Maria Shriver, bestselling author of two previous children's books, What's Heaven? and What's Wrong With Timmy?, brings back the character of a young girl named Kate in what may be her most personal story. Here, Shriver speaks candidly about the motivation behind her latest book, What's Happening to Grandpa? (Little, Brown), and how she is raising her four children to handle tough topics.
Q: What inspired you to write What's Happening to Grandpa?A: What motivated me was my father's diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. When you have a loved one in the early stages of Alzheimer's -- before a diagnosis -- you have no clue really of what's going on, and I thought to myself, "If I can't figure out what's going on here, imagine what other people are going through." Also, my children started asking me questions, and that's always a good indication for me to start writing a book. All my books have stemmed from personal situations and questions that my children started asking me. What's Wrong With Timmy? was a tribute to my mother's work, and this is a tribute to my father [Sargent Shriver]. It's a tribute to my parents' union and to all the people who are struggling with this.
Q: What did your children ask about their grandfather?A: They asked, "What's happening with Grandpa? He's repeating the same stuff. How come Grandpa doesn't remember that we went out on the boat? How come Grandpa doesn't remember that he saw me this morning?" And I was struggling myself. My brothers were struggling. My mother was struggling. And most important, my dad was struggling.
Q: What do you hope readers will get out of this book?A: I hope it will help children and grown-up children like me understand what's happening to their parent. Most people I've talked to comment that they feel so helpless. I wanted this little girl [in the book] to be able to take that feeling and do something about it. With one idea, she makes a difference and provides joy. I hope, with all my books, that they promote family discussion and interaction because the hardest thing to do is to get your kids to talk to you.
Q: What did you get out of writing this book?A: It was cathartic for me to write it. I asked my father, my mother, and my brothers if it was okay [that I write this book]. I wrote it first for myself, and I told them that I'm fine with it if it just stays in our family. I wanted my father to be able to announce to the world his diagnosis and handle it the way he wanted to. So it sat for about six or seven months, and then everybody got to a stage where they felt that Daddy's condition was public, that this could help, and that I had a platform for these kinds of issues.
Q: When did your father go public about his diagnosis?A: He wrote a letter about his condition in June .
Q: Has your father read the book?A: Yes. He thinks everything I do is wonderful, remarkable, fantastic. [She laughs.]
Q: All your children's books have had the theme of talking to kids about a difficult topic. Is that important in your family life?A: I guess you could say that is my mission statement. There is no subject in our house that we can't talk about. There's no question that's stupid. There's no subject that's off-limits. I always want my kids to first hear the explanation for difficult subjects from me. You want to make sure you answer your children's questions as intelligently and openly as you can, so that the lines of communication stay open.
Q: Did you grow up in a household where you were encouraged to ask questions?A: No, I did not grow up in a house where these subjects, except for mental retardation, were discussed. The issue of death was never discussed, and that's how What's Heaven? came about. The issue of mental retardation was my mother's life's work and it was obviously very much discussed in our home but more in an intellectual, medical way. I had been told the passion for her work came from within her own family, but she didn't talk to me a lot about that. She always talked about the need for acceptance and understanding.
I'm a more open, talkative person. I think we, parents today, like to discuss things more. The children's book market today is an incredible industry. It wasn't when I was growing up. Many of these subjects were considered taboo, or you just figured it out for yourself. But I'm adamant about breaking down walls. I'm a communicator by choice and by profession, whether it's through the broadcast medium or the written word.
Q: Is there any topic that can't be discussed with children?A: No, I don't believe there is. You always have to judge the age [and tailor your discussion appropriately]. Because of the Internet and the news, my 14-year-old and 12-year-old often know things before I know them. I think the main goal for parents is communication -- trying to find out how your kids are feeling, what they're going through, what they want to talk about, and why they don't want to talk.
Q: Would you say the most painful thing about Alzheimer's is the progressive nature of it?A: Yes, and that there is no cure. But there is so much hope, and if you read the paper, there are things coming out almost weekly about it -- articles about new research, medicine, vitamin combinations. There is also a lot of fear. And so much is unknown about it.
Q: Is there anything you're doing to help prepare your kids for the future with their grandfather?A: I just talk to them about it, and I don't concentrate on the end. I concentrate on the now. They think their grandpa is funny. They love him. They think he's a character.
Q: Did you consult experts before writing your book?A: I did. I talked to the doctors who were dealing with my father. I talked with parents whose parents had Alzheimer's. I talked with people who are the partners of people with Alzheimer's, and I tried to cover every age group. The experts in this disease are the people who live with it, the children of people afflicted with it, and the spouses. They're on the front lines just as much as the doctors are.
Q: Do you have any idea what you might write in the future?A: I always have about 10 ideas floating in my head, but I wait for a sign from within myself that this is what I need to do. I play around with many different subjects, but until they're really deeply personal, I don't write about them.