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. For more info, visit her website.

Daily word count?

You know, I’m OCD (or anal or whatever other label people are using now) in lots of ways, but counting words isn’t one of them. I have no idea of an average, even. Some days I don’t get a chance to sit down and write and other days I get to write all day long. If I write a whole chapter in a day that’s a huge day.

Outliner or seat-of-the-pantser?

No outlines, that’s for sure. Once an editor and I were wrangling over a draft (maybe it was the 4th or 5th draft) and she asked me to outline it at that point. I tried. I swear I tried. But after working at it a while, I found it so very deadening that I threw up my hands in despair. Some people have the skill of outlining. I’m not one.

But I do a lot of research before I write even a single word. So it’s not really seat-of-the-pants, either. I start with the first sentence and keep going — but I know my character and I know my character’s world (time and place) — so that’s a foundation.

If money were no issue, what element would you add to your writing space?

Water. I love the sea. I’d love to be able to write in a room with a view of the sea.

How long does it take to write a book?

It varies a lot. but probably an average is around 2 and a half years. But I’m not working on only one book in that period. When I finish a draft of a book, I need to get away from it — find some distance. And I find that by working on a draft of a different book. Within a year’s period I’ll often have worked on three stories, sometimes four.

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

Alive. Because that seemed like a good thing. And it did not seem something to take for granted in the world I lived in. A mother. Because that’s what all the women I saw were — except the teachers — and everyone felt sorry for the teachers.

Easier to write before or after you were published?

No difference here. Writing is never easy for me. It’s natural — but like a compulsion — always (slightly if not greatly) uneasy.

Earliest childhood memory?

Sitting on the floor listening to my brother play the piano. He was brilliant. All my siblings were brilliant. The world seemed packed with brilliant people who simply knew how to do things.

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

This is such a strange question to me. It is geared toward how books are received. I don’t write based on how things are received. I write because I have to, because I’d die if I didn’t. I write as often as I can. I don’t care whether I spent the rest of my life writing one book or dozens of books, so long as I always have something to write.

As for mainstream: I don’t care about getting rich (I have a salary — from my teaching linguistics job — and in my view of the world, a salary makes me automatically “rich”). As for classic: I don’t care about being remembered (I’ll be dead, then, so what’s with that?).

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

Maybe the book that’s in my head that I’m afraid to write because I think it will wash me away, out to sea. It’s set in 1945. That’s all I can say about it. And now that I have admitted this, I guess I have no choice but to start it. Good grief, what have you done to me, woman?

Do you begin with character or plot?

Character. Unless I’m doing a fairy tale — then the plot is handed to me at the outset.

Tell us about the book you’re working on.

It’s under a pseudonym, so if I tell, I’ll blow my cover. This is new for me. But I have some stories to tell that I wouldn’t want anyone with past expectations about my writing to wander into. And I wouldn’t want children to wander into them unprepared.

Describe your perfect day.

Get up early, with the birds. Write until my husband wakes up. Have breakfast together. Play. Go back to writing. Have lunch together. Play. Go back to writing. Make dinner together. Take a long walk together. Read. Go to bed.

Play = play with grandchildren (if it’s the luckiest of the perfect days — my grandchildren live far away), garden, do the laundry, wash the bathrooms and stairs, bake bread, chop vegetables, prepare classes, grade papers, do email, all those nice little tasks of daily life.

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

I was at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference in Homer, Alaska. I saw a mother moose and her calf. I love animals. And seeing a wild moose up close with this spindly-legged calf behind her was just the best.

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

Just being alive inspires me. I don’t think I’m like any of the authors I love.

Where do you get your ideas?

Just by living.

What advice would you give young writers?

Write all the time. Every sort of thing. Take something complex that you know how to do (making an origami frog, building a birdhouse, whatever) and write directions for doing it. Then have someone who has never done it try to do it following your directions. You’ll see what you left out, how you worded something in a confusing or vague way. It’s a great exercise for learning to write precisely what you mean.

What was the weirdest food you’ve ever eaten?

Tripe (but it’s weird only from an American perspective — I hate it, by the way).

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

A ring that was my mother-in-law’s.

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

Write what only you can write.

What one word describes you? 

Frenetic. But it’s just that I’m a high energy person, so others think I’m frenetic.

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

Much like today — only I hope I get to see my grandchildren more often.

Most embarrassing moment?

There have been so many. I’m always doing the wrong thing at the wrong time.

What’s the first item on your bucket list?

Is this the list of “to-do-before-I-die”? I don’t think I have such a list.

What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?

They never run out. Sometimes I get tired. Writing usually brings back my energy.

What book was the easiest to write? Hardest?

THE MAGIC CIRCLE just flowed out of me. NORTH — I had a very naturalistic first half of the book, then a very fantastical second half — and I couldn’t make them hold hands. Finally, I gave up and just made the whole book realistic.

Do you let anyone read your work-in-progress? 

I inflict my first drafts on my family.
I read my second drafts to school children.
I have no secrets.

What is your secret talent?

Like I said, I have no secrets.

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

One of my biggest problems is that I’m unaware — so I rarely know there’s a rule out there — and so I wind up breaking them all the time. But I’m not happy about doing it. I don’t try to. It just happens.

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

Gather my family and cook and eat together.

What initially drew you to writing?

A personal tragedy.

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

Jerry and Eileen Spinelli for two — since they are our best friends. And Rita Dove for a third, since I just met her in Alaska and I find her wonderful.

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