Archive for Interview

Special! An Interview with Sally Derby

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

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Special! An Interview with Richard Newsome

If you read our review of the book The Billionaire’s Curse, you know how much we like Richard Newsome’s writing. I’m sure you’ll be just as excited as we are to be able to read an interview with him!

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I’ve always enjoyed writing. I was lucky to grow up in a reading house. There were heaps of books and magazines and a good local library in town. English was always my favourite subject at school and I was lucky to have a string of excellent teachers who kept me interested and challenged.

When did you start writing?

I wrote my first ‘book’ as an English assignment in grade 8. My teacher, Mr Morse, gave everyone an exercise book and a deadline. We were to fill that book with a story and hand it in at the end of the year. I loved that challenge and found myself picking up the book and adding bits to the story during any spare moment I had. I think it got a pretty good grade — I’d love to re-read it now, just to see what my 12-year-old self was like as a writer!

If you weren’t a writer, what would your job be?

My first job was as a journalist on my local newspaper. And there can be no better grounding for a want-to-be novelist than working as a cadet reporter. You get to see and experience so much real world activity that the average Joe on the street doesn’t get to see. So I guess if the whole novel writing thing falls in a hole, I can go back to writing real stuff. Or open a pizza kitchen. I make a very good pizza.

How long did it take from finishing your first book to when it was actually published? Did you get many rejections?

From the first day I started writing my book, to seeing it on a bookstore shelf took … ten years! Eight of those years were spent doing the actual writing, mostly in my spare time. But I stuck at it and finally got it done. The book was rejected by about 13 literary agents, until I saw an article about a publisher running a competition to find new children’s and Young Adult writers. I entered, won the prize and The Billionaire’s Curse has now been sold into nine countries, including the US, Canada, Germany, Spain and Italy.

Do you find it hard to stop revising? Or do you have a definite ending point?

I used to work with a guy who was a basketball fanatic. His favourite saying was: ‘At some point, you’re going to have to pull up and shoot.’ I must have written and re-writen the first chapter 20 times. When you’re starting out, the temptation is to finesse everything to the nth degree. I’m now a bit easier on myself, and leave the finessing to the editing stage. And now I’m working to a deadline, as my publisher wants the next book in the series by Christmas.

For you, what is the hardest part of writing a book?

The opening line is a killer. It can stop you stone dead. I now start at the second paragraph and write the opener a bit later on, otherwise I’d never get underway.

What inspired The Billionaire’s Curse and other books in the series? Was it classic mystery stories (for the locked room mystery of the diamond theft at the museum) and/or adventures like the Indiana Jones movies (for the booby-trapped crypt).

It started out as a bedtime story I was making up for my kids, then it got a bit out of control. I’ve always loved the murder mystery genre. My grandmother was a big Agatha Christie fan and the only reading at Christmas holidays at her house was old yellowed paperbacks of Agatha Christie. Finding the killer was always a big thrill. Even in algebra lessons at school, I’d make x the murderer and set about identifying him. As for the adventure stuff, I put that in there to keep me amused. I really wrote the book as a gift to my 11-year-old self.

Do you have any subjects that you’re dying to write about, but haven’t yet?

I have a folder full of ideas for future books. I just need the discipline to do it all a bit faster.

What advice would you give young writers?

Go for it. Never think you’re too young or haven’t got enough experience. The best advice is to read widely and critically. Get a library card. Make the librarian your best friend. Take their suggestions and try new books that you might not naturally pick up from the shelf. Don’t just read for the story — think why the writer has structured the story the way they have; why they’ve taken a particular character’s point of view. Not much appears in a book by accident. Try to get behind the writer’s thinking.

What is your favorite word?

Hmm. This week it’s ‘funicular’. Last week it was ‘extrapolate’.

Can you tell us anything about the sequel to Billionaire’s Curse?

Here’s what the blurb says: Gerald, Sam and Ruby fly to India in Gerald’s private jet for a holiday at the home of Alisha Gupta, looking forward to getting away from the exhausting business of stolen gems, bejewelled caskets, thieves and bumbling police officers. But their holiday soon turns to a desperate quest to outwit a deadly cult, and to beat Mason Green to the Emerald Casket in a fast-paced race against time and tide. You can find a sneak peek chapter here

Who is your favorite author or book (children’s or adult)

Hard to pick one out, but I am a big fan of Evelyn Waugh for his satire of England ‘between the wars’. With kids books, it is impossible to go past Roald Dahl. No one has come within the same zip code as him when it comes to writing for kids.

What authors influenced you when you were first starting out?

I guess Agatha Christie was there in the back of my head, but I didn’t consciously lean on any one author. I occasionally pulled a book from the shelves just to see how a proper writer might structure a dialogue or a scene, but otherwise I was making it up as I went along.

What are your hobbies when you’re not writing?

I used to do a bit of running until my right knee exploded one day. But as a stay at home dad with three kids, there’s not a lot of spare time for hobbies, sadly. Writing used to be my hobby. Now it’s my job. Which is pretty cool. Now I need to find another hobby.

Thank you so much to Richard Newsome! And now, if you’ll excuse us, we’re going to go read that sneak peak chapter . . . .

