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Claire Ortalda’s World of Whimsical Awe

Claire Ortalda, author of THE STAIR IN THE WALL
Claire Ortalda

Claire Ortalda . . . Congrats on the success of your new book THE STAIR IN THE WALL. You’ve already displayed a strong knack for poetry and literary fiction. What inspired you to shift genre and made you break into middle grade children’s fiction?

CO: Well, Harry Potter inspired me. Years after everybody else, adult and child and teen, had read Harry Potter, I finally got around to reading the first book, and was very impressed, first, by J.K. Rowling’s knowledge of myth and fairy tale form, both of which I’ve studied a lot in my quest to understand narrative, and secondly, by the engaging hero and style. I decided to give it a try.

Definitely a fun and whimsical narrative! Any comment on the formation of your characters? Tell us about Professor FiddleFuss.

CO: Oh, dear, the formation of my characters. Some of my friends and loved ones may—ahem—recognize certain of their own characteristics in the people of Greenworld. Two of them have passed on, so those characters are especially dear to me: Metricus and Ralph. Metricus is based on our neighbor John Kemp, genius, crazy person, and, as my husband, writer Floyd Salas said to him, “The best person I have ever met.” He could almost have been a modern-day model of the Russian religious wanderer popularized in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zoey, the one who says the Jesus prayer. John would pass out complicated diagrams with numeric formulas (he had a BA from Cal in Chemistry) he believed had spiritual efficacy. He would drop anything to help anybody. John passed on at way too young an age and I like to think I am preserving a bit of his spirit as Metricus in Stair. Ralph is based on our dear departed dog (who knew and loved John), Rockthedog. Rock, like Ralph, wanted to be a hero, but sometimes thought it was a bit too scary to actually be one. Again, I want Rock to be alive forever. Oh, and Professor FiddleFuss . . . Guess who that is? (Well, it’s no secret because of my dedication.) FiddleFuss is my husband Floyd Salas, who, too, due to early deaths in his family, seeks to preserve everything. This is why he writes. And in my novel, I symbolize this by having him collect (physically) tons of memories . . . even other people’s memories. This is the true spirit of the writer, I think, we eavesdrop on the world. Plus, he’s a boxer, too, and pretty tough like Professor FiddleFuss.

Sylvia strikes me as a well-developed, well-layered character. What type of adult do you believe she’ll grow to become?

CO: What a great question! I think in the course of the novel, Sylvia comes to understand that people help one another, and that this sometimes requires great bravery. This is the message of Greenworld, the residents of which band together (with the exception of a few irascible characters) to solve their problems communally, despite their foibles and differences. Then there’s the issue of Sylvia’s mother, who is a model of independence, who follows her own dreams, and who is lively and lovely. All of these qualities Sylvia admires. But, as some of my readers have pointed out, her mother did something hurtful in abandoning her family—where is the line between self-realization and selfishness? I think Sylvia, who is a thoughtful little girl, will come to terms with that in a different way than her mother did—that is, she is not a person who abandons. I see her (and will pursue this in a sequel) combining her father’s deep, loving nature and thoughtfulness with her mother’s daring in the future.

Favorite chapter?

CO: I think more than a favorite chapter, I have favorite moments: one is in the beginning, when Sylvia refuses to speak to the lady who accuses her of lying—what was the point, if the lady thought she was a liar? I find delight in Metricus and Bobby very seriously discussing whether Sylvia is a part of their world, or they are (“technically,” Metricus notes) a part of hers. This opens up the idea that Greenworld, the Gray Wraith and all of it, are actually inventions of Sylvia’s psyche. I also like the way the houses and buildings in the village shuffle obligingly aside in order to speed Sylvia’s passage home.

What project are you working on next? Can we expect another work of middle grade children’s fiction, or will you break into a different genre?

CO: Right now, I’m working on an adult, literary novel I’ve been writing for ages, Edenvale. But I do intend a sequel to Stair. I like Sylvia and her Greenworld friends too much. She will be a bit older, though, and wiser, and her central problem to solve will be entirely different.

Copyright © 2014, Tony R. Rodriguez,

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