Award-winning author Cynthia Voigt reflects on her career

Deer Isle writer Cynthia Voigt’s name recently appeared in national headlines when U.S. President Barack Obama and his daughters purchased three of her books. Here she is with her granddaughter, Birdie Coit. PHOTO COURTESY CYNTHIA VOIGT
Deer Isle writer Cynthia Voigt’s name recently appeared in national headlines when U.S. President Barack Obama and his daughters purchased three of her books. Here she is with her granddaughter, Birdie Coit.

DEER ISLE — It’s not every day that Downeast folks make news for their connections with President Barack Obama, but such was the case when the President and his two daughters, Sasha and Malia, picked up three young-adult fiction books by Cynthia Voigt in November.

Voigt, a Deer Isle resident of almost 30 years, has written many novels, most targeted to a younger audience.

One of them, “Dicey’s Song,” won the 1983 Newbery Medal for excellence in American’s children literature. Others have been nominated for the prize. Voigt’s latest book, the last in her “Mister Max” adventure trilogy, came out in September.

The Ellsworth American recently caught up with Voigt.

Raised in Connecticut, she attended Smith College in Massachusetts before teaching English for many years in Annapolis, Md., then moving to Maine with her husband. She now splits her time between writing and looking after grandchildren.

Voigt wasn’t able to speak about any of her current projects, but she did share her reaction about the Obama news, her thoughts on dystopian literature, what she learned in college, how she got into writing and how she once applied for a detective job.


EA: What was your reaction when you heard about the Obamas?

CV: It’s been a little present. I’m flattered. I’m amused. I think the guy is a great president, and he’s doing a really good job with his family as well, so I’m honored to be a name that got dropped next to his. I bill it as the closest I’ll ever get to the White House — and thank God for that — but it’s been fun.


EA: What were some of your favorite books when you were younger?

CV: I remember reading “John Brown’s Body,” “The Stranger,” “Hamlet.” I know I read “The Odyssey.” When I went to college, I had a teacher who taught “Crime and Punishment,” so the Russians came into my purview: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy.

I still remember when I was a senior and finishing the second semester of Shakespeare. We came to the end of “King Lear,” which is not a simple project and the teacher said to the class, “In the last act, the problems of the play are resolved, so for the remainder of the period I will read aloud to you the last act of ‘King Lear.’”

That kind of thing drove me crazy. Sometimes if I didn’t like a class I wouldn’t go, but then that’s why I think college was really good for me. I don’t think my mother would agree, but it taught me how much it didn’t matter what people said you have to do.


EA: Were there any young adult books you liked, maybe Nancy Drew?

CV: Boy, did I read Nancy Drew as a kid. She’s my life model. I used to give a speech about how she has a dead mother, a tame father, a red roadster and a boyfriend, and she’s a detective. I mean, what more could a girl ask for?

When I moved to New York, as a college graduate who nobody wanted to hire for anything, I applied for a job as a detective that they had in the paper. It turned out to be a detective job at Bonwit Teller, that fancy lady’s store. The person asked what I thought I would do as a detective, and I said, ‘I think I’ll see suspicious people and follow them,’ but she didn’t seem to think that was the right place for me. They offered to hire me to answer complaint letters, but I felt that was not really the type of job I wanted.


EA: How did you go from teaching to writing?

CV: I spent almost 25 years not succeeding. I’m into stubbornness as a virtue. I was teaching a fifth- grade class, and I wanted them to write book reports, and I thought if I had not read the books, I was not going to be able to read the reports intelligently. So I went to the library and started in the kids section, and when I was a kid, these books were not there.

Then it was a quiet field where both the publishers and the authors hoped to earn a living or something like it. There was no “Harry Potter.” So for a number of years, I would run into these books that were just excellent, and I began to think, ‘Well that’s a field you could write in.’


EA: What do you think about the recent explosion of young adult fiction, like “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games”?

CV: I don’t know what I think. Luckily for me, I might envy their incomes, but I don’t envy their sentences, and I try to remember that.

Why don’t people love me as much as they love the books that other people write? Well, they don’t. You can’t do anything about that, so you get to keep on writing, if you’re lucky, and you don’t think about it. You can’t be in it for your first million.

All you can do is your best work, and if people like it, that’s nice. There are no explosions in my books — yet. And I hate dystopias.


EA: Why is that?

CV: I think there are two reasons. One is it’s easier to scare people than to imbue them with a kind of hope that makes them try harder, and because I think Americans are entirely too easy to scare and I don’t think we need to be encouraging anything like that.

Charles Eichacker

Charles Eichacker

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Charles Eichacker covers the towns of Bucksport, Orland, Castine, Verona Island, Penobscot, Brooksville and Dedham. When not working on stories, he likes books, beer and the outdoors. [email protected]

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