Amber McRee Turner is the author of SWAY, released by Disney-Hyperion in 2012 and CIRCA NOW, released from Disney-Hyperion in 2014. For more info, visit her website.
What has been one of your most interesting jobs?
The summer after my senior year in high school, I was part of a promotional program for a petroleum company. There were several teams of teenagers who would be stationed at local gas stations, pumping gas and squeegeeing windshields all day, every day. I thought I’d struck it rich at $5 an hour.
If you could have any question answered, what would it be?
Why mosquitos? would certainly be one of them.
If you were to perform in the circus, what would you do?
Serve the peanuts. Amber McRee Turner is not a risk-taker.
What is one of the scariest things you’ve ever done?
Have you already forgotten the circus/peanut answer? Amber McRee Turner is NOT a risk taker. Despite being careful though, I did plant my face into the asphalt at high speed once when I was a kid. Knocked out my permanent teeth, cut open my lip, and broke my jaw. Let me tell you…Pureed McDonald’s hamburger from a blender is pretty durn scary.
Who’s your favorite fictional villain?
What vegetable do you most resemble?
My daughter says carrot. I would have said an ear of corn, or on humid days, broccoli.
How long have you gone without sleep?
A whole night here and there, but only to meet a deadline, or when I’m in need of a whopping migraine.
What is the weirdest thing about you?
I’ll pick one. Ever since chemotherapy five years ago, I’ve had a constant super-loud ringing in my ears that sounds an awful lot like Morse Code to me. I’d love to get my ex-soldier husband to decipher it for me someday, but frankly, I’m a little scared of what the message might be.
What’s your most embarrassing moment?
Oh man, there are so many to choose from. For a person who doesn’t drink, I’ve fallen in front of an awful lot of people. I spit on people a lot. Oh yeah, here’s one…When I was 9 and super shy, I took a running start and jumped on the wrong dad’s back while yelling HI-YA!
Have you ever requested a song on the radio?
Radio, no, but I did gather enough courage to skate up to the carpet-walled DJ area of the roller rink once and ask for some Journey.
What is the last movie you watched? What did ya think?
We just watched the 1959 version of Tom Thumb. It was a delight.
What initially inspired you to pursue a career in writing?
I’ve been writing for fun since I was a kiddo, always dreaming of holding my own book someday. When my daughter was born, I was afforded the opportunity of being a stay-at-home mom. That time, coupled with the fresh inspiration of having a kiddo in the house, made me think why not? What did I have to lose by sending some stories out?
Name someone who supported your writing journey outside of family members.
My college fiction professor, Cary Holladay. She has a brilliant mind. She was beyond encouraging to me in my way-less-polished years.
Was there ever a time in your writing career where you wanted to seriously give up?
I’ve never wanted to give up the writing part. I have taken long breaks from writing due to life circumstances…Bills. Heartache. Cancer. Petty things like that.
What’s your favorite writing quote?
Wait, let me go search one up.
Okay, for now, it’s this:
“If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.”
I’ve tried to explain this to my family and friends in a far less eloquent way. It’s hard to explain, but writing keeps me sane. (Hey look, I’m a poet too!)
What inspired you to write your first book?
SWAY was largely inspired by my mother’s childhood experience with a runaway parent. And the soaps…I’ve always been fascinated with leftover soap slivers. Oh, and those hundreds of single shoes I’ve seen in the middle of the road. Also, dozens and dozens of road trips all over the Southeast. I could draw inspiration from those roadsides forever.
Do you have a specific writing style?
I tend to do the “Southern Gothic Magical Realism” thing. As far as my life goes, it’s really all I know.
What do you think you do best in your writing? Bragging is encouraged.
Well, I love the music of words, real ones and made-up. In a way, it’s also what I do worst in my writing, because I tend to get more hung up on the words than the actual storytelling.
What books have most influenced your life?
Certainly the Bible far above anything else. Also, WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS by Shel Silverstein, WONDERSTRUCK by Brian Selznick, stacks of READER’S DIGEST magazines in my Grandmother’s bathroom. GO DOG GO! by P.D. Eastman.
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Oh, of course I would. An author tends to assume that her first published book is going to be her last published book. It makes it tempting to “kitchen sink” that story, to put in all the ideas that might be better suited a little more spread out. If I could go back, I think I’d tell myself to hold back a bit.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing? What comes easily?
I’d say, for me, the ideas themselves come pretty easily at this point in my life. I’m inspired by a lot of what I see and hear around me. The challenge will always be the rewrite. The making it better. Revision…in writing, and in living, is hard.
Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
I don’t really have a favorite author, per se. I very much enjoy the wit and genius-turn-of-phrase of Lemony Snicket. I have tremendous respect for Kate DiCamillo and the strong sense of gratitude that pervades her stories. I also love the heart in Shel Silverstein’s work. Oh, and Brian Selznick, he makes me sob. Oliver Jeffers is a big fave around our house too.
Wendy was once an airplane pilot and horse trainer, but now she happily spends her time making up stories and illustrating new worlds. She has been an artist for as long as she can remember.
Before transitioning into picture books she showed successfully in galleries throughout North Carolina, Nevada, and Oregon, and painted commissions.
She grew up on the East Coast in a wonderful, imaginative place by the sea. She now lives with her husband, daughter, and many animals in beautiful Bend, Oregon. For more information please visit her website.
What is the last thing you paid money for?
A very large vanilla latte.
What do you often make fun of?
My animals. Not in a mean way, but because they are goofy. My dog fell up the stairs the other day. How do you not make fun of that?
What is the best thing about staying at a hotel?
You don’t have to cook your meals! You can just make a phone call and food shows up.
What is one thing you do with determination every day?
Every-single-thing. I tend to be a bit driven, which can be exhausting. So I also try to nap with determination each day.
What healthy habit are you glad you have? What’s your worst habit?
My best habit is probably that I eat healthy food. Fresh fruits & veggies, organic stuff. My worst habit is not returning friends phone calls for what seems like ages. I’m not easy to reach and they get frustrated sometimes. Also- not getting enough sleep.
What is the biggest advantage of being tall? Biggest advantage of being short?
Tall? I have no experience with that. The biggest advantage of being short is that you can find fun, inexpensive clothes in the junior’s department. And most people don’t ask you to help carry heavy things for them.
What topic would you like to know more about?
So many things! Whales. Seals. Eagles. The ocean. Biplanes. I could go on forever.
What is the first thing you notice when you meet someone?
How kind they are. Their eyes. That’s two, but they are related.
If you were a prescription drug, what would be your main side effect?
May cause you to stay awake all night creating, play loud music at all hours of the day, and talk to animals.
What is the worst occupation in the world?
Anything requiring you to slog through rotting garbage. Ick.
What is your greatest phobia?
Probably heights. Which is funny because my previous occupation was pilot.
If you ran a funeral home, what would your company slogan be?
My Grandfather had the corniest joke whenever we passed a funeral home-“it’s so popular-people are just dying to get in there”. I guess it would have to be that.
What is the messiest place in your home?
My studio without a doubt!
What random act of kindness have you done in the past year?
I rescued a neglected puppy from my back yard (he wandered in and was terrified and hungry), and found him a new home through my local Humane Society. He was so cute.
If you had to smell like one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Coffee? I love it. It’s a comforting smell.
How do you deal with creativity blocks?
I really don’t have them. Sometimes I’m looking for inspiration on a particular piece, and then I’ll go back through notes from an artist workshop, or go online and browse other artist’s sites. It’s the equivalent of being around other artists- it gives me a collective, creative energy.
Can you visualize a finished product before you begin a book?
Yes. The images usually come first for me. I dream it, then try to make it real. Such a big gap from one to the other.
Do you feel that you chose your passion, or did it choose you?
It chose me for sure. I couldn’t sleep, just constantly having images and ideas running amok in my head until I figured out what to do with them.
Is there a particular place where you feel most creative?
Riding my horse. Odd, I know. Around other artists, too, especially if we are all working together in a room.
Who or what has helped you to persevere through the challenges?
There have been so many kind, helpful people I’ve met along the way. They’ve shown me the path when I didn’t know where to go next. I’d have to say my husband is my number one supporter and cheerleader. I also don’t know how to quit once I start something. It helps.
If you were no longer able to illustrate, how else would you express your creativity?
God help you all if I decide on singing. Interior design maybe?
What has been your greatest sacrifice that has enabled you to become the illustrator you are today?
Time. It takes a lot of time and dedication to improve your art in a field where you have no guarantees of financial success. I have a fine arts background. In that world I painted and then sold my work in galleries, or I painted commission pieces. In illustration, particularly the children’s literature market, there is so much more time put into projects that may never be “purchased”. I’m so lucky my family supports my madness!
What words of inspiration were given to you that you would like to pass along to others?
Draw every day. Never give up on your goals. And don’t be shy about talking to people about what you do. I’ve met some great clients that way.
When did you realize that you had a gift for illustrating?
When people began buying my work and galleries invited me to be in shows. I was shocked.
How do you balance your personal life and your creative endeavors?
