Author Interview: Betty G. Birney on The World According To Humphrey

The World According To Humphrey by Betty G. Birney (Putnam, 2004). Humphrey is the class hamster in Room 26, and boy, does he learn a lot! Not only is Humphrey keeping up with the kids in their studies, he also visits the home of a different one each weekend. Everyone loves him…except the new teacher, Mrs. Brisbane. Humphrey is a VERY-VERY-VERY open, caring hamster–smart, resourceful, kindhearted, and always true to his own point of view. Ages 8-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Often, I can pinpoint exactly where an idea came from but in this case, I’m not terribly clear. When my son, Walshe, was in elementary school, his science classroom had all kinds of animals including a boa constrictor. That probably made me think of the guinea pigs back in my first grade classroom who were completely boring until they procreated at a highly inopportune time. (This was the fifties and our brand-new teacher was considered a little too progressive for those times.) I got to thinking about how a pet in a typical elementary classroom would view and interpret what he was seeing. I’ve always been interested in point-of-view.

I love all animals (though I’m rodent-phobic) and I’m constantly trying to figure out what my dog is thinking about some of the things we do – which must look pretty wacky to her. So I’m used to musing about what things look like from an animal’s viewpoint.

Once I started working on the idea, it became obvious that there were several other inspirations. When I read Robert Lawson’s Ben and Me in elementary school, I was completely delighted. I thought the idea that Ben Franklin’s great ideas and inventions really came from his pet mouse, Amos, was the cleverest thing I’d ever read. I also adored the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books where a quirky character tries to solve kids’ problems. Stuart Little was another great favorite of mine as a child. So it’s pretty clear that a hamster who tries to help people solve their problems was a natural subject for me.

What was the timeline between spark and publication and what were the major events along the way?

I’m constantly amazed by the process of writing and the way each book has its own unique path. Some are hard to write, some just pop out but for me, it’s never the same process twice. I actually jotted down a few notes about a classroom hamster who goes home with a different kid each weekend and helps solve their problems back in 1996. The original idea was the same as the final product, but it took me a while to make it click.

Some background: for 20-plus years, I made my living writing children’s television, working on tight deadlines, late nights, seven days a week. But I managed to work on books in between and sold some, too. I wrote books to preserve my sanity but the scripts paid the bills. And there were other rewards, including an Emmy and many other awards. But I had to take the work as it came so there were long lapses between the time I got an idea and by the time I finished it. But ideas do seem to need a long time to ferment with me. I’d jot down thoughts about the book, ideas for titles and the name of the character (He was Wiggins for a while.) I soon settled on Humphrey – but not in honor of Humphrey Bogart. I named him for Humphrey Street in St. Louis, where my parents grew up as neighbors and where my sister and I spent a great deal of time at my grandparents’ house. A few times, I tried a first page or two – with disastrous results. Humphrey sounded too adult – even British in one draft – and I put the pages aside. However, the teacher, Mrs. Brisbane, appeared in these early notes, as did the idea that Humphrey thinks she’s out to get him. Another early idea was that his cage has a lock-that-doesn’t-lock but appears locked to humans, so he could get out and have adventures.

In 2002, after a succession of nightmarish TV experiences, I decided to kick my literary efforts up a notch. My son was about to go off to college and I finally got a literary agent (I have a great Hollywood agent, Barbara Alexander, but needed a book agent as well.)

Nancy Gallt is a fantastic agent and she was quite taken with my manuscript, The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs (Atheneum, June 2005) She was trying to sell that and some picture book manuscripts. One day in June of 2002, I sat down to take another crack at Humphrey and –surprise – the voice was there! It was just as smooth and natural as could be. Humphrey was a kid, not an adult, and as soon as I started writing, I had the idea that he called his fellow classmates in Room 26 by the names he heard the teacher call them: Raise-Your-Hand-Heidi Hopper, Lower-Your-Voice A.J., Speak-Up Sayeh, etc. Humphrey’s habit of repeating words three times, as in, “I was GLAD-GLAD-GLAD,” just popped up out of thin air. (After I finished, I had to go through the manuscript to make sure he doesn’t do that too often, which would be just a little too cute.) Surprisingly, I soon learned that Humphrey is a punster, telling people to “squeak up” or calling someone “unsqueakably rude.” Unfortunately, all that humans hear is “SQUEAK-SQUEAK-SQUEAK.”

Another important idea that emerged was that during the week, he spent his nights at school. Again, I played with point-of-view, giving the readers a taste of what a classroom similar to theirs might be like at night, with the clock sounding very loud and the room very dark. Aldo Amato, the lonely but high-spirited night custodian, soon entered the picture and is one of my very favorite characters. Humphrey even manages to help him find the love of his life!

What were the challenges in bringing it to life?

