Interview with New York Times Bestselling Author Emma Walton Hamilton

EmmaHGet to know Emma… 

Emma Walton Hamilton is a best-selling children’s author, editor, arts educator and arts and literacy advocate. She has co-authored over twenty children’s books with her mother, Julie Andrews, six of which have been on the New York Times best-seller list, including the The Very Fairy Princess and The Very Fairy Princess Takes the Stage (#1 NY Times Bestsellers), Julie Andrews’ Collection Of Poems, Songs And Lullabies (illustrated by James McMullan); the Dumpy The Dump Truck series of picture books, board books and Early Readers (illustrated by Tony Walton); Simeon’s GiftThe Great American Mousical and THANKS TO YOU – Wisdom From Mother And Child (#1 New York Times Bestseller). 

Emma’s own book for parents and caregivers, Raising Bookworms: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, premiered as a #1 best-seller on Amazon.com in the literacy category and won a Parent’s Choice Gold Medal, and silver medals from the Living Now and IPPY Book Awards, respectively.  It also received Honorable Mention from ForeWord Magazine’s Best Book of the Year. 

Emma is a faculty member for Stony Brook Southampton’s MFA in Writing and Literature Program, where she serves as Director of the annual Southampton Children’s Literature Conference, and Executive Director of YAWP (the Young American Writers Project), an inter-disciplinary writing program for middle and high school students on Long Island. To learn more, visit her website.

Let the conversation begin!

Do you begin with character or plot?

Almost always character.  A book that is light on plot can succeed if it has truly compelling characters, but a plot-heavy book with not much in the way of interesting or believable characters is doomed. Plot makes you turn the pages to find out what happens next, but character is what makes you care… it’s what hooks us emotionally in the story.  I tend to start with character, or characters, and then try to figure out what their story is, or what happens to them.

Tell us about the book you’re working on.

I mostly write in partnership with my mother, Julie Andrews. We’re currently working on several projects at once. We’ve just finished a second poetry anthology, called Julie Andrews’ Collection of Poems and Songs to Celebrate the Seasons. It’s being illustrated by the wonderful Marjorie Priceman. We are also working on the third and fourth books in our Very Fairy Princess series, and I’m at work on a picture book of my own entitled Patience, about a little girl who is anything but.

What is your favorite quote? And why?

I’m not sure if this my favorite, but its certainly the one I seem to have lived my life by. It’s Thoreau, from Walden: “If you have built castles in the air your work need not be lost. That is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.”  I used this quote in my high school yearbook, and at the time I don’t think I had any idea what it meant.  Now, 30-something years later, I realize that everything I’ve accomplished in my life has been the result of jumping into something feet-first, and then figuring it out how to do it – or put the foundation under it – after the fact.

Where do you get your ideas?

My kids are the prime source for my ideas. Their personalities, the events in their lives, the things they say and do – all have been wonderful fodder for our children’s books. But my mother and I also get ideas from other sources – a quote or a saying we come across, finding an old legend that was ripe for developing, or things from our own childhoods.

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

I was fortunate to take a workshop last year with the great poet Billy Collins. He spoke about poetry as being an ongoing conversation between poets across the centuries. He said every aspiring poet or writer should first listen to the conversation (i.e. read as much as possible), and then figure out what they might contribute to it.  The idea of written work as a thoughtful contribution to an ongoing dialogue across history (as opposed to idle chatter or shouting one’s ideas of the moment from a mountaintop) really stuck with me, and I think it applies to any kind of literary endeavor.

What’s the first item on your bucket list?

I’m doing it! For years, the first item on my bucket list was to learn to play the piano.  I’ve always regretted not learning to play an instrument, and have long said that one day I would finally learn how to read music, and specifically to play piano. I finally got tired of hearing myself say it.  I realized that if I waited for some right moment in my life when I could better afford the time and money, I would never do it.  It has turned out to be a total pleasure – and the lessons and practice time have become an oasis during which I really feel I recharge my creative batteries. That has been an unexpected bonus.

The-Very-Fairy-Princess-Here-Comes-The-Flower-GirlOutliner or seat-of-the-pantser?

Definitely an outliner, at least at the beginning of a new project.  But once I’m in the groove, I like to be surprised, or venture beyond the outline if the spirit (or the muse) moves me to do so.

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

A treadmill desk! The hardest part about writing for me is the amount of sitting it requires. My waistline has suffered considerably in recent years.  I’ve been reading up on treadmill desks and I think they sound like the perfect thing for me… but they’re not inexpensive, and they do take up a lot of space.

What advice would you give to new writers?

First and foremost, read. Steep yourself in the culture of the world or genre you are writing for by reading everything you can.  That’s not to say you should imitate anyone else – but it is a business, and I think it’s hugely important to really know and understand what the standards, formats, and market trends are, and as Billy Collins said, to think about what you can contribute to the ‘conversation.’

I also strongly recommend connecting with a writing community. Attend conferences, take workshops, join a critique group or writers’ forum on the web, work with a freelance editor, whatever works for you – but don’t write in a vacuum, and don’t imagine you can or should do it brilliantly all by yourself without any feedback or support. 

As with any profession or craft, it’s essential to reach out, to connect, to network, in order to keep growing.  I see the value of this every day in my work as Director of the Southampton Children’s Literature Conference and also as host of the Children’s Book Hub website, which is a center of resources and support for aspiring and emerging children’s book authors.

The writers there not only receive regular support and feedback through monthly teleseminars, Q&A’s and webcasts, but they also network with one another through the member forum.  I always come away from conferences or time on the Hub feeling energized and ready to re-commit to my own work. 

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