Betty G. Birney is the author of the award-winning According to Humphrey series, which has won seven state awards, and several Children’s Crown awards. The eighth book, Mysteries According to Humphrey, comes out in July and Winter According to Humphrey will be published in October. Her book, The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs, has been on numerous state lists, including the California Young Readers Medal. For her television writing for children, Betty has received an Emmy, a Writer’s Guild award, and three Humanitas Prizes. Fore more info, visit her website.
Let the conversation begin!
Can you share a nugget of writing wisdom?
I believe you have to write the whole book in order to learn what it’s about. The story will tell you, if you let it. Unfortunately, we all put up a lot of obstacles to prevent that from happening. If you’re quiet and listen, the story will speak to you. No one ever wrote a book while talking! I need lots of quiet and time alone to let the story speak to me.
Do you keep a writing journal?
Yes. It’s not a journal where I write down what I did each day, but where I record ideas, quotes, names, rhymes – all kind of crazy things, including the occasional recipe or shopping list!
Coffee or tea?
Both … and then some. Late in the afternoon, when I look at my desk, I’ll have quite a collection of beverage containers from the day. Coffee first, then iced green tea most of the day, water, the occasional Diet Coke (my vice), Trader Joe’s Low Sodium Garden Patch Juice (my favorite). I do stay hydrated!
Tell us about the book you’re working on.
I’m really funny about this. I don’t tell anyone what I’m working on, except my husband and sometimes my agent and editor. I like to keep it really private and inside me and I think all the energy goes away when you talk about a story too much. Maybe it’s just a superstition. I don’t even tell my husband a whole lot, because he’s my first reader and I want it to be new and fresh when he sees the manuscript.
Do you make your bed every morning or do you leave it unmade?
Oh, definitely make that bed in the morning. (Or my husband does.) I may work at home, but I am showered, fed and dressed (not too sloppily), when I write. I have to signal myself that I’m going to work. I do check emails and surf the net in my PJs.
I you could pick one fiction character to meet, who would it be? What would you ask him/her?
Oh, there are so many! I loved the Betsy-Tacy books growing up. I thought I was Betsy. She had brown hair in pigtails and she wanted to be a writer! I’d like to spend a day exploring Deep Valley with her, back in her time. It would also be interesting to meet Laura Ingalls Wilder. She’s not exactly a fictional character, but she’s not exactly non-fiction, either. I’d like to find the line between the real Laura and the Laura of the books, which I adored. And of course, there are the stories about whether she wrote the books or her daughter did, so maybe I could find out the truth, not that it matters. The books stand alone. Maybe I could ask Dr. Doolittle how to talk to the animals and understand them. Right now, I’m only good at speaking hamster! In the end, maybe I’d like to meet Nancy Drew and let her tell me how to be cool. Because Nancy was really cool.
If you could live anywhere for one year, all expenses paid, where would you live?
England, hands down, with side trips to Scotland. Because of the popularity of the Humphrey books there, I usually go there once a year (or more) and there’s never enough time, especially to explore the endless array of literary landmarks. I also have fabulous friends there that I stay with. I’m salivating just thinking about it. The Brits and the Scots have been extremely generous to Humphrey and me, and I never get enough of London or the countryside.
A couple of years ago, I spoke at the Edinburgh Book Festival and then my husband and I took a 10-day train trip through the Scottish Highlands. It’s a trip I would gladly repeat, moment by moment. In 2011, I did a World Book Day event with Camilla and had a formal introduction and chat with her (she was lovely). Someone at my publisher there (Faber and Faber) recently called me an Honorary Brit, which delighted me.