Sally Derby’s wonderful new book, Kyle’s Island, is very popular with our patrons, and we’re sure you’ll like it, too. We’re very happy to post this fascinating interview we recently conducted with her.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? When did you start writing?
If you don’t mind, I’m going to answer questions one and two together. I’d say I’ve always been a writer, ever since I learned how to write words and sentences. I remember in second grade skipping all the way home on the day my teacher told me that a little poem I’d written would be printed in the school paper. It went, “There’s a little tiny place I know, a little wooded hollow. It has a carpet of violets so fresh and so blue, and the morning grass is wet with dew.” Unfortunately, the principal didn’t believe I could have written it. She called me to her office and questioned me so sternly I ran home crying even though the school day wasn’t over. My mother, I remember, took me by the hand, marched me back to the school, and in my presence gave the principal a piece of her mind, which was even more distressing to me. It’s a wonder I didn’t give up writing then and there.
But yes, I’ve always wanted to be a published writer. If I had been braver, I might have been published sooner, but every time I sent something out and got a rejection slip back I was so discouraged I didn’t try again for years. And in those days I never sent anything elsewhere. To me, a rejection slip said, “This is no good.” How foolish I was.
If you weren’t a writer, what would your job be?
I’ve always wanted to be a philanthropist, but I’ve never known how to make enough money to be one. So I just have fun choosing and giving presents (especially books) to people I love.
How long did it take from finishing your first book to when it was actually published?
Oh, my, that was a long time ago! I know I spent about four years sending the manuscript to various publishers until Four Winds Publishers bought it, and then it took me six months or so to cut and revise it the way the editor suggested. And then came the lonnnng three years of waiting for the artist to do the illustrations, so that makes about seven and a half years, right? The only way to live through that long a wait is by writing other stories in the meantime!
Did you get many rejections?
I get lots and lots of rejections; I have never met a writer who doesn’t, even some of the best writers I know. Realistically, I know I can’t expect that everything I write will be published, but I can’t stop trying to make that happen. Sometimes I wonder if editors don’t get tired of seeing my name and return address on envelopes. (If I didn’t spend so much money on postage, maybe I’d save enough to be a philanthropist after all.)
Do you find it hard to stop revising? Or do you have a definite ending point?
It’s very hard for me to stop revising. Sometimes when I reread one of my published books, I’d like to begin revising it again. I guess my first ending point comes when I am so excited about sending the story to an editor that I can’t wait to print it out and put it in the mail.
For you, what is the hardest part of writing a book?
For me the hardest part is letting my characters behave badly sometimes, just as it’s hard for me to let bad things happen to them. In Kyle’s Island, when Kyle told Zach he couldn’t stay on the island that night, I wanted Kyle to see right away how mean that was, how he was hurting Zach, but I knew he couldn’t see that right away, that he’d have to realize it later and be ashamed of himself. Still, I kept trying to write it the other way until I realized that it just wouldn’t work, that Kyle had to learn the hard way.
Do you have any subjects that you’re dying to write about, but haven’t yet?
I’d love to write a book about the year I spent living in a small cottage with a thatched roof and a tidy garden in the south of England. But first I have to get a small cottage in England and then I have to learn how to tell flowers from weeds. And I think my passport has expired too.
What made you decide to write books for children, rather than adults or teens?
How many adults do you know who ever love a book enough to read it five or six times? Children will do that. I want to write a book that a boy or girl will love that much, a book like Sylvia Waugh’s The Mennyms and its sequels.
What advice would you give young writers?
Practical advice: After you have written something, read it out loud before you show it to anyone else. Did you really write what you think you wrote?
Best advice: Keep learning, keep reading, keep writing, never give up. Persist, persist, persist.
Where do you get your ideas? From real life? Or from things you read?
Ideas come from everywhere, I think. Everything I’ve seen or heard, every person I’ve known, every scrap of conversation, funny newspaper article—when I write those things will find their way into my writing when I need them—changed, exaggerated, expanded—the same, and yet completely different. For the most part I won’t have the faintest idea whence or how a detail has arrived; I’m just grateful it happens.
Did your family have a cabin on a lake when you were growing up or when you were raising your children?
The cottage in Kyle’s Island is the cottage my grandparents owned when I was growing up. My mother inherited it when Grandma died, and a few years later Mom and Dad sold it But it was in the family long enough for my older boys to remember staying in it. I understand it was torn down some years ago. But I can still go there in memory and see it clearly in every detail just as I describe it in the book.
How long did it take you to write Kyle’s Island?
It’s almost impossible to say how long it took to write a book. When did I begin? When I began writing it in my head? When I opened a notebook and wrote the first sentence? And when did I finish? After the first draft? Or the tenth? Do I count only the time I spent writing, or do I include weeks when I was too busy to work on it but it was in my thoughts as I went on with the rest of my life? My best guess is that it took about two years off and on.
What is your favorite word?
Wopperjawed. I can’t even find it in the dictionary to check the spelling, but I know it’s a word because my great-grandmother used to say it. It means crooked, misaligned. I also like thingamajig; such a useful word! And then there’s plethora. Isn’t that fun to say? And snore and billow, and cobblestones, and drowsy and bell and tintinnabulation. Can you tell I like words? But the best words of all are “Once upon a time. . .”
Who is your favorite author or book (children’s or adult)?
I’d have to pick E.B. White. Besides Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and Trumpet of the Swan, which are primarily for children, he wrote beautiful, funny, and sad essays for adults too.
What authors influenced you when you were first starting out?
Probably Cicero, who wrote in Latin a long time ago. In college I translated so many of his essays that I knew how to put together sentences with several clauses that were assembled logically and clearly. Obviously not a good role-model for someone who is trying to write picture books. Poets make better models for picture-book writers.
Your picture books have very different illustrative styles. Do you get to have any input when it comes to choosing an illustrator or making any suggestions about the pictures?
I have never had much input on the selection of editors, and I have seldom seen the art in its early stages. Fortunately, I have had editors who have made excellent selections for me. I love the artwork in all of my books except one, and I’ll never tell you which book that is.
Do you have a favorite illustrator?
I have a whole list of favorites. I could spend all day dithering if I had to pick just one. I love the illustrations in children’s books. When I was little, I used to hate illustrations because they never matched the images the author had put in my mind. But somehow, over the years, I lost the ability to “see” what the author was writing. I don’t know how that happened
How do you find time to write having raised 6 children and 6 foster children?
Every writer I know has trouble finding enough time to write. These days my writing time is between five and eight in the morning. Later in the day I will revise or tend to the business part of writing, but five to eight is my “alone” time, the time when new ideas and thoughts can come. Still, if I don’t watch myself, the rest of life will encroach. I’ll catch myself reading my email, or going on the internet, or picking up the newspaper. This is most likely to happen when I’m between books or when I’m “stuck” in what I’m writing and don’t know how to move ahead
What are your hobbies when you’re not writing?
Let’s see—reading, watching the birds at the feeder outside my window, reading, working crossword puzzles, walking in the park, reading, swimming, playing bridge, reading….did you notice that cooking is not on the list? I used to cook. I cooked a lot. I cooked for a long time. These days my husband cooks.
Thank you for your questions, and thank you for giving me this opportunity to think about what I have been and am still doing. It’s a privilege to be able to write for children, and I am so grateful to able to do it. Happy reading!
Thank YOU to Sally Derby–what fabulous answers! If you’d like to know more about Ms. Derby or her books, check out her website sallyderby.com.