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Wishing Well 

On a quiet street in Poughkeepsie, near the fairy-tale turrets of Vassar, there lies an enchanted cottage. Inside, angels canoe over doorways, unicorns nestle on armchairs, and the bathroom sink is filled with stars. There’s even a spinning wheel tucked in one corner. It might be the kind that spins straw into gold, although one suspects that most of the alchemy in Nancy Willard’s house takes place on paper. With a wave of her pen, brooms dance, beds fly, and poems bristle like seagrass.

Willard’s writings include a brace of novels (Things Invisible to See and Sister Water), four collections of essays and stories, 11 volumes of poetry (most recently, In the Salt Marsh), and a covey of children’s books with such antic titles as Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch, The Well-Mannered Balloon, The Marzipan Moon, and The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Food Cake. Willard’s 1981 A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers was the first book of poetry to garner a Newbery Medal. This month, Scholastic will publish her Florentine fable The Flying Bed, with award-winning paintings by John Thompson.

The indefatigable Willard also finds time to lecture at Vassar, as well as to fashion the whimsical artworks that fill nearly every inch of her home. (The remaining wall space is claimed by her husband, photographer Eric Lindbloom, whose black-and-white landscapes hang beside snapshots of their grown son, James.) Willard’s assemblages include numerous figures of angels, a collaged children’s stove titled “The Back Burner,” and an eclectic shrine made from the stump of an ancient apple tree.

“Whenever you bring a tree into the house, it looks much bigger,” Willard states, as if she’s had extensive experience. (Maybe she has.) Draped with twinkling lights, the hollow stump houses a sitting Confucius, a small wooden lute, a Unicorn Tapestry ornament, two velvet elves, a silk butterfly. There’s a hinged door with a natural bole for a doorknob; inside stands a perplexed-looking angel. “She doesn’t know what she’s doing in there,” Willard says. “But it fits her so perfectly.”

The dining room walls are robin’s egg blue, a tone that brings out Willard’s eyes. Unusually large and set low in her face, they’re the changeable blue-green of seawater, with a dreamy drift outward, as though she is looking both at and beyond you. She tends to lean backward while talking and forward while listening; it seems as if listening, for her, is the more active verb. Willard enjoys interviewing, and often sends students out to interrogate elderly relatives, with instructions to listen not only to what they say, but how they say it, their turns of phrase and unique tones of voice.

“I love to hear how people talk,” she muses, “both what they tell you and what they leave out. Anything that gets you to listen better is good practice for writing.”

For Willard, the narrative voice is the key to the kingdom. “I’m always interested in stories that sound like someone could have told them,” she says, citing Huckleberry Finn and the tales of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Hans Christian Andersen as examples. “It’s the illusion of a spoken style, but it’s very careful writing too.” Whatever she writes, the voice must come first. Her process allows for a good deal of hunting and gathering. “You dream over the material for a long time before setting anything down,” she says, “Just walk around with story inside your head.”

During this long mulling period, she sometimes makes notes, but never an outline. “God forbid,” Willard shudders. “You follow the story. You don’t try to make it follow your plan. When you finally have the whole thing in your head, ready to go, you sit down to work. You work steadily and that’s all you do.”

This method requires a great deal of trust, and may tempt self-doubt: Willard’s essay “Telling Time” chronicles a story that flatly refused to come forth and its unlikely muse, an elderly Holocaust survivor she met in a deli. The author remembers her father, a chemist, rising from the table where he’d sat pondering some insoluble problem, saying “I give up,” and heading upstairs. “Well, he hadn’t, of course—a man who’s given up does not go to bed with a flashlight, pad, and pen—but it was part of his ritual. He had to let go of it, literally to sleep on it, before the idea would come. I would hear him in the middle of the night, scratching away on his pad.”

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  • Nina Shengold profiles essayist, novelist, poet, and writer of children’s books Nancy Willard.


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