This book was a relatively easy birth. I did make a rough outline. I’ve heard all those famous writers say they never outline and just start writing without any idea where they’re going. But my TV writing trained me differently. An extensive outline is a requirement for a TV or film script. You get paid first for the outline, then first draft and usually two revisions. It makes sense to have an outline, so that the writer, story editor and producer all know what to expect. Once you have experience, you can tell by the outline whether the script is going to be too long or too short and adjust the length then. It’s a grueling, horrible job and all writers hate writing outlines. However, once it is approved, writing the script is usually a breeze. I wrote out a rough outline for Humphrey, just so I knew where I was going. A lot of things changed along the way, but still, it’s nice to have a little map, as long as you feel free to take detours. This outline was more like a list of events than a TV outline.

I also kept a calendar for The World According To Humphrey, as I do on certain projects. A long time ago, I wrote an award-winning Afterschool Special that was almost perfect except I realized after it was in production that there was a tiny problem of time in it. It was very minor; if I read it today I probably couldn’t find it and no one else ever noticed, though I did tell the producer. But that experience made me more conscious of time. I knew that Humphrey was coming to class shortly after school started and that the story would end at the holidays. In between, he’d be going home with different students. So I had to make sure I had the right number of weekends and that Halloween and Thanksgiving fell at the right place, too. I now make calendars for all the Humphrey books.

Since I do not have a hamster (my dog strictly forbids it), I did plenty of research. I visited the pet store on the corner, which became the model for Pet-O-Rama, and I picked up an enormously helpful hamster care book. I’ve practically worn it out. I did other research online but that one book was key.

Although a hamster who can read and write and think like a human is pure fantasy, I tried hard to make his behavior hamster-like. He can’t physically do things a hamster couldn’t do (a very brave and smart hamster, that is). I put in a Hamster Care Tip at the end of each chapter, something reviewers universally liked, and at the end, added Humphrey’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans. I’m gratified that most people are shocked to learn I don’t have – and never have had – a hamster.

Once I had the voice and my map, I wrote the book REALLY-REALLY-REALLY fast – a chapter a day. It just rolled out of me. I tell people that I channel hamsters (a joke) but I felt as if Humphrey wrote the book and I just did the typing for him. Believe me, I do not think writing is a magical process and I realize that all this comes from the subconscious, but every time I sit down to write Humphrey’s voice, it feels as if it’s coming from outside of me. On the other hand, I also believe that Humphrey actually is me: the observer (or writer) always trying to fix things.

Not only did I write a chapter a day, I woke up every morning knowing exactly what the next chapter would be and how it would unfold. This was a unique experience, although I often dream scenes and use the time when I’m halfway between sleep and wakefulness to consciously work out problems in stories. When I’m in this “twilight” time, I almost always come up with a solution or advance the plot. The trick is when you wake up, lie very still while you’re still half-asleep and picture the problem you’re working on. This is a technique I’ve used for years. I also do it in the middle of the night if I wake up and can’t get back to sleep.

I think the fact that I wrote this book so quickly gave it energy and spontaneity. I like to work this way, but believe me, I have manuscripts where every word was a struggle and they turned out okay, too.

Even though I wrote World quickly, I did a lot of rewriting (I always do) and also let it sit for a while before taking that last crack at it. I gave it to Nancy Gallt in the fall of 2002. She liked it and sent it out. It was rejected by one house and then sold to Putnam’s – a very painless process. In January, 2003, I was on jury duty on a very nasty and complicated criminal trial. On break, I went into the jury room and checked my cell phone messages. When I got THE message, I literally jumped for joy. Our jury had really bonded so all 12 of us were jumping for joy within minutes.

I was very fortunate to have Susan Kochan (cyn: see also this interview) as my editor, a truly lovely, dedicated and generous person to work with.

The copy-editing process was complicated because of the way Humphrey talks. The punctuation and capitalization of things like “SQUEAK-SQUEAK-SQUEAK,” and the kids’ names had to be consistent and it was time-consuming. Luckily, I’m a perfectionist about these things, too, so I appreciated all the work Susan and several copy editors put into it.

Cynsational Note: check back tomorrow for Betty G. Birney on Friendship According To Humphrey (Putnam, 2005).

Cynsational News & Links

In The Artist’s Studio: Watercolor by Iza Trapani from CBC Magazine.

“To Hold Up Prisms”: Australian and Canadian Indigenous Publishing for Children by Clare Bradford from papertigers. Clare Bradford is a professor of literary studies at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, where she teaches and researches children’s literature, especially colonial and post-colonial texts.

Cecil Castellucci, Writer: an interview from Torontoist. See my own recent interview with Miss Cecil about her new novel, Boy Proof (Candlewick, 2005).

Interview with Lara M. Zeises from Pop Goes The Library. See also my own recent interview with Lara about her upcoming novel, Anyone But You (Delacorte, 2005).