Craft, Career & Cheer: Jane Yolen

Learn about Jane Yolen. Note: see more information about Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft (Writer’s Digest, 2006).

What do you love most about your creative life? Why?

My short answer is that I get to work in my jammies. But that’s a devious and charming lie. I hardly ever work in my jammies any more unless it is that first rush of emails before I even
get out of bed. Besides, I wear a nightgown, not jammies.

What I love most is the white heat, the total involvement in an evolving story when something new to the world (and to me) suddenly leaks out of my fingers and onto the page. For the length of the writing, my back doesn’t hurt, the world as it is disappears and the world as I create it takes over, and time in real terms stops.

When I look up again from the computer screen, crossing back over the years and miles from fairyland or Emily Dickinson’s house or a walk in the owl moon woods, it is minutes, even hours later. Sometimes I can scarcely bear to come home.

Could you tell us about your writing community—your critique group or critique partner or other sources of creative support?

Before my beloved husband David Stemple died, he was my first reader and best critic.

Now I rely completely on my writing group of seven wonderful women (Patricia MacLachlan, Ann Turner, Leslea Newman, Ellen Wittlinger, Barbara Diamond Goldin, Anna Kirwan, and Corinne Demas) and my daughter Heidi E. Y. Stemple, who lives next door to me.

Of course when I am in Scotland, where I have a house and live for four months each summer and early fall, I have my writing partner Bob Harris and his wife Debby.

All are fine writers and are not loathe to tell me when my stuff stinks or wobbles or misses the mark–though not quite in those rough terms. But they are also good at praise songs, too.

How do you psyche yourself up to write and to keep writing?

It is not a question I understand. Writing is what I love and enjoy. Writing feeds me, gives me strength, makes me happy, keeps me whole.

Why is your agent the right agent for you?

Elizabeth Harding of Curtis Brown Ltd. is my agent, and I adore her. She knows my backlist, understands I need to hear sooner rather than later, is the right combination of listening ear and whip hand, and knows everything about the tidal motion of the market. Also I think she likes me. A lot. It helps.

How have you come to thrive in such a competitive, unpredictable industry?

For me the answer is simple: I can write everything. And do.

Over the years (and I have been doing this for well over 40 successful years, my first two books coming out in 1963), I have tried every genre. I am flexible. I am my own brand.

I don’t write for the market–indeed I seem to be either ten years ahead or ten years behind every trend—but I write what I want to and assume the market will find me.

I can do that because of the sheer volume of stories, poems, essays, books that I write.

It also means I probably get more rejections in a month than most writers. Goes with the territory. A rejection just means I haven’t found the right editor yet.

In your own words, could you tell us about your latest book?

I have always referred to Emily Dickinson as my neighbor. Not absolutely true as she lived two towns (not a hedge) away from where I now live and died in the nineteenth century.

I adore her poetry and have since childhood. I had always wanted to write a picture book about her.

But it took me approximately 30 years to find the story I wanted to tell about dear Emily, though in-between I had written sonnets and poems about (and to) her, included her in book references in my novel Armageddon Summer (with Bruce Coville (Harcourt 1999)) and essays about writing, etc.

Finally, talking to a friend who is a Dickinson scholar about the long-desired project, she gave me an anecdote that was perfect.

Emily–known to her niece and two nephews as “Uncle Emily”–once gave her youngest nephew, six-year-old Gib, a dead bee and a poem about a dead bee to take into school, which the reluctant boy did. We don’t know exactly what happened there, which gave me permission to creatively re-invent an historical moment.

So My Uncle Emily, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (Philomel, 2009) was born.

Cynsational Notes

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.