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5 Questions With... Clare Vanderpool (NAVIGATING EARLY, MOON OVER MANIFEST)

by Clare Vanderpool
January 4, 2013
photo: Annmarie Algya
Clare Vanderpool’s highly anticipated second novel, NAVIGATING EARLY (Delacorte Press / On sale January 8, 2013) is a mesmerizing epic of adventure and self-discovery, set against the backdrop of post-World War II Maine. Her debut novel, MOON OVER MANIFEST, won the 2011 Newbery Medal. Clare lives in Wichita, Kansas, with her husband and their four children. Learn more at

NAVIGATING EARLY incorporates plenty of mystery and adventure as Jack and Early travel the Appalachian Trail, but perhaps the most intriguing aspect is the role played by pi (3.14…). Can you tell us a little about how this mathematical concept is interwoven in the story?

Early Auden, described as "that strangest of boys," sees numbers differently than most. For him, the number pi—that mystical, never-ending, never-repeating number—reads like a story. It is the story of a young man named Pi, whose real name is Polaris but who is told by his mother that he hasn't yet earned his name. The number pi, beginning with 3.14, tells of the epic journey of Pi who is the first to venture beyond his own shores, to see what lies beyond. He is in essence, the first navigator.

The conflict for Early comes when he learns of a famous mathematician who discovers that certain numbers of pi have ceased to appear in the number. He has developed a theory that, eventually, more numbers will disappear and the number pi will in fact end. This is very upsetting to Early, who is deeply invested in the story of Pi.

In NAVIGATING EARLY, Jack and Early go on their own quest on the Appalachian Trail in search of a great black bear. Both of these epic journeys, that of Pi and of Jack and Early, begin to mirror each other in strange and coincidental ways. But as Jack's mother says, “There are no coincidences. Just miracles by the boatload.”

Your debut novel, MOON OVER MANIFEST, earned you the 2011 Newbery Medal and an adoring fan base. What’s it like to work on the follow-up, knowing that there are such high expectations from both critics and readers alike?

It's pretty challenging. Fortunately, I was well into the story of NAVIGATING EARLY before the Newbery was announced. Part of the challenge, even before the Newbery, was just getting acquainted with and really falling in love with these new characters—spending time figuring out the story they have to tell.

Of course, winning a Newbery on a first book does come with a certain amount of pressure. I knew the next book would be ripe for comparison. I really had to work at setting aside thoughts of expectations and comparisons and just let the story take its course. Jack and Early are fairly assertive characters and, once I could let go a little, they were more than willing to take the lead.

You’ve said that you’re very attached to your home state of Kansas, which is also where MOON OVER MANIFEST is set. Kansas figures into NAVIGATING EARLY, but this time it’s a place that Jack is forced to leave. How did displacing your protagonist from your beloved home state affect the process of writing a second novel?

It was fun, actually. Jack is a Kansas kid, so I completely understand his outlook and sensibilities. He talks about being able to see for miles in every direction and always knowing where he is based on familiar landmarks. I've traveled a lot and know the feeling of being away from my natural surroundings. I adapt pretty easily, but when it's time to go home, I know where I want that to be.

In NAVIGATING EARLY, Jack's Kansas roots represent home, stability, connection to place. But I knew Jack's story was very much about being lost. With the unexpected death of his mother and the return of the military father he barely knows, Jack's world is turned upside down. He comes from a long line of Naval men and using Naval language he says he has lost his bearings. Jack's physical displacement very much reflects his emotional displacement. His father is stationed off the coast of Maine and when Jack, a land-locked Kansas kid who also suffers from motion sickness finds himself teetering on the brink of the constantly moving ocean, I think the reader definitely gets a sense of Jack's loss of bearing.

A quote from MOBY DICK—“It is not down on any map; true places never are”—sparked your imagination for MOON OVER MANIFEST. That quote also seems apt for Jack and Early’s quest in NAVIGATING EARLY. What intrigues you about fusing history with the great mysteries of the American landscape?

As writers, I don't think we really know who we or what we are about until we recognize some of our own story in the things we write about. As a kid, we took a three-week vacation every summer in a Holiday Rambler travel trailer. My dad would map out a section of the country each summer and eventually we had driven through every continental state along with parts of Canada and Mexico. At the time, I'm sure I was the first to want out of the car and I know I often asked, “How many more miles?” To which the answer was always, “Umpteen.”

But it was probably those hours spent looking out a car window that led to a deep love and appreciation for landscape. But it's not just about the view; it's about the bigger questions stirred by that landscape and my place within it. Where do I belong? What is my place in this world? Do I matter in this big open space?

As far as the fusion of history and landscape, I think these are the questions people have been asking throughout all of history. One of my favorite scenes in NAVIGATING EARLY takes place in a cave and involves ancient drawings on the stone walls. People from thousands of years before who recorded their journeys, wanderings, and discoveries. I guess I'm fascinated by the fact that we as human beings have shared the same stories for all of time. The human story is very much a never-ending, never-repeating story.

On your website, you briefly mention a style of bedtime story that you and your kids call “dream presents.” These sound like pretty fantastic springboards for stories! Can you explain how they work and how they have influenced your work?

It's kind of funny to be talking about our little bedtime routine on a blog, but here goes. When my kids were little, like all kids, they wanted bedtime stories. And before lights out, as parents, we always wish our kids, “Sweet dreams.” So a “dream present” is kind of a combination of both.

I would start a story, something where the child I was telling it to was the main character, and he or she was always embarking on some big adventure. They might be escaping pirates in a hot air balloon. Or getting lost in the jungle and finding a buried treasure. There would always be some cliffhanger ending and I would tell them to “dream the rest.” I know, it's not as calming as GOODNIGHT MOON, but hopefully it made for some exciting dreams.

As for how it influences my work, I guess I've always loved a good story and feel like that is a great way to go to sleep. Strangely enough, if I get stuck in my writing, I will often lie down for a nap, and it is in that falling asleep stage where I'm more asleep than awake, that the story knot will work its way out. I think dreaming and storytelling are two sides of the same coin.

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