Emily Ecton is a writer and producer for NPR’s Peabody award-winning comedy news quiz, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! She is also the author of Boots and Pieces, The Curse of Cuddles McGee, and Night of the Living Lawn Ornaments, in which two kids and one well-dressed dog take on everything from swamp monsters to undead hamsters. Her most recent book, Project Jackalope, is about a boy who finds himself on the run from government agents after his neighbor entrusts him with a killer jackalope. She lives in Chicago with her dog, Binky. For more info, visit her website.
Let the conversation begin!
What is your worst scar? How did you get it?
I have a scar on my lip from having stitches when I was 3 years old. I’d been jumping down one step successfully all morning, so I thought two steps would be just as easy. Turns out, not so easy.
Is anything in your book based on real life experiences or purely all imagination?
Mostly imagination, with little bits of real life things sprinkled here and there. In Project Jackalope, DARPA is a real life organization, and the weapons in there — the puke ray, the cybermoths — they’re actual things the government is working on. In the author’s note at the end of the book, I point out which things are real.
Day to day experiences have worked their way into my books too. I really heard the person in the next dentist chair offer to bring his own drugs, just like Arlie does in Boots & Pieces. The scene where Sheriff Shifflett loses it because the Happy Mart is out of Happy Dogs in The Curse of Cuddles McGee happened in real life too, except it was a town councilman at the local 7-11. And Fred the kangaroo toy, the Happy Hog and the Turtle footstool from Night of the Living Lawn Ornaments exist in real life too. (They’re less animated here though.)
Planner or procrastinator? Example?
I’m a huge planner now, but I used to be really opposed to outlines because I had the idea that they stifled the whole creative process. But when I went to grad school, one of my professors insisted that we outline, and I found it to be really helpful. I really hate revising, and outlining lets you work out the sticky plot issues beforehand so you don’t have to go back and figure them out afterward. (And just because I’ve decided to do something in the outline doesn’t mean I actually do it — I’m constantly reworking the outline as I go.) It’s just nice to have a map to help keep you on track.
Are you a person who makes the bed in the morning?
I’m a person who sidestepped the whole making-the-bed issue by getting a duvet.
Would you rather plan a party or attend one? Why?
Attend one! Because that way I can just relax and have fun instead of worrying about all the logistics.
Of all your books, what was your favorite chapter to write?
I really enjoyed writing the scene in Project Jackalope where Jeremy gets to use the Puke Ray. That, and the section in The Curse of Cuddles McGee where Mr. Boots the chihuahua is lounging around flaunting his nudie bits.
According to you, what is the easiest part of the writing process? Hardest?
The hardest thing for me is writing the beginning, because it sets the tone for the whole book. I don’t start writing until I’ve gotten everything basically mapped out, so I know where I’m supposed to be going, but if I don’t start out in the right direction, it messes everything up. I had to write the bulldozer scene in The Curse of Cuddles McGee a million times because it kept getting too complicated and draggy.
What is your greatest writing strength?
I think my strength is probably dialogue — I was a theatre major and a playwright, so I hear the characters in my head more than I see them. (Which means I sometimes have to go back and add descriptions later on.)
If you were handed free opera tickets, would you go or sell them?
Are you kidding? I would definitely go! (Wait, how much do opera tickets go for?)
Are there certain characters you would like to go back to?
Who was the hardest character to develop? I love Mr. Boots, the sometimes snazzy dresser/sometimes nudist Chihuahua from my first three books. I would love to write about him again sometime.
Any advice to give to aspiring writers?
Give yourself plenty of time to daydream and goof off, and make note of the things you come up with, no matter how silly they may seem. You never know when that weird thing you noticed about briefcases might come in handy. Also, make sure you have something to write with and on, because solutions to writing problems like to pop up at the most inconvenient times, like when you’re in the shower or at the dentist.