What inspires or motivates you as a writer?
My biggest inspiration is my reading experience as a child. Reading was my greatest delight, my escape, my refuge. I read walking down the street, climbing stairs, in the bathroom. If I didn't have a book, I was lost. When I wasn't actually reading, part of me was still living my current book. I imagined myself as the characters and sometimes wrote stories that imitated the books I loved. Today, I write to the reader I used to be, who still lives inside me. I remember what she liked, which was almost everything, and that's lucky because she isn't overly critical. Her enthusiasm and interest give me freedom to go anywhere.
How do you get ideas for your books?
Many of my stories come from other stories: fairy tales, myths, fables, even the Bible. Some ideas are triggered by asking myself, What if? What if an unpopular girl suddenly became popular? What if she learned that her popularity would end soon? These questions helped me work out the plot of The Wish. Dave at Night was inspired by my father's life. For The Two Princesses of Bamarre I considered fear and courage.
Naturally, the big idea that gets a book going isn't the only idea I need to take me from beginning to end. I have to come up with a thousand more ideas, big and small. So I write lots of notes and ask myself more what-if questions. What if this character did that? How would the other characters react? What chain of events would I set in motion? Sometimes I interview my characters and ask them what they would do or say in a particular situation. Sometimes I fill out a character questionnaire about a character, and what I learn may lead me to new ideas. I talk about finding ideas and developing characters in my book about writing called Writing Magic: Creating Stories that Fly. I got the idea for that book by teaching creative writing to kids in my hometown.
Some books—but not mine—are character driven. The author develops a character who desires something. The story develops from the way the character goes about getting (or failing to get) what he or she wants. My books, on the other hand, are plot and idea driven. I think up characters that fit my plot and my idea. So ideas are crucial.
What is your favorite part of writing?
Revising after I've finished the first draft. I revise as I go, which I enjoy too, but it's best when I've gotten the whole story down. What's lovely about revising is that all I have to do is make things better. The hard parts of figuring out the plot and getting to know the characters are over. It's like when you do a very complicated jigsaw puzzle. Near the end, the pieces fall into place, and that's a reward for sticking with the puzzle.
How do you balance writing with all of the other demands on your time?
I'm not good at that. I can't resist looking at e-mails when they come in. I answer the phone when it rings. I rarely turn down an invitation to visit a school or speak at a conference. I'm too flattered that I've been invited! Besides, I love to go to schools and to talk to teachers and librarians at conferences. I especially love meeting other children's book writers or catching up with old friends.
On the other hand, I keep my life simple. I don't get many phone calls, and I don't seek out school or conference invitations. And I can write anywhere. I am writing this on a flight from Auckland, New Zealand, to Los Angeles. At home, I write while I eat breakfast, lunch, and my evening snack (ice cream or pie and spearmint tea). Sometimes I write mostly in short snatches, and I have to keep the continuity going in my mind, which can be a problem.
I'm very determined. If I start a story, I'm going to finish it no matter what. I'm going to finish it on time, too, if I possibly can. I hate to miss a deadline.
What do you do to relax?
Many things. I adore walking. I could walk forever. The rhythm that gets into me is pure pleasure. I love walking in beautiful countryside and in cities, especially New York City.
Exercise. I work out—in two ways. I lift weights with a trainer. For a person who weighs about eighty-seven pounds, I'm very strong. I can bench press ninety pounds when I'm at my peak. For endurance and my heart, I play rock music in our basement and dance around!
I write and read poetry for adults. I love sad poems, even though I mostly write happy stories. Of course I read novels too, many of them for kids.
There's more: spending time with my husband, David, and our dog, Reggie, getting together with friends, visiting museums, listening to talk radio, and teaching my summer workshop for kids about writing stories.
I notice the very beautiful pottery in your house. Wherever do you get these unique pieces?
I get them from the world's best potter, Betsy Levine, at Prescott Hill Pottery.