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Special! An Interview with Author Helen Stringer

Helen Stringer is the author of the wonderful new fantasy novel Spellbinder. We’re very excited to share her answers to our questions about writing — and about her newest book!

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I’ve always wanted to tell stories. I used to tell endless stories to my sister at night after we’d gone to bed. They’d go on and on and on until she fell asleep. I moved on to putting on plays, making short films and writing screenplays, but it was always about the stories.

When did you start writing?

I’ve been writing since I was small, though I rarely finished anything. I’ve got boxes and boxes of good beginnings, though!

If you weren’t a writer, what your job be?

That’s a hard one. Writing doesn’t seem like a job, really, but I suppose I’d want to be in the film or television industries. It really doesn’t matter much, though – when I worked in an office I used to entertain myself by making all my memos funny. Or just making them up.

How long did it take from starting to write to having the book published? Did you get many rejections?

Most of the rejections came when I was trying to find an agent (you have to have an agent before you can get a publisher. Most people were really nice and made comments and suggestions, nearly all of which were very good. Each time I got a rejection, I’d think about what they said and then go back and do another rewrite. It’s easy to say that people “just don’t get” things that you write, but if they’re not getting it, it’s probably because you’re not making it clear enough. Once I found my wonderful agent, Kristin, we did a few more rewrites and then sent it out to publishers…and they liked it!

Do you find it hard to stop editing/revising, or do you have a definite ending point?

I always THINK I have a definite ending point…until other people read it (grin). Usually, I write things and then leave them for a little bit before I revise them. I find it’s helpful to get a little distance. Then I ask family and friends to read them. If they have a lot of questions abut the story, I know it isn’t right yet, so I go back to work. I’m not the sort of person who can’t stop tinkering, though – that kind of thing could drive you crazy. Also, it’s a bit like being in a band: you can practice all you want, but you’ll never know if your songs are any good until you get on a stage and play for an audience.

For you, what is the hardest part of writing a book?

The beginning is always the most difficult for me, but once I’m happy with the first few chapters the whole thing sort of takes off and writes itself.

How do you get plot ideas? Are you inspired by incidents from your friends’ lives? From your own childhood?

I get ideas from all sorts of places: things I’ve read, places I’ve been, something someone says. I’ve always loved history and read a lot of history books, not so much the ones about the major people and events, but the kind that tell us more about the ways that ordinary people lived. You often stumble across absolutely fantastic stories that have been all but forgotten. For example, in the early 1800s an elderly American soldier convinced Napoleon to give him a ship and some soldiers so that he could try to invade England from the west (the idea was that Napoleon would invade from the east at the same time). The soldiers landed on a beach near a small fishing town in Wales, but everything went wrong. Far from meekly surrendering, the women of the village went after the soldiers and imprisoned them in town, then (while the men were negotiating with the would-be-invaders) two girls fell in love with a couple of the French officers, broke them out of jail, stole a yacht belonging to a nobleman and ran away to France where they got married and lived happily ever after. How great is that? It’s like a Jane Austen action movie!

I use a lot of history and mythology in my stories, but I’m also inspired by places that I visit and some things from my own childhood. Dulworth’s, the school in Spellbinder, is based on Belvedere in Liverpool, where I went to school — right down to the Victorian houses, the attic, and the buzzers outside Miss Parker’s office.

Do you have any subjects that you’ve always wanted to write about, but haven’t?


What advice would you give to young writers?

The main thing, obviously, is to just write. If you have an idea, write it down. It doesn’t really matter if you finish it or not, just write what you can and then put it away somewhere. You might never look at it again, or you might look at it one day and suddenly know how to finish it. I would never have written Spellbinder if I hadn’t stumbled across a short story that I wrote years and years ago. It was called “The House with Four Turrets and Five Thousand Windows” and was about a boy who lived in a house that was so big he’d lost his father and the poor girl from the town who helped him. I read it and thought, “Huh. Not bad. I know, I’ll write some more short stories about other people who live in the same town.” I thought I’d start with a girl who could see ghosts – and she turned out to be Belladonna Johnson.

The other thing is to read. When you read you absorb so much, not just the story. You drink in words and ideas and ways of saying things. Without even realizing it, you learn to recognize the different styles that different writers have and as you begin writing you’ll probably find yourself adopting the style of your favorite author. That doesn’t matter – just keep doing it and eventually your own voice will break through. For a long time I would try to write in what I thought was a “proper” book kind of way, which took forever and was no fun at all. Now I tend to write the way that I talk, as if I was telling someone a story, and that makes it so much more enjoyable for me because telling stories is what is really fun.

And, of course, let other people read what you write. You can give it to them and let them read it, or read it out. Reading stories out loud to people can be a great help, because you can see right away what is working and what is not. If you don’t like reading things out loud, find a friend who is good at reading and ask them to do it for you – you’ll probably discover lots of things you didn’t even realize were there.

Can you tell us anything about the sequel to Spellbinder? Or any other books you’re planning for the future?

