Interview with Award-Winning Author Betty Birney

schooldayshumphreyGet to know Betty… 

Betty G. Birney’s series of books looking at the world through the eyes of a classroom hamster named Humphrey have won eight state awards, two Children’s Crown Awards and a Christopher Award, among other honors. Her book, The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs, received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, was named one of the best books of the year by Borders, and has been on numerous state lists, including the California Young Readers Medal. For her television writing, she has received an Emmy, a Writer’s Guild of America Award, and three Humanitas Prizes. A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Betty lives in Studio City, CA. And now the seventh book, School Days According to Humphrey, was released. For more info, visit her website.

Let the conversation begin!

Outliner or seat-of-the-pantser?

Both. I have written detailed outlines for many books but with others, I have just the barest “sweep” of the story. I do like to know where I’m going – a direction – and seem to do better. But I’m flexible and change things along the way. I think of an outline as a map. You wouldn’t drive from L.A. to N.Y. without a map. But when I travel, I often like to change the route as I go. Also, my background writing children’s television trained me to write outlines, since an outline is a required step in the process. All TV writers know that the outline is harder to write than the script but if you have a solid outline, writing the script is easy.

What initially drew you to writing?

As soon as I was able to read, I fell in love with books. Somehow, I knew I didn’t just want to read them, I wanted to write them. I wanted to figure out how my favorite writers came up with wonderful stories using their imaginations. I had a pretty vivid imagination so at seven, I wrote my first book, Teddy Bear in the Woods. I gave it to my parents and announced that I wanted to be a writer. And I’ve been writing ever since!

How many words do you write each day?

This varies wildly depending on where I am with my deadline – whether it’s imposed by the publisher or myself.

When are you the most productive?

I am at my most creative in the early morning. I often wake up with ideas for where I’m going with a story or even a whole new book. I’m at my most productive in the late afternoon. Go figure!

What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?

Not enough. I usually write 7 days a week and have a lot of demands with my books that take up time. I do love to travel, mostly to England and Scotland.

Where do you get your ideas?

Everywhere. From the news, from conversations I’ve overheard, from things that happened to me, things that happened to others, family stories and dreams.

What advice would you give young writers?

Write for the sheer joy of it. Don’t think about getting published. Don’t think about anything but you and how much you like the story. I hear from too many kids who obsess – and I don’t use that word lightly – about getting published at age 10. They want fame and they want it now. My other advice is to read as much as possible and to read across genres. Kids tend to get stuck in one genre. Also, don’t try to imitate your favorite author or anyone else.

Tell us about the book you’re working on.

Which one? The eighth According to Humphrey book, out in 2012? The fourth Humphrey’s Tiny Tales book due in the UK? The dog series I’ve been working on in between deadlines? The historical book with 125 pages written or the other three that I’ve put aside to continue with the Humphrey series? The new idea I dreamed about recently and have tons of notes on? Some day, I hope to finish them all. 

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Interview with Bestselling Author Marissa Moss

amelias-6th-gradeGet to know Marissa…

Marissa has written and illustrated over fifty books. Twenty-six of them are from her best known series, Amelia’s Notebook. When she wrote the first book fifteen years ago, the format of a handwritten notebook with art on every page was so original, editors didn’t know what to make of it. It took a small, new publisher, Tricycle Press, to take a chance on the innovative format. Amelia’s Notebook was so successful, two more books quickly followed, and the backlist of the first three books was bought by Pleasant Company (publishers of the American Girl books) for three million dollars. Moss’ new project is a series of journals for younger girls, seven to ten years old, Daphne’s Diary of Daily Disasters. Paula Wiseman at Simon & Schuster plans to debut the books next summer. For more info, visit her website.

Let the conversation begin!

How many words do you write each day?

I don’t do word counts and when I’m starting a book, I don’t have set amounts, but instead set hours. I try to write for at least four hours a day. On good days, I can easily do twice that. On bad days, an hour is a struggle.

Outliner or seat-of-the-pantser?

I don’t work from an outline until I get towards the end of a book. Then I’ll have sketchy notes that I give myself permission to ignore.

How long do you take to write a book?

That all depends on the book. For the historical novels, there’s a lot of initial time spent in research and I need to do many more revisions than are needed in an Amelia book.

