Interview with Julie
By Ernie Kelly
Julie Campbell Tatham is a
major writer in the juvenile series field. She created the Ginny Gordon series
and the Trixie Belden series, the latter being one of the longest running series
of all time. She also wrote many books in the Cherry Ames and Vicki Barr series.
She was interviewed in at her home in Alexandria, Virginia where she is
currently working on a reprinting of "To Nick From Jan", one of her most popular
non-series juvenile books, and marketing her latest book, "The Old Testament
EK: How did you get into
writing series books?
JT: I had my own small
literary agency in New York City at that time (1947) but I was still
freelancing on the side, writing mainly articles and short stories for national
magazines. I had always wanted to write a series of kids' mysteries because I
had adored them while growing up. I practically existed on "The Bobbsey Twins",
"The Cornerhouse Girls" and "The Little Colonel" series books. I think I owe my
success in this field to the fact that I never really outgrew them so I'm never
guilty of the sin of "writing down" to my readers.
EK: When did you write your
first series books?
JT: It happened like this.
The Junior Achievement project was just starting and using this idea of kids
going into business as a springboard in a mystery, I had worked up an outline
and some sample chapters for a book to be entitled "The Swap Shop Mystery" with
Ginny Gordon as the heroine. Then all of a sudden, Whitman Publishing Co. called
all the agents in New York to a conference saying "We need some fast-moving,
well-written juvenile mystery and adventure books which we can produce and mass
market at a price kids can pay themselves." Well I went to the conference as an
agent, but later I thought about it and sent them the Ginny Gordon material,
which eventually became "The Disappearing Candlesticks." They called me right
back and said, "This is absolutely terrific. You do the two girls series and get
two of your men writers to do the boys series." That second girls series turned
out to be Trixie Belden.**
EK: Then what happened?
JT: The boys series
didn't last very long and after the fifth book they dropped Ginny in order to
concentrate on Trixie. Ginny was, I think, a little sophisticated for the
time. There was just a hint that Ginny and John might fall in love—a very
underplayed sense of romance. I frankly thought our readers wanted that kind
of thing but Whitman felt that Trixie was the better of the two and there's no
doubt that she is a very lovable heroine with whom almost any girl can
identify. My fans always wrote me that when Trixie grew up she would marry
Jim and Honey would marry Brian. So even if you don't include it, the kids
read romance into the books.
EK: But you have a good
feeling about Whitman and what their motives were...
JT: I have the greatest
respect for Whitman. They're wonderful people to work with and they had the
intelligence to realize that if series books were written by good writers they
could contribute a lot toward teaching the kids to read. And I don't mean
learning to read. I mean loving to read.
EK: Were you trying to do
something different from the books in the Stratemeyer Syndicate series?
JT: I wanted Trixie to be
different from Nancy Drew. I thought Nancy Drew books were poorly written and
totally implausible. The first rule should be that the kids get themselves into
the scrapes and get themselves out without the assistance of adults. It's not a
good book if you change that concept. They have to be well plotted and well
written. I felt very strongly that they should be plausible—things that could
happen to any kid at any time.
EK: How were you
compensated for your work?
JT: Whitman saw these
series as a test so they didn't want to go into a contract with royalties. They
paid me for one book at a time. I thought that was all right.
EK: But you stopped writing
the Trixies after 6 books...
JT: The time came when I
wanted to give them up and when I informed the editors they blew a gasket. "How
can you stop?" they demanded. I had been writing six books a year for a long
time and I felt it was time to stop and do something else.
EK: So they decided to
carry on the series without you?
JT: Yes, but I said to them
"You cannot continue the series unless you give me royalties." They said, "Oh
no, we own these books outright." I said : "Yes, you do, but you do not own the
characters. I own those characters." They said: "We can't do that. We'll have to
stop Trixie." I said: "Ok." You see, I didn't want to set a precedent which
would hurt other authors. Well, we went back and forth. They offered me flat
sums. Finally, I said: "Ok, you can publish six more for a flat fee."
EK: So even though you
didn't write any more Trixies, you still got paid?
JT: Once they had done that
I knew if we ever went before a judge he would say "Well, why did you pay her if
you don't think she owns anything?" I had them there. And then they had a dozen
books out —a much bigger investment— so I had them there, too. Finally one day
they came in and gave me a contract.
EK: Did you ever meet or
know the other authors who carried on after you with Trixie.
EK: So how did you get
called to write in the Vicki Barr and Cherry Ames series?
JT: My agent knew Helen
Wells and found out she had decided to quit writing Cherry and Vicki in order to
go into radio and television. She just left them high and dry right in the
middle of "Cruise Nurse". You know how it was—they had the title and jacket all
lined up. They had those books sold before we even wrote them! You just met the
deadlines. So, anyway, my agent called G&D and told them, "I've got just the gal
for you. She's a very good writer and a very fast writer. She can ghost those
books for you right away." So Hu Jergens (editor at G&D) called me up and said:
"Can you write Cherry Ames-Cruise Nurse in three weeks?" So I did it. I sent him
a plot and then I wrote it. He was absolutely overwhelmed. I had his letter
around for years. It started out, Dear Julie: My hat's off to you...
