Author Feature: Heidi E.Y. Stemple

Author and poet Heidi E.Y. Stemple writes for both children and adults. Her titles include: The Wolf Girls (2001); Roanoke: The Lost Colony (2003); The Salem Witch Trials (2005), all co-authored by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Roger Roth, and published by Simon & Schuster. Along with Jane, she also is the co-author of Barefoot Book of Ballet Stories, illustrated by Rebecca Guay (Barefoot, 2004). Heidi makes her home in Hatfield, Massachusetts.

What inspired you to begin writing for children?

Well, I would love to say I have always wanted to write, but that would be a huge lie. Actually, I grew up in this business (my mom is author Jane Yolen), and I wanted to do anything else.

I went to college and got a degree in psychology and became a probation/parole officer first. Then, a private investigator. These things aren’t even close to writing children’s books!

But, when I was pregnant with my daughter Maddison, I was sick and bored. So, I thought I would do some writing and…surprise, surprise…I was good at it. AND I enjoyed it!

Could you tell us about your path to publication–any sprints or stumbles along the way?

Writing is all sprints and stumbles. That is the way with creative careers. Sometimes working on a project is about as much fun as stubbing your toe. And, sometimes I can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning because I am so excited to work.

The book I am working on right now is amazingly fun–a collection of pieces about historical Bad Girls (to be published by Charlsebridge). I am researching Bonnie of Bonnie and Clyde right now, and I have finished Tituba, Belle Starr, and Mata Hari. I was reading research on the beach yesterday–can’t put it down!

But I also have projects that I can’t get a foothold on. I find myself, some days, preferring to do laundry to work. The two experiences–loving what I’m working on and hating it–seem to occur at about the same rate.

As for publishing, I have been pretty lucky. But I do have a stack of unsold manuscripts on my desk, too.

Could you briefly highlight your most recent backlist titles?

Dear Mother, Dear Daughter, illustrated by Gil Ashby (Boyd’s Mills, 2001): a collection of poems between a mother and daughter (written by my mom and me, but in the voices of a young girl and her mom). They tackle such issues as school bullying, piercing ears, being bored, and having a crush on a boy. I love this book because it is so much fun to read aloud.

The Barefoot Book of Ballet Stories (Barefoot, 2004): a collection of storybook ballets retold and introduced with historical notes. This book is beautifully illustrated by Rebecca Guay, which, if for no other reason, makes this a must-own for all ballet fans as well as fans of a good story.

The Salem Witch Trials, The Mary Celeste, Roanoke, the Lost Colony, The Wolf Girls (The Unsolved Mystery from History Series, Simon & Schuster, illustrated by Roger Roth): These books not only tell the stories of these real life unsolved mysteries, but they lead to further research. Every page includes notebook items that go more in depth as well as sticky notes that highlight the new/big words on the page. These books are right up my alley–I love a good mystery!

One If By Land: A Massachusetts Number Book (Sleeping Bear Press, August 2006): Sleeping Bear has published an alphabet book for every state and is moving on to the number books. I loved finding fun facts about my home state to study and write about–Quahog clams, Yankee Candles, and chickadees are just a few.

Sleep Black Bear Sleep, illustrated by Brooke Dyer (HarperCollins, winter 2006): it is the sweetest going-to-bed book filled with hidden facts about hibernating animals.

Congratulations on the upcoming release of Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook, also by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Philippe Beha (Interlink Books, 2006)! What was the initial inspiration for crafting this book?

My mother has long said she has written every kind of book except a sports book, a cookbook, and a hard science book. She finally wrote Moon Ball, so sports was done. But, she hates to cook, so without me doing that part…

Well, I love to cook, so we just decided this was a fun idea. Little did I know how much work it would be! I am thrilled beyond words to have this book finally out. I feel both proud and relieved. I will not be doing a second cookbook. It may have been the most difficult project I have ever worked on! OK… maybe I’ll do another one. Sometimes working on a book is like having babies. It just takes a couple years to forget the pain…

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Oh, years! Almost five. I started working on Fairy Tale Feasts in South Carolina, and I moved back to Massachusetts more than four years ago. When I got here, my parents’ stove barely worked (did I mention that my mother hates to cook??) so I did much of the cooking at my neighbor’s house.

