The Tree in the Courtyard Q&A

In September and October, we asked children to submit questions for Jeff Gottesfeld, author of the children’s Salina Reads selection “The Tree in the Courtyard.” Below are the questions and Jeff’s answers.

  • Why do you write books?

This is a great question. For me, part of the reason that I write books is that it is something I am pretty good at doing. I was always a person who had a better time doing things I was good at, like playing tennis, than doing things that I am dreadful at, like drawing pictures. Another reason is that I love words so much. And third, I think that books, diaries, and other written works are a way to be at least a little bit influential in the world.

  • Did you have fun writing this book?

I’m not sure fun is the word for it. For me, there is a big difference between fun and happiness. The things in life that are fun rarely make me long-term happy, and the things that make me long-term happy rarely are all that much fun. A man named Dennis Prager said that, and I agree. Sometimes there is cross-over, but not all that much. Writing this book made me happy. I am not sure that pouring over 950 words for a month is fun. However, it is satisfying and happiness-producing. See the difference?

  • Do you have any comics?

I am not a comics guy, though I wrote for the TV show SMALLVILLE its first season on the air!

  • Would you write a comic?

See above.

  • What was the inspiration behind putting the book in the tree’s point of view?

That’s another great question. It might be because the first line of the book that came to me was from the point of view of the tree. “The tree recalled how few had tried to save the girl.” I also saw the tree in symbolic terms, for those who are not in a position to act, while there are many who ARE in a position to act but choose not to do so.

  • How much research went into the book?

Endless amounts. Fortunately, there are a lot of great resources about Anne, the tree, the Annex, and horse chestnuts on the Internet. I have also been to Anne Frank House back when the tree was living.

  • Do you like the illustrations?

Since I cannot even draw a loop, any illustration is better than what I would do. I think McCarty’s illustrations are genius. The black-and-white gives the right amount of distance, and the drawings are as intricate as life itself. I cannot imagine better illustrations. Can you?

  • How did you start writing?

I started I think the way so many people start — with what I had to write for school. Then, I got into letter writing when I was 12 or 13. Letters are these things that people used to write on paper, with pens, and then would put them in these things called “envelopes” with stamps on them. You would hand write your thoughts on paper, then would put them in a mailbox, and then a couple of days later your friend would receive it. (Remember that I grew up when dinosaurs roamed the earth.).  I had guys who were summer camp friends who I used to write letters with all the time.  It is such a thrill to get an actual letter in the mail. Still is. My first published work was probably a letter to the editor of the local paper about something political. That must have been when I was in eighth grade. I didn’t start writing creatively until I was an adult.

  • Did your mom / dad read to you at night?

Shall I list the books?  ARE YOU MY MOTHER? THE LITTLE RED LIGHT HOUSE. And of course, some by Dr. Seuss. Yes. Big readers. But then I discovered reading to myself, and kind of took over. My parents got nervous because all I ever wanted to read was non-fiction. But hey, I never said I was normal.

  • What was the hardest part about writing this book?

Great question. It took me two years to find the way into the story that worked. The beauty of a picture book is that it’s short, but that is also the curse. There is so little room to get it right.  I actually had to put the manuscript away for two years before I found the right way to tell the story.

  • Do you have a cat?

Only in my memory, now. I had the world’s greatest domestic short hair cat when I lived in NYC and in Nashville. Her name was Trinity, she was tiger-striped with green eyes. She was about the sweetest creature that ever lived and followed me around like a shadow. She was also shaped like a triangle. I’d take her out in NYC for a walk to a friend’s house (in her special cat bag)  and people would be like, “Yo, man! That’s a lotta cat!”  You can see why Anne loved her cat so much, though. I think if you have an awesome cat, life is just better.

  • Do you see any similarities between the story in your book and some things happening now?

Serious question, I like it. I have a lot of faith in the essential goodness of the United States, the American people. I believe that for all our disagreements, we agree on far more than we disagree. I think America is still a beacon of hope to the world. That said, I think a person has to be blind not to see that there are people in the world who hate others not because of what they do, but because of who they are. Good people need to stop that from happening. It isn’t easy, but hate has a way of building when it is not confronted.  

  • What’s your favorite tree?