In grade school, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I’ve always wanted to write and illustrate books. I sent my first book to publishers when I was 9, but it wasn’t very good and they didn’t even send me a form rejection. Just silence.

Easier to write before or after you were published?

Writing is always hard, but I’m better at it now than before.

Would you rather publish a string of mainstream books or one classic?

I’d love to write one classic book that really resonates with readers.

Do you begin with character or plot?

Both, though my stories are character-driven.

Where do you get your ideas?

I get my ideas from all kinds of things — snippets of overheard conversation, things I read in the newspaper, random stuff I notice that somehow gets the creative juices flowing. You never know what will become a story.

What advice would you give young writers?

Read, read, READ. And read some more. Get language into your blood, so you can hear the rhythms in your bones.

What do you consider to the most valuable thing you own?

My passport. It lets me go anywhere in the world. Traveling is a huge inspiration for me.

Most embarrassing moment?

You can read about that in Amelia’s Most Unforgettable Embarrassing Moments. Amelia is a lot like me when I was a kid and the things that happen to her really happened to me (mostly).

Do you let anyone read your WIP? Or do you keep it a secret?

My best reader is my youngest son. He’s an incredibly insightful editor. But I also have a writers’ group I share my work with.

What initially drew you to writing?

In a story, you can make whatever you want to happen, happen. You can’t do that in real life. It’s one of the things that makes writing so magical.

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Interview with Award-Winning Author Tony Abbott

9781250016683Get to know Tony…

Tony Abbott has published over ninety books for readers 6 to 14, including the series The Haunting of Derek Stone and The Secrets of Droon, and the novels Kringle, Firegirl (2006 Golden Kite Award for Fiction), and The Postcard (2008 Edgar Award). His novel Lunch-Box Dream appears in 2011. Tony also teaches in the MFA Creative Writing program at Lesley University in Cambridge Massachusetts. For more info, visit his website.

Let the conversation begin!

Daily word count?

I am a slow plotter and a less-slow writer for most books, so it’s hard to say accurately. Occasionally, however, I find myself writing two or three thousand words a day on a novel that I’m immersed in. Overall, however, it takes at least a year to finish a real novel.

Outliner or seat-of-the-pants writer?

Surprisingly to myself, both. Most books, the ones for younger readers, I outline assiduously, breaking it down until I know it works. This is essential in mysteries or adventure stories, less so in comedy. For novels, however (and I’ve written only four), I do very little-to-no outlining, knowing only the shape of the story but having lived with it for a good long time — years, sometimes — before I begin to set words down.

What element would you add to your writing space if money wasn’t an issue? 

Soundproofing.

From idea to completion, how long does it take you to write a book?

Four or five months for chapter books (I know, right?), and eighteen months or more for novels.

In grade school, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A fireman or a farmer. Because I had cool plastic trucks for each. The farm truck had a little chicken coop on the back. It opened, and you could take the little chickens out as well as put them back in. Hours of fun.

Easier to write before or after you were published?

After. I’m one of those idiots who seems to function better with a deadline hanging over me. Is it a Catholic thing? I don’t know. But the threat of damnation works.

Earliest childhood memory?

A fever in my crib in which I destroyed in delirium my favorite toy.

Would you rather publish a string of mainstream books or one classic?

Please sir, can I have some more? No? Then just one classic.

You can only write one more book. What’s the topic?

I’ll tell you the same thing I tell anyone who asks what my new book is about: “People.”

Do you begin with character or plot?

With chapter books, it’s often a situation, a gag, a plot moment. With novels it’s always a character.

Tell us about the book you’re working on.

Well, it’s a book about . . . people.

Describe your perfect day.

A great morning at the desk, when the writing is quietly superb. A game of tennis. Shower. Lunch on some patio somewhere. Reading in the long afternoon. Dinner on another patio. Evening in the backyard watching the light go away.

What was the best thing that happened to you this weekend? 

With my wife and older daughter drove my lovely younger daughter to the airport for her fellowship in France and coming home to a quiet house. Why was this the best? Because of the quiet.

Who inspires you? How are you a bit like them?

Mid-century American novelists. I was born then?

Where do you get your ideas?

From . . . people.

Advice for new writers?

Read everything closely, but mostly mid-century American novelists.

What do you consider to be the most valuable item you own?

1845 copy of A Christmas Carol, beautiful 11th edition by Bradbury and Evans.

