Thanks for Asking These Good Questions!
The girls and boys at Cartmel Church of England School in Cumbria presented me with a set of questions that they compiled after doing some research about me and my work. I answered them spontaneously. But they are such good questions I asked for a copy. I thought they might be of interested to other people. I can’t promise the Cartmel kids that my answers are exactly the same, but they should be close enough. To see more about my visit with Cartmel School, check out the News section on the Menu.
I’m happy to hear from people who are interested in my work. You may contact me at my e-mail address. Follow me on Instagram at fgschoonmaker.
What is your favourite book that you have written and edited?
I think that every book is my favourite when I’m working on it. Looking back, I’m very pleased with the Trilogy as a whole—it is the kind of book I like to read when I’m looking for a good book.
What inspired you to become a writer?
I like a good story. We always had family story when I was growing up. My mother read aloud from wonderful books that took us around the world. My father listened, too. They both had a great sense of adventure. My mother was always saying, “That would make a great book.”
Where does your surname originate from?
Schoonmaker is from The Netherlands. The Schoonmakers were among the first settlers in what became New York City. My mother’s name was Shannon and my Grandmothers were Morton and Cody before they were married. So I am a real mixture—we call it the “American melting pot.”
Where do you write your books apart from your dining table?
I write anywhere I can find a space and time to write. Sometimes my computer is on my lap at the airport or on the train. Sometimes I work at my desk. Or maybe I’ll sit in a chair in my living room. I like to take advantage of different locations. When I don’t have my computer, I have my trusty little black notebook with me so I can make sketches or write notes to myself.
How long did it take you to write your first book?
I’m going to think about the Trilogy as I don’t think you’ll be as interested in the books I wrote as a University Professor. I wrote Book 3 of the Trilogy first. The idea came to me many years before. When I finally began writing it took about two years. Now I have had to rewrite it because Books 1 and 2 changed things and I had to make sure everything fit.
When you want to write a book, how do you decide on the subject?
Sometimes a writer is assigned a subject. For example, I was asked to put together a book of the poetry of Emily Dickinson and write an essay about her life. I ended up completing books on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Robert Louis Stevenson for Sterling Press (New York). But with fiction, the subject finds me. I’m interested in something. I wonder “What if…?” If there is a story, I have to figure it out, find out what happened. It is a bit like doing historical research. In the Trilogy historical research was an important part of finding out the story. I had to know what really happened, to the best of our knowledge, before I could really write about what might have happened—the fictional part.
What age did you start wanting to write?
I began “reading” imaginary letters to my brother when we played. I must have been about five-years-old then. When I was in high school I wrote a mystery that appeared in serial form in the school paper—it was complete with a fireplace that had a secret passage leading through an old house.
Have you ever thought about writing a book on your farm life?
All three books in the Trilogy reflect things I know from growing up on the farm. In Book 2, The Red Abalone Shell, you will find a great deal about life on a farm around the time of World War I. I wasn’t alive then, but my grandparents were and there were many things that hadn’t changed so much by the time I was born. I’ve started work on a book that follows a boy all the way across the U.S. on a wagon train. It starts out on a farm in Indiana, so it will tell a lot about farm life in the late 1800s.
What inspired you to write your first book?
My first book, unpublished, was about a rabbit that didn’t know how to be quiet. It was inspired by a school principal (or school head) who got the attention of all the children in the school—about two hundred of them—by holding up his hand and giving them the V for victory or peace sign or, as he called it, “rabbit ears.” He wouldn’t say anything, he’d just hold up the two fingers and it would get quiet. I thought that was great. It got me to wondering about how we assume a rabbit is listening when its ears are up.
The Trilogy started a long time ago when my family and I made a trip all the way across the United States by car. My daughter was about four-years-old then. My Uncle-in-Law in Sacramento, California, told us about how he and his little brother used to travel from Missouri to California every summer. Their father worked for the railroad, so they were put on a train and travelled all by themselves. I thought, “All kinds of interesting things could happen to children alone on the train.” That idea kept growing. It wasn’t until after I retired from being a University Professor that I could really give it my full attention.
Do you prefer writing or editing?
For me they are all the same process. I often have to write before I know what I’m going to write. You might call it “free flow.” It goes through several versions before it feels right. I’m not keen on copy editing, where you have to look at a final manuscript and make sure it is ready to print. But it comes with being a published writer.
Out of all the countries that you have been to, which was your favourite?
There has been something wonderful about every country I’ve been lucky enough to visit. I have met interesting, thoughtful, and kind people. I’ve visited unusual places and eaten food I’d never heard of before. I think I could be happy just about anywhere if I’m not too far from my family. Afghanistan often comes to mind because it is such a beautiful country and people there have suffered so much from war. But then I start thinking about other wonderful places and people, so it is hard to say I have a favourite.
How long does it take for a book to be published?
That depends upon how it is published. A traditional publisher can take about a year start to finish. Independent, small publishers often move more quickly. Publishers who now use digital printing can produce a book as soon as they have the manuscript set. These books are published as “print on demand.” That is, when someone orders the book, whether it is an individual or a bookstore, the book is printed. Self-publishing firms use “print on demand” technology, too. So there isn’t one answer to this question.
Have your books ever been performed on the radio?
I would love that, but I haven’t been so lucky. I did have a wonderful Readers Theatre performance in a church in Clinton South, an area in New York that was known as Hell’s Kitchen in days gone by. I selected key excerpts from The Black Alabaster Box to be read. Kathleen Conry, a professional actor and director did the production and read the part of Celeste. She enlisted Laura Bergquist, a musical director to participate. Laura chose music that went with the time period. In addition, she sang a hymn that was important to pioneers and two of her vocal students sang Shenandoah, a ballad that tells about how pioneers missed the homes they left behind. The performance included seasoned professional actors, new actors, and volunteers. We had lemonade and both vegetarian and venison chilli with cornbread as refreshment. All the money collected from tickets and book sales went to Page Turners, an after school program for kids in what is known as Hell’s Kitchen. It was a lot of fun. So maybe I should write a belated news post on that event?—your question is a good reminder.
How long have you been writing professionally for?
I began writing children’s stories long before I had anything published—probably around 1967. I was teaching 10-11 year-olds then. When I became a University Professor, I engaged in research and writing books, chapters in books, and journal articles, all of which were published. These are all about teachers, schools, and curriculum. Now that I’m retired I’ve been focusing more on fiction and taking another look at some of the stories I wrote before I got so busy in graduate school.