Rosanne Tolin, BA’90, “devoured” the Paddington Bear book series as a kid.
“I read my first Paddington book [when] I was probably about 8 years old,” she recalls.
In 2020, Tolin published More than Marmalade: Michael Bond and the Story of Paddington Bear—the first-ever biography about the British author behind her favorite fictional character. The book, written for middle-grade readers, reveals how Michael Bond’s childhood and the events of World War II are embedded in the very fabric of Paddington Bear’s story.
“I was also a big Winnie the Pooh fan. Kind of a funny thing—when we were submitting [my book] to publishing houses, some of the editors said, ‘Well, I’m more of a Pooh fan.’ And I just thought, ‘Well, there’s not really much I can do about that. I won’t take it personally,’” she says.
In conversation with the Tolin, we talked about the magazine article that sparked her interest in Michael Bond, her time on the IU Bloomington campus, her favorite writing snack, and much more.
What inspires your book ideas? How did telling Michael Bond’s story come about?
Rosanne Tolin: Because I started off as a journalist, I love non-fiction stuff. Weird little nuggets of information get me excited and curious, and I’ll go down the rabbit hole for more information about those things. I read an article in Tablet Magazine titled “Paddington Bear’s Surprising Jewish Roots.” When I saw that, I just thought, “I need to know more.” It talked about how Paddington was based on refugees coming into London during the Kindertransport. Michael Bond would see them, these young children coming off the train and they’d have their name tags and a single suitcase with them. Paddington, with his name tag that says, “please look after this bear,” and his single suitcase is based on these children escaping Holocaust Germany and Eastern Europe.
I would have never known that.
RT: The more you read the Paddington stories, you begin to realize. Michael Bond made Paddington a Peruvian bear from the “Darkest Peru.” He definitely represents the immigrant experience and how difficult it can be to assimilate into society.
Did you interview Michael Bond for this book?
RT: It’s all research-based. I read that article probably within a year of Michael Bond’s passing. I was able to verify some of the little stories in my book using Michael Bond’s autobiography called Bears & Forebears: A Life So Far.
Do you foresee writing an adult version of More than Marmalade?
RT: It’s funny that you say that. I could almost see the opposite. I have one editor who wondered if I could do a picture book for him.
Was there an IU professor or class that impacted your writing in some way?
RT: I loved the majority of my English classes. Looking back, the one that really stuck with me was J203: Literature of the Holocaust. It [was] taught by Alvin Rosenfeld. I clearly remember him standing at the chalkboard that very first day and he wrote the question: “What is a man?” And that was the running theme throughout the entire class. I was already familiar with a lot of the texts we read, but the whole course was so thought-provoking. Fast forward to today, and there are still things I’m grappling with. I do feel like my experience as a Jewish person is sort of inherently influencing my work.
Do you remember how you answered the question from the first day of class?
RT: I think the answer to the question is that there isn’t really an answer. We’re supposed to be different from animals. We’re supposed to be critically thinking, emotional beings. How do we define man when there are people inflicting [pain] upon other people?
Rapid Fire with Rosanne
Pen and paper or Microsoft Word?
RT: Microsoft Word.
Where is your favorite writing spot?
RT: I love to go to the local coffee shop and write. I’m in Chesterton, Ind., and the Red Cup Cafe is a great spot.
Do you write better when there’s a lot of noise around you, or do you prefer silence?
RT: After I graduated from IU and from law school, I ended up taking a job as a journalist. I got really used to a lot of noise, so I kind of prefer a low buzz.
Do you have a favorite writing snack?
RT: Granola with milk.
What time of day do you do your best work?
RT: I’m 100 percent a morning person. I would say from about 8:30 a.m. until noon-ish is probably my most productive writing time.
Can you name a book that you’d like to see turned into a movie?
RT: I really love The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani.
Is there a book that you always recommend?
RT: The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. That is one of my favorite novels ever. I [also] recommend All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. It reminds me of my time at IU. That’s when I first read it.
How do you reverse writer’s block?
RT: I run just about every morning. [That’s when] I work out all the problems in my works. Things will just pop into my mind when I’m on a run.
Do you have a favorite place for a writer’s retreat?
RT: I went on a retreat called Wilder. It’s a four-day running/writing retreat. It was right up my alley.
What are you currently working on?
RT: [I’m in the process of] rewriting my middle-grade historical fiction manuscript, The Freedom Games. [It’s] based on the heroic life of French Resistance fighter Georges Loinger. It’s told through the eyes of 12-year-old protagonists, Elka and Ziggy—German Jewish refugees living in an orphanage in unoccupied France during WWII.
Read an excerpt from More than Marmalade.
This story is part of our IU alumni author series, Novel Ideas.