don't have
them, what's the drive, what's the force?"
Books by Virginia Frances Schwartz.
- If I Just had Two Wings. Stoddart Kids/Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2001. Grades 5-8.
- Initiation. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2003. Grades 5-9.
- Messenger. Holiday House (Distributed in Canada by Thomas Allen & Sons Ltd.), 2002.
- Send One Angel Down. Holiday House (Distributed in Canada by Thomas Allen & Sons Ltd.),
2000. Grades 6-9
This article is based on an interview conducted in Winnipeg on Winnipeg, February 19, 2004.