Co-Authors Interview: Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter on Reading and Writing

Spilling Ink: A Young Writers Handbook by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter, illustrated by Matt Phelan (Flashpoint, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Learn how to write like the experts, from the experts.

Practical advice in a perfect package for young aspiring writers. After receiving letters from fans asking for writing advice, accomplished authors Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter joined together to create this guidebook for young writers.

The authors mix inspirational anecdotes with practical guidance on how to find a voice, develop characters and plot, make revisions, and overcome writer’s block.

Fun writing prompts will help young writers jump-start their own projects, and encouragement throughout will keep them at work.

Author of The Salmander Room (Dragonfly, 1994), The Sister Magic series, illustrated by Bill Brown (Scholastic) and the bestselling Abby Hayes series (Scholastic), Anne Mazer lives in Ithaca, New York.

Ellen Potter, author of the award-winning Olivia Kidney series, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds, Pish Posh (Philomel, 2006), and Slob (Philomel, 2009), lives in upstate New York.

See also The Official Site of Spilling Ink – The Book! which includes additional information, a creativity blog, discussion board, teacher kit, section for kids, and much more.

What kind of reader were you as a child?

Ellen: My mother likes to tell this story: One time, when I was eight or so, she had to pick me up from school in the middle of the day. I was in an experimental classroom at the time. The experiment wasn’t going so well. Kids were throwing sneakers at each other and playing “How loud can you scream before the teacher starts to cry.”

My mother walked into the class and couldn’t find me anywhere. It took some searching before she discovered me curled up under a desk, engrossed in a book. Perfectly happy.

If there was a bloody revolution happening all around me (and there was), I was blissfully unaware of it. Books had that power for me. They still do.

Anne: I was an omnivorous, voracious, hungry reader.

Anything in print appealed to me. That included books of all kinds (fairy tales, adventures, humor, historical fiction, fantasy, sci fi, mysteries, poetry, non-fiction, series, westerns, etc.), as well as encyclopedias, dictionaries, cereal boxes, Archie and Superman comic books, and Mad Magazine. There’s almost no way to convey how important reading was to me as a child. I was hooked on stories from birth.

How did your family encourage reading?

Ellen: I come from a family of readers and writers. Books were a priority. We were allowed to stay up late as long as we were reading, and my parents often took us to the library or used bookstores to replenish our supply.

My mother used to read to us, too, even when we were perfectly capable of reading to ourselves. We loved it! She read us books that she liked herself. She often read us books by Donald E. Westlake, who wrote these great humorous crime novels about botched bank robberies or jewelry thefts.

Anne: Speaking of birth, I like to think that I was born with a tiny leather-bound book in my hand. That was because I was born into a book-loving family. (My parents also became writers when I was five years old, but that’s another story.)

Reading was a highly approved activity in the Mazer family. No one ever questioned my spending an entire day on the floor of my room reading book after book. Even when I finally staggered into the light, unable to remember my name, no one ever said, “You might want to cut down on the reading.”

We also haunted libraries–some of them were really spooky! One memorable library in the Adirondacks was a small, musty room at the top of a deserted building. It was crammed with books stacked everywhere. There was no librarian or card catalog or even many book shelves. There were just books and dust. We wandered the room around picking up the volumes we wanted to read on our vacation. Then we took them to our cabin. When we were finished, we went back to the library and put them down anywhere.

I also loved the marble staircase of the downtown Syracuse Public Library. The stairs were worn in the middle, and I always had a kind of mystical feeling as I ascended toward the stacks. I saw myself as one of millions of people in a long stream of time, climbing toward books and knowledge. It felt good to be seeking out books in the library.

What is your most memorable reading experience?

Ellen: I had this epiphany when I was reading Harriet the Spy [by Louise Fitzhugh (Harper & Row, 1964)]. I suddenly knew that the best books in the world were written for eleven-year-olds. How wonderful! I was eleven!

But how awful too, since I would be turning twelve soon, then thirteen, and then, gaaak! I’d be an adult before long. So I vowed that if I couldn’t always be eleven, I could at least write books for people who were eleven.

All because of Harriet the Spy.

Anne: Well, there’s the Sherlock Holmes pea soup story which I recount in Spilling Ink. Let me just say that it involves a bowl of slowly congealing, thick gloppy pea soup which I had been ordered to finish–and the Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), which I was reading to distract me from the pea soup.

I wasn’t sure which was more horrifying–the slavering jaws of the terrifying hound or my mother’s pea soup. To this day, whenever anyone mentions the Hound of the Baskervilles, I taste pea soup.

And then there was the time in tenth grade Biology class that I was reading a book that I had cleverly concealed behind my textbook. I thought I was getting away with it until the teacher swooped down on me. He reached inside and confiscated my book. The next thing I knew my book was flying out the second floor window. It landed in the snow, where I retrieved it later. (My teacher obviously had not grown up in a family where Reading Was Always Okay.)

How did reading shape you as a writer?

Ellen: Reading is the reason that I write. Certain books have left their fingerprint on my soul. Just that fact alone fires me up to write every day.

Anne: I wouldn’t be a writer if I wasn’t a reader. Books were such powerful magic for me as a kid that I wanted to create it for others when I got older. I also learned how to write from reading. Might I mention that I never took a single writing class?

Yes, I grew up with writer parents. But they didn’t teach me how to write; they taught me the habits a writer needs, such as: “Write every day. Don’t give up. It takes a long, long time.”

They didn’t teach me how to develop a character, for example, or how to write something funny. I discovered all these things on my own–and with the help of many, many other writers.

Every book that I’ve ever read and loved has been my teacher. Writing involves a lot of struggle. No one else can do it for you. But with so many shining examples before you, why not try?

Has becoming a writer changed the way you read?

Ellen (circles): It’s a case of mixing business with pleasure.

When I read, part of my brain is trying to untangle the author’s style and analyzing the storyline. A book has to be unbelievably great in order for me to forget that I’m a writer and simply be a reader.

Anne (stripes): I’m still the same awestruck, story-besotted reader I was as a little girl.

When I pick up a book, the world disappears. That has never changed. Sometimes I wish I could analyze what I’m reading while I’m reading it, but I always get lost in the story.

The books I love get me excited about writing. They open up new possibilities and ways of thinking about my characters and stories. Bad books sometimes inspire me, as well. A pinch of anger can get me writing, too!

Any advice for aspiring writers on the relationship between reading and writing?

Ellen: Read widely and recklessly. Parse out what works and why. Then, when you sit down to write, push all that stuff to one corner of your brain and let your own voice lead the way.

Anne: Not every writer is a reader first. (I can think of several reluctant readers who became successful writers.) But for an aspiring writer, reading is the single most important thing you can do. It will help develop an ear for language, a nose for a story, a eye for details, and a taste for ideas.

But please don’t read because you “should!” Do it for fun, for knowledge, for pleasure and curiosity. Reading can lead you naturally to writing… and reading what you love will lead you to writing what you love.

Cynsational Notes

Matt Phelan illustrated the 2007 Newbery Medal winner The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron (Atheneum/Richard Jackson, 2006). He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.