Two books are also available about Torey Hayden (in Japanese only). 

Dr. Saitos BookEssays” are a series of essays written to the Hayakawa International Forum in Tokyo about the effect Torey’s books have had on readers’ lives.

Conversations” contain complete transcripts of the lectures which Torey Hayden and Dr. Satoru Saito gave together in 1998.

What does the L stand for in your name?


Do you still drink Dr. Pepper?

I’d like to. But my middle-aged, overweight body has other ideas. It’s now only an occasional treat.

Is your husband Chad? Or Hugh? Or any of the other men from your books?

No. I met Ken in Wales. We were married for over twenty years. Now we’re divorced.

How did you start teaching special education?

When I was in my freshman year at college, I worked as an aide in a program for disadvantaged preschool children. I fell in love with it immediately.

Did you always know you wanted to do this kind of work?

I always knew I wanted to be a writer but my involvement with special education happened by accident. I fell in love with it while working in the program for disadvantaged children.

Isn’t it hard working with seriously disturbed children?

I think special education – and teaching, in general – is more of a vocation than a career. You really do need the right temperament to enjoy it and a extraordinarily strong desire to do it. But if you do have that kind of personality, it is challenging, interesting and deeply fulfilling, albeit also hard work!

Don’t you get depressed because so often you can’t make things better?

I am a “process oriented” person, as opposed to being a “goal oriented” person. I enjoy the process of doing things and as a consequence, the outcome does not matter as much to me. Hence I enjoy being in the classroom, being with the children and am very much in the present when I am working. Of course, I hope for the children’s sake that I will be able to help them and that their futures will be better, but for my own sake, the outcome and the future are not very important. I’ve noticed that the people who tend to feel depressed or who “burn out” are often those who are more goal oriented. They find it harder to enjoy the same experience when there are so few positive results.

Can you tell me how to get started in this field myself?

Because it is so important to know if your personality really is well suited to this kind of work, my best advice is to do volunteer work with special children before you start any formal training. If you enjoy doing it as a volunteer, you will enjoy doing it for money.

Can you tell me what course work to take so I can become the kind of teacher you were?

I’m not in a very good position to give career advice, partly because I followed a very strange path myself, having got my first degree in biology! More importantly, I got my certifications and degrees over twenty years ago and requirements may have changed. The best place to start is with your high school or secondary school guidance counselor or career advice person.

Are you still teaching?

Not at the moment. I stopped teaching when my daughter was born because I wanted to spend time with her. While she was growing up, I became involved in other areas, primarily as a child abuse counselor and lecturer, and I continued to write. I may return to teaching if the circumstances are right.

Can I volunteer or work as an intern with you?

Because I am not actively teaching at the moment and moving part-time among several different programs, I can’t take volunteers or interns at the moment. But there will be another teacher or child worker living near you who would be delighted to have volunteer help.

Did you help most of the children you worked with?

I wish I could say yes, but this isn’t a ‘numbers game’. These are real people and real-life situations. The best I can say is that I hope I have helped more than I’ve hurt. It is important for me to say here that I am not a “special” teacher. I didn’t do my job any better than many, many others out there. The big difference between us is simply that I can write. Consequently, you know about my work. But there is a whole army of wonderfully hard-working, dedicated people out there, doing every bit as much, if not more, than I did.

Why do you always write about your successes?

Because not many people would want to read about failure. Consequently, my publishers wouldn’t publish it! This doesn’t mean I don’t have failures. It simply means that success makes a nicer story.

In ONE CHILD you seemed to give more attention to Sheila than the other children. Is it fair to give so much attention to one child in the group, even if she is as special as Sheila?

I gave equal attention to all the children in the class. Because I wrote a book about Sheila, most of the story in ONE CHILD focuses on her. This gives the impression I focused more attention on her but is simply a writing device. Otherwise I would have had to call the book MANY CHILDREN!!

When did you write your first book?

My first book was ONE CHILD, which I wrote in 1979. I didn’t actually start off with the intention of publishing it. I started it as a piece of writing for myself to record that extraordinary time with Sheila before it got too far into the past. Because I was writing it just for myself, it went very fast. I wrote it in eight days. It was only afterwards that I thought, “Gosh, this is a book!”

How did you get your book published?