Best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Tony, you should revise this.

What one word describes you?

Professional, I think. At least I used to be. In these later years of our world I find myself getting fed up more often. But for a long time I was very businesslike in my appreciation for the rules of publishing.

What would you like your life to look like in ten years?

Slower, with more time to read.

First item on your bucket list?

Find more time to read.

How do you recharge your creative batteries?

Mow the lawn. Play the guitar. Mow the lawn again.

One rule you’re dying to break?

In writing for young people, I’d love to be able to write something so difficult to read but so essential to read that the reader will go through hell to understand it, knowing the reward would change his or her life. Is that too much? I don’t know anymore.

If this was your last day on Earth, what would you do?

After hugging my family, settle down to read.

If you could spend a vacation with three authors, who would they be?

William Faulkner, John Updike, James Agee.

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Interview with Bestselling Author Kathleen Fuller

Get to know Kathleen…

Kathleen Fuller is the author of over twenty books, including the bestselling Hearts of Middlefield series. She lives with her husband and three teenagers in Geneva, Ohio. For more info, visit her website.

Let the conversation begin!

How many words do you write each day?

Depends, but I try to write at least 3k. Since I don’t always write every day, I need to write that many to keep on pace for my deadlines.

Outliner or seat-of-the-panter?

Both! I’ve done a combination in each of my books. I outline first, then as I write the story and characters usually change. That makes the writing process interesting!

In grade school, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I bounced back and forth from journalist to lawyer to marketing to psychologist–I decided to become a teacher, then a writer. I love working with kids and with words and stories.

Easier to write before or after you were published?

After, definitely. More deadlines, more pressure, more knowledge about the business. Although there’s something freeing about being blissfully ignorant about publishing and just writing what’s on your heart and for yourself.

Earliest childhood memory?

Getting baptized. I was a baby and my mother says there’s no way I could remember that. But I do, despite my swiss cheese memory.

If money wasn’t an issue, what would you add to your writing space?

I’d like to write in some type of covered garden that would stay cool in summer and warm in winter. It would have to have a water feature, too.

From idea to completion, how long does it take to write a book?

About six months.

Would you rather publish a string of mainstream books or one classic?

A string of mainstream books–I like having a writing career. Writing just one book, even if it’s a classic, isn’t a career. It’s an achievement.

If you could only write one more book, what would it be about?

Historical Ireland.

Do you begin with character or plot?

Plot, usually. Character comes out of plot for me.

Tell us about the book you’re working on.

I’m working on the second book in my Middlefield Family series, Faithful to Laura. I’m excited about this series. The first book, Treasuring Emma, releases in July.

Describe your perfect day.

Spending it with my family camping or at poolside, playing games and having a cookout.

What was the best thing that happened to you this weekend? 

Sunday June 12th was my 18th wedding anniversary. I’m married to an amazing and supportive man. I couldn’t do this without him.

What advice would you give young writers?

Enjoy writing while learning the skills of the craft. It can be done.

What was the weirdest food you’ve ever eaten?

Rattlesnake. Tastes like chicken.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Never stop learning, and remember it’s about the readers, not about me.

What one word describes you?

Contradictory. I have lots of contradictory personality traits and ambitions. For example, I long to be noticed, but cringe at the idea of being the center of attention.

Most embarrassing moment?

There are many of those, but my most recent one was falling out of my car last month in front of a restaurant. Who does that?

What’s the first item on your bucket list?

Go on a cruise.

What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?

Sleep.

If this was your last day on Earth, what would you do?

Spend it with my family.

What initially drew you to writing?

A love of reading.

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Interview with Award-Winning Author Maryrose Wood

Ashton-Place-Book-720x1024Get to know Maryrose…

I write novels for kids and teens. Is that a cool job or what?

For readers 8 – 12 and beyond, check out THE INCORRIGIBLE CHILDREN OF ASHTON PLACE series. Three children who were raised by wolves and their plucky young governess solve mysteries galore in Victorian England. It will leave you howling for more!

For teens and YA fans with a taste for the paranormal: THE POISON DIARIES trilogy is set in the dangerous world of poisonous plants. Book 2, NIGHTSHADE, is due out in August in the UK and October in the USA. Will it be the dose that kills, or the dose that cures? Truly, can a poisoned heart decide? For more info, visit my website.

