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1. What made you decide to be an author?
Actually, editors at publishing companies are the lucky people who decide if I am to be an author, a published writer. I decided to become a writer when a psychic aunt predicted it when I was eight years old. My mother said, “Don’t pay attention to her. She’s batty.” Well?? Actually, by then I knew I was good at writing and I was already getting rewarded for my writing. Writing was always easier for me than speaking. Maybe it had something to do with living in such a big and powerful family—four brothers with unbelievable success in sports, academics and careers), and me not getting a word in edgewise. I began preferring writing during adolescence because I could get my meanings right through revisions. I learned the hard way that once you say something hurtful or stupid, it’s out there forever to haunt you. You really can’t take back words. On paper, you can capture your emotions first, shape them, then present them with the right kind of power.
2. Well, then what made you want to become an author? What made you want to share your words with lots of people?
My parents always had the highest expectations of us. When I was young, I probably didn’t like their pressure. But as I grew, I saw that they pushed because they believed in us. They knew we could do better. Now I’m grateful for that. So whatever my brothers and I chose to do, we had to do it well. We had to climb to the highest level. So publishing my writing became my career goal. In 5th grade, a poem won me $2 and was printed, but at 17, I really began publishing, and doing public readings of my poetry for adults.
3. Did you write or do other creative things as a child?
Yes, I wrote poems for cards for every occasion, and they usually stayed on the mantle longer that the store-bought ones. Many of them were kept and embarrass me to this day!! I made candles, pot holders, elaborate houses for my dolls, played dress-up, put on shows and plays, made ceramic ash trays and knick knacks like lanyards and beads—you know, the same exact stuff you do at recreation or day camp today. Some things never change. My brothers and I and my friends played in an adventurous landscape. We lived near a lake with lots of gullies, fallen trees, jungle-like plants, and streams. We’d “capture” small animals and reptiles, ride rope swings like Tarzan, and find buried treasure. And this was way before the show “Crocodile Hunter” and the channel “Animal Planet.” All great practice for dialogue writing, characterization and plotting, huh?
4. How do you just start a book? Where do you get your ideas?
Very rarely do books start the same way. The idea or inspiration could come from observing a child play or learn as in New Moon; experiencing a life-altering event such as my trip to a refugee camp, as in The Whispering Cloth and Tangled Threads; seeing a beautiful piece of art, as in Ten Mice for Tet; or reading a newspaper story as in The Carpet Boy’s Gift. I’ll use this last book as an example.
I first read about Iqbal Masih in the newspaper. Fascinated, I began researching child labor, especially in the Pakistani rug business. When I read Iqbal had been killed at age 12 for helping to free child slaves, I wrote a picture book story from the point of view of a boy Iqbal had freed. I wanted the story to be about Iqbal’s “legacy,” that is, the strength and hope that survived long after he died. After I wrote many drafts worked on with my weekly writers group, I began to submit it to editors.
5. And they made it into a book!
That was 1996! And this is 2003. Actually, the story was accepted by the brave and far-sighted Jennifer Elliott at Tilbury House in 2001. The book suffered through five years of rejections. Many editors really liked it, however the publishers’ sales people now have a bigger say in what books get published. The sales people said, “How am I going to sell that book? It’s too serious!” Some editors thought the story should be a novel, but I felt that kids really needed to see the difference between the gorgeous rugs these tattered and starved kids had to make. One publisher said, “I don’t know the workers’ ages in my printing company in Mexico, and I don’t want to know. So I can’t publish this book.”
Editors had many nice things to say and offered suggestions too. Some said that the story sounded like it was more about the issue of child labor than about a real kid stuck in that situation. I agreed. (Writing about issues is what I like to do. But sometimes, I forget about the characters. Oops!)
After Jennifer accepted it, I revised it to show more hope. She also allowed me to work a bit with Leanne Morin, the illustrator, and editors rarely let that happen!
6. Exactly how do you revise? Revising stinks!
Think so? When you’re playing a computer game and your race car goes over a cliff and explodes, are you happy when another car pops up at the start and you get to try again? In art class, you’re sketching a still life before you paint it. Yikes, that banana looks like the principal’s nose. Aren’t you glad you have an eraser? And aren’t you glad you can sketch before you paint? Life is full of do-overs. Enjoy them and use them to improve.
