Deborah Underwood is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Here Comes The Easter Cat, The Quiet Book, and The Loud Book! Her other books include Bad Bye, Goodbye; A Balloon for Isabel; Part-Time Princess; Pirate Mom; The Christmas Quiet Book; and Here Comes Santa Cat. She co-wrote the Sugar Plum Ballerina chapter book series, and she has written more than 25 nonfiction books on topics ranging from smallpox to ballroom dancing. She lives in Northern California with her feline muse, Bella. For more info, visit her website.
If you could add one feature to your cell phone, what would it be?
Soy latte dispenser. That’s probably impractical, since liquids and phones don’t mix, but I can dream, right?
What was the worst grade you’ve ever received?
I got a C+ on a chemistry quiz junior year in high school. As a straight-A geeky high school student till then, I was horrified. I don’t know if it was the teacher or the subject matter or both, but I just didn’t get it—it was like she was conducting the class in Portuguese. Thankfully I ended up getting into a choral ensemble that met during that period, which meant I could drop the class. So not only does music sooth the soul, but it can also save your grade point average.
What do you do too much of?
Two words: Candy Crush. Oy. And procrastinating in general.
What do you do too little of?
Exercise, meal planning, meditating, writing—all the stuff I should be doing!
If you could make up a school subject, what would it be?
Some schools have had great results with mindfulness work, even with very young kids, so I’m certainly not making up the subject. But I’d like to see it in every school. I think if kids knew how to calm themselves and understood themselves better, their school experience—and their lives—would be greatly enhanced.
Does your writing reflect your personality?
Ooh, interesting question! I certainly hope it does. I like to think that various aspects of myself are reflected in my work. Here Comes Santa Cat has the humor with a tiny edge that I enjoy. The Quiet Book is introspective. A Balloon for Isabel is, at its heart, about fighting injustice. Learning to accept my own negative emotions has been a long road for me, and I hope Bad Bye, Good Bye will help kids understand that it’s okay to feel angry and sad, and that those bad feelings don’t last forever.
How do you deal with creativity blocks?
My problem is usually too many ideas rather than too few. But if I’m stuck at a certain point in a manuscript, I stare out my window. Or I take a walk. Or switch projects. Or call a friend and bounce ideas off him or her. Or make a list of ten or twenty possible paths the story might take, no matter how ridiculous.
What is your typical day like?
I start by having a cup of coffee or two and doing computer stuff—email, catching up with Facebook friends, etc. Lately some of my writing friends and I have been having online work sessions in the morning: checking in with each other, working for half an hour at a time, then checking back in to report on our progress. Sometimes I go to a nearby café to write. I try to get to the gym several times a week, and I like walking in the park. I take a short nap after lunch. Afternoons aren’t my most productive time, so that’s when I run errands or do busy work. Often I’ll do more writing after dinner when I feel refreshed.
Do you feel that you chose your passion, or did it choose you?
Hm…hard to say. I took a wandering path to get here, but now that I’m writing for kids, I can’t imagine another job that would suit me as well.
Is there a particular place where you feel most creative?
There’s something about sitting on my bed with my cat, staring out my window, and sipping coffee or tea that has proven quite fruitful for me. I try to have a window view even when I’m working in a café. Maybe there’s some deeper thing going on about windows into other people’s lives, or maybe I just like to see the sky.
Who or what has helped you to persevere and not quit?
I feel incredibly fortunate that my family and friends have supported my writing from the very start. I know not everyone has this kind of support, and I can’t imagine what it must be like to try to succeed in this challenging field without it.
Another more concrete thing: early on, whenever I got a nice rejection letter or anything that was remotely encouraging, I would print it out and put it in a special folder. I still put things in there after all these years. I don’t look in it often, but there is so much rejection and so many confidence-shakers in this field that it makes me happy knowing the folder is there in case my spirits need to be buoyed.
If you were no longer able to write, how else would you express your creativity?
I’ve been singing since I was a kid, and I sang in a chamber choir for nearly twenty years. Recently I’ve steered away from that to focus on writing, but hope to get back to it in some form someday. And I’ve also been taking drawing classes. So if I didn’t write, maybe I’d spend more time on visual arts and music.
If you knew that you had only one last opportunity to express yourself creatively, what message would you want to convey to others?
That we need to extend the circle of compassion and treat those who are different from us—including nonhuman animals—with love and respect.