What inspired a simple story about a spider? Author Michael Sims found the truth when he decided to examine one of the most beloved children's books of all time in The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic (Walker and Company, $25).
Sims, who'll appear at Quail Ridge Books and Music on Monday, July 11, talked with us about the book, which examines E.B. White's inspirations and process for this heartfelt (and heartbreaking) story. It proves nearly as compelling as Charlotte's Web itself.
Indy: How did the book come about?
Michael Sims: I originally got the idea because I was wanting to write a book on children's animal stories, and I'd do a series of essays on them. I was looking forward to covering Mr. Badger from The Wind in the Willows, and the rabbits in Rabbit Hilland The Cricket in Times Square&and I never got any further than Charlotte and Wilbur. I just fell in love with these characters and their stories.
I was going through E.B. White's essays and letters, and I found this wonderful line: "I didn't like spiders at first, but then I began watching one of them, and soon saw what a wonderful creature she was, and what a skillful weaver. I named her Charlotte."
I found myself wondering, "Was he just performing here? Was there really a first spider?" So I began researching and to explore the story, and found there were a lot of spiders —and pigs, from when he lived on a farm in Maine — but indeed one who helped inspire the story.
That took me back to the book. I hadn't read Charlotte's Web as a child; I discovered it as a teenager, and I fell in love with it anyway. And I'd always loved E.B. White's essays, and this sort of brought a lot of things full circle for me as a writer.
I was recently in Brooklin, Maine, where E.B. White had his farm. I'd been there a few years before researching the book, and I found myself just getting more and more caught up in these wonderful little details. I gave a talk in Brooklin, and my editor and publisher flew up for the event, and we got a photo of us standing in the barn that led to where Wilbur and the other pigs were born, and me swinging on the swing that Fern and Avery swing on in the book, because that was real too.
I got to present the talk in that town, where E.B. White and the story began, and where I began my book. And over the course of writing this, my 10th, book, I sort of fell in love with writing all over again. It was very tiring and frustrating to learn a new style of writing. I did between five and 10 drafts of the proposal, because I struggled to get the voice right. And that was before I had anything to show to a publisher.
I had to learn how to write a textured and detailed narrative, because it's a biographical narrative, and I wanted it to feel like a novel, not an analysis, but a pure story. I've fallen in love with that; I'm working on a new book in that same style, but hopefully improving and distilling it more.
E.B. White had such a long career, but it's curious that he only produced three children's books —all of which are considered classics.
Yes, essays and thousands of unsigned paragraphs in The New Yorker. I think it says something that when he decided to create for children, he focused on animal stories. He was just enormously preoccupied with animals. He loved people, he had friends, but he loved solitude and the company of animals.
What was the most surprising thing you found when you looked into White's childhood?
The most satisfying thing was how White revisited his childhood in his adult life by returning to the farm where he grew up. But I think one of the most surprising things is the very careful scientific research White did on spiders. He knew sheep and geese and pigs forward and backward — he had brought them into the world, and sometimes taken them out of the world — but when the spider entered the story, he didn't understand how spiders worked.
And he began very careful research in a series of science books, and eventually went to the American Museum of Natural History and conferred with a specialist. To me, that was such a surprise, that such a playful, unassuming novel would have grown out of such careful scientific research. It's amazing.
The other part that was surprising was how much he endlessly revised and rewrote to get the story where he wanted it — so many false starts and revisions. He had written several false starts, and even a draft mostly in pencil, and then he set it aside for a while before picking it up again. and only then did he add Fern.
It's so interesting to me how the story gained this human element, with Fern being our way of joining the animals' lives, with the old idea that humans and animals could understand each other in a period of innocence, which he sees as childhood. That's a cool idea.
I've seen the cartoon and the live-action film of Charlotte's Web, and they were both very straightforward in their adaptations, but they really lack that soothing quality you get from the original.
I agree. They really miss the voice. The lyrical aspect&I think I describe it in the book as "a distilled synthesis of what it felt like to be E.B. White" — these descriptions of the world of the farm, things that to me anchor the whimsy and magic of this world, and they make the book. The movies make pretty much no effort to capture that.
The ending of Charlotte's Web, I'll admit, hit me like a ton of bricks as a child. They even had a joke on The Simpsons once about how it reduces grown men to tears.
The publisher didn't want White to have death in the book. Remember, Wilbur has the shadow of death over him for most of the story. But it has such a powerful effect. My wife's parents live in Raleigh, and one of the bonding things with her and her dad was that he read her Charlotte's Web often as a child. I had them read a bit of it to me when I was doing this to see what it was like&a bonding point with the in-laws, I guess. (laughs) But it didn't turn readers away; it was the best-selling children's book ever, at least until Harry Potter. And it didn't have the kind of promotion you see today. White never did signings or readings for his work.
What are you working on next?
One, I'm working on a book about Henry David Thoreau in the style of the Charlotte book, about his two busy years at Walden Pond. We think of him as this curmudgeonly recluse, but he was acclaimed throughout Concord as a great dancer and musician who played the flute and violin and piano. He would go ice-skating with Emerson and Hawthorne, and he would just skate circles around them, literally. He's such an interesting character: He'd host Abolitionist meetings inside the cabin at Walden. And I want to take the opportunity to look at the man a lot of readers and commentators have ignored.
Michael Sims appears at Quail Ridge Books and Music at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, July 11.