Interview with Award-Winning Author Donna Jo Napoli

DonnaGet to know Donna…

Donna Jo Napoli is professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, mother of five, grandmother of two, and author of more than seventy books for pre-K through high school. Her work ranges from gothic horror to contemporary humor, and she loves to swim in traditional tales — religious, folk, fairy, mythological.

She has three works coming out in summer 2011: LIGHTS ON THE NILE, a novel set in 2530 BC in Egypt; THE CROSSING, a picture book about the Lewis and Clark expedition from the point of view of the baby on Sacagawea’s back; TREASURY OF GREEK MYTHOLOGY, a set of tales about gods, goddesses, and heroes, woven together in what she hopes is a coherent whole.

Interestingly enough, her novel A TREASURY OF GREEK MYTHOLOGY, (2011), along with her novel LIGHTS ON THE NILE (2011), led her to write a brand new book on Egyptian mythology, which will be released in 2013. To learn more about Donna, visit her website

Let the conversation begin!

Describe your writing journey, from aspiring writer to published author.

Rocky.  But, as the saying goes, without its stones a stream would lose its song. 

Have you written any books that didn’t get published? Do you ever think of giving them a second chance?

Maybe 100.  Every now and then I pull out an old one and rework it and every now and then it gets published.  But not often. 

Ever had something happen that you thought was bad, but it turned out to be for the best?

Yup.  I wrote a picture book that a press bought.  Then the editor left and the publisher decided to cancel the contract.  I was blue.  But then another press bought it and they paired me with an absolutely fantastic illustrator, so I’m now looking forward to a beautiful book. 

What mischief did you get into growing up?

Mainly things having to do with animals.  I tried to lure them home with me.  I desperately wanted a pet, whether a lizard or a cat or whatever. 

What do you miss most about being a kid?

The ocean.  I grew up in Miami. 

If you could throw any kind of party, what would it be like?

Dancing all night. 

If you could choose to stay a certain age forever, what age would it be?

I wouldn’t. 

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

Ha!  This is a devil’s question.  How about a string of classics?  We might as well shoot for the moon. 

If you won the lottery, what is the first thing you would do?

Set up a foundation for schools for deaf children. 

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

I don’t know the characters or the plot, but the setting would be a war. 

Do you begin with character or plot?

Character. 

What is your favorite quote?

You asked, so I’ll answer.  “M’illumino d’immenso” – it’s a poem by Giuseppe Ungaretti – and it means that the immensity of everything enlightens me.  It is very helpful when I feel overwhelmed. 

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

My daughter came home to visit.  She lives in Minneapolis and I haven’t seen her since Thanksgiving. 

Who inspires you and how are you a bit like them?

Everything inspires me.  Life inspires me.  As for the second part of the question, I could go Buddhist on you and say we are all one. 

DonnaJIf you were an animal, who would you be? 

That probably changes by the day.  Today I’d be a beaver.  I feel like making a pool for everyone to swim in. 

Where do you get your ideas?

Looking, listening, living. 

What advice would you give to new writers?

Write everything.  Share it.  Listen to criticism.  Read tons. 

What was the weirdest food you’ve ever eaten?

Pork intestines – in Sicily.

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

I don’t own anything of value.  I don’t care about things.  All that matters to me is relationships and experiences. 

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

Write what you need to write. Lloyd Alexander told me that, when an editor told me to throw out a ms. 

What one word describes you?

Maybe energetic. People say I tire them out. 

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

Still going. 

Most embarrassing moment?

Good grief. There are so many. But can I remember? 

What’s the first item on your bucket list?

Italy.  Living there – for years, not just months. 

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

Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Tim O’Brien, but, hey, I need a fourth, Anne Tyler. 

What book was the easiest to write? Hardest?

Easiest: THE MAGIC CIRCLE

Hardest: NORTH 

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

An ocean. 

How long do you take to write a book?   

However long it needs. 

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

Safe. 

Earliest childhood memory?

Sitting on the floor watching my brother play the piano. 

What is your secret talent?

Talking to animals. 

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

I think I’m about to break it.  But I’m superstitious.  So until the ms. is under contract, I won’t say. 

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

Sit somewhere with family. 

What initially drew you to writing?

Grief. 

Outliner or seat-of-the-pantser?

Never outline – never never never.  That kills me.  Some people find it a wonderful support.  Not me.  I find it like a cage. 

Easier to write before or after you were published?

It’s never easy. 

Daily word count?

Nope.

Describe your perfect day.

Having breakfast with family. Writing my ass off. Taking a walk on the beach. Having dinner with family.  Reading. Going to bed and making love. 

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