Interview with Julie Campbell Tatham
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 Made Easy."

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.

JT: No.

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 series?

JT: Oh yes. They were darling. Vicki Barr and Cherry Ames were career women. That was a very new idea then.

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 those two.

EK:    Did you know Helen Wells?

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 younger son.

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 grandchildren.

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 and 1952.