Interview with Award-Winning Author Jennifer Kirkeby
Get to know Jennifer…
JENNIFER KIRKEBY is an actress, playwright and children’s writer. Kirkeby adapted ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas; The Far-Fetched Fable of the Frog Prince; Madeline’s Christmas, based on the book by Ludwig Bemelmans; and Dot and Tot of Merryland, all of which are published by Dramatic Publishing. Other adaptations include Nancy Carlson’s Harriet and Walt, a musical about sibling rivalry, (Samuel French); Llama Llama Holiday Drama and Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney; Aladdin and His Magical Lamp; The Mitten by Jan Brett; The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch; Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type, and Giggle Giggle Quack and Duck for President by Doreen Cronin, and If You Give A Moose A Muffin by Laura Numeroff. Original plays include Midlife Madness, an adult comedy; and Eyes Wide Open, a play about eating disorders (Samuel French). Her ten-minute play, The Glass House has won numerous national awards. Several of her monologues and scenes have been published by Smith & Kraus Publishers in Audition Arsenal for Women in Their 30s and volumes 2 & 4 of Winners Competition Series. Kirkeby is a member of The Dramatists Guild of America, Inc., The Playwrights’ Center and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and SCBWI. For more info, visit her website, blog, and Facebook.
What do you think will be the next popular catch phrase?
What do you do every day, without fail?
Look forward to that first cup of coffee!
What is something you wish you did every day, without fail?
Live in the present. I try, but it’s a tough one for me.
If you could dis-invent one thing, what would it be?
Nylons. No one should be made to feel like a sausage in a casing.
What makes you want to throw up?
Abuse and cruelty.
What makes you laugh until tears roll down your cheeks?
I’m going to tell you, but you can’t tell my husband. We recently got new cable, and the Comcast guy explained to me that one of our remotes can change stations, volume, etc. even if you’re not in the same room as the TV. So I sometimes take that control, go upstairs, and change the channels and volume on my unsuspecting husband. He hasn’t caught on yet because I don’t do it too often. Timing is everything. I find it hysterically funny. Don’t feel too sorry for him, though. He used to stand in our closet wearing a scary Halloween mask and wait for me to walk in until I destroyed it. The mask. Not the closet.
What compliment do you wish someone would give you?
“Your writing made me feel like there is someone in the world who truly understands and cares about me.”
What do you waste time doing?
What’s the biggest inconvenience about where you live?
That’s an easy one, boy-you-betcha. Winters in Minnesota. They are inconvenient in many ways.
1. You freeze your face off, (and other important things).
2. You have to drive in very dangerous and slippery conditions. I’m from California, so this took me a while.
3. You have to shovel. Especially when your husband had hand surgery during a record-setting snowy winter so he could golf in the spring, and your snow blower was broken. Like this past winter for example. Do I sound bitter? HOWEVER, I’m convinced these pesky winters are one of the reasons we have a plethora of amazing writers in Minnesota, so there’s the upside for ya!
If you were a professional wrestler, what would your name be?
Kirkeby the Krusher.
If you could own a store, what would you sell?
Books for animals. Maybe it’s just my dogs, but they love it when I read to them. My daughters are in their twenties, and suddenly they think they’re too old to be read to. They actually get embarrassed when we go to Target and I head to the picture books and start reading to them. Can you believe it? So yeah, Baboon Books it is.
What book (either because of its length or subject) intimidates you?
What was your favorite childhood meal?
Tomato soup and grilled cheese. My mom would make it for me when I was sick, and I felt comfort and love in every bite.
Ever feel you have to censor your creativity because you don’t want to offend anyone?
No. I believe your character must be 100% authentic. Your character needs to talk the way they would talk in real life, and do the things they would do if they were living down the street. Besides, no one can pick out a poser faster than a young person, right?
Do you do anything special to get your creative juices flowing?
Walking helps my creativity. Or reading a great book or blog from a writer that I admire. And here’s where my theater background comes in. I talk to my characters. I ask them lots of questions. It’s their story after all. They should be willing to pull their own weight now and then. It’s surprising what they’ll tell you if you get them at the right time. And give them chocolate.
What are your words of wisdom for someone starting out in the field of writing?
Ask yourself why you want to write. Is it solely because you want to become published? Because that’s the wrong reason to write. Ask any writer you admire about that one. You have to LOVE writing. Perhaps you want to change people’s perceptions, inform or entertain, or maybe you want to release some nagging pain that you’ve been carrying around since childhood. Just know that like anything, it takes years and years and YEARS to become a good writer. Join SCBWI, take classes and read. Read as much as you possibly can.
How would you define creativity?
A glorious gossamer of amazing thoughts that magically form themselves into a work of art. Not really. I just wanted to write “glorious gossamer.” I would define creativity as a need to express and communicate with others in a fresh and unique way. It might come out of an injustice that you experienced. It could come from a hummingbird that looked right at you, and you’ll never forget that glorious moment. All I know is when I’m in the zone, there is nothing like it.
Why were you drawn to a career in writing rather than a job that offers more stability?