Funny you should ask! I just finished the sequel. It’s called “The Queen of the Abyss” and continues the story as Belladonna and Steve meet the last Paladin, who gives them a map and a dire warning, but before they can do anything about it, Belladonna is taken into care by the authorities (who have just discovered she’s living in an empty house). Her new foster parents are not what they seem, however, and Belladonna, Steve and Elsie must travel to the Other Side to find the ruler of the dead, the mysterious Queen of the Abyss.

Who is your favorite author or book?

My favorite children’s book author is Alan Garner. A lot of people in this country don’t seem to have heard of him, but I strongly recommend his books! The best one to start with is probably “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.” (I know, it’s a strange word and I was never quite sure I was pronouncing it properly until I happened to see him interviewed on television about two years ago. He pronounced it Brizzing-ah-men, which was what I’d thought all along!) I also like Philip Pullman and the “Half Magic” books by Edward Eager, which were out of print for years but are now back (hooray!).

What are your hobbies when you aren’t writing?

I really love cooking and am very interested in the history of food – after all, if “we are what we eat” then what people in past centuries ate should tell us a lot about them. I also collect old newspapers and magazines (pre-1890), which are also great fun to read – some of the stories are absolutely bloodcurdling. And, of course, I watch a simply disgraceful amount of television.

Thank you so much to Helen Stringer! Maybe if we beg and plead, she’ll write that Jane Austen Action Movie. 🙂
For more information about her and her books, visit her website.

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Special! Interview with Author Deborah Heiligman

Deborah Heiligman is the author of numerous picture books, such as Fun Dog, Sun Dog, and non-fiction books, like the National Book Award nominee Charles and Emma: the Darwin’s Leap of Faith. We are extremely excited to be able to post this interview with her.

Have you always wanted to be a writer? When did you start writing?

When I was growing up in Allentown, Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 70s, authors didn’t come into schools or visit libraries, and so I didn’t know that real people became writers. I thought writers were either old men with really long gray beards or people who were rich and lived in mansions, like movie stars. So I didn’t think that I could ever grow up to be a real author. But I always loved writing, and was told I was good at it. It was just easy for me, most of the time. I was one of those kids who LIKED to write school reports! If I look back I think I can see the first inkling that I might grow up to do this, although I didn’t know it at the time for sure. We had to write a report on how the digestive system worked. So I did my research and then I wrote the report from the point of view of a chocolate chip cookie. I made a round cover out of brown construction paper, drew black chocolate chips on it, and then cut out a bite. I hope I got an A, but I don’t remember. I guess it was satisfying enough to have written it that way!

If you weren’t a writer, what would your job be?

Either a movie star or Queen of the World. O.K., you mean really? Probably a social worker (which is what I almost became), or another job in which I could help people directly. I’d say teacher or a school librarian, but I would not be very good at that for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I would find it very hard to make up lessons plans. I would just want to go in and play with the kids, see what happened. I’d get fired, wouldn’t I? Maybe I could be a librarian at a public library, though. I could see doing that for sure. Maybe I could be a librarian AND a movie star? I think I’ll stick with writing and visiting children in schools and libraries.

How long did it take from starting to write to having your first book published? Did you get many rejections?

I had beginner’s luck. I had already been writing for children for a few years. My second job after college was working at Scholastic News, the classroom newspapers. So although writing books is quite different that writing short articles, Scholastic News was great training ground. So I did have some experience writing for kids. But I knew I wanted to write children’s books after I had my first son. He LOVED, LOVED, LOVED to be read to, and we spent much of our day doing that. So one day I took a nap and woke up with an idea. INTO THE NIGHT, my first book, was bought by the second editor who saw it. After that I had a bunch of rejections, though. I made a file labeled, “promising rejections.” I still have it.

Do you find it hard to stop editing/revising, or do you have a definite ending point?

Yes and yes. I hate to let a book go. But then either I have a deadline and the editor says, “give it to me now!” and so I do, or I just can’t stand working on the book any more because I know that I’m not making progress and I send it in and ask for help. But I had a lot of trouble letting go of Charles and Emma. When I had to send in my first full draft I was so scared, I called my agent on his cell phone, and said, “Will you hold my hand while I hit send?” And he said, “Deborah, I’m in the doctor’s office. I’m on the examining room table. I don’t have any clothes on.” And I said, “O.K.. but could you hold my hand while I hit send?”

For you, what is the hardest part of writing a book?

The hardest part is figuring out how to tell the story. Which really only happens when you figure out what the story is. So with Charles and Emma, the story was about their marriage. Once I really got that, then I knew how to write the book.

As someone who writes fiction, non-fiction, easy readers, picture books, do you have a favorite type of book to write?

I love writing all kinds of books—fiction, non-fiction, long, short, for big kids and little kids. It may not be the best thing for my career—the Powers that Be like branding and all that. But it is the best thing for me and my work satisfaction to write all kinds of books on all kinds of topics.

How do you get ideas for a book—do you come up with everything yourself, are you assigned topics by an editor, or does it change from book to book?

I come up with some ideas, and sometimes editors come to me with ideas. Very often it’s a give and take. And yes, it does vary from book to book. I have a new book coming out in a few years about the mathematician Paul Erdos. That one came about because both of my sons came home from school talking about him. I passed calculus by the skin of my teeth, so for me to write a book about a mathematician is kind of a miracle.

