Where do your stories come from?
People ask me this all the time. My answer is that they come from my life. No, my stories aren't autobiographies but they do reflect my feelings about people I have known, places where I've lived, events in my life. I was one of four children, I grew up, married and had five children. So my stories are often about family life. We moved a lot when I was a child and I moved from one country to another when I married, so my stories are often about leaving home, getting used to new places, new countries. Twice in my life I have lived in very old houses, so I have written about old houses and long-ago times.
When I was a child , I lived in a farmhouse in Norwich, Vermont that was built in 1792 but I am getting ahead of myself. I'll go back a few years from that house and start at the beginning.
I was born, Janet Louise Swoboda in Dallas, Texas on December 28, 1928. Both my parents were New York Americans of German ancestry. We lived in Texas because my father had a job there. I don't remember anything about Texas because we moved to New Jersey when I was six months old. Two years later we moved to that eighteenth-century farmhouse in Vermont.
The years between 1929 and 1939 were hard years in the United States and Canada. They were the years of the Great Depression when men were tramping along the roads and hitching rides on freight trains, hoping to find work in distant towns because there was no work to be found at home. My father was lucky to find work in the town of Hanover, across the Connecticut River from Norwich. Unlike so many people in those sad times, we were never hungry.
Stories you might like to read about The Great Depression:
Hobo Jungle by Dorothy Joan Harris (Canadian)
Not a Nickle to Spare by Perry Nodleman (Canadian)
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul (American)
Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry by Mildred Taylor (American)
The Dust Bowl by David Booth (Canadian)
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse (American)
Children of the Great Depression , true stories collected by Russell Freedman (American)
The Dolphin Crossing by Jill Paton Walsh - British
Tug of War by Joan Lingard - British
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry - American
The War Guests Trilogy by Kit Pearson - Canadian
High Flight by Linda Granfield - Canadian
Listen for the Singing by Jean Little - Canadian
Ours was a family of five at that time: our father and mother, my sister Martha who was four years older than I, my sister Ann, who was two years younger, and I. We children loved living out in the country. We had a Jersey cow named Emily, a horse named Danny Boy, a pig named Clarence and a lot of ducks and chickens. We had a car but, for fun, we sometimes hitched Danny Boy to a buggy in summer and a sleigh in winter.
We climbed the hills, swam in the brook, dreamed summer afternoons away under the old crab-apple tree in the upper meadow at least that's what I loved to do. I used to lie under that tree, imagining the people who had planted it, imagining the pioneers who had cut down the forest and built our house. I made up stories about them. I didn't think of them as stories, though, they were daydreams. All the same, I worked on what the characters said, what they looked like, what our house looked like when it was new, never realizing that I was learning to be a writer.
As soon as I learned to read, I read everything I could get my hands on. The Norwich library had a wonderful little children's room just inside its front door. It was there I found The Five Little Peppers and How they Grew, Heidi , and, The Secret Garden (still my favourite of all the books I have ever read).
The years at the farm passed all too quickly. In 1936, my brother Frank was born and Martha, Ann and I took on the serious job of being older sisters (that's what Frank always says). A year later I came down with Rheumatic Fever and spent the winter in bed. I hated that but it did give me more time to read. The next year there was a hurricane and the year after that we moved to Rye, a suburb of New York City. On the day we left the farm, Ann and I cried for almost the whole eight hours on the train. I think our mother must have really wished she'd left us behind.
Life was very different in Rye than it had been in Norwich. And the big school with so many kids, teachers, and classrooms was sure different than the four-room schoolhouse we were used to. At first I was scared. I hated the town. I hated the school. But, in time, I found friends, I got used to the school, there was a big library in the town centre plus a movie theatre and a sweet shop. It was a good thing for me that I was a daydreamer and loved to read because stories were now my great comfort. Rye had a great library. I'm sure I read almost every book the children's room had on its shelves, some of them over and over again. I checked the E. Nesbitt books (Five Children and It,The Railway Children ) out of the library so often that, to this day, if nothing is changed in that library, I could go straight to them. I read Heidi so many times, my grandmother bought me my own copy and we had all our great aunt's Louisa May Alcott books.
In time, I found friends, I got used to the school and, as I grew into my teens, I was glad to be only an hour away from New York City where there were museums and historical societies my daydreams were beginning to turn into real stories, a lot of them set in times long past, and, in the museums, I could find out exactly what clothes my back-in-time characters would wear and what the furniture in their houses would look like. Of course, I also loved New York's glamourous department stores, movie theatres like Radio City Music Hall and the Broadway theatres Our great aunt took us, once a year, to a Broadway play. That was exciting!
