Author Interview: Philip Yates on A Pirate’s Night Before Christmas

Philip Yates on Philip Yates: “My earliest memories of writing were of making up stories in second grade and sometimes having to pay for it.

“In third grade, I became something of a class clown when, on the first day of class, the teacher called out my name for attendance and I corrected her and said it was not ‘Yates,’ but ‘Yatez’ (Ya-tez). The class laughed because they knew how my name was pronounced, but the teacher got angry and scolded them because she thought they were laughing at the weirdness of my name. She felt sorry for me, but every time she called roll and shouted, ‘Yatez,’ and I replied ‘Here,’ I got a big laugh while she just looked at me with such sorrow in her eyes. One kid got sent to detention because he called me ‘Yatez’.

“I was a bad kid then. I’m much more shy and retrospective today, though. The made-up stories then began to translate to paper, and I wrote lots of macabre ones that I would never dare attempt to publish, but National Enquirer might.

“Around this time my Dad was directing “American Bandstand” in Hollywood, and I got to hand in stories in class about rock n’ roll idols I met on the set, and then things turned upside down because that was when the teacher thought they were mad- up stories (how could I possibly have met Bobby Darin). So my teacher believed my name was ‘Yatez’, yet refused to believe I had met the Beach Boys.

“I wrote and wrote and wrote all through my teens and college years, then started writing plays. I received a bachelor’s in English, then later a master’s in theatre and wrote several plays, three of which I had produced.

“The real publishing came when I took a stand-up comedy course and actually took a stab at real stand-up and was a disaster. The humor was very cerebral–‘Some burglar is terrorizing my neighborhood with a pricing gun. Last night I came home, and everything in my house was marked down twenty percent.’

“You did stand-up at midnight, and the audience was mostly drunk, and they’d throw beer bottles at you. I gave it up almost at once but hooked up with a member of the class, Matt Rissinger ( and we started writing joke books for kids.

“We simply wrote a book of jokes about food and sent it off to several publishers. Sterling Publishing said they were interested, but wanted a general joke book that ran the gamut from Armadillos to Zombies, and we produced.

“Now it’s nearly fifteen books later (we have two new ones coming out in November–Nuttiest Knock-Knocks (Sterling) and Galaxy’s Greatest Giggles (Sterling)).

“The well has run dry with the joke books, but I’m still publishing picture books—Ten Little Mummies came out in 2003 and A Pirate’s Night Before Christmas this October, 2008.”

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

In my twenties and thirties I can’t tell you how many stories I sent out to publishers. They were mostly bizarre “Twilight Zone” tomes, like a lonely witch who summons up the spirits of dead children to accompany her on Halloween night.

After this unsuccessful period and fifty rejections later, I started writing plays—comedic tragedies highly immersed in Catholicism jokes like–“If Jesus died, then rose, I understand why Jesus died, but who was Rose and why did she have to die, too?”

After getting our first contract for a joke book, we got a contract from Disney to write jokes and humor columns for their Disney Adventures Magazine.

I also had a poem published in Lee Bennett HopkinsDino-Roars, illustrated by Cynthia Fisher (right alongside Jane Yolen) (Golden Books, 1999), and then the picture books happened.

How did you train as a writer?

I had no training except for the typical college composition classes and a playwriting class in college. You have to train by reading. Read everything and anything you can get your hands on. That’s Ray Bradbury‘s advice. Read everything from Moby Dick to the National Enquirer to the back of a cereal box.

I once wrote a story about a kid who finds an old box of cereal. I mean, fifty-years old and when they used to put prizes in them. He discovers a decoder ring in it, which still works and hooks him up with some old-time radio detective hero. Nothing ever came of the story, but it was inspired by the back of a cereal box. It made me want to write, no matter how stupid the story came out.

I tried reading books on the mechanics of writing, but most of them I found, except for a few, were written by people who hadn’t been published.

Plus, no there’s no better way to learn structure than to read, read, read books of great and not-so-great fiction and non-fiction. I studied theatre and got my master’s in theatre, and I’ll never forget what the great Broadway director Harold Clurman said…that we need the bad plays to provide the manure for the good ones.

Some people might laugh at this, but the best training I ever got was from learning how to write jokes. Jokes are concise and have a beginning (the setup) a middle (the problem) and an end (the punchline).

I also believe authors have to become students of human nature.

A book on writing won’t teach you how to become an astute observer of life.