We had the funniest meals that summer–one day we ate three soups, mashed turnips, and mashed potatoes for dinner. Another day we all sat around eating three kinds of meats skewered with three kinds of marinades deciding which was best. But the chocolate mousse days were the funniest. Before working on this book, I would have told you that it was inconceivable that I (or anyone) could get tired of chocolate mousse. But I was making so much of it (dark, white, milk, with lots of cream, with different kinds of chocolate…) that even the kids in the neighborhood refused to eat it any more.

Luckily, the teachers from my daughter’s school heard of my dilemma and emailed me selflessly offering their taste-testing services. But in case anyone is worried, I am back to eating mousse.

Also, there were a couple recipes I changed at the last minute–both soups, I think. When I got the manuscript back, I recooked everything and did not like them. So, in the 11th hour, I started from scratch!

I was enchanted by your life in books, as depicted on your website. What was it like as a child, growing up in the children’s book world?

I am asked this all the time, of course. I honestly didn’t know any other life.

Many of the adults around me were book people–Eric Carle, Trina Schart-Hyman, just to name-drop a few. I spent many of my summer vacations at conferences. I posed for book illustrations and covers–photographs and as an artist’s model.

It was just how I grew up. It has to be noted that my mom, though an accomplished author when I was young, was nowhere near as well-known as she is now.

My daughters actually have a stranger life in this manner than I did. My daughter Maddison who is 11, recently had some boys in the neighborhood (she goes to school elsewhere, so these were new friends) admit that they knew “who she was” and that she should please send her grandmother a message that they “looooooooooved her.” Luckily, Maddison is generally a very poised child and she took it in stride.

I do take great pride in my literary history. I try not to take it for granted. I am the little girl from Owl Moon (Philomel, 1987). I fought dragons in the Pit Dragon books. Chaya in Devil’s Arithmetic (Viking, 1988) is named after me, though she is really much more like my mom. One book, The Stone Silenus (Philomel, 1984), has so much of me in it that I couldn’t read it for years. Now, of course, I find my own children in stuff I write. Even sometimes when I don’t put them there.

My husband and I have our first joint book coming out this fall, and lately, folks have been asking us a lot about our collaborative process. How does your mother-daughter, writing-family relationship work?

My mom is an amazing professional, and I am both opinionated and stubborn. I often wonder who else would say to Jane Yolen, “nope, I don’t like how you wrote it. Mine is better.”

We actually work so well together because our processes are so much alike and, at the same time, very different. We both just sit down and write, sometimes stumbling around for a plot. When it arrives (often very much unannounced) we are excited and surprised. And, we keep writing.

I leave great holes in my first draft–sometimes words, sometimes chunks of blanks. My mom never leaves holes. We edit each others stuff and then write a bit more.

On occasion, she will change something I wrote and hand it back to me, and I will change it right back. We never fight. People often tell they could NEVER work with their mother. And, I tell them that they could easily work with mine. Really–she’s amazing.

I am also working on a book with each of my brothers [Adam Stemple and Jason Stemple] who work in the business as well.

How has your writing changed over the years? What are your goals?

My writing has changed so much since I started 12 years ago. I think I have become more fearless and more focused. I have learned that less is sometimes more and that I can finish a piece without completely having a stress breakdown.

My goals? Just to write until no one wants to read what I have written any more. Then, maybe, I’ll go to law school or start a catering business. Hey–I’m still young!

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Read and write every day. Study good books–if you want to write picture books, go to the library or book store and read dozens of picture books. Read what you write aloud. Write for yourself, your children, or the child you used to be. If it happens to get published, that is great, but it is not the only thing. Write for the love of writing.

How about beginning poets?

I love writing poetry, but I cannot imagine trying to make a living at it. Actually, talented poets should write all the time. I think there is nothing more amazing that a good poem. I read a quote somewhere about poetry being the end and aim of all writing. Oh my, I agree with that statement! I write some poetry–sometimes, when I am lucky, even good poetry, but I don’t consider myself a poet. That is too lofty a title for what I do.

What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?

I spend time with my two amazing daughters Maddison (11) and Glendon (23). Though right now I am building a house (right next door to my mom’s), so almost every moment of spare time is spent on house things.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I hope a book about pirates and maybe a book about my daughter’s kitten who escaped one day and was missing for 12 days. But definitely a book for Scholastic about spies (called, I believe, Ready for Anything in their Ultimate Spy collection), a bedtime book about nests (You Nest Here With Me, Harcourt) and, of course Bad Girls (Charlesbridge), which, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to go back to researching now–I love those crazy criminals Bonnie and Clyde!