A few words with Beverly Cleary on her 95th birthday
L.A. Times book critic David L. Ulin visited Cleary at her home near Carmel and interviewed her for a feature that will appear in Sunday's Calendar section. These outtakes from her conversation include stories about her inspiration, Los Angeles in the 1930s and her experiences with the iconic television show "Leave It to Beaver."
Jacket Copy: What were some of the early books that inspired you?
Beverly Cleary: I had a bad time in school in the first grade. Because I had been a rather lonely child on a farm, but I was free and wild and to be shut up in a classroom -- there were 40 children on those days in the classroom, and it was quite a shock. The reader was incredibly stupid -- about Ruth and John and Rover. But my mother always kept library books in the house, and one rainy Sunday afternoon -- this was before television, and we didn’t even have a radio -- I picked up a book to look at the pictures and discovered I was reading and enjoying what I read. It was "The Dutch Twins" by Lucy Fitch Perkins, who did a series of books about twins in different countries. Maybe that’s why I had twins. (laughs) Something happened in "The Dutch Twins." They fell into the Zuider Zee. They were lively stories, with a simple vocabulary, so then I took off with this and I’ve been a reader ever since.
JC: Henry Huggins was a real departure as a character. He was a boy like I knew boys.
BC: Yes. And I’ve had some very moving letters from young men in the last year or so saying that Henry Huggins gave them hope, that there were better neighborhoods to live in than wherever they lived. I didn’t start out writing to give children hope, but I’m glad some of them found it.
JC: You’ve also written a memoir, and in the early 1960s, you did three "Leave It to Beaver" tie-in books. Can you talk about that?
BC: Oh, that (she giggles). Bringing up little things is very tiring. And I just felt I didn’t have two thoughts to rub together. And one morning, the telephone rang and it was this man in New York saying would I consider turning "Leave It to Beaver" scripts into fiction, and in my exhaustion, "Well yes, I’ll consider it." And he said, "Good, I’ll fly out and see you." That rather stunned me. But I met him. The plane was late and somehow he had me paged and I got a message: Don’t go away, that he would get there. And he did. He said he had taken a room, and I had gotten in touch with my husband and I said, "Well, I’m meeting this man in a hotel room," and my husand just laughed. So we stepped into an elevator and as we faced out, there was one of my neighbors and she gave me a big wink.
What happened after Beverly Cleary and the man got upstairs is after the jump.
JC: You seem fiercely independent as a writer, so the idea of writing words by the yard must have been difficult.
BC: Well, my mornings were very interrupted. I had to drive the children down the hill to the university nursery school and they weren’t there long enough for me to go back up the hill and then come down again so I needed something to do in the car and that’s how I occupied myself.
JC: You went to junior college in Los Angeles. What was the city like then?
BC: I have lovely memories of Los Angeles in the 1930s. I came down to live with my mother’s cousin and they invited me to come and go to junior college for a year. And my parents -- it was the darkest days of the Depression, and they were worrying about, "What are we going to do with Beverly now that she’s finishing high school?" and so they allowed me to go. It was quite a journey. Greyhound bus from Portland to Southern California and my mother’s cousin went into Los Angeles once a month to something called the Book Breakfast. And so I went along, and I was free to roam for a couple of hours. The sky was so blue, and it seems to me that the library had been damaged by the Long Beach earthquake, and so I couldn’t go there. But I wandered around the department stores, and everything seemed so clean and sunshiney. I loved those trips. Of course, we drove through orange groves to get there.
-- David L. Ulin
Photo: Beverly Cleary. Credit: Harper Collins