WRITING DOWN THE DECADES
by Sharon Barett
It was 1974 and Barbara Corcoran was in Kansas meeting a group of children who were fans of her many books for young readers. One of the things she vividly remembers from that meeting is this:
A pigtailed girl ran up to me and said challengingly, You an author?
I admitted that I was.
I dont believe it, the girl replied.
Cause, she said with complete certainty. Authors are dead.
Move ahead twenty-four years to June 1998. Corcoran, now eighty-seven, is a featured participant on A Quality of Lifes End, a weeklong series on Montana Public Radio, not because of her age, but because she is very much an author and very much alive. Every day of the series, her work can be heard on KUFMs childrens radio program, The Pea Green Boat. The story called Jordan is one that she adapted at the request of the series director from her young adult novel, May I Cross Your Golden River?
That novel, which deals with a sixteen-year-old boy dying of Lou Gehrigs disease, is one of seventy-two novels-yes, seventy-two-for middle-grade to high-school readers Corcoran has written since she received a masters degree in English in 1953 from The University of Montana.
Originally from Massachusetts and a Wellesley graduate, Corcoran spent a number of years pursuing, without much success, her first loves-theater and playwriting. Then on a later visit to Montana, she met with H.G. Merriam, head of the Universitys English department. I wanted to know if it would be absurd for a forty-two-year-old woman to enroll in the graduate school, she says.
The English department faculty included Walter Van Tillburg Clark, the author of one of my favorite novels, The Ox-Bow Incident, Corcoran recalls. Walter Clark was a wonderful teacher, and the cla
Corcorans recollections of the controversial critic and essayist Leslie Fiedler, who replaced Merriam as department chair, are not quite as pleasant. For her thesis, she wrote a giddy little comedy about faculty life called Two-thirds of a Ghost. It was performed on campus and everyone loved it, including Mrs. Fiedler-everyone except Dr. Fiedler, who never gave us a smile. She then submitted the play to a national contest at the Samuel French Play Co., where it won second place and $350.
Years later, Corcoran says she tried to capture this 1953 campus in a book called Sasha, My Friend. That book is a perennial favorite of young readers.
Another favorite is Sam, Corcorans first novel, which was published in 1967. She had intended this coming-of-age novel for adults, but an editor at Atheneum thought it was perfect for children. So Sam became what Corcoran calls her accidental entry into writing and was followed by a long list of titles.
Sam, which depicts the Flathead Lake area, is one of many books whose settings were inspired by Corcorans love of Montana. Dont Slam the Door When You Go, for example, is set in a Montana ghost town modeled after Garnet. A Horse Named Sky centers on Lolo, and her most recent book, Wolf at the Door, published in 1993, takes place near Flathead Lake.
Corcoran says she enjoys writing for young adults because, as an author, you have a closer relationship with your readers. Their response is immediate. It is also an interesting age, she says, because young adults are dealing with lots of conflicts about their families and their futures-conflicts that have not really changed over the years.
What has changed are the kids. I have written for two generations now, Corcoran says, and anyone who speaks disparagingly of todays kids has me to battle. They are in my opinion smarter, more receptive to ideas, more responsible than the average group of children in my generation ever was.
Corcorans prolific outpouring of work-which includes books translated into German, Spanish, Swedish and a variety of other languages-has earned her a variety of regional and national awards (see box). In 1992, Corcoran received UMs Merriam Award, named for the man who nearly four decades earlier had believed it was not absurd for a middle-aged woman to enroll in graduate school.
As for authors, living or dead, Corcoran, who is at work on her memoirs, says, My own opinion is that an author isnt dead as long as one child reads one book of hers. Or remembers one little insight from that book. M