I look at photographs a lot in art books and say to myself, “Who is that woman, and what is she looking at in the distance?” I try to answer that by writing a story about the woman.

Don’t get in trouble with this, but you have to master the art of eavesdropping, if you want to become an author. Listen to what people whisper to each other on the bus, in the art museum, in the express line at the grocery store, in the diner. That’s where stories come from.

Let your mind wander and then let it wonder. Listen to what children say and do because that’s the only way you’ll learn how to see things from their point of view.

I try to be a student of human nature, observe all that goes on around me, then write it down, no matter how trivial it might seem. It might blossom into a story later on.

A little girl came into the library once and told her mom, “I love you so much I want to throw up.” I thought this was hilarious and touching because a moment later the girl hugged her mom and added, “Throw up my arms and hug you and kiss you.” This later became a picture book about how much a child can love a parent or guardian.

We last spoke in October 2005 about your debut picture book, Ten Little Mummies, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Viking, 2003). What is new in your writing life since? [See a previous Cynsations interview with Philip]

I’m very close to getting an agent finally. It’s very difficult even for some published authors to get agents. You truly have to show a diverse portfolio nowadays.

People automatically assume that if you’ve been published that you also have an agent. There are some writers I know that haven’t been published but have agents. More power to them because not only are they gifted writers, but they are also pretty good at selling themselves and can show a great variety in their work.

I’m very slow in writing and very precise, so I don’t have a lot to show to agents that I feel confident about. Ten Little Mummies only has 300 words and took two years to bring to perfection.

Though I have at least twenty picture books close to completing, there’s probably two that are publishable and that I would send to an agent.

So I’m trying to branch out and make myself diverse and prolific with a young adult novel, which I previewed at the Awesome Austin Writers Workshop in June 2008 and got great feedback on, a book of poetry on dinosaurs (told from the dinosaurs point of view), and an historical biography of probably the first child star, a young prodigy named William Betty, who was all of thirteen when he played Hamlet on the London stage. A great mixture of projects. You need to have that to keep you going when the rejections come pouring in.

I’m also trying to regularly keep a journal, which I know is nothing new, but it’s a must for all writers. I write down ideas for stories, or snatches of dialogue, or names of people that are unusual that I might use for a story.

I think it was both Dickens and Ayre who requested that their diaries be destroyed after their deaths, and I think that’s the kind of journal writers have to keep. A journal that’s so full of honesty that it begs to be destroyed after the author’s passing. One full of hopes and dreams and secrets and that may one day be used to write that great story. You have to brave enough to write everything in the journal that comes into your head, no matter how scandalous, or insignificant. Just be sure you put it in your will that it has to tossed into the fire after you die.

Congratulations on the publication of A Pirate’s Night Before Christmas, illustrated by Sebastia Serra (Sterling, 2008)! Could you fill us in on the story?

I knew going into this project that there are a million rip-offs of “A Visit From St Nicholas.” There’s “A Thanksgiving Before Christmas,” and so on. I think people truly groan and say, “Oh, not another takeoff!” I felt, however, that I had a new and exciting take on the old chestnut.

It began with questions like: How would pirates celebrate Christmas? Answer: They were too mean to be rewarded by Santa Claus, so they needed a new icon of holiday celebration–one that’s a Davey-Jones-like Pirate Claus.

What would I replace reindeer with? Well, what about seahorses?

I wrote the whole story by asking questions and putting myself into this world that is uniquely the pirates’.

That’s what writing successful picture books is all about–asking the right questions and letting the answers come in the most heartfelt way. I also knew that the story had to be told by a child and that I had to immerse myself in that child’s world in order for the reader to become immersed in the story.

I spent perhaps ninety percent of my time researching pirate lore–the language, the grammar, the slang, the history, the parts of the ship, and exploring questions like: what would a pirate ask for at Christmas? Well, a plank, of course.

I also wanted the language to be authentic in every way, so that when you read it out loud, you would sound like a pirate.

Who didn’t dream of being a pirate when they were a kid? It’s a dream-come-true for a child. No parents hanging around, stay up as long as you wanted to, dig for buried treasure on the weekends, don’t worry about brushing your teeth, capture and burn ships, kidnap men and women and make them walk the plank. Look at Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and their overwhelming desire to be pirates. It’s the ultimate kid fantasy.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

In 2004 I stumbled upon a book by Don Foster called Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous. Foster is a scholar who developed a method to unmask many “anonymous” literati and solve the mysteries of authorship. For example, he investigated and suggested who was the real author of Primary Colors (1996)(and he turned out to be right).

