I was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1968. As a little kid, I lived in a seventies suburban development in the generally rural town of Stow, Massachusetts. It was a fun childhood, with lots of forests around our neighborhood. My little sister and I used to walk on paths through the woods down to Lake Boon, where we’d spend the summer swimming. Despite that, I am still somehow a terrible swimmer.
For a couple of years when I was very little, my family went to live in Italy. My father was working on a radar system at a U.S. army base. We rented a little apartment in the corner of a crumbling old monastery. The sights I saw in those years changed me completely, I think. I got used to Roman ruins and old statues of saints and castles on hill-tops. That was the landscape that made sense to me. When I came back to Kindergarten in the United States, my teacher thought there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t build anything with blocks. I just put the blocks in big, jumbled piles. She asked me what I was doing. I patiently explained that I was building ruins.
And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
As a teen-ager, I wanted to be a writer, and spent hours plugging away at novels, stories, ball-point comics, and the code for computer adventure games. One of these early novels was published fifteen years later in a much-revised and improved form: The Game of Sunken Places.
When I was ready to graduate from high school in America, I applied for a scholarship to go to a year of boarding school in England. I had a great time over there. I studied Anglo-Saxon history and the English poets and I deeply enjoyed the whole ridiculously stark feel of the place. When, for example, our dinner was a single hard-boiled egg and a pile of grated cheese (once a week!), I couldn’t stop laughing. I felt like I was walking on air. Everything was just as it was supposed to be – just like a novel by Charles Dickens. If that sounds strange, remember that I was probably light-headed from malnutrition.
After a little wobbling around – I started as a college freshman in the U.S., dropped out, and worked for a while at a department store – I ended up a couple years later at Cambridge University in England, where I studied English literature. (I’ve talked about this in an essay called “A Brief Guide to the Ghosts of Great Britain,” published in the collection Open Your Eyes.) After college, I worked as an intern at the Boston Review, an editorial assistant at Candlewick Press (who still publish me), and as a classical music reviewer for The Improper Bostonian. My first published book, Thirsty, was written in the nights and weekends while I held down these other jobs. When I was twenty-six, I went back to school, getting an MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University in upstate New York. While I was there, I began to publish stories for adults in literary journals.
A couple of years after I graduated with my MFA, I went to teach at the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College, a community that has played an important role in my writing life for the last ten years.
At this point, I’ve published stories for adults, picture books for children, adventure novels for young readers, and several books for older readers (both teens and adults). My satirical book Feed was a Finalist for the National Book Award and was the winner of the L.A. Times Book Prize. The first volume of my Octavian Nothing saga won the National Book Award and the Boston Globe / Horn Book Prize. Both the first and second volumes of that two-part series were Printz Honor Books. I’ve published stories for adults in literary journals like The Northwest Review, The Colorado Review, and Conjunctions.
What do I do with my time when I’m not writing? I like traveling to exotic places and seeing the ruins of ancient cities. I hike a lot in New Hampshire and Vermont, and, in the winter, I cross-country ski. I like music, especially music written before 1750, and, on the other hand, very modern music. I’m a big fan of the harpsichord. I also like fried food. My idea of heaven would be a harpsichord recital where they serve funnel cakes.
I’m still waiting on that one.
I love writing for younger readers. I love their passion. I love their commitment to stories. I love the way their heads are exploding with all the things they want to say and do.
Thanks to all of them – all of you! – for reading the things I’ve written.