Let the conversation begin!

Daily word count?

I am choosing to start off with this seemingly simple question because I want to disabuse anyone of the idea that writing fast is necessarily good, or that all “professional” writers write five thousand words a day before breakfast, or that there’s any “right” number of words to aim for each day.

As it happens, I keep fairly meticulous writing schedules (sounds insane, I know, but deadlines being what they are….). As a result, I have spreadsheets that show how many words per day I wrote over the course of my last few books. And I am here to tell you that I very rarely produce more than 800 words a day of fiction.

Now, if I’m writing an article, or doing an interview, or working on a lecture for a class or a conference, that’s totally different. Then I can write thousands of words at a pop. But when it comes to books – if, at the end of a workday, I have 800 words I want to keep, I consider it a good haul.

This is where my process has ended up with after writing for twenty-plus years, by the way. For young writers I would make the more usual recommendation: if it works for you, write like the wind without too much self-editing until you’ve got something substantial on paper. I think a certain mad rush is necessary when you’re starting out, because more than anything you need the courage to finish. In my case, I no longer worry that I won’t finish. I worry that it won’t be great! This is the neurosis of long years in the chair.

Outliner or seat-of-the-pantser?

A little of both, I think. I would not start a book without having some idea of where I was going. I am a fiend for structure and always make copious notes about act breaks and midpoints and climactic scenes before I begin drafting. But I can’t think of actual plot points unless I’m in the thick of writing, so I avoid formal beat-by-beat outlines like the plague. The moment I start to write, everything is up for grabs. Without question, the most interesting plot twists in my books came as a complete surprise to me!

The work is done. How do you recharge?

Not nearly enough, I am sorry to confess. I’ve been writing two books a year for a while now, and it usually means I finish one book, walk the dog and make a new pot of French roast, and start working the next. But if I had some meaningful downtime I would read a ton, books that had nothing to do with work but were just for my own pleasure. Maybe only books written prior to the twentieth century; that would a lovely palate cleanser. I’d probably also do as much outdoor physical activity as I could manage, far, far away from a computer screen!

Advice for new writers?

I recently started teaching a fiction writing class at a local college, so I find myself giving advice to young writers pretty often these days. I try to impress upon my students that mastery of craft is essential and might feel artificial at first, but that simply means you need to eat, breathe, and sleep in it until it seeps into your bones. I point out that Aristotle came up with the notion of Beginning, Middle and End more than two thousand years ago, and no one has yet to improve upon this three-act model for storytelling. And I know that they want to write lengthy experimental novels with fourteen separate unreliable narrators contradicting each other in nested flashbacks that unfurl like a set of Russian nesting dolls, but not just yet, darlings. Tell a coherent, emotionally gripping story first, and we can perform risky experiments later, with a fire extinguisher close at hand.

What are you working on?

I am thrilled to be writing the third book in The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series, about fifteen year old governess Miss Penelope Lumley and her three Incorrigible pupils (who were actually raised by wolves). The book is called “The Unseen Guest,” and has yet another hilarious cover and interior drawings by illustrator Jon Klassen. It is too early to give away details, but I predict there will be hot air balloons, pith helmets, and spectres from beyond—Penelope and the Incorrigibles are in for quite an adventure!

The second book in the series, The Hidden Gallery, was a Junior Library Guild selection and a Spring 2011 Kids’ Indie Next List pick, and has illustrations by Jon Klassen.

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Author Interview with Barbara Dee

traumaqueenGet to know Barbara…

Barbara Dee is the author of the tween novels Just Another Day in my Insanely Real Life (starred review, PW), Solving Zoe (2010 Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year; 2010 and 2011 Texas Lone Star Annotated Reading List; Girls Life Top 100 Must Reads), and This Is Me From Now On. Her new tween novel, Trauma Queen, has been called “a laugh-out look at family and friendship” by Discovery Girls magazine, and named a Girls Life “Must Read.” Barbara has taught high school English and practiced law. She now lives with her family in Westchester County, New York. For more info, visit her website

Let the conversation begin!

What was your favorite book to write?

I’ve loved writing every one of my books, but writing TRAUMA QUEEN was a special experience for me. Probably because it’s a story about the complex relationship between a mother and a daughter, I felt the emotions of both main characters very strongly. I actually laughed while I was typing certain scenes, and when I typed the last page, I was in tears.