Now here’s a great leap to the inspiration part, but this is precisely what happened in my head. Foster investigated the claim that “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” was written by one Major Henry Livingston, not Clement Moore. There was never any substantial proof in the end pointing to Livingston (there’s a cool website created by his great, great, great, great, great grandaughter that says otherwise), but it led me to begin analyzing the poem myself, whose rhyme structure is anapestic tetrameter, a form that can also be found in Dr. Seuss‘s Yertle the Turtle and Cat in the Hat. It’s a breezy, whimsical, magical form that just flows beautifully and is highly contagious when read out loud.

Around the time the Johnny Depp pirate movies were just being introduced and the two ideas collided like ships on the Spanish Main. “How would pirates celebrate Christmas?” Surely they would not be visited by St. Nicholas, no, not these robbers and murderers, unless he left coal in their stockings. The idea continued to haunt me until I came up with the solution that if pirates were to celebrate their own Christmas, they had to have their very own pirate Santa Claus and that’s when Sir Peggedy was born.

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

Pirate’s Night Before Christmas, unlike Ten Little Mummies, which took a couple of years to write, wrote itself in about two days!

The book was sent to Penguin, Bloomsbury and Sterling Publishing, which, only until recently, has begun publishing picture books and of great quality.

I sent the manuscript out on a Monday, and the editor called me on Friday of that same week with an offer. I had studied the Sterling catalog and found that their product was quite excellent and said “yes”. The following week, both Penguin and Bloomsbury called with offers. So it was a little over a week between submission and acceptance. I was most fortunate to have three publishers begging for the manuscript, and that is something most writers would kill for.

I was also lucky to get the illustrator I got because I can’t see anyone doing a better job than Sebastia Serra, who lives in Barcelona. Who would have a better view of the Spanish Coast than him? I’m glad I stuck with Sterling because the end was stupendous.

What were the challenges (literary, artistic, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

The simple part was that I was adhering to the anapestic structure of the original ballad poem. I had the recipe for the poem/story already laid out.

The difficulty was in keeping the language accurate to pirate lore and not messing up or forcing the rhymes. “There” always had to be “thar,” and every word with an “ing” on the end had to be changed to “‘in.”

Adhering to the slang without forcing the rhymes was a real challenge. I had to throw all proper grammar out the window. Pirates would fail English composition, and that was how they needed to come across.

Another enormous challenge was the setting of the pirate ship. Not having ever spent time on a pirate ship, I had no idea how to present the ship in any accurate light. So I got books on ships (there are books called Cross-Sections, which outline all the parts of airplanes, ships and trains) and I had to be precise in describing such places as the poop deck (what kid wouldn’t love that name), the mast, the crow’s nest.

I knew that, if the illustrator was brilliant, I had it made, but it was up to me to create the inspiration for the world through the text.

The other problem was that my publisher didn’t want references to alcohol (like rum or grog) since that might be a bad influence on children. I wouldn’t budge on this for a while, but finally excluded it when I realized I wanted to have the child in the crow’s nest with a dog rather than a bottle of grog and the “og” had to rhyme with “fog,” anyway. In the end it was my call, however.

Do you work with a critique group, an editorial agent, on your own, etc.?

I used to work with critique groups, but soon got discouraged–not because I didn’t like the members, but because I came to the conclusion that I was the wrong fit for the group in terms of the type of writing I submitted.

I was writing lots of poetry at the time and the group just wasn’t into poetry. It’s so essential to have that connection with other writers who have similar writing interests. The positive chemistry is so crucial. It needs to be a marriage that works.

I’m mostly a self-editor and, even after fifteen books of humor and two picture books, I’m terribly shy about the my work. Which is odd because I was such a class clown.

I recently came out of the closet to show some chapters of a YA novel called “The Manatee” which I’m excited about. I’m a brutal editor of my own stuff. I labor over the words.

I’m very secretive about what I’m writing, which I think most writers are. I never let the story slip into someone else’s hands until perhaps the tenth draft.

If someone asks me what I’m writing I tend to give them a synopsis of something which is a total lie of what I’m actually writing.

