A lucky accident
Patricia Canterbury is one of those people whose résumés make you scratch your head and wonder, “How do they do it?” A poet, short story writer and novelist, she also serves as president of the local Soroptimists Club and is a tireless city booster. Canterbury is also a political scientist who once presented a paper to the United Nations Women’s Conference in Nairobi, Kenya. On top of all this, she works full time as assistant executive officer on the Board for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors. Her recent books are mysteries, which follow the adventures of young African-American girls in historic Northern California and the eclectic towns along the contemporary Sacramento River Delta.
Let’s talk about your new book, Carlotta’s Secret.
The writing circle I’m in started this thing where we pull phrases out of a hat. One time I drew this piece of paper that read, “There was something about the way she said welcome that … “ I thought that was a great opening line for a mystery.
This one is a story about an 11-year-old girl from New York who has moved with her parents to the town of Willow Springs, which is basically Courtland [delta town about 15 miles south of Sacramento]. It’s about all of her friends who live on her street and they are known as the “Webster Street gang.” It’s a very eclectic, very diverse, neighborhood, like most delta towns. It’s the first of what will be eight books called the Delta Mysteries, which are contemporary. They’re for 6- to 9-year-olds. They’re not mysteries where people get killed. Things get stolen, people do things that are kind of magical. Then Carlotta and the Webster Street gang go about solving them.
Tell me about your first book, the Secret of St. Gabriel’s Tower.
It’s a book for 9- to 14-year-olds. It’s the first book of the Poplar Cove series. The next book is due out Christmastime of 2002.
Poplar Cove is the name of a fictional “colored” town in Northern California. It’s one of three books that basically follow the adventures of three 11-year-old girls. Poplar Cove is basically Mendocino in the 1920s. I had to do a lot of research. Everything from ice-boxes to gas stations that were still sort of livery stables and not quite gas stations, who had phones and who didn’t, that sort of thing.
The books provide a sort of history lesson and they can be used by English teachers, history teachers et cetera. I didn’t mean for it to be a history lesson, it’s just an extra blessing that came out of my research.
There is a companion piece which, written by Dr. Ruth Wharton, will be published early 2002. It’s for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders and it expands on some of the historical detail. For example, when you speak to today’s children about polio, they have no idea what that is. So there’s a whole chapter dealing with that.
In the second book I talk about how young women, particularly young women of color, had to move around to find work and mostly lived in boarding houses as opposed to living with their parents.
I don’t usually think of children’s literature as often having a strong sense of place.
No. But I have a very strong sense of place. I grew up in Sacramento and I think there’s something really special about this place, it’s so green and full of trees. I want to share that with other people.
How do you manage writing all of these books and holding down a full-time job at the state and doing everything else?
I’m very organized. I have my day planner. I pencil myself in to write at least a half hour or an hour every day. Sometimes it’s garbage. Sometimes it’s good.
Why children’s books?
I didn’t think I was going to write children’s books. I got the idea for the Poplar Cove story. There where these three little girls saying, “You have to write me! You have to write me!” Carlotta was the same way, she just said “You have to write stories about me.” I believe in listening to my muses. So here I am, the author of children’s books. I’m loving it.
What do you think of Sacramento’s literary community?
You mean how absolutely wonderful it is? [Laughing]
People don’t realize how many absolutely wonderful writers we have here. We have some of the finest historians. The whole Sacramento area has a plethora of literary writers. Not matter what genre you’re talking about, you can find somebody who is nationally known. Sometimes I think we’re the best-kept secret in the world. On any given night you can hear poetry being read. I mean any night. If you like music it’s here, literature, theater, it’s here.