I went to the book store and bought a copy of “Writer’s Market” which gives advice on how to write a query letter and how to go about finding a publisher. I wrote a query letter exactly the way they said. Then I chose a list of the publishers who looked like they had published similar books. I sent three of these the query letters. What was then G. P. Putnam’s Sons wrote me back within days and asked to see the first three chapters. I sent these off and within a week they asked to see the rest of the book. From there it’s history.

Did you get many rejection slips?

ONE CHILD was an author’s dream. It took only 42 days from the time that I started writing it until I signed a contract for it, so I did not receive any rejections slips. But they are a common aspect of writing. I have had things rejected since.

I would like to be a writer. Do you have any tips?

Writing is a very individual thing, so it is hard to give any tips. What works for me might not work for anyone else. Here are a couple of general ideas, however:
1) Believe in yourself. A lot of people will try to discourage you, from parents and teachers to publishers and agents. If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you can’t expect them to.
2) The best books come from deep inside you. That’s why many authors’ first books are their best. They are writing about the deepest, most meaningful things in their lives at that moment. This is also why many writers give the tip: write about what you know. This is another way of saying much the same thing.
3) Know that only you can write your own story. No one else can teach you how. They can teach you the mechanics of writing, like grammar and punctuation, but only you will have your particular style. So, while it is all right to read lots of books to see how other authors write or to take creative writing classes or listen to writers speak, let your own style develop in your story.
4) Persistence, persistence, persistence. And more persistence

How long does it take for a book to go from the manuscript version you hand in to a completed book?

Books are like babies. It takes about nine months from the time I submit my final manuscript until it appears in the book stores. During this time the manuscript will have its finally editing and it will be copy-edited, which means someone will check it for grammatical, spelling and technical errors. Then it will be set in print and be returned to the author in “galleys”, which is the printed form it will take. The author makes final corrections and then it is bound. The dust jacket will also be designed during this time. Obviously, the publisher wants the author to like the appearance of the book, but ultimately the design of the cover, etc. is the publisher’s choice.

Your book jackets always make you sound like you are a miracle worker – “The world needs more like Torey Hayden” and all that.

Blame my publishers for this one. Unfortunately, this is the way books are marketed and ordinary authors have little say about those dreadful tag lines that appear on each book or the hyperbolic flap copy. The sales people demand these things and they are more powerful. I hate the tag lines and flap copy and wish it would be different. So, please do not think I believe any of those things they say! Or that my book will reflect such grandiose ideas.

Why did you let Hollywood do horrible things to your books?

Turning a book into a movie is a two-part affair. The first part is called an “option”. Someone from the film industry – an actor, a producer, a screenwriter – pays a small amount of money to have the rights to your book for a certain length of time, usually a year, with the hope that they can make a movie out of it. If they manage to find enough money, write a screenplay and can start production of the movie in that time, then they buy the full rights and go ahead and make the movie. The author of the book ceases to have creative control from the moment he or she signs on the dotted line and takes their money, because the movie people have actually purchased the rights to the story in that particular creative medium. It becomes their creative work from there on. So, they can do anything they wish and the author has no say. Authors can maintain some creative control by becoming involved in writing the screenplay or as a technical advisor, but movie making is much more of a group act than writing, so even this is no guarantee. Plus, working in the film industry requires additional skills and takes time away from writing books. The only sure-fire way to keep Hollywood from doing horrible things to a book is not to sell it to them at all, but that’s not such fun.

Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

Yes, I did. From the time I first figured out holding a pencil, I was writing. I related in THE TIGER’S CHILD about discovering the “magic” of writing when I was eight. I’d written this little story about my dog when I should have been doing my reading workbook at school. My teacher caught me and took the story away. She gave it back to me about two weeks later and I can remember sitting on the steps outside the school, reading that story and having a sudden epiphany about how, if you wrote something down well, you could come back to it later and feel exactly the same emotions. I remember thinking how it was like taking a snapshot, only not of a scene but of people’s feelings. I thought this was so cool. Magic. Real magic. That was one of the defining moments of my life, that afternoon on the steps of Winans School.

What kind of writer are you? Do you find it hard to do?

The truth is, writing was almost a disease with me. I refer to my kind of writing as “organic”, because it is something I simply have to do. It’s part of me, like eating and sleeping and breathing. I hear about other writers who have to discipline themselves to sit down at the typewriter or whatever and “write every day” or “write so many pages”. For me, it is a matter of disciplining myself away from the typewriter! I could happily write all day, every day and neglect everything else.