It seems like everyone has written about Charles Darwin over the past few years—some in picture books, some in fictionalized novels, some in comic book form, even. Where did you get the idea for Charles and Emma—for writing it as a joint biography of the two of them, and exploring what they meant and did for each other?

The book really is a love letter to my husband, Jonathan Weiner. When I first met Jon, I had just graduated from college with a major in religious studies. He was a young science writer. We started talking immediately—about science and religion and writing and pretty much everything else—and we haven’t stopped talking since. One day, about eight years ago, Jon said to me, “You know, Charles Darwin’s wife was religious.” I looked at him. He continued, “And they loved each other very much. She was afraid he would go to hell and they wouldn’t be together for eternity.” If bells had chimed right then or fireworks had exploded in the sky above us at that moment, I would not have been surprised. I knew right then I had a book to write. The more I thought about it, and researched their life together, the more I knew that Charles’s relationship with Emma was central to his work. I was thrilled to find out that this was a story that really had never been told.

What do you think Charles and Emma Darwin would be like if they lived today—do you think they would be a big celebrity couple, almost pop-culture figures, or quiet, little-noticed academics?

What a great question! I think they’d probably be a lot like they were then. They were homebodies, especially Charles. But they loved people and had lots of visitors all the time, especially after he was famous. I imagine they’d have someone on their staff, though, who was their representative out in the world, just like Thomas Huxley and others were back then. I’m sure they’d have someone on Twitter for them. I’d guess their son Frank would tweet for Charles and their daughter Etty would tweet for Emma. Who knows? Maybe Emma would do all the tweeting. She was awfully witty and smart. I bet she could say brilliant things in 140 characters or less.

Did you like the Darwins that you learned about? Would you invite them over for dinner, say?

I would love to have them over for dinner! What would I make? You know how Charles was so sick all the time? Some people say it was lactose intolerance. And I don’t eat meat, and don’t like to cook it. So I’d have to think of something for all of us. I think it might take me a little while to “get” Emma—they say she could appear stern at first. But she was so brilliant and incisive; we’d probably talk about books and get on great. And Charles would make us laugh. Oh, boy, would Charles and my husband have a lot to talk about. I wish we really could have them over for dinner! Could you help me arrange that, please?

Did you learn anything about the Darwins that surprised you?

I knew very little about them when I started researching the book. So in the beginning everything surprised me! It surprised me that Charles was athletic and fit when he was young, because I had heard that he was so sick as an adult. It also surprised me that Emma was not sentimental (that’s what her daughter said), mostly because I am, and I had started to identify greatly with her. But now I feel like I know them so well, nothing surprises me.

Charles and Emma is being cataloged in libraries as a Young Adult biography, which is a pretty unusual area (many YA sections don’t collect non-fiction). Did you plan to write the book for this age-group all along, or did it start out as a children’s book?

I’ve always wanted to write it for teenagers. I spent a few days thinking about whether I “should” do it for adults, and I decided that I was going to write the book I wanted to write, and that was a book for teenagers. Fortunately two things have happened: adults are reading it as well (I get emails from adults all the time, one of my favorite fan letters was from an 87-year-old woman); and now more people ARE writing non-fiction for YA and there’s even a new ALA award, the YALSA award for excellence in non-fiction! So I’m going to write another YA non-fiction book!

Are you working on a new book right now? If so, can you tell us anything about it? Do you have any cool plot ideas for the future?

Aha! I just answered that. But I’m not ready to talk about my new non-fiction idea, though. Too new… I’m also working on a YA novel. But ditto there. Sorry.

Do you have any subjects (fiction or non-fiction) that you’ve always wanted to write about, but haven’t?

Yes. I have a drawer full of ideas, and computer files of ideas, and I get new ideas all the time. What I write next depends on what starts pulling at me the hardest.

What advice would you give to young writers?

Read. Read voraciously and widely. Read stuff you like. Read stuff you don’t like. Read classics. Read “junk.” Read, read, read. And also: ask lots of questions, keep your eyes and ears open, and lastly, but most importantly, live. And love.

Who is YOUR favorite author or book?

My favorite author is my husband, Jonathan Weiner. And he didn’t make me say that. But it’s a lot harder to choose a favorite book. I have so many. Can I please not answer this question? Thank you.

What are your hobbies when you aren’t writing?

I read, hang out with my family and friends, run, play squash, cook, eat, walk in New York City, travel, and I am still looking for that one thing that could be called a real hobby.

Thank you SO very much to Deborah Heiligman for her wonderful interview! If you’d like to know more about her, you can visit her website, or her blog, or check out I.N.K.: Interesting Non-fiction for Kids, a blog written by a number of non-fiction children’s authors. we can’t wait to see what new books she has in store!

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Special! An Interview with Author Rosanne Parry

Rosanne Parry is the author of the board book Daddy’s Home, and the recently reviewed novel Heart of a Shepherd, which explored the impact of a deployed military reserve unit on a rural area in Oregon. We’re happy to honor Veteran’s Day with an interview with this wonderful author.

