Surrounded by deer, foxes, raccoons, and a host of other forest creatures who inhabit the woods near her house, Gigi Amateau lives on a tributary of the James River called Rattlesnake Creek and finds inspiration for many of her stories by looking out the window or taking a walk down to the river.
“I cannot imagine living or writing without access to the river,” says Amateau, the author of many highly praised books for middle graders and young adults. “Many, many times I’ve walked to the river or down to Rattlesnake Creek with a writing question—trying to hear the prayer of the book.”
Since her debut novel, Claiming Georgia Tate, appeared (selected as a NY Public Library Book for the Teenage), she’s had to answer many writing questions and tried to hear the prayer of seven books, including A Certain Strain of Peculiar (a 2010 Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year), Chancey of the Maury River (a William Allen White Masters List title for Grades 3-5), and Come August, Come Freedom (selected by SIBA as a Fall, 2012 Okra Pick).
The river flows through her work, as well as through her thoughts. “Sometimes, I think about the James River and how much history—personal, regional, and national history—those river banks have witnessed,” says Amateau, who often walks with her dog, a redbone coonhound named Biscuit, along the river. “Slave ships traveled our river, the Powhatans made their fishing village at Belle Isle, Benedict Arnold sailed up the James to attack Richmond.”
Richmond has most definitely influenced who she is, how she writes, and how she sees the world, admits Amateau, who was born in northeastern Mississippi and raised in Mechanicsville, VA, just outside of Richmond. But family, too, and intergenerational relationships have influenced who she is and how she writes and sees the world, as well, and it’s an influence that can be seen in much of her work.
“My family is full of strong, beautiful women. They sustain me, inspire me, and keep my ass in line, when necessary,” says Amateau. “Even if we’re not talking or physically near each other, we are together.”
Amateau says she doesn’t necessarily set out to write for young readers. She sits down and writes, and only after she has finished the early drafts does she ask if her story is for young readers. “I don’t decide the audience for a book until well after a few good revisions.”
Whatever she’s writing, Amateau is always asking herself two key questions: “Have I found the heart of the story, the prayer of the story, and am I writing from there?”
In book after book, she continues to search for—and find—the heart of her stories, creating what she hopes is a “joyful, beautiful, safe world for girls and women.”
She was kind enough to take a break from her work-in-progress to share thoughts about writing with Wordswimmer.
Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming... how do you get into the water each day?
Amateau: Easing into the water, for sure! The exact opposite of how I get into the water literally. Knowing exactly where I’m going to dive in to whatever I’m writing works best for me. If, for example, I’m revising a novel manuscript, I’ve most likely left off at the end of one chapter and am ready to take up the next. I’m hooked on my little rituals that make me happy and give me time to ruminate: clean the house, fuss over my workspace, practice yoga, meditate then FINALLY start working. Although in the winter, my favorite way to write is to get a big fire going in the living room, steep some tea, and revise by the fireplace all afternoon. And, if it’s snowing? The best!
Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?
Amateau: We live just up the hill from the James River Park System. The river keeps me afloat for works of any and all lengths. The James turns rocky near our house as it starts a one hundred foot descent over about seven miles before turning tidal. In the summertime, you can often rock hop almost all the way across. During those spells when the river is low some gigantic boulders in the rock bed are accessible, and they make the most perfect writing pallets you could imagine. Also perfect for a mid-chapter sun salutation or two! Some days it seems like the whole city is out there playing in the river. There are miles and miles of trails alongside the river, too, so all year round it’s a source of inspiration and rejuvenation.
Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?
Amateau: Oh man, I can research the hell out of any topic, and love snorkeling around the archives! Also, swimming through old notebooks often shakes me up and wakes me up.
Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?
Amateau: Skinny-dipping – swimming naked, without fear or shame or self-censorship.
Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?
Amateau: Hmm...I’m not sure I believe I’m ever swimming alone, actually! Where I live the writing community is diverse and supportive, but also access to the written word – books, essays, poetry, stories - and spiritual friendships lift me up when I find myself in danger or trouble while swimming by myself.
Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?
Amateau: Just being completely buoyed by words and ideas, sounds and images.
For more information about Gigi Amateau, visit her website: http://www.gigiamateau.com/
And to read more about her and her work, check out: