Q & A
Did you always want to be a writer?
I always loved to write, but when I was little I wanted to be a cowgirl. Don’t ask me why. It had something to do with the horses, the West, and the spirit of adventure. Even as a child, I think I realized it would be hard to make a living as a writer (though not as a cowgirl, apparently). I also wanted to be a veterinarian. But that didn’t last long. When I was a sophomore in high school, my science lab partner was a cute senior boy who used to make animal noises every time I started to dissect something. I was terrible at biology (though I later married a biologist to make up for it).
What’s the best thing about being a writer?
It still amazes me—and seems an incredible privilege—to get paid for making up stories. I love being part of book culture, the world of books. I had so many favorites as a child: Charlotte’s Web, All-of-a-Kind Family, Henry and Ribsy, Charlotte’s Web, The Great Brain books, A Little Princess, Lad: A Dog, the Little House books, Mrs. Mike, Frenchman’s Creek. I think I can recall scenes from those books more clearly than some things that actually happened to me.
Can you describe a typical day?
I wish I had a typical day. Well, maybe I don’t wish that. I like the way every day is different and leaves room for surprises. On a perfect day, I might get the house in order by 9:00, write for several hours, have coffee with a friend, walk the dog, read for a while, answer phone calls and e-mails, take care of other writing business, and then spend the afternoon and evening doing things with my family.
On a typical day, I spend way too long on e-mails, am interrupted constantly by phone calls, don’t get the house in order till 11:00, spend too much of the day on business, rush to walk the dog, and frantically squeeze in writing whenever I can. My goal is to have more perfect days than typical days.
Where do you work?
I often work at my desk in front of a window that overlooks the woods, with a shelf full of my favorite books within easy reach. But I also write in coffeeshops, in the library, in the car, on airplanes, and while I’m waiting in lines. I started writing children’s books when I had a one-year-old baby, so I used to work at the computer in the playroom with my youngest daughter crawling around at my feet. I think it’s important to write down your ideas whenever they come to you and to train yourself to write anywhere.
Do you have any children or pets? Do you write about them in your books?
I have three children: Zoe, Harry, and Grace. We have a very bouncy dog named Truman, a boxer-lab mix who looks like a giant, skinny beagle, and eerily resembles our wonderful old dog Dixie… in looks but not personality. He chews on everything from DVDs to ballpoint pens, and is as noodly and bendable as a yoga instructor. Despite his many faults, he makes us laugh every day and is very much adored.
I don’t write directly about my family and friends because I try to protect their privacy. I worry that they would feel they were being used for “material.” But when you’re a writer, every part of your life eventually works its way into your books, whether you intend it to or not, so there are definitely bits and pieces of real life—and real people—in all of my stories.
What is your favorite thing to write about?
My favorite thing to write about is the idea that has just occurred to me, the idea that seems wonderful, different, important, new…until I actually start putting it down on paper. There isn’t one particular subject that I like to write about, but I think certain themes crop up in my books: mysteries based on real events, unexpected friendships that develop very quickly, funny situations that aren’t exactly what they seem, the bond between children and animals, moral dilemmas, and the richness of a kid-world that can’t be fully understood by adults.
Where do you get your ideas?
This is the hardest question to answer. Ideas come in so many different ways… from an experience, memory, or dream; from seeing something or reading about something and having it click perfectly in some distant part of your brain; or even just from a funny word or phrase. I’ve written whole stories based on a good idea for a title. When Dinosaurs Came with Everything (published by Atheneum in 2006) began that way.
I think John Steinbeck was right when he said, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” That’s why it’s important to pay attention to your ideas and write them down. If you do, you’ll start having more and more of them. It’s almost as if your imagination suddenly realizes it’s being taken seriously.
What’s your process for writing a picture book? A novel?
For me, picture books come from inspiration and novels from discipline. A picture book tends to arrive in an imaginative rush. I know the whole story at once. It always needs revisions—sometimes months and months of revisions—but it’s a fun process. I’m always really happy afterwards, because even if the picture book ends up not being published, I feel like I’ve made something new. A story exists in the world that wasn’t there before.
Novels take longer, about a year usually. Individual scenes are often thrilling to write, and I love going deeper and deeper with my characters… but overall, a novel is a long, hard journey. It demands steady devotion and patience, the willingness to “show up at the page” day after day, no matter your mood. When I start a novel, I always have a good sense of the characters. I know the beginning and I have a general idea of the ending, but the events in between are a total mystery. I don’t tend to outline my books. That can be unsettling when I’m faced with a blank page and am trying to decide what comes next, but it also keeps me interested in the story. I get very attached to my characters, and the only way to find out what will happen to them is to write it. I have to add that with my Superstition Mountain trilogy, I did outline the story, because it was so important to keep track of – and solve – the various interlocking mysteries by the end of the last book. After that experience, I’ve started using a general outline as a roadmap, but I still make up plenty of stuff as I write, and the story can take a hard turn in an entirely different direction just because that’s where it needs to go.
“To tell the truth in all its substance you must have quiet, and a comfortable chair away from all distraction, and a window to stare through; and then the knack of seeing waves when there are fields before your eyes, and of feeling the tropic sun when it is cold; and at your fingertips the words with which to capture the vision before it fades.”
–J.M. Coetzee, Foe, pp 51-52
Can I write to you?
Of course! I would love to hear from you. It’s much easier for me to respond to e-mails than regular mail. You can e-mail me by clicking on the Contact button at the top of the page, or by e-mailing me at email@example.com. Barring travel interruptions, I always try to respond within three weeks.
If you would like to mail a regular letter, my address is below. I had a lot of issues with lost or returned mail at my old p. o. box address, so if you haven’t heard back from me, I am truly sorry! I do read and enjoy every letter I receive. Thanks for writing!
P.O. Box 24
Redding, CT 06876