How did you remember so many details and dialogue?

I had a sneaky helper here. A lot of schools invested in the “new technology” of the era, which was a chunky old video camera and reel-to-reel videotape machines. They were complex to run, so they didn’t get used much. Being a bit of a “techie”, I took advantage of this and often kept the machinery in my room when others didn’t need it. So I did a lot of videotaping of my classes and have had them as resources for writing the books. I also kept an anecdotal diary.

What are the problems and responsibilities of writing about real people ?

There are both ethical and legal reasons to be considered when you write about real people.

The ethical side of things is very important. There is a fine line between sharing a worthwhile story and exploiting the people involved. In this day and age of reality television and celebrity gossip, this line is often blurred. However, I don’t believe it is right to use people’s personal suffering for entertainment. As a consequence, there are some aspects of the lives of the people I’ve written about that I will not share.

Similarly I feel very strongly about protecting them from being identified. Most of the people involved were minors at the time I knew them; most of the events portrayed are very personal; and most people have now moved well beyond that place in their lives. Moreover, these stories are my accounts, from my perspective, and how I perceive things is subjective. Sometimes I see things differently than they did, simply because of my different perspective, but this does not mean their point of view is not equally valid. It’s important not to hurt or demean the people involved. I haven’t always been successful at this, so I am more careful now.

There are also some serious legal issues to consider when writing about real people. Some people do not want to be portrayed and refuse permission. Sometimes they take serious exception to how you remember things, even if you are certain you are right and their perception is wrong. I get signed consents in as many instances as I can. I also allow the major characters in the book the opportunity to proof the manuscript before it goes to the publisher whenever possible.

Sometimes legal problems are so great that some characters have to be portrayed as composite characters or left out entirely. Sometimes people get cold feet after the book has gone in for publication and they want expensive changes or to be removed from the story. Sometimes people will agree to appear as a character in one medium, such as a book, but refuse consent to appear as a character in another medium, such as film, which means the subsidiary rights to the book can’t be sold. My experience is that one needs an extremely comprehensive consent form to deal with these kinds of eventualities, so if you plan to write about real people, my best advice is to get a good lawyer first!

So what kinds of things do you change in your books?

Names, of course. Also the order in which things happened is often altered. The locations are usually different. Some easily identified events have similar events substituted.

I’ve tried to put the books in order of when they happened, but I can’t get the timeline to fit.

No, the timeline won’t fit. I have changed chronological order in many instances. Some things happened in real life before or after they happen in the books. There are three reasons for doing this:
One: to protect privacy.
Two: some of the stories run concurrently but characters have been renamed or chronological order changed to meet consent or privacy constraints, so it isn’t apparent.
Three: some of stories take place in vastly different settings than portrayed because of the demands of publishers or other external factors I can’t control of, so they don’t fit into the timeline smoothly.

If you’ve changed so much, I don’t see how these stories can be called nonfiction.

The books are what is called “narrative nonfiction”. A similar example is James Herriot’s vet stories. They not biographies or academic texts. Instead they are memoirs, which means they are accounts of my personal experiences in special education, therapy and counselling from my own perspective. All the attributes, characteristics and interactions have come from real people I have known and real events I have participated in. Much of the dialogue is real and verbatim, based on videotape footage. (Some stills from these videotapes appear later in this section.) I also kept extensive anecdotal records and some sections of some books are lifted almost directly from these. All directly quoted work by children, including Sheila’s poem, are the actual works.

Having said that, there is also much which is reconstructed. Some of this is due to the privacy or legal issues mentioned above. Some of this is due to needing to create transitional passages to make the story read smoothly. Some of it is due to my motivations in writing a particular book. The earlier books were mostly relationship-driven in that I wanted to capture the extraordinary beauty of particular children’s personalities. In later books, I have become more issue driven. I have wanted to highlight a specific issue and talk more about it, so I’ve taken an example from my own experience and built the story from there. There may not always be sufficient material around a given incident for a complete book, so characters and situations have been composited to make a complete storyline or separate stories have been combined with transitional passages. However, all the material is still taken from my personal experience and is about real issues I have confronted, real people I have met and real experiences I have had.

How much does your publisher have to do with all this?