I cross my fingers behind my back and tell them a fantastic story that has nothing to do with what I’m actually writing. It might be paranoia that they will steal the idea or that I feel, that by talking about it, I’m putting some kind of curse on the work.

All writers, despite what I’ve just said, should go to critique groups. I just haven’t found the right one yet.

I do have great editors at Sterling and Penguin who are always giving me great feedback.

Sometimes, if the cat pukes out hairball on the manuscript that’s a pretty good sign it’s time to put this one away for a while.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were a beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

The first thing I’d say is, “Is there anyone else in the room with me?” Then if there was no reply, I’d feel comfortable enough to say things like: “Share your work with someone you trust, no matter how you feel about it.” “But I will only give my work to people I know and love and who will also be brutal with criticism.”

In the end, if it gets published, it’s going to be in the hands of thousands of people. Write from the heart and not from the head.

I’d also say things like, “Read The Elements of Style a little earlier since this is the greatest book you could ever read on writing.”

I’d say “Read more classics!”

I’d advise: “Don’t ever walk away from the writing just when it’s getting good, and you think that tomorrow it’ll get even better. Stay put in the chair until you are really satisfied.”

By the same token, “don’t ever walk away when the writing gets bad because there’s always a rainbow around the corner, if you just be patient.”

“Don’t be afraid to have a bawl-fest when you are writing a particularly moving passage. Sometimes it’s good to clean the keyboard with a few salty teardrops.”

What about the picture book audience appeals to you?

You can take a child by the hand and bring them to worlds they’ve only dreamed of. Anything can happen and does in a picture book—mummies frolic in the Egyptian sun, animals talk, cars fly, pigeons drive buses, llamas wear pajamas, dogs conduct safety assemblies at schools. You could go on forever, and that’s the appeal–it’s limitless in terms of coming up with imaginative ways to tell a story and still hit the heartstrings of a child.

And a parent. I think every picture book author writes for two audiences–the child and the parent. We transport the child to another world, and the parent accompanies them like the conductor. If we’re successful with the story the child and the parent are both enchanted. If only the child is enchanted we’ve only done half our job.

If the child believes in the Wild Things and the parent doesn’t then something is wrong with the story because it’s a mutual sharing, mutual accepting of this world they step into through the written word.

If the parent reads a child a story, they must be on the train, too, sitting right next to them. They both must believe in order for the story to come alive. The child in the parent must nod his/her head and go, “Yes, when I was young I, too, saw the Wild Things and when I came home, though it felt like I’d been gone forever, my dinner was still warm.”

That’s what I like—connecting to those two audiences—the child and the inner child in us all, whether we’re ten or 100.

What do you do outside the world of youth literature?

To keep in touch with all children’s publishing, I’m fortunate to work at the Austin Public Library here in Austin. I see every new kid’s book that comes in. I see catalogs, and I do my homework pouring over them and finding the latest trends.

I also love to go to museums, not to see the art but the people. Watch what they do, hear what they say. You never know if it might come in handy in a story. Like if you happen to be there when, say, a mother is chasing her diaper-less child through a gallery of still-life nudes, that’s a pretty funny juxtaposition.

I’m a voracious reader, of course. Not just books, you’ll find me reading the mug shots at the post office, the menus on the restaurants on Sixth Street, someone’s grocery list that blows down the sidewalk and clings to my pants. I mean, everything.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

When the joke books came out in the early nineties, my co-author and I did joke shows for kids nearly every week in libraries, bookstores, and at community events.

You’d think, how did we get time to write nearly ten books of jokes in eight years? Every joke show, we had the kids come up onstage and tell their own jokes, which we would twist around and make them our own. So every event we went to, we had ten new jokes we hadn’t heard, and they went into the next joke book. So we were writing the next book as we were promoting the previous one.

Now that I’m into picture books and YAs and poetry, you can’t do that because, of course, the work is finished.

You have to put yourself out there at schools, libraries, conferences, and sometimes the writing just has to go on hold except for the journal you’re always keeping with you.

I’ve heard where famous authors spend more time now promoting than they actually do writing, and I guess that’s the way to go if you want to keep your name out there.

What can your fans look forward to next?

As a last hurrah to the joke books, there are two final ones coming out in November, Nuttiest Knock-Knocks, and Galaxy’s Greatest Giggles.

My editor at Sterling has been asking for sequels to the Pirate’s Night Before Christmas, but some variations on that, dinosaur Christmas and so on, but I think I want to move on.