Have you always wanted to be a writer? When did you start writing?
If you weren’t a writer, what would your job be?

I actually hated writing as a child. I had terrible handwriting and was a poor speller, so while I’ve always loved making up stories, it didn’t occur to me to write them down until I was in my 30s. I love to teach and still do it part-time. I’m sure I’d teach full time if I wasn’t a writer. Of course, my initial career plan was to become a circus flyer–still working on that. 🙂

How long did it take from starting to write to having your book published? Did you get many rejections?

Every writer gets rejections, not just new writers. Even writers with great reviews and best sellers get rejections. I never counted mine, and now that I have an agent I don’t even hear about them.

HEART OF A SHEPHERD was written over several years because I set it aside and worked on other stories when I got stuck. However, if you put together all the months that I worked on the first draft it would be about a year. I revised it with my critique group over ten months. My editor acquired it in September of 2006 and it came out in January of 2009.

Do you find it hard to stop editing/revising, or do you have a definite ending point?
For you, what is the hardest part of writing a book?

Working on my own, I could revise a piece endlessly. One thing I appreciate about my editor is that he is very focused about revisions. He let’s me know which parts of the story are working well and should be left alone and which parts need to be refined. By the time we got to our third revision I could see that I’d accomplished with the book what I’d hoped to, which made it much easier to let the story go on to copy editing and the rest of the process of turning it into a real book.

The hardest part? Waiting. I finished my edits on HEART OF A SHEPHERD almost a year before it was available in stores. I’m going to wrap up the revisions of my next novel SECOND FIDDLE by the end of the year, and it will come out in the spring of 2011.

I think I gleaned from your author’s note that you don’t live in the area portrayed in the book—what made you decide to write about that area?

I love eastern Oregon. It’s a stunning and spare and wild landscape. The people who live there are remarkable. Malheur County, where my story is set, is the size of Massechusetts. It has 30,000 residents, and yes, wildfire is as much a part of the landscape as mining and cattle ranching. I think my editor chose the book in part for the uniqueness of the setting. There aren’t many books set in the Great Basin about the lives of ranchers. Although if you enjoyed HEART OF A SHEPHERD, you might enjoy BULL RIDER by Suzanne Morgan Williams which is set just one county south in Nevada.

The religious aspect of Brother’s life is so homogenously woven into the story, which is somewhat unusual in modern children’s fiction. Was this something that you planned to do on purpose, or did it just develop by itself?

I didn’t set out to write a book with religion in it, but when I chose Malhuer County as my setting it was only honest to have the majority of my cast of characters devout Catholics. This area of Oregon was settled primarily by Irish and Basques for whom Catholicism is not just their faith but part of their cultural identification. Members of the military are also more church going than the general population, so it would have been lie of sorts to leave Brother’s spiritual life out of the book. It is a bit unusual to have a character be so frank about his faith in a childen’s novel though not unprecedented. Madeleine L’Engle’s work is infused with spirituality. Judy Blume’s ARE YOU THERE GOD, IT’S ME, MARGARET is a classic and the recent MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD by Francisco X Stork did a great job of addressing faith.

The relationships between the boys and their grandfather are so believable—did you have a close relationship with your grandparents or older relatives?

My grandfather lived with me when I was growing up although he was nothing like Grandpa Alderman. My own parents live near me and are a wonderful presence in my children’s lives. I can’t imagine parenting without them.

Do you have any family members or friends who are in the military?

Yes, many. My husband is a veteran of Desert Storm and has been out of the Army for many years, but I know many people who serve in the armed forces. Oregon has recently deployed the largest group of Oregan Guardsmen in 50 years, so many of the issues that unfolded in the book are alive in my community and many others.

What advice would you give to young writers?

If you love to write, write lots of things. Try all different kinds of stories. Don’t worry about finishing a story. If you get stuck set it aside and come back to it. If it’s just not fun anymore, start something new that is fun. But find a safe place to keep all your drafts, even the ones you don’t like. You might want to come back and work on them some day.

Are you working on a new book right now? If so, can you tell us anything about it? Do you have any cool plot ideas for the future?

I have a million cool story ideas, both for novels and picture books. While I’m waiting on my next revision letter I’ve been working on picture book ideas–one about St Patrick’s Day and a few about grandparents. My debut picture book, DADDY’S HOME was published by Candy Cane Press, and I’m hoping to work with them again.

I’m thrilled to be working with my Random House editor again on a new novel. This one is called SECOND FIDDLE. It’s about three girl musicians who live in Berlin in 1990 just as the Berlin Wall is coming down. It’s a great adventure story with a little bit of political intrigue and a lot of music and a very spontaneous trip to Paris. It has been fun fun fun to write! The story got me back to playing the violin, which I did when I was a kid and loved. I think it’s been fun for my editor, too, because he’s also a musician.

Who is YOUR favorite author or book?

Golly, do I have to pick one? This year my favorite authors are my fellow classmates at the Class of 2K9– a group of middle grade and YA authors with debut novels this year. You can visit all of us at our website. I have a list of my favorite books when I was a kid on my website, and I keep track of new books as I read them on my goodreads account.

What are your hobbies when you aren’t writing?