I love this question. I had a birch tree growing in front of my house on Cottage Place in Teaneck, NJ, that had tulips growing beneath it in the spring. It was the only white birch on the block, and it thrived. I can’t look at a birch without thinking of that tree.

  • What would a tree say about you?

A tree would say the following about me, and probably has:

“Can’t that kid keep his darn kite out of my branches?”

“If he knew that there are trout in the water right under my branches, he’d figure out a way to get his lure in there.”

“Man. That guy on his skis just whizzed right by me.”

And then, here’s the one I would hope for: “He did his part to try to save at least a little of the world.”

  • Have you visited any of  the saplings?

Not yet. I tried in New York City last spring, but the tree has actually not yet gone in the ground at the World Trade Center Memorial. (It’s there, now, happily in a new park). I’ve seen pictures of the tree in Michigan with my book leaning against it!  And — sadly — I think the tree in Boston Common did not survive its first winter. However, the new trees are now forming seed pods of their own, so there might be a time soon where many places can have a descendant of Anne’s tree. The trick will be for us all to remember that these trees are special. Memory is a hard thing to preserve.

  • Was this book hard for you to write emotionally?

Less hard that you would think. I’d already spent a couple of years in Anne’s story on a different fiction project — ANNE FRANK AND ME (Putnam, 2001), which also took me into day-to-day life under the Nazi Occupation in France. The work on this story was so fine and intense that I felt a little bit like a surgeon doing it. I couldn’t let my emotions cloud my thinking. Which, come to think of it, is probably not a bad lesson for anyone. Now, reading the book aloud? My voice has cracked a few times while reading it to an audience.

  • What’s your favorite city?

I love this question and there are so many. I’ve been to a bunch of countries, and probably 45 of the 50 states.  I have really fond feelings for Paris, France; Jerusalem, Israel; New York City; and Salt Lake City, UT. Santa Fe, NM, is pretty gorgeous too. My favorite small towns are Waterville, ME, where I went to undergraduate school at Colby College, and Red Boilings Springs, TN.  Yes, it’s a real place!

  • Would you have been friends with Anne Frank?

The real question is, whether she would have been friends with me? I would have loved her spirit and her outspokenness. Not to mention her astonishing talent as a writer, if she ever let me read her stuff. I’m not sure she would have been friends with as big a jock as I am, though.

  • The tree recalled how few had tried to save the girl; what can we do to make sure something like that doesn’t happen again?

Difficult question. I think one thing to do is to keep in mind these lines from one of my favorite poems, called “The Second Coming.” It’s by William Butler Yeats, and he wrote it in 1919, soon after the First World War:

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst

 Are full of passionate intensity.”

We need to speak up, and sometimes even do more than talk, when faced with the kind of evil that the Nazis and their collaborators brought to the world. Fortunately, the United States tends to be in the forefront of doing this. We can’t do everything all the time, but we can do quite a bit and inspire others to do their parts, too.

  • What’s your favorite book?

By a human, no doubt about it. George Orwell’s 1984.  After that, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. For young people, I love Jerry Spinelli’s Milkweed.  

Of course, the Torah is in a class by itself.

  • What are you reading right now?

I look to my left, to my nightstand. On it right now are Gordon Bowker’s INSIDE GEORGE ORWELL, a biography of that genius writer.

I read less fiction than I should. I ought to change that. I would say too that during the day I probably read 15,000 words of newspaper articles, commentary, political news from around the world, etc. I get my best ideas from my daily reading.

  • When is your next book?

The next one comes in 2018, it is called NO STEPS BEHIND, and it is a picture book biography (same length as The Tree) of the greatest feminist of the 20th century whom no one knows about, Beate Sirota Gordon. Look her up!

  • What do you write with? (computer, paper…)

In addition to being the world’s worst artist, I also have the world’s worst handwriting. It was the bane of my elementary school existence. Then I discovered typewriter. I got an electric one when I was just 17. I type everything, most often on a laptop. I don’t own a tablet, or a desktop anymore, but I have three laptops that are left in strategic locations. One of my favorite things to do is go to the library and set up with my laptop near the children’s section. Then I start typing. It sounds like harmless machine gun fire, and it isn’t long before I draw a crowd of amazed young onlookers. I type FAST.