Favorite authors?

I don’t have just one favorite, but some authors I love are Jane Austen, Flannery O’Connor and Alice Munro. They all write shockingly good sentences, have such a great eye for character, and share a deep appreciation for quirkiness.

What advice would you give young writers? Practice reading your work out loud. Your ears will pick up things your eyes won’t. This is especially important to do when you’re writing dialogue.

What is the most valuable advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t write what you KNOW. Write what you FEEL.

When are you the most productive?

Noon. Actually, my productivity peaks between 10 am and 2 pm. Earlier than that, I’m under-caffeinated and groggy. Later than that, I’m pretty worthless.

Are your characters fictional? Or do you base them off real people?

A combination. I love to people-watch, and I’m always taking mental notes. I also do a lot of eavesdropping. Sometimes little quirks of character and little snippets of conversation pop up in my writing, and I realize where they come from. (Starbucks! The train!) But most of the time, my characters are pure invention.

What book was the easiest to write? Hardest?

JUST ANOTHER DAY IN MY INSANELY REAL LIFE and THIS IS ME FROM NOW ON were easiest to write. SOLVING ZOE was hard, because it took me awhile to get to know the characters. TRAUMA QUEEN was somewhere in the middle. I knew the characters from the start, but it took me awhile to find the plot. (I’m a characters-first sort of writer.)

Dream vacation?

A month-long trip to Italy in September, all expenses paid, with unlimited gelato.

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Interview with Award-Winning Author Sandra Beasley

1birthday0710Get to know Sandra…

Sandra Beasley is the author of Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, a memoir and cultural history of food allergy; I Was the Jukebox: Poems, winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize; and Theories of Falling: Poems, winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize. Honors for her work include selection for the 2010 Best American Poetry, the University of Mississippi Summer Poet in Residence position, a DCCAH Individual Artist Fellowship, the Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the Maureen Egen Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. She lives in Washington, D.C. For more info, visit her website.

Let the conversation begin!

How long do you take to complete a book?

I don’t think there is any one timeline to write a book, and for me it has varied wildly. When I was circulating my first poetry collection under the title I’d used for my thesis, Human Compromise, it contained many MFA-era poems. Eventually it contained hardly any of those poems; it was always evolving. A year before winning the New Issues Poetry Prize, Theories of Falling had been a finalist for the same contest with a different TOC and the title of The Reveal—which is why I always encourage people to re-submit where they’ve come close previously, and not be discouraged by Bridesmaid Syndrome.

In contrast, my second collection of poetry (I Was the Jukebox) was essentially written in a few intense one-month periods of drafting scattered over the course of a year and a half. The Barnard Women Poets Prize was one of the very first places I submitted. By the time I heard I had won, six month had passed and the manuscript already looked different. Among other factors, I’d begun a series of sestinas. So I had to forge a compromise between the book they’d taken and the book in my mind’s eye.

The process was different again for my memoir, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life. The book was sold on proposal, using an annotated outline and a sample chapter, and was shaped by editorial feedback from Crown. I had about a year to research, write, and revise 60,000 words of prose. It was an exhilarating challenge. Putting together a poetry collection has always felt like polishing individual beads, then threading them on a string. Putting together this nonfiction book felt like gathering up the ropes of memoir, science, and cultural history, then braiding them together.

What’s one rule you’re dying to break?

I need to do more trespassing. I’ve had a lot of good nights that could have been great nights if I’d just ventured over the fence, through the gate, or up on the roof.

Is there a genre you avoid?

I’ve drafted a few short stories thanks to the prompt of workshops, but whatever praise they garnered was usually code for “you write like a poet.” So now I read novels and short stories and respond unabashedly as a reader. I’m not putting myself in the author’s shoes in terms of craft. I’m not looking for techniques to steal. As a writer, I avoid fiction. As a reader, I love it.

What advice would you give young writers?

Prioritize your writing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been up against deadline for something ostensibly more important—a term paper, a meeting, something for my job—and instead I took that extra half-hour to fine-tune a draft, or put a submission into the mail, or jot down a memory that might be relevant to an essay. No one will ever give you permission to prioritize your creative work, especially when you are just starting out. You have to fight for it. You have to say, “This matters.”