I like to dance and hike and ride my bike. I don’t get to do these very often, but I also love to ski and sail. Oregon is a beautiful place and Portland is a park-filled city so really anything that gets me outside is a good thing.

Thanks again to Rosanne Parry! We’re so happy that she was willing to answer our interview questions — especially since she had to take time away from revising her book-in-progress.

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Special! An Interview with Author Marfe Ferguson Delano

Marfe Ferguson Delano is the author of numerous nonfiction books, including Helen’s Eyes: A Photobiography of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s Teacher, and Earth in the Hot Seat: Bulletins from a Warming World. We’re very excited to share her answers to our interview questions.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

When I was a kid, a writer was one of the things I wanted to be. I also pictured myself as a concert pianist, as a French teacher, and as a brilliant criminal defense attorney, like the ones I saw on TV who always proved in the nick of time that their falsely accused clients were innocent.

When did you start writing?

I wrote and illustrated my first picture book when I was in sixth grade, for a class assignment. My story was about a boy who built his own rocket and zoomed to a faraway planet, where he had adventures with strange creatures. Some of my classmates and I got to share our books with a first-grade class. I can still remember how my heart thumped when I stood in front of the little kids and read my book to them, and the thrill I felt when their eyes widened at the scary parts and they laughed at the funny parts.

I began writing professionally about 25 years ago, selling recipe columns to a magazine called “Working Mother.” Cooking and testing recipes and then writing them up was great fun, although I think I probably spent more money on ingredients than I was paid for the articles. A few years later I took a job as a copy editor with Time-Life Books, and I eventually began writing for them on topics ranging from vegetable cookery to the Civil War to UFOs. That helped me learn to be versatile, a valuable skill for a children’s book writer, or any writer for that matter.

If you weren’t a writer, what your job be?

I’ve worked as an editor before, so I might do that again, in part because it would help me stay connected with the many wonderful and creative people in the children’s book world. But I think I might also like to teach. I’ve recently become a volunteer ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher for adults, and I really enjoy the interaction with the students, who come from all over the world. Sometimes I fantasize about opening a cozy family diner that would only serve breakfast and lunch. I would make delicious soups and stews and become friends with all the customers. Maybe I’d compile my recipes into a cookbook, and then…oh wait, I’m back to writing.

How long did it take from starting to write to having the book published? Did you get many rejections?

About 12 years ago I was lucky enough to be asked to write my first children’s book by an editor at National Geographic, who had learned about my work from another editor at Time-Life. Called Sky, that book was all about the weather and the atmosphere. It was part of a series called Nature Library, and it was the first of many series-type nonfiction books that National Geographic hired me to write. Eventually I began proposing my own book ideas to my editor there, some of which she’s taken on and some of which she’s declined. She’s also given me some great ideas for books, including Helen’s Eyes and Earth in the Hot Seat. It usually takes at least a year and a half from the time I start my research for a book to the time that published books are available.

Do you find it hard to stop editing/revising, or do you have a definite ending point?

I start editing the minute I start typing, which makes it darn difficult to finish a sentence, much less a paragraph. Then I go back and revise the paragraph. The whole process starts again with the first sentence of the second paragraph–and then I might go back and revise the first paragraph again, and so on. As you can imagine, this nonstop editing approach makes writing a very slow business for me. I’ve tried and tried to let the words flow, to just get my ideas down in a crummy first draft, as so many writing teachers rightly recommend. But that annoying editor inside of me refuses to let go. Because of this I write fewer full-length drafts than many other writers I know. One trick I’ve started playing with myself, however, is to exceed the length I’m aiming for by at least 30 percent. Then I go back and prune the manuscript down to size.

For you, what is the hardest part of writing a book?

Moving on from the research to actually writing the book is the most difficult part for me. Forcing myself to tackle the first chapter is always my biggest challenge, especially when there are so many other tempting things to do, like going for a bike ride by the river…or reading the newspaper…or making soup…or doing more research.

I love to do the research for a book. For Exploring Caves, I got to explore a wild cave in northwest Georgia with two expert cavers. To gather information for Inventing the Future, I went to Thomas Edison’s laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. I went to Helen Keller’s birthplace in Tuscumbia, Alabama, and to the Perkins School for the Blind History Museum in Watertown, Massachusetts, to research Helen’s Eyes, my biography of Annie Sullivan. Sometimes I go to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., which isn’t far from my home. But I often go no farther than than my wonderful local public library, which I can bike to. And of course I can do internet research at home.

I love to keep digging for information, especially when I’m working on a biography. The more I learn about someone, the closer I feel to him or her personally, and this keeps me going. Author Deborah Heiligman describes this as “falling in love with dead people.” Annie Sullivan really crawled under my skin–in fact she pestered me. During a low point while I was working on Helen’s Eyes, I considered requesting that the release date of the book be pushed forward a year to give me more time to write the manuscript. And then when I was on my walk one morning, a very impatient voice broke into my thoughts. The voice was female, with a light Irish accent, and it upbraided me for being such a pitiful procrastinator: “Sure, if you’ll stop lingering over the newspaper every morning for hours wasting time on things you don’t even remember reading about later, then you’ll have time to write my story. And be sure you do it well.” From that point on I wanted to please Annie, and every time I started to slack off, I could hear her tart tongue chiding me. My excuses seemed pretty lame, especially in light of all that she and her famous student overcame and accomplished in their lifetimes. And so I finished her book.

