What do you love most about your creative life?
What I love most about my writing life is also what I struggle with most: the combination of freedom and discipline.
Most days I am free to write whatever I want to write, to play with story, with words with sounds, to make something, not out of nothing but of what I know and have lived and imagine. And the hard part of that is making myself sit down and do it.
I know I am a nicer person when I write. Whenever I find myself overly cranky, I realize it’s because I haven’t been writing lately. It doesn’t matter whether I’m writing something I hope to publish someday or something that is just me mucking around with sound and story; it’s the act of writing itself that makes me a better person to be around.
Often I will set myself daily exercises just to get going. My favorite for a long time was writing each day about how I love the world. Of course some days I don’t love anything about the world or myself, and I write about that, too. Either way, it’s a great exercise in observation and specific detail.
Once, during a writing retreat on an island, a fellow writer set us all the task of writing something that incorporated the injunction printed in the island’s composting toilet: Resist the urge to level the pile.
I wrote about the seduction of piles of dirty laundry (which was also about being willing to write about the things we keep buried), and that piece is still one of my favorites.
Another of my favorite pieces came out of writing about loving (or not loving) the world and is also about laundry, about each piece flapping its story on the line, the jeans frayed at the knees, the socks that don’t match, the hole in the sheet.
Story is everywhere, and on my better days, I love looking for those stories.
When I am writing, I am not afraid. Writing keeps back the fear of never writing anything good again, never selling anything again, the fear of ending up living in my beater car and pushing my books out through the window at passersby. “Psst, hey mister, wanna buy a picture book? Cheap?”
And almost nothing is more satisfying than writing (and rewriting) my way into a story that is working, that feels right, feels satisfying, a story about which I could say for myself, as Big Momma says of her creation, “That’s good. That’s real good.”
So far, what has been the highlight of your professional career?
The highlight of my professional career so far has been the London book launch of Big Momma Makes the World (Candlewick, 2002), or, translated into British English, Big Mama Makes the World (Walker, 2002).
I had the chance to fly to London at the last minute to be part of the launch, and I took that chance and went.
Even the hotel I stayed in was right out of a story, all elegant old marble and wood with a fireplace, two bedrooms and bathrooms (with a phone in each), a living room, and a kitchen.
When I looked for soap to wash the dishes, there wasn’t any because the maid who came in and washed them brought soap along with her.
The night of the launch, 300 parents and children had been invited to the London Planetarium, where a face painter painted faces (I got glittery stars painted on mine to match the stars on my dress), a juggler juggled bowling pins, and a balloon sculptor twisted swords and hats and animals out of balloons for the children.
Helen Oxenbury, Big Momma’s fabulous artist, and I signed books during the festivities, and the juggler, as part of his act, frequently let his bowling pins bounce up off a drum, usually just at the moment when I had asked a child’s name and the child’s whispered answer was lost in the BOOM.
When the time came for the reading of the book, we all trooped into the planetarium itself. The lights went down. Helen’s wonderful art was projected on the ceiling of the planetarium while a voice read the words of the story.
When Big Mama says, “Dark,” all the lights went off, and gasps arose from the darkness.
Then the sky of the planetarium lit up all over with stars, and the gasps became one great “Ahhhhh.”
At the end of the story, the London Gospel Choir came on stage and sang, and from the back of the planetarium, I watched all the balloon swords waving in time to the singing. Every moment was magical. And still is.
In each class I read Rattletrap Car (Candlewick, 2004), and as I always do, I invited anyone who wanted to join in on the Bing Bang Pop of the refrain.
Later, when I was helping my daughter pack, one of the younger children from the school opened the door of where she was staying, looking for her.
When he saw me, he grinned, shouted, “Bing Bang Pop,” laughed, and ran out again.
It was one of the best critiques I’ve ever had.
Would you tell us about your latest book?
My latest book is Paula Bunyan, published by Farrar Strauss & Giroux with art by Kevin O’Malley (2009). It’s a tall tale begun when my children were young and we were on an apple-picking outing. Wagons piled with bales of hay and pulled by tractors took the pickers out to the apple trees, the tractor driver calling out each kind of apple as we passed the rows where it grew.
As we bounced along on the bales of hay waiting to hear “Haralson,” the only kind of apple we ever picked, I began to make up a story about Paula Bunyan, Paul’s little sister.
“You should write that one down,” my older daughter said. And so I did.
The story eventually made its way into Wesley Adams’s hands at Farrar Straus & Giroux and came out this spring. One of the most exciting things that has happened since was that the book was reviewed by Jerry Griswold in The New York Times.
Toot Toot Zoom, about a trip over the mountains in a little red car in search of a friend, got its start on a wild drive over a mountain in Spain.
My younger daughter, who had been living in Spain, was driving and explained that even though the road was only one car wide and corkscrewed around, drivers simply honked their horns as they raced around blind curves to warn any oncoming cars.
So we tore up the mountain and down again, and at every curve she honked, toot toot, and zoomed ahead. We had only one close call and one stop for carsickness (mine).
I told the story to people so often after the trip that when my daughter said, “That’s beginning to sound like a book,” I wrote (and rewrote and rewrote) the story, and now it is a book. I love the wild, madcap feeling of the art.
Flip Flap Fly began when my older daughter left to study in South Africa. I was teaching in Vermont and couldn’t be home to see her off. Feeling bereft, I scribbled down a simple little poem that began, “Fly!” said the Momma Bird, “way up high.”
The poem grew into a story, and in revision, the baby bird and all the other baby animals became the ones to initiate the action. And the art is lovely–who knew snakes could look so tender?
All three books are very different, and I love them all.
I have a middle grade novel coming out with Front Street/Boyds Mills, tentatively called Lilly and the Scurrilous Pirates, with wonderful art by Rob Shepperson. The book was a very long time in the writing–each chapter is about the length of a picture book manuscript. I can imagine writing 700 or 800 words much more easily than I can imagine writing 25,000.
Pirates, buried treasure, homing seagulls, and shipwreck–the story was great fun to write, and I used a lot of my own experiences, including horrific seasickness and overwhelming anxiety about just about everything.
I also have a picture book with Candlewick coming out soon, called Creak! said the Bed with hilarious illustrations by Regan Dunnick.
It’s been a spring rich in books, and I feel very blessed. Which doesn’t mean I don’t put my butt in chair and keep working on whatever the next story is. Because it makes me happy, I write.
Writing in the Woods: A Retreat for Writers of Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Phyllis Root will join fellow authors Marsha Wilson Chall and Jane Resh Thomas in teaching a workshop from Oct. 19 to Oct. 25 at Good Earth Village in Spring Valley, Minnesota. Enrollment limited to 10. Application deadline: Aug. 19. See more information.
The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.