Celeste Conway is the author of young adult books as well as the author and illustrator of children’s books. Her credits include The Melting Season, The Goodbye Time and Where Is Papa Now? She lives in New York City.
Q. What is your dance experience?
I discovered ballet much too late in life. I started taking classes when I was almost 16 years—the age Giselle is in the book, an age when many young dancers are beginning their performing career. But I still take classes with the other old ladies.
Q. When did you start writing?
Now, that I started much earlier. I began writing chapter books when I was about nine or ten to stave off boredom during weeks-long summer voyages on my parents’ sailboat. Sailing around on a boat may not sound terribly boring, but my father was a purist and refused to use the engine even if there was no wind, so we’d drift around for hours on end. Sometimes my younger sister would write a book too, but her books would have only five sentences to them. A sailboat in the rain is also a great place for writing.
Q. What is the history of your wanting to write about ballet?
I just love the world of ballet, both the physical atmosphere of studios and theatres and the characters that people this atmosphere. Today in New York City there are a few very large, modern studios where everybody goes, but back in the 1970s there seemed to be hundreds of intimate, atmospheric studios all over the west side. There was a sort of anachronistic air about them, and I was drawn to their shabby elegance. The old ballerinas and their scruffy pianists seemed so stylish and artistic and they had a worldly glamour, especially if they came with a Russian or Hungarian accent – and a companionable old dog. I wanted to write a book in which I could capture a bit of that atmosphere.
Q. When did you get the idea for The Melting Season?
This sort of ties in with my last answer. I wanted to write about that old world atmosphere and at the same time tell the story of a young artist and her conflict with the past. It’s a bit sad how I started the actual writing. My mother was dying and was in the hospital for several months and during that spell I was staying at her house. Visiting hours began in the afternoon, and I began to spend those mornings sitting in her yard under the dogwood trees escaping into this fictitious world which I could create and control.
Q. While The Melting Season is about ballet dancers, it’s not the typical “I need to make it in the ballet world” type of story. Was it a conscious decision to keep the plot away from that kind of story?
While I deliberately set the story in the ballet world, I never thought of the plot as a “ballet plot.” I wanted to write a story about how people sometimes distort memory and mythologize those who have died. I suppose if I were a lover of tennis, I might have written Giselle as an aspiring tennis star (though I would have named her something sportier) who over the years had created a shrine to her dead tennis pro father.
Q. How do you develop an idea? Do you write notes? Keep a notebook? What kind of gestation did The Melting Season go through?
I’m a very visual person, so often ideas come to me first as images. Setting is very delicious to me. I could picture Giselle’s apartment, which is almost like a character in the book, down to the tiniest detail –things like the kind of knick-knacks her father would have in his red study or even the print that would cover the wallpaper in the “ballroom.” But, of course, the physical details aren’t enough to make a story, and I do keep notebooks and write down ideas that seem important. I write them on whatever is lying around. Sometimes I find the weirdest messages scrawled on old envelopes or receipts. Right now there’s something hanging on my refrigerator that reads “Girls in light.” The Melting Season blossomed slowly over many years like the dogwood trees in my mother’s backyard.
Q. Did you base your characters on people that you know? Real dancers that you’ve read about?
Like many writers, I create my characters from bits and pieces of personalities from real life along with some bits of my own imaginings. In The Melting Season, however, the character of Marina, the mother, was totally inspired by the glamorous Romanian ballerina Doina Wechsler with whom I studied for a while—from her white dance clothes to her high heels, fur coats, and mass of golden hair. It’s funny now that I remember this, but I was thinking of Arnold Schwarzenegger when I was creating Blitz.
Q. In the front of the book you acknowledge the help of a couple of professional dancers. Who were they and what did they contribute?
Both those dancers were teachers of mine at some point. It was a conversation I had with Jenny Chiang at an orchid show in the now vanished World Trade Center which provided me with some insight into what the heightened experience of performing beyond one’s normal range feels like. This is described in the next to last chapter. I also used her account of when her husband first saw her perform to draw the scene in which Will first sees Giselle perform. Svetlana Caton-Noble staged the Snegurochka I used as the central performance in the book. She was such a dramatic and lyrical dancer. Her adagios in center went on so long, no one could remember them. I sent a copy of the book to both of them, but I’m not sure if Svetlana’s ever reached her.
Q. What is your writing process like? Do you start with an outline? Do you use note cards? Do you just write? How many drafts did The Melting Season go through?
Outlines don’t do it for me, though maybe if I used one I wouldn’t end up writing ten drafts of a story. Once I get the idea, I just start writing. I write horrible first drafts. I mean, embarrassingly horrible. They’re about getting the story down. The second and even third draft are the pleasurable ones for me. The fourth, fifth, sixth etc. begin to get a bit painful. And The Melting Season went through more than that. My first “final” draft was a huge tome. Wendy Lamb at Random House, the first editor who read it, commented that I certainly had stamina. Apparently the other editors charged with reading that fat draft were dropping like flies.