If someone has an answer for this that works please contact me asap. It’s a constant tipping of the scales for me. I’ll work feverishly on a project for days or weeks, then I’ll take days off to catch up with family. Did I mention I’m terrible at correspondence? This is one of the reasons. There’s never enough time for it all.
What is your typical day like?
Define typical. There is none. When I don’t have to get up early the next morning, I’ll stay up until 2am working. Otherwise I’ll work from 7-11am in my studio, then do other things in the afternoon, then work again from 7-11pm. But it’s not consistent at all.
How much of your own life is reflected in your work?
A lot. There are horses everywhere. And dogs. Kids. Happiness. I need to do more airplanes.
Do you have family members who are writers or illustrators?
No, but my Dad was a very talented musician.
What was your childhood like? Did your upbringing influence the way you illustrate today?
Rocky best describes my childhood. In the early years we lived wild and free on the NJ coast, which was a real gift. I was given my first easel when I was about 5, and my Mom always encouraged creativity. Later on there were several creative adults in my life who were a positive influence.
Which of your books gives you the most pride or satisfaction?
I have not been published yet so I’ll have to report back on this one.
How do you think you differ from other creative people in your genre?
Wow, tough question. I think we are all different, thank goodness. For picture book illustration done in watercolors, my work tends to be very detailed, and often I use many layers and usually lots of color.
Has your creativity changed stylistically as you have matured? If so, in what ways?
I hope so. Over the years I have challenged myself to take workshops and try styles that are out of my comfort zone. I am a tight painter, so I’ll do some studies in a looser style. Over time I’ve found it has influenced my work. I find I’m also more likely to play and try new things to get the desired effect in my work. Lately I’m working in ink and watercolor, which I haven’t done for years.
When do you feel the most energized?
At night. It’s maddening.
Does your illustrating reflect your personality?
Somewhat. No deep meanings, but I am a bit of a perfectionist. So my painting style is tighter and my line work more precise. My colors are intense as well. Where’s the couch- I may need to lie down to reflect on all this.
Loretta is a former teacher and a graduate of Hamline University in the MFA Program in Writing for Children. She is the author of four young adult novels: THE SHROUDING WOMAN, a BBCB Choice and Rebecca Caudill Nominee; IN SEARCH OF MOCKINGBIRD, a Teen’s Top Ten nominee, ALA and IRA Notable, winner of the Midwest Bookseller’s Choice Honor Award for Children’s Literature, and named to the New York Library List of Teenage Books; IN A HEARTBEAT, a Midwest Connection’s Pick and a ALAN Pick, and UNFORGETTABLE, which received that elusive Kirkus star and was a Kirkus Critic’s Pick as well the winner of the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award in Children’s Literature. She has appeared at numerous book festivals across the nation and teaches writing to young people as well as those not so young. For more info, visit her website.
If you could make something in life go away, what would it be?
What dead person would you least want to be haunted by?
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen?
What’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done?
I was zoned out and forgot to go through the grocery store drive-through to pick up the groceries I bought. I’ve done this often, in fact.
What is your earliest childhood memory?
My earliest memory is hiding with the neighbor boy under his front porch during a passing storm. My mother was angry because she’d been looking for me, but I was too scared to try to make it home because of the lightning. I was three.
What food item would you remove from the market altogether?
A student once asked if I was related to JK Rowling because he thought I looked like her. I told him she was my sister.
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and interested in your work?
I read a lot and I belong to a supportive writing community where I am encouraged and challenged to do my best.
If you had to start over, would you choose a different path in your career?
I always wanted to be a writer but didn’t do anything about it until I was thirty years-old, and didn’t work seriously at it until I was forty. I wish I’d taken that plunge earlier, but I know how hard it was to make time to write as a working mom, and I have great respect for those who manage to carve out the time for writing while juggling so many other obligations.
Has rejection ever affected your desire to continue writing?
Every rejection hurts and it’s hard not to take it personally. It doesn’t affect my desire to continue writing, but it does affect which manuscripts I decide to work on.
What kind of jobs did you have before your career took off?
In college I had twelve W-2 forms in one year. I did everything, from giving tours at the John Deere Engine manufacturing plant to working at a golf course. After college, I taught middle school and high school Spanish for many years before my career took off, and now I visit schools to teach writing workshops.
What was the biggest opposing force that you encountered on your writing journey?
My own fears about myself and my writing.
If you could interview any author (past or present), who would you choose?
I’m reading Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal, written when she was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I have several questions I wish I could ask her.
Do you ever create hidden meanings or messages in your work?
I always try to work my maiden name (Mennen) into my books to see if family members can find it.
Have you ever felt enlightened by an event in the past that has given you a new perspective on life?