I’ve been involved in theater and dance most of my life, so clearly I never went for stability and security…but even before I began school, I would “write” choreography. I would map out my dance with squiggles for turns, sharp jutting lines for leaps, etc. I wrote some poetry on a dare in high school and was secretly thrilled that it was chosen for a book and published in our local paper. I was the feature editor for my college paper, and began writing plays about fifteen years ago. I’ve written for the classroom for over 30 years. It really comes down to my utter stubbornness and need to live my life in the arts in order to make sense of the world.
Who do you consider a literary genius?
Hemmingway, Camus, Kafka, Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury & Libba Bray. I also think there are literary geniuses writing picture books. I’ve come to the conclusion that picture books are like Zen paintings, and you must be a master in order to be brilliant at it.
What obstacles have you had to deal with in your career?
Rejection. My husband said something years ago that has always helped me. After finding out that I didn’t get a job I thought I had nailed, he said: “Now you’re one audition closer to getting your next job.” It’s a process. I’ve had to change the way I perceive the word “rejection.” I try not to let it be personal. Often the people who we think are judging us and our work are actually hoping we’re a fit. It makes their job so much easier if we are. I try to be the answer to their problem, always give my very best, and if it doesn’t work out, I go for a walk then start on my next project. After I cry, of course. I am human after all.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve experienced in the realm of your art?
Keeping myself motivated when there are long stretches where I feel like I’m limping along barefoot on an endless hot and sticky highway, seeing nothing on the horizon but the mirage that’s shimmering like a mean girl who won’t let me play on her team because I’m afraid of getting hit on the head with the ball, but how is that my fault when my dad said I couldn’t play ball when I was a kid because I was “just a girl”, and the black tar of the road goes on for an eternity and seems to be saying: “What’s the matter, Jennifer? Can’t take the heat?” And I really can’t sometimes, but that highway doesn’t seem to give a hoot, so I wait for the black limo that will eventually pull up, roll down its window, and someone who looks a lot like George Clooney says, “You look like you could use a ride and a cool drink. And say, are those manuscripts in your sweaty hand? How about if I look at your writing, and maybe hook you up with some of my friends?” And scene.
How did you pick your writing genre?
Currently I’m working on a musical for children, a YA magical realism manuscript and several picture books. I haven’t landed on one genre because I love so many things in each of them.
What life experiences have inspired your work?
I think being the oldest of four kids had something to do with it. I babysat a lot and loved to tell stories. Some were horrific and I have apologized multiple times to my siblings about the ghost family I told them haunted our house when they were young. And how President Washington was killed by a crocodile that came out of the drain in his bathtub. My poor brother shared that story with his class, and everyone laughed at him including the teacher. It’s amazing my siblings still talk to me…
How do you know when a book is finished?
With my plays, it’s the deadline. I complain about them, but honestly, they are the best thing for me. Otherwise, I seem to think that I’ll come up with something brilliant if I just keep on writing, but the truth is, I’m prolonging the ending which should have happened already, and now the kids are squirming in the parent’s seats, and it’s my fault because I thought that I was being amazing by adding those extra scenes, but now half the audience needs to go to the bathroom, so for the love of Pete, end it already!
What impact (good or bad) do you think the media has had on your work?
I remember when GPS became available. I wrote a skit about a GPS that talked to a teenage couple on a date. It told them what the other one was really thinking. Another example is when I adapted Doreen Cronin’s wonderful picture book, Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type for Stages Theatre Company. We used a large screen to show the words as the cows and Farmer Brown were typing them. The kids in the audience squealed and loved seeing the words. There are so many great opportunities to work with the crazy world media is creating. But when all is said and done, it’s still great story and character that’s the most important.
What traits do creative people have compared to people who are not creative?
Creative people are dreamers. They see things differently. They’re extremely sensitive. They’re walking microscopes and telescopes. They don’t just listen – they’re sponges. Not that other people don’t do these things, but creative people have superpowers.
I love my husband to pieces, but we have very different sensibilities in this area. When we were first dating, we were standing on a mountain. I looked around at the startling blue sky, the soft mountains that looked as if they could stand and become dinosaurs, the way the sun lit up the valleys and how the trees swayed in the breeze. I was thinking about the wonderful life that we were going to have together. I assumed he was having similar thoughts, so I asked him, “What do you think of when you look around this valley?” He looked right, and left, then pointed and said: “I never noticed the 101 freeway cuts through that mountain over there.” We still laugh about it.
Have your personal expectations limited your creativity?
Absolutely. My expectations are often ridiculous. When I was in the first grade, we had been practicing our writing, and our teacher was ready to announce who had the best handwriting in class. I fully expected to be called. I held my pencil with robot precision, and already had calluses from trying to be “perfect.” When our teacher said, “Rocky Carzo”, I could barely hold back the tears. I wasn’t perfect. But Rocky was. Even sharing this makes me sad. That I was so hard on myself. And still am. This month I read a great blog called The Crushing Weight of Expectations by Robin LaFevers. She quotes my hero, Anne Lamott who said: “Expectations are resentments under construction.” We have to let go of the unrealistic expectations and those voices that tell us we aren’t good enough. That’s just silly. Find your voice and write up a storm. There’s nothing like it!
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