How do you get your ideas?

As a nonfiction writer, I’m always looking for new ideas. Sometimes I get them from reading an article in a newspaper, magazine, or book. Visiting a museum or a historic site and talking with friends and family members are other great ways to get ideas. So is getting out in nature and taking the time to watch the world around you. My husband inspired me to write Genius, my biography of Albert Einstein, when he told me that he was born in Princeton Hospital in New Jersey on the same day that Einstein died there!

Do you have any subjects that you’ve always wanted to write about, but haven’t?

Lately I’ve found myself drawn to the rich history of my birthplace of Memphis, Tennessee, from the city’s role in the civil rights movement to its legendary music scene. I’m hoping a book will spring from my explorations–and from conversations with my relatives who still live there and witnessed a lot of the city’s history for themselves.

What advice would you give to young writers?

Read, of course! Read books, read magazines, read comic books, read newspapers, read the sports page, read anything and everything. Think about what you read, why you like one thing and why you don’t care for something else. Keep a journal and write in it regularly. And keep your eyes and ears and mind open. The best writers are careful observers. You might want to keep a small notebook with you at all times, so that you can jot down notes about anything interesting that you see or hear or feel or smell or taste. Finally, get outdoors and explore nature. Watch ants march in and out of an anthill, listen to birds chirping, feel the rain on your face, smell the flowers…you get the idea.

Are you working on a new book right now? If so, can you tell us anything about it?

I’m currently doing research at Mount Vernon, a historic estate that’s only about five miles from my home in Alexandria, Virginia. This might help you guess the person who plays a prominent role in my next book!

Who is YOUR favorite author or book?

E.B. White is one of my favorites. I adore Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, and his Elements of Style, which I first read in high school, is still my Bible for good, clear writing. Two memoirs I’ve read recently and highly recommend are The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson and Knucklehead by Jon Scieszka. Both are hilarious. I also read a lot of mysteries. Lately I’ve been enjoying Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries, which are set in Venice.

What are your hobbies when you aren’t writing?

I sing with a choral society and read a lot for pleasure. I like to explore the museums in Washington, D.C. I go on long walks in my neighborhood almost every day and I hike in the mountains as often as I can. I especially enjoy cooking for my family and friends, and then sitting down to eat and talk and laugh with them.

A big Thank You to Marfe Ferguson Delano! If you’d like to learn more about her, you can visit her website, check out her blog posts at INK: Interesting Non-fiction for Kids, and the related database for teachers, Ink Think Tank

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Special! An Interview With Author Mary Ann Rodman

Mary Ann Rodman is the author of innumerable books: picture books and older fiction both. We like her book Yankee Girl so much that we’re using it as part of our Battle of the Books this year. She’s generously agreed to answer our questions.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer.

When did you start writing?

I started writing before I learned to write. Or more specifically, I drew my stories in page panels on school tablet paper, so when I finished I would have ” book.” I was probably three or four when I did this. I was really excited when I learned how to write, and could put words to my pictures.

If you weren’t a writer, what would your job be?

I have been a high school librarian, and I’ve also directed high school theater and local theater. I would be happy doing either or both of those jobs again.

How long did it take from starting to write to having your first book published?

There are two answers to this question. I started writing when I was six, and I sold my first book nine years ago.
Or, to be a little more encouraging…about seven years after I decided to write seriously for children.

Did you get many rejections?

Yep. Everybody does. Some people keep track of how many rejections they get; I don’t. I don’t want to focus on who doesn’t want my story; I’m too busy thinking of who might want it. However, to give you an idea, another writer friend (who is very successful and has published over a 100 books), STILL gets over 400 rejections a year.

Rejection is just part of this job, and I have to remind myself that there are a zillion reasons why this particular story didn’t sell to this particular publisher. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer.

Do you find it hard to stop editing/revising, or do you have a definite ending point?

As time goes on, I find that I have become less compulsive about endlessly revising. After a certain point, the changes you make are like switching around the pictures on your bedroom wall. It’s different, but it doesn’t make any real difference in how the room looks, (or how the book reads.) I can tell I am in my NEXT TO LAST draft of a book when I start getting sick of my characters. When I am at that point, I know I have one more go round of changes. I know that the writing is ALMOST right, but not quite. I usually rewrite my novels four or five times, beginning to end. Picture books are another story. They take an average of five years, and as many as fifty completely different versions.

For you, what is the hardest part of writing a book?

Getting rid of scenes or characters that I love, but who really drag the story off in a different direction or take attention from the main characters and plot. I save all that stuff in a special computer file, and promise those characters that they will have their own story some day.

How do you get plot ideas? Are you inspired by incidents from your own childhood? Newspaper articles?