How do I revise? My editors and my writers group help me by pointing out weaknesses. They don’t tell me how to fix them, though. If I’m really stuck, they might suggest a direction I should head for.
In general, I read my work aloud to make sure the words sound well together. I examine the lengths of paragraphs and sentences, especially if I’m working on a picture book. I must understand that my 4-page story will be stretched across 14 two-page spreads.
Revising a novel is different. As I write the very first draft, I’ll bring two new chapters every week to read at my writers group. Then I revise those, put them away, then go on to the next two chapters. After the last two chapters have been critiqued and revised, I read through the whole thing, revising again as I go. Then I copy it about five times and give whole copies to people I trust (mostly writers outside my group, and not in my family—they’re not critical enough; they say everything is “nice” or “cute.”) I take a break and don’t think about the novel for these three months or so. I might work on something short like poems, an article or a picture book. When all the critiqued manuscripts have come back to me, I go through my novel page by page and consult every word of criticism on every copy. I don’t use every suggestion, obviously. But every suggestion makes me think, and thinking helps me to clarify what I want to communicate. After that revision, I read it through again to correct any grammar, spelling errors, etc., then begin submitting the novel to editors.
7. Is your work ever done?
Yes and no. Once a book is published, you can’t really change it. Perhaps the new electronic publishing may enable that. I’ve certainly cringed when looking at earlier stories and poems I’ve written. I’ve grown so much as a writer, and I hope I always will. I can’t imagine “losing” my creativity. If I ever get to that dreaded place, someone take me to Paris or Kenya or Tibet, or at least to a museum! Output is only as good as input. Seriously, one of the things I love about a writing career is that no one will ever force me to retire. I hope to write until I die, regardless if anyone wants to publish it!
8. What do you think makes you a creative person? Can any people make themselves creative?
I believe it’s possible, but it may take some people a lot of work to become “open.”
Perhaps my openness has something to do with being the only girl in a family of boys. I was always different. I was the only one in the house with my own room, so I had solitude. I was never lonely, yet I had a place to be alone when I wanted. I have always been good at “connecting” things: seeing one thing and associating it with a different thing. That’s metaphor-making. For example, recently I saw the curly tendrils of a pea plant grasping our garden fence. It looked like a baby’s hand holding onto a grown-up’s forefinger. Sometimes I get into a groove or a zone (athletes talk about this zone), when I see everything like this—everything is connected. It makes me feel giddy and dizzy, and a little sad too, because I know I can’t write about all of it! Only some.
9. So…everything inspires you?
Everything! Art, music, the news, amazing people, my vegetable garden and my flowers that come back loyally every year, my kids and their struggles, my dog, spiders, skyscrapers, poetry, stories. These are not in any order, because I, a writer, can put all of this in any order want.
10. What other creative stuff do you do, now, as a grown-up?
Walking around the block is creative for me (especially if my dog, Sunny, is with me. He’s a black and white pointer/beagle.) In general, I play a lot. Playing renews me. It also exposes me to others’ creativity, and that feeds me. Tennis, swimming, walking, wiffleball, games with the kids—cards, chess. I coach my daughter’s softball and soccer teams. I love to cook when I have the time—Asian stir-fry, Mexican, Italian, French & good ole American. I don’t play computer games. I like surfing the Net, but I spend so much time on the computer already—writing, teaching a writing correspondence course, and e-mailing-- I’d rather not let the computer command my spare time too.
11. Do you have any wise words for kids who want to be writers?
Yes, but I’m afraid they’re not new words. A) READ! Anything, comic books to cook books, old fogy memoirs to romances. B) WRITE! Anything, (see list under “A”) C) Travel. Nothing opens your mind like it. You don’t need to go to Moscow or Madagascar. Take a new path to school. Drive home a different street. Get off the highway in a town you’ve sped by.
D) If you want to publish, go after it professionally. Take courses, attend conferences, study trade magazines, etc. There are many journals that publish young writers, better yet, put out your own literary journal!