Q. Do you write with a computer? How do you feel that helps? Hinders?
I’m a computer hater though, of course, I use one. I always write first drafts longhand in a nice, hard-covered notebook. Even when I use a computer, I prefer to sit on the sofa with my ancient Mac clamshell on the coffee table in front of me. I hate sitting at a computer, but of course, I can’t complain about the convenience and ease of making corrections, saving drafts and printing chapters. An added benefit is that I can actually read what I’ve written.
Q. Did you have favorite characters in the book? Characters that were easier to describe and write dialogue for? Decide how they would act and react?
I like Giselle and I like Magda. It was easier to decide how Magda would act and react, maybe because she wasn’t in the same state of flux and conflict that Giselle was in. I loved writing about June, Will’s little sister. She was fun and quirky. Lots of the minor characters were fun to describe. I liked writing the airy, flaky dialogue of the old dancers at the “funeral party,” the tipsy friends of Magda’s grandmother, and the snippy girls in the dressing room.
Q. Is it easy for you to write male characters? How do you go about putting yourself in their heads?
No, I don’t find it easy to write male characters. I find it very hard. I try to imagine them first just as human beings, but then there’s that big huge difference. I don’t think I see the world as males do. In The Melting Season I tried to imagine a special guy—the kind of sweet, understanding boyfriend any girl would want—and some people said he was “too good to be true.” Even mothers of sons told me that, which seems funny to me. My editor, Stephanie Lane, had a nice attitude about it. She thought he was sweet and why couldn’t a boy be like that? Anyway, that’s a hard question. I don’t know if I can put myself in a teenage boy’s head.
Q. Many writers say that their characters develop a will of their own—become independent—go in ways they didn’t plan. Did any of that happen while You were writing The Melting Season?
I’d heard about that phenomena, and it happened to me with my second novel—that the book started “to write itself.” Unfortunately, none of The Melting Season characters were so accommodating. It was a struggle much of the time, especially with the character of Giselle’s mother and the old friend Carla who comes to visit.
Q. Along the same vein, when you started writing the book, did you start off with the idea that you were writing a book for “teens” and then find as you got Further into it that the book kept getting deeper and better than you ever thought it would be?
I have a little problem with the phrasing of that question. I don’t think “teen” books are any less deep or good than books written for adults. I always wanted the book to be for teenagers. Giselle’s voice, I think, is a young voice, and her private gloom seems very adolescent too. I never felt that the book was gravitating into an adult realm.
Q. In the book, the girl is dancing in the ballet Snegurochka? Why did you decide on that ballet?
Interestingly, I had just seen Svetlana’s production of Snegurochka. I had the program and the notes on the ballet, and the story fit beautifully with what was going on in the novel—the conflict between freedom and danger, safety and ignorance, along with the conflict between Snegurochka’s parents. Also, from what I understand, the ballet is a bit of a pastiche with parts written by different composers, and I felt I could improvise scenes a little without being censured by dance historians.
Q. What was your favorite part about writing the book?
I liked writing about the Giselle’s romanticized memories of the past—glimpses back at her parents’ lavish parties, her excursions to The Russian Tea Room with her father, vacations at the old hotel on the seaside, childhood days in his red study, the scent of his gardenias. Writing those scenes I almost felt I’d been in those places, lived in those rooms.
Q. Have you gotten writing about ballet out of your system or are there other books related to ballet coming along?
Right now I don’t have another ballet book planned, but I may get another ballet idea some day.
Q. You also write and illustrate children’s stories. Any similarities between writing, illustrating and dancing?
Each one of those activities gives me an enormous sense of freedom. Dancing and illustrating are more joyful. Writing is hard and often painful. But each imparts the freedom to create a universe of your own.
Q. What advice do you have for others who might be interested in writing?
Talk less. Write more. You can talk afterwards, but not during. People who run writing workshops probably wouldn’t agree with this, but that’s what I believe.
Q. What are some of your favorite ballet books and ballet movies?
I don’t know many ballet movies except for The Red Shoes and The Turning Point. My favorite ballet books are memoirs. Nijinska’s Early Memoirs, Winter Season by Toni Bentley, and the eerie Diary of Nijinsky, which Giselle is reading on her train trip to the suburbs.
Q. What new projects have you got coming up?
I’m in the editing stage of a very dark novel. It’s interesting that you asked me earlier about writing for teens specifically. I started writing this book for teens and then I decided the content was too adult. (The girl in the story was filmed and photographed –though not physically molested) for child pornography. But now I’ve turned it back into a YA novel. What’s the difference? A little alteration of the vocabulary and speech patterns, yes. But the main difference is the introduction of the male character many chapters sooner. Girls want there to be a boy in a story, and the truth is that the earlier appearance of this character has added action and tension to the narrative. It had been too internal and claustrophobic in its “adult” form. To counterbalance this, I’m also working on a bright and cheery picture book.