The Great Depression was over and the Second World War had started. Boys from our high school were leaving to join the forces, there was food and gas rationing, we had air-raid practices. (I wrote about this in the story I wrote in Too Young to Fight ). My father was doing war work and this job was in New Jersey so, when I was halfway through highschool, we moved to Montclair in New Jersey. That meant getting to know a new place and new people again. I wasn't as scared this time and the school wasn't as different than the one in Rye. I graduated from Montclair High School in 1946.
I would love to say that I never had a speck of trouble with any subject all through school but it would not be true. From the time I first met numbers in grade one, I have not gotten along with them. I managed, if just barely, to pass every math course from arithmetic to solid geometry but I was always much happier with History, English, Latin and French. I planned to go on to university to study those subjects and was trying to decide where I'd like to go when a few words from our next-door neighbour sent me into making the most surprising move I've ever made.
"Why not try a Canadian university?" she asked she was Canadian. She told me about Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and it sounded so great that I decided that Queen's was the school for me. I knew nothing about Canada. That made it an exotic and most desirable place. My father wrote to the registrar at Queen's. She wrote back that I would have to have grade thirteen to enter an Ontario university. Through a series of letters and phone calls, we found Notre Dame College in Ottawa. There I was enrolled for grade thirteen and off I went to Ottawa, little knowing that this was not only my stepping stone to Queen's but to a lifetime in my new-found country.
I fell in love with Ottawa on sight. It was exotic. The parliament buildings looked British, the big Chateau Laurier hotel looked ancient and there were people on the street speaking French (my mother and father both spoke German but I was so used to that, it didn't seem a bit exotic). I spent a happy school year at Notre Dame, making new friends, learning new ways, discovering lovely Ottawa. Then, the next fall, I was off to Queen's in Kingston. Queen's was everything I had hoped it might be and more because I married Richard Lunn, the tall, handsome air-force veteran who sat behind me in my Middle-English class.
After university, Richard took a job with the Kingston newspaper. By the time we left there for Toronto in 1955, we had three children: Eric, Jeffrey and Alec. Our last two, Kate and John, were born in Toronto where we lived and worked for twelve years, Richard on newspapers and then as a journalism instructor at Ryerson University, I as mother and hopeful writer.
It was a painful time for this hopeful writer because I wrote a lot of stories in those years, stories like the ones I always loved to read, and sent them to children's magazines. Every one of those stories came back to me almost as fast as I sent them out. Then, one day, one amazing day, instead of my poor, forlorn story waiting in my mail box, there was a cheque from The Family Herald newspaper in Montreal. The paper was going to publish my story on its children's page. AND they were paying me twenty-five dollars for it. The twenty-five dollars did not go far. In fact, that story ended up costing us a lot of money. I felt so rich and famous when it arrived that, when the repair man came to fix my sewing machine that same day, I let him talk me into signing up for a new machine. A couple of hours later a salesman came to the door selling encyclopedias and I signed up for a whole set. This was not sensible. But having that story published felt so good that I charged into my writing with the exuberance of a runner who'd just won an Olympic gold medal.
I can't say that I sold every story I wrote after that but, not too much later, my first book, Double Spell , was published. This didn't mean that my next book was instantly accepted by a publisher. It wasn't. I rewrote that book the one that eventually became The Root Cellar eight or ten times more before I sent it to a publisher who liked it. Slowly I was learning to be a writer.
Of course I wasn't writing all the time. My full-time job was being the mother of our five children. I wrote when I could steal an hour here, a few minutes there. By the time The Root Cellar was published, we had moved from Toronto to an old farmhouse in Prince Edward County, Ontario (where that story is set). I loved living in the country again, after so many years in towns and cities. We didn't keep cows or chickens but there were cows and horses at the farm up the road, we had a pony for our daughter Kate and there were always dogs and cats. For a time we had a large vegetable garden and I could plant all the flowers I wanted (then wait for the horses from up the road to come and trample them). For a couple of years, I took a part-time job (which I could do mostly at home) as children's editor with a Toronto publisher but I found that I liked writing better and so gave that up.
The children were growing up and moving out. By the time John, the youngest, left home, I was writing full time. I wrote two more novels Shadow in Hawthorn Bay ) and The Hollow Tree ) and a Christmas story (One Hundred Shining Candles ) set, in or connected to that neighbourhood.
Richard retired from Ryerson and died a year later (in 1987). I lived in the old farmhouse for twelve more years then I moved to Ottawa back to my first Canadian home. That's where I live now with my companionable grey cat named George in a town house with a small, enclosed garden. I enjoy visits from my children and grandchildren, visiting with friends, going to the theatre, to concerts and art galleries and I am still writing.