About 90% of my ideas come from my own family. I come from a family of terrific storytellers, and I was a kid who paid attention when my grandparents and aunts and uncles told stories about their own childhoods. My mother was the middle child of eight, and as an only child myself, I thought she had the most fascinating childhood of anyone. She lived on a farm during the Great Depression,helped her mother run a boarding house, and her brothers and sisters were wildly creative and adventurous. I asked my father-in-law to tell me about growing up in the Indiana farm country, mother-in-law in a mansion overlooking Sydney Harbor in Australia, my dad and uncle about surviving a devastating natural disaster. Add to that, I have a fifteen year old daughter who I have been observing since the day she was born.

I can tell you where each of my books came from: YANKEE GIRL, as you mentioned, is based on my own childhood in Mississippi; JIMMY’S STARS comes from my mother’s family. MY BEST FRIEND and FIRST GRADE STINKS are based on things that happened to my daughter. SURPRISE SOUP came from a story my husband told me about making pancakes when he was a little boy and my own memories of my dad making soup. A TREE FOR EMMY is a story I got from one of my daughter’s friends when she was really little. CAMP-K-9, a picture book that will be out in 2011, came from my dog, Nilla. Right now I am working on two novels based on my Grandmother Rodman’s stories, and a picture book that comes from my daughter’s experiences when she was little. I am always listening for good stories, but somehow most of them seem to come from my own family.

Were you ever in a situation like that of Alice in Yankee Girl, who wants to be popular, but knows that she can’t be if she goes with her instincts and befriends an African-American girl?

Yes. YANKEE GIRL is the closest thing I’ll ever write to an autobiography. Although that book is about a sixth grader, I have found myself in the same position…befriending someone unpopular or who is an outcast for some reason…over and over. And yes, I paid the price of my decisions, over and over. As you grow older, you learn that people who won’t be your friend because you have chosen a friend of a different race or religion, aren’t people who would have made a good friend in the first place. (Yes, it still happens to me even though I am an adult!)

Do you have any subjects that you’ve always wanted to write about, but haven’t?

Are you kidding? I have a sign in my office that says “So many books, so little time.” I think it is meant to be about READING books, but for me it’s about having so many stories you want to tell, and not enough time. I hope I get to most of them. The one thing I have wanted to write and haven’t, is a non-fiction book about the unsung heros of the Civil Rights Movement. But I am so used to writing fiction I just can’t make myself stick to the facts. One of these days I hope I become disciplined enough that I can just tell their stories without having to make up stuff.

What advice would you give to young writers?

Read, read, read. Write, write, write!

You can’t be a writer if you aren’t a reader. How will you know what kind of books you’d like to write, if you don’t read?

As for the writing part, I’m not talking about class assignments, or book reports or school journals. (Down here in Atlanta, my daughter has had to write in a school journal for at least ten minutes every day, and she’s in high school now!) Write whatever it is you like…poetry, stories, graphic novels, whatever. I know it’s hard to work on big projects all the time when you have so much else going on in your life. I did a zillion things when I was growing up besides write. What I always had time to do was to write in my personal journal every single day. I have had a journal ever since third grade. This is a private thing where you write down your thoughts, descriptions of places and people you want to remember…anything you want. You don’t have to write in complete sentences or even spell things right (as long as you can tell what you’re saying) This is NOT the kind of journal where you write down everything you did that day. I’ve done those kinds of journals and most days are alike. It’s the things that make THAT day different that you want to write about. For instance, one of my all time favorite entries is from my third grade journal. We lived in Hazel Crest, Illinois, and it was February and below zero…and the school bus didn’t show up. In those days, if the bus didn’t show up, you were stuck, because in our neighborhood people only had one car…and the dads took that one car to work. I won’t tell you exactly what my friend Chuck and I did while we waited for the bus (it finally did come…an hour late) because I still think I might write a story about it. Most of it had to do with our noses dripping from the cold…and we didn’t have any Kleenex. (Disgusting, hunh?) But I thought it was funny when I was eight, and I still think it is today.

Write every chance you get. When I was a kid, I wrote for our local newspapers and the school paper. If I were a young writer today I would probably blog or maybe even try a graphic novel.

Are you working on a new book right now? If so, can you tell us anything about it?

As I said before, I am writing two novels, that take place in Southern Illinois in the early 1900’s. The picture book is about my daughter learning a skill…and what she learns besides that. I know this sounds really vague but I don’t like to get too specific while I am still writing, in caseI I change my mind about something.

Do you prefer writing chapter books or picture books?

I like both equally. I like chapter books (novels actually….I think of chapter books being for readers a little younger than the ones I write for) because I have lots of time and space to create a whole fictional world. I like picture books because they teach me to write in a completely different way…in as few words as possible. When I am stuck writing novel, I switch over to a picture book for a day. You can write a whole draft of a picture book in a couple of hours.

What are your hobbies when you aren’t writing?

I don’t suppose reading counts? I am a photographer, and I still like to mess around with art. (My daughter is a much better artist than I am.) I like cruising around antique stores and flea markets. Being around all those old things that once belonged to someone…well, it’s another way I get ideas.I also like to cycle, and am a big fan of figure skating (my daughter is a competitive skater.)

Thanks again to Mary Ann Rodman, a fabulous author and interviewee–we can’t wait to see her 2011 book!

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