EK: So you wrote "Magnolia
Manor" too? Both of those are credited to Helen Wells...
JT: Oh yes. They were
already sold as written by Helen Wells.
EK: Did you like those two
JT: Oh yes. They were
darling. Vicki Barr and Cherry Ames were career women. That was a very new idea
EK: You changed Cherry Ames
and Vicki Barr around by giving them lots of boyfriends...
JT: My philosophy is to
play the field. I couldn't tolerate this going steady stuff. My heroines were
plenty attractive. They had lots of beaux.
EK: But after a few years
Helen Wells came back, first to Vicki Barr and then to Cherry Ames...
JT: I gave them back to
Helen. I think she realized she'd let a goldmine get out of her hands. I gave
back the Vicki Barrs before the Cherry Ames. I really liked Vicki Barr. It isn't
that I didn't, but something had to give and I liked that one less, I guess. But
Hu never forgave that. He was furious that I stopped. Then I gave up Cherry
Ames. You can't keep writing them forever and ever and do other things in your
life. So I really had to stop. Helen Wells got \5% of the royalties on the books
I had written because, again, she created the characters.
EK: But overall, I take
it you had a good experience with the editors at Grossett and Dunlap...
JT: They were wonderful
people to work with. That editor, Hu Jergens. He was marvelous. He
taught me everything. That man’s sense of plotting was incredible. And
Anne Hagan. She was a stickler for absolute correct copy editing. She
taught me how to copy edit. Oh, she was marvelous. I am so grateful I had
EK: Did you know Helen
JT: Yes, we were very
good friends. She was a very nice person.
EK: Let’s talk a little
about how you write.
JT: I plan a lot of my
work ahead. I plan the plots very carefully and then I divide the book into
three sections and then divide the sections into chapters and do summaries for
each one. I always write my last chapters first and my first chapters last
because you have to rewrite the first one a thousand times to get it right.
The last chapter is vital. If there are any loose ends you better take care
of them before you write the rest of the book.
EK: It sounds like you
went about this very carefully...
JT: You know, you have
to do this because if you don't and you make a mistake, the kids will notice and
they'll let you know about it. There was one attractive character in the
early Cherry Ames books- "Alexis", I think his name was-that I wanted to bring
back. Hu said: "Ok, let’s find out where we left him off." Well, it was
assumed he had died but it was never stated exactly. Anyway, I brought him
back and boom-I get 40,000 letters from kids saying he was dead! Adults don't
care but kids do. If the sun rises in a certain window, it cannot set in that
window too. Kids notice things like that.
EK: Were your characters
taken from real life?
JT: Yes. I'd think of
someone who had a special type of disposition and meld him or her together with
maybe two or three other people and there emerges a character who is new. The
character takes over and becomes a living human being. Somehow they exist.
Trixie Belden's kid brother, Bobby, was a combination of my kid brother and my
EK: Characterization is
important for you, isn't it?
JT: Oh yes. I can
talk about my characters without any sense of pride or egotism because to me
they are real people. They get involved in a plot I devise and they make it
come to life. If you don't feel that way then they are just stick figures.
EK: How about the
locations? Were they real?
JT: Yes. We lived in a
farmhouse in the Hudson River Valley, just like Trixie. Our home was on Glen
Road and there was an old mansion there.
EK: How did you get ideas
for your books?
JT: I used to spend a lot
of time reading newspapers and magazines and I'd clip out little tidbits that
might lead to plot ideas. Eventually I had enormous files with clippings that
had the germ of a plot in them. In any story I would have a main plot and some
subplots. When you're doing as many books as I was, you needed a good file of
plots and subplots. In The Gatehouse Mystery, for instances, Bobby is in a trash
heap and he falls down and cuts his knee on a sharp stone. Suddenly they think
it might be a diamond so they go back and investigate and it leads to the
mystery. Well, I got that idea from a newspaper clipping about a child who had
really fallen and discovered a whole bag of jewelry.
EK: Did you experience any
peer pressure or criticism for working on juvenile series books?
JT: I had friends who tried
to discourage me from writing them. "Potboilers" they called them—written just
to make a little money on the side. But I didn't agree with them. I put my heart
and soul into those books. I didn't write any less better than I did with other
books. I knew those books were going to sell for a long time and nothing was
going to stop them. When I was writing those books, I made sure there was
nothing dated in them and that's why they're as popular today as they were
thirty years ago.
EK: How did you perceive
series books were regarded in society at large?
JT: In the beginning people
were apt to make fun of them. But gradually they became properly appreciated.
Now when I go to schools to give talks on "How to Become a Successful Writer",
the Trixie Belden books are everywhere.
EK: Do you have any family?
JT: Yes, two sons and eight
EK: Any final thoughts?
JT: Would you like another
one of these delicious cookies?
EK: Well, ok.
**Note--The two boys series
referred to by Mrs. Tatham were The Walton Boys by Hal Burton and Tom Stetson by
John Henry Cutler, each of which contains three volumes published between 1948