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

When I was in sixth grade, our elementary school brought in a local high-schooler to lead a poetry workshop. Toward the end of the year, he told us with great solemnity, “Don’t lose your passion.” I proceeded to quote that in my yearbook entry, which looked pretty goofy coming out of the mouth of a preteen. But he was on to something.

What would you like your life to look like in ten years?

That’s an interesting question for me, because I’m at an age (31) when people start to think about balancing their professional ambitions with their desire to start a family and put down some roots. Ten years from now I do want a community—a place where I have true friends, people familiar and dear, people who I’d happily host for a Sunday meal. Whether that translates to a traditional nuclear family, I don’t know yet.

It has been great to travel so much in the past year giving readings for I Was the Jukebox; I expect that travel to continue for Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl. You glimpse new places, you meet new people, you become a road warrior. But I don’t romanticize the effect it has on me as a well-rounded person hoping to have a domestic foundation. I don’t have any pets, much less children. And my only houseplant just bit the dust.

When are you the most productive?

Depends on which genre I am working in. For poetry, I’d rather write late at night when the buzz of the outside world has died down and my inspirations have reached wild, unruly critical mass. For nonfiction, I like to jump in first thing in the morning; often my goal is to think in a focused way, not an expansive one. Either way, when I’m really in the groove the hours can pass without me thinking to eat, drink, or get out of my seat.

What element would you add to your writing space if money weren’t an issue?

My ideal writing space is always high off the ground—my studio apartment is on the seventh floor of an apartment building—and I’d love to amplify that view by having a high-powered telescope. Plus a couch. Plus a few long empty tables, open to projects in progress. It’s funny, I judge luxury in terms of space rather than costly items: wall space for my art, shelf space for my books, flexible seating. That’s the city girl in me.

What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?

Read! The more I’m reading, the more I’m able to write. And I take long walks around my neighborhood in Northwest Washington, DC. Some days I’ll go in the direction of the National Cathedral and the Georgetown waterfront; some days I’ll go down to the National Zoo and spend quality time with the cheetahs and peacocks. I ask questions. I talk to people who have jobs far, far away from what I do. I plunge into quirky pools of science and trivia. To write is an extension of one’s love affair with the world around us.

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Interview with Bestselling Author Sonya Sones

Get to know Sonya…

Sonya Sones was born in Boston and overprotected in the nearby suburb of Newton. Before becoming a poet, Sonya was a struggling poet. She was also an animator, a baby clothes mogul, and taught filmmaking at Harvard University. Then, she moved to L.A. to work as Martin Scorsese’s personal assistant—but was soon fired, because she was lousy at bringing coffee.

Sonya went on to work as the still photographer, a production assistant on a Woody Allen movie, and a film editor. But eventually, she gave up showbiz to become a young adult verse novelist. Her books have frequently been honored by the American Library Association, and have been highly successful, despite the fact that there are no vampires in them.

Her first novel, Stop Pretending, received a Christopher Award and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. For more info, visit her website

Let the conversation begin!

Do you begin with character or plot?

I write novels in verse, a series of poems which when read all in order tell a story. So I’ve always noodle around and written a handful of poems, waiting until the character sort of walked up and introduced herself to me, allowing me to hear her voice.

That’s how I began my latest novel, The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus (Harper Collins). Soon after “meeting” my narrator, Holly, I discovered the plot—a coming of middle-age story about learning to grow old disgracefully. By the end of the book, Holly has decided to become the kind of old woman that all the young women hope that they will become when they grow older. “Spanx?” she says. “No thanx!”

What book was the easiest to write? Hardest?

The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus was the easiest (and the most fun!) book for me to write, because the main character, Holly, is a poet, like me, and I’ve always wanted to write about writing poetry. Holly’s problems were familiar to me, since I’d been through so many of the same ones myself: going through menopause, stressing over my body falling apart, dealing with having an empty nest, caring for a sick mother who lives far away, being behind on a book deadline…

So, because of that, The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus was the easiest book for me to write. But it was also the most difficult. It wasn’t easy to allow Holly to tell the whole truth—about her insecurities, fantasies and deepest yearnings—because I was painfully aware that people reading my book would assume that all the most humiliating parts were based on my feelings and experiences. And on my body! Even the most sophisticated readers fall into this trap…

But when I was writing this novel, it felt especially important for me to let Holly be totally honest about what it’s like to grow older. I wanted the women who discovered my novel to know that they weren’t in this thing alone, that someone else truly understood what they were going through.

