Writerly Flow Comes in Many Forms
Kids’ book writer gets surprised by flow’s unpredictability.
Posted Feb 11, 2014
Q: Did you always intend to write children’s books in particular?
No, but I always knew I wanted to be a writer. After graduating from college I got a job with a literary agent who represented, among others, Maurice Sendak and Richard Peck and Rosemary Wells and scores of other notable names. So I learned a lot about the business, especially what makes a picture book or young adult manuscript work, or not work. That experience was invaluable to me.
Q: To what do you attribute your evident writerly interest in the supernatural, with book titles like ParaNorman, the Suddenly Supernatural series, and Legend of the Ghost Dog?
I attribute it to my actual interest in the supernatural, and the mystical, and the profound, and the unexplained. I've been this way all my life.
Q: How do series happen? Do you feel your characters have more to do, or is this something an agent or publisher (or your public) encourages?
It is publisher-driven. For a while, publishers were really pushing to acquire series, because they do sell well. But generally you don't just get a contract for a series. They start with a few and see how they sell. Suddenly Supernatural started out as a 3-book contract with a 4th added on and the publisher declined to do a 5th. With a standalone novel, I now know to always drop in a little something at the end that could conceivably lead into a sequel. Sometimes the publisher bites, and sometimes they don't.
Q: Please tell us how your latest book (A Taste of Freedom) came about and what your hopes for it are.
I met with a publisher who was looking for non-fiction and they asked me to pitch them something. I really wanted to write about Gandhi, having just finished writing a biography of the Dalai Lama. But for a picture book, I needed a story to engage a child. I realized the Salt March would be the perfect way to tell the story of Gandhi through a child's eyes. My hopes are that it will reach lots of kids and bring the story, the greatness, of Gandhi to them in a way they will remember and internalize.
Q: Would you share a little about your creative process? When you write, do you enter a flow state, where time seems to stop or at least become irrelevant?
My creative process tends to follow the school day. I have a terrible time writing at night, or on the weekend. And while I have experienced entering the flow state, I have also experienced the shock of realizing I have been working steadily for hours and hours and only completed a few pages. Because I almost always work on something that is already under contract, it is the impending deadline (and second advance payment) that keep me relatively diligent. If a book has to get done, I will find a way to do it.
Q: Some writers like to work on more than one project at a time. How about you?
I try not to. I'm not good at it. It takes me a number of days to acclimate to characters and tone. I can't just jump into it at full speed. I certainly can't write two different projects at once. But I can write in the morning and then go over copy-editor queries on another project. Or maybe work on a proposal. But I'd rather not.
Q: I’ve always wondered what it must be like to have someone else illustrate your work. Do you know the illustrators, and is there any actual collaboration between you?
Not only is there no collaboration or communication whatsoever between us, it is actually not permitted. That sounds very strange, but I have no one hanging over my shoulder making suggestions when I write. So when an illustrator is given my manuscript, the last thing the publisher wants is for the author to be in the process.
My job is to create a text that tells just enough, and leaves plenty of room for showing through illustration, and that's between me and my editor. The illustrator's job is take my text to another level by enhancing and expanding it with illustrations, and that is between him/her and the art director. It's a collaboration—like a playwright knows his work will be added upon with design, set, and directorial choices. So there's a good reason for the policy.
Q: I read that you have used a pen name. How come?
I was hired by the Estate of Laura Ingalls Wilder and HarperCollins to write a book from Mary Ingalls' perspective during her time at the Iowa School for the Blind. They wanted all of these new Little House books to be shelved together in bookstores and libraries. So I was told I had to choose a W name, and I said I'd be Elizabeth Kimmel Willard, even though I worried that everyone would think I'd married a guy named Willard on the fly. Also when I wrote the Buffalo Bill series, my editor had me write as E.C. Kimmel because she thought boy readers would think it was "too eeky" to read a boy book written by a girl.
Q: Which are your favorite kinds of books to write—the light ones or the ones with a message that matters to you? (Do they sell about equally well?)
As far as fiction goes, I tremendously enjoy writing a good old fashioned ghost story. If I'm writing non-fiction, I'm happiest writing about something that is very important to me. Generally fiction sells much better than non-fiction. The only exception for me has been Balto and the Great Race, which has done incredibly well in the fifteen years it's been in print.
Q: Would you like to share something about your involvement with TibetAid?
TibetAid is a humanitarian relief organization that provides sponsorships and medical and educational programs for Tibetans both in Tibet and those living in exile. I came to TibetAid through a long-standing interest in Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, and a growing concern for the plight of the Tibetan people. A portion of my royalties from my biography of the Dalai Lama and my upcoming novel which revolves around a Tibetan monastery go to support TibetAid. You can find out more about their excellent work at www.tibetaid.org
Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel
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