I randomly chose the setting for my first book, which takes place in the 1870’s in southeastern Minnesota. It was only after the book was accepted and I was doing revisions that my aunt gave me a copy of my great, great, grandmother’s journal. I had no idea that she’d lived in that community during that same time and is buried there. I used her journal in my revisions to help describe the landscape, and my aunt told me I didn’t choose the place, that it had chosen me. It made me more aware of connections that might seem random but perhaps really aren’t.
How has personal experience influenced your writing?
Your personal experience is what motivates you to write a particular story. I think all stories are self-exploratory in some ways, and in order to write characters with compassion you must find yourself in the story and discover why it’s important to you.
Laura Gehl is the author of AND THEN ANOTHER SHEEP TURNED UP and HARE AND TORTOISE RACE ACROSS ISRAEL, both out this spring from Kar-Ben/Lerner, as well as ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR (Simon & Schuster, 2014) and the PEEP AND EGG books (Macmillan, 2016). Laura also writes about science for children and adults. She lives with her husband and four kids in Chevy Chase, Maryland. For more info, visit her website and Facebook.
At the end of your Chinese meal, what would you like your fortune to read?
Vague fortunes drive me crazy, so I would want something specific. “You will get two new book contracts today, followed shortly by the news that you won a big award” would do nicely. Another fortune I would like: “Your children will grow up happy and safe, find loving spouses, and provide you with healthy grandchildren.”
What is the best thing about getting old?
Not caring as much about what people think. Feeling fine about buying 99% of my clothes from L.L. Bean. Getting to spend most of my time with people whose company I truly value.
What do you do too little of?
Spending 1 on 1 time with each of my kids. It’s hard with four of them, but I know it is important.
If you owned a store, what sorts of things would you sell?
Is this a trick question??? BOOKS, OF COURSE! And maybe some coffee and chocolate to enjoy along with the books.
What book (either because of its length or subject) intimidates you?
I recently checked out a Timmy Failure book, by Stephan Pastis, from the library. My 10-year-old and 8-year-old were literally grabbing it out of each other’s hands, so I had to read it too. The book was so hilarious that I knew I could never write anything as funny. Definitely intimidating. I feel that way when I read and re-read Gordon Korman’s Macdonald Hall books too. Intimidating in the you-can-never-ever-be-this-funny kind of way.
What was your favorite meal when you were growing up?
I’ve always been a huge fan of the traditional Thanksgiving meal…turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce…and I still am. But I also had a bizarre fascination as a child with TV dinners and, similarly, the meals on airplanes. I just loved how there were distinct little parts of the meal in their own distinct little boxes. Unlike Thanksgiving food, I have outgrown my love of TV dinners and airplane meals.
If you could make up a school subject, what would it be?
Woods Walking. If all kids could spend a block of time each day walking in the woods, I think kids and teachers would be calmer, happier, and more focused. If children actually learned about nature in the process, so much the better, but just walking in the woods would be wonderful.
What bad habit will you purposely never quit?
Biting my nails. It really saves time, since I never need to trim them.
What are you thinking about right now?
I’ve already had my chocolate break, my coffee break, and my walking break. Now what do I do if I start to feel tired and unmotivated???
Is there a particular place where you feel most creative?
By far, I prefer to write on my living room couch. Since the couch is smack in the middle of my house, this means I can only really write when my husband and four kids are all out.
When do you feel the most energized?
Right after eating chocolate. They don’t call it a sugar high for nothing…and chocolate has the caffeine kick in addition to the sugar!
Does your writing reflect your personality?
I hope so. My books are intended to be funny and kind and make the world a better place. If that reflects my personality, then…YAY!
How do you deal with creativity blocks?
I like to have lots of different projects going on at any given time. That way when I feel blocked on one, I can work on another.
What is your typical day like?
Wake up, feed kids, get kids out the door, write, eat lunch, write, pick up kids, feed kids dinner, get kids to bed, write. A chocolate break is always in there somewhere, sometimes a coffee break, and on a good day a walk with a friend or a solitary run. I try to work on my most challenging project first thing in the morning, when my brain is fresh. Later in the day, my writing time might involve copy-editing or critiquing, because those tasks do not require as much focus and emotional energy.
Who or what has helped you to persevere and not quit?
I used to keep a file of positive words received from editors and agents. If I received a rejection letter that had a few positive sentences and a few critical sentences, I would take just the positive words and paste them in my file. Reading through that file helped me keep going.
How much of your own life is reflected in your work?
My kids are always giving me ideas, of course. But whenever I try to write a story with a fictionalized version of one of my own children as the main character, it is a complete and utter disaster.