Just as legal issues influence a lot in regards to how the books are written, the publisher also influences quite a bit, because they are who actually sell the book. My “home” publisher is my American publisher. They see the manuscript of a book first and I work with American editors getting it ready, so they determine much of the format for my books. This directly affects what I put in the book. For example, my publishers are unwilling for me to have a non-American setting for any of my books, as their market research shows that non-American settings do not sell in American nonfiction, while foreign audiences are perfectly happy reading a story set in the US. Consequently, if I want to talk about any of the children or experiences I have had since coming to Britain, I need to place these in an American context.

Similarly, they have been very unwilling to have me vary my format. With TWILIGHT CHILDREN I have finally been able to write a book talking about my work outside the school classroom, but for a while, because MURPHY’S BOY was less successful than the classroom tales, they refused to publish this format.

I have had other changes imposed by publishers. In one book I had to change the race of the child. In several instances I had to cut from a story real events which were seen as too grim or too “unpromising”. In GHOST GIRL I was under enormous pressure to come up with an “answer” to the main characters’ behavior in order to resolve the story happily, when there simply wasn’t a resolution, happy or unhappy. These are typical changes which virtually all nonfiction writers run up against.

Has any of the characters ever objected to what you’ve written?

Yes. And I removed the text.

Has anyone tried to sue you over your portrayal of them?

No, not with any of my nonfiction books. Perversely, the only problem I ever had was with a woman who thought I had based my novel, THE SUNFLOWER FOREST on her life. This was not true and fortunately, I had dated correspondence with my agent to substantiate the source of my ideas for the novel, so the case was dropped.

What about censors?

In some parts of the US my books have been censored because people feel they are not appropriate for children under 15.

I don’t agree with this. For the most part, children will come to things when they are ready to learn about them. So if a 12-year-old chooses to read ONE CHILD, then he or she is most likely mature enough for the content. I write about some very serious but real topics. The books portray a world where very bad things do sometimes happen but they also portray a world where there are good, caring people who want to make things better. I don’t believe children need to be protected from this message.

Why did you decide to write novels when everyone likes the nonfiction books so well?

Because the nonfiction books are based on real experiences and there is – understandably – a limited number of them! Plus, some things I simply can not write about because of privacy reasons or because I can’t get consents.

I am not very interested in journalistic writing, which would be writing nonfiction accounts of other people’s lives. What I enjoy most is writing about deep feelings and it would be impossible to write accurately about other people’s deep feelings, because I’m not inside them.

The other reason I have done novels is that from a creative point of view, the non fiction books are very confining. Even before I start to write, the storyline, the characters, the setting are all pre-determined. The only creativity that goes into it is figuring out how to express some things or show some scenes without making the characters identifiable enough that I will be sued!

Why is your novel THE MECHANICAL CAT not available in English ?

THE MECHANICAL CAT was not deemed to be “an American novel”. It is a rather complex story which my American publishers felt would not appeal to American readers. Consequently, it is only available in Swedish, Italian, Finnish and Japanese at this time.

Where can I get hold of THE SUNFLOWER FOREST in English ?

THE SUNFLOWER FOREST, which I wrote in 1983, is now out of print in English. This is normal. Few novels have a “shelf life” of more than a few years. Your best chance of finding a copy is to watch eBay.com or to leave your name and address with someplace like Amazon.com. Certainly there are copies around, as a friend of mine wanted one and she has turned up four copies since through the Internet. It also appears that www.bol.com is selling new copies of SFF in English.

Is there any chance THE SUNFLOWER FOREST will be reprinted?

This is a matter to take up with my publisher. I have no control over this part of it. I know my Japanese publisher has been trying to get an English re-print of THE SUNFLOWER FOREST, as the book has been popular in the Japanese edition and many readers there then like to read the original-language version. But they have told me that so far they’ve been unsuccessful.

Do you like getting fan mail?

I think every author likes to know that what he or she has written is meaningful to people. So, yes, I am always happy to receive fan mail. I do read all I receive personally.

Do publishers or anyone else read the mail before it gets to you?

Yes, sometimes. This happens for several reasons. Usually the publisher is simply interested to know the kind of fan mail the author is receiving because the publisher wants to best meet the readers’ needs. For example, if many fans are interested in the same thing, the publisher might then ask the author to write about that in the future. Publishers also read mail to keep a check on the author’s safety. In the case of fan mail from non-English speakers, the publisher will sometimes read the mail to provide a summary of what the fan has said. They can not provide translation, however. In my own experience, my publishers will have opened about 25% of my mail. The rest comes through unopened.