What was the best thing that happened to you this weekend? 

I got a beautiful letter from a woman who had read The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus who said, “I am SO loving your book – I am headed to the hospital tomorrow because instead of fighting menopause, I am fighting cancer and having this book of yours makes me laugh, cry and forget all my troubles.” Receiving a letter like this one makes all the hard work more than worthwhile.

Describe your perfect day.

Write a few good pages, water the garden, take a bicycle ride on the bike path down at the beach, play some “Oh hell” or ping pong with the family, cook a rosemary garlic rack of lamb and a berry crumble with my daughter, for my husband and my son, and then…go contra dancing! (What is contra dancing? Here’s what it looks like.

What advice would you give young writers?

I would tell them to read. A lot! And don’t be discouraged if your first draft isn’t as brilliant as you hoped it would be. My first draft always stinks. But I just keep on working on it, revising it until it gets better, and better, and eventually I start to like it…Also, find some other people who are into writing, and form a critique group with them, so you can get some feedback on your work.

Do you let anyone read your work-in-progress? 

I share my work with two different critique groups on alternate weeks, so I get terrific feedback once a week. This is an invaluable part of my process. I’m so lucky to have such brilliant writers commenting on my work and helping me to make it better!

What element would you add to your writing space if money wasn’t an issue?

A wood-burning fireplace.

What do you consider to be the most valuable thing you own?

My family photo albums and my home movies. They would definitely be the first things tossed into the car if a fire was approaching my house. My computer would be right after that, or at least my external hard drive.

What one word describes you? 

Worrywart. But, oh dear, what if that’s actually two words? Is that cheating? (See? I’m even worrying about that!)

What would you like your life to look like in ten years?

I would like to be healthy, I would like my family to be healthy, I would like to have at least two grandchildren, and be in the middle of writing a fabulous novel, the words flowing out of me like lava from an active volcano…

What’s the first item on your bucket list?

The first item on my bucket list is: Write a bucket list.

How long does it take to write a book?

Too long—anywhere from a year and a half to two and half years. But I’m working on becoming the kind of author who writes a book a year. (That’s the second item on my bucket list.)

Easier to write before or after you were published?

It was hard to write before I got published and hard to write after I got published. Hard, but satisfying, and sometimes even thrilling!

If you could spend a vacation with three authors, who would they be?

Truman Capote, W. Somerset Maugham, and Colette—how fascinating it would be to see those three interact!

Tell us about the book you’re working on.

The novel I’m writing now, about a really big liar, has been a departure from my usual “character before plot” method. I’ve actually got the whole story mapped out ahead of time. And so far, at least, it seems to be making the writing go much more quickly. Which is a very good thing, since it is due in December!

Daily word count?

Not enough! Which is why I better get back to work—right now!

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Interview with Bestselling Author Sara Shepard

SaraGet to know Sara…

Sara Shepard has been writing for as long as she can remember, though when she was young, the things she wanted to be when she grew up were a soap opera star, a designer for LEGO, a filmmaker, a claymation artist, a geneticist, and a fashion magazine editor. She and her sister have been creating joint artistic and written projects for years, except they’re pretty sure they’re the only ones who find them funny. She got her MFA at Brooklyn College and now lives outside Philadelphia, PA with her husband and dogs. The Visibles/ All The Things We Didn’t Say is her first novel for adults. Pretty Little Liars, her bestselling young adult series, is loosely based on her experiences growing up on Philadelphia’s Main Line…although luckily she never had any serious stalkers. For more info, visit her website.

Let the conversation begin!

Do you begin with character or plot?

It depends. With Pretty Little Liars, I began with the kernel of an idea–girls stalked by an anonymous text-messager they think is their missing best friend. Quickly after that, though, I developed the characters and who they were about. When I work on my adult novels, I usually think about characters first and then put them in certain situations. Often, I think about themes first of all– for instance, in The Visibles, my first adult novel, I knew I wanted to write about mental illness. For The Lying Game, my second YA series, I knew I wanted to write about class differences. That isn’t plot, per se, but it gives me a framework and a direction to go in.

Tell us about the book you’re working on.

