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At a Saturday art program that attracted hundreds of kids from the Pittsburgh area, Perkins's drawings were singled out several times, Wagner recalls.
Mostly the sisters spent time at home, in a new subdivision populated by middle- and working-class families. Since it was the height of the baby boom, the neighborhood was brimming with kids, who had the run of the street and the nearby woods. The adults, meanwhile, "would congregate at somebody's house, bring their lawn chairs. The pot of coffee would be on for everybody."
Folks from the neighborhood, where Perkins's 70-something mother still lives, ended up as characters in Perkins's books. Lenny from Criss Cross is based on a neighbor boy who was Lynne's age, says Wagner (aka Chrissanne and Aunt Peppy), and Fran is really Liz, their mother's best friend. Many of these friends and neighbors came out to congratulate Perkins recently at a Pittsburgh-area book signing. Even the teacher who inspired the Miss Epler character brought an old yearbook for Perkins to sign.
Perkins says she set her novels in the past — the 1970's might as well be the Bronze Age for the intended readers — to help kids "enter the story differently. It lets me separate them from everyday life. Things are clearer when you have a little distance."
And, she admits, it made the writing easier. Producing her first novel was enough of a challenge without having to create or research a different setting. Maybe Cheswick is her version of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, she says. "I can work there. It's a place to start."
Although Perkins is currently working on a picture book, she's under contract to write one more novel and wouldn't mind writing more Debbie books after that. With her cast of characters established — "it's like having an improv troupe" — Perkins wants to make her next book more plot-driven. Rereading Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier got her thinking about writing a mystery, although "I might not have it in me," she laughs.
Remarkably, Perkins is not entirely at ease in the role of novelist. "On some level, I'm more comfortable and confident with art because I've been doing it so much longer," Perkins says. "Sometimes I have to draw just to reassure myself: I can do this."
How, then, does she account for her huge success as a writer?
"I'm a reader — that's my most useful training," she says. "Books are really important to me."
That's true, says Faught, who belongs to Perkins' book club. Perkins is the one member who always comes to the meetings having actually read and analyzed the books. She can be counted on for keen observations because she's well read and well informed. Above all, Faught adds, "Lynne is very, very smart."
Our coffee long gone, we make the short trip to the new house, on top of a ridge within Suttons Bay's village limits. Perkins, who dropped out of the Penn State architecture program after three days, designed the house on Saturday afternoons when the rest of the family went snowboarding. She placed her studio on the first floor, along with the kitchen, dining room and living room.
Her favorite spot is a corner porch, which has a narrow winter view of Suttons Bay's waters through the bare trees. It's screened somewhat by a rise and will be more private in the summer behind the leaves, Perkins notes.
On the way into the house, a contractor stops Perkins to say congratulations, he saw her on the Today Show, and how was that? She smiles, she is gracious, but she doesn't linger to discuss Ann Curry.
Janet Lively writes from Traverse City and teaches composition at Northwestern Michigan College.
Lynne Rae Perkins' Bookshelf
Note: This article was first published in June 2006 and was updated for the web February 2008.