I’ve sent you a fan letter but you haven’t answered, so probably it never arrived.

Probably it did. Publishers are, in fact, very good at forwarding on mail to authors. However, as I live abroad, some publishers prefer to forward mail to me in bulk. So they send it in bundles every three or six months. This can cause quite a delay between the time the fan writes the letter and I read it.

I’ve sent you a fan letter, but you haven’t answered. Why not?

I receive an enormous amount of fan mail. Sometimes it is as much as 2000 pieces a month from all over the world. It is simply not possible for me to answer all of this personally. If I tried, I would have no time left to write the books, given that I am also caring for my family, raising sheep and doing further work with children, to name just a few things. I’m hoping that through the message board and other similar means, I can interact with more fans personally and still have a life!

Are there any tips to writing a good fan letter that will increase my chances of getting an answer?

Do try to remember basic courtesy. In particular, if you like an author enough to write him or her a letter, show the author that by taking enough time to spell his or her name right and get the titles of the books right. Try not to ask questions which have already been answered in the book you’ve just read or where the answer can be found on the dust jacket. And most important of all, always include your full address on the letter, not just on the envelope. Many times I have actually wanted to reply to a fan but had no address because the letter had become separated from the envelope or because the envelope had been removed at the publisher’s and never arrived with the letter.

I understand there are videos of you working with your children. Where can I see them?

These were videos I made to help me with teaching. They were in the old reel-to-reel format, so most of them have been lost because I didn’t get them transferred to videocassettes before the reel-to-reel technology disappeared. Also, because they were made just to help me with my work, I do not have consents to show most of them, so would not be able to make them generally available for public viewing. Perhaps it is also worth noting that because these are tapes of actual classroom activities or psychotherapy sessions, they are often remarkably boring! Real life, with none of the dull bits edited out, is not always that interesting.

Pictures in this section are from the videos of Torey working with the children

I understand two of your books were made into TV movies.

MURPHY’S BOY was made into a TV movie called “Trapped in Silence” in 1986. It starred Marsha Mason and Kiefer Sutherland. It is a relatively good adaptation, if you can excuse the fact that there is 20 years’ age difference between Marsha Mason in the film and the age I was when I worked with Kevin. And I only wish I had had the fancy apartment and huge car she has!

ONE CHILD was made into a TV movie called “Untamed Love” in 1995. It starred Cathy Lee Crosby. Sadly, it is a real stinker and the less said about it the better.

Do you think you’ve been a good mother?

I think every parent wants to do a good job, but it is very difficult task. Of course having a background in child development, etc. has helped me, but I’ve made a lot of mistakes too. The thing is, there’s a lot about being a parent that no one tells you. Probably they couldn’t tell you. You have to experience it for yourself. But because you don’t know what you’re doing, you make mistakes and only realize it was a mistake after you made it. Some you can correct or apologize for. Some you just have to live with. I hope I’ve been a good mother. Certainly I’ve tried to be. But only my daughter can answer this question.

Did anything surprise you about being a mother?

Yes, lots!  When I came into it, I assumed I would be good at it, given all the psychology and child development degrees and child-care experience. I assumed I would be laid back about everything, because I have a naturally relaxed personality.

What a surprise! What surprised me most was discovering the big difference between working with other people’s children and working with one’s own. I was so impatient! This both amazed and worried me. I could tolerate other children doing anything, but poor Sheena – she did the least thing and it drove me nuts! Finally, I came to realize this just is the way one feels about one’s own children. Your own kids are yours.  You have them 24 hours a day, and hopefully forever. So it matters how they turn out. You are always thinking about their future, as well as the present. You want them to have a good life and be happy when you are no longer there; so it’s hard to be laid back about someone who matters so much to you.

What is the hardest part about being a mother ?

My training and my experience working with children had made me believe that environment plays a far greater role in how children develop than I now feel it does. I had believed that by providing the right physical environment and the right psychological environment, I could predict (dare I say ‘control’?) the kind of person Sheena would grow into. What I learned was that there are many more variables involved everything from personality type to blind strokes of luck, good or bad.

It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that my job was not to make Sheena into the kind of person I wanted her to be but rather to provide her with the support and guidance necessary to allow her to develop into the kind of person she wanted to be. This seems pretty obvious looking at it, but it is a surprisingly thing difficult to do and it is surprisingly hard to know if you’re doing it right or not without waiting for hindsight to point your mistakes out for you.