Well, I’m working on several things at once right now—revisions for Pretty Little Liars 10, Ruthless, The Lying Game #3, Two Truths and a Lie, and my adult novel, which is untitled. RUTHLESS picks up where the girls have discovered yet another new A who knows about the horrible thing they did in Jamaica. A fun fact about RUTHLESS is that Ezra, everyone’s favorite on the TV show, comes back into the mix as Aria’s romantic lead. My adult novel is about both young and older characters in a small town. An abortion clinic features prominently. It’s about love and loss and doing the right thing even if it’s against your principles.

What advice would you give young writers?

Everyone says “write what you know,” and although I think that’s important, I think it’s interesting to write what you DON’T know, too—it helps you expand as a writer. I’ve never investigated a murder or even known anyone was murdered (knock on wood), but it’s been fun to imagine how I would feel, emotionally, if I were in that situation. I think that writers, especially young writers, feel limited by “write what you know” because not much has happened to them yet! So write wherever your imagination takes you, but don’t forget to have life experiences as well. That can help your writing in the future.

Another piece of advice: imitate writers when you’re starting out. I didn’t have a “voice” for a long time, so I copied other’s voices. I especially loved Vladimir Nabokov and Tom Robbins when I was in high school. When I was younger, I imitated Judy Blume and Paula Danziger. By picking apart styles and the way writers you admire construct a story you’re actually gleaning a ton of knowledge about what makes a good book. I’m not saying go out there and plagiarize– not at all! But imitating voices is a great exercise to get you writing.

What’s the first item on your bucket list?

Actually, this is kind of weird, but when I was younger I really wanted to be on a TV show. Well, a soap opera, specifically. So I’ve achieved that by playing a tiny role on season one of “Pretty Little Liars.” I will never be an actress—I was kicked out of the school play in seventh grade for talking– but it was so much fun being on the set, going to hair and makeup, having a trailer, and even having lines to memorize!

Another item on my bucket list is a little strange though perhaps not unreachable anymore: I’d love to have livestock. Like goats, maybe, or alpacas or llamas. Something that has wool and likes people. My husband and I just bought seven acres of land, so maybe I can achieve this someday! (Of course, I’m not sure my husband is really keen on having animals besides dogs, so we’ll see.)

Do you let anyone read your work-in-progress? Or do you keep it a secret?

I generally don’t let people read my work-in-progress unless it’s at a place where I think there’s a good break. I let my mom read the first half of “The Visibles” and then we talked through the rest of the book. I’ve let my agent read other novels in progress, but it’s only after I’ve combed through the writing to make sure the sentences make sense. My husband sometimes reads my Pretty Little Liars outlines, but I usually don’t show him the manuscript until it’s in its second or third revision.

Outliner or seat-of-the-pantser?

I am an outliner of my YA books but a little more loose with adult. Outlining is definitely smarter and saves you a lot of time. My problem is that, especially with my adult novels, which follow less of a formula, for lack of a better word, than the PLL books, I can outline the book to its end and I still think of ways that I want to change it midway through. That happens with PLL too, I suppose, but for some reason it seems like more of an arduous and slow process with the adult books.

What element would you add to your writing space if money wasn’t an issue?

I would love a Herman Miller Aeron chair. Boring, I know, but I had one at a job I worked at and loved it. I’d also love a beautiful view. But I think once we moved I’ll get this– we’ll be nestled in the woods, so I’ll most likely be looking at a large tree.

In grade school, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be all kinds of things when I grew up in grade school—a Lego designer, a soap opera star, an artist, a filmmaker, a biologist a doctor. I knew I wanted to write, too, but I never really thought, “I’m going to be a novelist.” My fourth grade teacher did tell my mom that she knew she’d see books on the shelves with my name on them someday, though. Who knew she’d be
right?

Easier to write before or after you were published?

It’s been easy both before and after. Now that I am published and have deadlines, I’m definitely motivated. Before, I was in an MFA program, which had deadlines, too, in a way—we had to write several short stories each semester. Before the MFA, I mostly wrote journal entries and very very short stories. I was always writing, though.

Daily word count?

I don’t do daily word count. If I’m on a deadline I often do daily chapter count—I try to work on at least a chapter and a half a day. In revisions, it’s much more than that, because some chapters need a lot less work. But generally I don’t pay much attention to word count.

Sara Shepard

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