Author brings history alive for young readers

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ask author Carolyn Meyer how it is she has written more than 50 best-selling young adult books, and she’ll tell you it’s just how her life unfolded.

Author Carolyn Meyer, with more than 50 books, has carved out a niche for depicting historical and mythical characters through the eyes of young adult characters, prompting one fan to describe her as a treasure, captivating young readers but having the depth to please adult readers. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Author Carolyn Meyer, with more than 50 books, has carved out a niche for depicting historical and mythical characters through the eyes of young adult characters, prompting one fan to describe her as a treasure, captivating young readers but having the depth to please adult readers. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

The Albuquerque writer won’t brag about her staying power, though many of her books have won awards or are required reading in school. Instead, she points to the ones that have helped her young adult readers the most on their way to becoming productive adults.

Fostering that spark of intelligent curiosity in young readers is what drives much of the 78-year-old’s work. And that’s what keeps her spinning out stories.

But that seemed the unlikely route. “All along there was never a discernible pathway,” she explains. “A teacher, a nurse or a secretary were options for women of my generation. But to be a writer? Even now, even if you go to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and graduate, it still doesn’t do it. To be a writer you just have to blunder along and figure out how to do it as you go along. You learn from your failures.”

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While Meyer doesn’t boast, her fans will.

Elizabeth Anker, owner of Alamosa Books on Paseo del Norte and Ventura NE, says, “I wish more people in Albuquerque knew what a great treasure they have in their midst. She is the best at what she does. She writes engaging, informative, lyrical and witty historical fiction. Her books are clean and clear enough to put in a sixth-grader’s hands but captivating and with sufficient depth to please an adult reader.”

She’s carved out a niche by letting readers fall in love with historical and mythical characters by seeing them through the eyes of young adults like themselves.

In her latest book released in October, “Beauty’s Daughter: The Story of Hermione and Helen of Troy,” she dips into Greek mythology through the eyes of the daughter of Helen of Troy.

Stephanie Eagle, librarian at Belen Middle School, says Meyer’s books are featured in a Scholastic series. Others like “Where the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann Parker,” is recommended or required reading in Texas and her “Rio Grande Stories,” is used to teach New Mexico culture across the state.

“It’s a big deal,” Eagle says, adding that Meyer’s books are on statewide lists and are routinely part of the state’s Battle of the Books. “She’s really outstanding.”living_jd_10nov_daughter

Meyer’s connection with her readers doesn’t stop at the page, Anker says. Meyer often cooks up a game show or a snappy PowerPoint to engage young readers and their parents at book signings.

That kind of confidence didn’t come easy for Meyer, who says she relates to the heroine of “Beauty’s Daughter.” “(Hermione’s) smart and gutsy. She’s not plain, but she’s not the most beautiful woman in the world. Her mother is,” Meyer says.

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Origin of the story

Meyer grew up in Pennsylvania as an only child, with an overbite and glasses, at a time when few young people wore glasses. “I identify very strongly with Hermoine. I have an acute memory of what it’s like to be 12 and 13. My mother was very beautiful for a woman in her day. She was popular and outgoing. She was a musician. I was none of those things. I was bucktoothed and I had stick-straight ordinary brown hair. I was clearly not living up to what my mother had in mind.”

Meyer loved to read and write from the time she was 8 years old and started her first novel, “Humpy the Caterpillar and Gladys the Snail: A True Life Romance.”

It would take many years before anything was published; she recalls many short-story manuscripts returned with rejection slips.

She learned to persevere without encouragement. At Bucknell College, she worked with fellow student Philip Roth on a play, ages before he went on to become a celebrated American author.living_jd_10nov_queen

“Roth was the literary darling at Bucknell,” she says. “All the professors fawned over him. They kind of blew me off. They blew off most women students. We were supposed to be housewives and write a bit of poetry. I got a good education at Bucknell, but nobody gave us a thought.”

Asked to muse about how her life and work would be different if her talent had been validated and supported in college, she says, “It may have slowed it down. I didn’t start writing right away. I went to New York and became a secretary. I hated it.”

But it was through a secretarial trade journal that her first short story was published – in shorthand: “Out of the barrel, I was published in translation,” she jokes.

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Motherhood, and a new direction

Later she married and had three sons and sold another book, “Miss Patch’s Learn to Sew Book,” which will soon be re-released, 44 years after it was first published.

It was a harbinger of the direction her writing would take. “I never would have thought of writing for kids. Things happen along the way. It wasn’t what I dreamed of, but it was fun. It developed into my work.”

Along the way, she divorced and with her boys mostly grown, she moved to a writers’ colony in Taos in the mid-1970s.

Editors continued to push her in the young adult books direction and in the mid-1980s she got a book assignment to write about what was happening in South Africa from a young person’s perspective.

“Apartheid was in full swing. The trick was to get around to the black townships and not get caught.” That experience became, “South Africa: Growing Up in a Troubled Land,” and was followed by similar journalistic books on Northern Ireland and Japan.

About that time, she moved to Albuquerque and met her husband, E.A. “Tony” Mares, a New Mexico poet, essayist and historian, an emeritus professor at the University of New Mexico.

Best-selling young adult author Carolyn Meyer likes to get in the spirit of the historical figures who inspire her books. For a book signing of “The Bad Queen,” she dressed as Marie Antoinette. (Courtesy of Carolyn Meyer)

Best-selling young adult author Carolyn Meyer likes to get in the spirit of the historical figures who inspire her books. For a book signing of “The Bad Queen,” she dressed as Marie Antoinette. (Courtesy of Carolyn Meyer)

Meyer, who lives in a Downtown loft with Mares, says they have little professional conflict because their writing styles are different.

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“I find it pleasant to work with Carolyn,” Mares says. “She is very disciplined and understands the need for privacy and a quiet atmosphere.”

But they have different goals and audiences, he says: “My work as a poet is about conveying a personal take on my world and as that world extends outward. Carolyn addresses a significantly younger audience, and she does it with a prose that obviously comes from a deeply sincere place within her.”

New projects

Meyer’s historical novel, “The Royal Diaries: Anastasia the Last Grand Duchess,” made the New York Times Bestseller list and is being reworked for a new look at the historical character. Anastasia, born in 1901 and executed in 1918 during the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, was the youngest daughter of the final Russian tsar, Nicholas II.

Meyer recently revised the 70,000-word novel and pressed her computer’s send key for her editor’s first review.

Author Carolyn Meyer is married to New Mexico poet, essayist and historian E.A. “Tony” Mares, and the two of them write together in their Downtown loft. “She is very disciplined and understands the need for privacy and a quiet atmosphere,” he says about the way their writing styles are different, yet compatible. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Author Carolyn Meyer is married to New Mexico poet, essayist and historian E.A. “Tony” Mares, and the two of them write together in their Downtown loft. “She is very disciplined and understands the need for privacy and a quiet atmosphere,” he says about the way their writing styles are different, yet compatible. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

“I’m thinking about Anastasia in a different way,” she says, adding that she’s bringing in more conflict of the Russian revolution – beyond the scope of Anastasia, but in the province of her older sister, Olga.

“Olga was the contrarian,” Meyer explains. “Of course, I think it’s a work of genius.”

But she’s prepared. “I’ll probably get a letter back that says, ‘nice start.'”

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She rewrote her book, “The Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie Antoinette,” four times.

“That’s just part of the job,” she says with a good-natured chuckle.

What she finds most troublesome is criticism from people online: “The hardest part of it all is when it’s done and published and someone says it’s boring. I can’t do anything about it then.”

Her editor loves her work. In an email, Julie Tibbott, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, writes, “Carolyn Meyer has been an integral part of our children’s list for over 40 years. Not many authors have that kind of staying power.”

Communication from her readers is the biggest reward of all, she says.

Several young women have written her letters to share that they have been reading her books since grade school and, because of Meyer’s books decided to get a degree in history and go on to graduate school. “That’s the payoff.”

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